Part I, Chapters 9-10
The pessimism of Mrs. Ramsey is haunting. We see her signs of doubt, her recognition that she can’t control everything. I’m struck in today’s reading, by how many examples there are of unobtainable love-- Lily’s for Mrs. Ramsey, all other men for Mrs. Ramsey and unobtainable women--“love that never attempted to clutch its object”; Lily’s love for painting and her unobtainable vision; Mrs. Ramsey’s love for children and her hope they might never grow old and her wondering if her own marriage is happy; all of this ending with James’ love for the lighthouse. So much dream like imagery is filtered through through human need.
And the moving between points of view mirror this want, somehow. For me, Lily’s observation of colors-" the colour burning on a framework of steel; the light of a butterfly’s wing lying upon the arches of a cathedral” . Of all that only a few random marks scrawled upon the canvas remained” ––seems similar to how Virginia Woolf is trying to write these characters, shapes and color, small movements against the bigness of ideas and life.
Truly beautiful writing.
"What was the spirit in her, the essential thing, by which, had you found a crumpled glove in the corner of a sofa, you would have known it, from its twisted finger, hers indisputably?" Always the essential, and ultimately mysterious, question for Woolf.
Martha Nussbaum has a terrific essay on the problem of knowing others in "To the Lighthouse," called, "The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia Woolf's 'To the Lighthouse.'"
I am beguiled by the way VW maintains control over her reader. She never lets us get ahead as her characters float in an out of their own heads and the heads of others.
Love this! I remember children looking at me quizzically when I knew what I said was perfectly clear!
“The words seemed to be dropped into a well, where, if the waters were clear, they were also so extraordinarily distorting that, even as they descended, one saw them twisting about to make Heaven knows what pattern on the floor of the child’s mind
Me, too. Her control through POV; the sentence rhythms - her semi colons! How she bends time; the repetition of phrases and imagery; and, always, her 360 degree view of what’s happening outside of the frame. I’d follow her anywhere.
Among the very many other things she brings to us (beautifully described in today’s comments from others), Virginia Woolf captures the human condition, at least my condition. I love these kids, “demons of wickedness, angels of delight… happier now than they would ever be again“. And I too love when our home is packed (She heard them stamping and crowing on the floor above her head the moment they woke. They came bustling along the passage. Then the door sprang open and in they came, fresh as roses, staring, wide awake …”); and I too worry when any of them is out of sight, and shiver when any of them faces disappointment or peril of any kind (“he would climb out onto a rock; he would be cut off. Or coming back single file on one of those little paths above the cliff one of them might slip. He would roll and then crash. It was growing quite dark“). I am moved by all of this.
Can Mrs. R make time for hospitals, drains, dairy? Can the fisherman’s wife have it all? Thinking about my female doctor, optometrist, lawyer, news commentators, our vice president, I wish VW were around to see the humiliating “women’s lib” struggles of my college years provide truly wider options for women. Yet Mrs. R’s wondering whether a beautiful mother in a moderately good, comfortable marriage should want more is still a question that resonates.
I am so fascinated by the artistry that created the character of Mrs. Ramsay - how her empathy and her curiosity and interest in every other person in her life are revealed to us. Even as mundane thoughts intrude (the cost of the greenhouse) she is mulling and marveling at the whole of life that is woven from each individual thread that is unique and precious in its own way. She is an outward-facing soul.
This reminds me of how by using smaller and smaller rectangles, we can approximate the area under a curve:
“how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.”
And lo and behold, shortly thereafter Woolf explicitly uses math as a simile:
“It was love, she thought, pretending to move her canvas, distilled and filtered; love that never attempted to clutch its object; but, like the love which mathematicians bear their symbols, or poets their phrases, was meant to be spread over the world and become part of the human gain.”
A wonderful expression of the terror and ecstasy of your art made public; it’s an intimate expression of yourself that no longer belongs just to you:
“But that any other eyes should see the residue of her thirty-three years, the deposit of each day’s living mixed with something more secret than she had ever spoken or shown in the course of all those days was an agony. At the same time it was immensely exciting. . . ."
“But it had been seen; it had been taken from her. This man had shared with her something profoundly intimate.”
This opens up the can of worms of what is free will? if it exists at all:
“She was off like a bird, bullet, or arrow, impelled by what desire, shot by whom, at what directed, who could say? What, what? Mrs. Ramsay pondered, watching her.”
The magic of a novel; Lily marvels at the mystery of Mrs. Ramsay’s inner life, while we the readers are granted full admission to it:
“Was it wisdom? Was it knowledge? Was it, once more, the deceptiveness of beauty, so that all one’s perceptions, half-way to truth, were tangled in a golden mesh? or did she lock up within her some secret which certainly Lily Briscoe believed people must have for the world to go on at all?”
Yet the full substance of Mrs. Briscoe’s inner life remains a mystery, maybe even to her. Does she really feel this way, or is it the identity she chooses for herself:
“She would have liked always to have had a baby. She was happiest carrying one in her arms. Then people might say she was tyrannical, domineering, masterful, if they chose; she did not mind.”
I have also noticed this time around how mr and mrs Ramsey go between those high and low notes Woolf describes and if mrs Ramsey is distraught about his brutal honesty he finds a way to soothe her and she to him and sometimes they are harmonious. The reference to waves throughout also struck me. I am intrigued that the fairytale Woolf is reading is The Fisherman and His Wife, the title is mentioned four times and seems so intentional that as the story ends with “the sea came in with black waves as high as church towers and mountains...” Mrs Ramsey notices “across the bay, and there, sure enough, coming regularly across the waves first two quick strokes and then one long steady stroke, was the light of the Lighthouse. It had been lit”. Woolf again finds a way to arouse in her readers the “inadequacy of human relations, that the most perfect was flawed”. Only art is perfect and made for its own sake. I am continually grateful for Woolf’s work and understanding of what it means to be human
"Taking out a pen-knife, Mr Bankes tapped the canvas with the bone handle. What did she wish to indicate by the triangular purple shape, "just there,"? he asked."
"But it had been seen; it had been taken from her. This man had shared with her something profoundly intimate."
Mr Bankes was interested, genuinely so, and I like him all the more for this. I don't see them as a couple (sorry Mrs Ramsay), and Lily has made her position very clear ("she would urge her own exemption from the universal law; plead for it; she liked to be alone; she liked to be herself "), but I love their tender honest friendship, their co-conspiracy.
I’m wondering if Woolf adopted the shifting point of view to develop and reinforce what seems to me to be the dominant concern—and the moral yardstick against which characters are judged—of the narrative: empathy for others. And if empathy, at least for the purposes of this story, equals love.
This, from chapter 9: "she felt, too, as she saw Mr Ramsay bearing down and retreating, and Mrs Ramsay sitting with James in the window and the cloud moving and the tree bending, how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach." seems very much like a nugget that later formed her novel The Waves, published four years later.
I enjoy paying attention to Lily Briscoe.
Alison Bechdel recently posted on twitter about a Penguin edition of TTL coming out that she illustrated. She describes her process here:
I love these two chapters. By now, we know how to read the book and so we drift along with the thoughts so easily. Beautiful.
I took a class with Rachel Cohen last year, and we read TTL. She pointed out that the "purple shadow" in Lily's painting that Bankes considers might be connected to "Studland," a painting by Vanessa Bell from 1912 at the Tate. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/bell-studland-beach-verso-group-of-male-nudes-by-duncan-grant-t02080 Now I can't read this chapter without seeing that painting. And it makes me wonder if that same shape of a woman is not within the lighthouse in Bell's jacket for TTL.