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Here is my last essay for the "Fiction of Relationship" course with Arnold Weinstein of Brown University. What do you think of it? Have you read Virginia Woolf's "To The Lighthouse"?

The Creative Vision of Light and Darkness in To The Lighthouse

A powerful poetic vision underpinning Virginia Woolf's novel To The Lighthouse involves the contrasting creative forces of light and darkness. In the passage about the "wedge-shaped core of darkness" (Woolf, p. 62), she characterizes darkness as "limitless" and "unfathomably deep" giving "freedom" and "peace" which recharge Mrs. Ramsey as she considers its infinite impenetrable potentiality. Darkness is the omnipresent background that frames experience and action. We rarely tune-in to this darkness. Light is the episodic, searching, active, action-world of teleological focus that we tend to overemphasize as "what it is all about". These contrasting primal creative forces recur throughout the novel. They form an underlying vision for the forces of creativity in the novel and in our lives.

In the passage, "any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests" (Woolf, p.3), we see the novel begins with a creative vision of darkness (gloom) and light (radiance) as basic forces. By the end of the novel these themes are less explicit but still omnipresent. Here the focus is on the light: on Lily's painting and on the trip of Mr. Ramsey, James and Cam to the Lighthouse. But the infinite possibility of darkness manifests even here, in particular, with Mrs. Ramsey as "the shadow" framing the actions of the living including the beachhouse guests, Lily with her painting and reflections, and the expedition to the Lighthouse. Explicitly, the line "a light there needed a shadow there and so on" (Woolf, p. 176) epitomizes this omnipresent theme.

The principles of darkness are most clearly presented in the important passage about the "wedge-shaped core of darkness" (Woolf, p. 62). It is important to realize that there follows an equally important passage "She praised herself in praising the light" (p. 63) which focuses on the other half of this duality. It seems to me that Woolf keeps the light and the darkness in dynamic creative tension throughout the novel.

In addition to providing an ontology for the novel, darkness and light frame its epistemology as well. "to stand on his little ledge facing the dark of human ignorance, how we know nothing and the sea eats away the ground we stand on" (Woolf, p. 44). Ignorance is a normal state in the space of darkness while the ground represents the episodic tenuous light of what we think we know. Coming out of the darkness, the sea of new realization and knowledge erode yesterday's so-called solid ground.

In To The Lighthouse, the creative forces of darkness and light pepper the relationships of the characters, help provide their often contrasting perspectives, and drive the plot and its creative forces. Light as episodic action (foreground) and dark as potentiality (background) shape every human relationship and our stories about them. They provide a way of seeing, shaping and embodying the fiction of relationship.

Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse. Eudora Welty, foreword. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 1981.
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