Essentials: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Jared Berg

Jared Berg

Someone once wrote that an old book is a new book if you haven’t read it, or maybe it was any book is a new book if you haven’t read it. The point is that Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse definitely fits the criteria of an old book, yet its message of personal discovery is as important today as it was seventy years ago.

A timeless tale that explores the bigger questions of life through individual art and intellectual thought, To the Lighthouse hits a soft spot in the heart by drawing on our most human emotions pertaining to love, war, and the essence of morality.

Based loosely on Virginia Woolf’s childhood experiences, the story’s colorful cast of characters allows readers to feel as though they are part of the struggle.

The story, set at the summer beach house of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey, searches for the meaning of life through the thoughts of a range of characters including the Ramsey’s eight children, an opium-addicted poet and an abstract artist.

While quite philosophical in nature, To the Lighthouse is a beautifully crafted work of art. Woolf’s stream of consciousness approach to writing contains a limited amount of dialogue, yet thoroughly explores the thoughts of each character, offering a more substantial and rewarding relationship with the text.

Critics say To the Lighthouse is a feminist struggle that clearly captures the conditions of early twentieth century English life. I urge readers to see this novel as a type of history lesson, to better understand the types of roles women played in the past as opposed to the present; to understand why Lily Briscoe’s desire to work on her art and not raise a family seems so unusual during this time period.

Almost eighty years after the original expedition, we are still able to embark on our own journey to the lighthouse. To discover just how Mr. Ramsey defines the nature of reality, why Lily Briscoe is so insistent on creating her “moment” in time, and why the philosophical metaphor of thinking of a kitchen table when you’re not there allows us to better understand ourselves and the world in which we live.