To the Lighthouse: Modernism and Narration

Modernism is a “term applied retrospectively to the wide range of experimental and avantgarde trends in the literature and (other arts) of the early 20th century.” (Baldick 213) Thematically, modernist literature is characterized chiefly as “a rejection of 19th-century traditions and of their consensus between author and reader” by denouncing the Victorian traditional bourgeois values of patriotism and patriarchy (Baldick 213). In terms of techniques, modernist writers “[disturb] their readers by adopting complex and difficult new forms and style.” (Baldick 213) They experiment on narrative techniques, make use of complex literary allusions and symbols, and incorporate psychological theories to reflect the complexity of human nature, subverting the conventional predictability of the 19th century literature.

Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” features a traditional English family. The main characters of the novel, Mr. Ramsay and Mrs. Ramsay, are characterized according to their stereotypes: the husband is a sullen yet demanding academic, whilst the wife is a maternal figure. However, lies beneath the conventional portrait of a traditional family is Woolf’s criticism against the obsolete values of the Victorian England. As an advocate of the Suffrage Movement, Woolf criticizes the patriarchal system through the use of complex literary allusions. Woolf also experiments greatly on the narrative form by using unorthodox techniques at the time such as stream-of-consciousness, multiple narrators, and by distorting the chronological sense. Given the experimental nature of the novel that lies in contrast with its seemingly traditional subject, an examination on its modernistic characteristics is worthy of investigation; thus, this gives rise to the research question: “To what extent can Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ be considered a modernist novel?”

“Modernist writers tended to see themselves as an avant-garde […] by adopting complex and difficult new forms of style” (Baldick 213). Modernist writers are inclined to experiment with narrative form, as it is not only a thematic foundation for plot development, but it also provides the writers a medium in which they can break any literary conventions in terms of technical aspects. Likewise, in “To the Lighthouse”, Woolf uses the use of stream-of-consciousness in order to peer into the minds of the characters. Rather than characterizing the characters through description, actions or verbal language as the 19th-century writers did, Woolf, instead, turns her focus on the characters’ psychological complexities, putting emphasis on their conscious individuality and showing her awareness of Freudian theory of “Free Association”, which is “The mental process by which one word or image may spontaneously suggest another without any necessary logical connection.” (Oxford University Press) Moreover, Woolf also employs complex and fragmentary sentence structure, made up with multiple clauses, to distract the logical predictability that the reader expects. In the scene in which Mrs. Ramsay is depicted to be reading the pages of the Stores list, Woolf has effectively contrasted her serene exterior with her reflective mental thought, as the reader is then drawn into a seamless train of thoughts: “her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand […] like a ghostly roll of drums […], made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another.” (Woolf 15) Here, the fragmentary and incoherent images imitate Mrs. Ramsay’s discursive yet fluid thoughts: from carrying out essentially a simple task of reading to contemplating on the metaphorical destruction of the island and, finally, onto philosophically lamenting over the ravage of time. Moreover, the simile comparing her thoughts to “a ghostly roll of drums” (Woolf 15), an auditory imagery suggestive of heartbeat regularity, implies that Mrs. Ramsay’s thought process is a rhythmic subconscious current that pulls her along with it. Through the use of stream-of-consciousness, Woolf has posed an in-depth exploration on human psychological complexities, that our consciousness is more of an incomprehensible and mysterious force than a logical fixation.

Furthermore, by using the omniscient third-person narrative stance, Woolf is able to jump in and out from one character’s mind to that of the another, effectively juxtaposing the conflicts in perception resulting from multiple narrators. However, none of the characters is a reliable narrator; this challenges the traditional literary conventions and stresses the inevitable conflicts in perspectives. Woolf makes this point clear by letting Mrs. Ramsay explicitly declare that: “Strife, divisions, difference of opinion, prejudices twisted into the very fibre of being” (Woolf 8). For example, Lily’s condemning opinion of Mr. Ramsay as “petty, selfish, vain, egoistical” (Woolf 23) clearly contradicts with Tansley’s admiring remark: “[Mr. Ramsay] is the greatest metaphysician of all time” (Woolf 35). Here, the contradiction emphasizes the unreliability of human perception because, just like us, the characters are influenced by subjectivity and preconceptions. Such conflict in viewpoints can create tension when the characters are experiencing an intimate interaction. Perhaps an example of this tension is the pivotal scene in which Mr. Ramsay and Ms. Ramsay sitting together under a lamp, and each, in turn, wishing the other to initiate the conversation. In this scene, the contrast between the pervasive silence and the characters’ interior monologues, brought about by the use of unfiltered free indirect discourse, highlights the emotional and psychological tension in human relationship. Afraid of disturbing her husband from reading his book, yet still wanting to speak to him, Mrs. Ramsay turns to knitting as a protective impulse against the frustrating tension. This mundane action then painfully becomes her habitual barrier against her husband, solidifying her remoteness from him. Woolf then shifts the narrative stance to Mr. Ramsay, putting Mrs. Ramsay under his lenses of observation: “Here he looked at her reading. She looked very peaceful, reading” (Woolf 112). By shifting the narrative stance abruptly, Woolf allows the reader peer into the minds of the two characters, poignantly capturing the human flaw of misconstruction: on the contrary to Mrs. Ramsay’s concern, “He does not want to be interrupted” and that he is “reading something that moves him very much” (Woolf 109), Mr. Ramsay is not actually focusing on reading at all. Correspondingly, books and poetry, to Mr. Ramsay, are the representations of his self-alienation away from his wife, much like Mrs. Ramsay with her knitting. This conflict in these main characters’ points of view is then developed into the thematic conflict of the novel: the conflict between one’s innermost speculation with one’s verbal utterance, painting a frustrating yet poignant exploration into a human’s private thoughts.

Likewise, it can be said that the relationship between Lily and Mr. Tansley is an ideal example of the juxtaposition of one’s private feelings and their thwarted expression. Firstly, the reader has the impression that Lily is introspective in her perception as shown through her detailed and critical interior monologues, and yet she is still characterized as a shy and somewhat bland “little creature” (Woolf 16). Moreover, the fact that she experiences an excruciating process of painting throughout the novel signifies that she has difficulty expressing her feelings clearly. This is reflected through her emotional repression with Mr. Bankes when they are seen together, even though she is, in fact, experiencing a confusion in her feelings: “I respect you (she addressed silently him in person) in every atom; […]; you are the finest human being that I know; […] praise would be an insult to you; generous, purehearted, heroic man!” (Woolf 22) Here, the pronouns have been changed from third-person narrator into first-person narrator, as if Lily is directly addressing Mrs. Ramsay with all of her pouring desperation. However, these words only take place in Lily’s mind in the form of interior monologue. To some extent, Lily is a reflection of human nature as she also exhibits this enduringly universal conflict of quiet desperation.

Another characteristic of modernist literature that can be seen in the novel is “the accepted continuity of chronological development [is] upset” (Baldick 213). Woolf has distorted the logical sense of chronological development into three fragmentary, unequal segments. The novel begins with “The Window”, which spans almost two-thirds of the book. Long as it is, this segment only takes place in one afternoon and concludes with the intimate conversation of Mr. Ramsay and his wife; then, the narrative flow abruptly jumps into the second segment, “Time Passes”. As the title itself suggests, the segment laments over the passage of time that expands to a decade later. In this segment, Woolf experiments greatly with syntax. In “Time Passes”, Woolf encloses the deaths of the characters into brackets: “[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, […], people said…]” (Woolf 126) and, “([Mrs. Ramsay] has died very sudden at the end, they said.).” (Woolf 130) To some extent, Prue’s and Mrs. Ramsay’s deaths signify the fragmentation and destruction of both the family unit and of the society as a whole, as both of the characters essentially represent maternal unity. Not only the visual form of these brackets gives the reader an impression that their deaths are but of parenthetical significance, but the matter-of-fact and rather lightly tone of the unknown and detached “they” or “people” also euphemizes the tragedy of their deaths and acts as a reminder of definite morality.

By compressing such a chaotic montage of significant events (the outbreak and the end of the First World War and the deaths of the main characters) of the duration of ten years into just ten chapters, Woolf laments over the omnipotent and omniscient force of time. The house is still the main setting; however, in this segment, the house is dilapidating and has been abandoned for many years. To some extent, the decaying state of the house signifies destruction and loss, while the anthropomorphized storm signifies Time as a hostile entity. Nevertheless, at the end of “Time Passes”, the chronological flow begins to slow down, closes with Lily waking up in the house, an action carried smoothly onto the final segment, “The Lighthouse”. Moreover, the fact that the characters return to the house represents the cyclical closure of the novel, the unity that finally takes place.


Works cited:

Baldick. Chris. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. London: Vintage Classics London, 2004.

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