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The Core Curriculum

Core Readings: Lit Hum Instructor Sarah Cole reads Woolf

1927 CE
Relates to: 


Sarah Cole, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, reads selections from To the Lighthouse
Much of life, Virginia Woolf wrote, is like “cotton wool” — rough, indistinct, unmemorable.  But life is also punctuated with gem-like, transcendent moments in which our individual experience feels suffused with larger meaning.

To the Lighthouse, Cole explains, is a novel that attempts to capture the quality of such moments and to suggest how and why they might occur.

Plot-wise, Woolf’s novel is about one character’s long-stifled dream of sailing to a beacon visible from his family’s summer home. Along the way, however, Woolf sketches other members of the Ramsay family and their intimate circle during two seaside holidays before WWI and after.

What emerges is a complex collective portrait in which individual selves sometimes conflict, occasionally find common cause, but most often trace lonely courses, each off in pursuit of some illusory image of happiness.

In her readings, Cole focuses on significant moments in the lives of two characters, James Ramsay and Lily Briscoe, as they struggle to wrest life’s meaning from the inexorable and annihilating flow of time.


THE WINDOW. “Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow.” Six-year-old James Ramsay imagines the wonders of sailing to the lighthouse.

THE WINDOW. “So that is marriage, Lily Thought.” Lily Briscoe contemplates the Ramsays who, for a moment, seem an image of marriage itself.

THE WINDOW. “Now all the candles were lit up….” Lily, a painter, recognizes that Mrs. Ramsay — a homemaker — is herself possessed of considerable artistic talents.

TIME PASSES. “Night after night, summer and winter.” During the central portion of To the Lighthouse, Woolf portrays the effects of time on the Ramsay’s vacation home as it lies vacant for the duration of the Great War.

THE LIGHTHOUSE. “The lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower….” Upon approaching the destination of his boyhood dreams, James — now sixteen — realizes that the actual place is both more and less than he expected it to be.

THE LIGHTHOUSE. “Quickly, as if she were recalled to something over there, she turned to her canvas.” With bold strokes, Lily completes a painting begun ten years before. It is at once an image of Mrs. Ramsay and of Lily’s own mature understanding of the complex family dynamic that had perplexed her ten years before.

(21 minutes)

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