Should Your Book Club Read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf?

This is not an easy book.  It is, however, a brilliant book.  So, forgive my equivocation, but I think my answer to should your book club read To the Lighthouse depends upon…your book club.  I will say that this book almost demands to be read with others so that you can talk about it and make sense of it.

To the Lighthouse was Literary Masters’ December selection, and I found our discussions fascinating.  Like a mirror held up to each individual reader, this book seemed to reflect unique and personal responses.  Each LM member seemed to have a different interpretation of the parts, as well as the whole, of the story, much like the characters within had each an individual response to their lives.  Thus, we readers were like the characters in the book, constructing our perception of reality through the prism of our own perspectives.

I could spend days here going over the themes of the book, and analyzing the imagery, and discussing the characters, and so on.  And the thing is, I could spend each day looking at the above through a different lens: one day I could view the book through a historical context; one day I could do a Freudian reading, one day I could do a feminist reading, one day I could look at it through an existentialist lens, one day I could just analyze the symbolism, one day I could just analyze the colors…I think you get my point.

So what can your book club talk about if you read To the Lighthouse?

Many critics feel this book is highly autobiographical, so that may be a starting point for you if you are up for doing a little research.  Even if you don’t, though, you’ll want to discuss the relationships in the book.  Why does Mrs. Ramsey refuse to say ‘I love you’ to Mr. Ramsey?  Whom does Lily love?  What does Lily feel toward Mrs. Ramsey?  What does James want?

Actually, that’s a good place to start.  What does each character desire?  This may lead you to what I consider an overarching theme of the book, one of the main things this book is “about.”  And what does each character do with that desire?  And what does that say about human nature?

Each reader in your book club may have a different answer to “what is this book about?” and each one may be right.

Talk about the significance time plays in the story.  What is it saying about time?  How do the characters feel about time?  What is each character’s relationship with time?  Perhaps you could consider the most important thing in each character’s life and go from there.

Talk about the imagery and symbolism.  For example, what significance do windows hold?  What about the lighthouse?  Note all the gardens, trees, and other natural phenomenon and how they relate especially to Mrs. Ramsey.  What is the significance of that?  Talk about the house; many of my LM members felt that the house was a character in itself.  What do the waves represent, if anything?  Honestly, I could go on and on, but the above is probably enough to get your book club going.

This book is absolutely poetic and you may want to read passages just for the beauty of the language.  You’ll definitely want to talk about the unique structure: Virginia Woolf was a pioneer of ‘stream of consciousness,’ so you as reader will be inside the flowing thoughts of the characters.  How does this affect you?  And how does this form embed the themes of the book?

I highly recommend this book.  It speaks to the reader on an individual level as well as speaking to us all on a universal level of things that are timeless.  This is probably why it is on every list of “must read” books.  It demands a little more work on the reader’s part, but the rewards are well worth it.

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