Near the end of the first part of Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse (1927), "The Window," the Ramsay family and their invited guests have withdrawn for the evening after a feast of boeuf en daube—the children to bed, the guests to their rooms, and finally Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay to sit across from each other reading. Conscious of her husband's attention, Mrs. Ramsay wishes that he would not disturb her in this pleasant moment of reading but allow her to go on perusing lines of poetry at random and dreaming over them, that he would for once, for now, not demand her sympathy and attention. Woolf then changes the focus to Mr. Ramsay who is in a conciliatory mood, silently indulging his wife to go on but imagining she hardly understands what she reads. Mrs. Ramsay, granted this reprieve, reads a line of Shakespeare's sonnets to herself: "Yet seem'd it winter still, and, you away, / As with your shadow I with these did play" (123). Woolf writes,
she read, and so reading she was ascending, she felt, on to the top, on to the summit. How satisfying! How restful! All the odds and ends of the day stuck to this magnet; her mind felt swept, felt clean. And then there it was, suddenly entire; she held it in her hands, beautiful and reasonable, clear and complete, the essence sucked out of life and held rounded here—the sonnet. (123)
This passage is an extraordinarily adroit observation of the strange pleasure felt when engaging with art—literature in particular. Further, as a scene about the powerful effect of reading, it signals Woolf's fascination with the ways in which our narrative horizons shape our lives. For Woolf, the narratives we are able to imagine are those we may be able to live.
This document was originally published in The Limberlost Review: A Literary Journal of the Mountain West by Limberlost Press. Copyright restrictions may apply.
Hindrichs, Cheryl. (2021). "Sounding Two Notes: Re-Reading Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bishop". The Limberlost Review: A Literary Journal of the Mountain West, 285-293.