To the Lighthouse: Virginia Woolf's Modernist Masterpiece

Godrevy Lighthouse, Cornwall, the inspiration for Woolf's lighthouse at the Hebrides, where the "unstory" takes place. Photo by Chris Combe, 17 February 2015 [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia.

Despite two short introductions to the book, I was not prepared for the psychological - or ethereal - or cerebral - or emotional? - context of this modernist novel. Now I have read a few commentaries about the novel, my lack of preparation could have been overcome with a bit of investigation. But the backstory on Woolf's style of prose and her role as a modernist gatekeeper is fascinating.

Whenever I think of Virginia Woolf, I immediately think of Hemingway for two reasons. 

First, Woolf's prose is the exact opposite of Hemingway's. Hemingway's prose is brief and clear and fine. 

Whereas, if one were to turn one's thoughts into one's sentences, if one might have, one day when thinking about writing prose, an idea about how a thought could be put into a sentence, which is silly because thoughts are always put into sentences - especially in novels, even people's speech is spoken in sentences, usually - but if one could imagine what a sentence might look like if it were to resemble a string of thoughts, or at least our inner monologue while thinking, while simultaneously appearing as if it was dialogue by a character, yet it wasn't, it was the inner monologue practising or speaking without actually verbalising the words, then that is as close as one might get to Woolf's prose.

And that really is it. This is a story about the thoughts and feelings of a group of people who surround a family but with the gap of a decade (which includes the Great War), and the actual story is more like an "unstory". There is no real plot - there is a location, there is socialising and limited action and dialogue.

Most of the story is built upon the inner monologues of the characters. I was hooked. It was almost like reading a book about my own mind at a dinner party or with a party of people, especially where I am concerned with either being hospitable or polite or else socially acceptable. And that is what Woolf's characters do.

Second (if you had forgotten I had a first, then I am merely mirroring Woolf's style), I knew from my reading of some of Hemingway's work (and work about Hemingway) that he took issue with Woolf's review of his short story collection, Men Without Women.

In her review, entitled An Essay in Criticism, Woolf basically says, Hemingway, you are no modernist. So I thought Hemingway then went off to hate on her a bit, like he did with so many of his so-called friends from the Paris years.

But no, Hemingway was stung by Woolf's criticism. In my copy of the three-volume The Letters of  Ernest Hemingway (Cambridge), Hemingway tells his publisher Max Perkins and his friend and fellow author Scott Fitzgerald that he can't write because of the criticism, he just wants to be left alone but the criticism won't let him be. And here was me thinking that Hemingway was thinking, Get in the ring, Woolf! But no.

Why so much about Hemingway when writing about a novel by Woolf? Well, Woolf was in effect a modernist gatekeeper. And this novel, to me, represents Woolf at the height of her modernist powers, even more so than in Mrs Dalloway

Woolf was part of the Bloomsbury Group, a collective of creatives and artists who lived elite lifestyles and often gave support to young artists. Hemingway notes this in his letters, but also notes that he is not one of them, and rather than give him a leg up, Woolf was standing on his neck.

To the Lighthouse was published in 1927; so was Men Without Women. Hemingway was on the rise (he was younger than Woolf), Woolf was at her peak. Both would die by suicide. Despite their differences in style of prose, the similarities outweigh the differences if one scratches the surface.

In To the Lighthouse, Woolf does what Hemingway doesn't do, except in his letters. That is, to give life to the life of the mind, without the need for heroics or even a substantial plot. I find her work sits well with T.S. Eliot's modernist poetry

I regard this novel as Woolf's masterpiece. It captures the life of the mind and the inner monologue that we rarely share with others (unless we wish to be snubbed, It's called an inner monologue for a reason). But I daresay others will identify with the thoughts that fly through our minds when in company, and Woolf gives us insight into the life of the various minds of her characters.

That she is able to create a story out of her characters' private thoughts is marvellous, and, for me, certainly captures the spirit of modernism as far as I understand the concept.