To The Lighthouse By Virginia Woolf

2447 words - 10 pages

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

When speaking of modernism in the work Virginia Woolf, scholars too readily use her innovations in style and technique as the starting point for critical analysis, focusing largely on the ways in which her prose represents a departure from the conventional novel in both style and content. To simply discuss the extent of her unique style, however, is to overlook the role of tradition in her creation of a new literary identity. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf's invention reveals itself instead as a reinvention, a recasting of the conventional through the use of the traditional. Within the text, this relationship manifests itself in Lily Briscoe's relationship with Mrs. Ramsay and the extent to which the domestic woman influences Lily Briscoe's own reinvention of her feminine identity (Barett 33). But Woolf’s reliance on the traditional as a means of reinvention runs deeper than the prose alone; it extends into the very structure and arrangement of the narrative itself, where Woolf considered To the Lighthouse an elegy to her parents rather than a novel. Such a distinction does more than simply underscore Woolf’s intention in writing To the Lighthouse; the invocation of the classical Greek poetic form demands a reconsideration of the work’s structural and rhetorical influences. As this essay will suggest, a critical analysis of Woolf’s elegiac aims in To the Lighthouse does not merely illuminate its autobiographical nature, but also reveals the extent to which the traditional concept of elegy shapes Woolf’s modernist construction of space-time.

Before examining the effect of the elegiac structure within the text, however, it is necessary to define more specifically the concept of the Greek elegy. Defined narrowly, an elegy is a poem lamenting the dead, appearing most frequently as a funeral song, but can also be considered more broadly as a reflection on the death of a person or moment in time, or even on death itself (Oxford English Dictionary). To the Lighthouse most appropriately fits this latter definition, where Woolf’s own discourse suggests a similar understanding of the term (Zwerdling 180). In a diary entry of 1928, Woolf notes her reluctance to consider To the Lighthouse a novel, describing it instead as a final act of remembrance: “I used to think of him [father] and mother daily” she recalled, “but writing The Lighthouse laid them in my mind.” In another entry the same year, Woolf describes To the Lighthouse as a burial rite, a cathartic elegy in which she “expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion…and in expressing it explained it, and then laid it to rest.” Contemporary scholars of Woolf’s work have similarly affirmed the importance of the concept of elegy within To the Lighthouse, asserting as Eavan Boland does that the true text of To the Lighthouse is undoubtedly Mrs. Ramsay, a figurative representation of Julia Duckworth Stephen, Woolf’s mother (Boland 10)....

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