In her novel, To the Lighthouse, Woolf uses stream-of-consciousness narrative, an omniscient point of view, highly punctuated sentences, metaphors, repetition, allusions, similes, imagery, structure, and cliffhangers for various purposes. Woolf utilizes stream-of-consciousness narrative and a third person, omniscient point of view to weave together a story that has a lyrical musicality evocative of waves on the beach, a recurring motif that is representative of change. Stream-of-consciousness works are evocative of characters’ natural, uninterrupted chains of thought while the third person, omniscient point of view provides full access into the thoughts, feelings, musings, and motivations of all the characters. This stream-of-consciousness narrative in this omniscient point of view is established at the beginning of the story where Woolf writes, “Had there been an axe handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children’s breasts by his mere presence; standing, as now, lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one, grinning sarcastically, not only with the pleasure of disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife, who was ten thousand times better in every way than he was (James thought), but also with some secret conceit at his own accuracy of judgment” (Woolf 4). The stream-of-consciousness narrative contains smooth, euphonious diction while the omniscient perspective allows readers to understand the emotions, anger, and conceit, experienced by James and Mr. Ramsay, respectively, in this scene. In addition, Woolf utilizes highly punctuated brief and extended sentences to emulate rapidly changing, connected chains of thought in the characters’ mentality. Woolf’s style of highly punctuated sentences is established at the beginning of the novel: “Strife, divisions, difference if opinion, prejudice twisted into the very fiber of being, oh, that they should begin so early, Mrs. Ramsay deplored…. It seemed to her such nonsense—inventing differences, when people, heaven knows, were different enough without that…. She had in mind at the moment, rich and poor, high and low; the great in birth receiving from her, some half grudgingly, half respect, for had she not in her veins the blood of that very noble, if slightly mythical, Italian house, whose daughters, scattered about English drawing-rooms in the nineteenth century, had lisped so charmingly, had stormed so wildly, and all her wit and her bearing and her temper came from them, and not from the sluggish English, or the cold Scotch (Woolf 8-9).”
Furthermore, Woolf uses metaphors as an effective method of characterization. A metaphor is a form of figurative language in which a symbol is used to represent another thing. For example, in Chapter IV of the first section, William Bankes sees a hen, “straddling her wings out in protection of a covey of little chicks, upon which Ramsay, stopping, pointed his stick and said, ‘Pretty—pretty,’ an odd illumination in to his heart” (Woolf 20-21). This hen serves as a metaphor for William Bankes’ relationship with Mr. Ramsay; when Ramsay accepted the domesticated life, like that of the hen, their friendship ended, for Bankes thinks that “their friendship had ceased, there, on that stretch of road” (Woolf 21). Bankes’ comment becomes understandable when the reader takes into account the fact that Bankes is a childless widower and most likely envies Mr. Ramsay for his family life. Repetition, or writing or restating something, is also utilized for purposes of characterization. Throughout the novel, Mr. Ramsay often quotes the verse, “Some one had blundered,” from Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” to emphasize the enormity of the weight the issues of legacy and prestige bear upon him. Allusions, or indirect references to something, are also used as methods of characterization. When describing Mrs. Ramsay, Woolf writes, “The Graces assembling seemed to have joined hands in meadows of asphodel to compose that face” (29). With the allusion to Greek mythology concerning the Graces of Splendor, Mirth, and Good Cheer, Woolf accentuates Mrs. Ramsay’s seemingly ethereal beauty. Similes, figures of speech that draw comparisons between two different things, are also used to further the purpose of characterization. As Lily Briscoe sits beside Mrs. Ramsay, Woolf writes that “she imagined how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public” (51). With these words, Woolf likens the heart and mind of Mrs. Ramsay to a sacred tomb in which esoteric knowledge is stored.
Woolf employs imagery to further develop themes throughout the novel. Imagery consists of descriptions that appeal to any of the five senses. For instance, as Mrs. Ramsay watches the waves, she thinks that the sea “like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow” (Woolf 16). In this passage, Woolf uses visual and aural imagery to convey her theme about the transient nature of life. Woolf also uses the structure, or organization, of the novel to convey her opinions concerning life and war. The first section of the novel, “The Window,” is the longest but only spans the length of a day while the second section, “Time Passes,” covers a decade but fills merely twenty pages of the novel. Woolf is trying to express her message that indelible memories can be formed within a short amount of time, and she may be implicating the indifference, hostility, and futility of war. Woolf ends the novel with a bit of a cliffhanger, or unresolved ending, in the way that she does not disclose the final image of Lily’s painting. She writes, “She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision” (Woolf 211). This ending allows the reader to interpret the painting in any way that he/she desires; by refusing to satisfy the reader’s curiosity about how the painting turns out, Woolf adds interest and complexity to the novel by stressing her theme that nothing we perceive is black and white but instead is made up of many different layers waiting to be detected.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt, 1927.