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Modern and Post Modern – Virginia Woolf


Intensity and the Ordinary: Art, Loss, Forgiveness

This weeks reading is Virginia Woolf’s book “To the Lighthouse“. Virginia Woolf was hailed as one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by George Charles B...

Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These are my course notes transcribed from the notes I took of the video lectures and my own readings.

Professor Roth explained that, for the purpose of this course we are reading this book as it represents a change, a shift away from the concerns of modernism where we tried to find ‘the really real‘, by digging deeper and deeper. In this novel we move towards understanding  knowledge as intimacy. We look at the thing or person that you are closest to, that we can be intimate with. Coincidentally we have been looking at the person you are closest to in my other course and to Achilles’ closeness to Patrocles. With all the courses that I taking and reading that I am doing I am finding it wonderful how things link together. Feelings and thought through hundreds of years and across continents have common ideas and expressions of what is important.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf  (18842-1941) was the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen a notable historian.

Photographic portrait of Julia Stephen, mother...

Julia Stephen,by Julia Margaret Cameron. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Her mother, Julia, was a model for pre- Raphaelite painters such as  Edward Burne-Jones. Julia died suddenly when Virginia was only thirteen. It is thought that this death and the death of Virginia’s half-sister Stella just two years later was the cause of her first breakdown. During this breakdown Virginia  was able to continue studying, notably  languages, and through that came into contact with some early reformers of  women’s education.

This is a picture of Julia Stephen, Virginia’s mother.  She is not Mrs. Ramsey but she is certainly a  model for her.

The photograph is by Julia Margaret Cameron, a great Victorian photographer. Julia Stevens certainly looks like the pre-Raphaelite model of beauty here, with her flowing hair. You can see how those artists were drawn to her as a model. The photo was taken by British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Julia Stephen was Cameron’s niece and her favourite subject. Cameron became known for her portraits of celebrities of the time, and for photographs with Arthurian and other legendary themes.

Leslie Stephen (Photo credit ; Wikimedia)

On the right is a picture of  Sir Leslie Stephen, Virginia’s father.  He was writing philosophy or philosophically oriented books, and was a scholar.

He was left to raise the children when Julia Steven died at a young age from rheumatic fever. His writings on biology and evolutionary ethics were very well-known in nineteenth century Britain. Some of his writings influenced those of his daughter, and certainly being brought up in a house full of literature and creativity aided Virginia’s progress.

It was her father’s death in 1904 that caused a second more severe breakdown and she was institutionalised. Her father’s death was followed by that of her close brother Thoby from typhoid fever in 1906 and cause a further onset of mental illness.

She continued to have breakdowns until the end of her life.

Here is a picture of Julia teaching her children at home.

Julia Stephen with Stephen children at lessons, c.1894

Thoby, Vanessa, Virginia, Julia, and Adrian Stephen are seen here at Talland House. Even on holiday, the Stephen children were taught their lessons by Julia.

The environment must have been a stimulating one for her children. The picture is from “Mortimer Rare Book Room“, Smith College, Northampton, MA.”

You can see the parallels between Woolf’s life and the fictional story in “To the lighthouse”.  The beautiful mother who dotes on her children. The intellectual father who maybe distant. Early deaths of the mother and siblings and yet life goes on.  Certainly Woolf was from the same social background as the Ramsey family.

The Bloomsbury Group

Virginia was an early member of , the Bloomsbury group, a group of,intellectuals, and artists and writers who came together out of friendship and shared political convictions.

The Bloomsberry Group Source : Wikipedia

They wanted a society with greater equality and less violence a group of artists who, defied convention in order to expand their art. They, they saw their own middle class morality as hypocritical. They wanted to go beyond this bourgeois morality and convention in terms of friendship, in terms of sexuality, in terms of art making, to find something that would be more meaningful and less violent and less hypocritical. The groups liberal approach to sexuality encouraged  exploration and Virginia had a sexual relationship with writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West. The biography  Orlando was the outcome of this relationship. Virginia remained friends with Vita long after their relationship finished. In 1941, beset by another bout of depression Virginia filled her pockets with stones and walked into the river near her home.


The ideas for the Bloomsbury group seem to come mostly from a philosopher named G.E Moore.  He wrote in early days of analytic philosophy,  a  philosophy that tries to clarify things by showing what we can count on and what we can’t, what is an illusion.  Bertrand Russell  intersected with this group too. These two were responsible for moving philosophy on the whole toward the sciences, towards logic and mathematics and towards more precision. What attracted the Bloomsbury group to  Moore was his ethics and aesthetics.  For him no scientific or logical deduction of ‘the good’ would be compelling or correct but that the idea of’ the good’ was primary.

Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore (photo credit Humanities.McMaster.ca)

That’s what Moore, and other analytic philosophers did, they showed you what things fell apart as systems, and what things held together as systems. Moore said that ethics and aesthetics don’t actually hold together as systems. That doesn’t make intrinsic goods any less valuable, any less good. This is what was attractive to the Bloomsbury group He said that  the intrinsic goods like friendship, like beauty, like, art, and love stood on their own. A commitment to them structured your other beliefs, rather than your other beliefs leading you to have a commitment to friendship or love or beauty.

Moore was one of the founders of what is now called meta-ethics . For him  friendship, love, and art became  core values, core expressions of the good. For Bloomsbury this was “the mother’s milk.” Friendship held them together, not because of ideology, not because of religion, but just for friendship, because they loved each other. Love was not reducible to anything else, not to happiness, not to pleasure, love was its own thing.

Leonard Woolf and G.E. Moore (Photo Credit : tumblr.com)

Learning to draw, to play the piano, or to read a poem didn’t have to be justified in terms of future financial gain.  No one  says that making money is the highest good, even in America, people just act as if it’s important. Moore and the Bloomsbury group said art is its own thing, it doesn’t have to be justified in other terms, so too friendship, so too love.

To the Lighthouse

Photo credit ; Wikimedia

Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow, said Mrs. Ramsay. But you’ll have to be up with the lark, she added. If it’s, yes, if it’s fine tomorrow.

This is the opening sentence of the book and we can see immediately that Mrs Ramsey, the mother is reassuring her son, James, that they would go to the lighthouse the next day if it was fine.  As his mother she would give him what he wanted which was reassurance and comfort.  She gave him hope, if conditionally, that he would get his wish. You get an immediate understanding of Mrs Ramsey and what sort of person she is.

On the same page, her husband the philosopher Mr Ramsey, says “but it won’t be fine tomorrow.” His is the voice of science the voice of  knowledge and the voice of disappointment.

These two lines of dialogue set the scene for and structures the novel. Mrs Ramsey is the voice of reassurance, of belief, of  support, of intimacy. James stands between her legs right in the beginning.  James is physically close to his mother, closer than the other children. Mr Ramsay is the voice of knowledge, of, objectivity. You don’t have to be Freud to see the, Oedipal dynamics at play here.  (Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, were actually the publishers of Freud in English for a long time. Their edition is still known as the standard edition. )

The story is in three parts and takes place principally on two days ten years apart.

The novel was published in 1927. It is written as a ‘stream of consciousness‘ and covers a number of themes including psychological implications and the profit of art. The setting is the Isle of Sky which is one of the islands in the Hebrides on the west of Scotland where the Ramsey family have their summer home.

Principle characters

Mr. Tansley

Mr. Tansley is a student of Mr Ramsey and is very proud of that fact. He believes himself to be really smart and hard working. He wants to be a philosopher and to understand things.

He is a house guest for the summer but is not well liked by the family or the other guests. He is obsessed with his dissertation and wants Mr Ramsey to discuss it with him.  He’s a lower class person than the Ramseys and he constantly reminds every one of this.  In England at the time this novel was written social class was much more visible, and for Tansley it meant that he had to work for a living. He didn’t have an independent income, an independent income is what sets people free. Woolf wrote in ‘A Room of One’s own’ that women needed an independent income to be able to write.

1928 shows women at work in the sand core shop. Source ; Daily Mail

Like Mr. and Mrs.Ramsay Tansley has no first names throughout the novel.  He often reminds us that he is poor and comes from the lower class. He’s proud to not be  rich.

At the beginning of the 20th century, people who had independent incomes had a certain freedom. Tansley says, I work for everything, I struggle for everything. He has a huge chip on his shoulder for a good reason, because he knows what he has to do to support himself.  This chip gets in the way of all the interactions he has.  Although Mrs Ramsey doesn’t like him she persuades him to drive her to town and he falls for her charm. He tells Lily that women can’t write or paint and doesn’t like competing with her at the dinner table for conversation. He certainly shows that he feels the world should be run by men.

1920’s Middle Class family Wikimedia

They call him the atheist for several reasons.The main one is that he doesn’t believe in anything. He’s the kind of person whose intelligence shows him why other people believe in false premises. He’s a septic  and he’s an atheist. He is an ‘enlightenment’  figure for our purposes.When atheism and enlightenment go together, they’re like milk and cookies.  He is not as, as vain, glorious,or imposing as Mr. Ramsey,  but nonetheless the person who will show you you’re foolish to believe

This is what philosophy in education produced in a certain kind of person. We talk about critical thinking as being so important, so that we never fall for something. This leads to people being so good at being ironic or critical or distant  that they don’t  have the capacity to have strong affection for things as this is not based in reason.  Mister Tansley is an atheist because he just won’t believe anything. That for Woolf is impoverishment.

Lily Briscoe

Mrs Ramsey and Lily Briscoe photo credit : Theatermania.com

Lily Briscoe is probably the person that Virginia Woolf most identifies with in this novel. She is often the voice of Virginia Woolf  in the novel. Lily is preoccupied with gender and art and is different in appearance. Her Chinese eyes inspired a book in themselves. ‘Lily Briscoe’s Chinese Eyes’ traces the romance of Virginia’s nephew Julian Bell with writer Ling Shuhua.

Lily is an artist, a painter first and foremost. Virginia Woolf has the artist in the form of a painter, her sister was a painter. Painters capture in paints as authors capture in words.  Lily is trying to paint Mrs Ramsey and James and her project continues for the ten years of the novel. It is almost a mini story in the big story as we have been discussing in the Iliad. Her work reflects the whole story of “To The Lighthouse.” She tries to capture the essence of Mrs Ramsey but “she made no attempt at likeness”.

Lily has a hard time in society. She can turn on the charm when she has to and she can connect with other people, but she has a had time in society, particularly men. She gets impatient with men, with their need for attention, for compliments for what Virginia Woolf called sympathy. Lily wants to do her art and not have to please people. This is something that frustrates Mr Tansley as Lily will not submit to him. Her superior social training gets the better of him.

Mrs Ramsey as a matchmaker wants Lily to be married. She thinks that Lily should marry William Banks.  Lily has a supportive and non sexual relationship with William that lasts many years but doesn’t want to get married.

For at any rate, [Lily] said to herself……..she need not marry, than Heaven: she need not undergo that degradation  She was saved from that dilution. She would move the tree rather more to the middle.

Lili’s relationship with William is a mirror of the relationship that Woolf herself had with her husband.

Bright young things of the 1920’s Photo Credit ; mylusciouslife.com

She wants to do her art and she’s trying to get it right. For her as a painter this means finding the proper relation, the proper distance to the object  that she’s trying to depict.Virginia Woolf makes her artist,Lily, a painter because so much about a painter is finding the appropriate distance.  Lily is always trying to find what is the appropriate distance. That, for Virginia Woolf is such a powerful metaphor. How do you connect to other people do you, like James want to be submerged in your mother? Do you want to just merge and become one? That could be disastrous, it could lead you to psychosis, if you just lose your complete identity in someone. If you’re just distant and aloof and never connect to anybody, that’s a lonely and thin existence. How do you find the right place in relation to other people and in relation to other objects? That’s the painterly problem, and  the human problem for Virginia. How do we connect to others, what is intimacy and how do we achieve it without losing ourselves or submerging someone else?

Mister Ramsey

MisterRamsay is such an interesting figure as he strides around the house on the coast. He chews his pipe and he’s cogitating as he tries to understand the world and knowledge. In so doing he seems blind to lots of things around him but suddenly he wakes up and sees them again.  Mister Ramsay is loved and he is hated. He arouses strong emotions.

On the second page of chapter six  Mister Ramsay is saying to his wife, there wasn’t the slightest chance they could go to the lighthouse the next day. He snapped that out irascibly. How did he know, she asked. The wind often changed, Mrs.Ramsay, said the wind can change, which is true, although, all the indications are that it won’t. The extraordinary irrationality of her remark, the folly of women’s minds,enraged him. He had ridden through the valley of death,been shattered and shivered and now,she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out of the question, in effect, told lies. He stamped his foot on the stone step.Damn you, he said. But what had she said? Simply that it might be nice tomorrow, that it might be fine tomorrow. So, it might. Not with the barometer falling and the wind due west. In the next paragraph, we’re not told who’s thinking, it just switch points of view:-

To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings. To rend the thin veils of civilization so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that,without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water,bespatter her un-rebuked. There was nothing to be said.

This is a very important thing for Mrs. Ramsey. “There was nothing to be said” . Some things you should just know by her presence. Mister Ramsey stood by her in silence.Very humbly, at length, he said that he would step over and ask the Coastguards if she liked. There was no one who she reverenced as she reverenced him. This is a little passage in this glorious novel, but it shows you the dynamic of these two people. She’s filled with love that he’s willing to bend even what he knows .That’s this dynamic of this novel. He is an analytic philosopher. Someone asks what kind of philosophy he does, one of the children says, he’s the kind, he wonders whether or he investigates tables, and things like that, that is he, he wants to know whether things are really there when no one’ s there, or  is there a sound in the room when no one’s there listening? These are the questions, they are ontological and epistemological questions that Mister Ramsey worries about.

He s talks about his mind as like the keys of a piano.

 It was a splendid mind.  For if thought is like the keyboard of a  piano, divided into so many notes, or  like the alphabet is ranged into 26  letters all in order, then his splendid  mind had no sort of difficulty in running  over those letters one by one, firmly and  accurately, until it had reached, say,  the letter Q.  He reached Q.  Very few people in the whole of England ever reached Q.  Here he stops and he thinks.  Why the geraniums?  How do I get to R?

This is Bertrand Russell’s problem and  the problem of a lot of philosophers who answer  questions in the history of philosophy,  they think, and then get to questions for  which they can’t find the answer. It seems like the limit of  their mind.  They’re not looking for data, they’re  looking for logic and for arguments, they’re closing their eyes and  thinking really hard. Mr.  Ramsey is trying to get to ‘R’, closing  his eyes, and thinking really hard.  It’s too bad he closes his eyes so much  because he’s married to Mrs.  Ramsey.

Mrs Ramsey

The first  thing that everybody notices  about Mrs Ramsey is that she is the most  beautiful person that most people have  seen.  This is very important for Virginia  Woolf.  The physical beauty of this mother  figure.  You know that she walks  into room, you just look at her and say, oh my  goodness she’s just beautiful.  Men find her beautiful, women find her  beautiful.  Children think she’s lovely.  She has  that charisma of physical beauty which  allows her to do certain  things.  When she says, will you walk with me to  town?  People say, well, okay, and then they like it. It  also makes it hard for her, because every  time she walks into a room, whatever she  says people are thinking my gosh, she’s  so beautiful, and not maybe listening in  the same way as they would to another  person.

She lives for relationships, for her children, for her  husband.  She seems to need to make connections.   She likes to couple up people, she makes matches.  She wants to connect people.  You don’t have to be that much of a  Freudian to see that she’s  the Freudian Eros, the combinatory force.  She wants to combine things, bring things  together into perfect dinners, into  perfect love life matches, into  friendship.  She wants things to, to cohere, whereas  Mr Ramsay’s an, an analyst, he pulls  things apart to see how they work.   Mrs.  Ramsay wants things to cohere in her  beauty, actually facilitates coherence.  That’s something very important for  Virginia Woolf she doesn’t  really explain why, but  beauty facilitates coherence, things that  are fair and lovely, come together, hold  together, and Mrs.  Ramsey holds things together.  So a, a great question that the novel  asks is this question of what is real,  which is one that Mr Ramsey asks through,  throughout the novel.  We get different answers to that question in the novel.   This is a scene in  chapter nine in the first part of the  novel.  Lily is looking up at Mrs. Ramsey and, and trying to make sense of  what she sees.

Was it wisdom?  Was it knowledge?  Was it once more the deceptiveness of  beauty, so that all one’s perceptions,  half way to truth, were tangled in a  golden mesh?  Or did she lock up within her some secret  which certainly Lily Briscoe believed  people must have for the world to on at  all?  Lily continues, skipping a little bit………..,  what art was there known to love or  cunning?  By which one pressed through, though into  those secret chambers.  What device for becoming, like waters  poured into a jar, inextricably the same,  one with the object one adored?   Could the body achieve, or the mind?  Subtly mingling in the intricate passages  of the brain or the heart.  Could loving, as people called it, make  her and Mrs.  Ramsey one?  Could loving make two people one?  For it was not knowledge but unity that  she desired.

That’s the underlying thing  for our purposes.  Not knowledge, but unity that Lily  desires,” not inscriptions on tablets,  nothing that could be written in any  language known to men, but intimacy  itself, which is knowledge, she thought,  leaning her head on Mrs.  Ramsey’s knee.  How do we touch other people, sealed as  we are”.  This is the phrase of Virginia Woolf’s,  in the novel.  “How do you know someone else.”  How do you know, as Mr.  Ramsey says, what is real?  Mr.  Ramsey thinks you can understand  philosophically what is real by analysing  things to see ‘what’s really real’.  Mrs Ramsey tries to get at what is real  by connecting to it.  by enfolding other things in what’s  called in the book a web of love.  It was love that brought people together.  That’s the message  of the beginning of, the first part of,  this novel.  It’s this web of love, that connects one  with the other.  Not a logical deduction, but an intimacy  born of affection and art.

Virginia Woolf has characters in To the Lighthouse that are shaken by  this question of what is real.  Mr.  Ramsay is wondering if there’s a table, he has scepticism about objects.  Mrs.  Ramsey wants to know if people really love her or am I just a vain beautiful woman who  gathers people around me for my own  purposes?  Is my husband really a jackass like  everybody seems to think or is he the man  of my life?  How can I know what counts or what would count?  How do I break it down into a problem  that I can wrestle with?  This problem is what is real and in this  sense she gives Mr Ramsey a sense of  reality like her laugh, her poise, her  confidence.  That it was real, the house was full, the  garden below it really is there, Mr.  Ramsey.  You’re not alone because, the flipside of the sceptical  question is am I all alone?  Is there anyone else here  with me or are all these things just  products of my imagination.  Mrs.  Ramsey wants to reassure by her very  presence that no, you’re not alone,  I’m here and I hold everything together.  In doing so, as Woolf writes later in the  passage, she spends herself.  Scarcely a shell of herself left.  She gives so much, reassuring  everyone else that it’s OK, that she  doesn’t have much left.   Because what they want is this world’s  going to hold together, and Mrs Ramsey  provides that affirmation that ‘yes’.

The Fisherman and his Wife

The Fisherman and his wife
Photo credit : Americanliterature .com

There’s a fairy tale that Mrs Ramsay reads to  James in this part of the novel  “The Fisherman and his wife”. This story  involves a fisherman who fishes a  magical fish from the  sea. The fish grants him a wish but his wife wants something more  She wants luxuries, and then she wants more luxuries.  He keeps going back to  the magic fish in the ocean and the  wife keeps saying  get me more, get me more.  Finally she wants to be as powerful as  God.  She wants to create the whole universe and  then it all comes crashing down.  This is not an accident that this is  the fairy tale being told in To the  lighthouse because this is the point of this novel.  We keep asking for more and  more.  We keep wanting greater and greater  things and as we want, and seek greater and  greater things so we move closer to disaster.  Disaster does happen here eventually.  We’re not satisfied with intimacy, we’re not satisfied with connection, we’re not satisfied with these little  stories.  We want to go beyond those things and get  more and more like in the Fisherman’s  Wife.  Mr Ramsey wants some expression of  certainty.  Mrs Ramsey wants him to be happy, to be  in, with her and with her, the family and  just be together. He wants more, and wanting more can lead, as in the  Fisherman’s Wife, to disaster.

The Dinner Party

The Dinner Party

This pursuit of connection as opposed to  knowledge or intimacy as opposed to  knowledge.  is enacted, is performed in  the scene of the dinner  party or the dinner at the Ramsey’s  house, towards the end of the first half  of the novel.  When Mrs Ramsey serves the dinner,  and this is one of the great scenes in twentieth century literature. It’s a scene , in some ways, of  the everyday, they’re all coming in to  dinner, everybody with their  own stories, little kids have been  running around playing, the the  adolescents  have been falling in love are  they going to lose their innocence like  Minty loses her brooch or are they  going to become married couple.  The older people have their own stories and everybody is in their own little world.  That’s the moral of that scene.  Everybody’s in their own little world.  They come together around this dinner  table.   Mrs.  Ramsey has to make a world out of them, and it’s around food and drink.  Lily is in her own world, she’s  maybe thinking  ‘gosh, that salt pot could I  move it here and make it a perfect line’. Mrs.  Ramsey looks at her, at some point and wants her to make  conversation.  In some ways, this is the most banal  of all thing, make conversation, be civil, make  connection.  But, on the other hand, for Virginia Wolf  it’s the key to everything in the web of things  in intimacy.

Mr Ramsey might be at the  edge of the table saying, gosh that is  such nonsense, it’s not really intimacy.  Everybody’s got their own world,  everybody’s doing, doing their  own thing, and he doesn’t  care, he can show them that he really isn’t  connected, and Mrs.  Ramsey is making the connection.  She’s not trying to show it, deduce it,  she’s making connections.   She gets people to be nice, and from  one perspective you can say that she’s creating an illusion, she thinks that what she’s creating is  real.  That’s the question of the novel, is this an illusion or is this real?  It’s real because she makes people pay  attention to each other.  To en-web one another in a circle of  affection and connection.

At the end of the dinner she’s sitting there reading.  Mr Ramsay comes and sits next to her, and  and he wants her to say, I love  you.  Mr Ramsay, is desperate to have  Mrs.  Ramsay say I love you.  They’re in the reading room and  they’re reading, it was actually  Shakespeare Sonnet 98, but what’s  important here is that is that Mrs Ramsey doesn’t want to have to actually say  words that declare who she is and how she  feels.  She wants him to feel her love through intimacy, not through language  and she’s got her needle, she’s  doing her sewing and, and he, Mr.  Ramsay needs this reassurance from her.  She feels him looking, he tells her “you won’t  finish that stocking tonight”.  She says, no, I won’t, I shan’t finish it.  She felt  that he was looking at her but that his  look had changed.  He wanted something, as men tend to in  Virginia Woolf novels.  He wanted something, wanted the thing she  always found it so difficult to give him.  Wanted her to tell him that she loved him  and that she could  not do.  He found talking so much easier than she  did.  He could say things, she never could.  So naturally, it was always he that said  the things.   Then, for some reason, he would mind  this suddenly, and he would reproach her.  A heartless woman, he called her.  She never told him that she loved him but  it was not so, it was only that she could never say what  she felt.

Was there no crumb on his coat?  Nothing she could do for him?  Getting up, she stood at the window with  the reddish-brown stocking in her hands,  partly to turn away from him, partly because she remembered how  beautiful it often is, the sea at night.  But she knew that he had turned his head  as she turned.  He was watching her.  She knew that he was, what he was  thinking.  You are more beautiful than ever and she  felt herself very beautiful.  Will you not tell me just for once that  you love me?  He was thinking that for he was roused,  what with Minta and his book and its  being the end of the day and their having  quarrelled about going to the Lighthouse.  But she could not do it, she could not  say it.  Then, knowing that he was watching her,  instead of saying anything she turned,  holding her stocking and looked at him.  And as she turned at him she began to  smile.  For though she had not said a word, he  knew, of course he knew, that she loved  him.  He could not deny it even he could not  deny it.  Smiling she looked out of the window  and said, thinking to herself,  nothing on earth can equal this  happiness.  Yes, you were right,  it’s going to be wet tomorrow, you won’t  be able to go.  And she looked at him smiling.  For she had triumphed again, she had not said it yet he knew, even Mr Ramsey knew, she had  not said  it yet he knew.

That’s what’s real, a love that doesn’t have to be spoken in  words, and that’s what’s shattered in the  next section of the book.

World War One 

That was the  romantic ending of the first  section and in the next section ‘time  passes’, the people seem to be gone except for small  parentheses, time passes and it is this  down-pouring of immense darkness.  Of course that is World War One,  that’s what ‘time passes’ is about.  The whole family, the whole of Europe,  the whole of Virginia Woolf’s civilization  is disrupted.  As Ezra Pound said, put it this way,

There  died a myriad, and of the best among  them, for an old bitch gone in the teeth  for a botched civilization.

World War One cannot be overestimated in its catastrophic importance for  European culture.  In single battles, like the Battle of  Verdun, hundreds of thousands of people  were killed, in the Battle of  the Somme, hundreds of  thousand. One battle lasted a long time, hundreds of thousands were killed, millions, between ten and 13 million  people died in battle in World War One.  In some countries like France, six out of  ten people of fighting age were killed  or wounded.  Everyone knew people whose lives were  shattered.  74 million people were mobilized in World  War One.  Right after the war in 1918 to 1919, there was an influenza  epidemic that killed even more people, some say twice as many as the war did.

All of these concerns about what  is real, what is intimacy, love,  connection, all of a sudden they seem  shattered by this act of violence that  was so senseless.  Virginia Woolf’s friends tended to be  pacifists, they didn’t want to fight, but  most of Europe was happy to go off to  war, it seemed.  They were enthusiastic, they went off to  war they took their poems with them, they  thought it was going to be brief and  glorious and it was ugly and dirty and  disgusting and served no real purpose.  World War One completely changed Europe’s  position in the world, undermining it forever, or at least undermining the position that  it had.  For the colonized people under the  thumb of European domination, they may say  it was a good thing, but for European culture for the  things that we’re studying World War One made it apparent how the pursuit of the  traditional questions, even those of the  enlightenment, was no protection against  the insane brutality and violence of War.

In the end of ‘To the lighthouse’ this  subject  is dealt with, obliquely.  What’s left?  What remains, after the war?  Lily  when she’s back  on the coast  with what’s left of the Ramsey family she says that   the mirror is broken, she  says that there’s  no point in  walking on the beach and looking for an  epiphany about the meaning of life or  about how things hold together.  There’s no point in trying to, to make  all of these connections universally  that nothing seemed capable of the  kind of coherence people dreamed about  before this awful, awful outbreak of  violence.  Lilly as she thinks about life and art  finally looks around and asks ‘what is  the meaning of life?’  That was all, a simple question.

One has tended to close in on, with this  question with the years.  The great revelation had never come.  The great revelation perhaps never did  come, instead there were little daily  miracles, illuminations, matches struck  unexpectedly in the dark.  Here was one, there was the other.

That’s really what’s left for Virgina  Woolf. At the end of the novel you understand the  points of connection, points of  illumination but there is no great revelation.

At the end of the book James and his sister  are in the boat with their father going  out to the lighthouse, finally.  They’re filled with hatred for their  father but they also have this experience  of love.  They know he’s tyrannical, and that he’s,  he’s a  caricature of a man in many respects but  he is their father.  They can’t help but feel the pull of  love toward him, and as James reflects  towards the end of the novel, things  are never just one thing.  The lighthouse isn’t just one thing it is both just a mere  lighthouse and it’s also a symbol.  His father is a tyrant and he was also  his daddy and the man who loved his mother.  Things are never one thing, another  important, conclusion at the end of the  book.

So much depends then, thought Lily Briscoe, looking at the sea which had  scarcely a stain on it, which was so soft  that the sails and the clouds seemed set  in blue, so much depends, she thought,  upon distance: whether people are near us  or far from us; for her feeling for Mr.  Ramsay changed as he sailed further and  further across the bay.  People are never one thing, lighthouses  are never one thing, they are different  things to us depending on our distance to  them, depending on our connectivity with  them.

This is the lesson that Lily  comes to at the end of the  novel.  Her problem was trying to get hold of something  that evaded her.  This is Lily thinking as she makes her  painting.

It evaded her when she thought of Mrs  Ramsey; it evaded her now when she  thought of her picture.  Phrases came, visions came, beautiful  pictures.  Beautiful phrases.  But what she wished to get hold of,  here’s our key.  What she wished to get hold of was that  very jar on the nerves.  The thing itself before it had been made  anything.  Get that and start afresh.  Get that and start afresh.  She said desperately, pitching herself  firmly against her easel.  She wanted to get hold of the thing  itself, that very jar on the nerves.

Notice the reference back to  Kant, the ‘thing in itself concept’.  Lily wants to get the thing before we make  it into something else, before we distort it with our conception, before we distort it with our categories.  She wants to get at it, that very ‘jar on  the nerves‘.  Not because it gives you the really real,  not because it gives you a foundation, not because it gives you the meaning of  life.  It’s just a small match in the dark.  It’s just some connection some feeling  of intimacy that is precious.  It is a ‘good’ in itself to go back to GE  Moore.  It doesn’t hang together with everything  else.  At the end of the novel Lily wants,  from ordinary experience, to feel that  very ‘jar on the nerves‘.  She’s not looking, (as  Virginia Woolf wasn’t  looking)  for some ultimate meaning, or  some ultimate foundation, but looking for a genuine connection  through a feeling that could be represented or articulated through art.Just like a feeling could be  articulated through intimacy, not deduced, not explained, but felt,  powerfully felt.  That’s what we had to hold on to after ‘Time Passes’, after catastrophe, these  little matches of connection.



  1. […] Modern and Post Modern – Virginia Woolf (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

  2. […] Modern and Post Modern – Virginia Woolf (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

  3. […] Modern and Post Modern – Virginia Woolf (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

  4. Chas Spain says:

    Have greatly enjoyed immersing myself in Virginia Woolf’s work over the past couple of weeks it’s superb to come across this deeper post. Dipping in and out of the novel, on the train, on the tram, with the interruption of work and family duties can be hard. But then it can be reread and reflected on.

    • Louise Taylor says:

      I am so pleased that you came across my post Chas. I loved the in depth explanations that we received on the course for all these wonderful authors and artists.

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