Day 14To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Part III, Chapters 9-13
May 14, 2023 by Mona Simpson
All in parentheses.
“The sea stretched like silk across the bay. Distance had an extraordinary power; they had been swallowed up in it, she felt, they were gone forever, they had become part of the nature of things. It was so calm; it was so quiet.”
By this time in the book, what I love, is the sense that Lily is painting (is it still the essence of Mrs. Ramsay sitting with James on the canvas?) and imagining Mr. Ramsay, James, and Cam’s expedition into existence.
We believe they are really out there, in the waves, heading for the Lighthouse; but I also believe Lily wished them into this completion.
“From her hand, ice cold, held deep in the sea, there spurted up a fountain of joy at the change, at the escape, at the adventure (that she should be alive, that she should be there). And the drops falling from this sudden and unthinking fountain of joy fell here and there on the dark, the slumbrous shapes in her mind; shapes of a world not realized but turning in their darkness, catching here and there, a spark of light; Greece, Rome, Constantinople. Small as it was, and shaped something like a leaf stood on its end with the gold-sprinkled waters flowing in and about it, it had, she supposed, a place in the universe—even that little island?”
I can’t help but remember, from the first pages of the book, that Mrs. Ramsay would continue to the death saying that tomorrow, it might be fine, she expected it would be fine… while what Mr. Ramsay said was true. It was always true. He was incapable of untruth.
If novels had arguments (and some do, though, not, I don’t really think, the best ones) To the Lighthouse would seem to argue that happiness is made possible by kindness, by love, not by reality.
“So much depends then, thought Lily Briscoe…”
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
So many artists have used this book for their work. (Think of nature encroaching on the house in “Time Passes” while reading Marilynne Robinson’s great novel Housekeeping.)
Andrew and Prue, the two of the Ramsay children whom the parents thought of as most following after themselves, are dead. Andrew was to be a great mathematician; Prue a great beauty. Does this mean that after the war a certain kind of life, a certain kind of character, a certain kind of marriage, can no longer survive?
“How she (Prue) drooped under those long silences between them! Anyhow, her mother now would seem to be making it up to her; assuring her that everything was well; promising her that one of these days that same happiness would be hers. She had enjoyed it for less than a year, however.”
It is left to Lily to tell us what happens to all the others. Charles Tansley “had got his fellowship. He had married; he lived at Golder’s Green.”
“He was educating his little sister, Mrs. Ramsay had told her. It was immensely to his credit. 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.”
“One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy. ”
“‘Well done!’ James had steered them like a born sailor.
There! Cam thought, addressing herself silently to James. You’ve got it at last. For she knew that this was what James had been wanting, and she knew that now he had got it he was so pleased that he would not look at her or at his father or at anyone… He was so pleased that he was not going to let anybody take away a grain of his pleasure. His father had praised him. They must think that he was perfectly indifferent. But you’ve got it now, Cam thought.”
“He rose and stood in the bow of the boat, very straight and tall, for all the world, James thought, as if he were saying, “There is no God,” and Cam thought, as if he were leaping into space, and they both rose to follow him as he sprang, lightly like a young man, holding his parcel, on to the rock.”
It ends with Lily.
“‘He must have reached it,’ said Lily Briscoe aloud, feeling suddenly completely tired out. For the Lighthouse had become almost invisible, had melted away into a blue haze, and the effort of looking at it and the effort of thinking of him landing there, which both seemed to be one and the same effort, had stretched her body and mind to the utmost. Ah, but she was relieved. Whatever she had wanted to give him, when he left her that morning, she had given him at last.”
“‘He has landed,’ she said aloud. ‘It is finished.’”
“Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was—her picture. Yes, with all its green and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the center. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”
The line in the center—”Time Passing,” in the center of the novel, between two days.
Mrs. Ramsay was right. They had been happier than they ever would be again.
One is, in the end, grateful for Lily’s painting but more grateful still that we were there to partake in its inspiration—Mrs. Ramsay’s world one day in “The Window.”