Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1330
Mrs. Ramsay: main character, mother of eight children
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James: six-year-old son of the Ramsays
Mr. Ramsay: husband of the main character; a professor
Charles Tansley: student and protégé of Mr. Ramsay
Augustus Carmichael: philosopher-poet; house guest of the Ramsays
Mrs. Ramsay sits with her six-year-old son James, who is cutting pictures from an army and navy stores catalogue. They are in the drawing room (living room) of their summer residence, a large, somewhat dilapidated house next to the sea on an island in the Hebrides (off the coast of Scotland).
The novel opens with Mrs. Ramsay’s promise that they will sail to the Lighthouse the next day, if the weather is fine. Immediately after this exciting promise, Mr. Ramsay announces from just outside their window that “it won’t be fine.” James is crushed.
Charles Tansley, who is accompanying Mr. Ramsay on one of his frequent “walks”, chimes in with his opinion that the wind is in the west, the worst possible direction for landing at the Lighthouse. Though exasperated with Tansley, Mrs. Ramsay reflects upon the incivility of her children’s mockery of the “uptight” scholar. She muses that she has the whole of the other sex under her protection as she admires their accomplishments, and she values their chivalrous attentions to her. Recognizing Tansley’s awkwardness, she impulsively asks if he would like to accompany her on an errand. As the two set off, she asks Mr. Carmichael, who is seated on the lawn, if he needs anything in town.
Mrs. Ramsay shares with Tansley the belief that Carmichael should have been a great philosopher if it were not for an “unfortunate marriage.” Charles begins to feel important because of
Mrs. Ramsay’s confidential manner. He experiences a strange excitement and imagines himself capable of great things, “even a professorship.”
As the two walk on, they see an advertisement for a circus. Mrs. Ramsay exclaims delightedly that they all should go. As she senses his discomfort, she asks him to speak of his background and she realizes that ordinary childhood pleasures were not part of his early life. Her sympathies are further aroused.
When they reach the quay, Mrs. Ramsay exclaims about the beauty of the sand dunes and the bay. They observe an artist in a Panama hat and yellow boots, absorbed in his painting. She reflects that, since a well-known artist had painted the area three years before, everyone was using the green and greys and soft lemons. Charles, now caught up in Mrs. Ramsay’s magnetism, tries to see what she sees. He senses the contrast of his intellectual preoccupations with her aesthetic sensibilities and acute perception.
Tansley waits for his hostess as she visits a sick woman in the village. He absorbs the atmosphere of the poor woman’s house and is attentive to Mrs. Ramsay’s ministrations. He is overcome by her presence and her beauty, though “she was fifty at least” and had eight children. As they walk home, he experiences for the first time in his life an “extraordinary pride” in walking with a beautiful woman.
The opening paragraphs of To the Lighthouse immediately establish the tension and the thematic elements of the novel.
Mrs. Ramsay’s lilting response to her six-year-old’s wish to visit the Lighthouse (“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added) is quickly superseded by her husband’s intrusive reaction (“But, it won’t be fine.”).
The tension of this exchange foreshadows the novel’s preoccupation with uncertainties, the future, how “things will turn out.” The Lighthouse, in the midst of a perpetually changing sea, is a solid, if elusive, goal. The contrast in the parents’ response to their son (she, enthusiastic and sensitive; he, careful and scientific) is a larger tension which operates throughout the book as a motif. (Which perspective, the personal or the scientific, represents “truth” or meaning?)
James, in the space of two minutes, undergoes feelings of sublime joy and feelings of overwhelming rage, to the point of imagining killing his father with an ax or a poker. Woolf’s unique contribution is to lay bare the emotional intensity of the inner life of her characters:
…he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that… to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallize and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests…
Woolf is able to crystallize these moments in her writing and illuminate the “wheel of sensation” as her characters move through their lives. For her, the plot does not center on action, but what happens inside her characters’ heads.
The writer’s ability to convey the essence of personality becomes apparent as we meet the secondary characters. Charles Tansley’s “bony fingers,” his physical “humps and hollows”, his “parched, stiff words,” as well as his “fidgeting, feeling himself out of things” create more than a visual picture: his view of himself and the world become physically palpable. Augustus Carmichael with “yellow cat’s eyes ajar...(to give) no inkling of any inner thoughts or emotion whatsoever” and “sunk...in a grey-green somnolence which embraced them all, without need of words, in a vast and benevolent lethargy of well-wishing” is not only seen, but felt. Critics remark on Woolf’s power to create these intense, “sensate” images.
Mrs. Ramsay becomes a vehicle for Woolf to develop her literary perspective. Her perceptive and largely benevolent musings about the other characters, parallels Woolf’s view of the world: the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Mrs. Ramsay (and Woolf) see the world as a kaleidoscope, constantly presenting alternative suggestions. Mr. Ramsay, on the other hand, prefers to make definitive judgments: “facts” were “uncompromising.”
During the trip to the fishing village, Woolf further explores Mrs. Ramsay’s highly tuned sensitivities and great personal magnetism. She (holds) “her black parasol very erect and (moves) with an indescribable air of expectation, as if she were going to meet someone round the corner.” Mrs. Ramsay soothes Tansley’s wounded ego and empathizes with a one-armed worker. She enthuses over the expectation of a circus; she changes continually her judgments of Tansley. She rhapsodizes over the beauty of the scenery and the color choices of an artist. She cheerfully ministers to a sick woman; and she engages the admiring glances of a ditchdigger. Woolf engages the reader through her minute-to-minute representations of Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts and feelings, until an intimate portrait emerges of an extraordinary woman.
The immediacy and intensity of Mrs. Ramsay’s experience of the world echoes Woolf’s writing style. Her goal is not to tell us everything about her characters or everything about what happens to them, but to re-create the fabric of their experience through, as she says “a myriad of impressions.” The impact of her writing is closer to the intensity of poetry, than that of traditional narration. Musings are associational, not sequential, following the character’s non-linear thought mechanisms. This “expressionist” form of writing may have been influenced by the work of William James, a distinguished psychological theorist who described the rapid movement of the mind as the “stream of consciousness.”
Thus, this first chapter not only sets up the theme and tensions in the story, it introduces us to a very particular writing style. Mrs. Ramsay, the pivotal figure, personifies Woolf’s novelistic style: keenly observant, reflective and sensitive, and capable of capturing the essence of a person or a natural setting in a highly evocative way. The underlying struggle between Mrs. Ramsay’s highly intuitive responses and her husband’s more carefully calculated, logically “correct” observations foreshadow the psychological struggle at the center of the novel: the strange admixture of emotional and intellectual and moral elements that undergird human behavior.