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Thoughts on “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf (Audiobook)

Last week, I realized I was way ahead of where I was supposed to be with The Odyssey readalong, so I switched over and listened to To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf instead. I’ve only read Mrs. Dalloway by Woolf so far, and I’ve always meant to get to some of her others.

About the Book:

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (audiobook cover)To the Lighthouse is the most autobiographical of Woolf’s novels. Though Woolf took liberties with the details, the novel represents both her parents and the family’s summer home. It follows the daily life of an English family: a husband (Mr. Ramsay), his wife, their many children, and their many guests.

The novel is written in three parts. The first takes place on a rather ordinary evening, just before, during, and after dinner at the Ramsay house. The second marks the passage of time, and the third occurs ten years after the first, again over the course of just a few hours. All center around the Ramsay summer home on the Island of Skye and the surrounding areas.

My Thoughts:

I really liked Mrs. Dalloway, which I read for a class in college. It might have been partly because of its connection with The Hours by Michael Cunningham that I so loved Mrs. Dalloway. Whatever the reason, I was ready to be a budding fan of Woolf’s writing. And I think I still can be, even though my second Woolf novel didn’t impress me nearly as much.

To the Lighthouse flits from character to character, spending the most time with Mrs. Ramsay in the first part and Lily Briscoe, one of the Ramsays’ guests, in the third. We are privy to each character’s private thoughts about life, the situation at hand, and the other characters. I found these inner workings to be interesting in a sort of detached way, almost like I was reading a report of sorts. None of the characters managed to touch an emotional level; instead, I absorbed their musings purely intellectually. So while the writing was lovely, and the characters were deeply layered and complicated, it was hard for me to connect with the story, which I always find frustrating.

The writing, of course, is poetic and beautiful. I found that to be especially true of the second section, “Time Passes,” which forms the bridge between the first night we meet the Ramseys and the day ten years later when we encounter them again. Woolf really has managed to translate the passage of time into words:

“So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole round window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers. Not only was furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say, ‘This is he’ or ‘This is she.'” (p. 189-190)

“But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken.” (p. 192)

The experience of listening to a Virginia Woolf novel on audio was phenomenal. It took a greater level of concentration than I’m used to devoting to audiobooks. This is due in part to the fact that Woolf doesn’t often repeat a character’s name, so that if you miss it in a moment of inattention, you’re not sure who the “she” being spoken of over and over is. Overall, though, I got through the novel much faster than I would’ve had I been reading it, and I think I understood more as well. Juliet Stevenson read the version I listened to, and her soft, gentle voice was absolutely perfect. For anyone who enjoys audiobooks and is intimidated by Virginia Woolf, I would definitely recommend listening to something by Woolf!

Your Turn!

Do you have a favorite among Virginia Woolf’s novels? Have you ever read a book that you found to be intellectually interesting but emotionally dull?

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  • http://zenleaf.amandagignac.com Amanda

    I’ve read quite a few Woolf books (7, I believe?) and I can’t even imagine listening to them on audio. They take an enormous amount of concentration in print! I admit, To the Lighthouse is one I really need to reread because I read it in 2001 and didn’t understand a word of it. I also read The Voyage Out and Mrs. Dalloway that year, and they were fine, but To the Lighthouse was well over my head.

    • Erin

      It’s funny, but listening to them actually took less concentration for me than reading them in print. I get very bogged down in Woolf’s writing, lovely as it is, and I find myself reading slower and slower until I can’t even remember how the sentence I’m finishing began. Having someone else set the pace was much easier–the story hung together better. That being said, I probably missed a lot and could benefit from actually reading the book, now that I have some idea what it’s about. I’m thinking an audio/print pairing might work well for me with Woolf.

  • http://astripedarmchair.wordpress.com Eva

    I’ve read 7 of Woolf’s books now, and To the Lighthouse is definitely my least favourite of the bunch. SO I think there’s still hope for you and Woolf. :) I’ve read one of her essay collections (The London Scene) and loved it: maybe try her out in a different genre?

    • Erin

      Good to hear! I have several others and will definitely be giving them a shot. I’m looking forward to reading both A Room of One’s Own and Moments of Being. I’ve not heard of The London Scene, but I’ll check it out. Thanks!

  • http://www.stephandtonyinvestigate.com Steph

    Interesting idea… I admit that I’ve had absolutely no luck reading Virginia Woolf’s novels, and I would think they’d be super hard to listen to. I find her prose really very confusing and even when I reread passages I don’t always know what she’s on about, but maybe audio would help because I wouldn’t have the opportunity to agonize?

    • Erin

      Having someone else read me the prose helped me immensely, somehow. I get really bogged down in Woolf’s writing, as I said in response to Amanda’s comment, and I end up pretty lost. I keep having to go back and figure out where, exactly, we are. Listening meant I probably missed some things, but I think overall the book was a lot more accessible to me on audio. A pairing of the two might be interesting to experiment with!

  • http://homeofaimala.blogspot.com/ Amy

    I’ve read Mrs. Dalloway and The Lighthouse. I loved Mrs. Dalloway, the book and the character. Mrs. Dalloway seemed child-like and simple at times and at other times almost worldsly and sophisticated. But, ultimately, I don’t think she was very happy. Some of the other characters were interesting too, both touching and aggravating!

    I read The Lighthouse after Mrs. Dalloway& didn’t like it as much but I thought it was interesting because it had almost no dialogue & little action yet it was about a family and their visits to Scotland. I found it tough to understand because the plot doesn’t seem to really matter, it’s the thoughts and ideas emphasizing childhood that seem to matter. The adults seem almost wishy-washy, too! It’s been a really long time since I read both & I’d like to read them again in 2011.

    I also read The Years about the Pargiter family over a 50-year span. Woolf focuses on specific details regarding each character and an event in a given year. I really liked this book. Apparently Woolf initially planned to write a combination of essays with fictionalized sections including characters that emphasized/explained the issues in the essays but at some point she decided to turn it into a novel. Some of essays became Woolf’s non-fiction book The Three Guineas. I recently found this in a used bookstore! I’m planning to read The Years again along with The Three Guineas next year! (It sounds funny saying ‘next year’ but it’s only a month and a half away!)

    ~ Amy

    • Erin

      I agree, there was so little dialogue in To the Lighthouse! Nothing really happened, which I know is sometimes the case with Woolf’s writing, but I seem to remember things happening in Mrs. Dalloway. I didn’t like any of the adults in To the Lighthouse — I’d say wishy-washy is a good word for them.

      I don’t think I’ve heard of The Years, but it sounds really interesting — I’ll try to find a copy!

  • http://lakesidemusing.blogspot.com JoAnn

    I’ve only read Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and have been planning to read To The Lighthouse this winter. Now I’m intrigued with the idea of listening. Think I’ll try a reading/audio combo. It worked well for Bleak House.

    • Erin

      Since it worked for Bleak House for you, I’d say definitely give it a go with To the Lighthouse! I found myself flipping through my paper copy after I’d listened to the audio, reading bits here and there. I listened to most of the book while I was out walking, so I couldn’t have the book in front of me. I think that approach would work really well for me in the future. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • http://lifewithbooks.com Jenners

    I have to confess that I tried (and gave up on) Mrs. Dalloway. It was just not my cup of tea, and I was so not in the mood to struggle along with it. Maybe someday, I’ll give her another try … but probably not on audio. I tend to space out sometimes so I’m sure I’d be confused!

    • Erin

      I had to read it for class, or I’d have given up too! Sometimes it’s just not worth it for a reader/author pair to struggle along. I’m thinking of trying Woolf’s nonfiction next: A Room of One’s Own and Moments of Being. I might like them better. The audio worked for me in this situation because I didn’t have the opportunity to lose my way in Woolf’s prose! But yeah, spacing out too often would be a problem.

  • http://www.fizzythoughts.com softdrink

    Hallelujah to what Jenners just said. Although I finished Mrs Dalloway, I didn’t care for it at all, and now I’m kinda scared of Woolf.

    • Erin

      I totally get the scared of Woolf thing. I’m trying to be less scared of her, which seems to be working. Had I not been forced to read Mrs. Dalloway for class, I doubt I’d have picked it up.

  • http://bettyboochronicles.blogspot.com Melissa

    Like you, I read Mrs. Dalloway first (which I loved) and then To the Lighthouse (which I had some difficulty with). I have Orlando and The Waves on my TBR list, so I’m curious to see how those two compare.

    • Erin

      I have copies of The Waves, Moments of Being, and A Room of One’s Own waiting for me on my shelves. I’m thinking of trying Woolf’s nonfiction next. I’ll keep an eye out for your thoughts on Orlando and The Waves, in case you get to them soon!

  • http://reviews.rebeccareid.com Rebecca Reid

    I too wasn’t nearly as in love with TO THE LIGHTHOUSE as with MRS DALLLOWAY. I don’t know that I could listen to it though. It took a lot of concentration and I found I went back a number of times to reread parts I didn’t get at first. MRS DALLOWAY may be great on audio, though. I found I had to read it aloud to “get” it the first time.

    • Erin

      I’m thinking I’d like to listen to Mrs. Dalloway. Listening to Woolf was one I definitely enjoyed more than reading her — it keeps me from getting stuck in her lovely prose!