Shaping Loss in “To the Lighthouse”
Throughout To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf details the many struggles of the Ramsay family and their houseguests to secure happiness and order within their lives. There are many obstructions to this basic human pursuit, but loss is one of the most powerful and universal. Various forms of loss haunt and torment nearly all of the characters. Fearing a finite, meaningless existence, Mr. Ramsay dreads the loss of time and relies on the support of Mrs. Ramsay to ease his pain, but when she dies, he becomes a helpless victim of time and is forced to grow beyond self-pity and rumination.
As a metaphysician and writer of questionable success, Mr. Ramsay cannot cope with the fact that he is getting older; the damning, unstoppable procession of time robs him of the years necessary to become a great man. He was not born a genius, but hopes to fight so that he may become one. As Mr. Ramsay conceptualizes it, human thought progresses like the alphabet, and though he has endeavored all the way from A to Q, he may not have the time to reach the pinnacle, Z. Even more frustrating is his belief that if he did reach Z, like Shakespeare or the other greats, he still would not be “everlasting”. No matter what, time will swallow him up, and he will be forgotten. He cannot even outlast the tiny pebbles that he kicks in frustration; he is left to mope about the estate, engaging in self-indulgent wallowing, mumbling ineffectual phrases such as, “But I beneath a rougher sea.”
Mr. Ramsay’s inability to accept his fate causes him to seek the comfort and love of his wife, Mrs. Ramsay. Time and time again, he relies on her beauty to assuage his pain. During his first rumination on the intellectual alphabet he is paralyzed with fear by thoughts of his doom, but upon seeing his wife, he remarks that he is content to merely enjoy and contribute to the beauty of the world – no matter how ephemeral that beauty, or his offering, may be. Furthermore, in the last scene of “The Window”, just before the couple goes to bed Mr. Ramsay interrupts his own pensive rumblings to observe his wife read poetry, and concludes once again that his struggle is fruitless. He gazes at his wife, waiting for a thinly veiled expression of her love for him, searching for some proof that he is worthwhile and wonderful – even though he is not a genius. However, the greatest example of Mr. Ramsay’s need for his wife can be found in “Time Passes”, when we see him stumble down a corridor in the night, arms outstretched and empty, “Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before.” Clearly, he needs Mrs. Ramsay to ease the loss of time; he requires her presence to restore his physical and mental balance.
In the third section of the novel, “The Lighthouse”, Mr. Ramsay is depicted as a man who, though still troubled and desiring of sympathy, has grown as an individual. There is even hope that one day he may be able to achieve true joy. On the boat trip he still plays his part; he dramatizes his struggle in hopes of receiving sympathy from his children, once again mumbling, “But I beneath a rougher sea.” However, the best example of Mr. Ramsay’s complex mix of despair and progress lies in his interactions with Lily Briscoe, the only “true” woman in the house after Mrs. Ramsay’s death. Looking horribly downtrodden, he staggers up to Lily, and she immediately feels suffocated by his grief. She believes that he wants sympathy, and when she can only bring herself to compliment his shoes, she expects a look that conveys silent misery. Mr. Ramsay, however, smiles – it is almost as if he desires her sympathy, yet realizes that it is a vice he must, and can, live without. It is not a coincidence that, after Mrs. Ramsay’s death, we never again bear witness to Mr. Ramsay’s pathetic alphabet metaphor; he never again complains that a stone will outlast him.
Our final image of Mr. Ramsay only reiterates these optimistic conclusions. He jumps like a young man from the boat to the rocky island shores of the lighthouse, appearing wholly triumphant. It is one of his greatest successes, and one that he reached on his own – without Mrs. Ramsay, and without any support or sympathy. The only woman nearby, Lily, is on a faraway shore, miles away and unable to provide him with any aid.
Mr. Ramsay was once tormented by the loss of time, which promised to reduce him to nothingness. He could only find solace in the comforting beauty and sympathetic gaze of his wife, but when he lost her as well, he was forced to recognize his faults and take steps towards becoming more than a grieving, loss-obsessed man. Mr. Ramsay’s struggle sends a powerful message to readers: loss is an inevitable part of life, but dwelling on it is a fruitless undertaking. Like all obstacles, one must transcend loss in order to live a happy, satisfying life.
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