What We See When We Read


I could begin with Lily Briscoe.
Lily Briscoe—“With her little Chinese eyes and her puckered-up face …”—is a principal character in Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse. Lily is a painter. She is painting a picture throughout the course of the narrative—a painting of Mrs. Ramsay sitting by the window reading to her son James. Lily has set up her easel outside on the lawns and she paints while various players flit and charge about the property.
She is nervous about being interrupted, about someone breaking her concentration while she is engaged in this delicate act. The idea that someone would interrogate her about the painting is intolerable.
But kind, acceptable Mr. Bankes wanders up, examines her work, and asks what she wished to indicate “by the triangular purple shape, ‘just there.’ ” (It is meant to be Mrs. Ramsay and her son, though “no one could tell it for a human shape.”)
Mother and child then—objects of universal veneration, and in this case the mother was famous for her beauty—might be reduced, he pondered, to a purple shadow…
Mother and child: reduced.
We never see this picture (the picture Lily paints in Virginia Woolf’s novel). We are only told about it.
Lily is painting the scene that we, as readers, are being asked to imagine. (We are asked to imagine both: the scene and its painted likeness.)
This might be a good place to begin: with the picture that Lily paints; with its shapes, smudges, and shadows. The painting is Lily’s reading of the tableau in front of her.
I cannot see the scene that Lily is attempting to capture.
I cannot see Lily herself. She is, in my mind, a scarcely perceptible hieroglyph.
The scene and its occupants are blurred.
Strangely, the painting seems more … vivid.

Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read, Vintage (August 5, 2014).

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