Finding Meaning In Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse

If you know Dr. Ann McClellan at all, it’s quite obvious what some of her very favorite things are. (The easiest way to figure this out is to glance at the shelves in her office. They’re everywhere!)

If you don’t, here’s a short yet comprehensive guide:

  1. Sherlock Holmes (this is definitely number one, no questions asked)
  2. the UK (this goes hand in hand with the first item on the list)
  3. global literature (especially Salman Rushdie, i.e. Midnight’s Children)

With this list in mind, I would have thought that when I sat down to talk to Ann about “the book that changed her life” (this phrase seems to be causing existential crises…), the answer would have been either something Sherlock Holmes or one of Rushdie’s works.

As it would turn out, I forgot something on the list above…Virginia Woolf.

Ann loves Virginia Woolf. And that’s exactly why her answer to the question,“What novel made a significant impact on you?”, is Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.

As a sophomore English major, Ann read To The Lighthouse for a class entitled English Novel 2. Though she didn’t have much background information when she started, she knew from the very start that Woolf’s stream of consciousness style was going to shape who she was as an individual and ultimately her relationship to literature itself.

Ann remembers a specific scene in the book where the characters get together for a dinner party with family and friends and how the interactions between the characters solidified a personal sense of family, human connection, and the fleeting nature of seemingly perfect moments.

On the latter subject, Ann had this to say:

We always think that life is made up of significant moments, milestones, catastrophes, and celebrations that illuminate the highs and lows of an individual life. But To the Lighthouse showed me that the most meaningful  moments in one’s lifetime are actually quite small. They are the brief glimpses of connection, friendship and camaraderie, and love one finds at a dinner party, at a shared joke,  or in the mundane habits of everyday life. I remember reading that scene as a 20-year-old and thinking, ‘YES. That’s it. That’s the meaning of life.’ As E M. Forster wrote in Howard’s End, ‘Only Connect.’ And Woolf did it so beautifully, so poetically. I had never read such beautiful writing in my life. That novel has affected me ever since. And I never get to teach it! 🙂

Using words and phrases like “epiphany” or “meaning of life” tends to relegate a conversation to the realm of cliche; however, there are some situations where those words and phrases are the only things that can communicate how you feel.

And Ann believes that this was one of those situations. Ultimately, To The Lighthouse is wme-ttl-21017hat reinforced her love of literature, the novel’s poetic and experimental modernist style also solidifying the paths her life and career would take.

For those reasons alone, I believe Ann when she said that this novel changed her life. Everyone has a book that has caused a shift within them, whatever that may be, and Virginia Woolf provided affirmation and an opportunity to see the world in a different light.