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To the Lighthouse ~ A Capsule Book Review

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To the Lighthouse ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Modernist English author Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 and died in 1941, age 59, a suicide by drowning. Her acclaimed novel To the Lighthouse (number 15 on the Modern Library’s list of the greatest novels of the twentieth century) was published in 1927. There is no plot, action or story to speak of in To the Lighthouse. The narrative consists of philosophical introspection (thoughts and observations) of the characters. This was a technique pioneered by modernist writers Marcel Proust and James Joyce.

The novel is set on the Scottish island of Skye between 1910 and 1920. (We aren’t told where the story is set, or when, but we can find out by reading background information on the Internet.) The Ramsay family is “vacationing” in a seaside house on the island. Mrs. Ramsay is fifty and we are constantly told how beautiful she is (or how beautiful people think she is). Mr. Ramsay is a stuffy, grouchy philosophical professor and writer. The Ramsays have eight children, among them James, who dislikes his father. They have several “guests” staying with them, including the young painter, Lily Briscoe, who knows that her paintings will end up in the attic; Charles Tansley, who asserts that women can’t paint or write; Augustus Carmichael, a poet who riles Mr. Ramsay by asking for a second helping of soup; Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle, two acquaintances with whom Mrs. Ramsay is practicing her matchmaking skills.

The second part of the novel takes place ten years later. The Ramsays return to the house on the Island of Skye for the summer, but there have been some changes to the dramatis personae. Mrs. Ramsay has died in the interim. Prue Ramsay, the Ramsays’ daughter, has married and died in childbirth. And then there’s that awful war, the Great War, in which Andrew Ramsay has died in France, blown up by a shell.

At the end of the book, the long-awaited trip to the Lighthouse takes place, with Mr. Ramsay, James Ramsay and Cam Ramsay in attendance. Lily Briscoe remains behind on the lawn, watching the Ramsays’ boat from a distance. She is still trying to paint without much success, possibly the same picture she was painting ten years earlier. She has never married and, as she watches the boat, she decides she will marry Mr. Ramsay, now in his seventies. Good luck with that, Lily.

What can you say about Virginia Woolf? Of twentieth century English writers, she is the most cerebral. To the Lighthouse cannot be said to be light reading. It requires concentration and a dedicated effort to make it through to the end. I’ve read it twice and the second time was no easier than the first. If you like a book where absolutely nothing happens, except what goes into inside people’s heads, you’ll love To the Lighthouse.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

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