The Garden of Pure Sensation: Color Theory and Synesthesia in Virginia Woolf?s To the Lighthouse

Elizabeth McKinney Phillips
Highest Honors, May 2010

907 N. Columbia St. Chapel Hill NC 27516


To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf's most painterly novel, is a constant narrative negotiation between color and the identities it shapes. It is a conversation between the sensory experience of beauty and the human impulses--synesthetic experiences, even--it spontaneously conjures. This thesis argues that Woolf's use of color shapes the structure and content of To the Lighthouse, and, paired with her synesthetic imagery, helps to construct the identity of her characters and compose the emotional landscape of the text. Chapter one will show that Woolf has separated her use of color into three phases in To the Lighthouse: division of the spectrum into masculine, feminine, and androgynous colors; a darkening and fading of color; and a disassembly of color that allows for the resolution of the novel. Without the environment of proliferated color and its varying stylistic usages, Woolf would not be able to achieve the effects put forth in each section: in "The Window," that of balance; in "Time Passes," that of loss; and in "The Lighthouse," that of liberation and triumph. Chapter two of this piece will document the presence of synesthesia in To the Lighthouse. Woolf's descriptions expand beyond visual and chromatic; she communicates the characters? subjective responses to their world by engaging all of the senses and accounting for their fusion and confusion. Synesthetic effects structure the novel as a sequence of sensory events that exists successfully outside of narrative convention.