If anyone sees holidaying in the presence of the sea as an almost obsessive reality in his or her life Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ will rekindle far emotions of the sights and sounds of the oceans; the different hues the water takes on when seen with the play of lights, from a distance or from near, at different times of the day; the waves crashing hard against the rock or sand of the shore – a mammoth display; the tides risen and uncompromising for frolic at night time and how it remains cool, safe and enchanting during the low tides in the daytime. The moon which influences the high tides has a constant presence, each night in any coastal town or village, and it’s unobtrusive beauty is like that of a sculpted figure in the sky that does not command the exquisiteness that a more serene sight it lends to the night’s air in the inlands. Reading ‘To the Lighthouse’ can be an occupying experience in which the reader may find a way to have a sojourn in his own inner self by the agency of the sea and the lighthouse on its shores. As Virginia herself puts it in her diary – ‘the sea is to be heard all through it’, and that the sea can become the medium of this transportation to the mystical world beyond.
The first thirteen summers of Virginia’s life were spent on the seashore in long vacations at her parents’ spacious holiday home, Talland House, in the small fishing town of St Ives, a breather from the bustle and bad air of London where they lived – a large family with eight children. Her parents had four children from earlier marriages, and four more from their union. Virginia cherished these times during the vacations and her life as depicted at those times, and these forms the core of her book, where the narrative remains constantly by the seaside throughout the novel which is considered a marvel of 20th Century English literature and leaves the reader as if haunted by the tremulous sea and the ‘stark and straight’ lighthouse as also by the writer’s deftness in portraying characters like Mr and Mrs Ramsay. Not only is Mrs. Ramsay a beautiful woman but along with her husband, gives a glimpse of the Victorian values they represent. And this, reflectively, without any dialogues throughout the novel.
Both the characters, as English literature professor David Bradshaw puts it in his essay, are an attempt by Virginia to exorcise the ghost of her parents who had formed the backbone of her early life. And once she has put it in writing for the public to consume, she feels relieved and free from her need to convey form, to her relation with them, as also the relation between the two parents themselves.
Virginia’s fixation with her early life accounts for the same number of, eight in all, children being also present in the Ramsay family. And for all the other characters too the lighthouse is symbolic of their self-discovery, and Lily Briscoe, a painter, is able to put the last strokes on her canvas only at the ending of the book, just when Mr Ramsay, and son James, and daughter Cam are able to reach the lighthouse. This gives meaning to the novel which in its very first sentence has Mrs Ramsay promising her young son James that they would go to the lighthouse in the morning if the weather’s fine, and Mr Ramsay, to James’ ire says it won’t be fine. It is in the light of this sour relation between son and father that the ending of the book is significant.
During the hinted departure from the lighthouse in the second chapter ‘Time Passes’, though the plot remains the same, deaths are caused, and especially after Mrs Ramsay’s death causes a vacuum, one wonders how the book could carry on without her imposing presence. But Lily Briscoe’s arrival at the summer house turns back the book to the feminine vision of art, and leaves an impression of Virginia Woolf’s theme of modernist female suffrage, based on purely aesthetic quality, as against conformity.
The two servants, Mrs McNab and Mrs Bast, are also not faceless facilitators but very much part of Virginia’s description of the civilised world. ‘Time Passes’ was written at the time of the gloom of the General Strike in 1926 when there was danger of a class strife and Virginia at this time expresses desire for a social reconciliation. This evidence couldn’t be better reemployed in the present crisis of migrant labour and workers getting affected in Manipur due to the pandemic. One hopes that the beginning of the pandemic here is not connected with the, at present unforeseeable end in future, by misfortune in the middle period, which is the present now we are living in. Though many deaths take place in the middle of the three chapters, again, the plot could be different in this real life drama we see being enacted at present, if there are no tragic occurrences.
Virginia’s life itself was full of tragic instances. She suffered a breakdown after her mother died in 1895 and another in 1904 when her father passed away. In 1913, just as her first book ‘The Voyage Out’ was accepted for publication, she attempted suicide after she was ill from depression and anorexia. She later set up Hogarth Press along with her husband, after they got married in 1912 after another nervous illness. After completing her last book ‘Between the Acts’ in 1941, her mental condition deteriorated, and unable to face another bout of insanity, she drowned herself in the River Ouse.
Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ is all the more relevant today at this time of Covid-19 outbreak when death and disease stalk, and the sometimes eerie figure of the lighthouse with its play of light and shade falling on the steps and doormats of Talland House, and the gusts of wind stealing their way in, making the floorboards creak and doors swing as they find their way to the nooks and crannies of the run down structure in the second chapter, puts up serious questions on the biggest human crisis of this age. All humour seems wry in the face of the mass disturbance and already the social media is abuzz that many could be affected by the medical and health fallout of this pandemic. Mental illness due to the long period of confinement could prove to be aggravating because, even without the pandemic, it has seen a quantum jump in figures in Manipur. One can only say like anybody else is doing – ‘Stay Safe’ – and hope for the virus to tide over, just as the lighthouse is a beacon of hope found in the ending of ‘To the Lighthouse’.