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Saying Simply

Reading To the Lighthouse


Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is difficult reading IN PLACES.

But it is plain sailing in others, and one shouldn’t get into the habit of expecting difficulty and obscurity each time one embarks on a new paragraph (like expecting that someone with an imperfect grasp of one’s language will be unintelligible when he or she asks one a question).

The sixty-seven pages of Part III (by the time one come to them) are lucid. They are the most beautiful long stretch of writing in fiction in English.

Have I read all the other fiction in English? No, of course not, but I have never come upon anything resembling these pages, and if there is something finer elsewhere in English, I have no idea where it might be.

I say “in English.” In French there is Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.


The difficult parts of To the Lighthouse are mainly in Part I.

Sometimes to know why something that one is reading is difficult—I mean, to perceive the nature of the difficulties—is as important as knowing (or being told ) what is being “said.”

One or two opening tips.

Read pencil in hand and mark as you read.

Mark each time the point of view shifts from one character to another (maybe circling the names of the characters).

Mostly the shifts occur at the start of a section, picking up on some cue at the end of the previous one.

Occasionally they occur inside a section (a lot of shifting goes on in section 17 of Part I), or even inside a single paragraph.


While you’re reading Part I, don’t expect anything to “happen” in a conventional novelistic sense. The only thing that “happens” is that Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle get engaged, and they are minor characters.


Read I/1 particularly carefully, not because it is especially important (there are much finer stretches later) but because it comes first in the book and to establish a few bearings early is good practice.

Number each paragraph consecutively with a letter of the alphabet. (By my count there are 27 paragraphs.)


By a careful reading, I don’t mean one in which one is on the alert for deep meanings, major symbols, subtle giveaways with respect to what a character is really like.

The prose of this section isn’t like that.

For that matter, nor is most of the prose that follows.

Woolf is not a writer who hides her meanings and “messages.” On the contrary, she keeps spelling things out.

In comparison with Mansfield, she is positively victorian in her explicitness.


The subtlety and complexity lie not in this or that particular image of symbol—she denied that she was a symbolist—but in the flow-forward of the prose and the interactions that keep occurring in it.

When I say read carefully, I am speaking of reading with an eye to how the exposition is occurring, a concern with the prose sense of what one is reading, an unworried alertness to points at which a straightforward narrative progression is lost, so that if you were asked to summarize in your own words what happens next, and next, and next you might have trouble with the sequence.

If you do not get hold of the novel at this basic level, the odds are that you will have trouble with it in other ways and enjoy it less than you might.


The first time through I/1, you must keep going—keep forging forward. You mustn’t stop and bog down. Parts are perfectly clear, and you will come to them.

You may wish to keep going beyond I/1. By all means do so. One learns by doing—learns (which is to say, assimilates aspects of) Woolf’s “language” in this novel.

The second time through I/1, though, be more analytical.


Part of the problem with this section is that some of the sentences are long and elaborate, with multiple parentheses, and/or elaborate parallelism, and/or the development of a simply opening statement by an elaborate series of subordinate clauses and phrases hooked on to one another.

But the section is also difficult because not all the sentences are like that, so that when one embarks on a new paragraph, one can’t be sure in advance what kind of structure it will have.

There may well be a run of short sentences.

However, there is a LIKELIHOOD that sentences will lengthen as a paragraph proceeds.

You don’t need to take my word for that, though. Instead, take your pencil and draw lines down the sides of the paragraphs in this section to indicate the lengths of the sentences.

That way, you can have an overview and note some of the varieties of pacing and structuring that go on.


Here is a sentence from the second paragraph.

(a) The wheelbarrow,

the lawn-mower,

             the sound of poplar trees,

                         leaves whitening before rain,

                                     rooks cawing,

                                                 brooks knocking,

                                                             dresses rustling—

all these were so coloured and distinguished in his mind

(b) that he had already

his private code,

his secret language,

(c) though he appeared the image of stark and uncompromising severity,

             with his high forehead

             and his fierce blue eyes,

(d) so that his mother

                         watching him guide his scissors neatly round the refrigerator,

                         imagined him

                                     all red and ermine on the Bench

                         or directing a stern and momentous enterprise

                                                 in some crisis of public affairs.

I have not indicated all the syntactical parallelisms. There are four more of it.


Notice how in a single not very long sentence we have moved from a number of very specific concrete things at the outset to something very large and abstract (“directing a stern and momentous enterprise in some crisis of public affairs”) that one couldn’t (if asked in advance) imagine being connected with those things.

Notice, too, how it isn’t a steady progression from concrete to abstract. Elsewhere in the sentence we have shiftings between abstractions and concretions.

“Stark and uncompromising severity” is followed by “high forehead and fierce blue eyes.”

The concluding abstraction is preceeded by the concrete image of a High Court judge in his fur-trimmed red robe, trying a case.

And the most specific concrete statement in the passage (“watching him guide his scissors round the refrigerator”) comtrasts with the abstract immediately-following phrase “imagined him.”


How are things held together syntactically? Or, more poetically, how does Woolf work her magic? Or, more prosaically, how does she bring the trick off?

In effect we have several different areas or units here, which I have tried to indicate with my spacing. Several different “facts,” perhaps. Here is a rewriting of the sentence.

The wheelbarrow,

the lawn-mower,

             the sound of poplar trees,

                         leaves whitening before rain,

                                     rooks cawing,

                                                 brooms knocking,

                                                             dresses rustling—

all these were coloured and distinguished in his mind.

He had already

             his private code,

             his secret language.

But he appeared the image of stark and uncompromising severity,

             with his high forehead

             and his fierce blue eyes.

His mother

             Watched him guide his scissors neatly round the refrigerator.

She imagined him

             all red and ermine on the Bench

             or directing a stern and momentous enterprise

                         in some crisis of public affairs.

Woolf has linked these things together with relational terms—“so ... that,” “so,” “so that.” They are brief and colourless ones, and can be missed with a blink of the eyes.


Woolf has also shifted here from one kind of statement or information-giving to another.

In (a) and (b) we are told how things actually were inside his mind generally (not just at this particular moment.) It is a complete piece of information-giving.

After that we get tack-ons—additional pieces of information that are not (logically) essential to the main piece.

First we get a shift to how he looked in general—how anyone might have seen him.

Then we shift to how she felt, and we’re off and away into a process that could continue indefinitely with further hook-ons and parentheses.

There’s no syntactical reason, in fact, why, once we’re inside her imaginings, her anticipatings, her associatings, her recollectings, the sentence couldn’t keep on swelling to novel length, particularly if the narrator is free to interject parenthetically, from time to time, how things “really” were—or, for that matter, how other people viewed things.

(Try it. Expand the sentence. Or make up one of your own. Astonish us. One can do wonders with words like “seemed,” “appeared,” “imagined”—and with “as if” and “like.”


One reason why things move smoothly inside the sentence is that the assertion about his appearing an image of uncompromising severity moves us into how things look, and it is a simple step from there to an explicit statement about how they looked to her.

The perception of his severity is a fairly personal one (not everyone might see him that way), and we have a kind of stylistic hovering between how things seem to the author (who’s letting us know) and how they seem to a character.

That’s enough about a single sentence.

But oh yes, also not the translating of complex mental processes into spatial terms with the word “coloured”—coloured as with areas on a map, presumably. And also notice how the sentence changes direction a little under half-way through. A number of her paragraphs are like that.


All the features that I’ve been pointing to are to be found throughout Part I, often on a larger scale or with greater intensity.

Sentences swell with the aid of semi-colons and parenthesis-marks.

A metaphor/simile/analogy—which may be explicitly created by a character or be an authorial translating into concrete terms of how things felt to a character—pulls important things together and reappears later. (“Onward to R!” “The brass scimitar smote,” etc).

And there are related difficulties.

At times, the points of view shift abruptly in puzzling ways. One was at point X, suddenly one is at point Y, and one isn’t sure how one got there.

At times, too, one isn’t sure when something’s being said out loud, or said inside someone’s head, or thought (without being verbalized) by someone, or an authorial communication.


But even when there are difficult passages, there don’t seem to me to be mysteries.

In this novel we’re never inside some kind of novelistic Last Year at Marienbad or Rashomon, where whether or not something happened at all is in doubt. (Did the vase really break? Is Pierre merely imagining it breaking? Etc).

Nor are there irreconcilable differences between people’s accounts at a basic factual level.

We don’t have one character saying that they had bacon for breakfast, another saying no, it was porridge, and we the readers having no principled way of choosing between them.

There are indeed problem novels like that—Beckett’s, for example, and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s. But Woolf isn’t that kind of novelist in To the Lighthouse, and perhaps not anywhere.


I make these points in part to counteract a tendency one has to feel that since Part I is the most difficult part of the novel it must therefore be the most profound, and that the difficult parts of Part I must be the best parts of it; a tendency, too, when reading the clear parts, to look below the surface in search of clues and symptoms, rather than looking at what Woolf in fact so clearly and firmly does.

A good deal of the time she’s obviously asking (qua narrator) to be read literally.


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Saying Simply Verlaine Mallarme Suspiciousness Referentiality Holderlin Yeats Hopkins Hopkins2 Woolf