“… – but here, the houses falling away on both sides, they came out on the quay, and the whole bay spread before them and Mrs. Ramsey could not help exclaiming: ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ For the great plateful of blue water was before her;the hoary Lighthouse, distant, austere, in the midst; and on the light, as far as the eye could see, fading and falling, in soft low pleats, the green sand dunes with the wild flowing grasses on them, which always seemed to be running away into some moon county, uninhabited of men.” from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse
What gorgeous prose! It falls over you in waves, like the sea itself, sometimes crushingly, sometimes caressingly. Recently, I had the chance to revisit this beautiful book with my reading group. What a treat! Fueled by wine and pizza, we shared some thoughts on how Virginia’s stream-of-consciousness prose, often at high pitch, managed to do its work:
Her prose is often incantational – There’s a lovely, lilting quality to the writing that is strangely soothing, even when Virginia’s characters are tackling stormy, troubling thoughts. Waves of words seem to carry you forward and give the story a powerful momentum, even though you’re often just immersed in someone’s ruminations. Somehow, she manages to sustain this voice throughout her story. As an author, like Houdini, she vanishes into her story.
She shifts from on point of view to another seamlessly – Over and over you’ll see “experts” warning about the dangers of shifting from one person’s thoughts to another in the same chapter because it can be so confusing to the reader. Yet Virginia does this time and again – even in the same paragraph — as she strives to show how different characters view the same event of image from their own unique perspectives. She does this by using subtle signals to alert the reader to these sudden shifts, so you rarely feel lost.
Her writing exhibits cultural restraint — There’s a sense of emotional withholding that pervades the novel – emotions smolder beneath the surface, just as a calm sea can mask the turmoil beneath the waves. Relationships are almost transactional and Virginia conveys the strong sense that it’s almost futile to try to understand another person’s thoughts and motives – and yet, we are driven to understand and to know. Was the reticence to tackle emotions head-on in part the product of a British, “Keep calm and carry on” mentality, we wondered.
She uses symbols with great delicacy, yet vigorously — Whether it’s the lighthouse austerely looming in the distance, which the story’s main character, Mrs. Ramsey, never reaches, or an unfinished painting that an amateur artist struggles to complete, the novel is rich with symbols. Virginia wields them boldly and with truly masterful confidence.
What fun and how craft-enriching it is to spend time with friends and a gifted author. Write on!
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