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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Virginia Woolf was born in London in 1882 to Sir Leslie Stephen, a Victorian critic, philosopher, biographer, and scholar, and Julia Pattle Stephen. Among her father's works was History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. Woolf's mother was famous for being a hostess to the literary figures who gathered at the Stephen home. Woof struggled to meet the standards set by her father's learning and her mother's social graces until she finally found peace with them in writing To the Lighthouse.
Her mother died when Virginia Woolf was thirteen years old. Leslie Stephen went into mourning for the rest of his life. At her mother's death, Woolf had the first of a series of mental breakdowns. In 1904, when her father died, Woolf had a second breakdown and attempted suicide. When she recovered, she moved with her sister Vanessa and two of her brothers from their family home to the bohemian area of Bloomsbury. The family formed the nucleus of a group of artists, writers, and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury group. They included Lytton Strachey, J. M. Keyes, and E. M. Forster.
Virginia Stephen married Leonard Woolf when she was thirty years old. In 1913, she published her first novel, The Voyage Out. She had a third breakdown, which lasted for four years. In 1917, the Woolf's bought a hand press and founded Hogarth Press in their home. It published not only some of Woolf's novels, but also T. S. Eliot's poems and other important works. In her third book, Monday and Tuesday, Woolf experimented with form. She perfected the style of using stream of consciousness narration through her next two novels, Jacob's Room (1922) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925).
In describing her next novel, To the Lighthouse, Woolf used the language of psychoanalysis. She wrote, "I suppose that I did for myself what psychoanalysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotions. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest."
Woolf wrote another novel, Orlando (1928) after a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West, in which one character changes genders several times over the course of hundreds of years. In The Waves (1931) Woolf returned to stream of consciousness narration. She explored the connections between personal time and longer durations of time in The Years (1937) and in Between the Acts (1941). Woolf also wrote a great many essays in the 1930s, the most famous of which is A Room of One's Own, in which she explores the special difficulties of writing as a woman in a patriarchal culture that insists that women are not intellectual beings. Another long essay is Three Guineas (1938). In 1941, Woolf committed suicide.
The first thing a reader must deal with on reading Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse is its experimentation with form. Woolf uses stream of consciousness narration, a style of narration, which is based on the free association of thoughts. A character might be looking at a boat out at sea and a memory will be triggered which takes her back ten years to a particularly vivid memory of a person. That memory, in turn, might trigger another thought, which might take the character to another memory and so on. Stream of consciousness narration is unlike traditional linear narration in that it records thoughts in the order that they arise rather than recording them in a rational, linear order. This style of narration was popular with literary modernists, a period of literary production that reached its peak in the 1920s.
Virginia Woolf was a leading modernist. The modernists saw themselves as writing in radically different ways than the writers of the preceding generations. They left behind the more traditional forms of representing reality to attempt to get at reality as they saw it. For writers of stream of consciousness, the mind does not evenly divide thoughts up into neat segments and the mind does not experience memory and the past. chronologically. Woolf wrote, "Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions--trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. . . . Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?" Woolf was writing of a very different kind of novel. The traditional novel spent most of its time on the external and let the reader infer the internal, what the characters thought and felt. The modernist novel challenges the reader by violating many expectations readers bring to novels in regards to plot, character development, and time.
One of Woolf's lifelong concerns was the role of women in a patriarchal society. In Woolf's time, learned men wrote scholarly and well-respected books on the intellectual inferiority of women. Woolf understood the overt and covert pressures placed on women not to write. One such pressure was created by the ideology of true womanhood, which was very strong during the Victorian period and is residually present in our own time. This ideology held that women belonged in the home where they provided a civilizing influence over men. Women were to be the "angel in the house," a title from a very popular Coventry Patmore poem. Newspaper editorials, scholarly books, medical professionals, preachers, lawmakers all produced reasons why it was in women's and in civilization's best interests to keep middle- and upper-class women uneducated and unemployed. Woolf's famous long essay A Room of One's Own argues that in order to write great fiction, women needed a room of their own and five hundred pounds a year, that is, an income secure enough that they did not have to earn a living outside of writing or get married for financial reasons. In advancing such a thesis, Woolf drew attention to the connections between the productions of the mind and the economic and social position of the writer.
Woolf's woman artist figure in To the Lighthouse, obviously, is Lily Briscoe. Lily Briscoe understands the stresses of trying to paint when her society calls her to be a wife and a mother and trivializes her art as worthless. She also understands the stress of hearing men tell her women cannot write and cannot paint. The angel in the house in this novel, obviously, is Mrs. Ramsey. In this novel, Woolf complicates that reverenced image and makes of it a fully rounded character with thoughts and desires of her own.
Of great significance to an understanding of the emotional weight of the novel is the event of World War I. Woolf places the war in the middle section of the novel titled "Time Passes." Woolf and others of her time regarded World War I to be life changing and earth-shattering. It made people understand that all the hopes of things getting better and better with time and technology were ill placed. Disillusioned with the progress of civilization, writers spent more time critiquing the causes of its downfall and trying to wake middle-class people up to their part in it. Part of the nostalgia of the novel's focus on the past results from the fact that the past is a time before the disillusionment of war.