The References to War in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse

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Geovana Chiari
UFSCar – Universidade Federal de São Carlos


This article is an attempt to elucidate the references to war in To the lighthouse, in a historical perspective by trying to convey how the novel miniaturizes a historical moment for Europe. Yet in a modest way, Virginia Woolf incorporates war into her novel, not in an overt historical or political perspective, but through the characters’ minds, using a symbolic language. Most of the literary works concerning this novel focus on aspects related to stream of consciousness or interior monologue. Therefore, taking into consideration the lack of exploration of the theme War in this context, this article aims to present how the World War 1 and some of its consequences are figured in To the lighthouse.


[…] for our generation and the generation that is coming, the lyric cry of ecstasy or despair, which is so intense, so personal, and so limited, is not enough . . . [and] it is in this atmosphere of doubt and conflict that writers have now to create”. (WOOLF, 1927, p. 75)

To the lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), was published in London in 1927. This book is considered one of her masterpieces that brought development of the novel to England, and recognition to the author. In 1928, she won the Prix Femina for this work, which is considered one of the best foreign books that gained her the reputation as one of Britain's most important living authors. In 1925, Woolf presented the theme of War in Mrs. Dalloway. In this novel, her criticism against war and the patriarchal society is political, sharp, and overt. However, the treatment of World War I is different in To the Lighthouse, since her methods became more abstract and less dependent on dialogue as well as on narrative. In this novel, Woolf breaks with the traditional and conventional narrative, focusing on what is happening in the characters’ minds. As Auerbach (1976, p.481) asserts, in her fiction, the writer as the narrator of objective facts has almost completely vanished; almost everything stated appears by way of reflection in the consciousness of the dramatis personae. Obviously, the other writers tried to make subjective representations of their characters, using indirect discourse or monologue. However, in these cases, they almost never tried to reproduce the functioning of consciousness, as Woolf did. Writing from multiple perspectives, she presents existential conflicts that are related to the human psychology, such as: death, disorientation, love, opposition between reason and emotion, despair, isolation of the decade, and so forth. It is possible to infer that most of these conflicts were consequences of the historical context. Miller (2011) states that Woolf’s historical moment in England was one of tremendous and chaotic uncertainty; one of World War I, the death of a generation of men, social shifts in gender and class roles, and technological developments that allowed for the partial mastering of nature to all of these intertwined to contribute to a shift in human character and human relations and when human relations change, there is a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature at the same time. New conceptions and different ideas were being created, considering the new realities. Therefore, the Great War, as the modernism, demanded a different kind of writing. According to Auerbach (1976, p. 481), during the I World War and after, Europe was extremely rich in thoughts and also developed in insecure ways of life. Writers, distinguished by instincts and intelligence found a process in which reality was dissolved in multiple reflections of consciousness. The emergence of the process at this time is not difficult to understand. The idea of “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” (YEATS, 1919) is confirmed in Virginia’s context. It was impossible to consider that everything is organized, conceiving just one idea....
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