By Pamela Caughie, Loyola University Chicago

Assignment Instructions

Read the short essay attached here on how Woolf Online as a digital archive represents what Roland Barthes means by “text.” In this paper, I write, “The assignment I am creating asks students to consider not what Woolf changed and why, but how they might draw relationships among parts of the archive to produce a certain affective response in readers. I invite them to create pathways through the archive rather than to compare versions of the narrative.” That, in a nutshell, is your assignment.

After reading the paper, look at the first classroom lesson posted by Rebecca Cameron on Modernist Networks using Woolf Online in the classroom to teach To the Lighthouse.

To shift from treating To the Lighthouse as a “work” to approaching it as a “text,” I ask you to build your own edition of a section of the novel, such as the introduction of Mrs. McNab in Part II or the last section of Part I, combining various links that you feel best represent that section. (Notice that when you use the transcription view, you have options for exporting that page.) Or, using the ModNets search and tag functions, create links that help us understand a particular character, like Mrs. McNab, or a particular representation, such as the opaque representation of the First World War in Part II of the novel. In other words, “create pathways through the archive” that bring out what you feel is a significant aspect of the novel.

You are encouraged to work in groups on this exercise.

Some reflections on the assignment


What struck me most in the responses this assignment produced was how little reading the archive as text differed from the leg work readers do in preparing to write a critical essay on a work. As Greg puts it below, many seemed to approach the assignment as if it were “scaffolding” for a more traditional paper. Tracing certain discourses or motifs through the archive was not unlike the process of finding passages in a print edition and researching contextual material. Certainly my own posted example on the discourse of femininity fostered this kind of approach.

Still, the enthusiasm many expressed for this assignment, and the way it encouraged them to think differently about the literary object and its unboundedness, seems to have given students a new way of processing what they are doing when they read a text. My goal in creating this assignment was to help students to understand Barthes’s concept of text and the difference it makes for how we conceive authors, literary works, and the task of the reader. The exercise did seem to fulfill that objective. If I were to use this assignment again, I might provide an example of an “edition” of a section of the novel that combined various versions of the narrative into a new version as well as creating links to contextual materials, in Woolf Online and in ModNets, that provide perspective on that edited section.


I think this was one of the most interesting projects I’ve since completed in my time as an undergraduate at Loyola! As an English and Philosophy double major, I’m so hard-wired to producing papers or shorter essays for my assignments that taking such a canon piece of Virginia Woolf’s collection as To the Lighthouse and essentially ‘rewriting’ it provided me this unparalleled freedom. My initial approach was to complete this project as though it were scaffolding for a larger essay or paper. It would function as an outline without the analysis/argument but purely of ‘textual evidence’ from which an argument would be inferred. While I think this is what was intended of us, I felt that I was yet reading To the Lighthouse as a ‘work’ in the midst of my searching for particular quotes and passages. … Was I yet approaching and dissecting it as a ‘work’ under a silly guise that I was doing so as a ‘text’? I think this residual feeling that I’d ill-completed the assignment also stems from the fact that I think I did too much than was required of me. After I submitted the assignment, I read the directions a bit more carefully and realized—much to my dismay—that we were to reassemble only a singular part of the novel as ‘text’ whereas I utilized the entirety of the novel in my approach. I also attribute much of my confusion as to the distinction between ‘work’ and ‘text’ as it relates to Woolf precisely…. Regardless of the trials and tribulations this project put me through, I did thoroughly enjoy what it challenged me to do. Instead of merely analyzing the text and building a formalized academic argument for what I think it’s performing in a certain way, I was given the creative power to show (rather than tell) exactly how the ‘text’ performs as such.


The assignment to read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as a text required a radically different work flow than what I was used to. Typically, I like to plan an outline of my work first based on the point I wish to make, then find the evidence I need to support it, and finally filling everything in with full sentences and proper grammar. In attempting to approach To the Lighthouse I found that as I continued exploring Woolf Online and Modnets, I would find more and more connections to alternative discourses and directions, besides the one I wanted to explore. This forced me to continuously reevaluate my approach to the novel as I collected links and quotes. … Examining To the Lighthouse as a text, rather than a work, resulted in a continuous evolution of my ideas as I worked. Rather than going into and coming out of the assignment with a set idea, my thoughts surrounding the text changed as I worked to identify and trace the discourses throughout the text. … This assignment made me realize that examining a text is a never-ending task, where I may be able to pick out certain points of the network of discourses, but will never be able to fully investigate all the connections and ideas that they lead to.


… [S]earching through the archive was the pleasant aspect–not in the least because of Woolf’s complex and enveloping writing. Seeing how the contextual (diary, memoir, letters) reinforces and feeds into the textual (alternative editions) brings the outside into the world of fiction, in a peremptory invalidation of the Formalist notion of the literary work as a self-contained unit, an atemporal receptacle of definite meaning. The way in which the metatextual–Woolf’s own writings of literary criticism and the critics’ reviews—preexists and reflects To the Lighthouse illustrates Barthes’ theory of text as a reflection of the culture that constitutes it. … Another interesting insight that engaging with the digital archive reveals follows the differences between the manuscripts, note books, proof readings and the different editions. They account for the intricate process of thought that gives depth to the text, but also for the editorial choices that fashion the printed versions and the way they reflect back onto the initial draft. On one side, all these accidentals and substantive changes keep the text open, alive, becoming, but they also point to Michel Foucault’s definition of the author as the final product of a set of complex operations. Without publishing houses, editors and critics, there would not be a To the Lighthouse, nor a Virginia Woolf–an aspect that Lily Briscoe stands against and Orlando resigns to.

That the meaning of the text is subject to a constant enrichment by an active readership, thereby changing in step with the culture, is made obvious by our complex engagement with the text, mediated by a digital archive that, while expanding its limits, democratizes the access to primary sources otherwise out of reach for the general public and undergrads.


For my ‘pathway through the archive’ I focused (more or less) on painting and photograph. Sight is a major motif (motive, motor…) of the novel, and I wanted to use mentions of painting and photograph, in which visual images are created, destroyed, and reformed, to tease out some perspectives on that motif. I read To the Lighthouse as being primarily interested in how its characters work, try, fail, and succeed at sharing their internal feelings and their perceptions of the world. I believe this reading is given weight by the very prominent role of Lily Briscoe, who tries to commit her vision of the world to canvas. In this reading, the thread of vision and image is closely intertwined with the thread of communication and miscommunication. I offer a handful of interpretations throughout the assignment, but I’ve tried not to turn this into an essay or an analysis, just to sort of string a handful of pages together. I don’t have a grand unified theory of all these links, it’s just a curation of the motif.

Sample Assignments

Cristiana “Silence and Intertextuality”

Nina “Discourse on Male Ego and Identity”

Carl “Vision as Motif”

Greg “Discourse on Metaphysics”

Glenn “Discourses of Legacy”

Kyle “The Discourse of Traditionalism”