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To the Lighthouse: Experiments in Fiction

To the Lighthouse: Experiments in Fiction

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Published by Anthony Read
How did Virginia Woolf throw aside the literary conventions of her day and create a whole new form of fiction?
How did Virginia Woolf throw aside the literary conventions of her day and create a whole new form of fiction?

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Anthony Read on Jul 04, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Anthony Read
In her diary entry for 26 January 1920, Virginia Woolf expresses a desire
 for a novel with “no scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen.” DiscussWoolf’s formal experiments in ‘To the Lighthouse’. In what ways do they 
reflect the ideas about literature she
articulates in her essay ‘ModernNovels’? 
Virginia Woolf was a heretic of fiction. She swept away the conventions of classical fiction and replaced them
with a brave new world of experimentation. ‘To the Lighthouse’ is a prime example of her experiments
infiction. It contains many new ideas, some which have had lasting impact from the time of publication. Theseideas include time-shifting, consciousness swapping and barren plots. Woolf combined all these in a way thatmade them obvious to close readers, but invisible to those searching for a good story.
One of Woolf’s most obvious ideas is a virtually non
-existent plot. When contrasted against the deeply plotted
novels of Jane Austin and Charlotte Bronte, ‘To the Lighthouse’ seems almost trivial in scope
. This is what
Woolf meant in her essay ‘Modern Novels’: “Is it possible the accent falls a little differently?” (Woolf 1919, pp.
2). An example of her lack of plot is the first three pages of the novel. It begins with Mr. and Mrs. Ramseytrading comments
about the weather “being fine” (Woolf 2000, pp. 7
-8). Any other novelist would find this
benign, almost irrelevant, but Woolf is seeking that “myriad impression” (1919, pp. 2) of life through the
thoughts, not the actions, of the characters.In the introd
uction to the novel, Hermoine Lee shows extracts of Woolf’s diaries, and one section shows herintent perfectly. When discussing ‘To the Lighthouse’, Woolf draws a
shape to visualise the plot (2000, pp.xiv). This shape signifies many things about the novel, including plot density and character thought. We can say
that the beginning and end sections are filled with character’s thoughts but little plot, and the middle is the
opposite. In fact, these detailed thoughts are what drives the novel, as the plot has little interest to close
readers. When Mr. Ramsey muses about knowledge as an alphabet, and he cannot get to “R”, Woolf follows
his thought processes carefully. Any other novelist would cut Mr. Ramsey off after his initial thought andcontinue with the
next movement. Such thoughts are what gives the novel it’s weight, and Woolf uses this topoint forward to postmodernism, where everything can be questioned and turned on it’s head. Perhaps this is
where Woolf and Henry James can be separated: James tries to balance a detailed plot with detailed thoughts.It simply is too much.
Another method that Woolf uses is ‘consciousness shifting’. She mentions her outlook that “every method isright, that expresses what we wish to express” (1919, pp. 3), and nowhere
is this more evident than in thisnovel. It is a highly refined technique that allows the narrator to switch views seamlessly between person toperson. When the narrator of the moment gazes upon someone else, the narration is moved to that character.When
Lily and Mr. Bankes watch Mr. Ramsey “bearing down upon them”, the narration switches from Lily toMr. Bankes, as if the narration had bounced off Mr. Ramsey’s harsh manner to Mr. Bankes’ more cool reading
of his mannerisms (2000, pp. 51).
This method of 
shifting narration means that a lot more can be said in, and between, the characters’ mindsthan physically said. Take Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey’s silent conversation in the final pages of ‘The Window’. Fromthe moment Mr. Ramsey says “you won’t finish that sto
cking to-
night” until Mrs. Ramsey’s final thought (“Shehad triumphed again”), an unclear amount of time passes (2000, pp. 133
-134). It seems as though the couple
are connecting and conversing, but completely silently. How long does this ‘conversation’ tak
e? It is acomplete mystery to us: it may have taken mere seconds, or perhaps hours. This detail is irrelevant to Woolf,
as what truly matters are the characters’ thoughts, what is going on inside their minds. When Woolf says that“the proper stuff of fiction does not exist” (1919, pp. 4), she does not just mean subject matter. She also
means the way in which narration is made; with silence and time. Thoughts truly do speak louder than wordsfor Woolf.
One of Woolf’s more obvious experiments is her affinit
y for shifting time. This is no doubt a product of her
willingness to not explore “this, but that” (1919, pp. 3). Again we turn to the idea of her
-shaped plot. Theshape not only represents the plot and thought density of the three sections, but also the scale of time. From
analysing the shape, we can see that Woolf has started out with a time continuum, a flat plane of ‘real
She has taken this and pinched it in the middle. Thus, time pools at either end of the novel. The first and lastsections are bloated with time, therefore slowing it down, and the middle section has to pass quickly to makeup for it. This idea is a powerful precursor to postmodernism, where everything can be questioned andchallenged, including something as basic and stoic as time.
This changing of the continuity of time demands that readers view each section differently. ‘The Window’ and‘The Lighthouse’ are filled with the thoughts of the characters, and therefore demands a close reading to fully
grasp what they mean. However, Woolf makes this difficult for us. She infuses the writing with a gentle flow,
meaning one can easily gloss over the text and get an overall impression. In comparison, ‘Time Passes’ has
little of these thoughts, and so is filled with the decay of the house. It seems as though the family falls by thewayside, as even some of their eventual deaths are simply reported in square brackets. In fact, Woolf has donethis to lessen the impact of the demise of the Ramseys. We have spent the last section getting to know themintimately, and if their deaths were written in full detail they would no doubt be very affecting. With theirimportance reduced to mere side notes, the impact is lessened and allows the ten years to pass by withoutreal worry.
During ‘Time Passes’, we hear little of the Ramsey clan. The only things we learn about them come from thesquared brackets at the ends of chapters. Woolf allows her “dark region of psychology” (1919, pp. 3) to takeshape by infusing the Ramsey’s house with human qualities. An example of the house ‘speaking’ is when the“loveliness…and stillness” seems to say, “Will you fade? Will you perish?” (2000, pp. 141). Although the house

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