The book begins as Mrs. Ramsay, mother to eight children, speaks to her youngest child, James, age six, about his wish to go to the Lighthouse on the following day:
"Yes, of course, if it's fine tomorrow," said Mrs. Ramsay. "But you'll have to be up with the lark", she added. To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition bound to take place, and the wonder to which he looked forward to, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night's darkness and a day's sail, within touch. ~To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
However, Mr. Ramsay, as well as Charles Tansley, soon shatter the boy's hopes by saying that it will rain the next day, and that a trip to the Lighthouse is out of the question, which upsets both James and his devoted mother greatly. The setting for the story begins at the summer house at the Isle of the Skye during the summer, where the Ramsays entertain numerous friends in addition to their large family. Mrs. Ramsay tries to soothe the boy by saying that the weather may be fine, because she has a far greater understanding of her sensitive, gifted child than either her husband or his friend. Keenly aware of the beauty and brevity of childhood, she wants her children to be happy and hopeful, to be filled with light, in a world with ample darkness. The novel focuses on the intensity of childhood emotions, and accentuates the impermanence of adult relationships and the transient nature of everything. The issue of the trip to the Lighthouse is brought up time and time again in the first section of To the Lighthouse, The Window, in which through repetition and stream-of-consciousness writing (Virginia Woolf's trademark style), the interior monologues of various characters are presented, seizing fleeting moods, feelings, thoughts, and insecurities, and the transient nature of things and relationships, giving permanence to these moments in the book, making them immortal--which seems to have been the author's goal. Like our own thoughts, which are often repetitious (and dare I say dull at times), the characters seem to tire of their own cyclical thoughts. At other times, their disjointed thoughts are featured. Virginia Woolf captures the dual reality of thought in To The Lighthouse, thought which is alternatively repetitive and disconnected. (Think about your own thinking--isn't it also this way?)
Just as in the story the painter Lily Briscoe tries to capture beautiful Mrs. Ramsay in a painting (although Lily is scoffed at, and the male belief was that women could neither paint nor write) the book attempts to make the impermanent permanent, and portrays these fleeting moments brilliantly, especially those between husband and wife. This is Virginia's Woolf's most autobiographical novel, and her husband, Leonard Woolf, called it a masterpiece. Virginia Woolf broke from tradition in this three part book, a novel in which there's not much action or dialogue, but instead much thought, about the ordinary as well as about time and the fleeting nature of life. One of the book's main themes is the ubiquity of transience. Is there an antidote for this often disturbing transience? Virginia Woolf suggests to women that while family and human relationships are important (although difficult sometimes), creative work may hold the key--meaningful work that will engage and may even outlive us. In this way, transience may be transcended to some degree.
You can read all three sections of To The Lighthouse online, compliments of Project Gutenberg Australia. To the Lighthouse was made into a TV movie released in 1983, which stars Rosemary Harris, Michael Gough, Suzanne Bertish, and Kenneth Branagh.
1/30/10 Update: For another review of To The Lighthouse, please visit Absorbed in Words.