Virginia Woolf’s Femenism In To the Lighthouse

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

In the Victorian age, a glorious period in British history, marriage meant the husband was the dominator and bread earner of the family while the wife was supposed to support him and attend the family well. The Ramsay couple is the typical model of Victorian marriage. Both of them play the conventional roles of gender according to the criteria of the society. Mr. Ramsay is a respectable husband and intelligent scholar, enjoying a high reputation in the academic circle. Mrs. Ramsay is a submissive wife and tender mother who is pure, immensely charming, intensely sympathetic, and utterly unselfish, just like “Angle in the house”. (Woolf, 1973: 100-101)

At the very beginning of the story, Mrs. Ramsay is doing the knitting work which shows her traditional character and maternal instinct, unlike Lily who is interested in painting, Mrs. Ramsay is keen on domestic art. Actually, like knitting, Mrs. Ramsay always endeavors to unify her family and create a harmonious atmosphere for people around her. When her little son James Ramsay asks whether they could go to the lighthouse where he has been longing for, Mrs. Ramsay comforts him with “yes, of course, if it is fine tomorrow.” On the contrary, Mr. Ramsay, a realistic and rigid philosopher, never compromises on truth for others’ pleasure, saying abruptly, “but, it won’t be fine.” (Woolf, 1994: 3) Although Mrs. Ramsay is dissatisfied with her husband’s stiffness, she dares not to breathe a word of it to Mr. Ramsay and only turns to confirm James that they will go there soon. But the family does not make it to the lighthouse until the death of Mrs. Ramsay. This delay indicates that man has the authority over woman in the household and woman’s voice is neglected and suppressed by the men-centered world.

According to Simone de Beauvoir (1972: 267), an influential figure of feminism movements, it is social function defines women. “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Living under the patriarchy, Mrs. Ramsay believes that she must behave as an understanding woman so as to make men feel superior and proud. For instance, she takes an indifferent attitude to the masculine discussions because “being trained to be intellectually inferior has the desired effect on Mr. Ramsay. The stupider the wife appears to the husband, the more desirable she becomes.” (Marcus, 1981: 152) Without doubt, in Mrs. Ramsay’s mind, her husband is far more important than herself, “there was nobody whom she reverenced as she reverenced him.” (Woolf, 1994: 23) Her maximum admiration as well as obedient towards Mr. Ramsay, to a large extent, is the conventional virtues required for all Victorian women.

Furthermore, it is women’s duties to produce offspring and take care of the family because marriage is considered the most important thing for them in the Victorian age. Perhaps, this is the reason why Mrs. Ramsay is so enthusiastic about making matches. Indeed, she strongly believes that only by getting married can women achieve felicity. Thus, she keeps on persuading young people to get married. For example, she insists Lily should marry, saying that “an unmarried woman has missed the best of life.” (ibid. 36) Actually, Mrs. Ramsay’s unshakable faith in marriage precisely demonstrates the limitations of women at that time. Such short-sightedness can even lead to tragedy like the unhappy marital life between Paul and Minta whose marriage is arranged by Mrs. Ramsay.

When talking about women’s status in history, Virginia Woolf pointed out that “Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant.” (Woolf, 2001:36) To some degree, the portrait of Mrs. Ramsay is the best illustration of this statement. In the first part of the story, Mrs. Ramsay seems the focus among all the other characters. Mr. Banks is fascinated by her. Tansley is obsessed with her. Everyone admires her, “they came to her, naturally, since she was a woman, all day long with this and that; one wanting this, another that;” (Woolf, 1994:23) But deep in her heart, Mrs. Ramsay feels empty, “there was scarcely a shell of herself left for her to know herself by; all was so lavished and spent.” (ibid. 28) It can be inferred that Mrs. Ramsay is confused by her role as Mrs. Ramsay but she can only keeps silent about it. Throughout the novel, she is a representative of the tragic women and victims of the patriarchal society. She does not have the first name. What people know about her is her identity as Mrs. Ramsay. Her sudden death is only described with few sentences which are given in parenthesis as if they could be omitted. This cruel reality is exactly what women are confronted with. No matter how many sacrifices they make for the family and men, their low status in the men the centered world still render their life worthless in the end.

“By the 1890s there was an emphasis on self-fulfillment rather than self-sacrifice among women.”(Williams, 1984: 40) The transition from the 19th century to the 20th century witnessed a small group of women emerging from the fetter of men-controlling lives to strive for their equal rights. Among them, Lily was a representative. In contrast with Mrs. Ramsay as an ideal Victorian woman, Lily is a new modern female. She pities Mrs. Ramsay self-sacrificing life and confined horizon. In Lily’s opinion, marriage is like a yoke in which women’s personal development and professional achievements are hampered. Rejecting to meet the expectations of long-standing Victorian women’s role in the family, Lily chooses to lead a single and free life.

Apart from remaining unmarried, with rebellious consciousness in her mind, Lily also takes initiative actions against the old-fashioned relationships between men and women. Instead of being subordinate to men, she tries to develop an unprejudiced and pure friendship with the opposite sex. For example, she refuses to soothe Charles Tansley at the cost of her dignity. Meanwhile, she successfully forms a true friendship with Mr. Bankes who treats her without discrimination.

Obviously, Lily has suffocated the “angel in the house”. But Virginia Woolf suggests that if women want to have their own values, in addition, to kill the angel in the house, they have to tell the truth about their own experiences as a body. (Woolf, 1979:62) As an awakening woman with feminine consciousness, Lily takes painting as a life career to tell the truth inside herself. Nonetheless, her pursuit of art is incompatible with men-dominating values because art is exclusive to males. Under such circumstances, the process for Lily to realize her values is full of obstacles. Frequently, she is haunted by the voice of Charles Tansley, “Women can’t write women can’t paint”, (Woolf, 1994: 35) which distracts her from her works. Despite such distain, she also suffers from the annoying interruptions of Mr. Ramsay who often dampens her enthusiasm. Gradually, the pressure from patriarchy shakes her confidence. Lily hesitates to show her inner thought on her canvas, “she kept a feeler on her surroundings lest someone should creep up, and suddenly she should find her picture looked at.” (ibid. 13) In some senses, Lily’s quandary implies the path to women’s liberation is arduous since the biased attitudes towards women have been deeply embedded in society.

However, Lily never yields to the growing pressure easily. As a progressive female, she perseveres in fighting against the patriarchy and seeking for self-recognition. After the death of Mrs. Ramsay, she is inspired to tell the truth through painting. Summoning up the courage to make the last brush on the canvas, she eventually completes the portrait and expresses her own values as a body. Compared with the self-sacrificing life of Mrs. Ramsay, Lily’s success in self-fulfillment indicates that new women will replace the conventional Victorian women and equal society will triumph over the patriarchal society.

In terms of androgyny, Virginia Woolf (2001: 84) claims that, “The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two (male and female) live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating.” According to her, androgyny is a perfect integration of males and females. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf tries to establish such unification and create a world with androgynous consciousness.

Before the death of Mrs. Ramsay, Lily is confused about the image of her, thereby finding it hard to finish the portrait of Mrs. Ramsay. On one hand, she disagrees with Mrs. Ramsay’s deference to her husband. On the other hand, she respects her as a caring and considerate mother. Her ambivalence about Mrs. Ramsay hinders her from completing her painting. In order to see through Mrs. Ramsay, a decade later, Lily returns to Mr. Ramsay’s house and reminisces about the days when Mrs. Ramsay is alive. Sitting in front of her canvas, Lily begins to contemplate Mrs. Ramsay’s images from women’s perspectives. The mysterious side of Mrs. Ramsay comes to her mind and she finally understands her greatness. Facing the patriarchal society, Mrs. Ramsay never complains about any unfairness but puts more effort in bringing peace and love to others. With her kindness and generosity, Mrs. Ramsay artfully erases the mess and disorder of life. For instance, she always carefully makes her home as a comfortable and warm shelter for her families and other guests. In addition, she helps to improve the situation of disadvantaged groups and smooth away people’s distress. Viewing the whole picture of Mrs. Ramsay, Lily learns the importance of harmony which is what Mrs. Ramsay pursues during her lifetime.

Consequently, when Mr. Ramsay turns to Lily for sympathy, instead of refusing him directly, she said, “Ah, but what beautiful boots you wear!” (Woolf, 1994: 115) Although it is just simple praise, Mr. Ramsay is surprised and delighted at the change of Lily who begins to give her solace to men. Both of them are relieved and satisfied. In this way, the two sexes achieve harmony.

Similarly, Mr. Ramsay gradually understands his wife and casts off his patriarchal thoughts. Before The Ramsay’s family arrives at the lighthouse, James loathes his father and is hostile to him. “He had always kept this old symbol of taking a knife and striking his father to the heart.”(ibid. 137) For Cam, she thinks “they must fight tyranny to the death.” (ibid. 126) But the tyrant image of Mr. Ramsay is at last removed from his children’s heart. During the journey to the lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay unprecedentedly pays James a compliment which is entirely unexpected in James’ eyes. Being praised by his father for his performance in steering, James is in ecstasy and Cam is also glad for him. No longer being a demanding dictator, Mr. Ramsay finally identifies with Mrs. Ramsay and fosters harmonious relationship with his children like her. In this sense, Mr. Ramsay succeeds in blending with Mrs. Ramsay to become wholeness.

Seeing the unification of The Ramsey’s family and their landing on the lighthouse, Lily draws a line in the middle of her canvas and finishes her painting. Likewise, the achievement of Lily’s vision is the accomplishment of Woolf’s androgyny. All in all, the visit to the lighthouse is the trip to androgyny, and what the lighthouse sheds are harmonious light.

Aston (1998: 107) made comments on Virginia Woolf’s works, saying:

In her writing, Woolf makes a sifting appraisal of women’s problems, their peculiar dilemmas, and conditioning in the traditional Victorian society… Woolf was the most vociferous and vehement on feminist issues such as subjectivity, class, sexuality and culture.

Undoubtedly, Woof’s feminine thoughts, be it obscure or be it radical, have profound insights which are well worth studying. Through the analysis of To the Lighthouse from the perspective of feminism, this paper demonstrates that only by balancing masculinity and femininity to reach androgyny, can women free themselves from the patriarchal society and realise self-fulfillment. In that case, a harmonious world, which Woolf advocated, is no longer an illusion but a better place. The essence of To the Lighthouse is harmony. Instead of being antagonistic towards each other, women and men should live in peace to achieve integrity, which is indeed the real perception of Woolf’s feminism.


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