Have you ever stopped to think what other people are thinking? Have you ever felt the need to write a hundred pages obsessing over it? Virginia Woolf did, in her 1927 book To the Lighthouse. This work of modernism uses stream of consciousness to communicate a standard story through the disjointed thoughts of several of the book’s major and minor characters.
The book has three parts. The first section shows the Ramsay family and those in the house with them discussing various things, including whether Mr. Ramsay will take some of his kids by boat to a nearby lighthouse. In the third part, Mr. Ramsay finally takes two of his sons across the water to see the lighthouse up close. The middle section is a non-stream-of-consciousness block showing the passage of the ten years between the other two parts. That’s right, it took the Ramsay’s ten years to make a decision about the trip.
Why did it take them so long? Perhaps it’s because they couldn’t get past all the introspection and thinking and worrying about what other people were introspecting and thinking and worrying. The bookend sections of the text are thick with “he thought, she thought.” I kept expecting to see “Tim Patrick thought…” show up somewhere, what with all the competing thoughts from so many different people filling each page.
It’s useful to know what characters are thinking, especially in a book that tries to troll the depths of human understanding. And this book does take seriously its role in trolling such depths. I think Woolf does accomplish her goal of communicating the story in a classic-worthy manner. But it’s still a pain to read. Something as simple as a question posed by a character can be a chore to read because the answer might not show up until two chapters later, one of which takes place in another character mind several miles away.
To the Lighthouse is certainly essential reading from a literary perspective. There is nothing else in the Well-Read Man project quite like it. But I still don’t recommend that you read it, at least not just once. Attack it five or six times with a spreadsheet at your disposal to help you figure out which character’s thoughts begin each sentence and which one’s end it. Then, like the proverbial lighthouse itself, the flashes of light might just invade your mind. Assuming you have room in there with all that messy introspection.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.