Penn State

John P. Christman - professor of philosophy, political science, and women's studies, Penn State University Park

Book Title: To The Lighthouse

Author: Virginia Woolf

Book Description:

One of the first steps on the road that led me to this point in my academic life was taken many years ago when someone handed me a copy of the first page of To The Lighthouse, saying that the key to fine writing was completely encapsulated in these lines. Soon afterwards I read the book for the first time, along with other books by Woolf, knowing that some kind of intellectual and emotional maturity could be achieved from absorbing her work. Only after several readings of this work have I come to understand what such maturity might amount to.

This novel embodies a kind of writing that marked a particular time in literary and cultural history. Events are explored from multiple fragile points of view, and they exemplify a version of modern self-consciousness—and awareness of the limits of self-consciousness—that marks a turn in 20th century thinking. It also tells a story that chronicles that same time, a story of how very public and very private violence rips apart families, friends, and the fabric of society. Recovering from that violence through artistic vision is, I think, one of the major themes of the novel.

I am a philosopher, but I chose a work of literature to mark the occasion of my promotion, not only because of the influence this work had on me personally, but because its style, tone and themes are so deeply philosophical in themselves. To The Lighthouse explores in microcosm the question that every society must answer for itself, how to find a way to go on after one's world has been so utterly shaken.


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