Difficult Books: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

December 29, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 6 2 min read

coverReading Virginia Woolf—whether you can, whether the reading is excruciating or transporting—is about finding your sea legs. Woolf’s prose sets you adrift in other minds, their unfamiliar eddies of fear, desire, and despair, their private emotional rhythms and associations. You have to surrender yourself to Woolf, let yourself be swept along—sometimes bemused, sometimes moved, sometimes uncomprehending—in the tides of other consciousnesses. All this is true in Mrs. Dalloway as well, but To the Lighthouse intensifies these effects: it spans a decade instead of a day; it permeates so many minds and moves between them so fluidly, so swiftly. It’s easy to lose track of whose mind you’re listening to, whose words you’re hearing, who’s being spoken about. But in this is also something ghostly and god-like: you drift, as if disembodied, into the minds of others, through the rooms of the Ramsay family’s summer house on the Isle of Skye; you hear snatches of conversation from the drawing room, wisps of another conversation on the lawn. The plot of the novel, such as it is, is diffuse and amorphous; By the standards of most 18th and 19th century novels, it’s not really a plot at all. In the novel’s famous second section, “Time Passes,” you are quite literally watching weeds and rabbits overtake the garden.

Woolf’s writing can feel disconcerting, confusing, and frustrating; It can also seem numinous, exquisite, utterly absorbing. For myself, I have found that Woolf is not an author I can will my way though. There are times when I find her stream-of-consciousness techniques coy, contrived, pointlessly difficult and comprehension-thwarting—when I find the lack of a substantial plot unbearable. Then, I find myself of Cyril Connolly’s opinion that Woolf, “seemed to have the worst defect of the Mandarin style, the ability to spin cocoons of language out of nothing.”

At other times, the drifting, liquid rhythms of Woolf’s prose, her approximation of the currents of the psychic seascape, feel intuitively right, more natural and true than anything else I’ve read, and I find myself of Connolly’s mind again: “The Waves,” he wrote in The Enemies of Promise, “is one of the books which comes nearest to stating the mystery of life, and so, in a sense, nearest to solving it.”

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is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.


  1. I think the challenge, if one feels the need to call it that, of reading Virginia Woolf is what makes her so rare and special. No matter how undulating the memories or consciousnesses that comprise her text, they are always carefully guided and coherent. She found a way in prose to come as near as possible to expressing the inexpressible in herself and what she saw in other people. My personal favorite of her books is “The Waves,” which is more confusing still than “To the Lighthouse” (if you insist, like so many readers, that there be the vulgarity of a carefully-tended plot when you are in the hands of a master willing to give you not just that but her very soul). There is nothing coy, contrived, or pointlessly difficult about Virginia Woolf. There are simply far too few books that emanate from a private, truly felt place (in our lifetimes there have been close to none), and so one has perhaps been inadequately prepared to be her reader. For a Woolf newcomer, I suggest “Mrs. Dalloway” or this one, “To the Lighthouse.” If you believe, it is not too difficult for you.

  2. Stephen just expressed my own thoughts beautifully. Woolf seems daunting to some readers, I think, not only because of her intellect, her personal history, but because of what is left unsaid in her works and what that suggests.

    A few bloggers are reading Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and The Waves in January and February. All are welcome to read and/or comment along. For the hesitant, there is safety in numbers.


  3. To the Lighthouse is my favorite book. I have read it a number of times and each time I find some thing new. It seems, a book of complexities, underscored by opposing images, light and dark, interior and exterior, near and far, young and old, what one says and what one thinks. The most beautiful aspect of To the Lighthouse is revealed in what is not written but discovered in luminescent interstices of ones own thoughts pondering Woolf’s genius.

  4. The book is closed to you until you open the mind, and that I found a challenge after reading a bok by Orwell previously. Now that I am absorbing the book (To the Lighthouse) it has almost become a reflection of my own life ..as it has been lived , in my mind and soul

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