In her one of the most well-known essays included in The Common Reader: First Series, while expressing her views about the early work of James Joyce Virginia Woolf has given us her ideas about the significance of small events which are worth noting. This is what she says about it.
“Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small. Anyone who has read The Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man or what promises to be a far more interesting work, Ulysses now appearing in The Little Review will have hazarded some theory of this nature as to Mr. Joyce’s intention. Mr. Joyce is concerned at all costs to reveal the flickering of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain, and in order to preserve it he disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious, whether it be probability, or coherence, or any other of those signposts which for generations have served to support the imagination of a reader when called upon to imagine what he can neither touch nor see.... If we want life itself, here surely we have it.”
Treatment of Minor Events
A careful study of Virginia Woolf’s novel clearly reveals that there is a tendency to give importance to minor and random events such as measuring the stocking, a fragment of a conversation with the maid, a telephone call, or throwing of the mutilated fish into the sea in To The Lighthouse. According to an eminent critic—great changes, exterior turning points, let alone catastrophes, do not occur and though elsewhere in To The Lighthouse such things are mentioned, it is hastily, without preparation or context incidentally, and as it were only for the sake of information.” This is how Time Passes, the second part of To The Lighthouse tragic deaths of Prue Ramsay and Andrew Ramsay are announced and that also in brackets:
“[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with child-birth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said. They said nobody deserved happiness more.]”
And this about Andrew:
“[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous]”. The same tendency is revealed in works of some very different writers, such as Proust of France or Hamsun of Norway. But we now find writers presenting minor happenings, which are insignificant as exterior factors in a person’s destiny, for their own sake or rather as points of departure for the development of motives, for a penetration which opens up new prospectives into a milieu or a consciousness or the given historical setting. “They have discarded presenting the story of their characters with any claim to exterior completeness in chronological order, and with the emphasis on exterior turning points of destiny. James Joyce’s tremendous novel—an encyclopedic work, a mirror of Dublin, of Ireland, a mirror too of Europe and its millennia—has for its frame the externally insignificant course of a day in the lives of a school teacher and an advertising broker. It takes less than twenty-four hours in their lives—just as To The Lighthouse describes portions of two days widely separated in time.’,
Importance of Apparently Small Affairs
Very often Virginia Woolf has tried to reveal the importance of small and trivial affairs just to suggest the deal of inadequacy of human relationship. In the first part of To The Lighthouse we find Mrs. Ramsay having a feeling of a very disagreeable sensation when she becomes conscious of the fact that she had to hide many small things from her husband—that the mending of the greenhouse roof would cost fifty pounds, ‘that his last book was not quite his best book.’ She sadly felt that all this diminished the entire joy, the pure joy, of the two notes sounding together’. Then the sight of Augustus Carmichael shuffling past strongly reminded her the inadequacy of human relationships. She remembered how odious it was on the part of Mrs. Carmichael to turn her husband out of their house. She could never understand Mr. Carmichael, the poet, whom Lily Briscoe understood and appreciated so much and who seemed to her ‘like on old pagan god, shaggy with weeds in his hair and the trident…..in his hand’. So the Carmichael and the fairy story of the fisherman and his wife, which Mrs. Ramsay was reading to James, her youngest son, become the symbol of the inadequacy of human relationships to her.
A Picture of Middle Class Society
Virginia Woolf’s special linking for this apparently small and trivial affairs is mainly responsible for making To The Lighthouse a picture of the middle class society. Ralph Freedman has elaborately discussed this point in his book. According to him—”To The Lighthoitse-like most novels by Virginia Woolf—is also a novel of manners. Not only the Ramsays and their observer Lily Briscoe but also of the other figures comprise a picture of middle class academic society at the beginning of the Georgian era. Characters are treated with the sharp satire and the eyes for the incongruous within prescribed conventions which is the heritages of Jane Austen. As in its traditional prototypes, the novel is set in a rambling summer-house where society can be depicted at leisure with ample opportunity for personal interaction. Charles Tansley, the ‘atheist’, blundering, aggressive, ‘writing his dissertation is treated with pitiless satire at one moment and with warm insight at another. The fastidious bachelor-scientist, William Bankes, is shown with excellent manners and his limited sensibility. On the other hand, old Mr. Carmichael, the social blunderer, emerges as a successful lyrical poet who alone can communicate with Lily Briscoe. This group is carefully devised as a satire portrait of the times, and of a particular way of life, but it also suggests a pattern of sensibilities illustrating the movement of the narrative. The dinner table, divided between husband and wife, acts as a magnetic field in which the members of his group are in continuous suspension, drawn hither and thither by either pole.” Thus we may conclude by asserting that the depiction of this particular aspect of life is really a distinctive feature of this great novel.