Girls exploring rock pools, Cameron Bay, State Library of Victoria Collections, 1909
At the center of Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse are the problems of balance and the reconciliation of opposites. Its characters—the Ramsays, Lily Briscoe, Mr. Carmichael and the others—drift in a chaos of events and thoughts, questions and fragments, abysses and enclosures, reaching out towards one another for connection, but ultimately aware that, as Mr. Ramsay is fond of saying, “we perish, each alone” (167). It is out of this knowledge—the certainty of death and isolation—that the essential questions of the novel arise. If we must die, what lasts? If life is composed of “little separate incidents which one lived one by one” (47), is there (can there be?) any unity—a pattern lurking beneath the surface of the stream of events, which might reveal the whole? Or, as Lily fears when she feels the urge to “demand an explanation” (180), is life simply “startling, unexpected, unknown” and “inexplicable” (180)? It is in painting that Lily strives to “achieve that razor edge of balance between opposite forces” (193) which might grant her “harmony in her own mind” (193): a balance, that is, between self and world. While Lily’s final, triumphant line represents a triumph of art over time (and provides a potential answer to the plaguing question “what lasts?” in the novel), it also alerts us to another struggle, less overt than that against time (though intimately connected to it): the struggle to understand one’s place in the vastness of the universe and to balance one’s self against the onslaught of reality. Throughout the novel, individuals are faced with precisely this problem as they attempt to reconcile their own sense of limitation and insignificance with the immensity of the universe, forging a dynamic between “vastness” and “tininess” which calls upon the imagination to achieve balance.
The best figure for the confrontation of the limited individual with the world’s immensity in the novel comes, perhaps surprisingly, neither from Lily nor Mrs. Ramsay, but from one of the young Ramsay daughters as she crouches at the edge of a tide pool, examining anemones. As Nancy broods by the pool, she imaginatively transforms it into the sea,
ma[king] the minnows into sharks and whales, and cast[ing] vast clouds over this tiny world by holding her hand against the sun, and so brought darkness and desolation, like God himself, to millions of ignorant and innocent creatures, and then took her hand away suddenly and let the sun stream down. (75)
A pool becomes an ocean, a little girl becomes God: the miniature and the immense collide in what seems a successful imaginative synthesis carried out by a bored child. Nancy, whose consciousness we enter only in this moment and for scarcely a page, bereft of power in the real world, becomes—at least for a moment—Barthes’ demiurge: the creator of a world which relies on her for its existence, to which she can visit “darkness and desolation” whenever she pleases.¹ And yet the moment she looks up from her miniature world and is confronted once more with the immensity of reality in the form of “that wavering line of sea and sky,” the meeting point of two vastnesses,
she became […] hypnotised, and the two senses of that vastness and this tininess (the pool had diminished again) flowering within it made her feel that she was bound hand and foot and unable to move by the intensity of feelings which reduced her own body, her own life, and the lives of all the people in the world, for ever, to nothingness. (75)
Nancy cannot sustain her vision of herself as all-powerful God in the face of the true immensity of the world; indeed, she cannot sustain any notion of herself: the vastness of the sea and sky reduce her, along with “all the people in the world,” to “nothingness.” The balance that was for a moment felt in the synthesis of miniature and immense in the imaginative transformation of the pool is destroyed.
Woolf, in a move that recalls Freud’s “subterranean pool of the subconscious,” links the pool to Nancy’s (sub)consciousness, writing that she left Paul and Minta to “[wade] out to her own rocks” so that she might “[search] her own pools” (75).² Thus that Nancy’s pool is “diminished” by her immobilizing confrontation with the incompatibility of “that vastness and this tininess,” furthers our understanding of the impact of immensity not only on her tiny rock pool, but on herself. The indeterminacy of the antecedent of “this tininess” allows the transfer of the smallness of the pool to Nancy herself and her experience. She is not caught between the miniature and the immense, but is smothered by immensity so that she can no longer experience her narrow subjective experience as something vast (as she did when she transformed the pool into an ocean and became a God), but must confront reality and be rendered “nothingness” by the outer world’s vastness, so incompatible with herself. Proportion and balance are lost.
The contact between “vastness” and “tininess” does not need to be wholly destructive. There is a hint, in the generative word “flowering,” of the creative potential of the contact between “vastness” and “tininess,” though it is a potential beyond the reach of young Nancy in the moments we spend in her consciousness. For indeed, there is a potential symmetry between the smallness of the individual and the vastness of the world, as the momentary success of Nancy’s imaginative transformation suggested. While the pool was a sea for Nancy, the expanse of her thoughts—her imagination, her consciousness—was momentarily aligned with the expanse of a real ocean. Thus what at first appear to be contraries—the tininess of the individual and the vastness of the chaotic world—may be reconciled by the recognition that within the tiny individual is a subjective immensity of thought. The individual’s experience of his consciousness may encompass a vastness that corresponds to that expressed by the immensity of the outer world and, perhaps paradoxically, it is through their synthesis in the physical miniature of the pool that this reconciliation might be achieved.
Nancy’s episode with the rock pool, while it does not provide an image of successful reconciliation, provides a roadmap for the interactions of vastness and tininess throughout the rest of the novel, particularly with regard to their relation to the individual consciousness in reality. Nancy’s function as key is highlighted by the fact that she is barely mentioned after the episode, ceding the action back to her parents, Lily, and, eventually, to her siblings Cam and James. It is almost as if, in the third part, Nancy is replaced by Cam, who, ten years on, provides an image of successful imaginative transformation and proportionate reconciliation. As she and her father and brother finally approach the lighthouse, Cam imaginatively transforms their voyage: “it seemed as if they were doing two things at once; they were eating their lunch here in the sun and they were also making for safety in a great storm after a shipwreck” (205). Using Nancy’s episode with the rock pool as a key, we can recognize the same elements integral to it in Cam’s transformation, though the latter is more subtle and complex.
As her sister had done, Cam transforms something everyday into something grandiose and immense—though it is only a figurative immensity that Cam imagines, not the literal one of a pool expanding into an ocean. Without altering the size of anything, Cam alters the weight of events: a picnic becomes a struggle for survival, a matter of life and death. For a moment Cam lives her imagined expansion, wondering whether the water and food (turned “provisions”) will last. But unlike her sister, Cam does not lose herself in her transfigured world. Whereas Nancy became so engaged in playing God that she forgot her reality and the immensity within which she existed, Cam is able to “[tell] herself a story” while “knowing at the same time what was the truth” (205). There is no harsh reawakening and readjustment to reality as the truth seeps in around the edges of Cam’s glorified imaginings. Indeed, there could not be such an awakening for the two are not separate for Cam, as they were for Nancy. Instead, her imagined story and the reality of the day blend together so that even after she has accepted her father’s chastisement and ginger nut, she sees him in a double vision as both “shabby, and simple, eating bread and cheese” and as “leading them on a great expedition where, for all she knew, they would be drowned” (205).
Cam succeeds in achieving a suspension between immensity and the miniature, a reconciliation symbolized in the image of their little boat on “the immense expanse of the sea” (204) as the island recedes in the distance. Because Cam, unlike Nancy, is not afraid of the vastness and thus she does not attempt to master it by playing God. She is content to float on it, a tiny speck in a vast expanse, and yet at home as she has aligned the immensity with that of her thoughts and imaginings. The image is a dynamic one: the boat moves away from the island and towards the lighthouse. Time is not banished from the balance as it is in Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner party.³ Nor does the image attempt to transcend it, as Lily hopes her painting might. Rather, time is embraced in a dynamic synthesis of immense and miniature by ongoing imagination and vision. Though Cam’s imaginings are nowhere near on the artistic level of Lily’s vision, while Lily achieves a sense of unity only by completion, Cam creates a dynamic unity that lasts beyond the novel’s end. Her reconciliation lasts beyond the immediate moment, married to time, transcending Mrs. Ramsay’s timeless spots. As they reach the lighthouse and her father makes ready to step ashore, to Cam it looks “as if he were leaping into space” (207), conjuring an image of empty vastness. But it is not vast at all: the distance is small and her father “spr[ings] lightly […] on to the rock” (207). The double vision persists; Cam’s unity remains elastic and unfinished, embracing and inviting uncertainty and change. Lily has had her vision. Cam’s vision is ongoing.
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For further discussion of the child’s experience of space, particularly in terms of the miniature and the vast, as well as the connection to Barthes’ demiurge, see my essay “Chambers of Being.”
For further discussion of Virginia Woolf’s use of pools and water imagery see my essay “So Very Far from the Sea.”
- Barthes, Roland. “Toys.” Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers, New York: HarperCollins, 2001, pp. 53-55.
- This is the first of several instances in the novel in which pools are aligned with thought and consciousness, though in Lily’s imagination at the end of the novel it is a collective and not an individual consciousness that is represented by the pool and the connection is far more overt than it with Nancy (179).
- Where she “hovered like a hawk suspended” (104-105) and “hung suspended” (107) as she relished (and attempted to preserve) the feeling of being outside time as she attempted to create something “immune from change” (105).
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt, 1981.