"What was the value, the meaning of things[?]" (p133)
Woolf's chosen role as an author is to uncover the hidden values and needs of her characters' psychologies, and by extension of this, those of her readers—each frequent realisation of the character's is a real and vividly personal epiphany, the like of which 'real-life' persons do not have such a feel for on a day-to-day basis; the characters are in a very real sense perhaps too self-aware to be considered 'real'. (Tansley and Lily at the dinner table each understand their situations perfectly.) The underlying message Woolf seems to be seeking to present is that this self-knowledge is not necessarily inherently of any worth—Tansley, for instance, is unable to control his desire to subjugate others in his own mind to prop up his own insecure self-esteem; his realisation of this fact is not an empowerment to alter the fact. Lily feels restrained in a similar fashion; years after their utterance, Tansley's words (p94) "women can't write, women can't paint", though cushioned with the knowledge that "clearly it was not true to him but for some reason helpful" (also p94), still cannot be completely discounted from her mind.
Lily's struggle to marshall her memories into a cohesive and enduring monument of canvas is a metaphor for the intensity of human experience; the significance being that ultimately it does not matter—for that intensity will not be retained even then, no matter the struggle; once captured the reality of the situation fades, and it is time to 'move on'. Her efforts are symbolic of the inability for the power of memories and emotions to be lastingly captured—so strong is this urge that her desire to imprint a meaning upon events perpetuates through the years; clearly it is more important than a fleeting glimpse of the meaning behind life in a single mind at a single point in time. It surpasses and transcends Lily to become a wider, more encompassing issue; which Lily recognises in the euphoria of the story's climax (having "had her vision", p225)—"her picture ... with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something ... it would be destroyed. But what did that matter?" Though the picture represents nothing of any value to those who would see it hung out of view, if at all, it is a personal reference; a reminder, an optimistic journey whose satisfaction is in the travelling rather than the destination.
Similarly, Mrs Ramsay's chain of thought at the supper evening ("Everything seemed possible. Everything seemed right ... but this cannot last, she thought", p113) is separate and wholly distant from the events at the dinner table; in this scene she exists almost in a fugue state of heightened perception. She sits there at the dinner table, (p115) "observing [Charles Tansley] rather than listening to what he said ... that was what [it] ... amounted to. 'I—I—I' ... she could tell by the sound of his voice". What is important is that she recognises this state of constant fluid understanding; (p116) "at the moment her eyes were so clear that they seemed to go round the table unveiling each of these people, and their thoughts and feelings"—a state of consciousness which, to put it crudely, we have all experienced at one time or another, but for brief periods of time only; they are all but forgotten in the interim between such revelations, coming flooding back only when another strikes us. They do not—in fact, cannot—last. The fact is that Woolf attempts to make it last—this level of startling perception ("She scented danger for her husband. A question like that would lead, almost certainly, to something being said which reminded him of his own failure.") is artificially sustained in characters' minds throughout the text; whilst simultaneously she admits, throught Mrs Ramsay, that "It could not last, she knew". Even as she admits in Lily's closing speech that the effort is ultimately destined to be forgotten, she seems to be saying that the struggle is a reward in itself; that it is whilst we are living the experience we should cherish it—a piece of the moment cannot be deliberately captured, but (p114) "of such moments ... the thing is made which remains for ever after." This delicate interplay of characters, of their thoughts and personal visions definitely lends credence to the notion that To The Lighthouse is a work with its roots buried deep in ruminations on the human condition; deeply philosophical in its own subtle way, eminently true to life, but fragilely artificial in its delicacy because it is too true to life.
The effect is artificial not only because of its represention of a state of constant psychological epiphany but because, although the text of To The Lighthouse flows perfectly, it is a very conscious style on Woolf's part involving extensive rewriting from the original manuscript. There is evidence for this in the sheer volume of the chapter notes dictating changes from the original manuscript, which seems to have been more verbose and less nebulous in form ("in MS ... more explanation is given" p233, "in MS, Tansley's atheism is more emphasized and contrasted with Lily's belief" p227—and there are records of many other editing outs or 'smoothing' revision.) It is not difficult to imagine that Woolf would have been exceptionally gratified by a comment which she made about another author in a critical essay: that a work offered (p248) "a complete presentation of life ... as always [he] creates carelessly, without a word of comment, as if the parts grew together without his willing it, and broke into ruin again without his caring." Woolf's version is more forced; but perhaps this is what is necessary for a work of such questing magnitude. Seeming spontaneity requires patience.
All page references are from:
Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse, Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 1992