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August 20, 2007

To the Lighthouse: VIII

Just before the very long section devoted to dinner, Woolf interposes a section (XIV) in which, for the first time, the points of view are exclusively youthful. (As if to mark the extraordinary nature of this shift, which trades the wistful regrets of middle-aged people for the sharp irritations of impatient youth, Woolf brackets the entire section in parentheses.) We are relieved of Mrs Ramsay's anxiety about Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley before she is. We fly, via parenthesis, to the cliffs by the sea to which the young people have walked. The couple has not been alone, not only Nancy but Andrew as well has accompanied them. But the siblings are no duennas. They're young enough to regard other peoples' amours with something between indifference and repugnance; the

y want no part of it. On the walk out, we see things first from Nancy's point of view and then from Andrew's, and there's no question but that the section is an interlude of Woolf's gentle comedy. Her image of Nancy's impatience is not so much exaggerated as entirely disproportionate. Nancy is annoyed by Minta's habit of taking her hand and then letting it go.

What was it she wanted? Nancy asked herself. There was something, of course, that people wanted; for when Minta took her hand and held it, Nancy, reluctantly, saw the whole world spread out beneath her, as if it were Constantinople seen through a mist, and then, however heavy-eyed one might be, one must needs ask, "Is that Santa Sofia?" "Is that the Golden Horn?" So Nancy asked, when Minta took her hand. "What is it that she wants? Is it that?" And what was that? Here and there emerged from the mist (as Nancy looked down upon life spread beneath her) a pinnacle, a dome; prominent things, without names. But when Minta dropped her hand, as she did when they ran down the hillside, all that, the dome, the pinnacle, whatever it was that had protruded through the mist, sank down into it and disappeared.

Later, we see that Nancy is saddled with an acute imagination, as she gazes into a rock pool and imagines that the minnows are sharks and that she is God, capable of blotting out the sun with her hand. Nancy has a moment of moral vertigo, burdened with "the intensity of feelings which reduced her own body, her own life, and the lives of all the people in the world, forever, to nothingness."

Andrew, a hearty young man, already has the mature Englishman's mistrust of feminine flightiness. He sees it leading straight to danger - embarrassing and unnecessary danger. "He liked her rashness, but he saw that it would not do - she would kill herself in some idiotic way one of these days." He's especially annoyed, when, on the walk back, Minta discovers that she has lost a brooch. It is (of course) her only brooch, her grandmother's brooch. The search for the brooch yields no results. This means that Paul spends the return walk comforting Minta, and now we hear from him.

And secretly he resolved that he would not tell her, but he would slip out of the house at dawn when they were all asleep and if he could not find it he would go to Edinburgh and buy her another, just like it but more beautiful. He would prove what he could do. And as they came out on the hill and saw the lights of the town beneath them, the lights coming out suddenly one by one seemed like things that were going to happen to him - his marriage, his children, his house; and again he thought, as they came out on to the high road, which was shaded with high bushes, how they would retreat in solitude together, and walk on and on, he always leading her, and she pressing close to his side (as she did now). As they turned by the cross roads he thought what an appalling experience he had been through, and he must tell someone - Mrs Ramsay of course, for it took his breath away to think what he had been and done.

If there is a more remarkably oblique manner of narrating the beginning of an engagement, I doubt that it is intelligible. This almost isn't, but one savors Woolf's design. We know that Paul and Minta embraced behind a boulder while the Ramsay children amused themselves separately - Nancy comes upon them and is disgusted. What we don't know, however, until the foregoing passage is over, is whether Minta is "safe." Mrs Ramsay has worried that she'll have been soiled by spending a lot of time, some of it unsupervised, with a young man. She has been pressing Paul to propose. And now, he can't believe that he has pulled it off. It's almost incredibly sincere of him to describe the experience, not so much of proposing to Minta as of screwing up the courage to propose, as "appalling." Paul's vision is so cluttered with heroic-romantic claptrap that one wonders just how well, or even if, he will lead Minta through their years together. In any case, Mrs Ramsay will be relieved to know that Minta and Paul not only must but will marry. 

Posted by pourover at August 20, 2007 08:29 PM

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