I first read To the Lighthouse in my first term at university, and it had a great impact upon me. I had never read anything quite like it before; and reading it again now, nearly twelve years later, Virginia Woolf’s style and lyricism still strikes me as utterly unique and compelling.

The thing that really struck me, all those years ago, was the way that Woolf so realistically portrayed the inner life of her characters. I mean, any writer worth her salt does this to some extent, but in To the Lighthouse (and in her other novels, such as Mrs. Dalloway and in The Waves) the internal thoughts and feelings and semi-conscious impulses are as much as anything the focus of the narrative. It is a fascinating portrayal of the highly complex relationships that exist between individuals; of how the myriad impressions, self-doubts and social norms all weave together to constrain and shape our outward words and behaviour. If literature is to a large extent the study of mankind and civilisation, then this text, first published in 1927, surely stands out as a significant milestone.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I could employ various well-worn phrases that literary criticism has foisted upon Virginia Woolf’s works – terms such as stream-of-consciousness, modernist, feminist, experimental, concerned with the subjective experiences of individuals, etc., etc., however I think I shall take a different tact. Instead of writing yet another account of this famous novel, I have decided to simply present some quotes from the book, which I hope give a taste of Virginia Woolf’s style of writing to anyone who has not yet read any of her novels.

…his subject was now the influence of something upon somebody – they were walking on and Mrs. Ramsay did not quite catch the meaning, only the words, here and there…

It was absurd, it was impossible. One could not say what one meant.

How then did it work out, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt, or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached, after all?

…and the voice was her own voice saying without prompting undeniable, everlasting, contradictory things…

He should be very proud of Andrew if he got a scholarship, he said. She would be just as proud of him if he didn’t, she answered. They disagreed always about this, but it did not matter. She liked him to believe in scholarships, and he liked her to be proud of Andrew whatever he did.

For it was extraordinary to think that they had been capable of going on living all these years when she had not thought of them more than once all that time.

She would never know him. He would never know her. Human relationships were like that, she thought, and the worst … were between men and women. Inevitably these were extremely insincere.

This was his way of looking, different from hers. But looking together united them.

Such was the complexity of things. For what happened to her, especially staying with the Ramsays, was to be made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel, was one; that’s what I feel, was the other, and then they fought together in her mind, as now.

What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

In essence, this is a novel about a family; about a marriage; and about a childhood. It is also a brilliant examination of the effects of time and memory; of the nature of human relationships and of the limits of language and understanding.

To my mind, there are not many novels like To the Lighthouse. It may not be the kind of plot-driven page-turner that many will choose to take on their summer holidays, however this is an intelligent, thought-provoking and rewarding read.