A Reflection on a Sentence from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

*This was originally a small assignment for my Writers’ Seminar in Fiction, and I couldn’t help but share it because I am so in love with this sentence. 

**

“Loveliness and stillness clasped hands in the bedroom, and among the shrouded jugs and sheeted chairs even the prying of the wind, and the soft nose of the clammy sea airs, rubbing, snuffling, iterating, and reiterating their questions—“Will you fade? Will you perish?”—scarcely disturbed the peace, the indifference, the air of pure integrity, as if the question they asked scarcely needed that they should answer: we remain” (Woolf 129).

Of the many beautiful sentences throughout Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, this one struck me particularly. In my future attempts at stream-of-consciousness—or, hell, in just writing in general—I hope to sound this poetic, this poignant, this urgent, and this strong with my writing. What makes this sentence great is its use of personification of both abstract ideas and real things: “Loveliness and stillness clasped hands in the bedroom” and “the soft nose of the clammy sea airs” give me the ability to both imagine and even relive these pictures, even though these are not human. By personifying these concepts—love and stillness—and the sea air, Woolf makes this accessible to us as human beings. They appear as characters to us in the novel rather than mere description (though they do describe so much as well). I think another thing that draws me in is the rhythm of it. The rhythm is established through the repetition of similar structures: “rubbing, snuffling, iterating, and reiterating” as participles; followed by two questions; followed by ideals such as “the peace, the indifference, the air of pure integrity.” This gives the sentence a beat. It begins slow and ends slow, but in the middle it picks up and that drives it to its finish. As a writer, I want to work harder on constructing more rhythmic sentences that help drive both the idea and the physical sentence to its end. Lastly, Woolf consistently brings up philosophical questions in her work, and this sentences is no exception. She asks, “Will you fade? Will you perish?” as if she speaks to us directly. What makes the conclusion of this sentence so satisfying is that we get an answer: “we remain.” This sentence is one of my favorites in the entirety of the novel because we, as readers, get a pay-off at the end of the sentence that is built to by the sentence’s rhythmic structure and the use of personification. It is absolutely beautiful because though the sentence ends, it does not die. It keeps going.

Published by Alyssa C.

Writer & theatre artist from Iowa. Currently quarantining in the Pacific Northwest. MA in Intercultural Communication Studies from Shanghai Theatre Academy (expected 2021).

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