The issue of narrative perspective is an important aspect of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. She appears to primarily use the literary technique in her quest toward high modernism. She takes a step beyond Joyce’s stream of consciousness narration that we saw in the Dubliners to craft multiple and simultaneous streams of consciousness. She describes it by saying, “Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day” (text 2333). The result is nothing ordinary – it becomes an exhaustive account of the main characters’ inner thoughts to tell the outward action. Woolf masterfully captures the random, wandering thoughts, musings, reactions, emotions, and memories of a group of people in minute detail as they interact with each other. Rather than providing a traditional dialogue to move the action along, Woolf makes it difficult to read (a prerequisite for modernism) by writing in a fragmented style that mimics a bumpy road of associative leaps that constantly occur in our mind to tell the story in addition to winding back and forth among the character’s thoughts. The novel that emerges portrays the love and resiliency of humankind in the aftermath of one of the worst periods in British history – World War I.
So how does this type of narration engage with WWI and its aftermath? The new technology introduced in WWI caused mass destruction unlike any war previous. Flamethrowers, bombs, and gas attacks were especially sadistic and cruel. Almost fifteen hundred British soldiers died each day in the four year war. The British War Poets and the emerging mass media gave those at home a close look at the horrors of war. Those who survived were scarred by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After four long years of war, people responded with “bitterly rebuffed idealism” and “a sense of physical and moral exhaustion” (text 2112, 1928). It seems the joie de vivre left most Brits, and Woolf ingeniously captures the undercurrent of this malaise with her unique style of narration.
The story centers around the Ramsay family – the mother, father, and children – and an array of friends gathered at a summer home at the coast near a lighthouse. The novel describes the activities that take place over a day before the war, a synopsis of action during the war time, and then another day’s activities after the war. To answer the question at hand, the first person narrative that is used in the first and last sections is a perfect vehicle to capture the malaise that many felt as a result of the war. Mr. Ramsay, for example, is one who fails to adapt and move on after the war. Before the war, he admonishes his family who are eager to make a trip to the lighthouse. The narration from his mind’s eye shows a man who is master of his household:
He had “a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q…After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only reached once by one man in a generation…On to R.” (Lighthouse 33-34)
He has the final say on the family going to the lighthouse, which is no.
During the war described in the middle section, like most Brits, Mr. Ramsay suffers loss – his wife and two of his children – one to war, and one to childbirth. The narration takes on an impersonal third person narrative to briefly describe the deaths. The “courage, truth and power to endure” that he lived by challenges him to his core (Lighthouse 4).
Ten years after the first section and after the war, Mr. Ramsay and two of his children return to the summer house. He tries to recreate the past by now insisting on a trip to the Lighthouse:
“Then he reminded them that they were going to the Lighthouse tomorrow. They must be ready, in the hall on the stroke of half-past seven. Then, with his hand on the door, he stopped; he turned upon them. Did they not want to go? He demanded. Had they dared say No…he would have flung himself tragically backwards into the bitter waters of despair.” (Lighthouse 148)
By using the third person subjective narrative in this section, Woolf can show the feelings of malaise especially through Mr. Ramsay’s thoughts and what others think of him. Their thoughts are more revealing than their actions, so Woolf is able to sharply define his misery.