Comparison Of The Experience Of ‘being’ As Presented In The Dig By Cynan Jones And To The Lighthouse By Virginia Woolf

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

Superficially, nothing could be more disparate than the Dig and To the Lighthouse. From being worlds apart in time to the complete contrast in setting and focus of interest, the lowbrow, simplistic concerns of a middle class family in their holiday home could not be further from the unmerciful realism of life in the Welsh countryside. However, on a much closer study, they have much greater affinity.

In To the Lighthouse, the initial focus is the Ramsay’s marriage. A sense of complexity in ‘being’ overshadows the novel. The entangled relationship between the Ramsays demonstrates their particular approaches towards daily life rather than actual interaction. The Edwardian era was limiting for women, although as Woolf was known for her contemporary thinking, uses this marriage to illustrate the alternating expressive and instrumental roles adopted by man and wife which was the social norm at the time. Mrs. Ramsay appears mostly submissive and subordinate to her husband to avoid challenging the constraints of the period. However, hidden beneath, Mrs. Ramsay is much more intelligent than is first depicted, but any demonstration of this intelligence is suppressed by fear. This is clear in the ways they illustrate their own desires. Mr. Ramsay in fact is far more expressive than Mrs. Ramsay by continuously searching for compliments from her – “It was sympathy he wanted, to be assured of his genius” showing his insecurity in sensing her overpowering intelligence. The stream of his constant commentary on his feelings also helps to make us more aware of the way his mind operates. At the start, Mr. Ramsay desires more than anything to hear the words “I love you” from his wife, though she instead decides a smile is enough to convey her equally loving feelings towards him. It is as though he is trying to grasp her sense of security in the world but never manages to. On the other hand this also proves their closeness in their mutual understanding despite their lack of verbal communication, which is also shown in their behaviour at the dinner table “it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men”, presenting their unspoken bond. Mrs. Ramsay protects her family, friends – even enemies – and other strong female characters (such as Lily Briscoe) even admire her for her “astonishing power”, yet Mr. Ramsay never manages to fulfil his role of being a husband or father well. This could be because of their completely contradicting personalities – his insecurities a result of being an introvert, heightened by his wife’s extroversion, threatening his masculinity. Attempting to assert himself, Mr. Ramsay never allows Mrs. Ramsay to contradict him “there wasn’t the slightest possible chance that they could go to the Lighthouse tomorrow” emphasising his dominance over her, putting it down to her foolish ideas. This completely contrasts to the relaxed equality of Woolf’s own marriage, as she was proposed to three times by Leonard, and denied the first two abruptly writing in a letter to him “As I told you brutally the other day, I feel no physical attraction in you”. The relationship became even more modern after it was discovered that Woolf had a same sex affair with writer and aristocrat Vita Sackville-West whilst surprisingly, Leonard knew all about the relationship and didn’t object, which would be even astonishing to a modern audience.

In The Dig, there is no internal access into Daniel’s thoughts as such, instead, his feelings of loss are conveyed instead through his actions. Woolf in comparison is much more concerned with the psychological depth and syntactic complexity. Daniels’ isolation adds to how deeply scarred he is by the loss of his wife. The repetition of the word ‘chain’ in the first paragraph gives a sense of him being imprisoned, maybe in his own head, due to this loss, making him an introvert, much like Mr Ramsay. This image also illustrates a sense of dominance similar to Mr. Ramsay as he controls the dog’s freedom with chains. The setting becomes a description of his own self “From the beams hang compact discs, strange astral things in this half-light, now ignored by the sparrows and starlings they are there to keep out”. The building is neglected, and reflects how he is unkempt and neglected too. The discs symbolise the wife, now covered in dust showing how time begins to cover original memories, much like To the Lighthouse, the discs are also a sign of femininity as they were her decorations, and therefore the dust could be a symbol of the male dominance erasing femininity in both books. He is now lost in the world without her, like a ‘drifting piece of loose ash’ showing the similarity between the books, both husbands relying on their wives, like a pillar to support them. In this case however, the character Daniel, is exposed to a brutal reality of losing a significant other, and instead of grasping compliments from his wife like Mr Ramsay, he instead grasps onto any sense of comfort he can, implied by the words “familiar”, “comfortable” and “warmth” as he physically guides the birth of a lamb inside the uterus of an ewe. In his overpowering loneliness, Daniel turns to the animals for comfort. The dogs, cows and sheep give him purpose and although he “craves her help, for some company”, he looks to them as a second best.

Jones’ use of the setting is particularly important in understanding Daniels’ feelings towards the loss of his wife from how the animals are described. “The sheep sighed and crunched, the cattle’s feet slapped as they moved in the mud” which perfectly symbolises the callousness Daniel is going through, with the harsh reality of being. Woolf similarly uses this technique with the actual lighthouse, which stands alone – knocked repeatedly by the solid waves representing the isolation in the character of Mr. Ramsay and his pessimistic thoughts knocking him over. Jones and Woolf also similarly use objects to illustrate their characters’ feelings. “He lifted the boots out of the doorway and set them next to hers” in The Dig conveys how the shoes show togetherness and the complementary difference between man and wife whilst “the backs of the shoes were so long crushed that they had moulded by now to his heels” shows how the shoes remind him of her; although they are worn out, he doesn’t want to replace them in fear of replacing a part of her. Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse similarly uses ‘boots’ as an analogy exclaiming how she won’t let Mr. Ramsay be the ‘broken shoe’ almost as though she loves him too much to let him become a distant memory like Daniel’s wife Stream of consciousness, a modernist narrative, is an important part of understanding why Woolf chose to write in indirect speech. This technique is one of an anti-romantic free viewpoint which often encouraged questioning the value of cultural norms. To the Lighthouse was in fact one of the most accomplished of the Modernist movement, though Modernism was criticised for disregarding the social world in favour of it’s obsession with language and the act of writing.

Woolf said that a good story didn’t always have to start with ‘Once Upon a Time’ and end with a ‘happy ending’ as it simply wasn’t life. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf becomes the omniscient narrator so that the story appears in a way that reflects the consciousness of the dramatic characters rather than external events, which occupy very little space in the novel. For example, we follow James’s thoughts from the kitchen, to the terrace with Mr. Ramsay and Charles Tansley, and later at the dinner table before following him to bed. It creates the feeling of an unstructured, conscious flow of thoughts to give the illusion that we are inside the mind of a character. This conveys their mental process and therefore helps to connect the reader to the level of being Woolf is wanting to show through a sequenced series of selected moments of consciousness, like the wind that blows through the house. Indirect monologue is used by Woolf to describe her thoughts “let us record the atom as they fall upon the mind in order in which they fall”, supporting this further with a comment in her diary, “the method of writing smooth narrative can’t be right. Things don’t happen in one’s mind like that”. In To the Lighthouse Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts overlap, at one moment in deep thought about how her children will one day endure “suffering” and “death” and then suddenly interrupted by “the bill for the greenhouse would be 50 pounds.” This illustrates a sense of realism in how the minds of humans actually work, one thought intersecting another all the time. The indirect monologue also acts as a link between interior monologue and omniscient narration “I respect you (she addressed him silently)”, signalling new perspective and clarifies the narrative which could become a chaotic switching between two techniques

In contrast, the Dig constantly shifts from first to third person making it more personal, but also giving multiple perspectives on the characters and their actions. This technique highlights Daniel’s grief as his wife constantly talks over his stream of thought “She had wanted that fixed he thought. She was right” giving the impression he is still emotionally living as a married couple and struggling to move on. Furthermore, both Daniel and the Big Man seem unpredictable to the reader, as if Jones’ only has control over half the story, and is not omniscient. Woolf, on the other hand is almost an omniscient godlike figure, whilst Jones’ structure suggests that he is experiencing the story along with the reader. Although the visual aspect of the Dig is prominent, there is little internal access to thought, instead relying heavily on actions such as when the boy capturing his first badger having a “panicky lump in his throat”. This doesn’t show the psychological depth and syntaficial complexity that To the Lighthouse achieves, although both novels use free association to convey the characters’ disordered consciousness. Both texts continuously shift character perspective interspersed with detailed descriptions of events such as the badger culling and “the strange hernia of bag split and bulbing from the uterus” describing the weak lamb in the Dig, or Mrs. Ramsay telling James the story of the fisherman’s wife in To the Lighthouse, offering alternate views of reality. Direct narration is used in both. In To the Lighthouse, “For how would you like to be shut up for a whole month at a time, and possibly more in stormy weather, upon a rock the size of a tennis lawn? she would ask;”, represents Mrs. Ramsay’s consciousness by writing “she would ask” and later changing it to “she asked”. The semi colons further physically indicate a continuation of consciousness. The Dig similarly, shows this, when the man asks the boy if it was his “first dig? The boy nodded”. It’s been suggested that the boys’ first dig also represents Jones’ first successful book. Finally, as in To the Lighthouse, omniscient narration is found in the Dig critic Max Liu suggests; “omniscient narration allows Jones to show every aspect of a landscape which connects past and present, living and dead, people and animals, as his two protagonists proceed along a tense narrative collision course.” Combined, these techniques help to present the sense of realism and existence, conveying evidence for the question of the presentation ‘being’ in both books.

Art is an important part of To the Lighthouse as it helps to mirror the meaning. The structure illustrated in the design of two blocks joined by a corridor in Woolf’s own notebook, perfectly represents how the book was written. Part One of the novel, which is only a day long, is the block on the right. Part Three, ten years later is the block on the left. The two blocks of time are connected by a corridor of time, the middle section, and illustrates that the surface of To the Lighthouse is only a series of little moments of perceptions, such as Lily Briscoe wanting her painting to look like “the light of a butterfly’s wing lying upon the arches of a cathedral”. This symbolises the fleeting impressions lying on top of a solid foundation and represents how our lives are rooms of moments bursting with intensity. Woolf is trying to illustrate that life isn’t full to the brim of excitement; there are long corridors of boredom with a room here and there to make our lives thrilling. Critics such as Eric Ourback, on the other hand, claim there is no particular kind of narrative structure.

With this in mind, Lily’s painting could be seen to symbolise the difficulty of capturing the essence of her vision. This is underlined by certain characters reactions to her paintings. Mr. Ramsay’s fixed ideas of art, make it impossible for her to paint when he is near by “…he imposed himself. He changed everything” and he concludes that art is unnecessary despite avidly reading and reciting literature. Art is also used to symbolise the lack of admiration men had for women in the Edwardian era. Charles Tansley confirms this view, remarking “Women can’t write, women can’t paint”, reiterating this gender prejudice, which gets in the way of Woolf’s feminist belief in a woman’s ability to make contributions to cultural life. The painting also symbolises the strong bond and mutual respect of women when seeing each other stand up for whatever they believe in, therefore Lily Briscoe becomes a reflection of Woolf by using her art and creativity as a way to escape the domestic constraints of being a woman in that era, although there is also a likelihood that she is also based on Woolf’s sister Vanessa, who used her art to go against the social norms, just like Lily and Woolf herself.

In The Dig, Cynan Jones writes about the rough Welsh countryside portraying an atmosphere which matches the feelings that Daniel would be experiencing whilst grieving; an empty, rawness. The detailed, visual description of the bleak, harsh countryside places Daniel away from rest of the world. The symbolism in “the bare ash branches” is almost like his illness is his physical surroundings keeping him prisoner. Completely alone, it shows how his world was quiet and empty after the loss of his wife “a barking fox could sound as if it were right the other side of the farm” causing him to experience the art of the suffering of being, and succumbing to the myth of a tortured artist. This is almost a reflection of Woolf similar struggle with mental health, attempting suicide three times, succeeding on the third. Finally Jones’ and Woolf’s setting, both illustrate the harshness of the grieving that takes place after losing a loved one. In the background we are aware that the Ramsay’s are grieving for the loss of their son taken by the First World War, however much it is suppressed. More positively, The Dig portrays Daniel’s appreciation for his wife by the use of poetic description of her absence “You can just walk into it and have the chemical sense of her”. His devotion is evident by his actions of holding on to her smallest trace, reminding us of Mr. Ramsay’s need for reassurance from his wife.

Time is another key element with which to compare and contrast To the Lighthouse and The Dig structurally and chronologically. Woolf’s opening with “Yes of course” is in ‘medias res’ which is Latin for in the middle of the plot. This facilitates the theme of time as it opens in mid conversation from the critical point of action, adding a sense of realism, as we are merely looking in to a section of their lives and their experience of being. It also goes against the expected beginning of a story from the 19th century, conveying once again her uniqueness. Homer, in the Iliad also used this technique, to open the poem by beginning in the middle of an argument between Agamemnon (king of the Greeks) and Achilles (best warrior) in the same way as To the Lighthouse opens with an argument between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay about whether or not they can take their son to the lighthouse. The Homeric similarities are clear. The fluidity of the use of time, with the book having a ten year interval at one point, also helped to explain the recorded history which gives context to the story explaining the death of Andrew Ramsay from the First World War. Although the book appears to have a very small focus, we are always aware of the existence and effect of World War One continuing in the background and its significance to the characters. Mrs. Ramsay was remarkably anxious about her children growing up, wishing James and Cam would never become her “long legged monsters”. She also feared her own decline “When she looked in the glass and saw her hair grey, her cheek sunk, at fifty” though Bankes regarded it as “classical beauty”. Nevertheless it shows an engaging feeling every reader can relate to as aging is just a part of human experience.

Likewise, Jones’ The Dig begins in ‘medias res’, although, unlike the tension of the argument which begins To the Lighthouse, here the atmosphere is initially calm and quiet “the dog stirred as Daniel came between the buildings and got up in its chain and stretched and yawned”. The effect of the polysyndeton also begins in the middle of things, in the morning on a random day. However, differently to Woolf’s portrayal of time, Daniel is almost spared from the anticipation of aging that Mrs. Ramsay suffers from as he seems to romanticize death. This can be seen after a failed attempt to nurse a lamb back to health “The lamb was dead. It was dead and comfortable”. The “comfortable” suggests death is an enviable state; depressed and lonely, the possibility that Daniel wished to be with his wife once again is more than likely. Crushed from the loss he “could not accept that it was permanent and that it was three weeks since she’d died” illustrating the worsening affect time was having on his grief. The torturous thoughts continuously enter his mind, leaving an essence of timeless repetition and rhythmical unease like the symbolism of the sea relentlessly crashing into the lighthouse in Woolf’s novel, or the unrestrainable course of time that eventually led to the houses deterioration.

Strength is an important element in how both authors reveal the theme of ‘being’ through the characters reactions to the brutality they experience. Subsequently, the Dig offers the sense of strength that Daniel is compelled to develop through experiencing Nature’s harsh reality mostly through the use of symbolism in Jones’ language. The setting around him mirrors his mentality, such as the ‘reeds’, “crushed”, “spread” and “trodden over”, abused by the weight of his thoughts. This is represented again with the shard, symbolising Daniel, a solid mound which “wouldn’t move” and the presentation of his thoughts as sheep which “over the years had rubbed against [him]” illustrates how Jones’ figurative language is important in understanding the depth and effect it has on Daniel.

Jones also uses symbolism through the use of animals such as “The black lamb which looked tired and beaten under the lamp” to accentuate further the profoundness of Daniel’s suffering. Furthermore, the Big Man, similarly alone in the world, is symbolised by the badger, whilst the terrier is like his loneliness which “tapped and nipped” at him, though he contradicts himself by taking his anger out on the poor creature, creating a self fulfilling prophecy to become a bully. Ultimately the characters battle each other with affiliating symbolism in the stripes of the badger, the white to embody the goodness in Daniel, and the black for the evil in the Big man. Yet, coupled with the ending of the novel, the “extra patches of black in the badger from the coal” illustrate that in this case the evil wins, the badger is killed, and Daniel succumbs further into the depths of depression no matter how much strength is shown while they fought for their lives.

There are also similarities with the Iliad found with the brutality in To the Lighthouse and The Dig. Homer’s use of the long strong sentences explaining hunting “hounds go circling in to attack, and under the hue and cry a gnashing sound of tusks and teeth is heard; even so now, around rugged Odysseus, the Trojans ran” is also illustrated in Cam’s mind “and it sometimes happens, when a cloud falls on a green hillside and gravity descends and there among all the surrounding hills is gloom and sorrow. And it seems as though the hills themselves must ponder the fate of the clouding, the darkened”. It shows how Woolf compared feelings to rational domestic thoughts, whereas Homer compared feelings to war and hunting, much like the Dig. With this in mind, the harshness of Jones’ writing is comparable to the harshness of the sea, or the deterioration of the house as time progresses in To the Lighthouse as though humans are fighting a losing battle. In addition to this, Woolf’s characters are similarly used to show a progression of strength, such as Mr. Carmichael who although initially seemed quiet and lost, searching for an inspiration in Mr. Ramsay, became “entirely contented” having found his strength after regrettably being unable to fight in the war for being too old. Furthermore for context, as Woolf found inspiration in the war for brutality and strength, Jones makes a strong case that the ethos of his violent attention to detail on either how his wife was killed, the savage killing of the badger, or the explicit birthing of the lambs could be inspired by the Aberfan slate disaster; the natural disaster in 1966 killed 116 children and 28 adults and became a tragedy in Welsh history, all because the NCB had ignored concerns by local authorities. Finished two years before the 50th commemoration, it is almost as though the badger culling is a reflection of what can happen when being is ignored.

Class becomes the finality that ultimately divides the sense of being, not stopping at The Dig and To the Lighthouse. In The Dig, the setting of the rural empty land and the stereotype of farmers strongly contrast with the Ramsay’s Edwardian middle class family. Although Woolf was brought up in a Victorian upper-middle-class family, her understanding of the class conflict was circumstantial but intricate. At the time of writing To the Lighthouse, the 1926 General Strike of the Labour movement took place which caused national unrest. Therefore, Mrs. Ramsay’s compassion for knitting a stocking for the lighthouse keeper’s son, or Mr. Ramsay’s concern over the fisherman’s wages could well be an example of Woolf’s own discomfort with her privilege. Using her art for the greater good, Woolf created the characters of Mrs. McNab a “toothless”, “trodden down”, “caretaking woman”, to help represent the economic climate of the time, illustrating similarities to Daniel’s “alienated” and “weak” position. Furthermore, Mr. Tansley, a working class chemist who had been looking after himself since the age of thirteen, shared a devotion for mathematics and philosophy with Mr. Ramsay, proving that they both have highly educated minds, despite the class difference.

Differently, although Jones’ background is left more to the imagination, there is a possibility that the characters are a reflection of the author. On one hand is the wife, whose death equates to the General Strike in that she “felt a great feeling of wealth and happiness”, and then out of the blue “the horse kicked her”, causing great shock and sorrow. Daniel on the other hand chose a job he put his heart into, without concern for the money involved, and therefore there is reason to believe this is an impression of Jones’ choice to become a writer In conclusion, the physical brutality of the explicit, raw world of The Dig conveying a shocking degree of realism shown through the Big Man could not be further from the less overt, more subtle brutality in To the Lighthouse; existing in the deep divisions of class, gender, family relationships and the First World War. Nevertheless, in the style leading us through the characters’ consciousness in the deep well of grief and dissatisfaction there’s a great commonality in their experience of being.


Read more