What does the following quote from To the Lighthouse mean?
She asked him what his father's books were about. Subject and knowledge and the nature of reality, Andrew had said. And when she had said Heavens, she had no notion of what that meant. "Think of a kitchen table, then," he told her, "when you're not there."
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This quote concerns Lily Briscoe's attempt to understand the work of Mr. Ramsay, but when she asked Andrew, Mr. Ramsay's son, what his father's work was about, he had replied in this rather incomprehensible fashion. It is not actually clear whether Andrew's rather flippant response is serious or whether he is merely playing with Lily Briscoe by describing his father's work in such a way. However, as a metaphysician, it is clear that his work and his thinking focuses on important philosophical questions such as the nature of reality, particularly if objects cannot be seen or viewed by people. It harks back to the age old question of if there is a noise in the woods but nobody is there to hear it is it a noise at all? Andrew's advice therefore for Lily Briscoe to think of a kitchen table in her absence asks her to try and engage in this philosophical questioning. The impact, however, is that Lily Briscoe, by trying to understand Mr. Ramsay's work, actually allows it to impact her own way of seeing to her own detriment:
So now she always saw, when she thought of Mr. Ramsay's work, a scrubbed kitchen table. And with a painful effort of concentration, she focused her mind, not upon the silver-bossed bark of the tree, or upon its fish-shaped leaves, but upon a phantom table, one of those scrubbed board tables, grained and knotted, whose virtue seems to have been laid bear by years of muscular integrity, which stuck there, its four legs in the air.
Lily Briscoe therefore focuses her attention not on the beauty of nature around her, but on trying to see what is not actually there, so as to try and understand Mr. Ramsay's work. This could be viewed as her trying to change her perspective in order to fit into a patriarchal society, and it is important to note that towards the end of the book Lily abandons such ways of viewing, having accepted her own legitimate way of looking at the world. She no longer feels she has to "fit in" or to try to understand the work of those males around her. This quote then is important in what it shows about Lily's character and how she tries to conform at the beginning of the novel to a patriarchal world, changing her own perspective in the process.
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