This is the first book I’ve ever read by Virginia Woolf, so I was unsure what to expect. To the Lighthouse centres around the Ramsay family and their summer home on an island with a lighthouse just off of it. The lighthouse is a thing of wonder for their son James, who dearly wants to go visit it, but is thwarted by his father’s negative reaction and by the weather. The second focal point of the novel is Mrs. Ramsay who is one of those goodhearted but ethereal women who are loved by all for one reason or the other. All of the other characters seem to vie for her love in one way or the other and the conflict of selfish love rears its head in several instances, especially between father and son.
There isn’t actually much of a plot to the book as its intention was to focus on the inner thoughts of the characters and their reaction to small events in the beginning and larger events later on, all of which are only mentioned in a casual manner and only serve to give direction to the thoughts of Woolf’s characters. Because they are so secondary, they seem to swirl around in the story almost unrealistically instead of being the solid, important events they really are. Even the lighthouse is more of a symbol than of a reality, even though it is an unmistakeable landmark which draws the attention of everyone near it.
It’s easy to think that it would be difficult to continue reading a book with so little plot and so much introspection, but the characters give enough away to keep the story coherent, even though they are focusing on themselves. It’s interesting to see the way their thoughts develop in reaction to the other characters as they interact with each other. Not only do they reveal the beauty of humans, but also their innate selfishness and their bent to protect themselves from becoming weighed down by others, for example when Lilly knows she should be sympathetic to Mr. Ramsay, yet cannot bring herself to show him any kindness at all, but strives to protect herself from being backed into a corner by his overwhelming misery. Woolf shows her mastery of writing by intertwining the romanticism of the age with the realism of human nature without overdoing either side. They seem balanced in this book and it seems natural that they are.
Had I read this book for the first time when I was 20, I would have fallen in love with it and it would have become one of my most favourite works I’m sure. Its introspectiveness and disregard for momentous occasions would have really appealed to me. Being slightly older now, I feel as if I’ve passed through the phase. Still, the language used is undisputedly beautiful and pulls the reader in. It’s a pleasure to read just for the richness of the language even if one isn’t as interested in the particular style or subject of the writing. One thing I should add is that because most of it is so beautiful, several of the points Woolf makes, especially about the treatment and standing of women in society, are all the more poignant for the sudden switch to a slightly harsher tone when Woolfe glosses upon the subject. She uses fewer words and never states anything outright, but the point is made beautifully all the same. For this and for her general mastery of language, To the Lighthouse gets a five out of five. This should be a standard read in school, which is when I wish I had read it.