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.
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