Literary theoretical analysis of Virginia Woolf’s To the Light House

Woolf’s novel was a ground breaking work at the time of its publication in 1927.  It broke away from the literary tradition of narrative, plot based story-telling. Instead the work experimented with impressionistic and modernist methods of art, borrowing from their successful implementation in the visual arts. In his insightful essay, Jonathan Culler enlists five observations on the nature of literature. It makes for an interesting scholarly exercise to examine which of these points apply to Virginia Woolf’s novel.  This essay will argue that the presence of both the properties and consequences of the language of Woolf make it a characteristically literary.

Woolf’s novel was a ground breaking work at the time of its publication in 1927.  It broke away from the literary tradition of narrative, plot based story-telling. Instead the work experimented with impressionistic and modernist methods of art, borrowing from their successful implementation in the visual arts. In his insightful essay, Jonathan Culler enlists five observations on the nature of literature. It makes for an interesting scholarly exercise to examine which of these points apply to Virginia Woolf’s novel.  This essay will argue that the presence of both the properties and consequences of the language of Woolf make it a characteristically literary.  Stream of consciousness is the technique used by Woolf to explore the thought processes of the characters.  However, Woolf does not employ it in the fragmented prose form that is identified with James Joyce. Instead she brings order within the disorderly working of individual consciousness by making her prose lyrical.  Through apt and vivid imagery, Woolf is able to knit together the disjointed thoughts of several of the novel’s characters into a unifying whole. What emerge through this exercise are themes of human loneliness, insecurity, loss, anguish and longing.  But the overall experience of the novel is far from tragic. To the contrary, the reader is taken on an intimate journey into the most personal and most inaccessible reaches of the character’s inner churnings.  A successful cathartic effect is experienced by the reader through the linguistic virtuosity of Woolf.

According to Culler one of the features of the nature of literature is its use to ‘foreground’ language. In his own words,

“Literariness is often said to lie above all in the organization of language that makes literature distinguishable from language used for other purposes.  Literature is language that ‘foregrounds’ language itself: makes it strange, thrusts it at you – ‘Look I’m language!’ – so you can’t forget that you are dealing with language shaped in odd ways.” (p.28)

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