“Lighthouses are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation, and our ultimate connectedness to each other.”
– Virginia Woolf.
I have always found lighthouses to be Romantic places. I’m not alone in that notion. The first lighthouse I visited as a child was at Sandy Hook in my home state of New Jersey. I did not climb to the top. It might not have been open for that back in the day or there might have been a height requirement. (I was a little guy.) The second lighthouse i visited was a bit further south. “Old Barney” is the nickname of Barnegat Light at the tip of Long Beach Island in New Jersey.
As a young man, I imagined that being a lighthouse keeper would be a good job of a writer. Isolation, few distractions, a wide view of the world. (In college, I actually tried to get a job as a fire tower lookout – but that’s a tale for later.)
“Inside my empty bottle, I was constructing a lighthouse
while all the others were making ships.” – Charles Simic
When Virginia Woolf was 11, she took a boat trip to Godrevy Lighthouse. Virginia (born Adeline Virginia Stephen) and her family did summer vacations from London in Cornwall and their summer rental looked out at St. Ives Bay.
As an adult writer, she used those summer trips in her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse. She changed the location to the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides, Scotland.
I was assigned that novel in college and found it a challenging read. I liked the idea of a family going on their visits to the Isle of Skye (a great name for an island) and I suppose I tried to connect that with my own family’s childhood visits to the Jersey Shore. But it is a Modernist novel and I wasn’t quite ready for that at 19. In that college course, we also read Marcel Proust and James Joyce. I grew up on plot-driven, linear stories and I still prefer them in novels and in films. I guess I’m old school in my literary tastes. Those novels did not thrill me.
Modernist novels get into philosophical introspection, with little dialogue and (I’m not being insulting here) very little action. Her novel is full of thoughts and observations about both the recollection of childhood memories and adult relationships.
In 1940, Virginia wrote “In retrospect nothing that we had as children made as much difference, was quite so important to us, as our summer in Cornwall,” The family went there for thirteen summers but after Julia, Virginia’s mother, died, they never returned.
I had to look online for a reminder of the novel’s plot and structure. It is an especially hard plot to recall since there is so little plot. One “action” is the inaction of a postponed visit to the lighthouse.
“To the Lighthouse, considered by many to be Virginia Woolf’s finest novel, is a remarkably original work, showing the thoughts and actions of the members of a family and their guests on two separate occasions, ten years apart. The setting is Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s house on a Scottish island, where they traditionally take their summer holidays, overlooking a bay with a lighthouse. In 1998, the Modern Library named To the Lighthouse No. 15 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.”
Reading about the novel, one person noted from a 2020 perspective that it is a good example of “social distancing.” Critics love the book and toss out phrases like “the vagaries of consciousness,” “a titan of modernism,”
I have attempted some of the other novels of Virginia Woolf since college. I tried listening to an audiobook version of Mrs. Dalloway this past summer. I don’t advise the audio format for Woolf. I love audiobooks but I think Modernist literature as audio tends to just wash over me. I get swept away by the stream of consciousness swirling in my head.
When the professor discussed Woolfherself in class, I was fascinated by her – much more than I was interested in her novel. That is still true.
“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” – Anne Lamott
I read Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours, when it came out and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. (I also enjoyed the film version of The Hours with its stellar cast including Meryl Streep , Julianne Moore , Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris)
The Hours is also a book that experiments with time, though not in the same way as Woolf. Like Woolf’s novel, it has three parts. Each section is the story of one day in a woman’s life. One is the story of Virgina Woolf (Kidman) as she begins writing Mrs. Dalloway. (Virginia’s working title for her book was The Hours.) A second plot is set in modern-day New York with Clarissa (Streep) at the side of her poet friend dying from AIDS and planning a party in his honor. Plot three is about Laura (Moore) who lives near Los Angeles in 1949 and is questioning her life rather normal suburban life.
Do the stories intertwine and finally come together? Yes. Do I love that kind of plot structure? Not really, but I must be in the minority because it is such a common structure in novels, films, and television today. But in Cunningham’s novel, the plot moves in a linear fashion with the three stories but takes time hops. He follows Woolf’s 3 stories of 3 women who have all been somehow affected by Woolf’s novel.
It’s odd that this playing with time and consciousness annoys me because I am a big fan of time travel and consciousness and read and write about both things often. I also like the odd synchronicities in the background of stories and lives. For example, in The Hours, Clarissa on her way to a man’s apartment thinks she sees Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep ended up playing Clarissa in the movie adaptation. In the book, Clarissa later thinks it actually might have been Vanessa Redgrave that she saw on the street and Redgrave played Clarissa Dalloway in the 1997 film version of Mrs. Dalloway.
Lighthouses have been used in literature and cinema as symbols for a long time. They are built to withstand powerful storms and pounding waves and might to symbolize strength, safety, individuality, and obviously act as a beacon and guide and therefore as hope.
Though Woolf would never use it this way, they often appear as Christian symbols. Ben Franklin also would dismiss that kind of association. He wrote, “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.”