P. L. The New Republic. June 1, 1927, pp.50-51.

To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. New York:
Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50.

PERHAPS we were all agreed, five years ago, when
“Jacob’s Room” was published, in thinking that Virginia 
Woolf’s method drew to itself not more attention
than it deserved, perhaps, yet somehow too much. It was
adventurous and brave, but was it not also rather arbitrary,
too distinguishable from the material she imposed it upon?
Had it not a little air of being, if only the operator’s
hand were as light and exact as her own, removable without
injury to the rest of the book? Perhaps we really had such
opinions as these in 1922, or perhaps we acquired them
later, after “Mrs. Dalloway” had opened our eyes, had
shown us an achieved harmony with which to contrast the
tentativeness of “Jacob’s Room,” where Mrs. Woolf was
still inventing her road away from “The Voyage Out.”

One mark of this tentativeness was the presence of things
which nobody in the book said or thought, but which the
author said: “In short, the observer is choked with observations. 
Only, to prevent us from being submerged by
chaos, nature and society between them have arranged a 
system of classification which is simplicity itself.” Or 
again, after Mrs. Norman has been traveling to Cambridge
in the same railway carriage with Jacob, whom she does 
not know: “But since, even at her age, she noted his indifference, 
presumably he was in some way or other—to 
her at least—nice, handsome, distinguished, well built, like
her own boy? One must do the best one can with her report…. 
It is no use trying to sum people up. One must 
follow hints, not exactly what is said, nor yet entirely what
is done….” Yes, I can imagine that remarks like these, the
author’s thoughts spoken here and there all through
“Jacob’s Room,” must have made me see Mrs. Woolf as
still in search of her method. What I cannot understand is
how they failed to convince me that whatever it might be
it was not arbitrary. A wish to see people not as simplicity
itself, a belief that they are other than what they say and 
what they do and what they perceive and want and think,
surely her method grew naturally out of this belief and this
wish, both of them passions.

Richard and Clarissa Dalloway make a brief appearance 
in “The Voyage Out.” We spend a few days with
them on board the Euphrosyne. Everything they do and
say helps to define them. They were praised, quite rightly
I think, as the most distinct persons in the book. One can
imagine Mrs. Woolf coolly derisive of such praise, saying 
that this kind of distinctness was not what she was after,
that to be praised for it was to be put on one’s guard against
an unlifelike simplicity. “When life sank down for a moment”
—we have dipped into Mrs. Ramsay’s stream of consciousness 
in “To the Lighthouse”—“the range of experience
seemed limitless. And to everybody there was always this
sense of unlimited resources, she supposed; one after another, 
she, Lily, Augustus Carmichael, must feel, our apparitions, 
the things you know us by, are simply childish. 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.” Mrs. Woolf, who does not say this,
who herself expresses no opinions in “To the Lighthouse,” 
feels it more deeply, my guess would be, than she feels any 
other one truth that can be stated.

To create character against a background of conviction
that character is unknowable, what a dangerous game!
How it fascinates Mrs. Woolf, so coolly aware of all its

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dangers, and how beautifully she plays it! No, there are 
two dangers she has not noticed. She has not realized what
may happen if she endows her people with too much intelligence, 
or if they are too perceptive of beauty. We may be
more interested in their gifts than in themselves, in that
queer, indefinable constituent of character which she thinks
we have rated too high, and which we still insist upon having. 
In the novelist’s art, we say to ourselves, there is still
room for a rather humble likeness-catching faculty. There is
still a sense in which to be both a poet and a thinker is disadvantageous 
to a creator of character. She may sacrifice her
likeness-catching faculty to her belief that it is no use trying
to sum people up. She may subordinate her sense of life
to her sense of life’s beauty. Our attention may move from
her people to her poetry, or to her intelligence.

Some of the finest prose has been written by persons who
saw and heard like poets, who never lost their respect for
prose as a separate art, and who kept this tradition of separateness
alive. Some of the loveliest sentences I know are
in “Jacob’s Room”: “So, if the veiled lady stepped through 
the Courts of Trinity, she now drowsed once more, all her
draperies about her, her head against a pillar.” Or this:
“Quiet at mid-day, except when the hunt scatters across it;
quiet in the afternoon, save for the drifting sheep; at night
the moor is perfectly quiet.” Not quite this interest in the 
mere shape of a sentence appears anywhere in “To the
Lighthouse,” where no one sentence has this formal 
beauty. Perhaps Mrs. Woolf felt that the things I have
just quoted might get more attention than she wished a 
reader to give them? However that may be, her latest prose
is different. I think she has described it herself, not meaning 
to, with her eye on something else, in an earlier book:
“But words have been used too often; touched and turned,
and left exposed to the dust of the street. The words we
seek hang close to the tree. We come down at dawn and
find them sweet beneath the leaf.” It is easy to find examples
which justify this praise. Between the first part of “To the
Lighthouse” and the last there is an interval of ten years.
This second part, “Time Passes,” describes the changes in
a deserted house and garden, visited now and then by an
ageing caretaker. Before the family have gone, before the
ramshackle house is deserted, the winds enter it at night:

So some random light directing them with its pale
footfall upon stair and mat, from some uncovered star,
or wandering ship, or the Lighthouse even, the little
airs mounted the staircase and nosed round bedroom
doors. But here surely, they must cease. Whatever
else may perish and disappear, what lies here is steadfast. 
Here one might say to those sliding lights, those
fumbling airs that breathe and bend over the bed itself, 
here you can neither touch nor destroy.

The whole of “Time Passes” is as beautiful as that.
Even if one does not quite know why it is there, it is a
thing to thank God for. So is “To the Lighthouse.” One
begins to read it eagerly, one is a little perplexed, one stumbles 
when the first half of an incident is separated from the
second half by somebody’s reverie or recollection, one wonders 
whether here there is not a bit of speech lost in the middle 
of a soliloquy. When Lily Briscoe says to herself
that “there are moments when one can neither think nor
feel” one would like to be shown such a restful moment.
But these little worries do not matter. We forget our own 
stupidities in delighted contemplation of Virginia Woolf’s
intelligence and imagination at play, showing us, now
through a man’s eyes, now through a woman’s, nature as
nobody else sees it, people as nobody else sees them. We