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).