Stream of Consciousness in Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse"
Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse delves into the minds of its characters in a stream of consciousness approach. The characters’ thoughts and feelings blend into one another, and the outward actions and dialogue come second to the inward emotions and ruminations. In the dinner party sequence, for instance, Woolf changes the point of view frequently, with transitions often marked by the sparse dialogue. While shifting the point of view from person to person, Woolf develops her characters through their thoughts, memories, and reactions to each other.
An illustration of point of view in a scene
Chapter XVII of The Window begins with Mrs. Ramsay wondering what she has done with her life, as she directs guests to their seats and ladles out soup. She sees her husband at the far end of the table, frowning. “What at? She did not know. She did not mind. She could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion or affection for him” (83). As she thinks about her displeasure and disconnectedness with Mr. Ramsay, Mrs. Ramsay notes that she would not speak out loud her inner feelings. There is a strict difference between her actions and her thoughts:
Raising her eyebrows at the discrepancy—that was what she was thinking, this was what she was doing—ladling out soup—she felt, more and more strongly, outside that eddy. (83)
Being outside of the eddy is her sense of “being past everything, through everything, out of everything” (83). Completely out of touch with Mr. Ramsay and everyone else at the table, she instead focuses on how shabby the room is, how sterile the men are, and how she pities William Bankes. Finding meaning and strength again in her pity, she gets past her mental weariness enough to ask him an innocuous question about his letters.
The point of view shifts abruptly to Lily Briscoe, who is watching Mrs. Ramsay intently and imagining her thoughts. Lily is able to read Mrs. Ramsay pretty clearly: “How old she looks, how worn she looks, and how remote” (84). She wonders why Mrs. Ramsay pities William Bankes, and she realizes that “the life in her, her resolve to live again, had been stirred by pity” (84). Lily does not find Bankes pitiable, but she recognizes that Mrs. Ramsay is fulfilling some need of her own. Lily thinks about how Bankes has his work, then her thoughts switch to her own work, and she starts imagining her painting and the adjustments she will make. As if to remind the readers of the setting, Woolf has Lily take up “the salt cellar and put it down again on a flower in pattern in the table-cloth, so as to remind herself to move the tree” (84-85). After all of Lily Briscoe’s thoughts, Mr. Bankes finally responds to Mrs. Ramsay’s inquiry as to whether he has found his letters.
“What damned rot they talk,” thinks Charles Tansley, as the point of view shifts to him very briefly (85). Lily observes how he lays down his spoon “precisely in the middle of his plate, which he had swept clean, as if, Lily thought…he were determined to make sure of his meals” (85). As if she can read people’s thoughts, Lily’s attention turns to Charles Tansley, as she makes observations about him. She notes that his appearance is meager and unlovely, but she is still drawn to his blue, deep set eyes. Mrs. Ramsay pities him as well, as she also asks him about his letters.
Tansley’s response is incorporated into the text, not as a direct quotation, as if he does not wish to join in the banal conversation but instead wallow in his thoughts. “For he was not going to talk the sort of rot these people wanted him to talk. He was not going to be condescended to by these silly women” (85). Tansley holds the women and their ways in disdain; he finds them silly and superficial. Why do they get dressed up for such occasions? He is wearing his ordinary clothes. Women “did nothing but talk, talk, talk, eat, eat, eat…Women made civilization impossible with all their ‘charm,’ all their silliness” (85). By portraying his inner frustrations, Woolf lets the reader know exactly how Charles Tansley feels about dinner parties, women, and civilization as a whole.
By shifting the point of view from character to character, Woolf shares each character’s thoughts and feelings, opinions and reactions to one another. The dynamics between the characters are expressed more fully by their thoughts than by their words. The light dialogue serves to break up the transitions in perspective. By blending people’s inward feelings and keeping dialogue to a minimum, Woolf develops her many-dimensioned characters in a unique and memorable way.