THE WAR IN TO THE LIGHTHOUSE Geovana Chiari UFSCar – Universidade Federal de Sao Carlos Abstract This article is an attempt to elucidate the references to war in To the lighthouse, in a historical perspective by trying to convey how the novel miniaturizes a historical moment for Europe. Yet in a modest way, Virginia Woolf incorporates war into her novel, not in an overt historical or political perspective, but through the characters’ minds, using a symbolic language. Most of the literary works concerning this novel focus on aspects related to stream of consciousness or interior monologue.
Therefore, taking into consideration the lack of exploration of the theme War in this context, this article aims to present how the World War 1 and some of its consequences are figured in To the lighthouse. Introduction […] for our generation and the generation that is coming, the lyric cry of ecstasy or despair, which is so intense, so personal, and so limited, is not enough . . . [and] it is in this atmosphere of doubt and conflict that writers have now to create”.
(WOOLF, 1927, p. 75)
To the lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), was published in London in 1927. This book is considered one of her masterpieces that brought development of the novel to England, and recognition to the author. In 1928, she won the Prix Femina for this work, which is considered one of the best foreign books that gained her the reputation as one of Britain’s most important living authors. In 1925, Woolf presented the theme of War in Mrs. Dalloway. In this novel, her criticism against war and the patriarchal society is political, sharp, and overt.
However, the treatment of World War I is different in To the Lighthouse, since her methods became more abstract and less dependent on dialogue as well as on narrative. In this novel, Woolf breaks with the traditional and conventional narrative, focusing on what is happening in the characters’ minds. As Auerbach (1976, p. 481) asserts, in her fiction, the writer as the narrator of objective facts has almost completely vanished; almost everything stated appears by way of reflection in the consciousness of the dramatis personae.
Obviously, the other writers tried to make subjective representations of their characters, using indirect discourse or monologue. However, in these cases, they almost never tried to reproduce the functioning of consciousness, as Woolf did. Writing from multiple perspectives, she presents existential conflicts that are related to the human psychology, such as: death, disorientation, love, opposition between reason and emotion, despair, isolation of the decade, and so forth. It is possible to infer that most of these conflicts were consequences of the historical context.
Miller (2011) states that Woolf’s historical moment in England was one of tremendous and chaotic uncertainty; one of World War I, the death of a generation of men, social shifts in gender and class roles, and technological developments that allowed for the partial mastering of nature to all of these intertwined to contribute to a shift in human character and human relations and when human relations change, there is a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature at the same time. New conceptions and different ideas were being created, considering the new realities.
Therefore, the Great War, as the modernism, demanded a different kind of writing. According to Auerbach (1976, p. 481), during the I World War and after, Europe was extremely rich in thoughts and also developed in insecure ways of life. Writers, distinguished by instincts and intelligence found a process in which reality was dissolved in multiple reflections of consciousness. The emergence of the process at this time is not difficult to understand. The idea of “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” (YEATS, 1919) is confirmed in Virginia’s context.
It was impossible to consider that everything is organized, conceiving just one idea. Woolf breaks with certainties, questions her society, the patriarchal society, human relations, and so forth. The center becomes the individual’s inner state, who tries to understand what is happening, trying to find a way to solve the problems. The idea of individual’s fragmentation was theorized by Sigmund Freud. In his psychoanalytic theory, he claims that the individual is divided in three parts of personality, known as the Id, Ego e Super-ego.
These three elements working together would create complex human behaviors. Fragmentation, uncertainty, complexity of human relationships, and despair were some of the characteristics from Virginia’s context. Considering that she incorporates war into her novel and presents some of the consequences of this moment, this article is an attempt to elucidate the references to war in To the lighthouse, in a historical perspective, trying to show how the novel miniaturizes a historical moment for Europe. A Brief Historical Context: World War I
The First World War was a military confrontation, and it took place between 1914 and 1918, which involved countries, such as France, Germany, USA, Russia and so forth. It required the recruitment of not only the army, but also of production. Such recruitment made the economy and politics blighted; each country became in charge of its own economy and each citizen was influenced to become part of the army to fight and defend their nation. One of the motives to the Great War was the inequality between nations, however, the murder of Prince Francis Ferdinand set off a chain of events that would lead to the start of the Great War.
There are estimations that around nine million soldiers died in this war. Counting the civilian deaths and other victims of diseases, the number of deaths surpassed 40 million around the world. At the same time, the technology was developing and advancing very rapidly. Tanks, submarines, airplanes, motorized vehicles, trucks, cars, trains were created and improved, however, all of them were used to destroy. Plot Summary To the lighthouse is divided into three sections: The window, Time passes, and The lighthouse. The action occurs in two days, separated by ten years.
The first part, called “The window”, describes a day during the summer vacation, on the west coast of Scotland, where the Ramsays receive their guests: Lily Briscoe, a painter; Augustus Carmichael, a poet; William Bankes, a scientist; and Charles Tansley, a young philosopher. This novel focuses on a conflict raised by the young James Ramsay about the possibility of going to the Lighthouse the next day. It creates a tension atmosphere, due to the different opinions between the Ramsays. In the second part, “Time passes”, Mrs. Ramsay died, her eldest son, Andrew, was killed during World War I, and Prue, her daughter, died during childbirth.
Their house becomes isolated, decomposed by the time. At the end of this part, the painter Lily Briscoe and the poet Augustus Carmichael return to this place. Lily Briscoe takes the role of Mrs. Ramsay as a housewife. The housemaids try to clean and restore the house. In the last part, called “the Lighthouse”, Mr. Ramsay, his son, James, and others, go to the lighthouse, a trip delayed for years. James, who is sixteen years old, forgives his father, while Lily Briscoe accomplishes her objective of painting something inspired by Mrs. Ramsay.
References to War in To the lighthouse “The Window”, the first section, is set before World War I, and some of the events narrated in this part could be considered as a prelude to an imminent war, although it is not the central part of the novel. Woolf uses vocabulary of war, referring to it in an indirect way, and also dialogues with war poetry. One of these references is presented in chapter one and six, when James, the Ramsays’ youngest child, sits on the floor carefully cutting out pictures from the Army and Navy Stores catalogue.
James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. ” (WOOLF, 1982, p. 4) She stroked James’s head; she transferred to him what she felt for her husband, and, as she watched him chalk yellow the white dress shirt of a gentleman in the Army and Navy Stores catalogue, thought what a delight it would be to her should he turn out a great artist; and why should he not? (WOOLF, 1982, p. 27) Still in this first section, Mrs.
Ramsay describe some characteristics of her sons and daughters, for instance, difference of opinion, divisions, prejudice, and so forth, as exemplified by the excerpt below: Strife, divisions, difference of opinion, prejudices twisted into the very fibre of being, oh, that they should begin so early, Mrs Ramsay deplored. They were so critical, her children. They talked such nonsense. She went from the dining-room, holding James by the hand, since he would not go with the others. It seemed to her such nonsense—inventing differences, when people, heaven knows, were different enough without that.
The real differences, she thought, standing by the drawing-room window, are enough, quite enough. (WOOLF, 1982, p. 8) Some of these characteristics of her children are the same features that led to war. Feelings of isolation, sadness and uncertainty are figured by Mrs. Ramsay, when she takes her place at the dinner table and wonders what she has done with her life. As she observes her guests, she sees the true shabbiness of the room, the isolation among her guests, and the lack of beauty of that place.
These feelings are emphasized by the symbol of the boar’s skull hanging on the wall of James Ramsay’s nursery. This juxtaposition between the youth and the dead could be interpreted as the inevitability toward death, a reminder that all things will pass away, given enough time. There are also references of the poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854), from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s. It described a disastrous battle in the Crimean War and praised the heroism of the British soldiers there. Mr. Ramsay recites some sentences from this poem, such as:
Some one had blundered (WOOLF, 1982, p. 27) He shivered; he quivered. All his vanity, all his satisfaction in his own splendour, riding fell as a thunderbolt, fierce as a hawk at the head of his men through the valley of death, had been shattered, destroyed. Stormed at by shot and shell, boldly we rode and well, flashed through the valley of death, volleyed and thundered straight into Lily Briscoe and William Bankes. He quivered; he shivered. (WOOLF, 1982, p. 27) This poem dialogues with Mr. Ramsay’s state of mind and anxiety about being ecognized and his work remembered by future generations. Levenback (1999) affirms that he (Mr. Ramsay) is drawing on the same sentimental myth of war that moves Jacob Flanders and Septimus Smith, and the eldest Ramsay son, Andrew to enlist, and die. Woolf while linking war to a childish game and Mr. Ramsay vainglorious attempt to preserve his own honor, to the praises given to the soldiers in that poem, Woolf embodies, in this first section, “the pervasive sense of sentimentality and myth that invited participation in and support for the Great War, but disallowed its reality. (LEVENBACK, 1999, p. 93). Such statements can be considered as allusions to the destruction caused by the war and also to the feelings and motives that lead to World War I. The atmosphere of “The Window” starts bright and optimistic, considering the beach, the lively children, and that many of the characters have positive prospects. However, like a wave, the feeling of harmony comes and goes for the Ramsays, establishing a rhythm between chaos and order. In the second part, “Time passes”, the theme of war becomes more emphasized, breaking with Victorian past.
The structure of To the lighthouse also reflects some of the impacts and consequences of the I World War. The rhythm of the novel changes and the pace of the narrative seems to accelerate in this section. While “The window” deals with the duration of a single afternoon and evening into ninety-five pages, focusing mostly in the characters’ mind, “Time Passes” compresses ten years into twenty pages, letting objective reality gradually appear. It shows that, in this section, Woolf chooses to figure the effects of time on objects and on the house rather than on human emotion.
The war period (1914 – 1918) is represented by the death of many characters, such as Mrs. Ramsay, Andrew Ramsay, and Prue Ramsay and also the house’s deterioration. The Ramsay’s house became flooded by darkness; people, furniture seem to disappear; the only movement is the wind that blows inside the house. The excerpts below give a glimpse about the house’s situation: So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof a down pouring 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 (WOOLF, 1982, p. 102) At length, desisting, all ceased together, gathered together, all sighed together; all together gave off an aimless gust of lamentation to which some door in the kitchen replied; swung wide; admitted nothing; and slammed to. (WOOLF, 1982, p. 103) The feelings of sadness, isolation, deterioration, emptiness, destruction, can be compared to the feelings brought on by the war: The nights now are full of wind and destruction (WOOLF, 1982, p. 04) So with the house empty and the doors locked and the mattresses rolled round, those stray airs, advance guards of great armies, blustered in, brushed bare boards, nibbled and fanned, met nothing in bedroom or drawing-room that wholly resisted them but only hangings that flapped, wood that creaked, the bare legs of tables, saucepans and china already furred, tarnished, cracked. (WOOLF, 1982, p. 106) The house was left; the house was deserted. (WOOLF, 1982, p. 116)
According to Wussow (1998), the decomposition of the Ramsay household has its parallel in the collapse of world order”–the wallpaper flaps and fades, plaster falls, [and] the books grow mold”. The war surely breaks with many of the old ways of life, representing a change in social climate. After a while, once the war is over, housemaids go the house to clean and try to restore it, returning to a routine after the war. Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast, for example, lead an effort to clean up the house, rescue objects, fight against the effects of time and, after much work, get the house back in order and cleaned.
Mrs. Bast predicted that despite efforts to restore and clean the house to its prewar state, the Ramsay family would find it changed (WOOLF, 1982, p. 118). Lily returns to the house, and listens to the sea while lying in bed, and the sense of peace returns again. In this section, Woolf presents the deaths – Andrew, who dies fighting in the war; and Prue, who dies in childbirth – in parentheses, for instance: (A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous. ) (WOOLF, 1982, p. 11) (Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well. ) (WOOLF, 1982, p. 110) The announcement of deaths is presented as pieces of news; it emphasizes the consequences of war, in a depersonalized way, since they are not reported as personal experiences with sentimentalism. Moreover, it is possible to interpret the first announcement as an ironic sentence, considering that the phrase “twenty or thirty” can suggest disregard for the people who died. Deaths became only imprecise statistics.
There was plaster fallen in the hall […] the carpet was ruined quite, […] And once they had been coming, but had put off coming, what with the war, and travel being so difficult these days. (WOOLF, 1982, p. 114). […] everyone had lost some one these years (WOOLF, 1982, p. 115). These excerpts from “Time passes”, some of them in a figurative way, try to show the consequences of war related to the availability and cost of goods and services, the impediments to travel, and the frequency of death. Mrs. Ramsay’s death, for instance, is presented through the mind of her husband: “Mr.
Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty. ” (WOOLF, 1982, p. 105). To describe her death, the past perfect participle is used. Somehow, it diminishes its importance, considering that by the time the death is announced, she is already a phantom. This middle section gives the sense that the war affected not only memory of the prewar time, but also the understanding of the postwar period, since the house changed due to the war.
In the last chapters of “Time passes”, the references to war are deleted. Only with the housemaids’ hard work, the restoration and cleanness were possible, compounding a force working. Therefore, the prewar house and its contents were not forgotten. However, they (The Ramsays) would find it much changed. The World War I surely represented a change in the world as a whole, and people could not deny it. In a way, the novel makes references and miniaturizes a historical moment for Europe. “Time Passes” brings to the Ramsays destruction, chaos, instability, as far as that inflicted on Europe by World War I.
When the Ramsay family comes back to their summer home, depleted and uncertain, they figure the postwar condition of an entire continent. The third section of the novel describes the attempts of the survivors, such as James and Cam Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay, and Lily Briscoe, to make sense of what they have lost. It can also be associated to the losses due to the war. Lily, for instance, while having breakfast, starts to wonder what her feelings mean, ten years after Mrs. Ramsay died. However, Lily does not know how to describe her own feelings.
What does it mean then, what can it all mean? Lily Briscoe asked herself. (WOOLF, 1982, p. 122) She concludes that the house is composed by “unrelated passions”, disconnected desires and personalities. The house, as a metaphor to the postwar world, is seen as chaotic and aimless. “But it was a house full of unrelated passions—she had felt that all the evening. (WOOLF, 1982, p. 125) The painter, as well as other characters, try to relieve their frustration with the past, taking their memories, in order to create something new.
The theme of death and war are mainly presented through Lily’s consciousness. According to Winter (1995), war memorials, literature, and art that adopted resources from set traditions “provided a way of remembering which enabled the bereaved to live with their losses, and perhaps to leave them behind”. Another reference to the cruelty from the world can be observed in the sixth chapter of this section. While the Ramsays were sailing toward the lighthouse, the fisherman’s boy cuts a piece from a fish that he has caught, and then throws its body into the sea.
This narrated event is in the chapter VI, and it is presented in parenthesis – like the deaths – in just two sentences long: (Macalister’s boy took one of the fish and cut a square out of its side to bait his hook with. The mutilated body – it was alive still – was thrown back into the sea. ) (WOOLF, 1982, p. 151) Considering that, despite the violence, the fish was still alive, it is possible to infer that the fish could represent the paradox of a cruel world where survival is something possible. Although this world was described as extremely cruel, there is a chance to survive.
To the Lighthouse is full of symbols – The boar’s head, Lily’s painting, the lighthouse, the mutilated fish – that have no easy interpretation, and require us not to conceive just one meaning, but a multiplicity of significations. The Ramsays were symbolically free from the postwar situation, isolated from the rest of the world, while they were going to the lighthouse. However, the guest Lily was still in the house, trying to finish the picture she started to paint before the war. The artist succeeded, because she had a vision that provided the “razor edge of balance” between the prewar and postwar word.
Woolf suggest “that a balance may be found not in individual experience of the war, or even in one’s memory of it, but in recognizing how best to accommodate changes that it brought about” (Lenvenback, 1999, p. 113). For Lily, trying to understand her way with the picture and with her memories and hypotheses from the past, she sees a chaotic present. Contrary to her, there are other characters that treated the prewar world with indifference, such as Augustus Carmichael – who does not have memories of it – and Cam Ramsay – who denies the past and focus on the present life. For Mr.
Ramsay, the memories from prewar make the postwar world more conflictive – Something, he remembered, stayed flourished up in the air, something arid and sharp descended even there, like a blade, a scimitar, smiting through the leaves and flowers even of that happy world and making it shrivel and fall. (WOOLF, 1982, p. 156) The lighthouse can be considered as symbol of epiphany, in a postwar world where the centre cannot be hold. There are, for instance, three different attempts to deal with the chaos and give a meaning to life. Mr. Ramsay fails to progress in his knowledge; Mrs.
Ramsay dies before her children marry; and the only one who succeeded was Lily, finishing her painting. She accomplished it in bringing harmony to the conflicting elements. Yet indirectly, Virginia Woolf presents the theme of war. In the first chapters, war is considered kid’s stuff. Some of the events narrated through the characters’ mind prelude to an imminent war, for example, feelings of isolation, sadness and uncertainty, besides the characteristics of Mrs. Ramsay’s children that can also be considered an allusion to war, once that they are the same features that will lead to confrontation.
In “Time passes” the war is seen as something destructive that can damage and destroy the house. The World War I represented a change in the world as a whole, and people could not deny it. In the third section, it is possible to observe that war changed not only the house, but also people’s mind, their memories and expectations. They made different attempts to deal with the changes, in order to give a meaning to life. In doing so, Woolf dialogues with all generation, exploring different human states and feelings, through multiple perspectives, in an innovative way.
As Maria Elisa Cevasco (1993) states, Woolf’s narrative eliminates traditional elements from the novel, and it forces us to weigh and judge the various perspectives she presents through her characters’ consciousness. Her narrative allowed her to figure social issues in psychological aspects. REFERENCES AUERBACH, Erich. Mimesis: a representacao da realidade na literatura Ocidental. Traducao de George Bernard Sperber. 2? Edicao revisada. Sao Paulo: Perspectiva, 1976 (Colecao Estudos – Critica, 2). CEVASCO, Maria Elisa; SIQUEIRA, Valter Lellis. Rumos da Literatura Inglesa. Sao Paulo: Atica, 1993.
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