To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

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I have been wanting to read some Virginia Woolf for a while, but I had been told that her books are very difficult to read and so had been putting it off. When I saw the Woolf in Winter read-along I decided it was the perfect opportunity to give her a try, as difficult texts are always easier when you have a group of people to read along with. Emily is hosting the discussion for To the Lighthouse today, so please pay her a visit if you’d like to join in!

I was pleasantly surprised when I read the first few pages of To the Lighthouse – it was much easier to read than I had expected it to be. Yes, the sentences were often long and meandering, but I found it easy to follow and some of the descriptions were strangely fascinating.

Disappearing as stealthily as stags from the dinner-table directly the meal was over, the eight sons and daughters of Mr and Mrs Ramsay sought their bedrooms, their fastnesses in a house where there was no privacy to debate anything, everything; Tansley’s tie; the passing of the Reform Bill; seabirds and butterflies; people; while the sun poured into those attics, which a plank alone separated from each other so that every footstep could be plainly heard and the Swiss girl sobbing for her father who was dying of cancer in a valley of the Grisons, and lit up bats, flannels, straw hats, ink-pots, paint-pots, beetles, and the skulls of small birds, while it drew from the long frilled strips of seaweed pinned to the wall a smell of salt and weeds, which was in the towels too, gritty with sand from bathing.

It is odd that in copying the above paragraph down I realised how little of it makes sense. It is a collection of random thoughts, but I didn’t worry too much about understanding why every little word was used – I just enjoyed the images they created.

The book begins with a young boy wanting to visit a lighthouse, but being told that it probably won’t be possible to go. I thought the scene was set beautifully, but I soon discovered that nothing else was going to happen.  In the final part of the book, set many years later, they head out to visit the lighthouse, but that is all that happens. There is no plot, simply observations of small scenes – this lack of any action meant that it turned out to be quite a boring book. It was very short, so I had no trouble finishing it, but in the end I was left with a feeling of disappointment. If the book had been much longer, but with more interesting events occuring, then I’m sure I would have enjoyed it as I had no objection to the writing style.

Overall, I’m afraid I just didn’t connect with this book. It felt more like an introduction to a set of characters than a novel in its own right. I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of Woolf’s work.


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  1. Dorte H says:

    Yes, I have read it, and I enjoyed it quite a lot.

    But then I didn´t read it the way I read crime fiction. I read crime because I love suspense, I read Virginia Woolf because I teach British and American literature. And I appreciate excellent prose, it is just a very different experience from devouring an intriguing murder.

    So what I am saying is probably that IF she had written a crime novel, I would have given it ten stars out of five :D

    1. Jackie says:

      Dorte, If she had written a crime novel then I’d be tempted to read it too. I do love her descriptions, but normally I need a plot to enjoy a novel.

  2. Sandy says:

    I had wanted to participate in this read-along but it just wasn’t meant to be. I don’t have much control over my life at the moment, so Woolf will have to wait. For all the people that love her, there are ten that don’t. Which is a little off-putting. I was just saying to Simon earlier that I will have to choose the right moment to give her a try…like when I have time to myself, without interruption every five minutes.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I agree that there are many more people who seem to dislike her work than love it – that put me off too. I am pleased that I have tried her, as it is nice to be able to be able to say which side of the fence you’re on, but I won’t be trying her again.

  3. Laura says:

    I read it, and enjoyed it … mostly for the atmosphere & mood it created, and getting inside the characters’ heads. I wasn’t worried about lack of plot.

    1. Jackie says:

      Laura, Another case of where our reading tastes are very different – I’m pleased you enjoyed it.

  4. Steph says:

    I picked this up a few weeks ago (because it’s been sitting on my shelf for years and I figured now was the time to try it), but didn’t make much progress, I’m afraid. Maybe I was too tired and couldn’t give it enough attention, but I found myself getting tangled up in all of the sentences and was just finding it a real chore to get through. People praise Woolf to high heaven for her beautiful prose and dazzling insights, but I admit that I found the writing impenetrable. I haven’t had much luck with her other works either, so I fear she may just not be for me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, I didn’t find it a chore to read, which surprised me as I did expect it to be hard. Perhaps having just finished The Elegance of the Hedgehog it just seemed easier than it was! It is good to see our reading tastes are continuing to match up.

  5. I hope to read this one at some point in the near future. I’m enjoying reading the various discussions around the blogosphere today about it. :-) Something you said really struck me: ” . . . but I didn’t worry too much about understanding why every little word was used – I just enjoyed the images they created.” How true! I have found that to be true for other books I have read, especially a few more difficult classics.

    1. Jackie says:

      Literary Feline, It is great that you are enjoying the discussions today – I don’t normally enjoy them unless I’ve read the book!

      I hope that you enjoy To the Lighthouse when you get round to reading it.

  6. Cat says:

    Hi Jackie,
    I discovered your blog just recently and have finally decided to comment!
    I too have found a lot of Woolf’s fiction beautifully written, but let’s face it, kinda boring!

    But if you ever want some good non-fiction, I would definitely recommend “A Room of One’s Own”. It’s an essay about women and writing, only about 100 pgs long, and way more accessible/conversational/interesting (in my opinion) than her fiction works. Don’t give up on Woolf before you read it!

    looking forward to your next post :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Cat, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time!

      I didn’t realise that she’d written non-fiction. I would be interested in giving it a try – thank you for the idea!

  7. kiss a cloud says:

    I loved it to bits.. and is now one of my most favourite books of all time. But then you already know I’m a prose-over-plot reader. I can’t say that it was an easy journey.. certainly there were parts that befuddled me, but whenever I went back a few paragraphs would find things ever so much clearer. The insight of perspective that I gleaned from Mrs Dalloway helped me a lot in getting in step with To the Lighthouse, as I knew she was coming from all angles, all viewpoints, often repeating the same scenes through different eyes.

    Thanks for reading along, Jackie! While VW clearly isn’t for everyone, I still find every single feedback enriching. :D

    1. Jackie says:

      kiss a cloud, I knew you’d love this one! It is great that you find all feedback enriching. I am finding it nice to read all the comments about Woolf today, but I still need some form of plot in my books. I’m very pleased I am reading it along with everyone else, so thank you!

  8. I love that we both took the basic premise of the novel: boy wants to go to lighthouse, mother says they will if it’s fine, father says it won’t be fine, they don’t go, they end up going years later, in our blog posts on the novel and both for entirely different reasons! I loved that was all there was to it! As you know, I don’t need a book to have plot in order to enjoy it but enjoyment is a very subjective thing and I read different books for different things; Woolf is my intellectual fix, where I can read a book to be lost in the prose, and a lot of readers don’t require that of their fiction and therefore have no need for Woolf.

    Virginia Woolf wrote a lot of non-fiction and I highly recommend A Room of One’s Own; although I am fond of her fiction, I’d pick up A Room of One’s Own over any one of them every time (except for when I’m looking for a novel ;) ).

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, For an intellectual fix I like to read about science or other complex theories – stretching my understanding of the world. I don’t find that Woolf stretches me intellectually, she only tests my boredom threshold!

      I like the idea of her non-fiction though – I’ll try it sometime soonish. Thanks for the recommendation and enjoy the rest of your Woolf reads!

  9. Jeane says:

    I tried to read this one recently, but just did not get very far.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jeane, If you love plots then I’m not sure it is worth trying again.

  10. cbjames says:

    My spouse loves Virginia Woolf. In fact, she’s one of the only novelists he’ll read at all. Usually, I make fun of him because of this. “Have you got to the part where she picks out a hat?” I ask. “They say that’s the best part.” There really are several pages about choosing what hat to wear in Mrs. Dalloway.

    You can guess, I’m not a fan. Her sentences are amazing. I think any randomly selected sentence from Virginia Woolf is likely to better than just about anything you can find. But her novels bore me to tears. I had to read several of them for graduate school where she is very popular.

    1. Jackie says:

      cbjames, I agree – you can pick out just about any sentence by itself and it will be fantastic, but it just doesn’t work as a novel. It should be classed as poetry (of which I’m not a fan) rahter than fiction.

  11. Emily says:

    As you can obviously tell from my post, Jackie, I adore Woolf in general and this novel in particular, but I totally understand that she’s not for everyone. For me there’s a lot that “happens,” but it’s mostly all internal to the different characters – that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Thanks for giving Lighthouse a go, at any rate!

    1. Jackie says:

      Emily, I am really pleased that I have tried her work, as at least I now have an understanding of her style. Sorry I didn’t love it as much as you did, but thank you for hosting the discussion.

  12. Rachel says:

    Well I love this book, but I have to be in the right mood to appreciate it for what it is – a set of beautifully depicted impressions, loosely linked together to form a non linear narrative. If I’m in the mood for something pacy I can’t be bothered with Woolf at all. So I see where you’re coming from. If you like a good page turner, which I know you do, you’re probably wise to keep clear, though – her early and very late novels are much more conventionally written and plotted so don’t write her off altogether as you might get on better with those. The Voyage Out is particularly good.

    1. Jackie says:

      Rachel, Thanks for the recommendation, but I’m still not convinced I’d be interested in trying one of her earlier novels. There would have to be such a change in style for me to even like it, let alone love it. I’m not sure an author can change that much. Perhaps I’ll appreciate these things more when I’m older?

  13. veronica says:

    I read “Mrs. Dalloway” last year and for a book that I think was less than 200 pages it took me almost a month to read. Her writing style just made me feel so very disconnected to everyone. I am not a fan of the run on sentence. While I know there are so many people who love her meandering style (as you so nicely put it), to me it just felt like there was little focus to her writing and that lack of focus and plot was buried under a facade of flowery language and imagery. I do not imagine I will be reading anything else by Virginia Woolf either.

    1. Jackie says:

      Veronica, I agree with you. I was very disconnected from the characters and found it strange that some people love them so much that they are crying – they must connect in a very different way to me.

      I don’t think there is any plot buried beneath the flowery language either LOL!

      1. veronica says:

        Flowery language often just makes me want to scream “No one talks like that!”

  14. pussreboots says:

    I haven’t read To the Lighthouse but I have read two others: Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando. Mrs. Dalloway I loved. Orlando I had to read in university and I didn’t give myself enough time to read. As you can imagine, I didn’t get much from the book under those circumstances. I really should go back and re-read Orlando.

    1. Jackie says:

      pussreboots, I’m not sure time is an issue for me. I am just a big fan of a good plot and don’t appreciate poetry. I don’t think Woolf is ever going to be for me, but I hope you enjoy your re-read of Orlando.

      1. pussreboots says:

        I haven’t read To The Lighthouse so I don’t know how it compares to the two books I have read.

  15. Jenners says:

    I keep hearing this about Woolf. I decided to try her this year just to see for myself. I picked Mrs. Dalloway. At least it doesn’t appear too long.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, They aren’t very long, but it takes a lot longer than you’d expect to finish one. Good luck with Mrs Dalloway.

  16. Jenny says:

    I haven’t read any Virginia Woolf yet – I’m very intimidated by her, and I am not crazy about books that are short on plot. Sounds like my impressions of her were pretty accurate…

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, It was different to what I expected, but not much more enjoyable. Perhaps you should try reading a few chapters, just so you know what it is like?

  17. Frances says:

    Having recently been described as a Woolf “fanatic,” I think you know where I fall for a Woolf read. And I think your reaction is a common one. There seems to be little in between for Virginia – the adoring fans and the “what the hell is the big deal?” folks.

    To me, this is a gorgeous novel of subjective realities coming together to form an enlightening whole, a novel about love and beauty.

    Thanks for giving it a try!

    1. Jackie says:

      Frances, It does seem to be a book that really divides people -there is no one in the middle ground saying it is OK.

  18. I really do applaud your effort here. I tend to put off reading authors I have a perception would be too “taxing” on my poor brain, mostly because I get too lazy. You’re inspiring me to give a few of them a try!

    1. Jackie says:

      Michele, I do try. I don’t like saying I don’t like something if I haven’t read it. I like to be able to back up my dislike with examples! I feel I should have read something by all of the really famous authors, so I can join in all the bookish chat at a book lover meet up!

  19. Aimee says:

    Hi Jackie – I too found this an easy, but slightly confusing read. I enjoyed the images as well though, and came away from reading it with a deep sense of pleasure.


    1. Jackie says:

      Aimee, I’m pleased you were able to come away with a sense of pleasure – I just had a sense of disappointment.

  20. I’m sorry you didn’t get on well with this, although, I do really want to read it. There’s something extremely captivating about her writing, and while I don’t have the inclination to read her books back-to-back, I do want to read some more of her works after Mrs. Dalloway.

    Somehow, I think I’ll make my peace with beautiful prose, despite the lack of plot. As you know, I’m a sucker for poetic writing, and Woolf does fit the bill. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      anothercookiecrumbles, If you are a fan of poetic writing then I’m sure you’ll love Lighthouse. I’m not a fan of reading books by the same author in a row, so I understand you’re desire not to pick up more than one. I’m sure you’ll love this if you pick it up in a year or two.

  21. Karen says:

    I think you have made the perfect distinction in your post Jackie about plot v character novels – I am very much a fan of the latter. I can read a book set in entirely in one scene as long as I am interested in the characters and what they are thinking/saying. I think that’s why I am enjoying Woolf’s novels so much but I can definitely see that they would be frustrating for a reader who likes a good plot.

    1. Jackie says:

      Karen, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a book set in a single scene. Luckily I’ve just read a book with a fantastic plot, so my reading is back on track!

  22. Beth F says:

    Have you read A Room of Her Own? I haven’t read it in ages, but that’s usually what I think of when I think of Woolf.

  23. Melody says:

    Though I’d love to try reading her books, I admit I’m also a little intimidated by her writing style. Still, I’ll let my reading mood decide and if the right time comes along, I’ll read them.

  24. Care says:

    Boring? OK. Not me, I think I enjoy getting lost in tunnels of thoughts.
    I just love Woolf – I do.

  25. Flo says:

    I found that I enjoyed reading Woolf much more when I had read some biographies and some of her diaries. She wrote almost everyday for most of her life and I am fascinated by that, as much as I am about her novels. To the Lighthouse isn’t a traditional plot novel so reading it with that expectation wont do it justice, but if that is not the style of book you enjoy then that is fair enough. I really enjoyed your review and will be following your blog

    1. Jackie says:

      Flo, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time! I do enjoy novels with a plot so this one waasn’t for me, but I do hope you decide to follow my blog and that we can discuss many more books in the future.

  26. sigfredo says:

    Somebody has compared Virginia Woolf to James Joyce, whose A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a favorite of mine, but frankly I can’t sense any semblance between their works. One might suspect Woolf tries to create moods and regulate tones, as a painter plays with hues, but it’s so difficult to follow her characters’ train of thought. I’ve tried to read To the Lighthouse a number of times but I always end up confused. And bored to death.

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