Depression in “To The Lighthouse”

November 2, 2020 by Essay Writer

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is an experimental novel, in which Woolf uses stream of consciousness to portray family dynamics, gender relations, and attitudes toward the ontology of art and the artistic subject. The lighthouse itself is an important symbol in the novel in that it brings a bright light to ships at sea, only to then give way to complete darkness, a clear parallel to Woolf’s maniac and depressive episodes:

 “When the darkness fell, the stroke of the Lighthouse, which had laid itself with such authority upon the carpet in the darkness…” (144)   

One of the most important elements, if not the most important in To the Lighthouse, is time. During the first and third sections of the book, time passes slowly as Woolf uses stream of consciousness and the inner time of the characters, rather than an outside source, to show us its progression. It is during the mid section of the novel, that there is a change and time passes much more rapidly:

“Through the short summer nights and the long summer days…and then, night after night, and sometimes in plain mid-day when the roses were bright and light turned on the walls its shape clearly there…” (145) 

 “Night and day, month and year ran shapelessly together… But the stillness and the brightness of the day were as strange as the chaos and tumult of night” (147)  

It is in these, and many other sections of the novel that we can see clearly the passing of time and, thinking of the idea of night turning into day, and then to night again, we can easily relate this to the internal fight of depression, as one goes from depressed, to euphoric, to depressed again. Another element of this second part of the novel, that can be thought of as a sign of as related to bipolar mood swings is the prompt decay of the house once the family leaves:

“The house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sandhill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it.” (149)

This section followed by the house’s equally prompt recovery, which takes ten years, is covered in fewer than twenty pages. “And it all looked, Mr. Carmichael thought, shutting his book, falling asleep, much as it used to look years ago.” (155)  

If we take a closer look into the inner lives of the characters of the novel, we can see that some of them show signs of depression. First, let us take a look at Mr. Ramsay, who has the most evident symptoms. He is a well known mathematician and philosopher, with published works and his very own pupils who look up to him; however he has a difficult time relating to others, especially his own children and wife:

“The extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children’s breasts by his mere presence; standing, as now, lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one, grinning sarcastically, not only with the pleasure of disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife” (8)  

From the very beginning of the novel we know that he is a strange and cold man, but later we can see, that he is also voluble, much like Woolf herself because of her illness. He even calls himself “irritable” and “touchy”.  Mr. Ramsay is also a very insecure and even sad man, which we can see clearly when he wants his wife to reassure him by telling him she loves him. “He wanted something…wanted her to tell him that she loved him… heartless woman he called her; she never told him that she loved him.” (134)   In this part of the novel, we can also see that even though Mrs. Ramsay is intimately involved in the life of her family and guests, she has a rather pessimistic view of the world. This reminds us, again, of Woolf’s depressive episodes. They both share this dark thought that happiness is momentary, while pain and suffering are eternal:

“With her mind she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that” (71)

   The character of Lily Briscoe is a female artist, like Woolf, in a time when women were thought incapable of many things, as Mr. Tansley says to Lily: “Women can’t paint, women can’t write …”  This kind of pressure hurts Lilly and her artistic capacities and cannot be good for her mental state. Lily is also the character with the most conflicting stream of consciousness as it annoys and disturbs her not to be able to fulfill her duties as a woman who should be reassuring men in need in those moments that she wishes to be independent and to break the boundaries of female servitude.

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