September 25, 2011

Virginia Woolf's "To The Lighthouse": The Spirituality of the Inner Life

A small boy, sitting with his beloved mother, thinking of a trip to the lighthouse, finds everything suffused with radiance:
James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator...with heavenly bliss. It was tinged with joy.
Not much happens in this novel; the main events that might be a focus in other books – deaths, a marriage – for Virginia Woolf are parenthetical; she instead brings us the thoughtful musings of her characters, in language full and rich and musical, on what this life of ours means. For Mrs. Ramsay, who is the book's heart, there is a silent core, dark and deep and limitless. She felt the need
To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest of adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless.
There is so much in this book that is mystical, or spiritual, and seems related to Buddhist thought, as far as my limited knowledge understands it. Within the moments of everyday life – while dishing out a plate of stew – Mrs. Ramsay feels a
coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.
And there is love: "Love had a thousand shapes." And the small wonders of life: "...little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark..." And in this beautiful and moving book, we feel our connection to all of life, to the transcendence of common things:
One be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, It's a miracle, it's an ecstasy.


  1. You make me want to try reading this again, forty years or so after my first attempt. I couldn't pay attention to it then, but maybe can now.

  2. Susan, I don't think I could have read it years ago. I did read it 3 or 4 years ago for a book club but it was before I'd started my blog; now that I'm writing, I see much more in the book than I did then. I just reread it for my local book club which is meeting tomorrow night; I know it's not the easiest book to read––there's no flowing narrative––so I'm interested in the reactions of others. I simply loved it and want to read other books of hers.

  3. I did manage to read this as a young man, before I knew much about life. I related strongly to the mood of the book, but didn't understand much, probably. Thank you for putting it forward; this makes me want very much to read it again, hopefully with some insight this time.

  4. Erik, I think it's great that you related to the book as a young person. It definitely has a mood; for me it's like a long prose poem, with gorgeous writing.

  5. The quotes you've chosen are beautiful, and thinking of it as a long poem is helpful. There are a lot of books out there that really aren't much use to most young readers, but I'm reminded that what's impenetrable at 23 may be just the thing down the road.

  6. I should also add that this novel is more complex than I could write about in a short blog post. It is not all light filled; Mrs Ramsay has her negative qualities; but overall it's a remarkable achievement.

  7. I don't like Mrs. Ramsay's particular kind of snobbery.
    But she is very fine also. When her husband is insensitive to the child: "To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people's feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilisation so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said."
    So silence for Mrs. Ramsay, and words and a vivid image for us.

  8. I love this book and each time I encounter it (first in high school, then teaching it in high school, then hearing the wonderful audio version with Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs. Ramsey), it grows in depth for me. Its structure perfectly enhances the levels of meaning, connection and reverberation of the life underneath the surface that most of us experience. All the characters are imperfect, as are all of us.
    I found your seeing A Buddhist framework interesting because that likely wouldn't have been Woolf's context. To me it shows how great works of art can be there for us at different times of our own development to reflect back our own temporal focus.

  9. Julie, I did some online research on Woolf and Buddhism and found that several of her Bloomsbury friends wrote about it, and that she was thinking about it later. Other spiritual ideas were certainly in the air, such as Theosophy, and I believe they must have informed her writing and thought. But of course we see any art through our own lens, a very personal one.

  10. Wow! Very cool. I knew about the Theosophy around Bloomsbury, but not the Buddhism.