“Soliloquy in Solitude”: To The Lighthouse

  • Edward Engelberg


To the Lighthouse is probably the most analyzed of Woolf’s novels, and over the years that commentary has taken a certain shape.1 Most readers recognize that the novel is preoccupied with the difficulty of human communication and with the relentless striving for meaning and unity, especially by Lily Briscoe, whose painting (both the process and on the canvas) so dominates the narrative. And over the last five or six decades, as To the Lighthouse has generated increasing critical attention, most commentators have also been confident, as a recent biographer has written, that the novel “ends on a note of triumph.” A number of critics, however, have become uncomfortable with that judgment and have suggested that the ending (indeed, the whole novel) is more indeterminate.2


Dark Side Italic Mine Light Side Great Revelation Narrative Space 
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  1. 2.
    James King, Virginia Woolf (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995), 381.Google Scholar
  2. For some divergent views see, for example John Mepham, “Figures of Desire: Narration and Fiction in To the Lighthouse,” in The Modern English Novel: The Reader, the Writer and the Work, ed. Gabriel Josipovici (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1976), 149–185.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See also Elizabeth Abel, Virgina Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 68–83.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Marc Froment-Meurice, Solitudes: From Rimbaud to Heidegger, tr. Peter Walsh (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 107.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Josephine O’Brien Schaefer, The Three-Fold Nature of Reality in the Novels of Virginia Woolf (The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1965), 138.Google Scholar
  6. See Raoul Mortly, From Word to Silence especially vol I, The Rise and Fall of Logos [‘The Silence Beyond Names’] (Bonn: Hannstein, 1986), 110–124 where he analyzes the “the late Greek pessimism about the efficacy of language.”Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Patricia Ondek Laurence, The Reading of Silence: Virginia Woolf in the English Tradition (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 12.Google Scholar
  8. On Woolf and silence, see also Howard Harper, Between Language and Silence: The Novels of Virginia Woolf (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982).Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    Lucio P. Ruotolo, The Interrupted Moment: A View of Virginia Woolf’s Novels (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    R. M. Adams, Strains of Discord: Studies in Literary Openness (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1958), 194–196.Google Scholar
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    Leonard Woolf, Downhill All the Way: An Autobiography of the Years 1919–1939 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967), 153.Google Scholar
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    Frank’s essay has been revised several times. For the latest version, see Joseph Frank, The Idea of Spatial Form (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991), 5–66.Google Scholar
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    J. Hillis Miller, “The Problematic Ending in Narrative,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, A Special Issue on “Narrative Endings,” 33, 1 (June 1978): 3.Google Scholar
  14. Perhaps the defining book on narrative endings is Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967).Google Scholar
  15. Also worthy of mention are Alan Friedman, The Turn of the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966);Google Scholar
  16. D. A. Miller, Narrative and Its Discontents: Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981);Google Scholar
  17. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985);Google Scholar
  18. David H. Richter, Fable’s End: Completeness and Closure in Rhetorical Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974);Google Scholar
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  20. 19.
    For an early essay, see Morris Beja, “Matches Struck in the Dark: Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Vision,” in Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse, ed. Morris Beja (London: Macmillan, 1970), 210–230.Google Scholar
  21. A selected list would include the following: John Hawley Roberts, “Vision and Design in Virginia Woolf,” Publications of the Modern Language Association LXI (September 1946): 835–847;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Keith M. May, “The Symbol of ‘Painting’ in Virginia Woolf’s” To the Lighthouse Review of English Literature 8 (November-April, 1967): 91–98;Google Scholar
  23. Sharon Wood Proudfit, “Lily Briscoe’s Painting: A Key to the Personal Relationships in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” Criticism 13 (Winter, 1971): 26–38.Google Scholar
  24. One of the most insightful revisions of the standard view is Thomas G. Matro, “Only Relations: Vision and Achievement in To the Lighthouse,” PMLA 99 (March 1984): 212–224.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 20.
    I have examined the ending of Mrs. Dalloway in Elegiac Fictions: The Motif of the Unlived Life (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989), 202–204.Google Scholar
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    George P. Landow, Images of Crisis: Literary Iconology 1750 to the Present (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), 4.Google Scholar
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    Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature tr. William Trask (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1953), 488; 487.Google Scholar
  28. For a recent study, see Herta Newman, Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Brown: Toward A Realism of Uncertainty (New York: Garland Publishing, 1996).Google Scholar
  29. See also Patrick J. Whiteley, Realism and Experimental Knowledge in Conrad, Lawrence, and Woolf (Baton Rouge: The Louisiana State University Press, 1987).Google Scholar
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  31. 28.
    John Marpham, Virginia Woolf A Literary Life (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 102.Google Scholar
  32. 30.
    On Lily Briscoe’s final brushstroke and its implications for the ending of the novel see Brandy Brown Walker, “Lily’s Last Stroke: Painting in Progress in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse,” in Virginia Woolf and the Arts: Selected Papers From the Sixth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf ed. Diane E Gillespie and Leslie K. Hankins (Pleasantville, NY: Pace University Press, 1997), 32–38.Google Scholar
  33. 31.
    J. Hillis Miller, “Mr. Carmichael and Lily Briscoe: The Rhythm of Creativity in To the Lighthouse” in Modernism Reconsidered, ed. Robert Kiely (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 173; 169.Google Scholar
  34. 32.
    For an interesting psychoanalytical interpretation of the motif of aloneness in the novel, see Ernest S. Wolf and Ina Wolf, “We Perished, Each Alone’: A Psychoanalytical Commentary on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse,” in Narcissism and the Text: Studies in Literature and the Psychology of Self ed. Lynne Layton and Barbara Ann Shapiro (New York: New York University Press, 1986), 255–270.Google Scholar
  35. Also of value is Mark Spilka, Virginia Woolf’s Quarrel With Grieving (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980), especially 75–109. Google Scholar

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© Edward Engelberg 2001

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  • Edward Engelberg

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