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To the Lighthouse | Context

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Modernism

Queen Victoria's death and King Edward's accession to the throne in 1901 marked the beginning of the end of the Victorian era. Its ideals are reflected in the conventionality of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, whose marriage is scrutinized in To the Lighthouse. During the Edwardian era, from 1901 until King Edward's death in 1910, writers begin departing from the influences of 19th-century realism and naturalism, striving for a mode that represented a freer and more contemporary human spirit.

Woolf observed that human nature changed "on or about December 1910." By indicting past traditions and reinventing forms, artists looked at their subjects differently, often from multiple viewpoints. Stream of consciousness in literature reflected these modernist visions. Stream of consciousness, a term coined by psychologist William James, is a writing style where a character's thoughts and feelings are transmitted in a continuous uninterrupted flow. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust were early pioneers of the form.

After the publication of Mrs. Dalloway in 1925, Woolf began writing To the Lighthouse, her fifth novel, which she published in 1927. As influential modernist and feminist works, the two novels remain her most popular and successful. Woolf insisted "books continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately"; contemporary writer Hisham Matar, who counts To the Lighthouse as the novel in which Woolf "mastered" her sentence, sees this connection: "With each book she became more obsessed with language and how when we speak we often fall short of or else exceed what we intended to express." Woolf's sentences, "freely progressing, long, fractured series of observations and insights, unburdened and unhurried by the need to tell a 'story,'" examine the successes and failures of the human psyche and connection.

World War I

World War I (1914–18) left massive destruction and a devastating number of casualties. Woolf identified some events as indescribable: among these was war. In her diary she recorded the details and developments on the war front such as air raids, casualties, and sunken ships. Of the war, she said the "vast events now shaping across the channel are towering over us too closely and too tremendously to be worked [in] without a painful jolt in the perspective."

In England, with men away at war, women filled many positions at home. Woolf's sister-in-law, Ray Strachey, reported, "quiet mothers of families" and "flighty and giggling young girls" infiltrated the workforce, "transformed" into painters, ploughmen, engineers. Following the war, women had a foothold in life outside the home—rights and a voice—and were unwilling to retreat.

The second section of To the Lighthouse, "Time Passes" addresses the impact of the war, its massive destruction reflected in the deaths of family members and desolation of the Ramsays' lives and home. This section serves as a temporal bridge between past and present (prewar and postwar). Its conflated treatment of time, narrative distance, dramatic metaphor and understatement of death reflect Woolf's "indescribable."

Freud's Theories

Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) founded psychoanalysis, the treatment of mental illness through dialogue. Widely discussed during his lifetime, his theories, one of which was the idea of the Oedipus complex, interested Woolf, who explored his ideas of sexual development in To the Lighthouse. The complex is named after the Greek hero Oedipus, who in Sophocles's tragedy unknowingly marries his mother and kills his father. The Oedipus complex explains a young child's sexual attraction to the parent of the opposite sex and the desire to remove the same-sex parent who blocks the child's fulfillment. The child's repression of sexual desire leads to the development of the superego, the part of the brain that acts as the conscience based on learned social standards.

According to Freud, not identifying with the same-sex parent may cause infantile neurosis. This trauma, which can be brought on by a parent's death or an unloving environment, may cause similar reactions to the same-sex parent in adulthood. At the novel's beginning, the Ramsays' son James feels murderous toward his father for demanding his mother's attention and for thwarting a trip to the lighthouse.

Mrs. Ramsay's death and its unresolved issues inflict trauma on her family and friends. The novel's structure suggests James's development is complicated. His love for his mother is frozen in time, and his conflict with his father continues. When his father finally compliments James's sailing as they reach the previously inaccessible lighthouse, his sister Cam thinks he has finally received what he has desired—his father's approval—suggesting resolution, growth, and development.

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