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Woolf, To the Lighthouse


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We finished Thursday's class on two points: [a] the meaning of "R" (which Mr. Ramsay can't reach through reason; it also happens to be his own initial) and of "Q" (on which he is stuck); and [b] Jeff's wonderful point that Mrs. Ramsay is, in some sense, the Lighthouse of the title: she is conceived as a columnar, radiant object (she "pour[s] erect into the air a rain of energy...burning and illuminating," p. 37); she looks at the Lighthouse and feels that "her own eyes [are] meeting her own eyes" (p. 63); she devotes her energies to keeping people off the social rocks (see esp. the dinner party, pp. 86-111).

These observations set us up to make even more progress with the symbolic language of the novel:

  • What is the relationship, in this novel, between knowledge and self-knowledge? (And, how to get from "Q," the question letter, to "R," the self-knowledge letter?)
  • Look again at the central, dinner party section of the novel (we will be looking at this passage, pp. 86-111, in class): how many symbolic/evocative "lighthouses" are present at this dinner?
    • Since Homer, food has been seen as representing the human connection to life (Achilles refuses to eat after Patroklos's death; then, grieves with Priam, and breaks bread with him). In this context, what layers of additional symbolism accrue to the dinner party?
  • How do you read the last section of the novel, in which we at last (both titularly and dramatically) make it "To the Lighthouse"?

Mother text vs. Father text
       "We think back through our mothers, if we are women."

While some of you remain skeptical of my claim that Woolf, in this novel, sets up a "mother text" to rival or complement the "father text" to which we have been exposed almost throughout Lit. Hum., I'd nonetheless like you to give some thought to the issue. First of all, think about some major examples of the "father text":

  • Achilles--Peleus [/--Zeus/--Patroklos/--Priam]
  • Hektor--Priam
  • Telemachus--Odysseus
  • Orestes--Agamemnon (Oresteia: & think about what happens to mothers at the end of this trilogy!)
  • Oedipus--Laius
  • Aeneas--Anchises

and try to derive some features of the "father text" from them (use induction!):

  • the pursuit of kleos
  • quest, journey, "odyssey"
  • Oedipal struggle (to surpass or overcome the father)
  • Telemachic/Orestian struggle (to live up to or avenge the father)
  • linear trajectory (live life from "A" to "Z," steadily acquiring kleos)
  • others?

and think about how all this gets complicated by metaphysics (the Symposium: appropriation of "pregnancy" and "giving birth" from the female sphere to the male), and especially by the introduction of God the Father into Western discourse, with the spread of Christianity: e.g., Augustine suppresses his human father in order to position himself as a character with one human parent (Monica) and one divine one (God)--like Achilles, Aeneas, et al.

By contrast, we have seen only one "mother text" all year: the Hymn to Demeter (Demeter--Persephone). Can we use this in any way to help us figure out what Woolf is trying do in To the Lighthouse? What are the features of the "mother text" Woolf is proposing as an alternative to the venerable "father text" in Western literature? And is it an alternative? (What, e.g., does Lily need to get by?)

Additional study questions

  1. In addition to the lighthouse, other things in the novel take on symbolic value, such as the waves, the skull, the magazine James plays with, the house, the table. Pick one thing that is both a material object and a symbol and analyze its importance.

  2. To the Lighthouse experiments with the narrative representation of time. How does this work? Given that "Time Passes" is explicitly about this subject, what observations can you make about the way time is represented in this and/or in the other two sections of the novel?

  3. Why is it significant that Lily Briscoe is an artist? What is the significance of her painting? What is her relationship to other characters in the novel? Why is she unable to finish the painting in the first section of the novel? What does it mean that she returns to it in "The Lighthouse"? What is the "vision" that she has had by the end of the novel?

  4. What did you learn from this book?

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