The Ramsay family portrait is one that was intimately familiar to Virginia Woolf’s Victorian sensibilities. She presents an outwardly functional social structure. Beneath the surface of her characters’ actions and spoken words, however, rest contempt, frustration, and dissatisfaction with an outmoded code of behavior that nevertheless continues to be enforced.
To the Lighthouse is a novel propelled almost entirely by internal thoughts. The physical activities undertaken by the characters serve merely as jumping-off points for Woolf to comment upon and interpret the underlying realities. The voices of Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsay most clearly delineate the problems that Woolf chooses to address. Both display reservations and confusion regarding their chosen codes of behavior. Lily proudly rejects Victorian conventions. Opting to remain single, she can paint and develop platonic relations with men primarily because she refuses to compromise herself by either aiding insecure men, such as Mr. Ramsay, or indulging the egos of overweening men, such as Charles Tansley. Unfortunately, however, Lily suffers insecurities about her bold differentness. Mrs. Ramsay, on the other hand, recognizes that society is sexually polarized, and she sees it as her duty to uphold the system. Consequently, she suppresses her individuality to serve the dominant male society.
Mrs. Ramsay’s sacrifices are not without remorse; she frequently registers disdain for her role. At dinner, for example, she regrets that her lack of a formal education prevents her participation in conversations about square roots, literature, and politics. After dinner, when some of the guests announce that they are going out to watch the waves, “Instantly, for no reason at all, Mrs. Ramsay became like a girl of twenty, full of gaiety. A mood of revelry suddenly took possession of her.” Nevertheless, Mrs. Ramsay suppresses her longings; she knows that she must stay in the house to attend to her husband.
Woolf portrays Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, the man and the woman, as vastly different creatures. Whereas Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts are more imaginative and jump back and forth in time relating to specific events, people, and emotions, Mr. Ramsay’s thoughts progress rationally along a linear plane. He moves, as he says, step by step from A to Z and laments that he may not possess the intellectual acumen to move beyond Q. In the process, he “wears Mrs. Ramsay to death.” She restlessly works to counteract, or eradicate, his personal self-doubts and feelings of inadequacy.
Literary critics have readily compared the character of Lily with her creator, Virginia Woolf: They are both revolutionary artists who find themselves out of place in a sexually polarized society. In To the Lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay represents the purely masculine and Mrs. Ramsay the purely feminine; neither functions successfully. Woolf offers Lily as an androgynous figure who unifies the two extremes. It is Lily who becomes the central figure in the final section of the novel. Her ideas about Mrs. Ramsay and her visions of Mr. Ramsay and the children landing at the lighthouse enable her to complete her painting. She unites the rational and the imaginative into the androgynous whole that the painting represents.