Thursday, December 9, 2010

Full speed ahead

Current book: To the Lighthouse
Pages read: 70 - 144

All right. I have considerably more patience to write today. In true Virginia Woolf form, there aren't a lot of plot events occurring, but there is a lot of internal thought that's being communicated for each of the characters.

The setting is a vacation house on the Isle of Skye, where Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey and their eight children are on holiday, along with a group of friends and acquaintances. Mr. Ramsey is a famous writer of philosophy who struggles with everyday interactions and has a tendency to become agitated when he doubts his own genius. Mrs. Ramsey spends most of her time looking after (read: worrying about) her children, but also invests a lot of her energy in facilitating smooth and pleasant social interactions amongst her guests. Also along is Lily Briscoe, an unmarried thirty-something who fancies herself a painter. Mrs. Ramsey longs for Lily to marry another guest, William Bankes, but the two aren't interested in the match. Paul Rayley, a young gentleman, is, however, in love with Minta Doyle, who is, frankly, obnoxiously ditzy, and Mrs. Ramsey is also interested in their match. To round out the party, we have a pedantic, defensive scholar and disciple, Charles Tansley, and a slightly crazed opium addict, Augustus Carmichael.

I won't reel off the names of the eight children, but the one we're most concerned with is the youngest boy, James, upon whom Mrs. Ramsey dotes, and who desperately wants to visit the nearby lighthouse (hence the title). Mrs. Ramsey promises him he can go when the weather is fine, since the trip requires a boat, and there's a steady thread, through the story, of his hope for fine weather, her indulgence of it, and Mr. Ramsey's pessimism about the next day being stormy and wet.

The first half of the book takes place over the course of an afternoon and largely features conversation between Lily and William and the Ramseys and Charles Tansley, during which we learn the facets of their characters I've already mentioned. Toward the end of the afternoon, Minta and Paul go off the the beach with two of the younger Ramseys and come back engaged. There's also a long scene of the evening's dinner, during which Mrs. Ramsey thinks about how obsessed her husband is with his work, Mr. Ramsey thinks about how obsessed his wife is with social convention, Charles Tansley thinks about how stupid everyone is, and Lily thinks about her paintings. At the close of the section, Mrs. Ramsey puts the children to bed and she and Mr. Ramsey sit up together, considering, but not discussing, their relationship.

There are some interesting themes, the most prevalent of which is probably the difference between one's inward and outward selves at any given moment. The complexity of the thoughts of each character and the careful description of them in contrast to his or her actions portrays the starkness of that difference and implies that the outward self is simply a social veneer. I'm not entirely sure it's supposed to be a negative judgment, however, since there are some characters who would be better off if they were more successful at maintaining that veneer. The second theme that jumps out at me is, I must admit, Oedipal in nature. James Ramsey clearly resents his father for using up his mother's attention, and wishes to have her all to himself. His father also represents realism and a harsh, uncompromising view of the world, while his mother promises both optimism and comfort, giving him even more motivation for valuing one over the other.

We'll see what happens with the lighthouse, which is obviously a central symbol, probably representing success and happiness (which explains why Mr. Ramsey is so pessimistic about reaching it, seeing as that's all he can think about and feels that it's out of his reach). There are a lot of ways the ending could go, but my guess is that Woolf will make it characteristically inconclusive.

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