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

In terms of properties and consequences with respect to the fictionality of Woolf’s work, they both appear muted.  It must be remembered that though a work of fiction, the ideas for the novel are largely derived from Woolf’s personal life. Mrs. Ramsay is taken after the author’s mother. For example, this observation of Mrs. Ramsay is equally true of Woolf’s mother: “They came to her, naturally, since she was a woman, all day long with this and that; one wanting this, another that; the children were growing up; she often felt she was nothing but a sponge sopped full of human emotions.” (p.140) Likewise, the character of Lily Briscoe is taken after Woolf’s sister who was also a painter. And the wish to go to the lighthouse is based on a similar plea made by her brother Adrian to their parents. There are numerous other details of the novel which are based on real people, real places and real events pertaining to the author’s life. But this understanding does not diminish the fictionality of the novel, for personal experiences are transposed onto a fictional plane, wherein the characters and settings are imagined.

The fourth observation raised by Culler is Literature as aesthetic object.  He says,

“The features of literature discussed so far – the supplementary levels of linguistic organization, the separation from practical contexts of utterance, the fictional relation to the world – may be brought together under the general heading of the aesthetic function of language. Aesthetics is historically the name for the theory of art and has involved debates about whether beauty is an objective property of works of art or a subjective response of viewers, and about the relation of the beautiful to the true and the good” (p.32)

While the psychological probing and thematic rigor of Woolf’s novel is obvious, its aesthetic is not easily visible. For all its psychological depth and detailed exploration of motifs, the novel would have failed if there was no “linguistic organization, as well as separation from practical contexts of utterance”. In other words, in order to engage the reader toward the somewhat dry and distressful themes the medium would have to be made appealing. At some places in the novel, even merely Woolf’s prose style can stand alone in merit. When we add to it a narrative context then the overall synergy is quite impressive. Here is an illustration: ““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.” (p.123)

When evaluating the weight of subjective and objective elements in the novel’s aesthetic, we find a good balance. The objective properties of the text deserve recognition as art.  Equally, the subjective consequences upon the reader’s comprehension and emotional response are of the highest order.  In this passage, we evidence a satisfactory fulfilling of aesthetic criteria: ““Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one? for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had thought, leaning her head on Mrs. Ramsay’s knee.” (p.78) Whether or not the content is ‘true and good’ is a value judgment to be made by the individual reader.

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