To the Lighthouse
Painting and Freezing in To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf’s claim that plot is banished in modern fiction is a misleading tenet of Modernism. The plot is not eliminated so much as mapped out onto a more local level, most obviously with the epic structural comparison in Ulysses. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf’s strategy of indirect discourse borrows much from Impressionism in its exploration of the ways painting can freeze a moment and make it timeless. In Kawabata’s Snow Country, the story of Yoko and her family and its relationship to the rest of the novel corresponds with an even more modern medium, film, and its superimposition of contradictory image.Lily Briscoe’s metaphor stabilize the chaotic reality around her, order them into a visible representation, and make them timeless. She shares these goals with the Impressionists, for whom moments of being (as Woolf calls them elsewhere) are also “illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” (161). The instantaneity of this image, and its reliance on light, is crucial for To the Lighthouse; through the single match Lily, and Woolf, light forest fires. Other parts of the narrative clarify and become resonant through specific moments of consciousness; one character’s thoughts feed into another’s, the narrative voice filters through everyone else’s, and the reader sees, as Lily does, the “X-ray photograph” (91) of everyone’s desires and fears. The plot is compromised in these scenes, or in the throwaway line in “Time Passes” that parenthetically tells us that Mrs. Ramsay died last night. But just as this remark is framed by brackets, so does each moment of being frame something else, a larger context the singular moments reflects and refracts. Woolf’s work with voice is her legacy, but it is the voice that is shown to be temporary (as with Mrs. Ramsay) and the image, fashioned by Lily, that lasts.In Snow Country, cinema is the subtextual art form of choice for Kawabata. When Shimamura looks up at the domed sky, Kawabata uses filmic imagery to describe his visual journey: “Shimamura fancied that his own small shadow was being cast up against it from the earth. Each individual star stood apart from the rest, and even the particles of silver dust in the luminous clouds could be picked out, so clear was the night” (165). Shimamura literally projects himself into the void, through the “particles of silver dust” that resemble the dust a projector illuminates. The characters in Snow Country are trapped in themselves, with a reduced ability to articulate their desires, but they expand through cinematic images into the infinite landscape of nature and the Milky Way, just as the traditional plot, though displaced, is illuminated by the moments of consciousness throughout the novel.The novel opens with Shimamura gazing at Yoko in the reflection of his train window. Early filmmakers took advantage of trains to showcase their medium, as the rapidly shifting landscape, and multitude of framing windows, was already an instance of “moving pictures.” We are made aware in Snow Country, as in To the Lighthouse, that windows serve three purposes, just as the ocean is utilized in three visual ways in Moby Dick; we can look at them, through them, or at their reflections. This last one is used most frequently in Kawabata’s work, especially in this first scene, and it underscores one of the visual tricks of mirrors, in that the reflected image is twice the distance the object is from the source of reflection. This contributes to the effect of emotional distance, as Shimamura’s watchful eye is twice as far from its object as he thinks. But the window, as opposed to the mirror, has no tain that controls its reflection. Shimamura uses the window in all three ways, seeing not only Yoko’s face but the passing landscape (all the while remaining aware that it is, indeed, a window): “Shimamura had the illusion that the evening landscape was actually passing over the face” (10).It is this superimposition of images Kawabata stresses, as Woolf combines voices, to lead us elsewhere. He is especially fond of contradictory images in metaphors or similes, as when he describes lips “like a beautiful little circle of leeches” (32), or when he writes that the snow “seemed to be burning icily” (48). The contradictions yield a positive gain, however, as with the grass-linen: “The ancients used to add that the way this product of the cold has of feeling cool to the skin in the hottest weather is a play of the principles of light and darkness” (154). This contradictory superimposition helps free the characters from their imprisonment in the self, a cage represented by human structures: “Wondering what might be on the other side of the wall, Shimamura had the uneasy feeling that he was suspended in a void” (54). Kawabata links this man-made confinement and curiosity about the other side of the wall to the universal curiosity about, well, the universe itself and its own infinite reaches. Language itself is not enough to free themKomako can only say “‘The Milky Way. Beautiful, isn’t it” (164, 167) twice to describe it, but Kawabata’s only language appropriates cinematic imagery to render its hugeness: “The Milky Way came down just over there, to wrap the night earth in its naked embrace” (165). The delayed alliteration itself wraps the sounds around each other, showing that language, even at its most freeing, is still confining. But the image is enough, and through this the Milky Way creates an anti-gravity field that lifts the characters out of their bodies: “The limitless depth of the Milky Way pulled his gaze up into it” (165). It is in this non-Newtonian manner that Kawabata directs our attention to the plot outline of his novel. We may focus on one moment, but it is infinitely refracted throughout the text, and at each moment we linger on the image, the reflected image, or the idea of the image; the plot is always there, but not always the primary image.
Social Idealogy and Its Impact on the Text
Throughout literature the ideology of the society in which the author was living is evident in the text. This can cause certain groups within a text to be empowered while the other groups are marginalised and constrained by the social restrictions placed upon them by the ideology. In the novel To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, Woolf shows us an awareness of gender politics during the 1920¹s Britain by subverting the traditional gender roles but at the same time naturalises notions of class causing certain groups to be constrained.In the novel Woolf subverts the patriarchial portrayal of feminism with the character of Lily Brascoe. Lily is constructed as an independent character who defies the ingrained beleifs of how a woman should act. She does this through her actions in a different style despite Mr Tansley¹s assertion that women can¹t write, women can¹t paint¹ and refuses to marry even though it was a popular belief that all women should marry as an unmarried woman has missed the best of life¹. Instead Lily thought that that ‘she did not need to marry, thank heaven she did not need to undergo that degradation. Woolf applauds this attitude, as at the completion of the novel, Lily is one of the few characters who has achieved fulfilment or in her case the completion of a painting begun ten years prior.Yet although the character of Lily and her decisions are applauded in the text, Lily is only enabled to have such an attitude because of her status as a member of the wealthier class. In the novel, class is viewed more as a benign structure for the common good than as a structure in which the members of the higher classes are given greater life chances.Consequently the class system is not examined in the text although gender roles are. Lily was only able to make the decisions she did because she had the financial means to support herself in a style of leisure. Otherwise, she would have been forced to marry or accept a job as a governess. It is in such away that the higher classes of wealth are privileged by their class.Mrs Ramsay was also privileged by her class. Although she did not subvert the gender roles but was instead a model wife who acted in every way what the dominant ideology dictated she should. She was constantly there to provide support for her husband, help the disadvantaged and be a loving mother to her children. Yet, she was only able to do so because she came from a higher class and need not work to support her family. Nevertheless the character of Mrs Ramsay is contrasted to that of Lily Briscoe in their actions in fulfilling the gender roles expected of them. While Mrs Ramsay is not overtly criticised by the text she can be viewed as being too generous willing to submerge herself in the needs of others being like a ‘fountain’. This can be seen as one of the reasons for her untimely death.Mr Tansley is another character who found himself adversely affected by the constraints of class. He had a background from the working class yet he was trying to become accepted as an intellectual. It was for this reason that he worshipped Mr Ramsay’s work and was invited to the cottage with them, yet as a character he was criticised due to the attitudes held towards the lower classes. Even the children criticised him, ‘He could not play cricket, he poked, he shuffled’. Yet cricket in those times was a game that the wealthier classes indulged in and consequently, due to his lower social background, Charles Tansley was criticised for not being masculine enough.The dinner party is another example of where class and gender roles intersect. Lily found that to her chagrin she would have to go the aid of Mr Tansley who was hopelessly drowning in the need to make social conversation. She found that there ‘was a code of behaviour in which the seventh article indicated that it behoves a woman to go to the help of a young man’. As a result Lily was forced to ‘rescue’ Mr Tansley from his social inadequacy despite the fact that she rarely adhered to expected gender roles. Had she been of a lower class or different social background she would not have been expected to act in such a manner, yet due to her class and position was forced to act by such constraining gender roles.If can be seen that it was Mr Tansley’s lower social background that caused the rift in the first place. He decided that ‘he would not be condescended to by these silly women’ yet the social niceties expected at the Ramsay’s table due to their class required he make conversation. He also seemed confused by the fact that they would ‘dress for dinner’ whereas ‘he came down to dinner in his ordinary clothes, he did not have any dress clothes’. Again the character of Mr Tansley is criticised and his need to assert himself is seen as foolish although it is also his lower social class that caused the rift.The characters of Mrs McNab and Mrs East also find themselves constrained by notions of both class and gender. As the Ramsay’s servants they performed their cleaning tasks around the home diligently despite the fact that ‘Mrs McNab creaked, Mrs East groaned, they were getting old’. Yet as they had no wealth and did not hold a privileged position in the society they were forced to accept their lot in life. They too supported the class system despite the fact that they were constrained by it remembering ‘the boy who had died, she had read his name in the paper’ but not ‘the cook. What was her name? Mildred, Marion maybe.’ From this it can be seen that the lower classes were greatly constrained by the attitudes and values of the ideology pertaining to them even to the extent that they supported the rigid structure that would impose such restrictions upon them.Throughout the novel there are many examples where men and women are constrained or privileged as a result of their class. This is because despite the fact that Woolf subverted the patriarchal portrayal of feminism to an extent but not notions of class, class and gender were so closely intertwined that men and women of wealthier classes within the text were often privileged while those of the lower class found themselves constrained by the gender roles pertaining to them. This is often the case as in a particular ideology, as gender roles vary for different social background.
Merging and Flowing: The Metaphor in To the Lighthouse
From the invisible to the visible is but a step, and a very quick step at that. The task of the metaphor is to render concrete and palpable, through analogy, the abstract and unseen, and Virginia Woolf peppers To the Lighthouse, especially the largely interior “moments of being” dinner-party episode, with muscular metaphor and sinuous simile. Two artists here work with metaphor to unite the divided guests: Mrs. Ramsay, a social artist whose conversational gifts link people through a shared language, and Lily Briscoe, whose painting talent translates into a gift for an imaginative visual window into the minds of others. For Mrs. Ramsay, the metaphor resides within the oral present tense as an evanescent bridge between people. Her non-recordable (except by Woolf’s pen) art may not last, but it is still necessary. Lily’s metaphor is an instantaneous leap, as well, but her analogies freeze moments timelesslythe metaphor is a present action abstractly removed from temporal boundaries. Woolf’s strategy of indirect discourse extends Lily’s artistry and aids the heteroglot fusion; the present-tense interior voices become timeless and abstract through their confluence in the narrative pool.The dinner table is a corrugated arrangement of voices, external and internalthought of person A to speech of person A directed at person B to thought of person B to speech of person B directed at person Cand a perfect forum in which to highlight the problemsand potential solutionsof social disharmony. In the first of many images relating to water, Mrs. Ramsay laments the fractured, hidden transitions that dominate the table: “They all sat separate. And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her” (83). But Mrs. Ramsay, too, is a failure at merging and flowing and creating within herself. She observes the discrepancy between “what she was thinking” and “what she was doing” (83). Yet her metaphors remain in a solipsistic world of language and imagery, rarely bridging the gap between herself and another. When the opportunity arises to bond with someone else through metaphor, she returns to herself, as when she sympathizes with William Bankes:[A]nd in pity for him, life being now strong enough bear her on again, she began all this business, as a sailor not without weariness sees the wind fill his sail and yet hardly wants to be off again and thinks how, had the ship sunk, he would have whirled round and round and found rest on the floor of the sea. (84)The solipsistic imagery continues in this double metaphor (or a hypothetical image within a simile); Mrs. Ramsay first imagines herself as a sailor, and then the sailor (“he”) imagines himself in a fatal vortex. The metaphor is fueled by the present-tense movement of its image; the sailor is caught between fatigued anticipation of his journey and wistful longing for death through the past conditional.Mrs. Ramsay’s artistry is useful, however, in combination with Lily’s metaphors. Lily describes moments of being as “illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” (161). The essence of the metaphor is captured hereinstantaneous visibility. Her visual abilities suit the metaphor/moment of being: “In a flash she saw her picture” (84). Lily’s metaphors are external from herself and enable sympathy with others, as when she advances Mrs. Ramsay’s sailor simile: “Lily Briscoe watched her drifting…as one follows a fading ship until the sails have sunk beneath the horizon” (84). Despite Lily’s observant and empathic eye, she does not have the same presence as Mrs. Ramsay and cannot produce the same physical effects she can. Mikhail Bakhtin, explaining Lessing, describes the temporality of the literary image: “Those things that are static in space cannot be statically described, but must rather be incorporated into the temporal sequence of represented events and into the story’s own representational field.” In this sense, Lily’s metaphors, however dynamic and sympathetic, remain static and are incorporated into the temporal sequence of the scene through Mrs. Ramsay, the conversational proxy for Lily’s metaphorical mentality. From the chaos around the dinner table, Lily creates mental, visual order, while Mrs. Ramsay creates social, linguistic order”speaking French imposes some order, some uniformity” (90).What further separates Lily’s metaphors from Mrs. Ramsay’s is that those of the former clarify and illuminate the scene instead of merely ordering it. This ability to lay bare the hitherto invisible is summarized by her appraisal of Tansley: “Sitting opposite him, could she not see, as in an X-ray photograph, the ribs and thigh bones of the young man’s desire to impress himself, lying dark in the mist of his flesh” (91). Water is again used in the image, but this time, in the form of mist, which recreates the haze of the x-ray. But the haze, despite being restricted to a still photograph, has history and movement, just as the mist is metamorphic, transitional, moving from liquid to air. Her temporally-inclusive vision allows for some empathy she would not otherwise have for the arrogant Tansley” “[I]t was almost impossible to dislike any one if one looked at them” (85).For those without Lily’s skill, Woolf’s strategy of indirect discourse articulates for them and allows for sympathy and emotions without direct words. From, supposedly, Mrs. Ramsay’s perspective of fighting birds, we are told that “the air was shoved aside by their black wings and cut into exquisite scimitar shapes. The movement of the wings beating out, out, outshe could never describe it accurately enough to please herselfwas one of the loveliest of all to her” (80). Mrs. Ramsay’s proclamation of inarticulacy is countered by the picture of “scimitar shapes” that the narrator conjures up, which seems to feed into Mrs. Ramsay’s emotions. Or perhaps the conjurer is not solely the narrator: “Look at that, she said to Rose, hoping that Rose would see it more clearly than she could. For one’s children so often gave one’s own perceptions a little thrust forwards” (80). The linguistic transmission (Rose would probably not know the word “scimitar,” but perhaps her image of the birds as swords led to the narrative description) from the inarticulate to the articulate by means of metaphor is captured by another simile for Mrs. Ramsay: “[L]ike some queen who, finding her people gathered in the hall, looks down upon them…she went down, and crossed the hall and bowed her head very slightly, as if she accepted what they could not say: their tribute to her beauty” (82). That vocalization can occur only through simile (and here through another type of image, beauty) privileges the simile as the essential component of language, that which gives vibrant voice to the muted thought.Furthermore, indirect discourse can demonstrate mental and linguistic differences in far subtler ways than outright perspectival switches can. At first, Tansley’s and Lily’s progressions of thought seem similar. Tansley’s thought runs in steps of semicolons: “He liked her; he admired her; he still thought of the man in the drain-pipe looking up at her; but he felt it necessary to assert himself” (86). The initial statement, the precise revision, the use of evidence, and the conclusionall the structures of rigorous logic are present. In the next paragraph, Lily responds by thinking in similar steps, albeit separated by commas and directed toward the body: “He was really, Lily Briscoe thought, in spite of his eyes, but then look at his nose, look at his hands, the most uncharming human being she had ever met” (86). Yet the thought is not as unified (in a reductive sense) as Tansley’s. The elliptical framing of the thought”He was really…the most uncharming human being”has a delayed resonance that turns the progression of the idea from a scientific one (the steady accumulation of facts into an incontrovertible thesis) into an artistic one (the recognition of contradictory emotional facts which leads to a somewhat ambiguous conclusion, one linked structurally to the origin). Lily moves to a more poetic form soon after, and the separation between her and Tansley’s thoughts is evident: “Why did her whole being bow, like corn under a wind, and erect itself again from this abasement only with a great and rather painful effort?” (86) The simile of passivity and stereotypically masculine verb of “erect” collide; this forces Lily to return to Tansley’s step-thought afterward: “She must take it once more. There’s the sprig on the table-cloth; there’s my painting; I must move the tree to the middle; that mattersnothing else” (86). Her art, presumably the area least subject to this conventional mode of consciousness, is goaded into the reductive masculine logic of necessity and assertion (“necessary to assert himself”/”that mattersnothing else”) by Tansley’s echoing taunt, “Women can’t write, women can’t paint” (86). When Lily’s x-ray vision fails to merge with another’s, or merges only in an unhealthy way, as here, the indirect discourse again roots the reader in an ambiguous position of judgment; two paragraphs later the sentence “She was telling lies he could see” (86) is rendered indirect by the absence of the comma. Reworded with a comma as “She was telling lies, he could see,” the sentence is from Tansley’s point of view, separating thought (“She was telling lies”) from action (“he could see”). Read without the comma in a different way, the sentence is “She was telling lies that he could see,” implying that Lily is directing the action (the lie-telling is the action, rather than the thought) and, consequently, the narrative. Additionally, this last view could be the omniscient narrative point of view. In any case, the narrative returns to Tansley’s voice with “He felt very rough and isolated and lonely” (86), but this seeping narrative control by Lily infects him and he starts learning or feeling what the others are thinking: “[S]he despised him: so did Prue Ramsay; so did they all” (86). Although this community feeling is clearly not a positive one, at least Tansley is removing himself from invulnerable egotism.In a scene dominated by surveillance and the emotional access this provides”(they looked at each other down the long table sending these questions and answers across, each knowing exactly what the other felt)” (96)the lighting of the candles seems to symbolize the benefits of the metaphor:Now all the candles were lit up, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candlelight, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass, which, far from giving any accurate view of the outside world, rippled it so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things wavered and vanished, waterily. (97)The metaphor (candle-lighting) takes place in the “Now,” just as the candles light up, and composes a disparate idea into a unified one (from people into a party) while creating internal order at the expense of the external (since the metaphor transcribes the physical and concrete, or the external, into the mental and abstract, the internal), bonding the guests:Lily Briscoe…compared it with that moment on the tennis lawn when solidity suddenly vanished, and such vast spaces lay between them; and now the same effect was got by the many candles in the sparely furnished room, and the uncurtained windows, and the bright mask-like look of faces seen by candlelight. Some weight was taken off them; anything might happen, she felt. (97-98)The contradictions of “uncurtained windows” and “mask-like” faces help carve out this space, but rather than it being a hollow and unbridgeable space, the metaphor, or candle, illuminates its potential energy. This energy extends and expands, touching everyone, and allows its chaotic force to become universal and timeless, a true moment of being that flows backward and forward in time without ever vacating its slot in the present. Mrs. Ramsay’s conversational metaphors order reality in Aristotelian mimetic fashion, and alter only the shape of realitybirds into scimitarsrather than stamping reality permanently, which explains her pre-emptive mnemonic storage of the evening: “[I]t had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past” (111). Mrs. Ramsay wants the momentary metaphor to gain a foothold in time and forces an order upon them; she turns them from “moments of being” to “moments of having been.” The artist, on the other hand, already has a recordable medium in which to work; she can represent mimetic realities, not just her own reality. Lily is a painter whose changing artistic sensibilities are historical: “She took up the salt cellar and put it down again on a flower pattern in the table-cloth, so as to remind herself to move the tree” (85). She is a painterhere, very nearly, a writer of prosewhose mark is left on the world. Her metaphors, as with the indirect discourse, flow through others, baring them, clarifying them, and creating sympathy. The metaphor as a representation of multiple realities is an apt description for Woolf’s own Modernist legacy, which some consider a “normalization” of the chaotic modes of Joyce and Faulkner. The whole of the effort of merging does not rest on Mrs. Ramsay, but through her.
Gender Roles and Relationships in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf’s revolutionary novel To the Lighthouse provides an incredibly in-depth psychological study of its many characters. Family and friends pass through the Ramsay’s summer home in the Hebrides, all of whom carry characteristics, tendencies, and beliefs worthy of analysis on any number of levels. However, examining the ways in which Woolf portrays the sexes in her novel, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay provide a relationship dynamic that remains wholly representative of how the author views men, women, and their respective roles and characteristics. By examining these two central characters, it becomes clear that Woolf aims to provide a commentary on the self-centered, egotistical, and dominant nature of men, while also exploring the sympathetic, domestic, and socially aware qualities of the traditional woman. The novel paints a picture of how a relationship between the sexes should look, making it clear that the woman’s primary duty in a relationship is to tenderly stroke the tortured male ego, without receiving anything in return.
This thankless existence is familiar to Mrs. Ramsay, who encompasses what it means to be a woman in the novel. Her beauty is recognized by all, yet her strength as a human being is confined to a domestic context—she holds a gift for creating social harmony—but she even disregards her potential for social impact at times, worried it will stand in the way of her familial duties. She holds a high value on marriage and family, announcing, “an unmarried woman has missed the best of life,” (49). As for her devotion to her husband, “there was no one she reverenced more,” and “she was not good enough to tie his shoe strings, she felt,” (32). Mrs. Ramsay believed that her husband was “infinitely the more important, and what she gave the world, in comparison with what he gave, negligible,” (39). This level of adoration and commitment could potentially be admired on some level, but the lack of reciprocation from Mr. Ramsay makes it tragic and almost pitiful, in some respects, whittling Mrs. Ramsay’s character down further and further, as she was “so boasting of her capacity to surround and protect, there was scarcely a shell of herself left for her to know herself by; all was so lavished and spent,” (38). Thus, Woolf paints the traditional female role as one of injustice and tragedy, almost a warning against the insatiable, all consuming, selfish male.
If Mrs. Ramsay represents conventional femininity in relation to marriage and family, Lily Briscoe represents the opposite, making a concerted effort to reject Mrs. Ramsay’s lifestyle. Despite her pride in her own unconventionality, she is unable to shake the memory of “Mr. Tansley whispering in her ear, ‘Women can’t paint, women can’t write…’” (48), emphasizing her insecurity and anxiety about remaining an independent woman. Though she is extremely critical of Mrs. Ramsay at first, she experiences a transformation over the course of the novel, recognizing her strength, patience, and selflessness. In pages 148-149 we see Lily reflecting, in awe, of Mrs. Ramsay’s sympathy and ability to give, while Mr. Ramsay just continued to take, wondering how “at this completely inappropriate moment, when he was stooping over her shoe, should she be so tormented with sympathy for him,” (154). In the novel, Lily’s character embodies a woman living outside of gender conventions, thus representing a new, evolving social order, however the fact that Lily remains possessed by thoughts of Mrs. Ramsay in the end, suggests a certain rejection of the idea of the independent female in this society.
Mr. Ramsay, though clearly very intelligent, is an incredibly self-absorbed character, often exhibiting “exactingness and egotism,” (36) and described as “tyrannical,” “unjust,” (46) and displaying little to none of the sympathy or commitment that his wife displays for their relationship or their family as a whole. In his scarce interactions with his wife, she recognizes that “it was sympathy he wanted, to be assured of his genius,” (37) and Mrs. Ramsay provides him with that sympathy, security, and support time and time again. Again, her commitment would be commendable, save for the lack of appreciation that Mr. Ramsay holds for his wife. His annoyance, impatience, and distaste for her come far too easily given all that she does for him, reacting to things she says by complaining about “the extraordinary irrationality of her remark[s],” and quickly enraged by “the folly of women’s minds,” (31). Additionally, when discussing what makes him happy, Mr. Ramsay only briefly mentions “his wife’s beauty,” (43) before traveling into a much more lengthy discussion of his work, quickly forgetting about his wife in an effort to wonder whether his work will comprise a legacy to remain for future generations.
This relationship that Virginia Woolf has created, however poignant, is certainly heartbreaking in its nature, as Mrs. Ramsay’s eventual death suggests that she may have given so much of herself away, she could no longer live. To the Lighthouse is such a deep and self-conscious narrative that the stark relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay certainly is not an accident. Woolf is providing the reader with a commentary about the traditional expectations of gender roles, questioning the meaning of a successful marriage between a man and a woman at this time, while simultaneously exploring the idea of a new female role in the character of Lily Briscoe.
Fear and Fragmentation in the Post-WWI Era as Shown in To The Lighthouse
In her novel To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf uses a stream-of-consciousness style in order to construct a unique account of the fragmented and isolated condition of the British citizen in the years leading up to, during, and following World War I. Written nine years after the conclusion of “the war to end all wars,” To The Lighthouse is informed by Woolf’s own anxieties about the state of her nation, which had been suffering from intense instability since the early twentieth century. She writes in a modernist style, which experienced a surge in popularity in the years following World War I. Three parts comprise the novel and each represents a different era in the timeline of the war: part one focuses on the years leading up to the war (characterized by anxiety about England’s loss of industrial power,) part two describes the tumultuous years during the war (as it describes the anxiety which arises from mass death and destruction,) and part three is a glimpse into the years following (asking the question: how does one move on?) The text begins in the early 1900s, a time where Great Britain was losing both industrial and economic power. In A People’s History of England, A.L. Morton comments on “the slow progress of the British industry as compared with that of its principal rivals,” which was just one of the proponents of the modern British anxiety (Morton 426). By entering into the consciousness of each of the characters, Woolf creates a space where each character is able to explain how he or she is being affected by this looming fear of the loss of power, without having to explicitly mention the crises in England. The novel mostly takes place in these internal landscapes, where the characters thoughts, emotions, and anxieties are more valuable to the story than actual plot. By contrast, external events are sporadic and are used as devices to further explore the consciousness of the characters. As the timeline progresses and the characters age and develop, Woolf is able to describe how the British identity became increasingly fragmented by social conditions.
Although Woolf’s novel is structured by the fluid stream-of-consciousness style, the ease with which she transitions from one character to another actually functions to emphasize the distance that exists between them. Each of their narratives are separate and internal, and the characters rarely interact with each other outside of their own thoughts. They are only bound by Mrs. Ramsay, the traditional, maternal figure who encourages interaction between them at ritualistic events—one of which is the grand dinner scene in part one. In a way, she embodies the figure of “Mother England,” the common ground that exists between her own family members and the other guests on the island. She represents the history and the traditions of England, which are a paradoxical source of pride and fear. On one hand, it is the adherence to the British tradition and conventions that is singularly responsible for the brief moments of human interaction in the novel. This can be seen in James, Mr. Ramsay, Lily, and even Charles Tansley finding comfort in Mrs. Ramsay during times of high anxiety. Each of these characters craves reassurance throughout the first part of the novel, which can only be provided by a mother figure. On the other hand, by strictly following its own capitalist traditions, Britain began rapidly losing industrial power; Morton explains that “British industry was old-fashioned and old-fashioned in many respects, and could only have beaten off its challengers by a thorough reconstruction” but that “there was no possibility of this reconstruction being undertaken” (Morton 427). This is perhaps why Augustus Carmichael, an educated man and poet, is immune to Mrs. Ramsay’s charms. The theme of the isolated British citizen is conveyed by the fact that each character is almost entirely alone without the influence of ‘Mother England,’ or Mrs. Ramsay.
The death of Mrs. Ramsay—the figure of British tradition, power, comfort, stability—in part two fully destabilizes the narrative, and results in an even deeper fragmentation of each character’s identity. When Mr. Ramsay stretches out his arms in search of the prior comfort he had received from the maternal figure Mrs. Ramsay, he finds his arms empty; Prue Ramsay dies during childbirth, and is unable to fulfill the circle of life and the continuation of British tradition by raising a child; Andrew Ramsay is blown up in France during the war alongside twenty or thirty other men, fulfilling the tragic prophecy of death as a result of instability. It is only the skeptic, August Carmichael, who experiences relative success during this time through his poetry. It is during this part that the characters do not speak to each other and all begin navigating their lives completely independently of one another, thus proving that they were right to fear isolation in earlier years. Mrs. Ramsay even anticipates this outcome, her own demise, in in the first part of the novel, when she is attempting to comfort James by finding a picture for him to cut out. She describes “the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach” as “a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life” which “made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea” (Woolf 15). The island represents England, her sanctuary, and the waves act as a manifestation of her anxiety, eating away at the place that she knows so well, which once gave her so much comfort. The destruction of the island by the waves mirrors the mass destruction of Europe during World War I as a result of trench and chemical warfare. Morton writes that, while no nation wished to begin a war, “without exception they were pursuing policies of which war was the inevitable outcome” (Morton 445). As a result, there was an inescapable fear of mortality and the future that plagued British citizens, as shown in part one.
The third part of the novel addresses the question of the future, which was uncertain and unprecedented following the war. The characters (the British citizens) must find a way to move on without Mrs. Ramsay (as the British tradition was of no help after the destruction of Europe.) The lighthouse represents this unpredictable and possibly dangerous, but inevitable future. This final part of the novel is concerned with conveying the idea that it is not possible to follow the traditions of the past, and it is the modern woman Lily who acts as a facilitator of the plot. Her return, and her painting of the picture, shows a desire to rebuild identity without a reliance on Mrs. Ramsay; furthermore, it acknowledges an acceptance of the fragmented identity that is necessitated by the external events (most notably, the war). While she realizes that her picture will not ever be perfect, nor will she ever shake the anxiety of not being ‘good enough,’ she still takes action to move past the trauma that she has faced. Similarly, Mr. Ramsay, Cam, and James attempt to move past the trauma of identity loss when they finally venture out to the lighthouse together. Therefore, the novel acts as a way of negotiating the anxiety regarding the uncertainty of the future following death and trauma.
The Use of Light in “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf
In Virginia Woolf’s novel “To the Lighthouse” the author explores the theme of light through her characters Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe. Both women identify light differently in their lives, figuratively and metaphorically, and use light as a means of connection and inspiration. Both characters are affected by the lighthouse’s strokes of light and its rhythm of motion. Mrs. Ramsay connects to the strong guiding light of the lighthouse and finds fulfillment in channeling its light through her own actions. Lily pursues the balance of light through her painting of Mrs. Ramsay, creating a beautiful piece of meaningful art that allows her to express herself while she preserves Mrs. Ramsay’s memory. Each character has a different interpretation of light and how it affects her throughout the novel. Mrs. Ramsay is seen as the embodiment of light in the first section of the novel when she comforts her husband before the dinner party. Mrs. Ramsay uses her keen sense of intuition when her husband approaches her after interacting with their children. The Ramsay children do not care for their father as much as they do their mother, and this often leaves Mr. Ramsay feeling sorry for himself. When Mr. Ramsay stands behind his wife, as if demanding her empathy, Mrs. Ramsay knows, “it was sympathy he wanted, to be assured of his genius, first of all, and then to be taken within the circle of life, warmed and soothed, to have his senses restored to him, his barrenness made fertile, and all the rooms of the house made full of life” (37). Mrs. Ramsay acts as a source of light in this scene through the way that she uses her energy to help restore her husband. Mrs. Ramsay prepares herself to console Mr. Ramsay: “(she) had been sitting loosely, folding her son in her arm, braced herself, and half turning, seemed to raise herself with an effort, and at once pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating” (37). Mrs. Ramsay helps her husband in some of the same ways a lighthouse would help guide a sailor to shore. The image this scene creates is similar to the description of a lighthouse through the use of words and descriptions. Mrs. Ramsay “raises” herself into an “erect” position, creating an image of a tall and unwavering lighthouse for the reader to visualize. The “rain” and “spray” in the air emphasize the nautical setting and the lighthouse’s ability to stand up to the elements as it guides sailors to shore. Mrs. Ramsay uses her energy and “illuminates” the scene, allowing the reader to visualize a beam of light emanating from the lighthouse coming through Mrs. Ramsay. After Mrs. Ramsay pours all of her love and devotion into restoring her husband’s sense of security, Mrs. Ramsay is exhausted. The author writes: “So boasting of her capacity to surround and protect, there was scarcely a shell of herself left for her to know herself by; all was so lavished and spent” (38). Yet just as the lighthouse illuminates the shore, Mrs. Ramsay uses her energy to give light and life to her husband, her children, and her dinner guests. When she is alone after the party Mrs. Ramsay even identifies herself with the lighthouse as she watches its beam of light circle the shore while she sits alone knitting: “pausing there she looked out to meet that stroke of the Lighthouse, the long steady stroke, the last of the three, which was her stroke, for watching them in this mood always at this hour one could not help attaching oneself to one thing especially of the things one saw; and this thing, the long steady stroke, was her stroke. Often she found herself sitting and looking, sitting and looking, with her work in her hands until she became the thing she looked at—the light for example” (63). This shows the reader that Mrs. Ramsay identifies with the lighthouse and uses it as a source of inspiration and rejuvenation. Lily Briscoe admires Mrs. Ramsay tremendously, and it is no coincidence that Lily feels the effects of light during the course of the novel. Lily is not an embodiment of light but rather an observer or student of light. Lily sees Mrs. Ramsay as a mother figure and is drawn to her internal light, often wondering how she can obtain or duplicate it. Lily also tries to learn about light and recreate it in her painting. Just as Mrs. Ramsay loses herself in the rhythm of the lighthouse’s beam, Lily loses herself in the rhythm of her brush strokes as she paints and tries to capture the light’s essence. As Lily paints she is “precariously dipping among the blues and umbers, moving her brush hither and thither, but it was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to her (she kept looking at the hedge, at the canvas) by what she saw, so that her hand quivered with life, this rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its currents. Certainly she was losing consciousness of outer things” (p. 159). Just as Mrs. Ramsay in tune with the rhythm of the lighthouse beam, Lily feels the same rhythm when she tries to bring her vision to life on her canvas. Light acts as an inspiration and a guide for both women as they carry out what they believe to be their true purpose in life. The way Lily paints also shows the reader how she puts her life and the world around her into perspective. Lily painstakingly tries to capture the balance of light in her painting and feel the rhythm of each of her strokes in order to bring her vision to life. Lily looks at the world as a series of opposites with checks and balances as she attempts to perfect her painting. The author writes: “And so pausing and so flickering, she attained a dancing rhythmical movement, as if the pauses were one part of the rhythm and the strokes another, and all were related” (p. 158). Lily truly begins to let her creativity flow onto the canvas as soon as she is able to let the rhythm take over. Lily lets go of her insecurities and inhibitions once she feels connected to the source of her inspiration. She is able to add a shadow or a line in just the right place after she feels close to the strokes of the lighthouse’s beam and the strokes of her brush. Lily allows the reader to see that there cannot be light without dark; shadows exist just as much as vivid brilliance. Lily helps the reader understand this when she thinks about Mrs. Ramsay’s life after she has died. Lily always admires Mrs. Ramsay and thinks fondly of her even after her death several years prior. When Lily thinks about all that Mrs. Ramsay had done in her life, she realizes that Mrs. Ramsay lived a fairly simple life. When Charles Tansley asks Lily to explain the meaning behind her painting, she begins to question the meaning of life and comes to the conclusion that Mrs. Ramsay’s ability to bring people together and share her warmth and inner light with them was something amazing. Lily stops and thinks of when she, Mrs. Ramsay, and Charles Tansley were all together on the beach several summers ago. She muses to herself: “The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark. Here was one” (p.161). Even though Mrs. Ramsay was not outstanding and spectacular in everything she did, Lily appreciates that Mrs. Ramsay still brings light into people’s lives even after she was passed away. Once Lily completes her painting, she preserves the memory of Mrs. Ramsay and captures her internal light through her own artistic expression and interpretation of light. Both women have a unique relationship with light. Lily seeks to understand it and portray it in her artwork while Mrs. Ramsay lives through it and uses it to guide her daily actions. The lighthouse represents the connection among all of the characters that come to spend the summer there or are guided ashore with its illuminating beam. Lily’s interpretation of light creates permanence in the way that it capture’s Mrs. Ramsay’s spirit. Mrs. Ramsay’s internal light is also long-lasting in the way that Mrs. Ramsay often sees the unique inner light in all of her children and friends throughout the novel. Light seems to give all of the characters a sense of purpose and a way to balance their internal energy with the external environment.
Rendering Meaning Through the Mind-Body Connection: The Importance of the Physical, and its Relation to Identity, in the Subjective Reality of To the Lighthouse
In her novel To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf lavishly constructs the individual “realities” of multiple characters though a narration of their thoughts, impressions, perceptions, doubts, and the silent, self-questioning processes underlying the surface of human behavior. As a result, reality in the book exists only as it is perceived. There is no finite, singular definition of “right,” “true,” or “actual,” only a collection of distinct moments and experiences skillfully woven together to craft the rich tapestry of the novel’s interior. There is a sense that characters feel in To the Lighthouse, not that they actively live as in a traditional narrative. They are not defined by externals, or by oppositional categories of personality, unequivocally good or bad, altruistic or selfish, intelligent or simple. Because they are subject to the ambiguity, nuance and caprice of another’s interpretation, which itself varies along a continuum of mood and impulse, characters are not determinant, empirically “identifiable” forms. The mind, therefore, is the source of all-forward motion in To the Lighthouse, the guiding narrative agent. It exists both within and outside the confines of the novel, the purveyor of the subjective reality in which the “action” occurs, but also a character in its own right. If we regard the author as the ultimate puppeteer, and view the world of the book as an extension of her string-work (i.e. creative process), “the mind” is recast as the critical subject of her artistic experiment to craft a literature of consciousness. According to the The Norton Anthology of English Literature, in its introduction to 20th Century literary modernism, Virginia Woolf’s new focus was to be “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The life that mattered most would now be a mental life…Some version of an interior flow of thought becomes the main modernist access to ‘character.’” This structuring of a subjective reality, the careful arranging and layering of “reflections, momentary impressions, disjunctive bits of recall and half-memory,” is the primary artistic endeavor of To the Lighthouse.However, therein lies the interesting paradox of Woolf’s “modernist” tour-de-force. If, indeed, the only life worth understanding, the only questions or concerns of any real consequence, are mental, or rooted in subjective experiences, why do the characters in To the Lighthouse yearn to connect to elements of their physical world, maintaining an awareness of themselves in relation to the corporeal? Why does Lily Briscoe, one of the main characters (or more aptly, viewpoints) through which the novel is filtered, suddenly realize towards the conclusion of the novel that “It was one body’s feeling, not one’s mind…To want and not to have sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain”? Moments later, Lily criticizes the very activity of consciousness she has been engaging throughout: “It had seemed so safe, thinking of her [Mrs. Ramsay]. Ghost, air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily and safely at any time of day…and then suddenly [Lily] put her hand out and wrung her heart thus…Suddenly [her surroundings] became like curves and arabesques flourishing round a centre of complete emptiness…for the whole world seemed to have dissolved in this early morning hour into a pool of thought.” Although ostensibly contradictory, this shift in attention from the internal self to the external environment is actually in keeping with the novel’s pursuit of a subjective reality, its exaltation of the “mental life.” If such a reality is one formed from within rather than from without, and varies according to whomever is tasked with the challenge of assigning meaning to the chaos of feeling, “what” something “is” in a subjective reality is more a definition of the perceiver than of the object being perceived. Therefore, the greater purpose or reward to this effort must be the acquisition of an acute sense of self. To this end, the most profound meaning and understanding is gleaned from incongruity. The realization that people and places, although unchanged in the objective sense, impress upon us in a radically different way, is the foundation of any fully-formed, mature identity. The physical, therefore, stands as a crucial point of reference to mark this difference, to recognize and measure the changes in one’s own character. One can see this process most clearly at play with James Ramsay, and his connections to both his father and the titular Lighthouse, and with Lily Briscoe and her profound link to the memory of Mrs. Ramsay. A comparative study of these two relationships will reveal the ostensibly contradictory, but nonetheless important—even necessary—ways in which the physical begets and then continuously fuels the subjective experience. A fixture of the “material” world in the most traditional, unambiguous sense, the Lighthouse is an example of how the physical both pervades and foundationally supports the novel’s subjective reality. As a youth, James Ramsay, his unbridled spirit of adventure, his vast, lively imagination, are captivated by the Lighthouse, mythic in its allure. The opening lines of the text immediately establish his desire to visit the Lighthouse as a major premise or focus of the book’s “narrative of consciousness.” It will be the axle around which many of the characters’ internal debates and emotional struggles revolve:”Yes, of course it’s fine tomorrow,” Mrs. Ramsay assures her son, “to whom these words conveyed and extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch.”Opposing forces who attempt to thwart the dream, the destined mission, are the closest figures to villains the novel presents. James’ father, Mr. Ramsay, is preeminent in this capacity. His rigid, mechanical pragmatism is so implacable it its attempt to inappropriately regulate—rather than attend to or encourage—the realm of childhood fantasy, that the cruelty borders on tyranny. As a consequence, James loathes his father and the oppression exacted by his strident belief in his own “accuracy of judgment.” After all, “what [Mr. Ramsay] said was true. It was always true. He was incapable of untruth; never tampered with a fact; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being, least of all his children.” James’ consciousness boldly, in stark, unapologetic honesty and mature language, reveals the severity of his animosity towards Mr. Ramsay:”Had there been an axe handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him…James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children’s breasts by his mere presence.” Clearly, both the Lighthouse and Mr. Ramsay, especially Mr. Ramsay’s attitude towards the Lighthouse mission, were the two major formative influences on young James Ramsay. Together, they captured the essence of James’ childhood, encapsulating his fantasies and his disdain for the pragmatic. To put another way, the perceived relationship between the Lighthouse and Mr. Ramsay was James’ unique “version” of the first major psychological conflict faced by any child, that fearful moment when the child is forced to urgently defend (or ultimately renegotiate) the illogic of his playful imagination against an invading, dulling “real-world” mentality. Above all else, however, the Lighthouse and Mr. Ramsay were simply powerful physical presences that aroused in James strong urges, disturbing feelings, and profound impressions. They served as the puzzle board onto which James could piece together his redefinition of the concrete forms once he reconciled them with his interiority. The process of inviting the objective into the subjective, reworking the disparate elements together, and then casting the result back into the external from within, is an exercise in identity-making. It is an organic, live exercise that will inevitably be called up again as time passes, circumstances change with age, and notions of identity require renegotiation to remain meaningful. James faces this challenge when presented with the Lighthouse, his father, and their relation to each other, later in the novel. The second half of To the Lighthouse takes place about ten years since the close of the first “narrative” section (“The Window”). Life has changed along the picturesque Scottish seashore (the book’s primary setting): war has descended upon Europe, the characters have aged, some have died (namely Mrs. Ramsay), and some have left to explore worlds beyond the Ramsay’s estate. James is now a young man, no longer caught in the rapture of an idealizing, boundless and spirited imagination. He still has his Lighthouse; nature has not eroded it into oblivion, mankind has not razed it to the ground. Ironically, the “action” of the second half of the novel focuses on the realization, finally, of the voyage to the Lighthouse James had been cruelly denied as a child. It is a wish-fulfillment come too late, however, as this unchanged physical structure no longer resembles the image of James’ childhood, no longer resonates in a familiar way. He observes: “The Lighthouse was [in his childhood] a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening. Now…he could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see window in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?”Despite the disappointing, sobering transformation of impression that has resulted from the passage of time, from the shift between childhood naiveté and adult-like realism, James acknowledges his earlier perception “was also the Lighthouse.” In the subjective reality of Woolf’s novel, both images, although oppositional, coexist seamlessly. Their relationship of “harmonious contradiction” serves a unifying purpose. Together, these disjointed fragments define the greater “whole” of James’ adult self-concept. Further emphasizing and contributing to the “refreshed,” mature identity that James is realizing for himself, his consciousness (and thus the most accurate reflection or statement of his interiority) reveals strikingly new impressions and opinions about his father. James continues to view his father as a figure of oppression, against whom he must steadfastly commit to “carry out the greatest compact – to resist [Mr. Ramsay’s] tyranny to the death.” The figurative language of blades and knives (e.g. when contemplating his father, James articulates an eagerness to “strike him to the heart”) persists, thematically linking the boy of the past with the young man of the present. However, the older James differs from his younger incarnation in that he allows himself the option of entertaining an alternative, more generous and rational view of his father’s harshness. He reasons:”It was not him, the old man reading, whom he wanted to kill, but it was the thing that descended on him—without his knowing it, perhaps: that fierce sudden black-winged harpy, with its talons and its beak all cold and hard, that struck and struck at you (he could feel the beak on his bare legs, where it had struck when he was a child) and then made off, and there he was again an old man, very sad, reading his book. That he would kill…” Children often invest the tangible, that which is readily knowable, with unequivocal veracity. They feel no need to search beyond the immediate surface in order to arrive at an answer or conclusion that fits neatly within the parameters of their limited worldview. For James to demonstrate such an intimate (though perhaps nascent) understanding of human nature, for him to recognize his father as being somehow outside the elusive, powerful forces dictating behavior, are acts that indicate maturity of identity. More so, this moment of recognition epitomizes the reward, the completion of the rather exceptional aim inherent to life within a subjective reality. James has successfully used his external environment to trigger the activity of his interior consciousness. His interpretations, informed by his unique personhood, are projected as finite definitions of the “real world.” But the only world of any value to James is the world of his impressions; within this context, the subjective is of supreme importance, and becomes objective and empirical. Therefore, both the Lighthouse and Mr. Ramsay, their concrete presences in James’ life, are the catalysts for the significant experiences and inner monologue by which he structures his subjective reality. By the end of To the Lighthouse, James Ramsay gains an awareness of himself, and a wise understanding of the differences his mature person has endured. However, without the function of core physical elements to awaken feeling, and to measure or illustrate the changes of a developing identity, the transformative, character-building process of the subjective reality would never occur. Lily Briscoe encounters this very obstacle, this kind of temporary abeyance of consciousness. Her struggles to arrive at a complete, well-defined sense of self later in her adult life, clearly reinforce the importance of the physical even within the “mental” sphere of the subjective reality.As a consequence of the emotional and literal distance provided by separation of space and the passage of time, Lily Briscoe, at the start of the second half of To the Lighthouse, demonstrates a very weak, fragile and tenuous self-concept. Lily has come back to the Ramsay’s seaside home an older, slightly sadder woman, overcome by a vacancy of feeling she cannot comprehend. Once so “mentally” expressive, once so “articulate” by the fluidity and conviction of her thoughts, Lily now finds that clarity of consciousness escapes her: “What does it mean?—a catchword that was caught up from some book, fitting her thought loosely, for she could not, this first morning with the Ramsays, contract her feelings, could only make a phrase resound to cover the blankness of her mind until these vapours had shrunk. For really, what did she feel come back all these years…? Nothing, nothing—nothing that she could express at all.”Questions of relative meaning and personal purpose elude Lily. She feels bereft, yet cannot access the source of her longing, cannot isolate the beguiling feelings causing her such discomfort. Without the ability to “contract her feelings” and provide order and substance to her confusion, to her fragments of thought (the “blankness of her mind”), Lily feels incomplete. Without the facility of expression, Lily is fundamentally unanchored. Her capacity to engage in the process of crafting and existing in a subjective reality has been arrested; as a result, she has lost her sense of self.An important question thus emerges: why, at this late point, does Lily stumble, caught at an impasse between mental sensation and meaning, between emotion and understanding? The reason behind Lily’s disconnect clearly illustrates the crucial function of the physical in any subjective reality, especially with regard to the cultivation and strengthening of identity. She has lost her footing within the framework of the novel precisely because she cannot forge an attachment to her surroundings. Immediately upon her return, the changed environment registers with Lily, and triggers feelings of confusion and alienation from the familiar. Acutely aware of her troubled relationship with external fixtures, Lily muses: “The house, the place, the morning all seemed strangers to her. She had no attachment here, she felt, no relations with it, anything might happen, and whatever did happen, a step outside, a voice calling…was a question, as if the link that usually bound things together had been cut…”Without the ability to recognize the elements of her former surroundings, assume them into the tapestry of her subjective interpretation, and then reconnect in a unifying way, Lily feels estranged from the environment of her past. More importantly, however, unlike James Ramsay, who still has the presence of both the Lighthouse and his father to stir him viscerally, and to stand as guideposts tracking the changes in his character, Lily is missing her equivalent “beacon” in the form of Mrs. Ramsay. For Lily, Mrs. Ramsay had been such a powerful influence, the challenging figure at the forefront of her thoughts, because Lily identified in the older woman a certain essence that resonated with her artist’s sensibility. Lily’s main personal challenge throughout the course of To the Lighthouse, the goal underlying and shaping her subjective experience, was the completion of a painting. This picture, a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay and of the seaside landscape, when finished, would become the realization of Lily’s “vision,” a celebration of her achieving a satisfactory sense of unity with the outside world. The completion of the painting would be the defining moment of her character. In Mrs. Ramsay, Lily saw a woman already in possession of the qualities she hoped to access through her work; namely, the ability to render permanent the small instances that collectively comprise life: “But what a power was in the human soul!…That woman sitting there writing under the rock resolved everything into simplicity; made these angers, irritations fall off like old rags; she brought together this and that and then this, and so made out of that miserable silliness and spite…something…and there it stayed in the mind affecting one almost like a work of art.”In this way, Lily projected onto the blank canvas of Mrs. Ramsay her own need to preserve the ephemeral components of life through her art, “to make of the moment something permanent.” She further reflects: “In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (of intangible thought)…was struck into stability. Life stands still here, Mrs. Ramsay said. “Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay” she repeated. She owed it all to her.” At this point in the novel, however, Mrs. Ramsay has died. Her concrete presence, the currency she supplied to the transactions between mood and thought within a subjective reality, has disappeared into the ether of Lily’s vague memories. Without a physical form to lend shape to these recollections, or to stand as a marker of contrast by which to redefine her past perceptions, Lily is floating aimlessly within a void of her own identity. I would now like to return to the passage that originally precipitated my investigation:”It had seemed so safe, thinking of her [Mrs. Ramsay]. Ghost, air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily and safely at any time of day…and then suddenly [Lily] put her hand out and wrung her heart thus…Suddenly[her surroundings]became like curves and arabesques flourishing round a centre of complete emptiness…for the whole world seemed to have dissolved in this early morning hour into a pool of thought.” In this agonizing, moving moment, Lily is struggling to reconcile within her mind something irrevocably outside herself, outside her intellectual reach. She is up against the permanence of the life cycle, of death, which are corporeal inevitabilities. “Mrs. Ramsay!” she calls out in desperation, a futile endeavor because she will never find her response. And she is crying for a response, for confirmation, for the comfort of knowing and feeling the existence of humanity around her. By demanding an organic, somatic reaction, Lily is trying to supply herself with that palpable source of both inspiration and incongruity the physical world has removed. And it is not until she lowers the myth of Mrs. Ramsay to the rank of the material mundane, so that she too “became part of ordinary experience, was on level with the chair, with the table,” that Lily regains the clarity and intensity of her active thought-process: “Her mood was coming back to her…so full her mind was of what she was thinking, of what she was seeing…” In the end, the painting that had been the launching pad for countless impressions and internal deliberations within Lily, reaches fruition with a single, impulsive bodily act. This is a stunning turn, for it essentially celebrates the supremacy of the physical by undermining (or simply negating) the years of exhaustive mental activity that preceded the picture’s culmination. With a quick stroke of the hand, with a line drawn abruptly fragmenting the meticulously-crafted background landscape, Lily is able to proclaim, “I have had my vision.” Therefore, it is only when Lily feels once again connected to the concrete, grounding elements of her subjective reality, that she achieves completeness of self. Although deeply rooted in the realm of consciousness, concerned with the mind’s ability to rework the intangibility of feeling, the ambiguity of impression, into a knowable reality, To the Lighthouse paradoxically remains under the persistent, weighty influence of the material world. Rather than be a statement solely on how the only life that matters is the one felt, not the one lived, where the experience of the mind takes precedence over the functions of the body, where mental fulfillment is valued over corporeal satisfaction, To the Lighthouse also isolates and emphasizes the physical as a key component in the grander scheme of a subjective reality. Like a crucial element in a complex formula, a person’s “actual,” tactile connection to his immediate setting is the basis from which perceptions are formed, and the agent through which they are reinforced.Because signification in a subjective framework is the product of the complex, unique interiority of the signifier, engaging the “mental milieu” is truly an exercise in identity-building. And without a concrete guidepost by which to track the changes in one’s character, without a source of pronounced incongruity to serve as the point of entrée into the renegotiation of identity, the strength of a mature self-concept is vulnerable to the intangibility of feeling. As evidenced by the solid self-concept portrayed by James Ramsay in the second half of the novel, as opposed to the tenuous, fragile, confused notion of identity tormenting Lily Briscoe, a notion that requires further reconfiguration in the absence of an accessible, concrete frame of reference, physical elements are integral to the formation of a firm sense of self. If intimate familiarity with the nuances of one’s own personhood is the goal, the “pay-off,” to the pursuit of a subjective reality, connection to the physical is essential not only to the book and the life of its characters, but also to the overall concept of humanity the novel, the art form, wishes to mirror.
Psychological Realism in To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse achieves an accurate and effective portrayal of psychological realism, which is understood for the duration of this essay as a strong emphasis on deep interior characterisation and an understanding of how these interior psychological processes influence external actions. To understand how To the Lighthouse exemplifies psychological realism, we must consider the psychology of the mind itself, drawing on theories from both philosophers and psychologists, focusing on William James, Henri Bergson, and Sigmund Freud, and their theories of the stream of thought, metaphysics and creative evolution, and dream theory, respectively. These theories, placed within the context of Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness within To the Lighthouse, illuminate her successful attempt to infuse her novel with psychological realism as she explores the complex processes of the interior mind.
James’s understanding of the consciousness is based upon a presumption of mental continuity, which he defines as “that which is without breach, crack, or division” (154). He proposes that the consciousness feels continuous, while experience two types of interruptions: time-gaps (e.g. when asleep), and “breaks in the quality, or content, of the thought, so abrupt that the segment that followed had no connection whatever with the one that went before” (154, emphasis in original). I introduce James’s theory of the stream of thought to draw from this idea of a break in the quality or content of the thought; this is used heavily in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse during moments of interior monologue. A single example from a myriad spread across the entirety of the text is the dinner table scene, in which we descend into Lily Briscoe’s interior mind as she considers the impending marriage of Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley: “For any rate, she said to herself, catching sight of the salt cellar on the pattern, she need not marry, thank Heaven: she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution. She would move the tree rather more to the middle.” (Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 111) While her mind begins on the subject of her distaste for marriage, she abruptly moves to a thought about her painting; there is no substantial interior link between these topics, and no physical cue in the exterior world. However, this transition is paradoxically smooth despite the abruptness of the topic change, illustrating James’s idea that: “…the transition between the thought of one object and the thought of another is no more a break in the thought than a joint in a bamboo is a break in the wood. It is a part of the consciousness as much as the joint is a part of the bamboo.” (156, emphasis in original) This simultaneously reinforces James’s assertion that the consciousness resembles most in metaphor a river or stream as it flows, uninterrupted. So neatly does Woolf expose this interior flow that psychological realism is not simply attempted, but achieved with stunning simplicity. Furthermore, the interior mind of Lily Briscoe is stretching out to present an idea of following through with an action in the exterior world; she will move the tree towards the middle when she next paints, illustrating the transition between interior mind and exterior world as causal, in which her thoughts, for all their fragmentation, are influencing her actions.
Bergson similarly explores the continuity of consciousness in his work on creative evolution, stating that “there is no feeling, no idea, no volition which is not undergoing change every moment: if a mental state ceased to vary, its du ration would cease to flow” (2). The key word within Bergson’s theory of creative evolution is “duration”, which he describes as “the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances” (Creative Evolution 5). Again, I would like to use Lily Briscoe as my example of how this philosophical theory illuminates Woolf’s portrayal of psychological realism in To the Lighthouse. Lily’s painting, beginning in ‘The Window’ and concluding in the final moments of ‘The Lighthouse’, spans the entirety of the novel. I propose that this painting is a physical manifestation of this idea of “duration”; as the novel progresses, the need to finish the painting hangs over her, disrupting her thoughts as previously indicated in the context of James’s theory of the stream of thought . By the final moments of the narrative, the vision of the painting which has weighed on her increasingly as time has passed finally becomes clear to her: “She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.” (Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 226) The ultimate climax of this moment of clarity has been built up throughout the novel as Lily tries and fails to paint, disrupted by her own sense of inadequacy, which is exacerbated in the first section ‘The Window’ by the harsh criticism of Charles Tansley. Lily carries this past with her, grappling with it repeatedly as she continues to attempt to paint, eventually succeeding in a moment of clarity. What happens after this is of no consequence, as the character ceases to exist beyond the page, but the flow of thought, constant throughout the novel, indicates that this is a permanent fixture in consciousness as a whole. The painting is of focus for Lily, representing for us the idea of duration as part of a mental state that is constantly in flux and constantly building upon itself. As such, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse highlights both the continuity of thought and the flux of thought, as exemplified in Lily and her painting; adherence to psychological realism is evident as both complex in its placement within the text, spanning from beginning to end, and punctuating the climax of the text in simple, clear vocabulary.
Through Bergson’s broader exploration of metaphysics, we can also introduce the topic of time into our study of psychological realism in To the Lighthouse. Expanding on our understanding of duration, Bergson describes duration functioning through two different parts (a multiplicity and a unity), described as “a multiplicity of moments bound to each other by a unity which goes though them like a thread” (Introduction to Metaphysics, 50), stating that: “In the first hypothesis we have a world resting on nothing, which must end and begin again of its own accord at each instant. In the second we have an infinity of abstract eternity, about which also it is just as difficult to understand why it does not remain enveloped in itself and how it allows things to coexist with it.” (Introduction to Metaphysics, 52) Despite this paradox, Bergson explains that whichever metaphysic we consider ourselves in, “there is only one unique duration, which carries everything with it – a bottomless, bankless river, which flows without assignable force in a direction which could not be defined” (Introduction to Metaphysics, 53). Again, we return to the idea of the river, now dominating not only the flow of the interior mind, but the flow of time.
In To the Lighthouse, we experience exterior time of just two days, and much, much more interior time. The scene in which Mrs. Ramsay is stitching the stocking for the Lighthouse keeper’s little boy (31-35) is mere minutes in exterior time, yet covers a great deal of insight into Mrs. Ramsay’s interior mind. This is representative of the great paradox of duration both in terms of the flow of time and the flow of the mind; Mrs. Ramsey considers her house, her husband, her children, books, the Swiss maid, the weather, and both her own perception of herself, and how she believes herself to be perceived by others, all in the small moment in which she holds a stocking against the leg of James. Time appears to cease inside her interior mind, or at the very least, flows extremely slowly, while her thoughts appear fragmented but flow with an exquisite sense of being natural, seeming organic despite leaping from topic to topic. As Erich Auerbach describes in the midst of his textual analysis of this very scene, “the exterior events have actually lost their hegemony, they serve to release and interpret inner events… this too is apparent in the randomness and contingency of the exterior occasion (looking up because James does not keep his foot still), which releases the much more significant process” (538). The inner mind of Mrs. Ramsay becomes the focus, as opposed to the exterior events; these exterior events serve to disrupt the flow of the interior mind and illuminate their effect on the exterior events themselves. Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts are disturbed by the fidgeting of her son, and once shaken from her interior mind and into exterior events, she is consequently sharp with him. The accuracy of this event in regards to psychological realism is clear, as such a thing has occurred to anyone shaken from a moment of deep thought, immersed as they are within their own mind and then shaken into reality with a jolt.
Upon reaching the works of Sigmund Freud does the idea of psychological realism become convoluted; separating the idea of dreaming and the idea of the subconscious as divined through dreams must occur, and we must translate this into To the Lighthouse, where one can never be truly sure if one is experiencing the character’s subconscious or their conscious, mixed and layered as they are. Freud’s dream theory delves into the subconscious mind, considering latent dream-thoughts as “transformed into a collection of sensory images and visual scenes” (20) that are “condensed”, and proposing that: “As a result of condensation, one element in the manifest dream may correspond to numerous elements in the latent dream-thoughts; but, conversely too, one element in the dream-thoughts may be represented by several images in the dream.” (20) Once more, the example of Lily Briscoe springs to mind when we consider this idea of condensation, and once more, her painting is the focal point. The painting itself, a single element, is representative of several things throughout the novel, which we discover through moments of exploration in her interior mind. The painting is associated with her sense of failure, as established previously; it is linked to her disdain of marriage; it provides the setting for a moment of confused longing for what she originally perceives to be Mrs. Ramsay herself, and what she discovers, is actually a longing to have the aura Mrs. Ramsay has: “That people should love like this, that Mr. Bankes should feel this for Mr. Ramsay (she glances at him musing) was helpful, was exalting. She wiped one brush after another upon a piece of old rag, menially, on purpose. She took shelter from the reverence which covered all women; she felt herself praised. Let him gaze; she would steal a look at her picture.” (Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 54) The painting functions as a single element that forces Lily to do battle with her subconscious, as illustrated by her following frustration with her “failed” painting. Woolf has clearly condensed many of Lily’s subconscious fears into the single element of the painting, much as Freud’s theory describes latent -dream throughs of being condensed into a single visual or sensory images. Again, I assert that Woolf has done this with stunning simplicity, achieving a sense of psychological realism that represents the subconscious as layered and imbued with meaning on each level, culminating in an accurate portrayal of the interior mind.
Psychological realism in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is clearly not merely approached or attempted, but fully achieved. Her representation of the interior mind is stunningly accurate, and undoubtedly modernist not simply in her stream of consciousness style, but in what she is choosing to portray: focus on the internal psychology of character, fragmented as it may be, is a far cry from novels which seek only to tell a story. To the Lighthouse does indeed successfully tell a narrative story, but it also tells the story of the human mind, in all its glory, or even lack thereof. Virginia Woolf shows us a luminous halo.
Auerbach, Erich. ‘The Brown Stocking’. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP. 525-553.
Bergson, Henri. An Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. TE Hulme. 1903. London: Macmillan, 1913. 1-8.
Bergson, Henri. ‘The Evolution of Life’. Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell. 1907. London: Macmillan, 1911. 8-13, 32-34, 5-55.
Freud, Sigmund. ‘Revision of Dream-Theory’. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Ed. and trans. James Strachey. 1933. New York: Norton, 1964. 16-21, 28-30.
James, William. ‘The Stream of Thought’. The Principle of Psychology. 1890. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952. 146, 151-159, 161-165.
Woolf, Virginia. ‘Modern Fiction’. The English Modernist Reader. Ed. Peter Faulkner. 1919. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1986. 105-112.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. 1927. London: Penguin Books, 2000.
The Window Towards the Lighthouse
Much of Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse takes place within her characters’ minds. Although, of course, their thoughts cannot stop external happenings, they can and do stop time in one way: through memory. Thus, throughout the novel, Woolf employs certain objects as symbols to instigate memory and transport the mind into the past. One example, in particular, is that of the drawing room window, which develops the story’s theme that memory defends the mind against the strain of change. A prominent symbol, the window is referred to frequently; indeed, the first section of the book is named after it. It serves as the aperture that connects the ever-changing backyard space with the nearly still drawing room. The majority of the action of the first scene occurs in the backyard, but one main character, Mrs. Ramsay, remains in the drawing room with her son. Because of this arrangement, characters must look through the window in order to see the other party; as a result, many of the characters’ internal monologues are instigated by the view that is framed by the window. For example, as Woolf writes, “Knitting… with her head outlined absurdly by the gilt frame… Mrs. Ramsay smoothed out what had been harsh in her manner a moment before… and kissed her little boy on the forehead” (30). This was the vision seen by all in the backyard: Mrs. Ramsay knitting in the drawing room, head haloed by a Michelangelo painting, with her small son making a collage at her feet. This image, framed by the window, epitomizes the character of the kind-hearted, motherly Mrs. Ramsay, emphasizing her attributes to those in the backyard, especially Lily Briscoe. This vision of mother and son becomes a scene that transcends the progression of time itself; even after Mrs. Ramsay’s death, it is seared permanently into the minds of the onlookers. Thus, the window serves not only as a lens into the private, but into the past. It is a barrier between the world of the outer-house, which will decay as described in Time Passes, and the immutable memory that originates from the scene in the drawing room. It serves as the edge of the changing world. The concept that the window acts as a barrier between the changing and static worlds is further underlined by its observers. Both Mr. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe see the composition of mother and son, and although they are two different viewers, their shared perspective symbolizes the scene’s stasis. Lily even considers the scene as permanent as the house and its attributes. Woolf writes, “Even while she looked at the mass, at the line, at the color, at Mrs. Ramsay sitting in the window with James, she kept a feeler on her surroundings lest someone should creep up…” (17). Thus, Lily groups the immutable scenery with the scene within the window frame; stasis comforts her while she paints, but she is prepared for any changes in her surroundings. Although the scene inside of the window is immutable, outside, the possibility of change threatens. The first example of this happens as Mr. Ramsay denies James the trip to the lighthouse: “‘But,’ said his father stopping in front of the window, ‘it won’t be fine'” (4). Woolf includes the detail of Mr. Ramsay’s location–in front of the window–because that just beyond the window symbolizes the family’s possible change in routine. Mr. Ramsay stands in front of the window because he opposes the change and wants to protect James from any impending false hope. A more physical form of change via the window occurs later to Mrs. Ramsay: “…suddenly her search for the picture of a rake or a mowing machine was interrupted. The gruff murmur, irregularly broken by the taking out of pipes… (as she sat in the window which opened on the terrace)… had ceased” (15). The open window conveyed the change of ambient outdoor noise to Mrs. Ramsay indoors. Once again, Woolf stresses Mrs. Ramsay’s location near the window because it symbolizes the change in noise interrupting Mrs. Ramsay’s state of mental equilibrium. Change can enter through the open aperture from the outdoors, disturbing the scene within the drawing room.In the next section, the window again appears as a symbol of the struggle between stasis and change. Mrs. Ramsay has died, rendering change inevitable; thus, the ever-changing outside world attempts to affect the window. Woolf writes, “weeds that had grown close to the glass in the night tapped methodically at the window pane” (132). Change has come. The window now serves only to preserve stasis within the memory. Even after a decade, the window still keeps its symbolic essence. At the end of the novel, the window forces Lily Briscoe to think of Mrs. Ramsay’s death; it haunts her with the image of mother and son. As Woolf writes, “(A noise drew her attention to the drawing room window – the squeak of a hinge. The light breeze was toying with the window)”. Thus, the window immediately instigates memories of Mrs. Ramsay despite the painfulness of the subject:”(Yes she realized the drawing room step was empty, but it had no effect on her whatever. She did not want Mrs. Ramsay now)” (195). Finally, when the window becomes obscured by a reflection, Lily is forced to face the memory of Mrs. Ramsay: “Some wave of white went over the window pane. The air must have stirred some flounce in the room. Her heart leaped at her and seized her and tortured her” (202). The physical change in the window forces Lily to progress past her memories, just as the room has progressed through time without Mrs. Ramsay. Little action occurs in Woolf’s novel. Yet, by the end, characters have experienced a number of psychological, mental, and physical changes–and it is the drawing-room window, an otherwise ordinary object, that symbolizes and empitomizes that change.
Shaping Loss in “To the Lighthouse”
Throughout To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf details the many struggles of the Ramsay family and their houseguests to secure happiness and order within their lives. There are many obstructions to this basic human pursuit, but loss is one of the most powerful and universal. Various forms of loss haunt and torment nearly all of the characters. Fearing a finite, meaningless existence, Mr. Ramsay dreads the loss of time and relies on the support of Mrs. Ramsay to ease his pain, but when she dies, he becomes a helpless victim of time and is forced to grow beyond self-pity and rumination. As a metaphysician and writer of questionable success, Mr. Ramsay cannot cope with the fact that he is getting older; the damning, unstoppable procession of time robs him of the years necessary to become a great man. He was not born a genius, but hopes to fight so that he may become one. As Mr. Ramsay conceptualizes it, human thought progresses like the alphabet, and though he has endeavored all the way from A to Q, he may not have the time to reach the pinnacle, Z. Even more frustrating is his belief that if he did reach Z, like Shakespeare or the other greats, he still would not be “everlasting”. No matter what, time will swallow him up, and he will be forgotten. He cannot even outlast the tiny pebbles that he kicks in frustration; he is left to mope about the estate, engaging in self-indulgent wallowing, mumbling ineffectual phrases such as, “But I beneath a rougher sea.” Mr. Ramsay’s inability to accept his fate causes him to seek the comfort and love of his wife, Mrs. Ramsay. Time and time again, he relies on her beauty to assuage his pain. During his first rumination on the intellectual alphabet he is paralyzed with fear by thoughts of his doom, but upon seeing his wife, he remarks that he is content to merely enjoy and contribute to the beauty of the world – no matter how ephemeral that beauty, or his offering, may be. Furthermore, in the last scene of “The Window”, just before the couple goes to bed Mr. Ramsay interrupts his own pensive rumblings to observe his wife read poetry, and concludes once again that his struggle is fruitless. He gazes at his wife, waiting for a thinly veiled expression of her love for him, searching for some proof that he is worthwhile and wonderful – even though he is not a genius. However, the greatest example of Mr. Ramsay’s need for his wife can be found in “Time Passes”, when we see him stumble down a corridor in the night, arms outstretched and empty, “Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before.” Clearly, he needs Mrs. Ramsay to ease the loss of time; he requires her presence to restore his physical and mental balance. In the third section of the novel, “The Lighthouse”, Mr. Ramsay is depicted as a man who, though still troubled and desiring of sympathy, has grown as an individual. There is even hope that one day he may be able to achieve true joy. On the boat trip he still plays his part; he dramatizes his struggle in hopes of receiving sympathy from his children, once again mumbling, “But I beneath a rougher sea.” However, the best example of Mr. Ramsay’s complex mix of despair and progress lies in his interactions with Lily Briscoe, the only “true” woman in the house after Mrs. Ramsay’s death. Looking horribly downtrodden, he staggers up to Lily, and she immediately feels suffocated by his grief. She believes that he wants sympathy, and when she can only bring herself to compliment his shoes, she expects a look that conveys silent misery. Mr. Ramsay, however, smiles – it is almost as if he desires her sympathy, yet realizes that it is a vice he must, and can, live without. It is not a coincidence that, after Mrs. Ramsay’s death, we never again bear witness to Mr. Ramsay’s pathetic alphabet metaphor; he never again complains that a stone will outlast him. Our final image of Mr. Ramsay only reiterates these optimistic conclusions. He jumps like a young man from the boat to the rocky island shores of the lighthouse, appearing wholly triumphant. It is one of his greatest successes, and one that he reached on his own – without Mrs. Ramsay, and without any support or sympathy. The only woman nearby, Lily, is on a faraway shore, miles away and unable to provide him with any aid. Mr. Ramsay was once tormented by the loss of time, which promised to reduce him to nothingness. He could only find solace in the comforting beauty and sympathetic gaze of his wife, but when he lost her as well, he was forced to recognize his faults and take steps towards becoming more than a grieving, loss-obsessed man. Mr. Ramsay’s struggle sends a powerful message to readers: loss is an inevitable part of life, but dwelling on it is a fruitless undertaking. Like all obstacles, one must transcend loss in order to live a happy, satisfying life.