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To the Lighthouse.

Type of work: Novel

Author: Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of plot: c. 1910-1920

Locale: The Isle of Skye in the Hebrides

First published: 1927

This major psychological novel, based in part on the author's own family background, is significant for its impressionistic evocation of setting and character; its effective use of stream-of-consciousness technique; its complex, unified structure; and its advancement of Woolf's theory of androgynous personality.

Principal Characters

Mr. Ramsay, a professor of philosophy, a metaphysician of high order, an author, and the father of eight. Not really first-rate, as he realized by the time he was sixty, he knew also that his mind was still agile, his ability to abstract strong. Loved by his wife, he is nonetheless offered sympathy and consolation for the things he is not. Lithe, trim, the very prototype of the philosopher, he attracts many people to him and uses their feelings to buoy him in his weaknesses. Not truly a father, his gift for the ironic and sardonic arouses fear and hatred rather than respect among his children. Broken by his wife's and oldest son's deaths, he continues to endure and sharpen his mind on the fine whetstone of wit.

Mrs. Ramsay, a beautiful woman even in her aging; she is warm, compassionate, and devoted to the oldfashioned virtues of hearth, husband, and children. With an aura of graciousness and goodness about her, ineffable but pervasive, Mrs. Ramsay gathers about her guests, students, friends, and family at their summer home on the Isle of Skye. Loving and tender to her children, polite and pleasant to her guests, she impresses upon them all the sanctity of life and marriage, the elemental virtues. Mrs. Ramsay's love and reverence of life have its effect on all her guests, even an atheistic student of her husband and an aloof poet, but especially on Lily Briscoe whose self-revelation at the end of the novel is due in part to Mrs. Ramsay's influence.

James, the Ramsay's youngest son and his mother's favorite, though the child most criticized by the professor because the boy robs him of sympathy that he desperately needs. Sensitive and austere, James at six and sixteen suffers most the loss of his mother, taken from him at first by a calculating father's demands and later by her death. He and his sister Camilla make a pact of war against their father's tyranny of demands and oversights. Finally, on a trip to the lighthouse, the symbol of what had been denied him by his father, Mr. Ramsay praises his son's seamanship.

Prue, who dies in childbirth, Andrew, killed in World War I, Nancy, Roger, Rose, Jasper, and Camilla, called Cam, the other children of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. All the children resent their father and his dominance. Mrs. Ramsay regrets that they must grow up and lose the sensitivity and imagination that will come with adulthood.

Lily Briscoe, an artist and friend of the family who more than any other loved and cared for the weeks spent with the Ramsays in the Hebrides. Desperately in need of assurance, Lily has withheld love and affection from others until the summer she spends at the Ramsay cottage where she observes life with its fixed center and raw edges. Completely won over by Mrs. Ramsay, Lily almost gets her chance at life, and had the war not interfered, she might have married. She is not really a great artist, but during a visit to the Ramsay home after the war she experiences a moment of fulfilled vision, a feeling of devotion to the oldest cause, of a sense of oneness with all time, of sympathy for the human condition, and she is able to express this fleeting moment in a painting she had begun before Mrs. Ramsay's death.

Augustus Carmichael, a minor poet with one major success, a hanger-on, the only one who does not at first love his hostess but who finally discovers her genius years after her death. Laughed at by all the Ramsay children because of his yellow-tinted beard, the result of taking opium, as they imagine, he soaks up love and life without himself giving anything. His late fame as a poet is a surprise to all who know him.

Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley, two handsome guests who become engaged through Mrs. Ramsay's quiet management. Minta is like the young Mrs. Ramsay and sends out an aura of love and passion, while Paul, with his good looks and careful dress, is a foil for all affections and strong feelings. But the marriage turns out badly; Minta leads her own life and Paul takes a mistress. No longer lovers, they can afford to be friends.

William Bankes, a botanist, the oldest friend of Professor Ramsay. An aging widower, he first comes to visit with the Ramsays out of a sense of duty, but he stays on enraptured with life. The object of Lily Briscoe's undisguised affections, he appears to Mrs. Ramsay almost willing to become domesticated in spite of his eccentricities and set ways. Nothing comes of this relationship except a broadening of Lily's views on life.

Charles Tansley, Mr. Ramsay's protege, a boorish young man who eventually is won over to the warmth and love of Mrs. Ramsy. It is his opinionated conviction that women cannot paint or write. Interested in abstract thought, he makes his career in scholarship.

Mrs. McNab, the old charwoman who acts as caretaker of the Ramsay house in the Hebrides during the ten years it stands empty.

Mrs. Bast, the cottager who helps Mrs. McNab get the house ready for the return of the Ramsay family.

George Bast, her son, who catches the rats and cuts the grass surrounding the Ramsay house.

Macalister, the aged Scottish boatman who takes Mr. Ramsay, Cam, and James on an expedition to the lighthouse. He tells the voyagers tales of winter, storm, and death.

The Story

Mrs. Ramsay promised James, her six-year-old son, that if the next day were fair he would be taken on a visit to the lighthouse they could see from the window of their summer home on the Isle of Skye. James, the youngest of Mrs. Ramsay's eight children, was his mother's favorite. The father of the family was a professor of philosophy whose students often thought he was inspiring and one of the foremost metaphysicians of the early twentieth century; but his own children, particularly the youngest, did not like him because he made sarcastic remarks.

Several guests were visiting the Ramsays at the time. There was young Mr. Tansley, Ramsay's student, who was also unpopular with the children because he seemed to delight in their discomfiture. Tansley was mildly in love with his hostess, despite her fifty years and her eight children. There was Lily Bricoe, who was painting a picture of the cottage with Mrs. Ramsay and little James seated in front of it. There was old Mr. Carmichael, a ne'er-do-well who amused the Ramsay youngsters because he had a white beard and a mustache tinged with yellow. There was also William Bankes, an aging widower, and Prue, the prettiest of the Ramsay daughters.

The afternoon went by slowly. Mrs. Ramsay went to the village to call on a sick woman. She spent several hours knitting stockings for the lighthouse keeper's child, whom they were planning to visit. Many people wondered how the Ramsays, particularly the wife, managed to be as hospitable and charitable as they were, for they were not rich; Mr. Ramsay could not possibly make a fortune by expounding Locke, Berkeley, and Hume to students or by publishing books on metaphysics.

Mr. Carmichael, pretending to read, had actually fallen asleep early after lunch. The children, except for James, who was busy cutting pictures out of a catalogue, had busied themselves in a game of cricket. Mr. Ramsay and Mr. Tansley had passed the time in a pointless conversation. Miss Briscoe had only made a daub or two of paint on her canvas. For some reason, the lines of the scene refused to come clear in her painting. She then went for a walk with Mr. Bankes along the shore.

Even the dinner went by slowly. The only occasion of interest to the children, which was one of tension to their mother, came when Mr. Carmichael asked the maid for a second bowl of soup, thereby angering his host, who liked to have meals dispatched promptly. As soon as the children had finished, their mother sent the younger ones to bed. Mrs. Ramsay hoped that mr. Bankes would marry Lily Briscoe. She also thought how Lily always became seasick, so it was questionable whether she would want to accompany them in the small sailboat if they should go to the lighthouse the following day. Then she thought about the fifty pounds needed to make some necessary repairs on the house.

After dinner, Mrs. Ramsay went upstairs to the nursery. James had a boar's skull that his sister detested. Whenever Camilla tried to remove it from the wall and her sight, he burst into a frenzy of screaming. Mrs. Ramsay wrapped the boar's skull in her shawl. Afterward, she went downstairs and joined her husband in the library, where they sat throughout the evening. Mrs. Ramsay knitted, while Mr. Ramsay read. Before they went to bed, it was agreed that the trip for the next day would have to be canceled. The night had turned stormy.

Night followed night. The trip to the lighthouse was never made that summer, and the Ramsays did not return to their summer home for some years. In the meantime, Mrs. Ramsay died quietly in her sleep. By now, her daughter Prue had been married and died in childbirth. World War I began, and Andrew Ramsay enlisted and was sent to France, where he was killed by an exploding shell.

Time passed. The wallpaper in the house came loose from the walls. Books mildewed. In the kitchen, a cup was occasionally knocked down and broken by old Mrs. McNab, who came to look after the house from time to time. In the garden, the roses and the annual flowers grew wild or died.

Mr. Carmichael published a volume of poems during the war. About the same time his book appeared, daffodils and violets bloomed on the Isle of Skye. Mrs. McNab looked longingly at a warm cloak left in a closet. She wished the cloak belonged to her.

At last the war ended. Mrs. McNab recieved a telegram requesting that the house be put in order. For several days, the housekeeper worked, aided by two cleaning women. When the Ramsays arrived, the cottage was in order once more. Several visitors came again to share a summer at the cottage. Lily Briscoe returned for a quiet vacation. Mr. Carmichael, the succesful poet, also arrived.

One morning, Lily Briscoe came down to breakfast and wondered at the quiet that greeted her. No one had been down ahead of her, although she had expected that Mr. Ramsay and the two youngest children, James and Camilla, would have eaten early and departed for the long-postponed sail to the lighthouse, to which the youngsters had not been looking forward with joyful anticipation. Very shortly, the three straggled down; all had slept past the time they had intended to arise. After a swift breakfast, they disappeared toward the shore. Lily Briscoe watched them go. She had set up her canvas with the intention of once again trying to paint her picture of the cottage.

The journey to the island where the lighthouse stood was not very pleasant, as the children had expected. They had never really liked their father; he had taken too little time to understand them. He was short and sharp when they did things that seemed foolish to him, although these actions were perfectly comprehensible to his son and daughter. James, especially, expected to be blamed caustically and pointlessly if the crossing were slow or not satisfactory in some other way, for he had been delegated to handle the sheets and the tiller of the boat.

Mr. Ramsay strode down to the beach with his offspring, each carrying a paper parcel to take to the keepers of the lighthouse. They soon set sail and pointed the prow of the sailboat toward the black and white striped pillar of the lighthouse in the hazy distance. Mr. Ramsay sat in the middle of the boat, along with an old fisherman and his son. They were to take over the boat in case of an emergency, for Mr. Ramsay had little trust in James as a reliable seaman. James himself sat in the stern, nerves tingling lest his father look up from his book and indulge in unnecessary and hateful criticism. His nervous tension, however, was needless, for within a few hours the little party reached the lighthouse, and Mr. Ramsay sprang ashore like a youngster, smiled back at his children, and praised his son for his seamanship.

Critical Evaluation

Because of its unity of theme and technique, To the Lighthouse is probably Virginia Woolf's most satisfying novel. In theme, it is her most direct fictional statement about the importance of an androgynous artistic vision: that ideal which is neither masculine nor feminine but partakes of both. The book was almost contemporaneous with her important essay on women and fiction, A Room of One's Own, and Orlando, her androgynous fictional biography. In A Room of One's Own, she appeals for androgynous creation, arguing that it is fatal for a writer to emphasize gender. For Woolf, the mind that blends female and male themes "is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided." Many of her protagonists and most of the artists in her novels have both traditional masculine and feminine characteristics: Bernard in The Waves, Eleanor in The Years, Miss La Trobe in Between the Acts, and Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse. Each of these characters has an androgynous consciousness, even as Orlando completes the physical change from male to female.

To the Lighthouse clearly shows the deficiencies of the purely masculine (Mr. Ramsay) and the purely feminine (Mrs. Ramsay) Personalities, and, as well, holds up the androgynous vision as a way of unifying the two--in the person of Lily Briscoe, the artist. Mr. Ramsay, a philosopher, has those qualities associated with the empirical view, while Mrs. Ramsay employs a mythopoetic vision. Mr. Ramsay is concerned with the discovery of truth, and his mind functions in a logical, reasoned fashion, moving, as he says, from A to Z, step-by-step. He worries that he has only so far reached Q. Mrs. Ramsay cares about details, about people's feelings, about her relationship with her husband and children; and her mind jumps and skips with the association of ideas--she can move from A to Z in one leap.

Mr. Ramsay is deficient in the attention he gives to his children and his wife, in concern for financial details, in awareness of social and international situations. His character is satirized by Lily, who always pictures him as seeing the whole of reality in a phantom kitchen table (the table is a traditional object for philosophic speculation). Mrs. Ramsay is lacking as well: she attempts to direct and fashion people's lives (she engineers the engagement of Minta and Paul and tries to match Lily Briscoe and William Bankes); she does not want her children to grow up; she cannot understand mathematics or history; she too often relies on men and their "masculine intelligence." The dinner scene shows Mrs. Ramsay's main strengths and weaknesses. She orchestrates the whole, directs the conversation, worries about the Boeuf en Daube, thinks about the lateness of the hour, makes sure all the guests are involved. Nevertheless, she lets her mind wander, looking ahead to the next details. She is the unifier in the first part of the book, but she fails because her vision is too limited; the trip to the lighthouse is not made, and she dies before the Ramsays can return to the island.

Lily Briscoe and her art become the true unifier of the story's disparate elements. During the dinner party, as she remembers Charles Tansley's dictum that "Women can't write, women can't paint," she suddenly envisions the way to give her picture coherence, and she moves the saltcellar to remind herself. Her painting, however, remains incomplete, and, like the trip to the lighthouse, is not accomplished until many years later. Lily, an unmarried professional, embodies both rational (masculine) and imaginative (feminine) characteristics. She analyzes art with William Bankes and still feels emotionally attuned with Mrs. Ramsay. Lily becomes the central figure in the final section; her visions of Mrs. Ramsay and of Mr. Ramsay and the children finally landing at the lighthouse enable her to complete her work, uniting the rational and the imaginative into the androgynous whole which the painting symbolizes.

The novel's structure is thematically as well as technically brilliant. The work has three parts: the first, entitled "The Window" takes place about 1910, the last, entitled "The Lighthouse," about 1920. The middle section is entitled "Time Passes" and narrates the intervening time period. The window in the first section functions as a symbol of the female principle, as the narrator returns again and again to Mrs. Ramsay in her place near the open window. Mrs. Ramsay is the center and unifier of the family, and even as different characters participate in various activities, their thoughts and glances return to Mrs. Ramsay. The reddish-brown stocking she is knitting is another emblem of her unifying power; but, like the trip to the lighthouse and Lily's painting, it is not completed in the first section. The thoughts of different characters are narrated by means of interior monologue, and Woolf makes skillful use of the theory of association of ideas. Mrs. Ramsay's mind is most often viewed, however, and she is the most realistic of the characters.

Early in the novel, the lighthouse, in its faraway lightgiving aspects, functions as a female symbol. Mrs. Ramsay identifies herself with that lighthouse: "she was stern, she was searching, she was beautiful like that light." In the last section, however, the lighthouse becomes a masculine principle; when seen from nearby it is a "tower, stark and straight ... barred with black and white." Nevertheless, the male and female aspects become joined in that section as well; James thinks, "For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too." James and Camilla, therefore, come to understand their father as well as their dead mother. The line that Lily Briscoe draws in the center of her picture--perhaps her image of the lighthouse--enables her to complete her painting, uniting the masculine and the feminine.

The center section, "Time Passes," is narrated from the viewpoint of the house itself, as the wind over the years peels wallpaper; rusts pots; brings mildew, dust, spider webs, and rats. Important events in the lives of the Ramsays are inserted prosaically into this poetic interlude by means of square brackets.

To the Lighthouse is a difficult work, but each successive reading brings new insights into Woolf's techniques and themes.
COPYRIGHT 1989 COPYRIGHT 1989 Frank N. Magill
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Masterpieces of World Literature
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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