Legacy, Love, and Loneliness: An Analysis of Allusions in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse
In Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, allusions to other texts emphasize the importance of human connection and relationships. Mr. Ramsay values his ability to influence others with his philosophical works over his relationships with his wife and children. The most important thing for him is to reach the epitome of knowledge and be remembered for his genius. Texts such as Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” and Cowper’s “The Castaway,” are alluded to in the narrative and the context in which they are referenced implies that relationships should be valued above all. Mr. Ramsay recites “Charge of the Light Brigade” at the beginning of the novel and, in accordance with the proud tone of the poem, admires the effect one man can have on many. His character development is demonstrated by his recitation of the “The Castaway” at the conclusion, which shows a shift in perspective of what matters more to him: academic fame or his relationship with his family. Through these allusions, Woolf suggests that an obsession with affecting others and marking one’s place in history is not as important as genuine human connections because ultimately these relationships are what fulfill and sustain life.
The first allusion of many that Mr. Ramsay makes in To The Lighthouse is to Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” This poem is about the decision of one man causing the deaths of hundreds of soldiers in an attack. Mr. Ramsay continually recites the line “some one had blundered,” alluding to the mistake of the man that led to the death of so many (18). Mr. Ramsay is fascinated by the idea of one man having an insurmountable effect on such a large group of people. He, too, wishes to have this effect with his philosophical work for generations to come. He is troubled with the thought that “the very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare” and realizes that “his own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year to two, and would then be merged in some bigger light” (35). Mr. Ramsay knows that his influence can only last so long. This realization is why he is so intrigued by the idea of six-hundred soldiers being killed by the mistake of only one man. He admires the effect one man can have on the lives of so many others and can only dream of having such a great influence with his work.
However, Mrs. Ramsay changes the tone of admiration in the sentence “some one had blundered” when she looks at her husband after he shatters his son’s dream of going to the lighthouse the following day. She looks at her husband and thinks of this sentence, indicating that he is making a big mistake with his son. He ruins his relationship with his son, James, by asserting his fatherly power over him and by telling him he cannot to go to the lighthouse without any sensitivity. In this scenario, “someone had blundered” applies to Mr. Ramsay making the mistake of overlooking the importance of his relationship and connection with his son, something James is unable to forgive him for. James harbors this hatred for his father and the lasting effects of his father’s actions are evident years later in their hostile relationship. Mr. Ramsay does not understand that he can affect his son in the profound way that he wants to affect others. His son is his legacy, but instead Mr. Ramsay values his academic work as a greater legacy and as a result overlooks the importance of his relationship with James. He reaches for an abstract ultimate knowledge because he wishes to be remembered for centuries. Unfortunately, though, Mr. Ramsay fails to realize the importance of his relationships with his wife and children and instead values his academic work
Another significant poem that Mr. Ramsay alludes to in the novel is Cowper’s “The Castaway,” which shows the development of his character and the realization he has about the importance of human connection over anything else. “The Castaway” is an awfully lonely and despairing poem about dying alone in the middle of the ocean without anyone around. Mr. Ramsay recites this poem as he, James, and Cam are finally making their way to the lighthouse on a sailboat. He dreams of his late wife and says: “But I beneath a rougher sea/ Was whelmed in deeper gulfs than he” (166). This recitation suggests that he feels more alone than the man who drowns by himself because his wife is no longer with him, showing the depth of his despair. He has visions of his wife with “arms stretched out to him” evoking an enormous amount of sympathy for Mr. Ramsay (167). He realizes that he is alone and will die alone, like the speaker in the poem, because he destroyed his relationship with his children and his wife passed away.
Approaching the lighthouse, however, Mr. Ramsay compliments James’s skill in steering the boat and gives him the validation he always wanted. Through Cam’s thoughts, it is evident that this is a milestone in the relationship between James and his father, “for she knew that this was what James had been wanting” all his life (206). The novel ends with the family reaching the lighthouse, something they have been reaching for since the beginning of the story. Mr. Ramsay is no longer reaching for the ultimate knowledge he wants at the beginning, but rather reaching for his wife in his dreams and reaching for the lighthouse with his children. His character progression is only achieved when the relationships with his children develop, like in the instance of the validation Mr. Ramsay gives James on the sailboat. The final image in the novel of Mr. Ramsay is him staring at the island with the lighthouse “and he might be thinking, We perished, each alone, or he might be thinking, [he has] reached it…[he has] found it” (207). The milestone reached with his son just moments before they reach the lighthouse indicates the latter. Mr. Ramsay has found what is most important to him and knows that he must mend his relationships with his children. Reaching a lighthouse, a literal beacon of light and hope for lost travelers on the water, symbolizes the hope and possibilities for Mr. Ramsay’s relationship with his family. This final image shows the paramount significance of human connection.
While at the beginning Mr. Ramsay exhibits a desire only for higher knowledge and to influence others, it becomes clear throughout the narrative and the allusions that there is a major flaw in valuing this over genuine relationships. Mr. Ramsay originally is obsessed with his academic legacy and the influence his work can have over future generations, as shown by his obsession with the phrase “someone had blundered” from Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” However, he realizes this is not the most important thing when this need for power does not compare to his need for his wife when she dies and he is left alone. Mr. Ramsay’s recitation of “The Castaway” proposes that the only thing that is really fulfilling is true human connection as the poem is written to demonstrate the awful reality of one who dies alone. Woolf suggests through these allusions that power and influence should never be valued over human connection because above all else the most despairing thing is to perish alone.
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