These are typical eddies in the streams of consciousness in To the Lighthouse:
What was obvious to her was that the poor man was unhappy, came to them every year as an escape; and yet every year she felt the same thing; he did not trust her. She said, “I am going to the town. Shall I get you stamps, paper, tobacco?” and she felt him wince. He did not trust her. It was his wife’s doing.
“We went back to look for Minta’s brooch,” he said, sitting down by her. “We”—that was enough. She knew from the effort, the rise in his voice to surmount a difficult word that it was the first time he had said “we.” “We did this, we did that.” They’ll say that all their lives, she thought, and an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off.
At any moment Mr. Ramsay (James scarcely dared look at him) might rouse himself, shut his book, and say something sharp; but for the moment he was reading, so that James stealthily, as if he were stealing downstairs on bare feet, afraid of waking a watch-dog by a creaking board, went on thinking what was she like, where did she go that day?
In most stream of consciousness fiction, the other people who inhabit a character’s thoughts are objectified. What concerns the thinker is other people’s utility. That utility can be anything from their effect on practical problems to their being cherished sources of meaning and pleasure; it also can simply be as a link in a string of interconnected thoughts.
Three passages, from Joyce’s Ulysses, Beckett’s Watts, and Stein’s The Making of Americans:
Glorious tone he has still. Cork air softer also their brogue. Silly man! Could have made oceans of money. Singing wrong words. Wore out his wife: now sings. But hard to tell. Only the two themselves. If he doesn't break down. Keep a trot for the avenue. His hands and feet sing too. Drink. Nerves overstrung. Must be abstemious to sing.
But might not Erskine, or Watt, or some other Erskine, or some other Watt, set in the window the wrong light, or the no light, by mistake, or the red light, or the no light, when it was too late, out of forgetfulness, or procrastination, and the man and dog come running to the door, when there was nothing, or onward plod, when there was something?
Sometimes then every one I know comes to be a whole one to me. Mostly every one comes very slowly to be a whole one inside me. Mostly every one is sometime and sometimes for a very long time a puzzle to me.
The characters in To the Lighthouse are not loners as are Bloom and Beckett’s narrators. And the ruminations of Stein’s, even though she is not explicitly a loner and is extremely interested in others, do not extend to any interactions between herself and them.
To the Lighthouse is the story of a group of people and their relationships. Certainly, there are occasional bursts of narcissistic self-regard in To the Lighthouse, and there is one extended line of self-referential consciousness: the deliberations of Lily Briscoe, who is a painter, about how best to continue work on a particular landscape. But this pointed Bloomsburyish elevation of “the artist” is not a hackneyed portrayal of the artist as loner. Outside her work, Lily Briscoe’s psyche is as socially involved as the other characters’.
Stylistically, Woolf is an avant-garde groundbreaker, but in the content of To the Lighthouse she remains true to the basic subject matter of the traditional nineteenth century English novel: a mesh of interacting relationships.
Of course, it is neither Woolf’s innovations or the generously humane scope (for the 20th century) of its plot which make To the Lighthouse a masterpiece. As for any masterpiece, what that is, is beyond words.