On a Book by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf has just given—somewhat alas to the happy few—a definitive work, in which her entire world view is held, in which one finds all of the delicate beauty of her art, a work so full and so luminous that one is tempted to appreciate it in itself and to let it explain itself.  Virginia Woolf recalls Joyce, Proust, Giraudoux, Duhamel; her novelistic technique is in some ways close to all the recent techniques, but dominated by her sensitivity and grace, which are unique.

To the Light house is essentially a lyric novel; it represents the contacts that a group of souls have with each other, with things and with life.  Concurrently, it follows the rhythm of their emotional life. There are no crises in the book; no external action, nor is there internal drama, no conflict or repression, no dark, masked shadows prowl about in the half-light of the subconscious—all of those melodramatic trappings of the ultra-modern psychological novel.  Neither is there analysis nor hyper-analysis of obscure motives; there are no motives at all. To the Light house is a long contemplation, a harmonious unfolding of images and emotions, of sensations and of thoughts, in an interior world as gently lit as a Vermeer painting.

Virginia Woolf preserves as much as possible the internal rhythm of the anxiety caused by action and desire; but that does not mean that she shuts the windows and shades of consciousness, and offers a mere procession of reveries. On the contrary, nothing is more real, nothing less arbitrary than the interior movement of characters who do not possess the agency either to show or explain psychological problems, or to allow us to delve into their personalities. They are not nonetheless simple lyrical themes; without taking action they find a way to live intense lives. One is at first struck to see introduced gratuitously, without cause and without consequence, throughout this movement of thoughts, emotions and images, peripheral feelings that most often are not even recognized, but which the conscience sometimes acknowledges and assimilates without thinking.  Virginia Woolf uses them deftly to create a sort of synthesis of two worlds, exterior and interior.  In the middle of a phrase in the process of constituting an indivisible unity while unfolding interior images, she brings up a sensation, an impression of an object in whose existence the two worlds unite briefly, so that for a moment we have the impression of adherence to and rhythmic divergence from, as when a drop of water running down a window meets a speck of dust. 

During this brief moment the interior life continues on in accordance with its own rhythm and fluidity, until its next encounter with the world of objects.  To the extent that these contacts recur, memory connects them in a sort of continuity and this is how, using very simple means, Virginia Woolf makes us feel a permanent parallel between the two worlds with their different continuities, so different that they can never really merge, and yet she never really allows us to separate one from the other, nor their contact with each other. 

 For example this sequence of quotations:  a young girl seated on the lawn: “Here on the grass, on the ground, she thought, sitting down, and examining with her brush a little colony of plantains.”

“There he was lean and red and raucous, preaching love from a platform (there were ants crawling about among the plantains which she disturbed with her brush — red, energetic, shiny ants, rather like Charles Tansley)” 

“Her own idea of him was grotesque, Lily knew well, stirring the plantains with her brush. Half one’s notions of other people were, after all, grotesque. “ 

“She raised a little mountain for the ants to climb over. She reduced them to a frenzy of indecision by this interference in their cosmogony. Some ran this way, others that.” 

“One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with, she reflected. Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with, she thought.” 

“Time after time the same thrill had passed between them — obviously it had, Lily thought, smoothing a way for her ants.” 

Continuing to cite: 
“But what remained intolerable, she thought, sitting upright, and watching Macalister’s boy tug the hook out of the gills of another fish, was that crass blindness and tyranny of his which had poisoned her childhood and raised bitter storms.” (One can see how easily, when joined to the feelings that they accompany, these sensations are able to carry a symbolic message that Virginia Woolf never stresses.) 

And this: 
“And she must take great care, Mrs Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes”. 

This sensation is a special case, as in the last example.  We ourselves inhabit two worlds at the same time, our body has two faces and from its movements are born sensations which are in a way those very movements themselves.  And thus we have once again, even more directly, the concurrent sense of two worlds. These sensations merge with the rhythm of the conscience, or with Mrs. Ramsay knitting, or serving dinner, or Lily Briscoe painting. With both characters the rhythm of their actions follows the movement of their thoughts. 

Virginia Woolf uses in moderation the technique of “told from the inside” but only in moderation.  Nothing is purely objective, totally exterior to the characters. Our contact with the objects that constitute their milieu, are theirs, those enmeshed in the very fabric of their lives. And yet, thanks to a characteristic modification of a heavier and less graceful technique, we are never actually “inside.”  Dialogue, reflections, reveries, all are almost entirely written in the indirect style. And this indirect style spreads its demi-nuances throughout the book. On the one hand, it inevitably annexes short passages of simple narrative.  On the other hand, it keeps us at a distance from these interior lives that we only see through a rear projection as in a film, unlike what James Joyce does in Ulysses, for example, where, thrown into the very center of a conscience, we see them swarming about around us, grotesquely. 

Virginia Woolf’s characters are not in these scenes “to show us how they function:” they are closed off from us.  They do not look at us out of the corner of their eye when they speak or think; they live extremely normal lives, for themselves, not for us. There are not even any hidden turpitudes for us to discover.  They discourage suspicious familiarity, indiscrete intimacy.  The feminine figure that dominates the book by the radiance of her charm and sympathetic remains Mrs. Ramsay, refined, smiling and serious, a bit aloof: we do not know her Christian name. 

But if Virginia Woolf places us in a delicately adjusted perspective vis-à-vis her characters, it is not in order to create a new trompe-l’oeil but so that we might have a clearer picture of their relationships with each other.  And this is one of the essential points of view of the book. It is a feature of the author’s vision—perhaps of her feminine vision (an adjective Woolf does not repudiate)—that she views human beings not at all as separated, but in a group.  She tends less to pay attention to their interior agency than to their relations with the exterior; to their relations with things, especially to their reciprocal relationships and of their openness to them. 

As are many of her contemporaries, she is preoccupied with the absence of direct contact between individuals.  Human relationships are essentially fragmentary, discontinuous; in order to know one another, we have the benefit of external signs only.  Moreover, we tend to relate these signs to ourselves.  In order to identify with another being, one must first get out of oneself. This is a rare gift, a difficult and always imperfect intuition, reserved for the highest natures, such as Mrs. Ramsay. One of her friends, Lily Briscoe, thinks about these things, about the different ways we have to know one another.  Take for example Charles Tansley. 

“Her own idea of him was grotesque, Lily knew well, stirring the plantains with her brush. Half one’s notions of other people were, after all, grotesque. They served private purposes of one’s own. He did for her instead of a whipping-boy. She found herself flagellating his lean flanks when she was out of temper. If she wanted to be serious about him she had to help herself to Mrs. Ramsay’s sayings, to look at him through her eyes.” 

She then things about Mrs. Ramsay herself: “One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with, she reflected. Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with, she thought. Among them, must be one that was stone blind to her beauty. One wanted most some secret sense, fine as air, with which to steal through keyholes and surround her where she sat knitting, talking, sitting silent in the window alone; which took to itself and treasured up like the air which held the smoke of the steamer, her thoughts, her imaginations, her desires. What did the hedge mean to her, what did the garden mean to her, what did it mean to her when a wave broke?” (Lily looked up, as she had seen Mrs. Ramsay look up; she too heard a wave falling on the beach.) And then what stirred and trembled in her mind when the children cried, “How’s that? How’s that?” cricketing? She would stop knitting for a second. She would look intent. Then she would lapse again.” 

There are neither immediate nor constant relations between souls; there are only projections of the interior life, contacts, often insignificant.  And when the moment overwhelms old friends, it is not surprising that they feel detached, perfectly indifferent.  Each one has his own way of being self-absorbed.  William Bankes is sufficient unto himself as long as he belongs entirely to himself.  Carmichael isolates himself with his rhythms and his images, serene and disdainful.  The egocentrism of Charles Tansley and Mr. Ramsay is active and avid. 

Tansley is young, poor, and ambitious, without grace of either body or soul.  His is one of the wittiest portraits of the book. His desire to affirm himself grows to the extent that he sees his self image so different from the one that others have of him. And the less he succeeds in asserting himself, the more aggressive and destructive he becomes, as if all forms of admiration, all established and accepted things, seen in contrast with the disdain he suffers, were intolerable injustices: “Mr. Tansley raised a hammer: swung it high in air; but realising, as it descended, that he could not smite that butterfly with such an instrument as this, said only that he had never been sick in his life. But in that one sentence lay compact, like gunpowder, that his grandfather was a fisherman; his father a chemist; that he had worked his way up entirely himself; that he was proud of it; that he was Charles Tansley — a fact that nobody there seemed to realise; but one of these days every single person would know it. He scowled ahead of him. He could almost pity these mild cultivated people, who would be blown sky high, like bales of wool and barrels of apples, one of these days by the gunpowder that was in him.” 

Ramsay is different, perhaps because he has his chair and his wife. Compared with the egotism that trounces, his is the more delicate sort that seduces; it is the latter that desires less to enhance oneself at the expense of one’s victim, than to enhance oneself through the victim.   

Such are they, gathered in the evening around the Ramsay’s table—a group of solitary beings. They are men, and for Virginia Woolf withdrawal into oneself is a particularly masculine trait.  It makes one perfectly at home with objects that they do not allow themselves the freedom to fully embrace and thus they find them easy to dispose of and easy to manipulate, useful.  They have lost the knack of direct, complete, emotional contact with the world.  What they maneuver in their theories, opinion, their view of life, is a universal algebra. 

Will they remain thus, the guests who are seated at the Ramsay’s table that night—each wrapped up in himself, restless, defending his completeness in himself less against visible forces, than against some vague influences?  This vision of solitude is not exclusive to Virginia Woolf.  It is an integral part of the Zeitgeist: a vision that is not only doleful, but immobile. And what characterizes this book, to a great extent, is movement, rhythm.  As this admirable dinner scene progresses—it is only sixty pages long—we feel the barriers come down, each giving up a bit of self, a common base being established.  Not that we see or hear this directly, we only know Mrs. Ramsay’s emotions.  It is they that turn this heavy wheel towards this goal, taking all the force of her charm to create this harmony, and which will achieve the triumph: “The room (she looked round it) was very shabby. There was no beauty anywhere. She forebore to look at Mr. Tansley. Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate. And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her. Again she felt, as a fact without hostility, the sterility of men, for if she did not do it nobody would do it, and so, giving herself a little shake that one gives a watch that has stopped, the old familiar pulse began beating, as the watch begins ticking — one, two, three, one, two, three. And so on and so on, she repeated, listening to it, sheltering and fostering the still feeble pulse as one might guard a weak flame with a news-paper… Now all the candles were lit up, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candle light, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass, which, far from giving any accurate view of the outside world, rippled it so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things waved and vanished, waterily. Some change at once went through them all, as if this had really happened, and they were all conscious of making a party together in a hollow, on an island; had their common cause against that fluidity out there.” 

A veritable field of waves is created between them, moving them along, joining them together so well that on can still distinguish but not separate them.  They have become transparent, luminous but inseparable in Mrs. Ramsay’s eyes that penetrate them “like a light stealing under water so that its ripples and the reeds in it and the minnows balancing themselves, and the sudden silent trout are all lit up hanging, trembling. So she saw them; she heard them; but whatever they said had also this quality, as if what they said was like the movement of a trout when, at the same time, one can see the ripple and the gravel, something to the right, something to the left; and the whole is held together...” 

This is a delicious image and an admirable symbol of Virginia Woolf’s own vision, a vision that portrays all things in the same way:  distinct but neither isolated nor detached, but joined together in a luminous atmosphere. “something to the right, something to the left; and the whole is held together.” 

The dinner finally becomes all about movement, rhythmic; and all about collective emotion. 

And when William Bankes and Carmichael and Ramsay and even Tansley are freed from themselves, their individuality and their peculiarities, form a sort of unity together, it is then that they can truly protect that which is most precious, their common humanity, against the worst danger, the constant threat of decomposition. This is the deep meaning of Mrs. Ramsay’s efforts, it is here that this supremely harmonious moment is not only beauty, but wisdom as well.  They will pass on, but the order and harmony that exists between them in this moment is permanent and eternal, beyond time and change as is every perfect rapport, all order, all harmony. 

Mrs. Ramsay goes up to the children’s room, there, too, to dispense her grace, calm their nerves, cradle them with the music of words and images.  There, the final task completed, she feels suddenly weary—profoundly happy, still filled with that human communion, but weary.  And there begins one of the characteristic shifts in rhythm of this book: a return, a descent. 

This self depletion, this first deep gift to the common fund serves as an example and lesson without which the others would never be able to move beyond themselves. From the excessive nature of this gift comes the need to pull herself together in solitude and silence. 

“For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of — to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, 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 adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless.” 

And after bringing human relationships to life, a task that is always nourished by the self until it is exhausted, she returns to—and this is always a bit of an abdication—less costly harmonies by following the rhythm of her contact with things.  Things take nothing from you; as long as you open yourself to others, they enter you, merge with you, traverse you and lift you up rhythmically as waves lift a boat. 

She reads and repeats lines to herself; lines that she turns into things, that is to say that she does not even try to penetrate their sense.  It is like this that she follows the strokes coming from the Lighthouse. 

”and pausing there she looked out to meet that stroke of the Lighthouse, the long steady stroke, the last of the three, which was her stroke, for watching them in this mood always at this hour one could not help attaching oneself to one thing especially of the things one saw; and this thing, the long steady stroke, was her stroke. Often she found herself sitting and looking, sitting and looking, with her work in her hands until she became the thing she looked at — that light, for example. And it would lift up on it some little phrase or other which had been lying in her mind like that —”Children don’t forget, children don’t forget”— which she would repeat and begin adding to it, It will end, it will end, she said. It will come; it will come, when suddenly she added….” 

It was strange that in solitude one inclined towards inanimate things—trees, brooks, flowers; as if you felt that they expressed you, that they became you, that they knew you and in a sense that they were you; how one felt for them an irrational tenderness (she gazed at the long calm light) as for oneself…she gazed at it fascinated, hypnotized, as if the light had somehow caressed with its silver fingers a vessel sealed in her head which in bursting would drown her in ecstasy?...” 

We are therefore beyond solitude, in interior silence and darkness, where nothing is possible but mystical unions in which one’s entire being and the struggle of one’s sleepy consciousness, merge into a single rhythm.  There once more, as it is inevitable, we find the Zeitgeist and the primitivist mystique of a Lawrence or an Anderson (not to mention pure poetry). It seems more acceptable here, that all of that seems infinitely more natural and true, much less like a “revival.”  For Mrs. Ramsay belongs to a primitive sex, as does her creator.  And it is perhaps that reason that she suggests this blending with such intensity; but it is because she is an incomparable artist that the rhythms and images which are the symbols of the communion are at the same time imbued with a most dazzling beauty.  It seems as if Mrs. Ramsay’s emotional curve in this part of the book represents her, is her essence:  to find each human soul so totally absorbed in itself that the relationships between souls seems like a mockery; to make them see the beauty and joy of sharing life, of possessing the world together; and then to recover an even richer, more generous—and also more definitive—solitude. This is also perhaps the highest and a bit melancholic curve of the human experience. 


 “This will be permanent,” thought Mrs. Ramsay about this moment of human plenitude.  And thereupon time passes; and it is like the complete reversal of the plan of the book, a new test of values. There are small and large perturbations, the death of Mrs. Ramsay and that of her daughter, the war in which her son is killed, the restoration of order made precarious by the chaos in the Ramsay household and in the world, all passes and passes like sand through one’s fingers.  With the exception of a few pages of rather conventional lyricism on the progress of disorder in the house—one cannot help but think of the ‘Sensitive Plant—everything takes place between brackets, with a sentence for each.  The change, the decomposition seems so negative that even afterwards one does not know which is more unreal, what once was or the dissolution that has seized it. And Lily Briscoe quo painted the house and the garden ten years ago with Mrs. Ramsay and the child James and the living room window—that must have been a very different composition when she was seated there with James:  it must have cast a shadow—Lily finds herself once again one morning in the reopened house.  By a new reversal, the plan of this part becomes once again parallel to that of the first (the second go round, as it were, being perpendicular to them:  we fall again into the relative immobility of things, into a completely interior movement. Lily’s thought dominates this second moment as Mrs. Ramsay’s had the first. 

She is at first struck, at that hour when things have not yet any vibration or color, and the mind has not yet reestablished its habits, by the unreality of the things that surround her.  “The house, the place, the morning, all seemed strangers to her.” 

And so, finding herself without links to the present, finding no traces of her actions or emotions, not seeing it laid out according to the order that her former habits had anticipated, Lily did not recognize it.  She finds herself lost in the present and at the same time, in this place associated with all of her past, and which now seems scarcely to contain its dust, she feels how perfectly the past is dead there:  and in herself as well. 

Lost between the present and the past, doubly deprived of order and solidity, doubly adrift, Lily will force herself to doubly reconstruct, to recover possessionof the two worlds.  There is in all of this an admirable sequence:  by means of subtle modifications, a gradual evolution, this state of the soul gives birth to another, it’s opposite. At first this condition is confusion mixed with an impression of the chaotic incoherence of things; without the cause being conscious; the absence of a common term between the self and things—a single being is lost to us and all the world is deserted.  But it is also a state of recollection, a state of influx, infinitely richer than the ordinary moments when the interior life passes by in transit. 

Lily paints and remembers—a rich and symbolic ebb and flow which moves all across this part of the book.  She thinks of Charles Tansley, of his harsh words, of his gauche and graceless egoism. She calls to mind the simple caricature she has made of him; and here, all of a sudden, instead of a caricature, she finds a living being.  But at the same time she finds Mrs. Ramsay again, for whom she had not been looking.  Or perhaps she had been seeking her obscurely, precisely in the way that she should be looked for, not in herself, but in those who surrounded her and on whom she had shone her grace? 

“But after all, she reflected, there was the scene on the beach. One must remember that. It was a windy morning. They had all gone down to the beach. Mrs. Ramsay sat down and wrote letters by a rock. She wrote and wrote. “Oh,” she said, looking up at something floating in the sea, “is it a lobster pot? Is it an upturned boat?” She was so short-sighted that she could not see, and then Charles Tansley became as nice as he could possibly be. He began playing ducks and drakes. They chose little flat black stones and sent them skipping over the waves. Every now and then Mrs. Ramsay looked up over her spectacles and laughed at them. What they said she could not remember, but only she and Charles throwing stones and getting on very well all of a sudden and Mrs. Ramsay watching them. She was highly conscious of that. Mrs. Ramsay, she thought, stepping back and screwing up her eyes. (It must have altered the design a good deal when she was sitting on the step with James. There must have been a shadow.) When she thought of herself and Charles throwing ducks and drakes and of the whole scene on the beach, it seemed to depend somehow upon Mrs. Ramsay sitting under the rock, with a pad on her knee, writing letters. (She wrote innumerable letters, and sometimes the wind took them and she and Charles just saved a page from the sea.) But what a power was in the human soul!, she thought. That woman sitting there writing under the rock resolved everything into simplicity; made these angers, irritations fall off like old rags; she brought together this and that and then this, and so made out of that miserable silliness and spite (she and Charles squabbling, sparring, had been silly and spiteful) something — this scene on the beach for example, this moment of friendship and liking — which survived, after all these years complete, so that she dipped into it to re-fashion her memory of him, and there it stayed in the mind affecting one almost like a work of art…. “Life stand still here,” Mrs. Ramsay said. “ 

I have quoted at length what seems to me to express, better than any other passage, the central message of the book. 

Here then is the reaffirmation, in spite of time and death, of the values that time and death seemed to have contradicted; a moment of life, totally past, can still have meaning, in truth, that has not passed.  Here is the dinner and Mrs. Ramsay—which seem to faded, so long ago—justified, their meaning clearly expressed, loudly proclaimed: there are only composite things, things linked by perfectly harmonious rapports, which are rendered indissoluble, which from simple matter become forms; and there are only forms that survive the passage of time, which destroys all matter. As one used to say as proof of the immortality of the soul, the soul is indivisible, and it only that which is divisible that dies!  One must give to a moment a soul to place that moment out of time; one must make a unity of it.  And that is what made Mrs. Ramsay.  She took beings closed in on themselves and combined them in a harmonious unity.  She gave them the example of joyous, passionate interest in things, in life, without the constant return to the self which is what separates and disassociates, which leaves beings with nothing but their transitory individuality. 

And when finally, after having given this moment of the past to her, Mrs. Ramsay herself comes back to Lily, when at the insistence of her intolerable remorse, of the much repeated cry, Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay! springs forth the recaptured presence, and when that feeling of loss is vanquished by the perfection of the memory, the restitution of the essence, this reconquest is not, as in Proust for example, the patient and minute work of a living being and of his memory, it is the victory of she who no longer exists, the triumph over death of the genius of living. 

“Like a work of art,” thought Lily:  here is formulated the assimilation that has been prefigured and prepared throughout that meditation by the constant symbolic interlacing of memory and the creation of formal beauty. Two ways of making of one moment something permanent. But how different—even antagonistic—the concrete and direct emotive unity that Mrs. Ramsay creates in living, and the plastic and architectural unity, abstract and austere, towards which Lily strives:  a complete transmutation, a ruthless sacrifice of emotional values, even those most cherished.  She could not, she had formerly explained to William Bankes, make of Mrs. Ramsay anything but a violet shadow.  And Virginia Woolf expresses the transmutation by one of her delightful shortcuts:  during the dinner, Lily, thinking of her painting, decides to modify its composition, by moving a tree to the right, and symbolically moves a salt cellar on the tablecloth.  Now, ten years later, thinking of Mrs. Ramsay’s efforts to throw her into the current of life, she remembers: “ In a flash she saw her picture, and thought, Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space. That’s what I shall do. That’s what has been puzzling me. …For at any rate, she said to herself, catching sight of the salt cellar on the pattern, she need not marry, thank Heaven: she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution. She would move the tree rather more to the middle.” 

The evocation of the past follow the very movement of the past and with a subtle symmetry, recovers what I have called the curve of Mrs. Ramsay, with the same creation of a common spirit and the same return to silence. Lily things, moreover, how the present is an ironic negation of the past, forbidding its coming back to life since it is not longer active. And so the present puts the past in its place and situates it, immobile, powerless, fixed and frozen: “But the dead, thought Lily, encountering some obstacle in her design which made her pause and ponder, stepping back a foot or so, oh, the dead! she murmured, one pitied them, one brushed them aside, one had even a little contempt for them. They are at our mercy. Mrs Ramsay has faded and gone, she thought. We can over-ride her wishes, improve away her limited, old-fashioned ideas. She recedes further and further from us. Mockingly she seemed to see her there at the end of the corridor of years saying, of all incongruous things, “Marry, marry!” (sitting very upright early in the morning with the birds beginning to cheep in the garden outside). And one would have to say to her, It has all gone against your wishes. They’re happy like that; I’m happy like this. Life has changed completely. At that all her being, even her beauty, became for a moment, dusty and out of date.” 

Translated by Anne M. Callahan