Q: What’s the story of To the Lighthouse?
A: In the first major section they don’t go to the lighthouse. After an interval during which some people die, offstage; they do go.
Most of all it is a portrait of Mr. Ramsey and Mrs. Ramsey who are based on Woolf’s parents. From my reading of Leslie Stephen, who was enthusiastic agnostic reared in an evangelical hothouse with a suggestion of having been forced in it but not hardened off to withstand the cold air of Cambridge rationalism, I find this introduction to him true.
Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children’s breasts by his mere presence; standing, as now, lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one, grinning sarcastically, not only with the pleasure of disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife, who was ten thousand times better in every way than he was (James thought), but also with some secret conceit at his own accuracy of judgment. What he said was true. It was always true. He was incapable of untruth; never tampered with a fact; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being, least of all of his own children, who, sprung from his loins, should be aware from childhood that life is difficult; facts uncompromising; and the passage to that fabled land where our brightest hopes are extinguished, our frail barks founder in darkness (here Mr. Ramsay would straighten his back and narrow his little blue eyes upon the horizon), one that needs, above all, courage, truth, and the power to endure.
Here it is worth noting that both Leslie Stephen and his father James suffered from serious depression. Ramsey/Stephen was a very high maintenance individual constantly seeking reassurance from the women around him. I will leave out the parallels which may be heightened by the retrospective imagination of the author who was 15 when her father died.
If not much happens what sustains the beautiful flow of the novel? The story is not wrenched on by incident as though the characters were stuck in the slough of facticity and needed a brisk shove. Above all it is a world in which as we move from mind to mind are always aware of where all the other bodies are. Mr. Ramsey is walking up and down the terrace declaiming fragments of poetry and worrying about his reputation, Mrs.Ramsey is knitting on the steps of the drawing room and here we are given the feel of French windows but not stated, on the lawn Lily Briscoe is making tentative marks on her painting afraid that it may already be spoiled, Mr.Carmichael is reading a French novel, the ‘little atheist’ Tansley is muttering ‘can’ paint, can’t write’ about women. We never loose sight of them all, they never loose sight or mind of each other. The children brood and fume over the tyrant whose wrath can shift to blessing in a trice. There are no defined edges to each mind or person, they flow together, the house broods over all and its lares and penates are mediated by the hosts Mr. and Mrs.Ramsey. The Boeuf en Daube triumph is one of the great dinners of literature. I am moved by such sustained skill. Will Ramsey spoil it by his anger at Carmichael asking for more soup? That passes over. But what has happened to Roger Rayley and Minta Doyle? They should marry Mrs.R. has decreed, William Bankes should marry Lily Briscoe. The world should marry and mothers will read stories and it all will process down a broad avenue which is also called life.
Here is an example of the permeability of minds and the panpsychism of the alert hedge:
Shabby and worn out, and not presumably (her cheeks were hollow, her hair was white) any longer a sight that filled the eyes with joy, she had better devote her mind to the story of the Fisherman and his Wife and so pacify that bundle of sensitiveness (none of her children was as sensitive as he was), her son James.
“The man’s heart grew heavy,” she read aloud, “and he would not go. He said to himself, ‘It is not right,’ and yet he went. And when he came to the sea the water was quite purple and dark blue, and grey and thick, and no longer so green and yellow, but it was still quiet. And he stood there and said —”
Mrs. Ramsay could have wished that her husband had not chosen that moment to stop. Why had he not gone as he said to watch the children playing cricket? But he did not speak; he looked; he nodded; he approved; he went on. He slipped, seeing before him that hedge which had over and over again rounded some pause, signified some conclusion, seeing his wife and child, seeing again the urns with the trailing of red geraniums which had so often decorated processes of thought, and bore, written up among their leaves, as if they were scraps of paper on which one scribbles notes in the rush of reading — he slipped, seeing all this, smoothly into speculation suggested by an article in THE TIMES about the number of Americans who visit Shakespeare’s house every year. If Shakespeare had never existed, he asked, would the world have differed much from what it is today? Does the progress of civilization depend upon great men? Is the lot of the average human being better now than in the time of the Pharaohs? Is the lot of the average human being, however, he asked himself, the criterion by which we judge the measure of civilization? Possibly not. Possibly the greatest good requires the existence of a slave class. The liftman in the Tube is an eternal necessity.