It's better to know what you're in for when beginning Virginia Woolf's 'To the Lighthouse'. If you go in expecting another 'read' not only will you be disappointed, but you may also find it too difficult to continue on with. Foolishly, I wasn't ready for the book when I started it; it took me 70 pages before I 'got' it and I understood how to read the novel and know roughly what it was concerned with. Once this happened I realised why everyone claims that Woolf is one of the greatest female writers, in fact, one of the greatest writers regardless of gender.
Besides from an interlude most of the 'action' of the novel takes place within the characters. From their thoughts and emotions we can piece together relationships and events. The further we read the bigger and clearer the picture becomes. The book is divided into three distinct sections with the first one focusing mainly on Mrs Ramsay. It is the dinner table scene that Virginia Woolf juggles so well, swapping between the thoughts of different characters and ending with a powerful, resonating line. The interlude, or second section is only short and is written to convey the feeling and theme of passing time more than direct meaning. In a sense it is poetry. It feels like writing that is above the reader's comprehension and this is what endows it with its mystique. The third section is more structured than the first but remains internal. The main character here is Lily the painter and it has been suggested that she represents the author. This would make sense as she is in a good position to survey the family (based on her own) and is also an artistic creator.
What makes this novel so great is its subtlety. It relies on the reader to infer the story. While it doesn't possess the freshness of prose that Joyce created, it perfects the early twentieth century novel by destroying the typical narrator and using stream-of-consciousness to carry the story. Joyce and Woolf are seen as the leaders of modern fiction in twentieth century English literature and is it coincidence that both were born in the same year (1882) and died in the same (1941)?