To The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf, 1927

Micro-review. We’ve had Woolf’s classic on the shelves in a 60s Penguin edition for years, and finally the time was right to pick it up. I knew virtually nothing about it, only that it’s often talked about as a partner to Joyce’s Ulysses as one of the milestones of early-20th-century modernism. (It’s also a fraction of the length.) Given how much I enjoyed Ulysses, I was looking forward to this.

But I nearly put it down and didn’t pick it up again.

I was enjoying the read, Woolf uses language beautifully of course, but I hit the half-way point and I just wasn’t *grabbed* by it. It seemed like one of those art milestones that you can’t read properly any more because all of its innovations have since become cliches. The stream of consciousness shifting perspective Woolf offers has become a commonplace stylistic trick. Heck, I’ve done it myself. Combine that with a busy run that saw days go by between chances to knock off a few pages, and I almost lost momentum entirely.

Then I hit the second phase of the book. I had no idea it was coming; a sudden change in tone and style and scope, crossing decades after spending dozens of pages in the minutia of a single day. Then the narrative eased into a third and final phase, another intense dive into character POV across the moments of a single day, a decade on from the first section.

And I *loved* it.

I can’t think of another time my reaction to a book changed so completely in the span of a few pages. The structural moves Woolf made completely won me over. Simple and powerful, retroactively making the first section seem fresh by the unexpected (to me) contrast with the final section. I think I’ll be going back to this one in a few years.

(Also: I imagine this book would be frequently studied in english lit courses. I am glad I never had to apply the scalpel of analysis to this – I doubt it could survive the experience. This seems to me a book to be felt rather than understood, even though there is so much in it to be understood. That’s a definite contrast to the cheeky gamesmanship of Joyce, who seems to be clearly writing with such analysis in mind.)

6 thoughts on “To The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf, 1927”

  1. I’ve failed to read “To The Lighthouse” and now I feel motivated to re-attempt it. Thank you!

  2. Let me know how you go. Another friend who read this post said he took three goes before he made it to the end, then he really liked it.

  3. Each time someone claims that analysis will destroy the enjoyment value of an artwork they liked, god kills a puppy/kitten, depending on the prejudices of the offender.

  4. Hee hee, wondered if you’d like that bit.

    There’s a more nuanced point buried in that last comment, for sure. My five-second stab at it: writing a 1st year essay “what does the lighthouse symbolise?” will generate a great essay, because there’s heaps you could say about that, but it would be a bit like explaining a magician’s trick, or figuring out how movie special effects were achieved – afterwards you can’t enjoy the experience the same way. Or put it another way – I think TTL is in some sense “vulnerable” to analysis – the effects will stop working if you think about them too hard?

  5. I be trolled. 😉

    I tend to think about this process as a two-stage process. Like any other twist, you enjoy the surprise, then you enjoy the craftsmanship that made the surprise possible.

    No matter what you do, you can only enjoy the surprise once, so stopping your enjoyment there has always seemed counter-productive to me.

  6. Wasn’t a deliberate troll, I made that comment at the close of the post in haste but also in full sincerity, and only thought of your reaction later… Another 5-second stab at what was motivating it – that 1st-year essay on the symbolic meaning of the lighthouse would be really easy to do – but I think it would be hard to do well? And then your shallow essay would structure your relationship with the work afterwards, unless you were somehow prompted to dig deeper and re-engage with nuance? Compare with Tolkien’s irritable note on LotR that it is not a bloody allegory – treating TtL like a problem to be solved will distract you from where the meat of it actualy is? I dunno. Let us discuss this over coffee before you depart these shores!

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