(A word of warning: This review may contain spoilers).
I’m a bad person and bad student. Let’s just get that out of the way. Right from the beginning of my GCSEs to the present day, I have never quite been able to separate myself from novels I have studied and be truly able to view them from a cold, analytical viewpoint. Thus, the isolated, miserable sixteen-year-old that I was thoroughly enjoyed A Streetcar Named Desire, somehow being able to link my own adolescent loneliness to Blanche Dubois’ insanity (How? We may never know.) And at the same age, just as my ”depression” was beginning to set in, I really, really loathed Virginia Woolf and all she stood for when she wrote To The Lighthouse.
It’s difficult to say what I found most banal and draining about a novel which seems to excite millions of modernist aficionados around the globe. Actually, ”excite” is probably the wrong word. There is nothing exciting about To The Lighthouse. Oh, plenty happens: protagonists die, World War I happens, Mr Ramsay bounces about screeching the words to ”The Charge of the Light Brigade” in a most unrealistic manner, yet it is written so that it feels like one long endless ramble about a woman trying to complete a pretentious painting. Overall, my main complaint about the novel isn’t that it’s endlessly depressing (although, that factor didn’t exactly endear it to me either)- It is that To The Lighthouse skims over what could have made it great. Woolf chooses to almost entirely skip over the First World War, save for a few brief mentions of casualties, as well as almost completely avoiding the immediacy of a central character’s death. A novel which could’ve explored the devastation of war and grieving (and certainly, Woolf does try to include these themes) refuses to do this, at least not in any remotely effective manner.
My second major criticism of To The Lighthouse is that Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness is frankly not effective. It was certainly a daring technique to use back when the novel was initially published, but now it screams ”modernist era” and is distracting and annoying (especially in the dinner party episode). It makes it hard to separate one character’s angst from the next. The novel by doing this (in the same way that Nabokov’s Lolita uses generous helpings of Gratuitous French), effectively announces that it is out of the reach of the average reader. Now I can appreciate some high culture every now and again, but frankly, To The Lighthouse is just not clever enough to justify its own pretentiousness.
My final grumble can be summarised as follows: the novel is just too relentlessly depressing. Yes, life is not the most enjoyable of experiences and literature should reflect that fact, but To The Lighthouse goes above and beyond in this duty. By all means, please do write about war and its consequential sufferings. Kill off your main character. Explore grief. But please, give the reader one redeeming thing to hold on to. It is not kind to force existential misery onto a Higher English class.