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ClassicsOnline Home » WOOLF, V.: To the Lighthouse (Abridged)
To The Lighthouse is Virginia Woolf’s most accomplished novel, and her most autobiographical. It tells of one summer spent by the Ramsay family and their friends in their holiday home in Scotland. Offshore stands the lighthouse, remote, inaccessible, an eternal presence in a changing world. A projected visit to the lighthouse forms the heart of this extraordinary novel which, through the minds of the various characters, explores the nature of time, memory, transience and eternity. The style has the clarity of a diamond which shimmers in the mind, making To The Lighthouse one of the most unforgettable novels of the twentieth century.
To The Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf was born in 1882, the daughter of editor and
critic Leslie Stephen. The early deaths of her mother, stepsister and brother
left her prone to bouts of depression, which continued throughout her life.
After teaching for a time at a college for workingwomen in south London, she
began writing reviews for The Times Literary Supplement and was drawn into a
group of radical writers and artists later to be known as the Bloomsbury Group.
Here she met the socialist intellectual, Leonard Woolf, whom she married in
1912. Together they founded the Hogarth Press, whose list included such
influential literary figures as T.S. Eliot and Katharine Mansfield.
Through her early essays and articles, and later her novels,
Virginia Woolf gained a reputation as a feminist and modernist and was keen to
develop new techniques to express her vision of life. Her major novels include:
Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To The Lighthouse (1927), A Room of One’s Own (1929) and
The Waves (1931). In 1941, overcome by fear of another attack of depression,
she drowned herself.
In writing To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf drew largely on
memories of her father and mother and the summers they spent at St. Ives.
However, she uses her own experiences only as a resource for her energetic
imagination, and the book is concerned primarily with the inner processes of
the mind, rather than with the ‘objective’ material. It is significant that the
painting of Lily’s picture, the work of art in which she tries to express the
essence of her experiences, is a central part of the book. It is this fusion of
the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’ which concerned the author when writing
There has been much debate about the intrinsic symbolic
significance of the lighthouse, but given that Virginia Woolf seems to be
saying that there is no ultimate reality, it is unlikely that she intended it
to represent one fixed idea; it is simply a lighthouse, and it becomes for each
character what they choose to project onto it.
For Mrs. Ramsay it is ‘something immune which shines out’,
and for James, as he approaches the lighthouse, he sees it ‘as it really is’
and yet ‘No, the other was also the lighthouse. For nothing was simply one
thing.’ As we penetrate the minds and different perspectives of each character,
we are, almost unwittingly, drawn into a world, which is at once unreal, and an
expression and exploration of the fundamental truth and mystery of human
perception and reality.
Notes by Heather Godwin
Juliet Stevenson has worked extensively for the RSC, the
Royal National Theatre, and other major theater companies. She won an Olivier
Award for her role in Death and the Maiden at the Royal Court, and a number of
other awards for her work in the film Truly, Madly, Deeply. Other film credits
include The Trial, Ladder of Swords, Drowning by Numbers and A Secret Rapture.
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WOOLF, V.: To the Lighthouse (Abridged)