Narrative medicine is a critical and practical approach to medical humanities grounded in the close reading of creative works, and by extension, the clinical encounter. As a physician trained in narrative medicine, I am frequently asked by colleagues whether the chosen texts must be medical. The answer, of course, is that they need not be; in fact, non-medical texts often provide richer insights into the structures that underpin clinical care. In this close analysis of a passage in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I demonstrate the ways in which a lit-crit approach to reading informs contemporary clinical concerns about who is telling the story and the order of events presented.
E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, though literary contemporaries, had radically different styles of writing. At first glance, Forster’s descriptive, dialogue-rich approach to stories has little in common with Woolf’s deeply introspective streams of consciousness. Nevertheless, the two may agree in more ways than they differ. In particular, Forster’s critical approach to “The Story,” outlined in Aspects of the Novel, can inform and supplement a reading of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which was published in the same year. Both authors are fundamentally interested in the relationships between story-telling, time, and plot. Despite their superficial stylistic differences, Woolf and Forster together create a stronger approach to story-telling and the novel.
In “The Story,” Forster makes explicit what he calls “the fundamental aspect of the novel,” that is, its “story-telling aspect” (25). For Forster, a story is not merely a description of incidents, but rather “a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence” (27). He distinguishes this “time-sense” from “something which may be conveniently called ‘value,’ something which is measured not by minutes or hours, but by intensity” (28). These moments of intensity, though they seem to be outside time, are nevertheless embedded in clock-time, which continues to tick in the story as in life. For Forster, the story “pays a double allegiance” to both time and value (29). It privileges the moments of value, while nevertheless referencing the clock.
At first glance, Forster seems to be advocating a straightforward, quasi-journalistic style of story-telling, wherein events are dictated in the order in which they are occur. Yet Forster’s view of story-telling, as he quickly points out, is far more nuanced. He acknowledges the devices that writers as varied as Brontë, Sterne, and Proust may use to “hide… turn upside down… alter the hands” of that novelistic clock (Forster 30). These devices enrich fiction by encouraging stylistic experimentation while maintaining logic and order. Thus, they do not “contravene our thesis” that a story is necessarily tied to time (Forster 30).
At the end of his essay, Forster castigates Gertrude Stein’s modernist fiction for attempting to “emancipate fiction from the tyranny of time and to express in it the life by values only” (41). Stein fails, according to Forster, because the natural result of abolishing time is the erasure of “the sequence between the sentences. But this is not effective unless the order of the words in the sentences is also abolished, which in its turn entails the abolition of the order of the letters or sounds in the words” (42). For Forster, then, the time-sequence that undergirds a story is evident even in the ordering of words on the page. To ignore the “tyranny” of clock-time and “express values only” would create a novel that is “unintelligible and therefore valueless” (Forster 42). It is the time-sequence, common to both writer and reader, that allows fiction to communicate a deeper truth.
Given Forster’s intense displeasure with Stein’s experiments, one might wonder how he would react to Virginia Woolf’s style in To the Lighthouse. Throughout the novel, Woolf focuses on “the few notable pinnacles” that constitute moments of intensity or value (Forster 28). Despite her stream of consciousness style, however, Woolf is well aware of the temporality of her characters. She might join Brontë, Sterne, and Proust in Forster’s list of those who have employed devices to experiment with clock-time. Although she delves into the memories of her characters and seems to blend past and present, Woolf maintains a general forward momentum that agrees with Forster’s ideas of the time-sequence and the clock.
One apparently linear section of To the Lighthouse is the search for Minta’s lost brooch. Woolf opens the paragraph with the four young people “climb[ing] right up on to the top of the cliff again,” an example of forward movement in both space and time (76). Nevertheless, by including the word “again,” Woolf undercuts the idea of absolute linearity. The effect is not of pure forward movement (e.g. the folly of the Charge of the Light Brigade, which Mr. Ramsay repeatedly quotes), nor of stagnation and chaos (as Forster implies occurs in Stein’s work). Rather, the effect is intermediate, like a tide coming in. The momentum of a tide, like the momentum of these young people, depends on the location of the viewer. From a very near perspective, such as an individual walking for a few minutes along a beach, the tide is invisible. It is only when observed over a period of hours that the rise or ebb of the tide becomes apparent. Of course, from a very distant perspective, over the course of days, the tide itself becomes cyclic. Similarly, the word “again” challenges the near perspective of the reader, forcing him or her to look for a broader cycle.
To achieve and maintain this larger perspective, Woolf paradoxically relies on an ultra-near gaze, entering her characters’ minds and indirectly reporting the thoughts of three different narrators. First, we hear from Minta herself, who is nearly hysterical at losing “the sole ornament she possessed…. She would rather have lost anything than that!” (Woolf 76). The hyperbole is typical of Minta’s overwrought emotions, evident when she later shrieks, “We shall be cut off!” (Woolf 77). The description of the grandmother’s brooch as “a weeping willow, it was (they must remember it) set in pearls” (Woolf 76) further emphasizes Minta’s ties to Victorian sentimentality as well as her self-centered assumption that others “must remember” the details of her possessions.
From Minta, the narration shifts to Andrew, who finds the search a “pother,” or an unnecessary and fussy commotion (Woolf 76). The word, of course, recalls “bother,” which Andrew no doubt feels as well. Yet the more unusual “pother” effectively conveys Andrew’s annoyance and sense of superiority at being learned and “manly” (Woolf 77). Paul, on the other hand, is “wretched” (Woolf 76) to Andrew as he searches for Minta’s lost brooch, and only achieves “manliness” when he and Andrew “took counsel briefly and decided that they would plant Rayley’s stick where they had sat and come back at low tide” (Woolf 77). In other words, for Andrew, masculine decision-making is tied with rationality and control and opposed to Minta’s hysterical sentimentalism. Andrew thinks quite explicitly to himself that Minta “had no control over her emotions…. Women hadn’t” (Woolf 77). By inverting the clauses and having “women” follow “Minta,” Andrew’s interior monologue demonstrates not only the generalization (i.e. “Women hadn’t any control of their emotions”) but also the creation of the generalization from a specific instance. Thus, Woolf displays rather than summarizes Andrew’s tendency to judge harshly and ignore nuance.
The episode of Minta’s brooch finishes with Nancy’s point of view. In contrast to Andrew’s “thoughts” (Woolf 76, 77), Nancy “felt” (Woolf 77) her monologue. The word is telling, for it indicates that Nancy, unlike the other young people on the cliff, is attuned to nuance. She cannot articulate her feelings as well as Andrew; the best she can say is that it “might be true” and that Minta “was crying for something else” (Woolf 77). Although aware, perhaps more than Minta herself, that the brooch represents something greater than a physical object, Nancy is unable to name that greater significance: “We might all sit down and cry, she felt. But she did not know what for” (Woolf 77). By eschewing both Minta’s hysterical sentimentality and Andrew’s hard-nosed rationalism, Nancy seems to be grasping for a higher truth. Yet Woolf, acknowledging the fact that deep truths can rarely be articulated, avoids putting words in her character’s mind. The brooch cannot be reduced to a mere symbol of lost innocence in the face of Minta and Paul’s recent engagement. Rather, it is simultaneously itself and greater than itself, cyclically recalling Lily Briscoe’s thoughts about the Ramsays appearing as “symbols of marriage” (Woolf 72) as they watch their children play.
The episode of Minta’s lost brooch is a moment of great intensity in the novel. Woolf uses the loss of the brooch to explore her character’s attitudes toward possession, womanhood, and truth. Although the multiple perspectives appear to complicate the tale, the episode itself meets Forster’s insistence on time-sequence. One might easily list the events of the story in chronological order, beginning with Minta’s realization of her loss and continuing through the search, the realization of the tide coming in, the male decision to return the next day, and the abandonment of the search. Woolf overlies her multiple perspectives on this time-driven framework. Importantly, the characters do not tell the same sequence of events from multiple perspectives. Rather, we learn of the brooch’s loss from Minta, the search from Andrew, and the abandonment from Nancy. The story itself is pulled along chronologically by the repeated shifts in perspectives. Thus, even though Woolf’s emphasis on tides appears to create a cyclic framework, the episode of Minta’s brooch, like many of the discrete episodes in To the Lighthouse, demonstrate the time-sequence that Forster prizes so highly.
Unlike Gertrude Stein (as characterized by E.M. Forster), Virginia Woolf manages to focus on moments of intensity while maintaining sense in her literary world. She achieves this through a constant awareness of the literary clock and the temporal location of her characters. Although Woolf’s use of perspective shifts and highly detailed memory complicate the simplistic forward motion advocated by Forster, she is nevertheless careful to maintain a timeline of events to which her characters’ actions and thoughts are pegged. It is the time-sequence, then, that prevents a novel of values and intensity from degenerating into chaos.
Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. 1927. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. 1927. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1981.