The Virginia Woolf Reading Group discussion

To The Lighthouse > "To the Lighthouse"?

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message 1: by Anna (new)

Anna Hiller (anna_e_hiller) Is anyone interested in starting a discussion group about "To the Lighthouse"? I'm reading it this month, and would love to hear others' thoughts on it. It will be my first work of fiction by Virginia Woolf, having read "A Room of One's Own" many years ago, but never following up with other works of hers, despite loving what I had read.

Any takers?

message 2: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Motto | 5 comments I'll read it with you. I already have the book and have always wanted to read it and reading with someone is always a good motivator.

message 3: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Motto | 5 comments I'm going down to the basement to get it out of my bookcase right this minute so I don't go back on my promise

message 4: by Anna (new)

Anna Hiller (anna_e_hiller) Great!!! I'll look forward to posting some thoughts on what I've been reading. I'll also be posting to my blog at .

message 5: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Motto | 5 comments I'm reading To the Lighthouse but I'm finding it a slow go due to the stream of consciousness style. Is there a secret or a hint for reading VW that might make it easier to get it?

message 6: by Anna (new)

Anna Hiller (anna_e_hiller) That's a great question! I think people have been asking the same question since 1927 when it was written. I think the key to stream-of-consciousness writing is remembering (especially in the case of "To the Lighthouse") is that perspective shifts (it seems) with each section. That is, we're not getting just one person's viewpoint, but rather that of whoever is the center of that section of the narration. My only advice would be to pay attention to the breaks between sections, take a pause, read the first few sentences of the next section, and then determine who's speaking. Once you've gained a sense of the way this kaleidoscopic vision works, it should be much easier to delve into the work.

The other thing is: Modernist writing is almost *never* about PLOT. It's about motivation, psychology, character. It's fun to try and figure out which characters the author is sympathetic to, and which the author seems to begrudge their existence!

message 7: by [deleted user] (last edited Apr 28, 2009 07:27AM) (new)

Anna, that was really helpful about plot and motivation. I was just wondering that, as I'm half way through the book right now (and loving it). We don't 'read' it; we float through it with a string attached to our ankles to ground us back to reality. I have no idea what to think of it (and Mrs. Dalloway) other than they're an experience to behold! Very excited to hear others thoughts as they read this book.


message 8: by Patricia (new)

Patricia | 10 comments Anna wrote: "That's a great question! I think people have been asking the same question since 1927 when it was written. I think the key to stream-of-consciousness writing is remembering (especially in the cas..."

Hi, Anna. Love the points you make about TTL. Are you finished with your dissertation? Long haul, isn't it?

message 9: by Patricia (new)

Patricia | 10 comments This is just an introductory lecture that I give my students in the Modern British Novels course:

To the Lighthouse is autobiographical--it recalls Virginia Woolf's childhood years at spent at the Stephen family summer house in Cornwall.

Virginia's father was Sir Leslie Stephen, who wrote the Dictionary of National Biography and who was quite well known as a writer and thinker. He was the typical Victorian father: willful, dominant, not to be questioned or crossed. He deeply loved his children, but they were afraid of him and were in awe of him. Sir Leslie was particularly hard on Vanessa, Virginia's sister because she could never run the household correctly according to his wishes after their mother died.

Mr. Ramsay in the novel is Sir Leslie Stephen; Mrs. Ramsay is Julia Duckworth Stephen, his second wife who was ten years younger than her husband. Cam is probably Virginia Woolf herself. James is much like Virginia's brother, Adrian. Although certainly the fact that Lily is an artist relates her to her sister, Vanessa Stephen, Lily is generally considered a model of Woolf herself. Lily is a kind of "silhouette" of Virginia Woolf who thinks in terms of painting where Woolf thought in terms of writing the novel. Lily's feelings compare with Virginia Woolf's own mood swings and suggests a connection between the interference of Lily's mood swings with the ability to know her own feelings. Lily acts out Virginia's own difficulties. Woolf's use of Lily as a self-portrait explains Lily's grief over Mrs. Ramsay at the end of the book. Charles Tansley is much like Lenoard Woolf, Virginia's husband. Augustus Carmichael, the poet, us probably modelled on a friend of the Stephen family, Joseph Wolstenholme, a brilliant mathematician who vacationed with the Stephens just to get away from his wife. The Stephen children called him, "The Wooly One."

Lily Briscoe is a painter, who tries to paint a portrait of the Ramsay's, but has trouble finding right perspective. Through the course of the novel, she finds just the right angle to paint Mrs. Ramsay and her little son, James. Just as she finishes the portrait, Mr. Ramsay and James arrive at the lighthouse.

James is the youngest son and the most sensitive child in the family. James wants his mother to take him in a boat to the lighthouse, but circumstances always seem to delay the short excursion. Then she dies.

Mrs. Ramsay is knitting (symbolic of "connecting") some socks for the lighthouse keeper's son. She connects with people on a deep personal level, something that her husband can't do but will eventually learn to. The "plot" of the novel is about how Mr. Ramsay learns to connect, especially after his wife dies.

Mrs. Ramsay notices that her family (her husband and children) have no unity. Each one has his/her own interests and diversions, much like the modern family today. It is even difficult for Mrs. Ramsay to get everybody to the dinner table together as a family for a meal because each member of the family tends to go his/her own way for meals. But Mrs. Ramsay is the unifying factor in this novel. Will her family learn to connect after she is gone? That is why Virginia Woolf contrives her death so early in the novel. She wants to see if the children can not only manage but learn to connect in Mrs. Ramsay's absence. Mrs. Ramsay has much in common with Mrs. Wilcox in Howards' End, who is also taken out of a novel rather abrubtly and for the same reason.

In many ways, To the Lighthouse is not only about the theme of "connect," but it is also a novel about what it MEANS to BE a writer. A writer, like artist Lily Briscoe, must move beyond mere plot (what merely happens) and dig deeper into the lives and emotional state of the characters (why things happen and how they affect characters). The writer must produce substance, not the "varnish" of plot. And this is what Virginia Woolf (and James Joyce) strive to accomplish with the new "modern" novel. They seek to move away from the heavily plot-centered Victorian novel that emphasized incident after incident, episode after episode.

Incidentally, in Virginia Woolf's Diary (vol.1) she stated that she wanted to "paint" in words, so she tried standing up at a tall table to write. She secretly envied her sister, Vanessa, because she wanted to achieve in words what Vanessa achieved in painting.

message 10: by [deleted user] (new)

JOY!!! Oh JOY! I'm printing... I may be laminating. Must tuck in my book and read again ten times.

The first thing that jumps out at me is this theme of connection, which reminds me of Howard's End and his 'only connect'. Why was this so prevalent in authors' minds at the time? The class differences, modernization, ostracization? But even the viewpoint of Lily, as an artist, is so different than everyone else that she's isolated in her own frame of reference as well. Come to think of it, everyone there was locked into their own paradigms. Hmmm... most interesting. Must think about this.

message 11: by Patricia (new)

Patricia | 10 comments I love your enthusiasm!

message 12: by Patricia (new)

Patricia | 10 comments My favorite character is Lily whose painting-in-progress we can trace through the novel. Lily is concerned about structure at first. Then shapes. Then connections. She arranges items on the dinner table, especially the salt cellar, to help her figure out the arrangement of her composition. Look at Vanessa Bell's paintings to get some idea of what Lily's painting would look like. (Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden--ISBN: 9780805055856) Or go to

message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

Lily is my favorite too, because she is thoroughly my mother. I actually told her about the pattern on the table cloth and gazing into the fruit bowl. That is something she and I would both do. So funny to see someone write about it.

I'm scared to click the link to the painting. I have a mental impressionist painting in my head that took me the entire book to paint. I wonder how it will compare.

Oh ok, I'll click it. I have to see it now.

message 14: by [deleted user] (last edited May 08, 2009 05:05PM) (new)

Oh yes, that fits my head pretty closely, actually. Must call mumzie and tell her to go see. Thank you for the link Patricia.

message 15: by [deleted user] (last edited May 08, 2009 07:03PM) (new)


So again, this theme of connection is making me wonder a few things. I don't know if the family will really be able to unify after Mrs. Ramsay's death. Cam and James seem to act as empty shells towards the end there, automatons even in their reluctance to sail with Mr. Ramsay. I couldn't help but think of myself as Cam in relation to my own father, because I could relate to the steely endurance, the stolid mask she puts up to shield herself from his moods and outburts. It was Cam who realised James' need for praise and it was she who put into words the importance of his father's recognition of him and his ability. I interjected my own brother for James and wondered how he would react from those simple words of "well done". Cam makes this a significant event, but I'm wondering if it's enough to compensate from years of emotional neglect. Somehow I think it isn't, and that's why James doesn't (or cannot) respond. When at last it comes, we can no longer receive it. Is that why Virginia leaves a blank there, between the words and James' failed recognition of them or am I just reading into that? Perhaps it's implied? Do you think Virginia Woolf intended to leave the relationship between Mr. Ramsay and his children ambiguous or are we to think they've begun the first steps of connection? I cannot see Cam's wall coming down so easily, because of the fact that the two children were coerced into making the excursion in the first place, which is another display of power over feeling on Mr.Ramsay's part. Is he consciously trying to compensate for spoiling the trip to the lighthouse so long ago? The one glimmer of hope I see here for Mr. Ramsay is the recognition he made of Cam's unhappiness. He saw the look on her face. He interpreted the look, and he tried to remedy it. That seems like the only true movement towards unification. I don't feel that he should get credit for the "well done" however, because he doesn't seem to recognise its significance and the intended impact. He sends reparatation without realizing the wound it's bound for. This part is fluxuating in my mind. Does he?
Another thing I've been wondering about- the scene where Mr. Ramsey is vying for sympathy from Lily, and she is unable to give it until later when he is gone. The interjection of the boots seemed so odd to me. It seemed as if Lily and Mr.R implied meaning into something trivial just as a meeting ground between them. Lily seems to know the significance of it, but Mr. R doesn't. Why is that? We feel that Mr. Ramsey is struggling towards something but never finds it; he just substitutes the boots for self-realisation. Why did Mr. R crave womanly sympathy so much? This was a huge part of his character. He was extremely selfish that way and could never extend sympathy himself through empathy for the people around him. And why was Mrs. Ramsay as well as Lily so determined to withhold it, such as when Mrs. R refused to say "I love you" when she knew he wanted to hear it? She is the unifyer who cannot extend it to him. Why? Because he's the breach? There are still so many dangling threads for me. Perhaps that's what makes it so appealing. Any ideas?

message 16: by Patricia (new)

Patricia | 10 comments You raise very good points here. I would have to say that VW deliberately made the ending ambiguous. But I know that after she finished TTL, she felt a certain relief after having dealt with her childhood issues by writing the novel. She never returned to her childhood memories for another novel. She dealt with the ghosts of her past and put them away.

Mr. R craves that sympathy, I think, because he misses his wife so much. When VW's mother died, Sir Leslie never got over her death. There is a suggestion, however, that Mr. R will come through grief enough to go on.

Mrs. R reminds me of my grandmother. She had time for each one of her grandchildren, gave them unconditional love, and was good with them one-on-one. That scene which Mrs. R takes James out in the garden is most touching, and it always brings tears to my eyes. (sob)

message 17: by [deleted user] (last edited May 09, 2009 05:07PM) (new)

Mmmm, I like the ambiguity then. It makes much more sense to think of it as a personal cleansing, and as in life we're often left wondering. That just makes me love it all the more.

I have too many questions to think of an orderly way to ask them all. How about if I just ask this right now. What suggestions do you give people as they approach Woolf for the first time? What should we be looking for? Do you tell your students to read it over once then pay closer attention the second time? I would ask this of you in the Victorian group as well. As lay readers, most of us just pick up a book and charge in without adequate tools to interpret what we're reading, and when a book is upwards of 600 pages (as often happens with Victorian books) that's a major investment. Often I set books aside, thinking I'm not ready for them, and yet I have no idea how to prepare myself. I try circumnavigating some books by studying the history surrounding them (that helps), but over the years I've found that intertextuality ends up being a greater help than I could have imagined. But there is no linkage to Woolf, no safe hand-off. I picked her up by accident, thinking I'd read a sentence or two and I couldn't stop. So now I'm searching for ways to understand her. I guess, basically, I don't know the right questions to ask. It's most frustrating to walk around with one's hands out looking for alms and not know how to verbalize how hungry one is.

message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

Geez, that made me all teary-eyed. I must be pms-ing.

message 19: by Patricia (last edited May 09, 2009 05:49PM) (new)

Patricia | 10 comments Cher wrote: "Mmmm, I like the ambiguity then. It makes much more sense to think of it as a personal cleansing, and as in life we're often left wondering. That just makes me love it all the more.

I have too ..."

Hi, Cher:

I have often thought that novels, particularly Woolf's, have a life of their own. And you use a fascinating metaphor: hungry.

You know that familiar quotation from Sir Francis Bacon? "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention."

Woolf's novels "are to be chewed and digested." When I read TTL the first time, I was baffled. I was in deep water with the stream of consciousness technique. My professor guided us through it well enough, but I was left hanging from the few pegs he left me to hold onto.

The next time I read TTL, I had to actually teach it. So I had to read it more slowly, "with diligence and attention," knowing that I would not have to take a test or write a paper on it. I gave it my whole attention, going slowly and reviewing lecture notes, which did not help all that much by then. I went to to get the fine points that I missed. (Yes, I think it's ok to "cheat" now and then. Even graduate students do that.)

Each time I taught TTL, I read it again, each time as if I were reading it the first time. Each time I discovered something that I missed the previous times.

Over time, the book grew on me. I felt that I had a handle on it, and then I would come across something that I didn't see the last time. Each time I read that novel, I grow as a reader.

So, do not fret too much about reading novels. The trick is to read them again and again.

I remember the first time I read The Scarlet Letter. I was 15 years old. I didn't really understand it. But I read it later on when I was 30, much older, and by then I was able to relate to it. Reading has alot to do with our age and experience.

My professor told me that I wouldn't get anything out of a novel (or poetry): novels are supposed to pull something out of ME. When we work at reading, literature does pull something out of us--our thoughts, reactions, etc. And it's hard sometimes but well worth the effort.

message 20: by [deleted user] (last edited May 09, 2009 09:48PM) (new)

How do I say this?

Your words to me feel like a gift, the kindest benediction. I just want to wrap it around me and hold it to my heart.

Something about V.W. is stirring up the sediment in me, moving me somewhere and I don't know where. I don't think I've ever had a book act upon me like this before, like a living force. I'm used to reacting towards books, not being taken ahold of in this wild grasp.

I don't know what to do, whether to flee or cry or ask someone to explain it to me.


It just occurred to me. I feel the same way in church.

I should have thought of that sooner.

message 21: by Patricia (new)

Patricia | 10 comments Cher wrote: "How do I say this?

Your words to me feel like a gift, the kindest benediction. I just want to wrap it around me and hold it to my heart.

Something about V.W. is stirring up the sediment in m..."

Start here:
And you'll feel more at home with the novel.

message 22: by Chryssa (last edited May 11, 2009 12:55AM) (new)

Chryssa | 1 comments Isn' t it a miracle that a book can make us feel that way? A book .... or art!!! Pure, authentic art. We flow in it, we try to find some kind of meaning in it, but above all, I think we struggle to find the meaning in our lives.

To the Lighthouse, was a revelation for me. I found it as slow as I wanted it to be, as symbolic as I wanted to be, as eloquent, as silent, as ...... The list is really too long!!

I read it long ago but I keep returning to it once in a while for a scene, an expression, a thought. The two things that really attract me in this book are :

1. The scene where Mrs. Ramsay is reading a book to her younger child. It won't be an exaggeration to say that this scene haunts me. I don't know if it is due to the dynamics of the description or it' s just me ...

2. The symbol of the "lighthouse". I really think that the lighthouse symbolises completely different things for each of the characters of the novel.

If you are interested in discussing it I will be glad.

message 23: by Ivan (last edited Apr 11, 2010 10:39AM) (new)

Ivan Patricia wrote: "My favorite character is Lily whose painting-in-progress we can trace through the novel. Lily is concerned about structure at first. Then shapes. Then connections. She arranges items on the din..."

I just had this book delivered to me by post last week. I love it. I'm currently reading
Deceived with Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood by Angelica Garnett and having the picture book has proven a great source of reference. The memoir is beautifully written and, in fact, won the PEN/Ackerley Prize for for autobiography.

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