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To the Lighthouse
By Virginia Woolf




Relationships within the

Ramsay Family
By Joanne Gray
Family relationships is a topic we can all
relate to in one way or another. In
Virginia Woolfs To the Lighthouse, either in
the novel or Colin Greggs adaptation, the
reader or viewer, experiences the
Ramsays trials and tribulations of an
ordinary life which, at the time of
publishing in 1927, were typical, by this I
mean patriarchal in structure. To the
Lighthouse has no traditional plot and
therefore challenges conventional
concepts of story and plot, (Hawthorn,
2010: p70) but consists of characters
emotions and feelings, family experiences
and memories, told by a third person
omniscient narrator, that are written in a
modernist style by using various forms of
poetic expression, (2010: p70) such as
rhythmic sentences which flow to generate
a mood that will arouse the readers senses.
Woolf creates an intimate perspective with
a stream of consciousness technique and
mirrors painterly writing, indicating that
shape and colour can be used to capture a
characters personality. In order to
experience the same interpretation of the
novel created by these writing techniques,
adaptations need to establish ways of
producing the same effect, or do they? Is it
even possible? Is it necessary for them to
remain true to the source text in order to
be any good? This article will examine
whether Greggs 1983 film, in specific the

opening scene, has managed to accomplish

a worthy portrayal of the novel.
They judge the adaptation a success
only to the extent that it is faithful to the
original, or rather, the critics idea of the
original, which itself is already an
interpretation. (Whitworth 2005: p196)

Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on
January 25th 1882 and during childhood
enjoyed her yearly family holiday to
Cornwall where she visited Godrevy
Lighthouse, which appears to be the idea
behind the setting for To the Lighthouse.


Her parents were Leslie and Julia Stephen

who were possibly models for Mr and Mrs
Ramsay and she had seven siblings, so
eight children in total just as in the novel.
Her sister Vanessa, was a painter, as is Lily
Briscoe, Julia Stephen died suddenly, as
does Mrs Ramsay, and therefore it is easy
to link an autobiographical connection to
the novel. In 1912, Virginia married
Leonard Woolf who was a writer and
publisher (Bloomsbury Group), To the
Lighthouse was published in May 1927 and
she drowned herself in the River Ouse in
March 1941.

The Novel
To the Lighthouse has been described as
having a triadic structure,


Part two, Time Passes, focuses on a ten

year period but is the shortest section of
the novel.
The sudden death of Mrs Ramsay, a central

Time is condensed as the narrative uses

elements of nature to describe the sudden
death of Mrs Ramsay, the death of Andrew
in the Great War, Prue dying in childbirth
and the decaying of their summer house.
Prue dies in childbirth.

Two blocks joined together by a

corridor. (Goldman, 2006: p58)
Part one, The Window (the longest part of
the novel), takes place in just one
September afternoon/evening whilst the
Ramsays are on holiday with guests at
their summer house on the Isle of Skye, west
coast of Scotland. The narrative discourse
explains extensively, how James, the
youngest child, wishes to go across to the
lighthouse but is repeatedly and forcefully
denied the trip by his father, then consoled
by his mother. Lily begins a painting of
Mrs Ramsay. Finally, the evening and part
one climaxes with Mrs Ramsays dinner
party, expanding temporality whilst
building tension within the characters
relationships with use of interior monologue
as well as different character perspectives
to construct a stream of consciousness,
(Winston, 2009: p43).


Part three concludes with the surviving

Ramsays and Lily, returning to the summer
house to visit the lighthouse and Lily finishes
her painting.
Lilys finished artwork


Close Reading Relationships

The novel begins with the answer to a
question which the reader has to assume
was James asking his mother if they could
go to the lighthouse.
Yes, of course, if its fine tomorrow,
said Mrs Ramsay. But youll have to be
up with the lark, she added. (Woolf, 1999:

Mrs Ramsays response implies that she is

the peacemaker of the family, she creates
a balance and blends the family together,
similarly, with artistic techniques as
blending colour has a balancing, natural
effect in art, linking to the painterly style
of writing Woolf wanted to use. Mrs
Ramsay has no way of knowing whether
they will go to the lighthouse but she
understands Jamess intense desire to go
there and tries to prevent disappointment
as it is important to her to keep everyone
happy as she cares about the other
characters feelings.
To her son these words conveyed an
extraordinary joy, [] the wonder to
which he had looked forward, for years
and years it seemed, [] within touch.
(Woolf, 1999:p3)

James is delighted with her response, it

seems as if it is just what he wanted to
hear. The third person narrator tells us he
had been looking forward to the trip for
years and years which has to be an
exaggeration as he is only six year old but
Mrs Ramsays answer has made him feel
extremely happy as her words were
heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy.
(1999: p3). By narrating Jamess interior
thoughts, we are able to feel the kind of
relationship he has with Mrs Ramsay, feel


his emotions, see her from his perspective

and conveying her as a kind, loving, proud
and nurturing mother. Woolf later
enforces his desire and Mrs Ramsays
comforting manner;
Perhaps you will wake up and find
the sun shining and the birds singing,
she said compassionately, smoothing the
little boys hair, for her husband, []
had dashed his spirits she could see.
This going to the lighthouse was a
passion of his, she saw, (Woolf, 1999: p11).
Mrs Ramsay does not want to see James
upset and Woolfs vocabulary enhances
the loving relationship between mother and
son. The discourse switches from Mrs
Ramsay speaking to James as she tries to
lift his spirits, to the narrator telling us Mrs
Ramsays thoughts, how she can see the
desperation in James, in his need to visit to
the lighthouse.
However, the readers first encounter with
Mr Ramsay is when he interrupts the
moment with, But, to override the joyous
situation Mrs Ramsay has created for
But, said his father, stopping in front
of the drawing-room window, it wont be
fine. (Woolf, 1999:p3).
This juxtaposes the readers perception of
Mr and Mrs Ramsay. The narrator has
shown and told us that Mrs Ramsay is
compassionate and caring, takes others
into consideration yet the way Mr Ramsay
enters the conversation, abruptly and
negative shows him to be the opposite of
his wife, what Janet Winston calls a
Marriage of opposites, (2009: p47). Mr
Ramsay likes to be truthful regardless of
the consequences to the characters feelings


as he clearly demonstrates not only with his

negative vocabulary but also by
contradicting Mrs Ramsay, by trying to
make her look foolish to James. Jakob
Lothe points out that to add insult to his
utterance, he stops in front of the window
which blocks the view of the lighthouse that
James had which infuriates his son as not
only is his father denying him the visit, he
also denies him the view of the lighthouse
that he was enjoying, making Mr Ramsays
actions and words more significant. (2000:

Woolf uses the narrator to invite the

reader to sympathise with James, [] a
way of influencing the reader, (Lothe,

The narrator then tells us of Jamess

murderous thoughts about his father and
then switches to tell of Mr Ramsays facial
expression, grinning sarcastically,
(1999:p3) before changing back to Jamess
thoughts indicated by parenthesis to help
the us establish whose thoughts they are,
which tell us how he feels about his parents.
Mrs Ramsay is;
[T]en thousand times better in every
way than he was. (Woolf, 1999: p3)
This technique, where the narrator switches
perspective is known as narrative
distancing, which assists the discourse in
being more critically revealing (Lothe,
2000: p202). The addition of Mr Ramsays
action aids in stimulating emotions within us
as if this was not part of the discourse, if
we did not know he was grinning
sarcastically it would not have the same
effect, we would not be able to feel the
anger within James. The complicated
oedipal triangle is obvious from the very


Colin Greggs Adaptation

In 1926, Virginia Woolf herself wrote an
essay titled The Cinema in which she
stated that film has not got the ability to
convey character thoughts or emotions that
are written in novels, played within music
or created within art and therefore should
not attempt to do so. (Woolf, 2009: p174).
Film is a parasite and literature is its
prey and victim, stated Woolf.
(Hutcheon, 2006: p3). She thought perhaps in
the future this might change.
Greggs film, made in 1983, attempted to
create an adaptation of the novel. Did he
do it successfully? In my view that depends
whether the deviation from the novel
allows the adaptation to become
successful. Adaptions, according to Julie
Saunders, involve a directors personal
vision, (2005: p2) whilst having a variable
level of intertextuality with the source text.
So how do they compare? First, the setting
has changed to St Ives, Cornwall, which
gives the film a more autobiographical
feel. The films opening scene does not
identically replicate the beginning of the
novel, but of course changes have to be
made somewhere. What does need to
happen is, we as viewers need to see,
hear and feel the tension within the
characters and how will film convey this?


The opening shot is a close up of Cam

asleep, then cuts to James, staring out of a
window at night, he rubs his eyes indicating
his tiredness at still been awake, perhaps
as he cannot sleep for some reason. It
remains for a few seconds to highlight the
importance before cutting to an
establishing shot of the lighthouse and we
as viewers presume this is what he was
looking at, showing the characters
perspective and make the connection of its
importance to him along with the nondiegetic title displayed onscreen.
The film begins at the breakfast table and
the camera is behind Mr Ramsay, slightly
higher than eye-line conveying his
authority. We view Mrs Ramsay whilst
hearing screams from James as he is told to
eat his food. We interpret this as James
not being happy for some reason, as he is
not sat at the table having breakfast with
everyone and he is refusing to eat. Mrs
Ramsay looks in the direction of Mr
Ramsay, then to the ceiling and leaves the
table to attend to James, going off-screen.
The camera pans left around the table until
it reaches Mr Ramsay and we get a side
profile close up shot of him.
The camera cuts to the bedroom where Mrs
Ramsay kneels to console an upset James
wearing a sailor outfit and the camera
dollys in to make the characters larger in
the frame showing how loving and
important their relationship is and
highlighting his despair. Mrs Ramsay hugs
and kisses James saying, I know, I know,
there will be another day and when you
go, you must be up with the lark.
Back at the breakfast table, now with Mr
Ramsay in the background and Lily in the
foreground, both are in focus. Lily says,




James thwarted again. An indication it

has happened before. Prue, in shot
responds, Im afraid so. Mr Ramsay joins
the conversation;
That boy will have learn that we
cannot plan our lives around what he
wants to do.
These words are of significance to show
control and authority over his family, in a
similar way to his action of blocking the
view of the lighthouse does in the novel.
Mrs Ramsay returns to the table with James
and puts him on her knee. James has a
scowling expression whilst glaring across
the table at his father. The camera cuts to
a close up in order for us to see Mr
Ramsay from his perspective, the camera
used for focalization, before cutting back
to a close up of James and the shot lasts
for a few seconds to create an effect,
signalling to the viewer the hatred he feels
for his father, with gloomy non-diegetic
music playing for strengthening his mood.
Godrevy Lighthouse 1890 G

Novel and film begin differently as I have
shown, as it is difficult in film to show and
tell internal thoughts and feelings that are
written in the narrative discourse. As Katie
Mitchell suggests,
Readers build pictures of characters,
places and events in their heads while
they read. (Winston, 2009: p93).
I am sure that we have all read a book,
then seen the film, only to be disappointed
that the actor chosen does not represent
our own image, so it is important to view
with an open mind, although if you see a
film first and then read the novel, you
would visualise the actors on-screen as you

read. The novel isGGgmbk

classified as what
Roland Barthes refers to as a writerly
text, requiring us to fill in the gaps
mentally as we read, which is also required
when watching the film. (Winston, 2009: p41).



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Sanders, J. and S, J. (2005) Adaptation and appropriation. New York: Taylor & Francis.
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Publishing Group.
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Woolf, V. (2009) Selected essays. Edited by David Bradshaw. Oxford: Oxford University Press.