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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


To the Lighthouse coverI was. But not anymore, because I will almost certainly never read her again.

Last week, about a year after slogging through Mrs Dalloway, I experienced a familiar torturous sensation while reading through To the Lighthouse. Why did I put myself through this again?

Because she is Important: all the critics say so. Lighthouse is ranked #10 on the list of the best novels of the 20th century I compiled using critical and popular appraisals culled from various online sources. Mrs Dalloway is at #37. It is upon these two novels Virginia Woolf’s reputation as an important modernist writer rests.

And because of that Importance and my meaningless and quixotic goal of reading all the “great” novels (and “great”–the term here is relative–mystery and science fiction novels) of my time, I put myself through it.

Woolf is best known for these two “streams of consciousness” novels in which what little action does occur occurs inside of her character’s heads. (I use the plural “streams” deliberately.) Plot development? Not much.

Mrs Dalloway coverReading these books makes me feel I am a butterfly flying almost randomly into and out of the heads of characters. In To the Lighthouse particularly, the streams of consciousness emanate dizzily from one character after another in quick succession. It is only with concentrated effort I can follow the threads. A single paragraph often includes the buzzing of more than character’s head, and transitions from one to another are often subtle.

The first half of the book follows the events of a single day and is comprised largely of the buzzing inside of Mrs Ramsay’s head. She dies offstage during a short transitional section of the novel (that covers a period of ten years) before the events of another single day close the novel.

Below is a single paragraph of two sentences that makes up a part of the introduction to Mrs Ramsay:

But here, as she turned the page, suddenly her search for the picture of a rake or a mowing-machine was interrupted. The gruff murmur, irregularly broken by the taking out of pipes and the putting in of pipes which had kept on assuring her, though she could not hear what was said (as she sat in the window which opened on the terrace), that the men were happily talking; this sound, which had lasted now half an hour and had taken its place soothingly in the scale of sounds pressing on top of her, such as the tap of balls upon bats, the sharp, sudden bark now and then, “How’s that? How’s that?” of the children playing cricket, had ceased; so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, “I am guarding you-I am your support,” but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow-this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror.

There is beauty there, but to read paragraph after paragraph and sentence after sentence of this can feel a lot like work. Maybe my retirement has left me unable to appreciate the rewards of such effort.

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is listed at #10 on Bachblog’s
113 Great Novels of the 20th Century. It was first published in 1927. Her Mrs Dalloway is listed at #37 and was published in 1925.

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