Societal Standards and the Impact of the Individual in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and The Waves
Virginia Woolf, one of the most innovative and important writers of her time, emphasizes modernist ideals and the importance of the individual in her work. In Virginia Woolf’s novels To the Lighthouse and The Waves, Woolf argues the idea that gender roles can be oppressive, often confining men to be tough and nearly emotionless while typecasting women as hysterics, expected to cater to men’s egos. Additionally, Woolf comments on the temporary nature of life, its frailty, and the idea that one may romanticize objects, events, or people in his or her past in order to give extraordinary meaning to his or her existence.
Much of both To the Lighthouse and The Waves comment on the societal expectations of men and women, specifically that society expects men to be consistently stolid while the expectations for women suggest that their emotions guide them, often causing them to make hasty or otherwise hysterical decisions; Woolf also comments on how society also places women in a position where their only true responsibility is to cater to men. In The Waves, Woolf depicts the headmaster of the boarding school that Neville, Luis, and Bernard attend as a stolid, harsh man. When he mounts the pulpit to preach from the Bible, he does so with a severity and seriousness that Louis appreciates; Louis’s “heart expands in his bulk, in his authority…There [was] no crudity [there]. No sudden kisses”, exemplifying a man’s inherent desire to be stern rather than gentle (Woolf 35). Luis prefers the authority of Dr. Crane and his crucifix to the crassness of the emotions attached to a sudden kiss, though emotions are generally more tender than they are crude while authority is often more crude than it is comforting. However, the authority appeals to Luis because he is attempting to suppress the more vulnerable emotions that the unexpected kiss brought upon him as he sees vulnerability as feminine and weak while the authority Dr. Crane exudes is masculine and powerful. In contrast, also in The Waves, Woolf notes that it is possible to be powerful and feminine, as Mrs. Lambert causes everything to become “luminous” and “wherever [Mrs. Lambert] goes, everything changes under her eyes”, highlighting the idea that power does not always have to be dark and intense to be effective (45). Mrs. Lambert is a strong, authoritative figure, but she does not come across as intimidating or otherwise domineering, exhibiting that it is possible to be feminine and powerful. When Mrs. Lambert walks past, she causes the women to stand a little straighter, exemplifying her effect on women and their perception of themselves; Standing taller coincides with one’s confidence, and the more confident one is, the more powerful he or she becomes. Mrs. Lambert essentially has the female students embrace their power all while being a source of light, rather than an aggressive force. Mrs. Lambert’s power exemplifies the idea that women can adapt to their gender role and bend the role so that it suits them in a way that can make them powerful rather than weak. This idea counters the notion presented in Chloe Taylor’s “Kristevan Themes in Virgina Woolf’s Novels”, which states that women are locked into gender roles that will ultimately lead to depression and resentment; Mrs. Lambert owns her feminine power in a way that makes her strong, not resentful (Taylor 6). However, in To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe breaks away from her gender role completely when she does not cater to Mr. Ramsay’s shattered ego after his collected demeanor fades, as she says that she is “not a woman, but a peevish, ill-tempered, dried-up old maid”, illuminating the notion that a woman is essentially useless if she does not cater to men (Woolf 151). However, Woolf challenges this idea by making Briscoe a creative, strong figure herself. Although she does not come about her power through force, her creativity and her certainty in herself makes her strong, exemplifying the idea that a woman can be powerful, all while remaining true to who she is.
Additionally, the power that each of Woolf’s characters possesses manifests through his or her personality, although the power each character has is diverse, especially between the two genders. In The Waves, Woolf describes Percival as intense, giving him his power. Luis notes that Percival has a remarkable command over others when he notices that he and his friends are “trooping after him, his faithful servants, to be shot like sheep, for he will certainly attempt some forlorn enterprise and die in battle. My heart turns rough; it abrades my side like a file with two edges: one, that I adore his magnificence; the other I despise his slovenly accents…and am jealous” (Woolf 37). Percival’s power is intense; though he does have weak points, these weaknesses do not overshadow his severity. Other characters are drawn to him because he has such a strong presence, but his strength sets a boundary between him and the others. While his intensity earns him respect, it also brings forth the other characters’ sense of inferiority, essentially placing Percival on a pedestal, but isolating him from his friends. Where Percival’s duty as an authoritative figure is to protect his friends in The Waves, Mrs. Ramsay feels that her duty is to protect men in To the Lighthouse, as she felt that:
she had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential; which an old woman could take from a young man without loss of dignity, and woe betide the girl who did not feel the worth of it, and all that it implied, to the marrow of her bones!
This quote exemplifies the mindset that it is a woman’s duty to take care of men as she views them as the leaders of the world; she also feels that they need protection by experiencing how they view and treat women (Woolf 11). Mrs. Ramsay caters to her husband’s every whim because she believes that she must do so as his wife and, in turn, Mr. Ramsay makes her feel like he needs her. Mrs. Ramsay embodies the idea that one can bring power from his or her gender role, even if it is a role that may be constraining. In Kristina Groover’s essay, “Body and Soul: Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse”, Groover addresses the idea that Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty is a source of comfort for Mr. Ramsay, as well as an asset that Mrs. Ramsay can derive power from (3). Because Mrs. Ramsay is so beautiful and is essentially the “perfect” housewife, Mr. Ramsay gains a source of stability, which not only gives him a certain sense of vulnerability because it proves that he needs someone to lean on and confide in, but also gives Mrs. Ramsay power. However, Mrs. Ramsay’s comforting presence presents itself as a source of conflict for Mr. Ramsay. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s children want to go to the lighthouse, although it seems rather impossible to Mr. Ramsay to get there, and in Mrs. Ramsay’s attempt to console her children, Mr. Ramsay experiences a bout of intense anger and pessimism: “she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out of the question, in effect, told lies. He stamped his foot on the stone step. ‘Damn you,’ he said. But what had she said? Simply that it might be fine tomorrow. So it might” (Woolf 31). Mr. Ramsay undergoes severe episodes of anger and depression throughout the novel and often states that his wife’s optimism is essentially just wishful thinking, based on nothing, providing false hope, and setting the children up for utter disappointment. Even though Mr. Ramsay finds comfort when Mrs. Ramsay reassures him of his masculinity, he views her attempts at optimism for the sake of the children to be foolish. He believes that she has her head in the clouds, while he is the only one who can maintain reality. Mr. Ramsay’s battle with himself and his outward denial of his wife’s attempts at owning her power to make life more bearable for herself and her children exemplify the idea that men may desire to be dominant, even if their dominance is bred out of pessimism, because they may feel that women act solely based on emotion rather than on reality.
Moreover, one’s power does is not the only determining factor in one’s importance as his or her effect on another individual provides an incredible sense of humanity. In To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe views herself as more of an independent, free young woman, who is not bound to a man. She rejected “the reverence which covered all women” and “felt herself praised”, exemplifying that while she does not fit the typical, submissive gender role that seeks validation from men, she still validates her state of being by choosing a path for her life, rather than defining her life based on a man (Woolf 35). Her independence affects her relationship with Mrs. Ramsay because, even though Mrs. Ramsay is content with her life, Lily Briscoe embodies the free spirit that resides within Mrs. Ramsay which never had the chance to break free. Briscoe essentially epitomizes the idea that one’s relationship to another person is dependent on how one views and carries him or herself; Mrs. Ramsay resents her at times because she is entirely her own person, while William Bankes reveres her for that. Additionally, in The Waves, Louis foreshadows that each character’s story will eventually become one, as every person’s story intertwines with the stories of those with whom he or she has ever interacted: “The time approaches when these soliloquies shall be shared. We shall not always give out a sound like a beaten gong as one sensation strikes and then another. Children, our lives have been gongs striking; clamour and boasting; cries of despair; blows on the nape of the neck in gardens” (Woolf 43). Through Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style of writing, she weaves the six characters’ influences and thoughts are interwoven into each character’s story. The characters’ relationships with one another prove that each person has a profound impact on another person’s life—that even their little idiosyncrasies leave an imprint on each person. What makes each of the characters who he or she is also influences the way the other characters develop. For example, they all admire Percival’s severity but no one wants to be as heavy-hearted as he is. The essay “Virginia Woolf” comments on the idea that all of Woolf’s characters glorify the people in their lives, leaving Percival’s death to haunt the characters in The Waves (10). When Percival dies at war, the characters reunite and speak about their past, placing a heavy emphasis that each of them had on one another, though that may not be true. The reader can infer that the characters are placing extraordinary meaning on one another’s influence because they are grieving over Percival’s death and that they never got the chance to thank him for his influence on their lives. Furthermore, Bernard recognizes that his friends are the ones who can “retrieve [him] from [his] darkness”, proving that each of the characters had a certain duty to understand his or her friends—that they had the ability to rescue one another from oneself (Woolf 120). Bernard’s introverted personality ostracizes him from his friends, although they were always able to reach him to an extent. While Bernard was always a private, somewhat secluded person, his relationship with his friends helps him tell his stories and combine each of their lives into one intricate, compelling story. His connection to his friends exemplifies the idea that one’s friends often pave the way to a lifetime at peace with oneself.
Further, the relationship that one has with another person can affect how he or she views him or herself. In Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay is a man of superb intellect, and yet he views himself so lowly, causing his self worth to “depend…upon other people’s praise”, exemplifying that Mr. Ramsay, as intelligent and masculine as he is supposed to be, needs constant reassurance (Woolf 22). Throughout the novel, Woolf depicts Mr. Ramsay as somewhat delicate. While he can maintain his household, he is falling apart inside and constantly looks to Mrs. Ramsay to lift his spirits, even though he does view the female mind as inferior. His view on a woman’s way of thinking interferes with his own mental state, as he views vulnerability as weak, though he is probably the most emotionally unstable and vulnerable character in the entire novel, thus proving that a man might prefer to reject his emotions to prove his dominance, even at the cost of his own sanity. Additionally, in The Waves, Woolf addresses the idea that one’s perception of oneself is a result of who he or she surrounds himself with. While Bernard reflects upon his friends’ lives, he notes that they are “a many-sided substance cut out of this dark; a many-faceted flower. Let us stop for a moment; let us behold what we have made. Let it blaze against the yew trees. One life. There. It is over. Gone out”, illuminating the idea that he and his friends may have gone down different paths in their own lives, but that in the end, they have ultimately lived one life (Woolf 85). He and his friends are one in the same. Even when Percival dies and Rhoda kills herself, it is as though they have all lost a part of themselves as well. The characters define themselves based on how the others see them. Even so, Bernard notes that they “were all different. The wax—the virginal wax that coats the spine melted in different patches for each of us”, highlighting that the narrators have seen things that have made them into who they are (Woolf Waves 102). Certain aspects of life that made each of the characters uncomfortable or upset—cruelty, secrecy, order, and love—and as they developed on their own, some of these things made them “suffer terribly as [they] all became separate bodies” (Woolf 102). They have had terrible experiences on their own, shaping them into the people they became, but their identity comes with a price—turmoil. Woolf’s novels focus heavily on what makes a person who he or she is because through struggle; Woolf’s characters also prove that it is possible to emerge from traumatic experiences stronger, even though it may leave a scar.
Even though an individual may have a profound impact on someone else, Woolf’s novels also demonstrate that life is ultimately frail and everything, essentially, is temporary; therefore, the characters in Woolf’s novels place a heavy emphasis on their surroundings to add extraordinary meaning to something that should not mean much at all. The essay “Virginia Woolf” states that Woolf’s emphasis on the childhoods of Mrs. Ramsay’s children heightens the idea that innocence quickly fades as time passes (11). Because of the temporariness of youth, Mrs. Ramsay looks at her children and states that “she would have liked to keep for ever just as they were, demons of wickedness, angels of delight, never to see them grow up into long-legged monsters” because she does not wish to see the effect that time and struggle will have on her children (Woolf Lighthouse 101). While Mrs. Ramsay’s children might have been loud and rambunctious, she would have rather had them stay frozen in a phase of life where nothing corrupting could touch them; where they were essentially immune to all the evil in the world. However, she knows that keeping them safe from the reality of the horror that exists in the world is impossible and that they will inevitably grow up and become just as corrupt as their surroundings are. Also, in To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay notes that her incredible evening is already in the past as she walks out of the kitchen: “It was necessary now to carry everything a step further. With her foot on the threshold she waited a moment longer in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked, and then, as she moved and took Minta’s arm and left the room, it changed, it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past” (Woolf 50). The night had consisted of a delicious meal, and she had felt like the perfect housewife for putting such a wonderful dinner together, but at the end of the meal, she realizes that it was only going to last for a brief second. Once the meal was over, her “perfect” evening was in the past, and nothing, she knows, will feel as wonderful as that perfect night did. Additionally, in The Waves, Bernard notes that he and his friends are only “shells, bones, and silence”, illuminating that each person is the same after death (Woolf 55). What one goes through does not matter when he or she is six feet under, nor does it matter what made the person unique. Time erases everything one may have attributed to him or herself eventually; Bernard recognizes this temporariness, and it scares him. He knows that he and his friends have woven together this fantastic story that will ultimately mean nothing after they all pass on and he is desperate to share the story while he has the chance. The story is the one chance he and his friends have at immortality as that is essentially what writing does—it documents one’s journey so that others may understand what it was like to be someone else. In Bernard’s case, immortalizing his friends’ stories in writing helps the reader understand what it was like to be a group of six people who have undergone incredible loss.
With the passage of time comes the years of harshness and disappointment that each of the characters undergoes. Neville is afraid to express his “violent passion” out of fear that Bernard will turn it into a story, thus stripping it of its sincerity (Woolf Waves 25). Neville recognizes that some of his feelings are absurdly profound, so much so that putting it into words diminishes its impact. He eventually lets these unexpressed feelings tear him apart inside because expressing such horrible thoughts or experiences would be detrimental to both the listener and to himself. Additionally, Susan notes that she “loves…and hates” intensely, sometimes simultaneously, making life one giant ball of turbulent emotions (Woolf 35). The intensity of the emotions that come and go in Susan’s and the rest of the characters’ lives make them somewhat solitary, even though they ultimately put together a poignant tale of happiness and woe. Each of the characters cowers from intense emotions, although the emotions ultimately make his or her stories intertwine and develop each of his or her understanding, as well as the reader’s understanding, of the surrounding world. Also, in To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe falls in love with Mrs. Ramsay’s way of life, despite the fact that she and Mrs. Ramsay have entirely different mindsets: “’I’m in love with this all,’ …It was absurd, it was impossible” (Woolf 35). Mrs. Ramsay’s life is so simplistic and appealing to Lily because it allows her to be at peace with herself. Lily believes that she is inadequate, but through Mrs. Ramsay’s simplistic life, she realizes that it allows oneself to be at peace with him or herself through self-discovery.
While all the characters are connected through their emotions, ultimately Woolf suggests that people are only ever truly equal in death. Bernard recognizes his detachment from his own individuality when he starts thinking about how death can approach him at any given moment and how he finds it incredible that people “insist on living”, despite everything (Woolf 55). One’s individuality is essentially meaningless in death and Bernard recognizes his own insignificance and he is dumbfounded as to why he continues to live, even if it does not mean he will amount to anything important. As Gillian Beer states in “Hume, Stephen, and Elegy in To the Lighthouse”, the absence of an important figure in one’s life can lead to one’s contemplation of his or her own life and his or her own insignificance, which Bernard does immediately after Percival dies in The Waves (5). Bernard also states that he is “aware of [his] ephemeral passage”, heightening the idea that he is detached from everyday reality but that he is aware that he is inevitably going to die (Woolf 53). Bernard connects everyday activities to avoiding the reality of death and recognizes that everyone fills his or her days up with meaningless activities in order to distract from the fact that everyone is going to pass away. Bernard is aware of these escapisms and avoids them to prove that he is aware of his own temporariness. When Jinny is watching people pass by, she states “’People are gone so soon; let us catch them’”, recognizing the transience of life (Woolf 103). When Percival dies, a part of each character dies with him. Each character obsesses over death after Percival passes, heightening the impact of the absence of an important figure, especially if one has not expressed everything he or she should have expressed to the person who passed away. Each character recognizes the insignificance of his or her life, which exemplifies the idea that life itself is frail and temporary, and that one’s time here is only as valuable as he or she believes it to be.
Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and The Waves comment on the way the world works. From feminist and modernist ideals to the temporariness and frailty of life itself, Woolf captures the essence of being a functioning human in the modern day, with all its beauty and struggles. One’s relationship to others and to himself or herself, as well as the stories he or she lives to tell gives extraordinary meaning to his or her life, even if he or she romanticizes that meaning, because life itself is temporary; how one treats and views his or her life is the only way to ensure meaning to parts of one’s life that mean nothing.
Beer, Gillian. “Hume, Stephen, and Elegy in To The Lighthouse.” Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. 75-94. Print.
Bruccoli, Matthew Joseph, Richard Layman, C. E. Frazer. Clark, Patrick Meanor, Janice McNabb, Janice McNabb, J. Randolph. Cox, George Grella, and Philip B. Dematteis. “Virginia Woolf.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1978. 294-306. Print.
Groover, Kristina K. “Body and Soul: Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.” Literary Reference Center. EBSCO, n.d. Web.
Taylor, Chloe. “Kristeven Themes in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.” Literary Reference Center. EBSCO, n.d. Web.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. The Waves. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1931. Print
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