Friday, April 15, 2011
The Reading List: "To the Lighthouse"
Spoilers Start Here, for what they’re worth. I will now give a complete summary of the book. This will not really give away the plot, however, because the book doesn’t really have a traditional plot, and it won’t give away the ending, because the book doesn’t really have a traditional ending. Here goes: there’s this family of intellectuals spending a summer holiday at their cabin in the Hebredies. They putter about, and eventually have dinner. As they were getting up from dinner at about the 3/5 point, I thought “Wow, this book is going to take place entirely within a single evening.” When I turned the next page I saw a heading to the effect of “time passes,” and there follows an interlude in which time gradually accelerates, zips through ten years, and then decelerates again. The remainder of the book takes place ten years later, in the same location and with many of the same characters that we have met before. It is morning, this time, and one of the characters works on a painting while the others go for a ride in a boat.
OK. So, if you want to take James Joyce as the touchstone of modernism, which is a fairly reasonable thing to do, To the Lighthouse is certainly modernist. Woolf shares Joyce’s rejection of traditional narrative and his focus on the micro-scale events of everyday life. Woolf is also, like James, more concerned with the interior life of her characters than their activities and interactions; most of To the Lighthouse is to a greater or lesser extent interior monologue that would not seem wildly out of place in Ulysses.
The exception to this focus on interior life is the ten-year interlude. This section is remarkable not only for its sudden expansion of the passage of time, but because in it we leave the heads of the characters altogether and focus on the material condition of the beach cabin. Major events in the lives of the characters during the years of the interlude are mentioned, as if incidentally, in brackets. It's interesting that having these incidents mentioned parenthetically -- we get more than one announcement of a sudden death this way, for instance -- make them all the more jarring.
So, back to my expectations. To the Lighthouse certainly confirms Woolf’s modernist reputation. I would not expect this particular book to be unusually interesting to feminist critics, however. The two central characters, pre- and post-interlude, are women, to be sure, and they meditate insightfully about the behavior of men, and women, and men and women relative to each other, but I did not sense that the book was fundamentally about women’s experience.
What the book was, however, is existentialist. In spades. Throughout the novel, we see people continually fail to bridge the isolation between human minds. Regardless of whether the parties involved are fond of each other or dislike each other bitterly, Woolf portrays social interaction as an ongoing parade of misunderstandings, missed connections, and messages that never get sent due to innumerable constraints: the rules of polite behavior, inability to articulate, fear of commitment to a future course of action, sense of commitment to decisions made in the past, fear of rejection, straight-out shyness, and so on. So, I don’t know: maybe Woolf is considered one of your major existentialists, and I just never got the memo. If this is a major literary discovery, on the other hand, I think it’s worth at least an assistant professorship. Job offers can be made in the comments.
Prognosis: Rich, interesting, atmospheric, and provocative, but still a bit of a haul, I doubt that To the Lighthouse is really anyone’s favorite book. But neither was it as opaque as I’d feared it might be. Not a must-read, but recommended for literary types and maybe as a challenge to build up to for casual readers.