Monday, 1 August 2016

Rereading To the Lighthouse

About a month before embarking on a fresh new adventure - and a brand new degree - I realized I wasn't reading any books. Like a pilgrim, I was visiting relatives all across India, sharing laughs and memories... and absolutely heavenly food. For a person who had eaten rajma chawal about three times all his life before being thrust into the world that loved them (undergrad onwards) I was living a short blessed sabbatical eating (and gaining weight).

[Despite this I was roughly on a book a week (let me brag about that)]

Only a couple of weeks back I stumbled upon the WSJ book club. It's a massive group with over 7k participants and routinely invites respectable names from the world of literature to talk about their favourite books. Generally, like all Facebook surfing mortals I would have nodded in appreciation before moving back to check the number of likes on my latest post. I didn't do it this time - at least for an hour - because the club chose a book I have been wanting to reread for a long time: Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

It was 3-4 years back that I had gone through the novel while exploring a list investigating the nature of human relationships (the word taken in a broader sense). I recall having liked the book a lot but this feeling was all I remembered. The opportunity had come to reread it.

[Another reason for going forward, for the record, was the author Mark Haddon (famous for a highly recommended book and teenage years favourite The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time) who gave a fascinating interview telling how he found something new every time he read the book.]

My own stab at rereading it made me excited because (unlike last time) the experience resonated with questions I am grappling with these days. This is a feeble attempt at talking about what I felt.

[Other reviews and theses have explored aspects of differences in perspective between the male and the female, the innate subjugation of women to cater to the "needs" of men, as a novel about the "intensity of family holidays", attachment and loss, and the role of subjectivity.]

UPDATE: tl;dr for those who just want the gist of it from my diary
This is a novel about permanence. The female lead was the lighthouse in an otherwise dark house. Now deceased she continues to affect the lives of anyone she touched. Her permanence persists beyond the achievements of her husband, and all the others who have attained some manner of success. Yet the world itself moves on unperturbed and undisturbed thus putting the ephemeral nature of human life in perspective.
UPDATE: Added a dirty summary of the book in case you want to know what the basic story is about. It's at the end.


The meaning of life. That's the eternal question, and one that the novel itself deals with. Intertwined with this is the whole meaning of permanence. These questions are very clearly mulled over by Lily Briscoe - she acts as a third person narrator at times but also as the artist who tries to make sense of the inherent conflict between two dichotomous modes of existence.

I would like to distill the question as this: is the true meaning of life to live a good life in the company of family and friends thus leaving an indelible mark on their lives - as the lighthouse that helps those in its immediate vicinity shining light through darkness? That is the way Mrs Ramsay lived her life.

Or is it to seek glory and ever lasting fame, to try and reach, starting from "A", a letter as close to "Z" as possible? The chances of failure are immense, the fallout from failure being a great loss of morale; it is many times more likely you end up flailing for support. This is the path which Mr Ramsay chose for himself. That he failed (in his own eyes) meant he had to seek compassion from the women around him.

The lighthouse then symbolizes Mrs Ramsay herself, more so after her demise. Her husband undertakes a pilgrimage to that place to reclaim the part of his life he lost. Despite his lofty ambitions and his haughtiness at the petty rigmarole of daily existence, he cannot rid himself of the mark left by his wife; he is a pitiable figure without her. His children bear bitterness against their father borne out of bitterness from their childhood. It was their mother who looked after them and it was she who they remember now.

The family gravitates to the lighthouse - a symbol of permanence that stands despite the family's immense loss. They choose to complete what Mrs Ramsay had sought to do ten years before.

This Big Question doesn't spare Lily Briscoe. She thinks about it by considering the likely fate of her paintings - that they would be wrapped up and stowed away to be possibly forgotten forever. Then why does she do it? Because it gives her fulfillment and joy. And yet, though she think she's different and detached from the world, she recalls that step on which Mrs Ramsay customarily sat, and misses her badly enough to cry out her name in anguish and sorrow.


To the Lighthouse is a short book. In as few pages as these, Virginia Woolf powerfully portrays the complexity of the mind and how perspective changes the way even ordinary events and things look and feel. Yet, I think the lighthouse itself raises deeper questions: what is one's purpose in life, and what really allows you to touch people's lives - through the eternal thirst for glory, or by bringing light to those who hover around your shores?


The Dirty Summary

TTL is divided into three parts. The first part deals with a single day when the Ramsays, a family consisting of Mr and Mrs Ramsay plus eight children, share an afternoon and evening with acquaintances while visiting their summer cottage at the Hebrides. Mrs Ramsay and Mr Ramsay act as counterfoils to each other (this is not the most remarkable part of the book), the former being responsible for holding together the congregation of family and visitors by sheer force of personality. She represents a kind, matronly spirit who clearly identifies and accepts her role as the "woman" of the household (rather in a traditional orthodox sense). Mr Ramsay is more elusive and pensive, constantly going inwards to worry about his achievements while also possessing a love for more intellectual pursuits. We are also introduced to a set of outsiders, the most intriguing of whom is Lily Briscoe, an artist trying to find herself and her painting in all the familial chaos around her.

James, the young child of the Ramsays deeply desires to visit the lighthouse, located a few miles away from their cottage. Mrs Ramsay senses her son's eagerness and wants to take him there but she can't because Mr Ramsay believes bad weather will prevent them from setting sail (he is right but it still irritates his wife and infuriates his son).

The lighthouse is a powerful symbol that resists immediate interpretation but you know (well, you also have the title of the book) that it'll serve an important role.

The second part is a brief interlude where ten years pass. In this time, Mrs Ramsay dies, and so do a couple of the Ramsay children. This part is powerfully written. It relies on none of the characters introduced previously, only giving updates on their lives in brackets, almost as an afterthought.

The third part deals with Mr Ramsay and two of his children returning to the same cottage, now dilapidated and strained by years of neglect and complete absence of in-habitation. Lily Briscoe and some old names join them here. Mr Ramsay wishes to go to the lighthouse and takes his children along with him.

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