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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A Trip To the Lighthouse with Virginia Woolf

From the brilliant, yet exquisitely tormented soul of Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse spilled on to the literary scene in 1927. A quick glance at Ms. Woolf's life reveals many autobiographical nuances to the story - family vacations, deaths, struggles. One character muses, "She felt... how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach." Prophetic, indeed.

In the novel, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey and their eight children are vacationing on the island of Skye in the Hebrides with a collection of eclectic guests.

Mr. Ramsey, an intellectual, rules the family with emphatic force, yet craves the affection of all. Mrs. Ramsey handles the mechanics of household with the ease of a maestro: orchestrating dinner parties, soothing the children, shepherding the staff, amorously matching the guests and visiting the sick in the village. Yet she is trapped within the razor edges of her narrow life, acquiescing to her husband's mental powers and protecting herself from despair at every turn.

Guest Lily Briscoe observes the couple, weighing their strengths and weaknesses, while trying to forge her own way. She longs to follow an artistic life of painting but is plagued with self-doubts and social disapproval due to post-Victorian gender expectations.

In the orbit of these three whirl the children and the other guests, all with their individual issues.

It's an idyllic summer holiday, with the lighthouse in the distance beckoning hope, stability, guidance, permanence. But also ultimate alienation. For well hidden within each soul, there is grinding self-ambivalence.

Ms. Woolf's luscious words paint the family and guest dynamics with pages of internal musings, flowing from character to character, giving-taking, resolving-questioning, dancing-despairing like rotating beams from the title lighthouse. It is in the segment "Time Passes" where she is at her literary best, describing the deserted summer house with the specter of death and World War I looming. "Loveliness and stillness clasped hands in the bedroom, and among the shrouded jugs and sheeted chairs even the prying of the wind, and the soft nose of the clammy sea airs, rubbing, snuffling, iterating and reiterating their questions - "Will you fade? Will you perish?'"

Woolf is not without hope, but there is always the small print. Even on the last page when Lily triumphantly finishes her painting and declares, "Yes, I have had my vision", you want to believe. Until you notice the verb tense. To the lighthouse, indeed, but there is always the danger of the battering shore.

Still that same Ms. Woolf quiets our souls with the line buried within this amazing work, "And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves."

Yes.

-Lois Glick, Great Falls Library

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