Book Meme Challenge:
A Book That Makes You Sad
To the Lighthouse
by Virginia Woolf.
This book is a work of art, a master-piece of linguistic beauty. It is also one of the most melancholic pieces of literature that I have read, and it makes me sad on several levels.
To the Lighthouse is one of Virginia Woolf’s first instances of “building a tale without a framework,” wherein she developed her “stream-of-consciousness” style. (But because it is one of her first attempts, I find it more easy to follow than, say, Mrs. Dalloway.) And it is also my favorite example of what Woolf called “prosety,” a blending of poetic and prose elements into a cohesive literary approach that was designed to speak modern generations that could not find meaning in traditional images nor beauty in societal forms.
Every page feels like a poetic vision in into the heart of a character, and by extension the heart of humanity. The realism is deep and moving. The writing moves smoothly and quickly, and yet is complex: there is a network of the allusions to the literary cannon, the layers of personal and communal understanding, and the contrasting variations on living and loving.
Sorrow #1: The premise of the story is the loss of a mother.
When death a parent is the central motive of the book, it becomes horrifically sad to me. The novel is the centered around the figure of Mrs. Ramsay, and the way that she affects the people around her. Particularly in the light of her death. The book is divided into three parts, and only in the last segment do the feelings of nostalgia and loss that permeate the whole find locus in a visit to Mrs. Ramsay’s grave. It does essentially explore the deeply immediate, personal responses to facing mortality.
Sorrow #2: The story is an outpouring of Woolf’s own experience.
Mrs. Ramsay is generally accepted to be a literary figuring of Woolf’s own mother; a warm, gentle woman who died when Virginia was young. Woolf’s letters reveal an idealized version of her mother, one that she was never fully able to let go; and this death is certainly one of the scars that shaped her as a person. The book then becomes almost pure elegy, to point of subtly recalling Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” throughout. The real sorrow and loss that permeate the tale are intense.
Sorrow #3: I believe that Woolf could have been so much more than she let herself be!
I love Woolf’s skill with words and grasp on the interior life of humanity. She has style and grace and insight that break through the boundaries of conventional understanding. She might have become a writer to be reckoned with Shakespeare and Dante. Instead, I think she limited her own vision by getting caught up her own sorrowful past – she was abused physically, emotionally, and sexually – and allowing that to define her. She had little hope, and therefore had a narrower view of the purpose and final aim of Man.
Woolf did have a sense of humor. After all, she wrote a biography of Elizabeth Barret Browning told from the view-point of her cocker spaniel. But this was not enough to help her achieve a wider outlook, and she eventually put stones in her pockets and walked into a river and drowned.
Despite all the sadness associated with this book, it is a beautiful, poignant, thoughtfully constructed piece of literature. If you can withstand the frustrations of futile grappling with mortality, I suggest you read To the Lighthouse, if only for the sheer artistry.