Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf is one of the leading modernist literary figures of the twentieth century. Although she is generally considered as a feminist, Woolf herself disapprove of the term as she felt it suggested as an obsession with women and women’s’ concerns. She prefers to be referred to as a humanist instead. Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society and a member of the Bloomsbury Group between the two world wars.

Her inspiration for writing To The Lighthouse (1927) may be linked to her childhood recollections. According to her memoirs as mentioned by Marsh (1998), Woolf’s most colorful childhood memories were of St Ives in Cornwall, where the family spent every summer until 1895. Marsh describes that Woolf’s family stayed in their home called the Talland House, which looked out over the Porthminster Bay. Memories of the family holidays and impressions of the landscape, especially the Godrevy Lighthouse, drove her in writing this novel. It is believed that she also based the summer home in Scotland after the Talland House and the Ramsay family after her own family.

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To the Lighthouse (1927) is laid down on two days ten years apart. The plot focuses around the Ramsay family’s anticipation of and reflection upon a holiday visit to a lighthouse and the ensuing resolution of familial tensions. One of the most important themes of the novel is the struggle in the creative process that beset painter Lily Briscoe while she made a great effort to put the family drama in a nutshell. Aside from this, the novel is likewise a reflection upon the lives of a nation’s inhabitants in the midst of war, of the people left behind.

To the Lighthouse pursues and continues the tradition of modernist novelists such as Marcel Proust and James Joyce, where the plot becomes secondary only to philosophical introspection while the prose can be indirect and difficult to follow. The novel contains not much dialogue and almost no action which was mostly written as thoughts and observations of the major characters. Foremost among these characters is Lily Briscoe, whose observations on the Ramsay family form the backbone of the book.

Lee (Introduction to “To the Lighthouse), illustrates that the novel brings to mind the power of childhood emotions and highlights the temporary characters of adult relationships.

Through her representation of Lily Briscoe in To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf looks forward to the major premises of feminist epistemology. Lily’s departure from the “Angel of the House” demonstrates her “reclamation of the body” and her rejection of the Cartesian concept of the separation of mind and body. Instead of being submissive to a husband, Lily reveals a move towards a more independent woman because she remains unmarried and strives to make her own living as an artist, rather than clean the house and raise the children which is said to be typical of women during that period. As an artist, Lily’s job is to communicate her emotions through her paintings, which would automatically stray from the Descartes version of epistemology.

In the essay, Virginia Woolf (1927) wrote “examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad of impressions-trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel”. Woolf’s character Lily Briscoe struggles with the myriad and momentary nature of reality throughout Woolf s fifth novel, To the Lighthouse. Lily actually shares the novel’s ‘strange obsession with solutions’.

The novel ends with the neutral voice of Lily Briscoe who is a guest at the beginning of the novel, she returns after the long hiatus during which Mrs. Ramsay and two of the children have died. While watching the sailboat finally make its journey to the lighthouse, she works on a painting that troubled her years past. She has been incapable to achieve a balance between the two sides of the picture. The novel ends 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.”

Lily Briscoe is the character with whom Virginia Woolf most closely identifies. Early in To the Lighthouse, Lily is distraught with her work:

She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in the 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.

Lily’s despair speaks of any artist’s difficulty with capturing truth or reality as the artist perceives it, a concern that obsessed Woolf as well. It’s not clear if the line uniting the two sides of the painting in Lily’s final vision is horizontal or vertical, like the lighthouse and like Woolf’s suspect formidable. Lily’s vision mirrors Woolf’s vision of the ideal voice, wherein masculine and feminine attributes coalesce. Thankfully, Virginia Woolf’s voice continues to reverberate through time.

With the passage of time, with the transformation of Charles Tansley and of Lily Briscoe, we also realize how time, historical events, the vast sweep of personal and public historical events also calls for us to change and reconsider our intellectual concepts, the way we look at reasoning and morality.

Looking at the other lead character, Mrs. Ramsay’s character completely trusts men to provide a so-called ‘heaven of security’, to ‘upholding the world’, to a certain degree that she can even ‘shut her eyes’. The sight and the eyes may signify the attainment of knowledge and understanding. Through the image of “shut eyes,” Woolf metaphorically highlights Mrs. Ramsay’s helplessness to think and know as men do and her dependence on them.

Yet, we shall learn at the course of the novel that Mrs. Ramsay silently thinks, she dozes, and she muses. Mrs. Ramsay, a personification of women’s way of thinking, understands that men’s way of thinking runs counter to women’s very being. Though they adore her, men do not listen to Mrs. Ramsay; they do not take her ideas and judgments seriously; they are not concerned about her unique way of reasoning or about her picture of the world.

As we read To the Lighthouse, we identify the two ways of thinking about and relating to the world, others, and ourselves. We take Mrs. Ramsay’s perspective and become part of the world that she resides in. We experience the loss and desperation of Mr. Ramsay after the death of Mrs. Ramsay. We may wonder whether his loss was the loss of Mrs. Ramsay or not having everything in its place, not having someone to take care of his mundane world, and not having the comfort of the ordinary. Mr. Ramsay never searches to know the other world and way of life that Mrs. Ramsay personified. Mr. Ramsay never questions whether at times he too should enter into this other way of knowing and thinking.

While they set sail for the lighthouse, Lily attempts to complete her long-unfinished portrait of Mrs. Ramsay. She reconsiders Mrs. Ramsay’s memory, grateful for her help in pushing Lily to continue with her art, yet at the same time struggling to free herself from the tacit control Mrs. Ramsay had over other aspects of her life. Upon finishing the painting and seeing that it satisfies her, she realizes that the execution of her vision is more important to her than the idea of leaving some sort of legacy in her work – a lesson Mr. Ramsay has yet to learn. Lily utters aloud to the poet Carmichael, “It is finished,” which gave the novel it worthy ending.