Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 701

To the Lighthouse was a critical success as soon as it was published, and won Woolf the Prix Femina in 1928. Initial reviews and criticism focused on the novel's stylistic innovations, praising Woolf's artistic refinement of the stream-of-consciousness narrative. Louis Kronenberger, for example, announced in The New York Times ,...

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To the Lighthouse was a critical success as soon as it was published, and won Woolf the Prix Femina in 1928. Initial reviews and criticism focused on the novel's stylistic innovations, praising Woolf's artistic refinement of the stream-of-consciousness narrative. Louis Kronenberger, for example, announced in The New York Times, "here is prose of an extraordinary distinction in our time: here is poetry." Woolf's death in 1941 prompted a flood of books and articles that celebrated her mastery of prose style. Eric Auerbach's important 1946 study of art and literature Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature elevated Woolf's novel to the status of great literature and gave her the tag "Brown Stocking" (a play on the phrase "bluestockings" which was used to describe a group of intellectual women authors in the eighteenth century). Putting To the Lighthouse at the top of the modern literary canon, he praised the achievements of its narrative style over the works of her contemporaries, calling it the "creation of something new and elemental."

In the 1950s and 1960s, critical focus centered on symbolism, looking at myth, philosophy, and history as the unifying strategies of the novel. In The Glass Roof: Virginia Woolf as Novelist, James Halfley suggested that both Mrs. Ramsay and the Lighthouse were, "cosmic symbols" that represented a "vital synthesis of time and eternity." Along the same lines, Joseph L. Blotner's essay, "Mythic Patterns in To the Lighthouse," argued that Mrs. Ramsay should be understood as a "primordial goddess" composed of "the major female characters of pagan myth." He also made a case for the importance of Freudian thought in the novel.

The 1970s and 1980s marked a revolution in Woolf studies—a move away from quasi-Jungian analysis based on her symbolism, and a new focus on the role of gender and art in To the Lighthouse instead. Where the older critics found unity in the work, these new voices found disharmony and conflict. Emphasis was placed on the roles of gender and class, reflecting the general critical trends of the late 1970s and 1980s. Irene Dash, Deena Kushner, and Deborah Moore looked at the novel from a sociological stance, examining the challenges women face between "being mothers and being artists," from the perspectives of a mother, daughter, and artist, in "How Light a Lighthouse for Today's Women?" Jane Lilienfeld, in "'The Deceptiveness of Beauty': Mother Love and Mother Hate in To the Lighthouse" performed a biographical reading, suggesting that the relationship between Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsay is an outlet for Woolf's feelings about her relationship with her mother, Julia Stephen.

Another critic, Elaine Showalter, caused controversy by arguing that the novel reveals Woolf's abandonment of feminism for a retreat into mysticism, in A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing. Claiming that Showalter's analysis revealed her tendency to "traditional humanism," Toril Moi's hugely influential 1985 book Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory countered this by suggesting that Woolf s novel, "rejects the metaphysical essentialism underlying patriarchal ideology, which hails God, the father or the phallus, as its Transcendental signified," both in its shifting-consciousness narrative style and in the rejection of Mr. Ramsay's logic. Rachel Bowlby's important study, Virginia Woolf: Feminist Destinations, used Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theories to read the novel, suggesting that, "To the Lighthouse makes evident the mapping of human subjectivity in terms of figurations inseparable from sexual difference."

Reflecting the general shifts in academia, the 1990s has seen a stronger emphasis on post-colonial and historically contextual readings of To the Lighthouse. These approaches stress the novel's relationship to the major historical contexts of its setting—World War I, the General Strike, and the British Empire. Characteristic of this approach is "'Something Out Of Harmony': To the Lighthouse and the Subject(s) of Empire" by Janet Winston. Picking up on the scene in which Charles Tansley compares Mrs. Ramsay to Queen Victoria, Winston suggested that the novel, "invites us to read not only with attention to codes of imperialist representation but to Mrs. Ramsay's role as Queen in a text of imperial allegory." The images of "sinking" that appear throughout the novel become—in this argument—evidence for authorial anxiety about the imminent collapse—"sinking"—of the British Empire.

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