Virginia Woolf, Wordsmith of the Universe
Updated: Apr 9
A few days before I started teaching at Princeton High School, the chair of the English department walked me through our senior book room. I slowly looked up and down, row after row … Waiting for Godot … A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man … Things Fall Apart … and then, suddenly … To the Lighthouse. I gasped, I got goosebumps. I touched the stack to make sure it was real. After I read it in college, I remember reading a few pages out loud to my artist roommate:
With a curious physical sensation, as if she were urged forward and at the same time must hold herself back, she made her first quick decisive stroke. The brush descended. It flickered brown over the white canvas; it left a running mark. A second time she did it--a third time. And so pausing and so flickering, she attained a dancing rhythmical movement, as if the pauses were one part of the rhythm and the strokes another, and all were related; and so, lightly and swiftly pausing, striking, she scored her canvas with brown running nervous lines which had no sooner settled there than they enclosed (she felt it looming out at her) a space.
Why do I think Virginia Woolf is the greatest writer of all time? There are so many reasons. I start our conversation about the novel with an examination of Woolf’s use of free indirect discourse. Woolf’s narrator jumps consciousnesses from one character to the next. We hear the internal voice of Mr. Ramsay, then Mrs. Ramsay. Of William Bankes and then Lily Briscoe. Of Cam, then James, then Mr. Ramsay. Sometimes the voice switches from one paragraph to the next. Sometimes from one sentence to the next. Sometimes, it’s within the sentence. Sometimes, we hear the voice of two characters at the same time. There’s a great phrase for it … when the characters are on the same page. The narration provides dialogue, summary or fragments of dialogue (what the character hears in their mind), what one character imagines another character thinks, body language, and finally, the unfiltered thoughts of the character, a stream of consciousness. We get the full story, the full reality. Not just an incomplete external reality, the full reality, the full complete thoughts as well as the actions and events. In fact, the events take a back seat. Most of the book takes place over the course of two days, and most of the major action occurs in less than twenty pages. The consciousness of the characters provides the full story.
In the middle section of the novel, Mrs. Ramsay, a mother of eight children, dies suddenly, and her son Andrew dies in the First World War. The novel, then, asks some important philosophical and political questions. How do we recover from the loss of a loved one? How do we keep their spirit with us when they’re gone? How can two people, from different nations, put aside their nationalism and differences and believe in their shared humanity? Can we feel connected to a stranger, to a person we don’t know? How can two people who speak different languages, practice different religions, have different ethnicities, get along? How can a family, with its long history of fights and conflicts, come to terms with each other? Or forgive one another? How should the world move on after the First World War?
It’s not hard to imagine a society where the First World War takes place when you consider Mr. Ramsay’s egotistical obsession with greatness. On the other hand, the portrait of Mrs. Ramsay reading a book to her son as she sits by a window represents the lost spiritual world that existed prior to the war, and the world that Woolf wanted us to revise after the war, a world where women had a voice in determining our political destiny.
In the beginning of the novel, just off the coast, there’s a father and his son tending a lighthouse that’s situated on a tiny island. Mrs. Ramsay wants to send them “a pile of old magazines, and some tobacco.” She asks her children, “how would you like to be shut up for a whole month at a time, and possibly more in stormy weather, upon a rock the size of a tennis lawn?” She asks them to think of someone they don’t know, that they’ve never met, and imagine their situation. She wants them to imagine their hardship so that they can do something about it. Instead of looking out at the island and feeling sorry for them, or feeling hopeless, like there’s nothing they can do, she tells them to perform a simple, small act of kindness, of love. Straight out of Wordsworth’s playbook.
At the end of the novel, Lily Briscoe, a friend of the now deceased Mrs. Ramsay, has a hard time finding something to talk about with Mr. Ramsay. He’s older. She’s single. He fathered eight children. She’s an artist and he’s a philosopher. She feels like they have nothing in common. She looks down and sees his boots:
"What beautiful boots!" she exclaimed. She was ashamed of herself. To praise his boots when he asked her to solace his soul; when he had shown her his bleeding hands, his lacerated heart, and asked her to pity them, then to say, cheerfully, "Ah, but what beautiful boots you wear!" deserved, she knew, and she looked up expecting to get it in one of his sudden roars of ill-temper complete annihilation. Instead, Mr. Ramsay smiled.
That’s it. That’s all it took. A comment about boots. Love is not complicated. We can connect consciousnesses with very little effort.
Woolf attended orchestras, read metaphysical philosophers, watched some of the first films, had an extra-marital affair with a woman, hung out with artists and economists, battled mental illness, and suffered abuse as a child. If anyone had something to say about the nature of love, it was Virginia Woolf. It went beyond kindness and courtesy.
Mrs. Ramsay describes the moving light of the lighthouse:
Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always some exclamation of triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity; 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.
Sorry for the long quote, but it’s incredible. She becomes the light. She sees it, then becomes it. The light that penetrates, that warms, that allows immersion, that changes, that moves, that disappears and then comes back, the light that connects all of us. The source of beauty and life. The most mysterious of all natural phenomena. The distance, the space between her and the light doesn’t matter. It doesn’t exist. Her mind has eliminated the space. Lily’s courageous act of painting Mrs. Ramsay, despite all the criticism that causes her insecurities, is also an act of love:
It was love, she thought, pretending to move her canvas, distilled and filtered; love that never attempted to clutch its object; but, like the love which mathematicians bear their symbols, or poets their phrases, was meant to be spread over the world and become part of the human gain.
As an educator, I love this quote. It’s what we do, no matter what we teach. We spread love “over the world” for “human gain.” Love wants to give, not receive. When we try to figure something out, or put it together, we end up with expression. That something could be a formula, an idea, or a person. We immerse ourselves in it and hope for a sense of cohesion. Love starts with our consciousness, with perception, and stays alive with our imagination. Love moves us forward, education moves us forward, despite everything that tries to hold us back.
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