Monday, March 31, 2008

To the Lighthouse discussion: The Window, Chapter 1

I first read To the Lighthouse about 6 years ago and I’m looking forward to reading it again. A few chapters into the book I realized how much of the book’s approach and themes permeate the first chapter. I thought reviewing just this one chapter would make writing about the rest of the book easier. In this chapter we are introduced to a few members of the Ramsay family as well as a couple of their guests. Not much happens—a few comments about whether or not a trip to the lighthouse is possible the next day between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay with youngest son James listening. But so much more is going on beneath the surface…

Woolf deliciously describes the complexity of human relationships. It is easy to say that Mrs. Ramsay loves her husband, yet there are moments in this short chapter where she wishes he would be more compromising for the sake of the children or that he would simply go away. Her daughters love her as well, but they dream of a very different life for themselves. And Charles Tansley doesn’t know how to act as the Ramsay’s guest—pride at accompanying Mrs. Ramsay one minute, insulting her children the next, all the while uncomfortable staying with those in a different social and economic class. James’ fleeting wish to kill his father highlights the extremes of personality reflected in a six-year-old child. While we tame that volatility (to varying degrees) as we mature, our feelings and moods do not remain static or simplistic. One interesting thing to watch in the book is what the characters respond to…how they define themselves.

The power of time is introduced here as well. The narration style conveys that we are not limited to this moment, but the product of preceding actions (and anticipation of the future) that color whatever is currently happening. Once again, James is the rawest form of this as his conflation of present and future dictates how he feels. Mrs. Ramsay’s fading beauty at fifty shows an outward impact of time, while Augustus Carmichael’s opium addiction reflects an inner toll. Not just time, but nature has a power that allows or restricts what can be achieved. Whether the trip is made to the lighthouse or not depends on the weather. When focusing on the inner monologue, it can be easy to miss the outside forces shaping us.

Having just finished Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I found certain similarities and differences telling. Like Joyce, Woolf puts us inside the characters’ minds, reading what they think and feel. However, the perspective constantly changes as we “jump” from one character to another (sometimes in the same sentence), causing a cascade of feelings and thoughts to unfold in a fraction of a second. Also, the level of the language does not change when moving between characters. So when reading James' consciousness, we encounter not the language of a six-year-old child but that of an adult. Just because he can not express precisely what he feels does not make it any less complex or moving. Even though the level of the language does not change, each consciousness is unique.

There are additional things in the first chapter that will be expanded upon later, such as watery images related to nature's power, momentary frissons at beauty, and artistic endeavors trying to capture the moment. The last thing I will focus on in this post is Mrs. Ramsay’s sense of community. She invites “too many people to stay” with them while on vacation. “Incivility to her guests” was something she could not bear, along with “inventing differences” since there were enough real differences between people. Her nurturing nature wants to draw people together, give them a refuge even if it is only temporary. That all of this unfolds in the first few pages, providing a framework on which the remainder of the book can be constructed, shows the precise formulation that lends so much power to the novel.

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