Course Hero supplies this character map of To the Lighthouse. While I can’t say I agree with the description of the “main” character along with other “major” characters, it’s interesting to see them presented in this manner.
True, I would say Mrs. Ramsay is indeed the primary main character (spoiler here — stop reading NOW if you haven’t finished the book) she is only physically present in the first section.
Where is nasty Charles Tansley? Where is the poet, Carmichael? Maybe they could be characterized as minor characters, but they’re so sewn into the story that it’s odd to imagine them demoted.
By contrast, Paul Rayley is unmemorable.
What do you think of this list? Are any of your favorites missing?
Would you argue, as I would, that Lily could be seen as the main character? She and Mrs. Ramsay are inextricably linked.
See how Woolf slows the below passage with short sentences to show Lily Briscoe’s agony when Mr. Bankes looks at her painting, one she has been guarding from others:
He had put on his spectacles. He had stepped back. He had raised his hand. He had slighted narrowed his clear blue eyes, when Lily, rousing herself, saw what he was at, and winced like a dog who sees a hand raised to strike it. She would have snatched her picture off the easel, but she said to herself, One must. She braced herself to stand the awful trial of some one looking at her picture. One must, she said, one must. And if it must be seen, Mr. Bankes was less alarming than another. But that any other eyes should see the residue of her thirty-three years, the deposit of each day’s living mixed with something more secret than she had ever spoken or shown in the course of all those days was an agony. At the same time it was immensely exciting.
As a debut author, I relate so incredibly strongly to Lily Briscoe and her simultaneous reluctance and desire to have her artwork seen. I was already in grad school when my first fiction was published, and I cried and maybe had a few too many when asked if I would let it be published. I was a sellout, I thought. I wrote for me. I wrote to understand, not for filthy lucre; not so that others could read my writing. I was going to grad school to learn how to be a better writer, but I guess I hadn’t thought about the end game. (I had been publishing nonfiction all along, but that was different to me) I was both honored and horrified, to be honest, to be offered publication. After a night of many tears, phone calls, and emails, I said yes.
My only relief was that I wasn’t paid for it. I couldn’t have handled that at the time. (Of course I DID get an advance for my novel, thank you very much, and I was fine with that.) My attitude has changed now, of course. The laborer is worthy of her hire, to modernize a biblical reference.
Wiser ones helped me understand that writing is a loop: author, story, reader. And that it’s not really a story until you communicate with your reader. I wasn’t sure I wanted to communicate with others or that I had anything original to say. How wonderful to discover what a gift it is to talk about your words with others. I’ve enjoyed so much speaking on TV, on podcasts, to reporters, to classes and groups. My unending passion to share Victorine’s story has allowed me to ease past my mixed feelings. (For those who have read my book, Victorine insists on being called by her last name, Meurent. I like to imagine I know her well enough to call her by her first name.)
Seeing Victorine published has given me unexpected gifts: those who love Victorine LOVE her. I’m so proud to have been a part of that process. (I adore her, too!) I’m proud that I put her self-portrait on the back of my book for the world to see for the first time in over a hundred years, the inaugural publishing of the painting, we believe. Her newly rediscovered paintings were shared on my PBS interview, the first time most anyone has seen them in the same amount of time. Those are huge wins and worth the initial discomfort of sharing my words.
In my second novel-to-come, just as fast paced as my first, Briscoe Chambers (named after Lily, naturally) struggles with life’s larger issues as well. She’s not a painter — her struggle is how and if to salvage a marriage broken into shards. She asks if her role as a facilitator of art (in this case, the art of music) is more important than a traditional marriage. Can she endure what she must (more on that later) for the result which she is convinced will add to the country music canon in a significant way? Should she?
There’s a twist to the book that I won’t talk much about yet. Let’s just say she discovers an art of her own and realizes that it’s herself she needs to see.
How have you been seen? How do you desire or want to be seen or by whom? What does it even mean to be seen? (Many popular books come out and mention seeing and being seen; perhaps Woolf was one of the first to imply the importance of it, to articulate it, to suggest that art is how we share our souls.)
And that Lighthouse passage above – Ah, am I right?
Am I the only one who gets stuck on a simple punctuation mark when reading? I want to understand everything Virginia Woolf writes, even down to her choice of punctuation, but while reading Lighthouse today, I came across a sentence with a comma in a place I would not have chosen. (If you’re reading the book for the first time, it’s good, really good, isn’t it?)
“Simple, obvious, commonplace, as it was, Mr. Bankes was interested.”
I don’t quite understand the placement of the comma after commonplace. I would have left it out. I feel that as it was is strongly connected to commonplace. Am I missing something here? Do let me know if there’s some grammatical rule or exception I’m overlooking.
Hubby says I should consult other editions and her original manuscript, and I would, except that involves walking upstairs and having internet that works and that’s a no right now – thanks, Mediacom, for sponsoring this outage. I’ve learned when to let good enough be good enough. Besides, I kinda like pondering.
What do you think about the sentence? How do you read it?
I’m overly excited to talk about Lighthouse. It’s such an important novel to me. And yet since my second, about-to-go-on-submission, novel deals quite a bit with this book, I have to be careful. No spoilers!
Although here’s one tidbit: I turned the lighthouse into a forest fire lookout tower in my novel. One I know from my childhood.
Lighthouse and I had a rocky start: Here I was in Senior freakin’ Seminar as a non traditional student with all of these bright English majors and I’m panicking because it’s a beautiful book but I’m lost. I know I can’t just enjoy it. I have to understand it, and I don’t. Or didn’t. It feels like Woolf gives with one hand and snatches that “truth” back with the next. I was hella confused and frustrated, because her essays were so straightforward by comparison.
Enjoying and embracing ambiguity has come slowly to me.
I was reading Lighthouse in bed that first time (my favorite place to read) on a rare morning at home and just not understanding it at all. Then, out of nowhere, we had an earthquake! In Indiana! The bed rocked as if I were in our vacation rental boat. The quake must have jarred something in me or the universe loose because slowly after that, I finally understood it. (Well, it took six times all told of reading it to really feel I had grasped it, but that day opened me to it.) If I were more metaphysically inclined, I would say Woolf “zapped” me during that earthquake. Maybe I should say it anyway.
Not before I felt like a wretched, ignorant loser in class, a fake, a fraud, behind the rest did I get it, though. They were a great bunch, but come to find out, some of them found their “insight” online, something I could never imagine doing because I’m so stubborn.
So I read it again. And again. Then there was class discussion, and I was relieved to discover I was getting it. I had always been a fan of stream of consciousness, so that wasn’t throwing me. I really can’t say what was except for sure that cursed, hopeless, existential-crisis making middle section. I needed some plot back or at least hope and fast before I got stuck there. But then, ah, then, life returned. Lily Briscoe with her art returned. And I knew everything would be all right, even if it did feel icky to have such mixed feelings about the characters.
Nowadays I don’t so much try to understand it as reference it, even though I’m pretty confident that I do understand it. For me it’s like flipping through a book of poems by Neruda. Though my Spanish isn’t great, I just get something from his poetry, first in Spanish, then the translation.
With Lighthouse I get that gilded, heady glimpse first, you know, the surface shine that makes you happy. And then I take the words in, focus on the meaning. Damn, is there meaning. It’s Morse code about life. Do yourself a favor and open it up pretty much anywhere and sample it.
When it came time to choose a book to write my senior thesis on, did I play it safe? Did I choose Alice in Wonderland or even Cuckoo’s Nest? I had other choices, too, but I’m Kit in A League of Their Own: “I like the high ones.” (Wait, does that movie title have echoes of Woolf? A Room of One’s Own? I say yes!)
Not only did I write my thesis on it but I was told I was the only English senior that year to receive a high pass. Boom.
Then I was asked to read it at the Indiana College Education Association Conference. I did. Oh, and I won first place, even though I planned to leave before the awards were announced because I’d had such a good time talking about the book I didn’t even consider I might win. It barely registered to me that there was an awards ceremony. I laughed and laughed when I so unexpectedly won, and if memory serves I bought something pretty with the prize money. Boom again.
Naturally when it came time to do my grad school thesis I continued the trend and wrote on Lighthouse. It was such a luxury to write even more about the book. I wish there were some way to write observations page for page about a book, and a place to share it. I know that would take years and I’m not sure anyone would want to read it, but that’s just how much I still want to know about the novel, how much it affects and guides me. I’m sure there’s so much more to discover about it. (Ooh, maybe there’s a new podcast to start?!)
No wonder, then, that I turned to my love of this book when I began my second novel. It’s been a challenge but so meaningful to wade into that great pool of words and sift them between my fingers. To mull on phrases and mysteries. To ask what’s behind the behind.
How can a novel be simultaneously lovely, dark, and deep? That bird flight of a POV, the cadence, the intertextuality, the clever use of an artist observing a couple to speak of marriage. All of this while Woolf also memorializes her own mother and the family’s summer trips.
I have multiple copies of this book. Ironically, of all of my class texts for Senior Seminar I borrowed my copy from the library because money was tight. I could hardly bear to give the book back. I only did so when I was able to find an identical copy online. And dear librarian, if you see pencil markings in your copy, I’m sure it was some other patron who did that. (I don’t condone abusing library books but I may have forgotten a time or two it was a library book I was holding since it didn’t have a crinkly (cellophane?) cover.)
Maybe this book won’t do for you what it did for me, won’t cause you to scrutinize anything and everything you’ve ever believed, but then again, maybe it will. I’m excited to run through it yet again.
Have you read Lighthouse? What did you think of it?