Blog #134: Glimpsing “Hamlet” in “To the Lighthouse”

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“I read some history: it is suddenly all alive, branching forwards & backwards & connected with every kind of thing that seemed entirely remote before. I seem to feel Napoleons influence on our quiet evening in the garden for instance—and I think I see for a moment how our minds are all threaded together—how any live mind today is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripedes. It is only a continuation & development of the same thing. It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind. Then I read a poem say–& the same thing is repeated. I feel as though I had grasped the central meaning of the world, & all these poets & historians & philosophers were only following out paths branching from that centre at which I stand.”

July 1st, 1903

Worthy pioner that I am, I’m going to use last week’s Macbeth blog as a spell with which to access a ghost tunnel, a tunnel not verifiable, yet one which almost certainly figured in Virginia’s imagination as she wrote To the Lighthouse. Except for its invisibility, there is nothing mysterious about this tunnel. With Macbeth still in view, Hamlet is inexorably summoned.

Granted there is very little to connect Hamlet directly to To the Lighthouse. At best, there are three references which may echo Ophelia’s description of Hamlet reluctantly leaving her chamber, “with his head over his shoulders turn’d” (Act II, scene 1) In chapter 10 of “The Window,” we see James “looking back over his shoulder as Mildred carried him out”; in Chapter 12, Mrs. Ramsay “looked over her shoulder, at the town”; and in chapter 17, we see Mrs. Ramsay taking Minta’s arm and leaving the dinner room, giving, as she does so, “one last look at it over her shoulder.” While it is hard to imagine that Virginia did not have Hamlet in mind when she crafted these passages, all three passages are also suggestive of Orpheus and Eurydice and of Lot and his wife. Polyvalence prevents using the backward glance as hard evidence of Hamlet’s presence.

Stronger licence to see the ghost of Hamlet comes from outside of To the Lighthouse. Consider the following passage from “Charlotte Bronte,” (1915):

But there is one peculiarity which real works of art possess in common. At each fresh reading one notices some change in them, as if the sap of life ran in their leaves, and with skies and plants they had the power to alter their shape and colour from season to season. To write down one’s impressions of Hamlet as one reads it year after year, would be virtually to record one’s own autobiography, for as we know more of life, so Shakespeare comments upon what we know.

Consider also this passage from “On Being Ill,” (1925):

Illness in its kingly sublimity sweeps all that aside, leaves nothing but Shakespeare and oneself, and what with his overweening power, our overweening arrogance, the barriers go down, the knots run smooth, the brain rings and resounds with Lear or Macbeth, and even Coleridge himself squeaks like a distant mouse. Of all the plays and even of the sonnets this is true; it is Hamlet that is the exception. Hamlet one reads once only in one’s life, between the ages of twenty and twenty-five. Then one is Hamlet, one is youth; as, to make a clean breast of it, Hamlet is Shakespeare, is youth. And how can one explain what one is? One can but be it. Thus forced always to look back or sidelong at his own past the critic sees something moving and vanishing in Hamlet, as in a glass one sees the reflection of oneself, and it is this which, while it gives an everlasting variety to the play, forbids us to feel, as with Lear or Macbeth, that the centre is solid and holds firm whatever our successive readings lay upon it.

Both passages speak to how important Hamlet was to Virginia. Both passages set the mind racing, set the mind wondering about the conditions of Virginia’s first encounter with Hamlet, and about the impact of this encounter and all the subsequent encounters. Imagine Virginia immersed in Hamlet, Hamlet in all its brooding, passionate intensity. Imagine the reflections of self. Her autobiography written through Hamlet would be a wondrous book. Books for Virginia were often instruments for self-examination and also for self-fashioning, but Hamlet, given its strong personal resonances, was more powerful than most. Hamlet was an important touchstone for Virginia, a work against which she read her life and herself.

If my arguments for seeing the presence of Macbeth in To the Lighthouse are accepted, the relative invisibility of Hamlet (Lear, too, perhaps) deserves consideration. The absence of Hamlet and Lear speaks to Virginia’s skill in controlling her material, her skill in selecting and subduing elements which she felt key to the perspective which she was trying to achieve. Macbeth could be controlled; Hamlet and Lear could not. Macbeth could be used suggestively; Hamlet and Lear carried grave prescriptive risks. Because those two plays were so apposite to elements in her life and also to elements which she saw in the society around her, open use of Hamlet and Lear would have unleashed dangerous forces. Lear—with needy father, foolish father, heroic if bedraggled father, mad father—and Hamlet—with themes of parental pressures, madness, deception, filial obligation, suicide and social breakdown—might well have overwhelmed or distorted Virginia’s own vision if introduced directly. Virginia would have risked losing control of biographical elements. Elegy might have been corrupted to tragedy or, worse, reduced to farce. Better to keep Hamlet and Lear at a further distance, and to allow them to remain invisible to most of her readers.

The relative absence of Hamlet and Lear also makes me think about the relative absence of other works. Increasingly, I see To the Lighthouse as a procession of English and European literature, a procession like Banquo’s descendants or like the procession of writers Virginia refers to in “Reading” (1919), “hosts of them merging in the mass of Shakespeare.” So far in To the Lighthouse I have spotted Bennett, Browne, Carlyle, Conrad, Cowper, Eliot, Elton, Forster, Grimm, Homer, Ibsen, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Tolstoy, and Virgil. Others—such as De Quincey, Joyce, Mansfield, and Proust—are also said to be there. Why these writers and not others? Were there criteria for inclusion? Who are the missing authors in To the Lighthouse, and why might they be missing?

Again and again, in her essays and her novels Virginia speculates about cultural memory, and about writing and literature as an instrument for the transmission of ideas and values. In her speculations, she is not uncritical. Some writers are to her more congenial or more important than others. Some she resents or disparages because they are a threat to her. Others she finds emotionally unsympathetic. Others she accuses of errors in perspective Her assessments are not fixed and unchanging. Part of her strength is to have strong opinions yet to be willing to alter or change them. The writers she embraces or bridles at in “Indiscretions” (1924) overlap with yet are not identical with the writers she attacks in “Saint Samuel of Fleet Street” (1925), “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1923), or A Room of One’s Own (1929). Thomas Browne, for instance, is one writer subject to significant re-evaluation, as is Tolstoy. Milton, perhaps, is another.

Milton is an interesting case. Elsewhere in this exploration, I referred to Milton and the absence of “Lycidas.” I did suggest that Milton might be visible in his absence, “darkness visible” as it were, yet my speculations are imperfect and playful. Virginia certainly had issues with Milton. In a Tuesday, September 10th, 1918 diary entry, she struggles with Paradise Lost. In “Saint Samuel of Fleet Street,” while considering Samuel Johnson and writers who love humanity, writers “who love their kind,” Virginia says quite directly that “Milton is hopelessly out of the running.” In “Indiscretions,” she talks of his writing as “pure, uncontaminated, sexless as the angels are said to be sexless.” In A Room of One’s Own she accuses him of “having a dash too much of the male about him,” and, she goes on to talk about “the large and imposing figure of a gentleman, which Milton recommended for my perpetual adoration,” a figure later referred to as “Milton’s bogey” which shuts out the “view of the open sky.” Small wonder, if she consciously expurgated Milton from the cultural procession of To the Lighthouse. Milton, for her, brought more darkness than light.

To think of Milton as cast out of To the Lighthouse raises thoughts of others who might similarly be cast out. Also huge and missing, unless they are so skilfully camouflaged that I have not detected them, are Wordsworth and Byron. Obviously, To the Lighthouse is not encyclopaedic and could not possibly contain or reference all of English and European literature. Some writers are missing from the procession because to have shown them all would have meant compiling a catalogue, not writing a novel. As it is, the number of writers referenced directly, or by means of style, character or plot is staggering, proof of Virginia’s phenomenally synthetic and suggestive mind, and it is that suggestive mind, indeed, which provides an instrument for guessing at writers who might have been deliberately omitted.

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia praises the mind in which the male and the female “live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating,” the Coleridgean androgynous mind, the mind which is “resonant and porous,” which “transmits emotion without impediment,” which “is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.” Later in the essay she lists writers who lack the androgynous mind, writers who lack “suggestive qualities,” or have “too much of the male” about them. Milton, as already mentioned, is on that list, and so are Kipling, Galsworthy, Ben Jonson, Wordsworth and Tolstoy. Most of these writers, Tolstoy excepted, don’t seem to be referenced in To the Lighthouse. Again, “In Saint Samuel of Fleet Street,” when Virginia considers those who lack love for their kind, to Milton’s name she adds Wycherley, Swift, Pope, and Congreve—more writers who are not readily apparent in her novel.

To talk about who was deliberately excluded or included, who raised up or cast out, verges on the invidious, risks raising vexed questions—questions such as are all those writers truly absent from To the Lighthouse? and what about the seeming absence of writers such as Thackeray or the Bronte sisters?—yet to raise the questions, it seems to me, is also to shed sharper light on the workings of Virginia’s mind and on the foundation and structure of To the Lighthouse.

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