A Review of Virginia Woolf’s Book, To the Lighthouse

November 2, 2020 by Essay Writer

Focalization and the use of indirect interior monologue is utilized in the novel To The Lighthouse to explain the overall theme that humans are complex individuals, and often have more to their desires and motives, than what may appear at first. Through using internal focalization, Woolf provides a way in which readers are able to understand this theme, because she allows for the story to be told through many different lenses and perspectives. In the novel, To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf utilizes internal focalization and indirect internal monologue to express the innate desires of every character, and in doing so elucidating the theme that human and their relationships with each other are more complex than what is on the the superficial level.

On the surface, many of the characters have relationships where the dynamics are commonly known. For example, Mrs. Ramsay serves as a mother figure throughout the novel, and the common assumption about mother figures are that they hold a family together. This is evident various times throughout the novel such as all the times Mrs. Ramsay expressed anger towards her husband for destroying James’s dream to go to the lighthouse (5). Or all the times Mrs. Ramsay insisted that “people must marry; people must have children,” (50). On a superficial level, Mrs. Ramsay appears to be very family oriented. However, the unique thing about To The Lighthouse, is that the readers are able to perceive why Mrs. Ramsay is the way she is, and because of that, understand that there is more to Mrs. Ramsay that meets the eye. When the main focalizer becomes Mrs.Ramsay’s the reader is opened to a window that allows them to see further into her role, and comprehend her emotions and wishes. One such emotion that Mrs. Ramsay holds is fear. Mrs.Ramsay’s fear is the “destruction of the island and it’s engulfment into the sea” (14) and how life was as “ephemeral as a rainbow”. This speech is an indirect internal monologue that Mrs. Ramsay has, where she thinks deeply about life and death and what constitutes a fulfilled life. Through this, the reader can see that Mrs. Ramsay’s obsession with marriage comes from the fact that she believes life is short, and in order to have a fulfilling life in such a short time, one must marry and have children. The reader recognizes that Mrs. Ramsay is not more than just a woman who is fixated on marrying off her children, but rather Mrs.Ramsay believed that “marriage…was essential” (50). In other novels such as Pride and Prejudice, the focalization never truly switches, so readers lack the opportunity to fathom the purpose behind the actions of characters, for example, Mrs.Bennet, who like Mrs. Ramsay is fixated with the idea of marriage. Because of this missing discussion of motives, those like Mrs.Bennet are only what meets the eyes, while Mrs.Ramsay is understood to have more to her desires and intentions than what exists in direct dialogue. This allows Woolf to explain her theme that there is more to humans than meets the eye. Furthermore, Mrs.Ramsay’s role as a mother is explained through her thoughts as well. Several times throughout the novel, she expresses a protective nature of James particularly, but all her children overall. On the outside, Mrs. Ramsay appears to be just a mother, but in her thoughts she repeats “I am guarding you–your support” (14). As the reader is made to read into the thoughts of Mrs.Ramsay, the reader can grasp the kind of relationship Mrs.Ramsay shares with her children. A relationship where she is their guardian. This helps to recognize that Mrs.Ramsay is more than just a mother, but rather she sees herself as someone who must protect her children. This helps to develop Mrs.Ramsay as a character and explain the kinds of wishes she has and why she has them.

The use of focalization does not just allow for one to grasp the purposes that each character has, but it also helps with acknowledging the complexity of human relationships. For instance, without having the switch in point of view among the characters, one would simply believe that the relationship shared between James and Mr. Ramsay is like any other strained son and father relationship. However, because Woolf uses focalization to explain the thoughts of James and Mr.Ramsay, the reader is fully able to perceive the extent of the hatred that exists among them, and the reasons why. The novel goes from being less superficial, to something more deeper and advanced. For example, in the beginning of the novel, James expresses hatred towards his father, and also expresses that he believes that his mother was far better than his father (4). However, in a novel not written like To The Lighthouse, unless the book was being told from James perspective, one would not be able to gain full insight into just how angry James is. Since Virginia Woolf allows for entry into James’s mind, readers are able to feel the “extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children’s breasts” (4). In addition, through a shift in focal point, Mr.Ramsey’s motives become more clear. When Mr. Ramsay tells James he cannot go to the lighthouse and the focal point switches to Mr.Ramsay, he says that he had “not only…the pleasure of disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife..but also…some secret conceit at his own accuracy of judgement,” (5). From this switch, Mr.Ramsay’s personality is more highlighted. Mr. Ramsay now goes from just “the father who always says no”, to the father who seeked to hold some sort of power upon family, and “pleasured” from having this power. Through this, the readers are able to gain a full insight into the deep conflict embroiled between Mr. Ramsay and James stemming from James’s need to go to the lighthouse and Mr. Ramsay’s need to have control. Due to internal focalization, the reader can now see that James absolutely detests Mr.Ramsay because of Mr. Ramsay’s need to exert control over others. The perspective then switches to Mrs. Ramsay who, as the protective mother, despises Mr. Ramsay for having this kind of power, but settling on the fact that Mr. Ramsay was always right, and when he believed the could not go to the lighthouse, then that would be the fact. Without Virginia Woolf’s use of internal focalization to express the thoughts of the individual characters, the readers would not be able to grasp that there is more to the relationship between James and Mr. Ramsay or Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay than what meets the eye.

Focalization also helps provide a perspective of different characters based on the opinions of other characters. For example, in the end of the novel, for a brief moment, Cam becomes the main lens through which the story is told, and through that the readers are able to better see the relationship between James and Mr. Ramsay. Cam says “There!…You’ve got it at last. For she knew this was what James had been wanting…he had got it he was so pleased he would not look at her or his father or anyone,” (202), when Mr. Ramsay praises James for his work with sailing. James reacts coolly, but with a tinge of surprise. Without focalization, the one would not be able to know why James reacts the way he does. However, because the focal point switches to Cam, the readers are able to understand both personalities of James and Mr. Ramsay, and James’s desire of validation from Mr.Ramsay. In Cam’s interior monologue, she says that James had gotten what he wanted as soon as Mr. Ramsay praises James, which would mean that James’s desire was to seek validation from Mr. Ramsay. Had Cam’s thoughts not been included, it would be hard to see why James reacted the way he did to Mr. Ramsay’s praise, which was surprise. Also, through the focalization of Cam, another perspective of Mr. Ramsay is shown, apart from just Mrs. Ramsay and James, and acknowledge that Mr. Ramsay is not someone who praises so easily. Furthermore, using internal indirect monologue and internal focalization, the complexity of the relationship between James and Mr. Ramsey is made more clear, bolstering the argument Woolf makes that human relationships are more than what meets one’s eyes. In another work that does not provide this narrative technique, it would be hard to grasp the complexity of different relationships because the readers would only be introduced to a superficial view of the characters. The strategic use of changing perspectives through which the story is told allows Woolf to explain that humans are complicated beings and do not always appear as they may seem.

The most clear evidence of Virginia Woolf’s goal to explain that humans are more than what they seem comes through the focalization of Lily Briscoe. Lily Briscoe had constantly struggled with finding acceptance in her art and in herself and felt scrutinized by Mrs. Ramsay’s opinions of her. However, towards the end of the novel, the focal point is often on Lily, as she does some deep thinking about “life, about death; about Mrs. Ramsay.” Upon thinking of these things, Lily begins to realize the disparity between what she knew about the relationships between Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Ramsay. She begins to see flaws in her past ways of thinking about their relationship, realizing it “was no monotony of bliss” (167). And as she realizes this, she realizes that life and humans are not the way they always seem. She realizes that “one wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with” (167). In this indirect interior monologue, when Lily says this, she is saying that she no longer can look at humans and just see them through “one eye”, meaning that there is so much more to humans and their shared relationships than meets the eye (the Ramsays for instance). Lily further thinks, “fifty pairs of eyes were not enough [for Mrs.Ramsay” (167). Here, through the perspective of Lily, the overall theme that there are more dimensions and motives to an individual than meets the eye is made clear. It was crucial for this to be told through Lily’s focalization, because like the readers, many of the characters had been made “stone blind to [Mrs.Ramsay]’s beauty” (167). Seeing Mrs. Ramsay’s through the perspective of another character helps in understanding not every human is good or bad, and rather they have many levels to them. As a result, Virginia Woolf is able to express her theme that humans are not always as they appear. This is similar to works such as Sula, by Toni Morrison, where the author explains that people are not necessarily good or bad, but rather contain many different parts that make up their personality. However, the difference between both the novels is that Woolf utilizes a change in focalization and indirect interior monologue.

In the novel, To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf uses indirect interior monologue, paired with changing focalizations in order to demonstrate the theme that people are more complicated and multi dimensional than what meets the eye. Her use of these narrative techniques to explain this theme is essential because it allows readers to delve into the minds of the characters, and in doing so, fully fathom the complexity in an individual and his or her’s relationships with others. Woolf’s goal to ultimately have those who read To The Lighthouse was fulfilled because the readers are able to appreciate the different motives that exist within a character, due to the fact that the readers could read the novel from different perspectives.

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