Narrative Theory in Virgina Woolf's To the Lighthouse Essay

Narrative Theory in Virgina Woolf's To the Lighthouse Essay

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Beginning, Plot, Sequence, Closure:
Teaching To the Lighthouse

Narrative theory is extremely useful in teaching modernist fiction; its revival in the beginning of the twentieth century may be a direct response to the practices of modernist fiction. One of the most important components of narrative theory is what I call narrative dynamics, or the related issues of presentation of the story from the choice of beginning point, through the arrangement of linear and nonlinear sequences of events, to the function of the ending. Each aspect of the dynamics produces a distinctive teaching opportunity and (it is hoped) a different kind of knowledge. A focus on beginnings, narrative middles, and endings allows one to cover every narrative form, engage in productive dialogues with a host of earlier narrative theorists from Aristotle to Henry James (the latter always a great source of impressive epigrams), and draw on the students’ own experience and judgments. In addition, many trenchant observations can be culled from the narrative theory written by modern writers like James, Edith Wharton, E. M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf.
Readings in narrative theory generally help students get the fullest experience from the more confusing or complex texts of the twentieth century. For the purposes of this discussion, I will invoke Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a work that shows how helpful every aspect of narrative analysis can be. (For those who prefer a shorter text, I can recommend Maurice Blanchot’s “The Madness of the Day,” Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings,” or Jeanette Winterson’s “The Poetics of Sex”.)
Some undergraduates are surprised to learn that the author has to select the point at which to begin her novel, and amazed to learn t...


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... place simultaneously with our reception of the final words of the text. It is as if author, character, and reader are united in unprecedented act of fusion. We go on to read D. A. Miller, Peter Rabinowitz, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Russell Reising on the subject and debate the relative strengths of each position, paying particular attention to Reising’s critiques of Miller and Barbara Herrnstein Smith and discussing which theory most adequately encompasses their reading of Woolf. The end result is that students can become theoretically informed, sophisticated readers of difficult texts, and can carry that knowledge on to the interpretation of other narratives they go on to experience.

Works Cited:

Brian Richardson, ed. Narrative Dynamics: Essays on Time, Plot, Closure, and Frames. Ohio State University Press, 2002.
Virgina Woolf, To the Lighthouse, HBJ, 1981.

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