Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Harcourt, Inc, 1981.

Summary of Work
This is a work of stream of consciousness narrative split into three sections. The first section starts just before WWI. Mr. Ramsay and his wife and eight children go to their summer home in the Hebrides, and their home overlooks a lighthouse. Their son James wants to go to the lighthouse, and he is told they will if the weather is nice, but it looks not to be. James resents his father for not being able to go and thinks he says it just to be mean to the kids. The Ramsays host many guests including Charles Tansley, a fan of Ramsay’s philosophical work. Lily Briscoe is a young painter who also comes around to paint Mrs. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay wants Lily and her old friend William Bankes to fall in love and marry, but Lily wants to stay single. Despite this disappointment, Mrs. Ramsay does arrange the marriage of two other friends, Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle. Paul proposes the same day Lily starts painting Mrs. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay tries to reconcile her son James and Mr. Ramsay, who is fretting over his philosophical work.

The same evening, they give a dinner party that goes disastrous, with Paul and Minta returning late from a beach walk with two of the Ramsay children, Lily being upset that Tansley believes women can’t write or paint, and Ramsay being rude when Carmichael asks for seconds. Despite these issues, the dinner party is able to make a happy evening of it. But when Mrs. Ramsay leaves the room, the happiness of the party doesn’t last. She wants to sit in peace, but is unable to because her husband is in need of her comfort and assurances of her love. She cannot abide his needy attitude, but does talk to him about the weather being too bad for a trip to the lighthouse. One night passes into another night, and time starts passing quickly.

World War One starts, and the Ramseys’ oldest son is killed in the war. Another of their children dies in childbirth. Mrs. Ramsay dies suddenly. The family doesn’t go to the summer home to vacation anymore, and the house is in shambles. It is a decade before the family goes back to the home, and it takes a handful of people to get the house back in good condition just as Lily returns to the place. This time, James and Cam and Mr. Ramsay decide to go to the lighthouse, but delays upset Ramsay. He goes to Lily to get sympathy, but Lily cannot give him the love and comfort he needs. The Ramsays start out to the lighthouse anyway, and Lily sits out in the yard to complete a painting she had started but left unfinished the last time she was at the house. James and Cam are embarrassed by their father’s needy nature and self-pity, but they get to the lighthouse, and they do feel a love for their father. James even has a connecting moment with him as he praises his sailing skills, despite his resentment for his father. While they are at the lighthouse, Lily finishes her canvas.

Discussion of Work
One of the big themes running through this work is the “Angel in the House.” Women at that time were expected to sacrifice everything for their family, taking the worst of everything and never thinking of themselves. With eight children and a husband who needs constant reassurance, Mrs. Ramsay is much more an object in use all the time than she is a person with talents and needs and a life. This is telling as she is largely the figure that the novel revolves around, but she is rarely thinking of herself: she is knitting for her son, looking through catalogues, thinking of friends and their needs as she meets them in town or invites them to her home, calming her husband’s irrational outbursts. When Carmichael, the failed poet, rejects her and her aid, she is hurt, largely because her whole identity or existence depends upon helping those she meets.

Lily represents another option for a woman: a self-fulfilled life outside of marriage. She doesn’t want marriage or children, wants to make a living on her own and to paint, and believes that she, like any man, can make her way in life with her skills and talents. She is offended by the idea that she cannot be a full and good woman without marriage and children. But despite her efforts, most do not take her seriously, as evidenced by when the painting of Mrs. Ramsay is nearly knocked over. Lily is also able to stay a stable person through the years, although the people who were so dependent on Mrs. Ramsay seem unable to do so.

There is also some Freudian influence in this work, with James loving his mother and being resentful of his father, wishing he would go away so he could spend more time with his mother. When his mother dies, he is no less resentful of his father, meaning he never moved past his Oedipal complex. The whole work, with the stream of consciousness narrative, remains subjective, giving us only brief visions of life as it passes the characters by, leaving many opportunities unexplored as the woman of the household can only do so much for them, and they are unable to do the rest for themselves.

T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Poetry Foundation,

poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/44212/the-

love-song-of-j-alfred-prufrock.

Summary and Discussion of Work
An old man sits and contemplates his entire life, measuring it in coffee spoons, lost hair, and becoming thinner with age. The poem starts with thoughts of spending nights in seedy hotels and eating at various restaurants. Twice, “women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo,” signifying the transience of life by the topics that last and come back to discuss, whether or not they have any real significance in people’s lives. There is also a discussion of always thinking that there will be more time to do things, whether or not there actually is. The narrator of the poem must come to a decision now that he has thought of all these things in his past: does he become a new person or descend into death and hell for his sins in his life? And if he does become a new person, what are his options? This decision is indicated by the quotation of the beginning at the poem from Dante’s Inferno, indicating that once the narrator descended into the murky darkness that was the lifestyle he chose, there was no exiting it, just like Guido, the false advisor discovered.

This poem was the real jumpstart to the modernist poems, particularly with its stream of consciousness narrative, which documents the change in attitudes the narrator has as he contemplates the different phases of his life. It also relies on the emotions that come and go and remain as undercurrents within that stream of consciousness: anxiousness, a desire to shake the world, and isolation, loneliness, and mistrust combined with insecurity. There is also the knowledge that he is floating within the world with no real roots: the industrialized world full of people busy doing frivolous things and looking at great individuals as topics of idle gossip and sightseeing opportunities may very well be a type of hell in and of itself.

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. B.W. Huebsch, Inc, 1916.

Summary of Work
Stephen Dedalus, a young boy in Ireland near the end of the nineteenth century, is the main character of this story. The stream of consciousness narrative style follows Dedalus throughout his growth, letting the character’s thoughts and actions dictate the narrative rather than a completely omniscient narrator. While still a young boy, his parents send him to a Catholic boarding school, Clongowes Wood College, which is run by Jesuits. When he first arrives, he is homesick and gets bullied. He is chased into a ditch and gets sick from the cold water, and the other boys beg him not to tell on them for their actions. Soon after that, he begins to make friends with the other boys, and he also enjoys his time at home. One Christmas when he is home, political conversation starts and gets heated at the table because the Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell has died. One of his relatives insists that these men ought to follow the will of God and the preachers who preach it, and his father, Simon, states that priests should stay out of politics and says to hell with God.

Simon Dedalus is very bad with his money, and so while Stephen is away at school, the family falls deeper and deeper into debt. It gets to the point that one summer, his family realizes they cannot send their son back to school. Stephen spends the summer with his Uncle Charles, and then that Fall they move to Dublin. When they move, they put their son in Belvedere, a very well-reputed school, and he begins to excel in academics, particularly writing and acting. He has sex for the first time with a prostitute, and the experience shakes Stephen; he is guilt-ridden and full of shame over the experience because of his strong Catholic beliefs. He tries to rid himself of these feelings by casting aside religion and instead masturbating and committing other sinful acts. However, his Catholic religion comes back in full force as he goes to a three day retreat for school, and sermons about hell and the judgment day scare him so badly that he decides to repent and return to a life of piety. He goes from one extreme to the other, and is the model of a Christian life, the life of a priest: he attends Mass each day, practices abstinence, self-denial, and even self punishment for his sins.

His example to the entire school leads the school master to suggest that he should take holy orders and join the priesthood. After taking time to consider the opportunity, Stephen decides that he cannot join the Church because he would fall; he values physical beauty far too much to live a good, priestly life. After making that decision, he learns that he and his family will again move because of his father’s poor financial skills. Meanwhile, he awaits a letter from the University to know if he was accepted or not, and as he is waiting, he decides to take a walk on the beach. There, he sees a girl swimming in the sea, and he is so struck by her beauty that he decides that beauty and desire and love should not be considered shameful, and he should stop denying himself enjoyment of that beauty and love and desire. This leads him to decide that he will not be constrained by structured institutions such as family and the Church, but that he will live his own life as an individual.

He is accepted into the university, and Stephen moves there and beings making many strong friendships; he is especially close to his friend Cranly. They take many classes, and Stephen is very poor at remembering what day it is or getting to them on time, but he enjoys debating and learning and developing theories about life and aesthetics. He uses his friends as a sounding board for his theories, and one of his professors suggests that he should be writing essays about his theories on aesthetics. The more he experiences and writes and thinks, the more he desires to be independent from his friends and family, and in the end he determines that he will leave Ireland in order to escape all of those relationships. He believes that it is the best way for him to succeed as an artist.

Brief Note on Themes
The name Dedalus is a play on the Greek Myth of Deadalus, the man who builds himself and his son Icarus a set of wings to fly out of imprisonment, leading to Icarus flying too close to the sun and getting killed because the wax of his wings melt. The stream of consciousness narrative is a main point that makes the story unique because readers get to experience the main character’s growth with him, as many times Stephen can only describe sensations because of his lack of language or his immaturity. Readers watch the artist grow from inexperienced and very impressionable to a young man full of opinions and striving for full independence. The novel is also semi-autobiographical, as many of Joyce’s influences are what influence Stephen: language, religion, family, culture, sex, to name a few.

Religion is a major player in this piece, as Stephen goes from casual but regular observance of religion to no religion to extreme adherence to religion and then a falling away again. Yet the message here is that as Stephen follows first a life of sin with abandon and then strictly adheres to the doctrines of the church, he comes to realize that doing things in extremes is harmful, and that doing things with strict obedience, not thinking for oneself, causes him to live a false life. In order to fully experience life, Stephen decides that he must live life within the two extremes, both believing in God and at the same time doubting doctrines that ask for people to deny the pleasures that come with love and beauty and desire.

The discussion of what it takes to become an artist starts to come into play toward the end of the novel, when Stephen decides that he is going to be a writer. The discussions of aesthetics show readers that Stephen is developing his ideas about artistry, but the largest discussion point is individuality. Stephen believes that in order to be an artist he must be divorced from the influences of his direct community: friends and family. This causes him to leave tradition and culture behind in an attempt to serve that same community by bringing them art and new techniques and aesthetics.

Similarly, the Irish-English conflict is always in the background of this book. The Irish have the same innate need for autonomy and self-government that Stephen does. Stephen sees this in the Irish language, which is in fact something he sees as belonging to England; he sees it in the slavery that he believes is Ireland’s fate (this is a slavery he refuses to accept and desires to escape, just like many Irishmen); and he sees his Irishness in his traditions and cultural heritage, which he desires to escape from if only to escape from what he sees are chains holding his country back from freedom and cultural development.