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 and his ability to abstract strong. Loved by his wife, he is nevertheless offered sympathy and consolation for the things he is not. Lithe, trim, and the very prototype of the philosopher, he attracts many people to him and uses their feelings to buoy him in his weaknesses. He is not truly a father; his gift for the ironic and sardonic arouses fear and hatred rather than respect among his children. Broken by the deaths of his wife and his oldest son, he continues to endure and to 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 old-fashioned 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, and polite and pleasant to her guests, she impresses on them all the sanctity of life and marriage, the elemental virtues. Her love and reverence of life have its effect on all of her guests, even an atheistic student of her husband and an aloof poet. Mostly she affects women, especially Lily Briscoe, with the need to throw oneself into life, not to limit life but to live it, especially through motherhood.
James, the Ramsays’ youngest son and his mother’s favorite. He is 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, who is killed in World War I,
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 because of the loss of sensitivity and imagination that will come with adulthood.
Lily Briscoe, an artist and friend of the family who, more than any other, loved 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, and of sympathy for the human condition. 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....
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He is a hanger-on and is the only one who does not at first love his hostess. He finally discovers her genius years after her death. Laughed at by all the Ramsay children because of his yellow-tinted beard—they imagine the tint is the result of taking opium—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, whereas Paul, with his good looks and careful dress, is a foil for all affections and strong feelings. 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 Mr. 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 protégé, a boorish young man who eventually is won over to the warmth and love of Mrs. Ramsay. 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.
Several characters come to life in this novel, from Charles Tansley, an unpleasant young academic, to Augustus Carmichael, an elderly friend of Mr. Ramsay, to the many children of the Ramsay's who have very different characters at the beginning of the story but emerge fully through Cam and James at its close. A beautiful and loving woman, Mrs. Ramsay represents all that is good in the world. She is the perfect mother, the perfect wife, and she is the perfect hostess. She seems to create warmth and love through her courage and strength which bring a social coherence out of the chaos that threatens to engulf her family and guests. Most important, she is the embodiment of society's perfect woman: She embodies the feminine principle, the life force, which affirms both her and her family. Mrs. Ramsay becomes a type of muse and a heroine. She is both a doer of great deeds and an inspiration to others. Some critics consider her too perfect, yet for most readers, she is created by Woolf with such liveliness and vivacity that she radiates from the narrative. It is Virginia Woolf's — and Lily Briscoe, Charles Tansley, Mr. Ramsay, and James's — perspectives of Mrs. Ramsay that we are given. She becomes a multiperspectival and subjective portrait rather than an objective case history.
In opposition to Mrs. Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay is the embodiment of the masculine principle: self-centered, objective, melodramatic, and in constant need of support. He is ostensibly a famous philosopher, and the plot develops as his students and disciples follow him to his summer home. He constantly searches for his own reality in an attempt to understand and define for himself existence and life. Although he is initially an irritating figure, and perhaps even comic, at the end of the novel, we see Mr. Ramsay as a man who has been unable to live his life because of his intense search for what life is.
Woolf's Lily Briscoe is a friend and protegee of Mrs. Ramsay who is shy, sensitive and fears marriage or any type of emotional investment. Lily desires to keep herself purely dedicated to her art which she believes will immortalize both herself and the beautiful Mrs. Ramsay. It is the portrayal of Lily which shows Woolf's aesthetic belief that just as the artist must depend on the muse, the muse must depend on the artist.