To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Review by S. D. Stewart
It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself. There rose, and she looked and looked with her needles suspended, there curled up off the floor of the mind, rose from the lake of one’s being, a mist, a bride to meet her lover—Virginia Woolf, writing through her character Mrs. Ramsay
No one will want to lie in clouds of mist with me, and even if someone did, I couldn’t expel the mist from my head—Franz Kafka, writing in his diary
We may pass each other in the mist only ever so often, if we’re lucky, but we cannot stay there with each other. It doesn’t matter if we vacation together, if we marry and live for years together, if one of us springs forth from the union of two others.
One feels an isolation and maybe a desire to connect, sometimes even a desperate mania. But who can share a dreamy solitude? By definition, no one. And if it was at all even possible, the mist remains. How could we find each other, each day, each hour. How could one’s dream self operate in reality? The pilot seat in your head is unlike the one outside of it. Out there, we cannot twist the knobs, adjust the instruments without consultation, without repercussions, without the sun blinding us. In the shadows, the mist, these difficulties melt away. But we are alone.
Mrs. Ramsay’s inner life, her mist, appears rich and rewarding. She maintains a special relationship with the third stroke of the Lighthouse beacon (the long steady light she refers to in the quoted passage above):
Watching it with fascination, hypnotised, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!
Despite her tendency to drift off into the mist, Mrs. Ramsay is the linchpin in this book. She is perhaps Woolf’s conception of the perfect character, drawing strength equally from both her inner and outer lives, and at the same time enriching the lives of those around her. As Lily sees her, “bringing them together; Mrs. Ramsay saying, ‘Life stand still here’; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent.” At one point, Lily recalls a memory of being with her on the beach:
Mrs. Ramsay sat silent. She was glad, Lily thought, to rest in silence, uncommunicative; to rest in the extreme obscurity of human relationships. Who knows what we are, what we feel? Who knows even at the moment of intimacy, This is knowledge? Aren’t things spoilt then, Mrs. Ramsay may have asked (it seemed to have happened so often, this silence by her side) by saying them? Aren’t we more expressive thus? The moment at least seemed extraordinarily fertile.
When we are fortunate enough to meet in the mist, it can be like this, a fertile moment felt. But the mist can also obscure from the outside looking in. Mr. Ramsay did not understand his wife’s reveries. He misinterpreted them as sadness or distress:
She was aloof from him now in her beauty, in her sadness. He would let her be, and he passed her without a word, though it hurt him that she should look so distant, and he could not reach her, he could do nothing to help her.
Woolf shows, in her own inimitable way, this disconnect between a person’s inner dialogue, their life in the mist, and the outer facade, what people see and think of them versus who they are inside. Not only do we not know what is going on inside other people, we often make up our own stories for them.
And this, Lily thought, taking the green paint on her brush, this making up scenes about them, is what we call “knowing” people, “thinking” of them, “being fond” of them! Not a word of it was true; she had made it up; but it was what she knew them by all the same.
We fabricate these stories for many reasons: to understand other people, to rationalize their behavior toward us and others, to fit them into our own ongoing painting of the world, much like Lily took ten years to move the tree in her own painting. And often our impressions, like Mr. Ramsay’s about his wife, can be off the mark. Late in the novel, Lily muses, “Half one’s notions of other people were, after all, grotesque. They served private purposes of one’s own.”
There are other relationships at play here, like that of James and his father (“fight tyranny to the death!”), but they are all driven by these same themes of tension between inner life and outer life, impressions versus reality, what people really need from each other and what they actually get. Basically, the fundamentals of all human interaction laid out at a long table set for 20 dinner guests.
Vindication comes in the end for at least a few characters. To me, Woolf’s message hovers in the mist. But I see a little of it. Sometimes the passage of time is all we can count on for achieving these glimpses. I know I have found that to be true. And yet Kafka’s words still nest in my head. There is too much mist and no way to expel it. Or as Woolf puts it:
Beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by.