Virginia Woolf was born in 1882. Her father was a Victorian man of letters, so she grew up in a literary and intellectual atmosphere: her education consisted of private Greek lessons and access to her father's library.
She spent her summers at St Ives, Cornwall: the sea remained central to her art, as a symbol. For Virginia, water represented what is harmonious, feminine, and, on the other hand, it stood for the possibility of the resolution of intolerable conflicts in death.
The death of her mother, when she was only thirteen, afflicted her deeply and brought about her first nervous breakdown. She began to be in revolt against her father and his idealisation of the domesticated woman.
It was only with his death that Virginia began her own life and literary career. She decided to move to Bloomsbury and she became member of the Bloomsbury Group, which included the avant-garde of the early 20th-century London: their reputation as radical thinkers was founded on the revolutionary stream-of-consciousness prose style and their pacifist philosophical theories.
In 1912, Virginia married Leonard Woolf and, in 1915, she published her first novel, “The Voyage Out”, which followed a traditional pattern. At this time, she entered a nursing home and attemped suicide by taking drugs.
In 1925, “Mrs Dolloway” appeared: Virginia experimented with new narrative techniques. This work was followed by “To the Lighthouse” and “Orlando”.
Woolf was also a brilliant essayist. In October 1929, she delivered two lectures at Cambridge, which became “A Room of One's Own”, a work of great impact on the feminist movement: she explored many issues connected with women and writing, but above all insisted on the link between economic and artistic independence.
In 1929, she began to work on “The Waves”, where Virginia seemed to recognize that there was a link between her creative process and her illness.
The Second World War increased her anxiety and fears: she became haunted by the terror of losing her mind. Finally, she colud stand it no longer and, when she was fifty-nine, drowned herself in the river Ouse.
Virginia Woolf is probably the greatest avant-guard writer of the 20th century.
During her illness and psychological diseases, she fought to build a strong artistic identity, by using her creativity; from 1915 to 1922, she became a real writer.
Woolf considered the plot of a novel as a vulgarity: “If a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, no what he must, ife could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tagedy, no love interest or catastrpohe in the accepted style”.
In fact, Virginia was interested in giving voice to the inner world of feeling and memory and human personality was conceived as a continuos shift of impressions and emotions. When our mind receives one of these impressions, our consciousness caught it: this is a moment of being.
So, events were not longer important, but what mattered was the impression they made on the characters who experienced them.
The point of view shifted inside their minds, through flashback, associations of ideas, presented in a continuos flux.
Subjective reality came to be identified with the techinque called “stream of consciousness”, that was represented by indirect interior monologue. It maintains logical and grammatical organisation and a sort of control on the flow of thoughts; so, it was different than direct interior monologue of Joyce, that represented thoughts as they were.
“The mind reeceives a myriad impressions”, writes Virginia in “Modern Fiction”, so she wants to reflect this incessant impressionistic shower of atoms on the humand mind.
Even the use of words is important in this technique: Woolf language was poetic, allusive, emotional and fluidity was its main feature.
Woolf and Sartre
We can find a link between the literature conception of Virginia Woolf and the existentialism philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre.
As Sartre notes that previous generations believed essence preceded existence, Woolf underlines the same attitude in the Victorian literary counterparts.
She said that they stressed much on appearance – the setting of the novel, for example – than on characters, but “novels are in the first place about people”, as she notes in “Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown”.
Writers seemed limited in chains, such as a plot. But, in Woolf's opinion, “falsity and pretence” are the only sin a novelist can commit and, in true existentialist form, she denounces absolute truth in fiction.
So, as Sartre claims that existence precedes essence, Woolf claims that literature should be not a predetermined and controlled object.
To the Lighthouse
To the Lighthouse does not have a traditional plot, but consists of a series of experiences, memories, emotions and feelings that are held together by symbols.
The story develops over a period of ten years. The novel is divided into three sections: “The Window”, which takes place during a summer afternoon and evening in a summer home on the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides; “Time Passes”, which covers about years and “The Lighthouse”, which lasts less than one day.
It is autobiographical, because the Ramsays are modelled on Woolf's parents and the setting on the summer house in Cornwall, where Virginia spent her summers.
“The Windows” starts just before the World War I. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay take their eight children to their summer home, in the west of Scotland.
James, their six-year-old son, wants to go to the lighthouse, so Mrs. Ramsay promises that they will go the next day, if the weather is fine. Anyway, Mr. Ramsay tells him that the weather won't improve and James resents him, believing he enjoys being cruel.
The Ramsays have some guests, as the dour Charles Tansley and a young painter, Lily Briscoe, who begins a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay. She wants Lily to marry William Bankes, an old friend of them, but the painter refuses; anyway, a marriage of two of their guests, Paul and Minta, takes place.
That evening, the Ramsays take a party: Lily argue with Charles, because of his comments about women's role in art – he says they can neither paint nor write – and Mr. Ramsay reacts when Augustus, another guest, a poet, asks for a second plate of soup. Anyway, at night they come together to make a memorable evening.
But joy can't last, as the party; so, after dinner, Mrs. Ramsay leaves their guests and reflects that this event it's already past, then joins her husband in the parlour, where he asks her to tell him that she loves him.
Mrs. Ramsay isn't not one to make such pronouncements, but she agrees that the weather will be too rough for a trip to the lighthouse the next day.
In “Time Passes”, time elapses: the children grow up, war breaks out, but Mrs. Ramsay dies suddenly. Her son Andrew is killed in battle, while his sister Prue dies from an illnes.
The summer house falls into a state of decay for ten years, until the family come back: the housekeeper, Mrs. NcNab, employs other women to help set the house in order, so everything is fine when Lily returns.
In the last section, “The Lighthouse”, inner time replaces outer time. Mr. Ramsay declares that James, Cam, one of his daughter, and him will sail to the lighthouse.
On the morning, the Ramsays set off, while Lily starts to complete her unfinished portrait of Mrs. Ramsay.
Mr. Ramsay praises James's skill as a sailor and the two of them experience a moment of connection. Lily succedes in finishing her painting. She makes a stroke on the canvas and puts her brush down, beacause she has finally achieved her vision.
Mrs. Ramsay and Lily
Mrs. Ramsay is a beautiful woman and a loving wife, who constantly provides her support to others.
She tries to preserve James's sense of hope and wonder in relation to the lighthouse, even if she knows that her husband forecast about the weather is correct, because she realizes that the beauty of this world is ephemeral and should be protected. In fact, she does the same with their guests, even when she doesn't appreciate their ways of being.
Moreover, Mrs. Ramsay feels obliged to protect the opposite sex and provides a sense of unity, very important in a period of chaos.
After her death, Lily and the others try to reach this unity. She is a painter, that rejects the conventional image of the woman – represented by Mrs. Ramsay – but her confidence is shaken by Tansley's insistence that women can neither paint nor write.
Her portrait of Mrs. Ramsay embodies her doubts: at the beginning of the novel, she cannot make sense of the shapes and colours that she tries to reproduce; however, during the novel, she makes a change and evolves into an artist who achieves her final vision.
Transience, loss and art
The idea that nothing lasts runs through the novel. Mr. Ramsay regrets compromising his successful academic carrer through marriage, Mrs. Ramsay does not want her children to become adults, the house falls into decay and death unexpectedly ends life.
The novel deals with the theme of loss in various moments – for example, the family loses some of its members.
Lily Briscoe embodies art's ambition to stop the flux of time, but Mrs. Ramsays thinks that love can also create durable memories making moments permanent.
Sybolism and colour
The sound of sea is always present, symbolising the uncertainity in contrast with the stability representend by the land and the house – the decay of it represents a lack of stability.
Two of Woolf's usual symbols are present: the window, which divides and connects the self and society; the lighthouse, both a positive and negative symbol – it could represent light and hope, but also an inaccessible destination.
Lily's painting represents a rejection of gender convention, her desire to portray Mrs. Ramsay's essence stands for the impulse of modern woman to analyze women who came before her.
Colour is very important, too: white symbolize the uncolourful, definite meaning of science and abstract thought; red and brown are colours of individuality and egotism; blue and green represent impersonality.
In her use of yellow, Woolf tries to come close to the pure colour of a painting; yellow is simply yellow, it is a positive avoidance of logical meaning, in contrast with white.