To the Lighthouse
by Virginia Woolf
“The Window” opens just before the start of World War I. Mr. Ramsay and Mrs. Ramsay bring their eight children to their summer home in the Hebrides (a group of islands west of Scotland). Across the bay from their house stands a large lighthouse. Six-year-old James Ramsay wants desperately to go to the lighthouse, and Mrs. Ramsay tells him that they will go the next day if the weather permits. James reacts gleefully, but Mr. Ramsay tells him coldly that the weather looks to be foul. James resents his father and believes that he enjoys being cruel to James and his siblings.
There isn’t a trip, voyage or expedition of any description that doesn’t set one in a state of planning, adventure (however moderate) and expectation. What we expect – and, let’s face it, that’s a good deal of the propulsion – is in the circumstances of a journey or excursion normally a pleasant sequel. Indeed it may be stimulated by vast hopes and convictions some of which prove unfounded. For youth the stimulus is positively euphoric. Going to a familiar resort – say a cottage or vacation home – has its own special anticipation, one which may be piloted by the revival of hitherto unattended necessity, renovation or redecoration. All of it is flushed with the impression of how long or often you’ve been doing the same thing. How often with the same person or persons. And in some instances why not with one or the other, perhaps no longer whinnying among us. It can trigger a wistful account of serendipity. Of historic and indiscriminate summary. Of casual query regarding what may have been were things different, if you had done something about it all then before it was beyond cementing the change, before you established the habit of tolerance and endurance, before making it to the lighthouse. Indeed what if you hadn’t gone at all? What if the weather had been different…
Ours is a complicated expression no doubt. Getting from one place to another, how did it all happen? And how so quickly! Suddenly we’re mere microcosms washed upon the shore of existence, our duty and alliances fulfilled, perhaps with the benefit of descendant or legacy or both, usually with no more recognition than a tombstone. It isn’t disturbing except for its suddenness and perhaps its abruptness. How precipitous the result; and, the outlook is the same. One day we’ll get to the lighthouse; and then what?
But expectation lingers whatever the fibres, howsoever woven they are about us and we within them. The universe is ultimately personal. I’ve always rather liked that cryptic assessment. Not being one to have ever acquainted myself with the crowd or the popular posture, preferring instead to seek my own simple discovery and expression, it is consequently of no remorse to me to suffer the indignity alone. I do however trenchantly align myself with those of similar characteristic. It is a two-edged sword to be sure, having to endure the haughtiness of self-congratulatory complacency, the arrogance of fiction over fact (though guided always by pragmatism) while longing to share the flippancy and smugness with another.
It must happen if at all by the same fortuity that governs the rest of our being. Within the narrow sinews of existence flow the streams of energy and manifestation to the ocean beyond. The strength and blood of desire and expression are soon diluted by the vastness that separates us from that achievement.
“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.
To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch. Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy. The wheelbarrow, the lawnmower, the sound of poplar trees, leaves whitening before rain, rooks cawing, brooms knocking, dresses rustling – all these were so coloured and distinguished in his mind that he had already his private code, his secret language, though he appeared the image of stark and uncompromising severity, with his high forehead and his fierce blue eyes, impeccably candid and pure, frowning slightly at the sight of human frailty, so that his mother, watching him guide his scissors neatly round the refrigerator, imagined him all red and ermine on the Bench or directing a stern and momentous enterprise in some crisis of public affairs.
To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)