A novel that deserves and demands the full attention of the reader, it is hardly surprising that To the Lighthouse might be described as a novel of and about attention. As the narration flits between Mrs Ramsay and her husband, their eight children, and their numerous guests all gathered at the Ramsay summer house on a Hebridean island, one thought leads to another, one observation spills into the next, one emotion peaks and subsides as another peaks and subsides like the waves endlessly rolling in upon the shore. And then there is the question of lighthouse on a crag of rock across the bay, whose light pierces the summer house and its inhabitants, ceaselessly. Will James, the youngest Ramsay, be taken to the lighthouse the following day?
If Mrs Dalloway is the quintessential stream-of-consciousness novel, then Woolf’s next novel, To the Lighthouse, must surely be the start of something new, something even more intense, more challenging. Attention, or perhaps perception would be a better term, or even, as Lily Briscoe terms it “vision”, is the challenge. For it seems clear that it is almost impossible to really see someone, anyone. Even Mrs Ramsay, who is as much the centre of all that is as anyone could be, even for her, Lily thinks, it would take at least fifty pairs of eyes. And yet, the wonder of it is, that for some—the poet Augustus Carmichael, the painter Lily Briscoe, even the still beautiful wife and mother, Mrs Ramsay—the thing itself can be achieved. And it is an achievement when it comes. Even though it may disappear as quickly as it came.
If you are willing to engage with this novel fully, if you can focus your attention sufficiently (don’t be surprised if you find you need to read it in small chunks), if you let the consciousness of the novel guide you as it sparkles across the minds of those characters arrayed before you, then this novel will repay your effort manifold. If not, then set it aside for a few years and try again later. It’s worth it. Highly recommended.