Move the Tree to the Middle

Virginia Woolf as a lover

“She remembered, all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure, that she had her work. In a flash she saw her picture, and thought, Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle.” — To the Lighthouse (84)

On page 84 of To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf describes how Lily Briscoe, squeezed by social pressure during dinner at the Ramsey's house, remembers “all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure,” that she can improve her painting by “moving the tree to the middle.” She then picks up a salt shaker and puts it down “so as to remind herself to move the tree.”

These are two rather mundane sentences. They do not evoke strong emotion and they do not have particular significance in the immediate context. But Virginia Woolf weaves them into the text, using the movement of the salt shaker to remind both Briscoe and the reader twenty pages later that to “move the tree to the middle,” does not simply mean improving one's painting; it also means finding purpose and value outside of society's expectations (for Lily it is to marry). Then, when Lily comes back to the Ramsey's many years and pages later, after Mrs. Ramsey's death, the reader and Lily are taken back to that flash of inspiration at dinner with a simple phrase: “Move the tree to the middle, she had said (102).”

For those who have not tried to write compelling prose, this example may seem underwhelming. But as with many masterstrokes, “moving the tree to the middle” can be appreciated by imagining what you might have done instead. Even if you had lit on the idea of moving the tree to symbolize Lily's commitment to her art, would you have been brave and innovative enough to recall it twenty pages later, not with simple exposition that a reader cannot miss, but with a glance “at the salt cellar on the pattern”? This use of the word “salt” enhances the tree idiom. It is a word you can taste. It draws the reader into Lily Briscoe's mind and lived experience. This is immersion. This is how Virginia Woolf rewards the reader for journeying into the human soul with her.

This is just one example of the many recurring motifs in To the Lighthouse that Woolf weaves together as she tosses the reader on the waves of her characters' lives. There is Cam and James' “fight against tyranny (163, 184),” Tansley's refrain in Lily Briscoe's mind that women “can't paint, can't write (86, 158),” “Heaven (153, 171),” and many more. They illuminate the pages like the steady turning of the lighthouse itself, stroked both with subtlety and boldness in the way that only a master who knows when to break the rules can. She mixes metaphors. Her punctuation breaks convention. She puts an entire chapter in parentheses, and reduces another to a single sentence. This is a book published in 1927 that is bolder and yet more restrained than 99% of modern literature in its form and subject. Virginia Woolf is not only an important female writer, she is a master wordsmith of the English language.

Poe once wrote that originality “demands... negation.” In Virginia Woolf's prose there is a great energy and fierceness, but also great precision. Conversations at dinner can whirl into sailors fighting a gale so as not to fall to “the floor of the sea (84)”, “Heaven [can] never be sufficiently praised (153)!” for an awkward conversation saved by “the blessed island of good boots,” and an adolescent son at tension with his father vows to take a knife and strike him “to the heart (184).” In isolation these excerpts are melodramatic, but they are so well-timed amid the deep exploration of her characters' thoughts, that Woolf succeeds in painting the giddy heights and abyssal lows of the human experience. Rather than overwhelm the reader with her extreme metaphors, Woolf exercises restraint and drops them at just the right time like the final blow of a hammer. It is hard reading that demands much from the reader, but it is also some of the most rewarding that I have encountered. The experience is best described by Woolf herself in an essay about the love of reading:

“It is by reason of this masterliness of theirs, this uncompromising idiosyncrasy, that great writers often require us to make heroic efforts in order to read them rightly. They bend us and break us. To go from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith, from Richardson to Kipling, is to be wrenched and distorted, thrown this way and then that.

For these difficult and inaccessible books, with all their preliminary harshness, often yield the richest fruits in the end, and so curiously is the brain compounded that while tracts of literature repel at one season, they are appetizing and essential at another.”

“How One Should Read a Book” by Virginia Woolf

When I consider that she received no formal higher education, that she suffered from manic depression, that she developed a love of reading and writing from her family's library, I cannot help but see Lily Briscoe's struggle as Woolf's own. How many men in Woolf's life whispered to her that women “can't paint, can't write?” How many times, sitting with the pen in her hand, did she struggle to hold onto her vision as “the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child (19)?” This is not to romanticize the tortured artist, it is to empathize. Writing serious art is hard enough without external resistance. I can only imagine what Woolf faced, and my heart breaks for the premature loss of her life and the unfinished works she left behind. It is not because of an artist's afflictions that great art is made, it is in spite of them. And it is in spite of the Charles Tansleys, in spite of the demons and the dreadful passages through the dark, in spite of her critics and her own exacting standards, in spite of “the old question which traversed the sky of the soul perpetually (161)”, that Virginia Woolf has had her vision and succeeds in painting it by “moving the tree to the middle.” To read To the Lighthouse is to be immersed in a magnificent portrait of “daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark (161).”

I read this book shortly after graduating from college, and I am glad I did. Had I read it younger, I am not sure I could have appreciated it, because it is challenging reading for even serious readers. I have since read The Waves, and Mrs. Dalloway, and some of her essays, and I have never been disappointed. Her prose puts me in a rapture. Before I read To the Lighthouse I had not thought this type of writing even possible. It shocked me, like jumping into a cold ocean, but once I acclimated I found that the currents, though strong and forceful, were also gentle and purposeful. They never took me farther than was necessary or let me linger still for too long. This careful refinement of pace and passion is present in all the work that I have read by Woolf, and it is perhaps at its most perfect in To the Lighthouse.

If creating art is an expression of love, then a writer could be a lover, and “there might be lovers whose gift it was to choose out the elements of things and place them together and so, giving them a wholeness not theirs in life, make of some scene, or meeting people (all now gone and separate), one of those globed and compacted things over which thought lingers, and love plays (192).”

Virginia Woolf was such a lover.

#nonfiction #essay #virginiawoolf #tothelighthouse

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. 1927. NY, NY, Harcourt Inc, 1981.

Woolf, Virginia. “Virginia Woolf: ‘How Should One Read a Book?’” The Yale Review, The Yale Review, 1 Sept. 1926,

Thank you for reading! My name is Hunter Dansin. I am a writer, musician, and coder living with and loving my growing family. My first book, Dawn Must Follow Night, is the first book in an original fantasy series that confronts darkness within and without.

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