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Richly Imagined Life of the Mind
on April 4, 2004
"Lighthouse" is a unique novel which established Virginia Woolf's reputation as a great writer. The story focuses on 2 days in the life of a large middle class family, with a middle interlude where the family's house is the major character. The setting is the family's summer home, filled with house guests. The action, however, is all internal, the chronology hazy and the events--to the extent anything really "happens" at all--rather mundane.
This all made for tough going until it "clicked" around p. 50. What Woolf does is create in real time not "real" events but what is going on within--that constant stream of thoughts and emotions that remains hidden from the world. Woolf spends a long time on a simple scene of Mrs. Ramsay reading a story to her 6 year old son. In the space of a few short minutes as she reads aloud Mrs. Ramsay considers whether an engagement she has been encouraging between two of her guests will occur, feels trapped between her son's desire to go to the lighthouse and her husband's cruel squelching of the idea, worries about the bill to repair the greenhouse, and underlying all senses impending doom just beyond the horizon. Another example is Woolf's description of the interior struggle of Lily as she paints in a style that happens not to be in fashion at the time. But Woolf shows us what Lily sees in her mind--a line here, a shadow there, a form.
Virginia Woolf has a reputation of being "hard to read" and I was unsuccessful in trying to persuade my book club to try "Lighthouse." But I'm glad I plowed ahead on my own--it's a rich and complex work, and totally unlike anything I've ever read. Try it!