Author- Virginia Woolf
Genre- Fiction/ Modernism
Definitely not an easy one to read let alone understand, the novel tracks a tricky unconventional mode better known as the ‘stream of consciousness’ where the readers go through the mental pictures of characters rather than actual speech or actions. There are no specific indications or pointers as to whether they are traversing the past, present or future, each sliding stealthily into the other. Woolf seems to intentionally smudge the lines between them, thereby confusing the reader’s perception of space and time.
It’s confusing at many levels, primarily in getting a sense of location and chronological order. To give an example, Mrs. Ramsay’s soliloquy while knitting, darts from the future prospects of a nuptial union of Mr. Banks and Lily and suddenly turns into empathizing with the maid’s past, whose father had been suffering from cancer, who was forced to separate from him and work in a faraway place. Interestingly the reader’s mind darts in a similar fashion from future to past and from past to present, oftentimes failing to link events in order chronologically.
The novel has an autobiographical element, of Virginia’s childhood spent at the summer-house in St. Ives, Cornwall. That period is showcased in the first part of the novel, taking place before World War One, with all it’s Victorian mores and ethos. The last part centers on the post-Victorian period, same as Virginia’s adulthood when the frame of mind of the characters undergo a drastic change, their attitudes change and situations are weighed up against the past occurrences.
Postwar period ushered in a modernistic era when experimentation in formalism, modernism, structuralism, and realism took root in literature and art beginning from the dawn of the twentieth century. Virginia, who had been home-schooled by her mother, was able to experience the freedom of thought and style in literature through the masterpieces of TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and the like.
Notable in the literary style is how Virginia composes the complexity of thought followed by simple actions. She explores the realities and mundanities of everyday life, a stark contrast to the romanticism of the Edwardian era novels. It is refreshing for the reader to experience life as it is rather than dabble in the fantasies of Romanticism. Nevertheless, our thoughts get entwined with the character’s inner working of mind so much so that the reader sometimes wish to escape from the bubble to a world outside. Another feature of the novel is the poetical beauty of her prose, especially while picturing nature. And here, she follows T.S Eliot’s Impersonal Theory of Poetry. The characters engage in a kind of ‘soliloquy in solitude’ disconnected from one another.
Woolf’s strong stance on feminism is said to have evolved from this novel onward. In the novel, the character Charles Tansley’s patriarchal and misogynist statement ‘ women can’t paint, women can’t write’, in a condescending manner, comes back to Lily’s mind every time she tries to start her painting. The status of women as an artist or anything beyond the role of a housekeeper during Victorian times is rigidly being looked down upon and criticized by the character, Charles. Virginia surmounts this by drawing Lily’s character as someone out of the box, individualistic, whose persistence and grit triumphs finally, in bringing forth her artistic vision. According to her own words, the novel had been sort of release from the obsessions of Victorian mores foisted on her and her sisters by their mother. Her attitude to the inevitability of marriage for a woman is criticized through the character, Lily who hates marriage and parries the efforts of Mrs. Ramsay to get her married. Virginia had expressed it inconceivable for herself to have evolved into a writer, had her father been alive. In the novel, she delivers subtle snipes against both her parents’ outlook to women in general.
The novel is rich in symbolism and imagery. Taking Lily’s artistic visions as an example, Virginia has used Lily as a medium to convey her ideas of feminism, to expound on life and death, persistence, and finally self-realization. The lighthouse could be symbolic of desires, unattainable/ reachable.There is not just one interpretation to the meaning of the novel, but many since it had been written and each offers different perspectives on a subjective basis.