To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf
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Can you please analyze the opening lines of To the Lighthouse from "to her son these words . . ." to ". . . him guide his scissors neatly round the refrigerator."

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It is interesting that this novel's very first line is actually a piece of dialogue from Mrs. Ramsay, the book's first named character:

"Yes, of course, if it's fine tomorrow," said Mrs Ramsay. "But you'll have to be up with the lark, she added."

The passage you have identified for analysis, then, begins with the phrase, "To her son . . ." At this juncture, we see a reversal of the trend commonly observed in English literature, where a woman is defined by her relationship to a man: James Ramsay, named later in this passage, is referred to only as "he" several times, while defined only by his relationship to Mrs. Ramsay, his mother. The positioning here leads the reader to question, from the beginning of the novel, what kind of dynamic exists between mother and son and if there is a reason the writer chooses to define James Ramsay in this fashion.

Indeed, the attributes described in the passage that follows seem to suggest that James Ramsay has an internal life that is opposed to the "image of stark and uncompromising severity" which his appearance presents to the world; James Ramsay is not the sort of boy his pragmatic father might prefer him to be but a dreamer, in whom the prospect of a longed-for "expedition" can bring forth an "extraordinary joy." This, combined with the fact that his mother's word is, to him, law—the expedition "bound to take place" given her statement—gives some indication of where James's loyalties lie within the household and where he, as a six-year-old child, observes the authority to be.

Whatever the "wonder" is to which James is looking forward, the narrator's tone suggests that, while it has not really been "years and years," it is something of great import to the child. Moreover, James's longings are not classified as being childish; rather, it is almost as if he is precocious in belonging "even at the age of six to that great clan" for whom "any turn in the wheel or sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom and radiance rests."

As if to illustrate the "transfix[ing]" of this moment, then, Woolf describes the scene in the kitchen in precise detail: "James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores . . ." The details of the room are mundane, and yet they are imbued with "heavenly bliss" for James. Woolf enumerates the elements of the scene: "the wheelbarrow, the lawnmower, the sound of poplar trees, leaves whitening before rain, rooks cawing, brooms knocking, dresses rustling." The cataloguing is so methodical as to seem, indeed, extremely precocious for a child of six, and yet the sense conveyed is of the scene being transfixed in Ramsay's mind, lending the reader an understanding of how it must be to belong to "that great clan." The child seems more than a child; the word "joy" appears again, not happiness, but something beyond it, approaching the sublime. James's "private code" and "secret language" enable him to understand the meaning of the seemingly insignificant detail in a way which is too cryptic for others to decode; the "human frailty" at which James seems to frown is that of those outside the group or "clan" who cannot understand.

Mr. Ramsay's bathetic comment in the following line—"But . . . it won't be fine"—somewhat punctures the grandiose effect of the opening scene, but already the nature of the young James Ramsay, as understood by his mother, has been vividly conveyed to the reader.

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