Overcoming Conventions in Thought and Gender in To the Lighthouse

March 15, 2019 by Essay Writer

A “splendid mind,” is Mr. Ramsay’s most coveted and powerful instrument, the one constantly at his disposal for perceiving, judging and dissecting the universe. His is an intelligence comparable to a mechanism with gears which move steadily in one direction, limited by infinite, unseen parameters. His beautiful wife, Mrs. Ramsay, on the other hand, is an intelligent, dependent and giving individual; one who bestows her ostensibly universal presence until she withers away. The couple, each with their limited perception of reality and distinctive flaws, come to embody the conflict between the division of feminine and masculine energy at work in the universe. These two characters in particular, as well as the general style of the novel, provide the framework necessary for Woolf to attempt to transcend the conventions not only of traditional Western narrative structure, but of established modes of consciousness and how they are represented in literature as well. It is the character Lily, who, in the end, represents that which is capable of overcoming all convention, including these bifurcated feelings, and catches “the vision.”Mr. Ramsay, a self-centered philosopher, expresses the male principle in his rational point of view throughout the novel. In his excessively rational and limited mode of perceiving reality, knowledge, and the very essence of existence itself, can and should be broken down into puzzle pieces that can be fit together until everything reveals itself to scrutiny. Mr. Ramsay’s mind is called “splendid,” for in a world in which thought functions like “the keyboard of a piano” or “like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his mind had no difficulty… until it had reached, say, the letter Q.” Therefore, according to this model, Mr. Ramsay is a man of extraordinary and rare talent. Nevertheless, even the fearsome mind of Mr. Ramsay “would never reach R.” Stepping back from this model the question arises, “Is this really the dilemma?” No, it is not, for other men had reached Z and even started over from A again. Better yet, some, the masterminds and true geniuses of the world, had even lumped “all the letters together in one flash” thinks Mr. Ramsay. He resigns himself to the fact that he shall never reach R. Tragically, however, is his blindness to the fact that it is this very process, the very idea that knowledge, the universe, works in such a linear way, which marks Mr. Ramsay’s demise. It plagues him throughout the novel and presumably the rest of his life. It becomes obvious, then, that Mr. Ramsay is the instrument the author uses to bluntly display a fatal yet rampant defect of human thought.Mrs. Ramsay’s “shortsightedness”, on the other hand, is different but nonetheless just as dangerous as that of her husband. It is Lily Briscoe, near the end of the novel, who, in her remembrance of the woman, points out one aspect of the tragedy that is Mrs. Ramsay: “That man [Mr. Ramsay], she thought, her anger rising in her, never gave; that man took. She, on the other hand, would be forced to give. Mrs. Ramsay had given. Giving, giving, giving, she had died–and had left all this.”It becomes clear halfway through the novel that one of Mrs. Ramsay’s foremost flaws is her inclination to give to all, especially her needy husband, and never receive that which she so urgently requires.Not only is it Mrs. Ramsay’s propensity to constantly unfurl her gorgeous petals to present her sweet nectar to all, until at last the her great flower withers, but she also relies, in many ways, on the unstable platform provided by the masculine intellect:”What did it all mean? …A square root? What was that? Her sons know. She leant on them; on cubes and squares; that was what they were talking about now; on Voltaire and Madame de Stael; on the character of Napoleon; on the French system of land tenure; on Lord Rosebery; on Creevey’s Memoirs; she let it uphold her and sustain her, this admirable fabric of the masculine intelligence, which ran up and down, crossed this way and that, like iron girders spanning the swaying fabric, upholding the world, so that she could trust herself to it utterly, even shut her eyes.”Notwithstanding the fact that this inner jaunt into the thoughts of Mrs. Ramsay exposes an obvious weakness in her character, not everything about her and her husband is so cut and dry. In fact, the above descriptions of the limitations and faults of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are but gross, oversimplified sketches of these characters. Woolf’s characterizations are much more sublime and intricate than these rough outlines let on. She does not narrowly draw distinctions between genders, nor does she offer two extremes, such as the clich of the logical man and the overly emotional woman. Instead, Woolf draws characters which portray the blurred line between gendered modes of perceiving, reasoning, feeling and relating to others. Paradoxically, this intricate web of emotion and thought both highlight the extreme differences between the man and woman and, simultaneously, transcend the limitations associated with the tendency to “genderize” any particular mode of thought or feeling. This sublime, careful quality in Woolf’s work is one of many elements that lead the reader to realize the larger scope of the novel: to rise above convention.One of the conventions that the author strives to overcome is the traditional representation of human consciousness in the “novel.” Thought, in this work, is not confined by boundaries such as gender and time. All of the forces and objects, external and internal, animate and inanimate, influence the consciousness of the characters. One of the ways to see how this is accomplished in To the Lighthouse is by stepping back and attempting to disregard the particularities of the characters and let what little plot there is dissolve entirely. When this is accomplished, what stand out are the hundreds of thoughts of the individual characters. It is the very thoughts, not moments of action or lengthy dialogue, that make up the backbone and structure of the whole work! Although Woolf does not abandon linear narrative completely, some frustrated readers might rant that this is indeed the case2E For example, one of the most striking features of the novel is how Woolf blends external and internal dialogue together until the two flow together in a nearly seamless manner. While the patient and discerning reader soon realizes that this is indeed a very accurate way of representing the dynamic way which thought and speech actually interact, the less perceptive reader might be knocked off balance, never again to regain equilibrium. Indeed, reading the novel is somewhat maddening at first, like watching a film composed of countless rapid cuts and interminably long shots that are constantly juxtaposed to seemingly unrelated close-ups of objects that are just out of focus. But, given time and patience, the novel begins to reveal itself as a sort of antithesis to Mr. Ramsey’s very limited mode of thinking from A to Z. Therefore, when viewed in its entirety, the work begins to emerge as an attempt to represent that which cannot truly be explained or represented: the nature of consciousness.What eventually emerges, thanks to the Woolf’s decision to make individual thought “streams” the center of the narrative, is the distinct feeling of being disconnected from any specific action or character and, like a ball of light, taking on the ability to dart effortlessly in and out of characters minds, often times following a thread of thought until it frays in a million different directions and is no longer able to be represented in words. After reading the novel for the first time, the natural inclination is to conclude that in this novel, Woolf is rejecting the rigid structure of the established Western tradition of narrative and has made an experiment into the stream-of-consciousness type writing. This argument, however, oversimplifies what the author has accomplished. What exactly has been accomplished is difficult to put into words, for what she seems to have done is to provide the reader a glimpse of what all humankind experiences (on different levels no doubt) on a regular basis, but is, at the same time, difficult, if not impossible, to explain using words.In the spirit of overcoming convention and attempting to write what cannot be written, it is through the character Lily Briscoe, the painter, that this desire to overcome convention is carried out to its fullest extent. Lily, by embodying Woolf’s ideal, androgynous voice, seems to rise above all convention in a transcendent moment marked by the completion of a specific artistic objective. Near the beginning of the novel the reader is introduced to Lily and her seemingly impossible endeavor to capture the truth or “vision” in a painting:”It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself–struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: “But this is what I see; this is what I see, “and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.”These “demons” that beset Lily seem to signify some barrier impeding her from realizing that singular goal of truly capturing that vision that she senses is coming upon her. This desire, this objective, is evidently not one that can be quantified and analyzed—solved by moving from point A to point B, until one reached the “end of the alphabet,”—as surely Mr. Ramsay would approach it. The barrier impede her progress seems impossible to triumph over because it is an invisible one, one ingrained in that particular reality which is composed of expectations, traditions and “nature.”Throughout much of the novel, Lily looks to others for answers, especially Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. She sees in Mr. Ramsey something desirable, the fact that he can keep “his eyes fixed upon” his philosophy, his “kitchen table” and “never allow himself to be distracted or deluded” until he took upon himself that “unornamented beauty which so deeply impressed her.” She also looks to Mrs. Ramsey for answers. She imagines, at one point “how in the…mind and heart of the woman [Mrs. Ramsey] …were stood…tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which…would teach one everything…” and that the way to this enlightening intimacy, this knowledge, might require her to discover a “device for becoming… inextricably the same, one with the object one adored.” It is obvious that Lily, being highly sensitive to these polar opposites, is torn within as she seeks to reconcile the disparate emotions and overcome the invisible obstruction keeping her from her objective.This struggle to overcome the invisible barriers keeping her from that indescribable goal, that fleeting “vision”, is continually embodied in her psychic and physical effort to complete the painting. “Women”, sneers Charles Tansley “can’t paint!” When Lily decides, however, that she can and will paint her picture, the achievement becomes her sole purpose in life. With its completion she will not only establish her artistic voice, but will finally be able to bring these disparate elements, both masculine and feminine, in an accord that aligns itself with all that the author seems to be attempting to accomplish as well.Lily accomplishes her feat of completing the painting and realizing the vision in various stages. It is at the dinner table that the initial leap is made. First she has an epiphany regarding her painting, “Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space.” Only moments pass when, as if a continuation of the same train of thought, Lily realizes that “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.” Immediately after this vital realization, Lily becomes painfully aware of the “violently two opposite things…and they fought together in her mind.” The magnitude of the decision not to marry is vital, but it remains juxtaposed to the fact that she has not officially reconciled the two “opposite things.” It is not until much later, at the end of the novel, when everything comes together for Lily, and for the reader.Returning as a guest, years later, Lily once more takes her place on the lawn in a final attempt to complete her painting, her vision. As her thoughts begin to drift back and forth, in and out of time and space, and as she watches the distant sailboat move inevitably toward the lighthouse she “was losing consciousness of outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance” she began to paint her picture. Her inability to find symmetry and balance in her painting, which had plagued her in the past, is unexpectedly absent, and at last, “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.” Suddenly Lily’s voice becomes the ideal one, the voice which combines those bifurcated feelings, those “violently opposite things” until, at last, she captures that which cannot be named and finally has “her vision.”To the Lighthouse manages, in the end, to transcend the conventions and barriers of the traditional “novel” and in doing so gives the reader a glimpse, or perhaps more, of an entirely unconventional way of viewing and experiencing life and consciousness. The novel is written in a prose that is rhythmical, figurative, and overflowing with fantastic visual imagery, but it is so much more than this. Its very structure and style act as vehicles for the reader to catch a glimpse, in the form of prose, of how thought and consciousness function. Finally, it is Lily herself who embodies the spirit of Woolf’s work as she overcomes the conventions represented by Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, and, by integrating both of their admirable characteristics, is able to have her long sought after vision. As the uninitiated reader struggles to find the traditional conventions of the Western novel, such as a clear cut plot, action and typical external dialogue, sooner or later the realization flashes boldly: consciousness, nor sexuality for that matter, is structured linearly like the English alphabet, from A to Z. Instead it is a brilliant, mysterious thing that has no predetermined boundaries and quantitative properties. It is that which cannot be explained directly by the writer or philosopher. It is something that one seeks after until, at last, “the vision” is complete.

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