We have discussed in detail Virginia Woolf’s theory of fiction and have also quoted extensively from her famous essay on contemporary fiction for our purpose. Mrs. Woolf has clearly expressed her view that the older novelists failed to portray life as they were preoccupied with the outside husk, seldom getting on to the inside kernel of life. By presenting the story chronologically they divorced themselves from life, which is equal to human consciousness, and consciousness, modern psychology had proved, as also one knows from one’s own experience, does not move in a straight line.In fact, it is a fluid existing simultaneously at a number of points in a person’s total experience. To Virginia Woolf ‘life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end’ and hence it should be ‘the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit…..‘And though she tried the traditional forms in her first two novels, she abandoned them, as she realised that the traditional novels could never portray the fleeting impressions and the inner reality. And then she admired and appreciated Joyce of England and Proust of France, as she recognised in their innovations something that would help her realize her own ideal. To her Wells and Bennett are materialists, whereas Joyce and Proust are spiritualists for they try to capture the fleetingness of life.
The Stream of Consciousness Technique
When Virginia Woolf found that the conventional technique of narration was not at all suitable to express her own view of life, she had to adopt a new technique more suited to her purpose. Hence she had to adopt the stream of consciousness technique by freely exploiting the interior monologue of the different characters presented in To The Lighthouse. We are able to view each of the important characters through his or her own thoughts and actions as well as through the consciousness of different characters. We find the depicted consciousness serving as screen on which the material in this novel is presented. So the depicted consciousness of Mrs. Ramsay enables us to understand the true character of Mr. Ramsay, Lily Briscoe or Charles Tansley. In the same way the stream of consciousness of Lily Briscoe reveals to us the personality and the finer shades of the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay or of the odd and maladjusted personality of Tansley. There is very little external action or violent deeds; instead there is the interior monologue and the fluid mental states.
Form and Pattern
Then, in To The Lighthouse we no longer find the sequence of events leading to a climax. Virginia Woolf abandoned the convention of story also for the same reason that she abandoned the convention of character drawing, as neither of them could be made to express life as she saw it. The events noted by her are not the immediate causes or consequences of other events in her book. In fact, their importance depends upon their effect in the consciousness of her creatures rather than upon their functions in a plot. And her chief purpose, was to record what life felt like to living beings and then to communicate the impression made by one individual upon others. So there is no plot-construction in the sense of a logical arrangement of incidents and events, leading chronologically to a catastrophe or denouement.
Mrs. Woolf’s Practice: Her Deviations
Virginia Woolf was undoubtedly one of the greatest novelists of this new school, who disregarded the convention of plot, tragedy, comedy, climax or catastrophe of the older novelists to capture the inner reality, the truth of life with remarkable skill. But still in most of her great novels, specially in To the Lighthouse she has not followed her theory in every detail. She was, no doubt, much impressed by the writings of Joyce and Proust, but their influence on Mrs. Woolf should not be over-emphasised. She is by no means a blind imitator of the great masters of the new technique or the psychologists who furnished the theoretical framework for the ‘stream of consciousness’ novel. Her essential method is her own. Hence, whatever may be die opinion of some critics, Mrs. Woolf’s To The Lighthouse is definitely a ‘stream of consciousness novel—but with a difference. She knew that all art implied a selection and ordering of material. So, as Mrs. Woolf set herself to destroy the current form of the novel, she was also driven to invent one which would express her own vision of life. Hence there is some form and pattern in To The Lighthouse and there is some inner unity. And then the novelist is also playing the role of a central intelligence and is constantly busy, organising the material and illuminating it by frequent comments. She realised that simply the record of a character’s impressions did not produce a novel superior to a more conventional story.
Thus we find Virginia Woolf planning almost all her outstanding novels of the later period within a narrrow framework. And she achieved this either by confining the action to a brief period of time, or by limiting the foreground characters to a small number. And sometimes she employed both the devices. That is why in To The Lighthouse we find the action confined to a period of only two days with a gap of ten years in-between. There are only ten characters making any prominent appearance, but only seven of them, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, Lily, Mr. Bankes, Mr. Tansley, James and Cam—reveal themselves fully in speech and in silent soliloquy. And then we find that in To The Lighthouse the outward structure is quite simple consisting of three movements of unequal length and of two different kinds, as it were two acts linked by a chorus.
It may now be asserted that To The Lighthouse is definitely a ‘stream of consciousness’ novel, but with a difference. A close study of the novel clearly reveals to us that there is a careful weaving together of the character’s consciousness, the author’s comments, and one character’s view on another. Hence To The Lighthouse is neither chaotic nor incoherent like most of the novels of this genre—it is more finely organised and more effective than anything else Virginia Woolf wrote. In fact her theory of fiction is very nicely revealed in this great novel. Elizabeth Drew’s comments on this point are worth noting and we may conclude by quoting her apt remarks:
“It is indeed a wonderful piece of workmanship. Her foundation of ideas is ‘clamped together’ in the symbolic structure she chose to suggest it. At the same time the ‘feathery, evanescent’ nature of consciousness—the permeation of the present by the past, the outer by the inner, the currents uniting personalities and dividing them, the moments when things come together and fall apart, the intermingling of the emotions and the senses, all the hazy motions of reverie—all this is vividly revealed. Her characters all come to life, as we see into their own minds and into their images in the minds of others. We constantly recognize the truth of her psychological insights. Her mastery of her medium and her riches, of concrete metaphorical suggestion are everywhere. Unquestionably she was a ‘professional’, evolving a new form of fiction and creating a masterpiece in it.”