Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse
reviewed by Amy Britton

At the end of Chapter Five in “To the Lighthouse”, Mrs. Ramsay says to her son, “Lets find another picture to cut out.” This is almost as crucial a symbol in the novel as the lighthouse itself, summarising many of the intentions of the Modernist movement. Woolf’s fellow writers such as TS Eliot (published by Woolf’s Hogarth Press) and WB Yeats were concerned with the concept of fragments – note, for example, Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” After the horrors of World War One, it was almost seen as the artists duty to amass fragments and make sense of them in order to make sense of the fragmenting world around them. With “To The Lighthouse” being a novel of two halves – the first part set before the war, the second part afterwards – this is crucial.

When Mrs. Ramsay suggests finding a picture to cut out, she is suggesting creating fragments, in a time before the great war. Later, at the beginning of chapter eleven, the narrative opens with, “No, she thought, putting together some of the pictures he had cut out – a refrigerator, a mowing machine, a gentleman in evening dress – children never forget.” Here the fragments have gone through a cyclical stage – first they have been created in order to actually be fragments. Secondly, they have been amassed, put together. But in spite of being collected this way they are still fragments; unconnected, linked only by commas. There is a strange oneness to them, paradoxically not really a oneness at all, much like society in the doomed years in the run-up to the First World War.

Woolf is a writer of symbols, and the eponymous symbol in “To the Lighthouse” is one of the most famous of all time. However, the pictures cut out are a symbol frequently overlooked in a time of fragments, both in real society and in literature. What is far less overlooked in “To the Lighthouse” is the lighthouse itself. It has been suggested that the lighthouse is a suggestive and ambiguous symbol; which takes on uniquely different meanings for each character and for each reader who attempts to interpret it. This is an ideal summary of such a broad and loaded symbol – for example, I saw the distance that James’ father places between his son and the lighthouse which he yearns to visit as symbolic of their own distance in the run-up to the war, as it becomes slowly as unknowable to James as a calm and unthreatened society is, distant and lonely, but everyone will have their own interpretations. For all the poetic quality attached to the lighthouse, it is crucial to remember that it was not simply a symbol created by Woolf for the purposes of metaphor. It is also a real lighthouse, a Grade II listed building at Godrevy, near St.Ives in Cornwall. There were plans to extinguish it in 2010 but protests from Woolf aficionado’s have kept it in place, showing its solid importance in English literature. “To The Lighthouse”, then, is a perfect example of how something not merely literal but actually real can become loaded with symbols- and how, in the world of the arts, anything can become symbolic.