Sea-Change Aug 23, 2007
"While staying with the Ramsay family on St. Ives, painter Lily Briscoe looks up from the canvas to the garden: "And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance. . .her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that. . .white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues."
And with this, Virginia Woolf reverses the conceptions of the 19th century English novel by dismantling the scaffolding of exterior events--at times events like Mrs. Ramsay's death and World War I seem almost parenthetical--that serve only as mere occasions to release the inner processes and movements of her characters' minds, to introduce speculation and doubt in the narrative voice even about the opaqueness of those characters where once the (usually male) narrator was omniscient and godlike in its authority, and to replicate what Toni Morrison called "the fluidity of female intelligence." The author concentrates largely upon "moments of being," since life consists of "little separate incidents which one lived one by one."
Consider director Robert Altman's fluid camera work in a film like "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" hovering, flitting and alighting upon his ensemble of characters, then consider a disembodied narrator who with subtlety discloses the characters' interior lives, particularly women characters like Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe, and you have some notion of Woolf's revolutionary technique. In the process, she explores themes of female submission and masculine certitude and misogyny, chaos and art's order, time and memory and mortality, the fragmentation of the unitary consciousness.
Yet in the Ramsays' family journey to the lighthouse, the reader too undergoes a sea-change, an immersion in perception and consciousness, a musical orchestration of voices. In the end, Lily Briscoe thinks, "I have had my vision"; her vision, like Woolf's novel, becomes that vision of wholeness that each character desires. An indispensable reading experience."