Characterization of Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse

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In an essay Virginia Woolf wrote, "[e]xamine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad of impressions-trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel." Woolf's character Lily Briscoe struggles with the myriad and momentary nature of reality throughout Woolf s fifth...

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In an essay Virginia Woolf wrote, "[e]xamine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad of impressions-trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel." Woolf's character Lily Briscoe struggles with the myriad and momentary nature of reality throughout Woolf s fifth novel, To the Lighthouse. As Suzanne Raitt notes in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Lily shares "the novel's strange obsession with solutions." Lily tries to find a shape within the chaotic nature of existence and achieve an artistic vision that will give her a sense of the meaning of life. In the course of her struggle, many of the novel's themes are illuminated: the nature of reality, the search for completion, the role of women, and the relationship of art and life.

As an artist, Lily struggles to express herself creatively. Her creativity is hampered by the continued interruptions of the outside world, which occur both within her physical space and within her mind:

She would not have considered it honest to tamper with the bright violet and the staring white, since she saw them like that, fashionable though it was, since Mr. Paunceforte's visit, to see everything pale, elegant, semi-transparent. Then beneath the colour there was the shape. She could see it all so clearly, so com-mandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment's flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself—struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: "But this is what I see; this is what I see," and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.

Among the "thousand forces" which try to "pluck" Lily's vision from her is the conflict between the experience of living and the theory of existence, which is represented by the Ramsays. Mrs. Ramsay is a character who seems comfortable with the ebb and flow of daily life; as Thomas A. Vogler comments in his introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of To the Lighthouse, "the 'life' character (like Mrs. Ramsay) lives or represents the human reality of the story." By contrast, Mr. Ramsay tries to come to "objective" truths about the nature of reality. As A. D. Moody writes in the same volume, Lily's "abstract aesthetic problem becomes an analogy for her main concern, and the novel's, which is to bring Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, and the worlds they represent, into a harmonious relation." As an artist, Lily tries to find larger truths about human existence, as does Mr. Ramsay, but as a woman, she is confronted with the subjective and personalized nature of existence, as is Mrs. Ramsay. Appropriately, Lily feels that when she stays with the Ramsays, she struggles to find harmony between opposites:

For at any rate, she said to herself, catching sight of the salt cellar on the pattern, she need not marry, thank Heaven: she need not undergo that dilution. She would move the tree rather more to the middle.

Such was the complexity of things. For what happened to her, especially staying with the Ramsays, was to be made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that's what you feel, was one; that's what I feel, was the other, and then they fought together in her mind, as now. It is so beautiful, so exciting, this love, that I tremble on the verge of it, and offer, quite out of my own habit, to look for a brooch on the beach; also it is the stupidest, the most barbaric of human passions, and turns a nice young man with a profile like a gem's (Paul's was exquisite) into a bully with a crowbar (he was swaggering, he was insolent) in the Mile End Road. Yet, she said to herself, from the dawn of time odes have been sung to love; wreathes heaped and roses; and if you asked nine people out of ten they would say they wanted nothing but this—love; while the women, judging from her own experience, would all the time be feeling, This is not what we want, there is nothing more tedious, puerile, and inhumane than this; yet it is also beautiful and necessary.

Lily's own thoughts and perceptions are interrupted by, and in conflict with, the expectations of her society. In particular, she feels inadequate both as a woman and as an artist, because it is not expected that she can be both. She knows that as a woman she is supposed to be fulfilled by love and marriage, yet in her experience that is never the case. She appreciates Mrs. Ramsay's ability to be nurturing, but does not feel that she can fulfill Mrs. Ramsay's role. As Raitt states, Lily "experiences her conflicts over femininity primarily in the context of her relationship to Mrs. Ramsay." Yet she also feels inadequate as a painter, because men like Charles Tansley tell her that "women can't paint. Women can't write." Lily struggles to define herself as a creative woman in a culture that does not acknowledge that women can be creative.

As a female artist, Lily longs to bring together seemingly opposed forces and to find a "solution" to the problem of life's incoherence. For example, she asks how is it possible to analyze all the conflicting information that one gets about another person and decide that one likes or dislikes that person. As Thomas Matro explains in PMLA, "Lily's ambivalence, suspension and subsequent 'explosion' stem from her felt inability to know another person and from the necessity she yet feels to form a clear, consistent opinion." After dinner, for example,

[s]he felt rather inclined just for a moment to stand still after all that chatter, and pick out one particular thing; the thing that mattered; to detach it; separate it off; clean it of all the emotions and odds and ends of things, and so hold it before her, and bring it to the tribunal where, ranged about in conclave, sat the judges she had set up to decide these things. Is it good, is it bad, is it right or wrong? Where are we all going to? And so on. So she righted herself after the shock of the event, and quite unconsciously and incongruously, used the branches of the elm trees outside to help her stabilize her position. Her world was changing: they were still. The event had given her a sense of movement. All must be in order. She must get that right and that right, she thought, insensibly approving of the dignity of the trees' stillness, and now again of the superb upward rise (like the beak of a ship up a wave) of the elm branches as the wind raised them.

Lily longs to see things without emotion, objectively. She is able to reorient herself by situating herself in relation to the trees outside, which she sees as objective because they are unchanging. In the passage, she progresses from thinking abstractly about "the thing that mattered," which she cannot identify and about which she asks, "is it right or wrong?" to righting herself by focusing on the unchanging nature of the trees, to deciding she must get them right in her painting. By using the word "right," the narrator shifts Lily, and the reader, from abstract conceptions of rightness to natural, eternal rightness to an aesthetic rightness in which rightness is defined as the ability to see clearly. But that is not the final step on Lily's artistic quest; though she says that she must get what she sees on canvas, the narrator shows how, through her use of the word "right," Lily is still clinging to a kind of aesthetics based on objectivity, an unchanging and universal "truth." Lily thinks the natural world is unchanging, but in the second section of the novel, "Time Passes," the narrator shows us how the natural world slowly encroaches on, and nearly destroys, the house. Lily thinks that she must get what she sees "right," but in the third section, "The Lighthouse," she discovers that what she sees is her own particular vision, not a universal truth.

In the section called "The Lighthouse," Lily decides to finish the picture she had started ten years earlier, but is interrupted by Mr. Ramsay:

Yes, it must have been precisely here that she had stood ten years ago. There was the wall, the hedge, the tree. The question was of some relation between those masses. She had borne it in her mind all these years. It seemed as if the solution had come to her: she knew now what she wanted to do.

But with Mr. Ramsay bearing down on her, she could do nothing. Every time he approached—he was walking up and down the terrace—ruin approached, chaos approached. She could not paint.

Lily associates chaos with being unable to paint, unable to hold things in their proper places. Mr. Ramsay makes her unable to paint because, with his insatiable demands for sympathy, he makes it impossible for Lily to listen to her own feelings. She is once again confronted with the "dilution" of other people, with the attempt to hold together two opposing forces: her own feelings and those of another person. It is only when Mr. Ramsay leaves that she can return to her painting.

As she paints, Lily falls into a kind of trance in which she imagines Mrs. Ramsay, for whom she has been crying out, is sitting beside her. She remembers how Mrs. Ramsay united her with her "opposite," Charles Tansley:

The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. This, that, and the other; herself and Charles Tansley and the breaking wave; Mrs. Ramsay bringing them together; Mrs. Ramsay saying, 'Life stand still here'; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent)—this was of the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here, Mrs. Ramsay said. 'Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!' she repeated. She owed it all to her.

Whereas earlier Lily had thought that her artistry depended on "getting it right," and that the natural world was unchanging, she now sees, with Mrs. Ramsay's help, that the job of the artist is to make a moment permanent by capturing it in art. In coming to this realization, Lily is able to see her resemblance to Mrs. Ramsay, to see that she really is a woman, as Mrs. Ramsay was, but a woman whose female identity is expressed in art rather than in relationships. Lily is at last able to mourn for Mrs. Ramsay, realizing that the "solution" to the problem of "wanting and not having" is to understand that all of life is momentary and that the best that humans can do is to say "life stand still here" and capture a moment in memory or in art. At the end of the novel, Lily feels that she is able to unify opposing forces, achieve completion, express her own personal truths, and to be both a woman and an artist. Through Lily, Woolf shows that in creative self-expression, humans may achieve a sense of completion and unify the disparate elements of life.

Source: Jane Elizabeth Dougherty, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
Dougherty is a doctoral candidate at Tufts University.

Overview of To the Lighthouse

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To the Lighthouse is generally considered to be Virginia Woolf's most accomplished work. It is certainly her most popular one. It was this novel, together with Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves, that established her reputation as a modernist writer. What makes To the Lighthouse a modernist novel is its experimental form. It has no traditional plot structure and no characterisation in the accepted sense. Instead the novel is organised into three parts that are thematically and symbolically connected with each other. Part I ("The Window") covers only a few hours, Part II ("Time Passes") a period of 10 years, and Part III ("The Lighthouse") part of two days. Most of the "action" of the first and final sections of the novel takes place in the minds of the characters and is conveyed through a succession of interior monologues, as the perspective of the novel shifts from character to character. The central section is written in an abstract poetical style and its underlying authorial voice is impersonal. The events of the first part of the novel are evoked through memory in the final section when there is a return to the house in the Hebrides. The first part, which is essentially a celebration of the life generated creatively by Mrs. Ramsay, is shot through with images of light. The second part covers the "dark" years of war and death, and in the final section there is a restoration of the light. This light-dark-light pattern resembles the pattern formed by the beams from the lighthouse, which functions centrally in the novel both as a literal place and as a symbol. The novel begins with a desire to visit the lighthouse and concludes with the journey to it, so the lighthouse is bound up with the journey theme of the novel.

At the centre of the novel are the complementing and contrasting characters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay (based on Woolf's parents). Mr. Ramsay, who is a philosopher, searches for intellectual truth with a rigour that makes him difficult to live with. Mrs. Ramsay grasps truth intuitively through her sensitive response to the people she comes in contact with. He needs her warmth to convince him that he lives at the "heart of life"; she relies on his sureness of judgment. Their opposing characteristics are reinforced imagistically, Mr. Ramsay being associated with images of hardness and assertion ("arid scimitar of the male") and Mrs. Ramsay with symbols of softness and warmth ("a column of spray" or a "rosy-flowered tree"). Within this symbolic framework Woolf probes the profound tensions at the core of all relationships between men and women. This is what underlies the verbal exchange at the beginning of the novel, when the youngest child, James, asks 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." "'But,' said his father, stopping in front of the drawing-room window, 'it won't be fine.”’ Mrs. Ramsay's words are followed by a long paragraph which reveals the inner feelings of delight in the child. A similar passage of stream of consciousness writing follows his father's words, this time expressing feelings of anger and hatred. The authorial gloss on this situation is: "Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children's breasts by his mere presence." The same kind of complex exploration and analysis continues throughout the book as character relates to character and as inner thoughts are revealed in solitude.

The most important of the friends who visit the Ramsay family at their holiday house in the Hebrides (really St. Ives in Cornwall where the Stephen family spent their summer holidays) is Lily Briscoe, who, in the first part of the novel, is painting a picture of Mrs. Ramsay and her son. She is an onlooker figure whose function in the novel is to observe life and recreate its reality in her art. She suddenly grasps the meaning of marriage in a moment of awareness, for instance, when she catches a glimpse of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay walking across the lawn. In that moment they become for her symbolic figures, as their particularity is transcended to reveal a universal truth. In this way they contribute to her journey in awareness and to her painting which embodies it, both of which are completed at the end of the novel.

The party which is the climax of the first part of To the Lighthouse is a symbolic occasion. It will be remembered as a moment of stability in the midst of chaos after Mrs. Ramsay's death. That chaos is conveyed poetically in the central section of the novel. Here there is no coherence in life which seems full of suffering and death, war and anguish: Mrs. Ramsay dies, Andrew Ramsay is killed in the war, and Prue dies in childbirth. The personal anguish and the general sense of disintegration are figured in the decline of the house, which is finally rescued from its dereliction and restored.

The vision of the book is, then, an optimistic one. Out of the multiple oscillations between life and death, joy and sorrow, light and dark, the ebb and flow of the sea, there is an expressed belief in the survival of the human spirit: Mr. Ramsay springs like a young man onto the rock of the lighthouse, and Lily Briscoe draws a line in the centre of her canvas thus unifying, as Mrs. Ramsay did at the dinner party, the separate forms that had been resistant to her attempts to unify them. She has learned from Mrs. Ramsay that life "from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave."

Source: Stella McNichol, "To the Lighthouse," in Reference Guide to English Literature, second edition, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991.

In the following excerpt, Stewart examines the idea that "Woolf's search for spiritual essences is expressed in light and color" in To the Lighthouse.

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According to Virginia Woolf "painting and writing … have much in common. The novelist after all wants to make us see… It is a very complex business, the mixing and marrying of words that goes on, probably unconsciously, in the poet's mind to feed the reader's eye. All great writers are great colorists …" While "sound and sight seem to make equal parts of [her] first impressions," Woolf stresses their painterly quality.

In To the Lighthouse, Woolf's search for spiritual essences is expressed in light and color. Johannes Itten's metaphysic of light and color illuminates the relation between creative source (Mrs. Ramsay/the Lighthouse) and creative artist (Lily Briscoe/the painting) in Woolf's novel. Itten further affirms that "the end and aim of all artistic endeavor is liberation of the spiritual essence of form and color and its release from imprisonment in the world of objects." Woolf's art does not reach so far toward abstraction, but she does imply that the "luminous halo" of consciousness should be conveyed through equivalents of "plastic form," and notes that "fiction is given the capacity to deal with 'psychological volumes.'"

Roger Fry thought literature should parallel painting: "The Post-Impressionist movement … was by no means confined to painting… Cézanne and Picasso had shown the way; writers should fling representation to the winds and follow suit. But he never found time to work out his theory of the influence of Post-Impressionism upon literature"—as Woolf ironically remarks. She herself accepted the challenge of designing a literary art closer to the plastic values of painting. While Fry championed the post-impressionists' "'attempt to express by pictorial and plastic form certain spiritual experiences'," Woolf urged novelists "to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit…" Fry's emphasis on formal relations merges fruitfully with Woolf's pursuit of being, as her art advances from the fragmentary impressionism of Jacob's Room to the luminous structure of To the Lighthouse. There revolving lights and colors play on the reader's sensibility like light waves on the retina, and characters come to be known as their auras.

The impressionists did not confine colors within the outlines of objects (as the rationalizing mind does), but observed how light spills over from one object to the next. Thus they gave objects a "luminous halo" or aureole of color. As a verbal colorist, Woolf desires "to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to confer by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring." But in To the Lighthouse her art goes beyond impressionism and symbolism toward a flexible form that "does not shut out." The consciousness of each character tends to overflow individual boundaries, mingling its colors with those around it, as it modifies the total pattern. These interactions recall the post-impressionism of Cézanne, who wished "to represent things in their interrelationship in space," while still using "colour in its original significance."

While color in the novel expresses individual qualities, color/character associations are not reducible to one-to-one symbolic equations. Woolf wanted to find literary equivalents for "that pleasure which we gain from seeing beauty, proportion, contrast, and harmony of colour in the things around us"—and which Delacroix considers the exclusive property of painting. Beyond the sensuous immediacy of impressionism lay the constructive color of Cézanne, whose art symbolized nothing in particular, but "turned all external appearances of real things into a symbol of 'being,"which is eternal'." To the Lighthouse shares with Cézanne's painting a vital duality of aesthetic image, that mirrors actual sensations and emotions, and symbolic form, that mirrors its own "process of construction." When Badt speaks of blue as a "symbolic form," he is concerned with a structural quality and not with symbolic meaning. Blue, in Cézanne's painting, does not stand for something outside itself, but locks other colors together in harmony. The experience of color relations is more than an optical sensation: it is a complex experience hard to put into words, a stimulus and a revelation.

Color is a sensitive medium for expressing both individual and universal experience. While color in literature inevitably gravitates toward symbolic associations, Woolf manipulates rhythmic inter-relationships to create an overall plastic design, inwardly mirrored in the image of painting. Lily Briscoe is one of those post-impressionist artists who "do not seek to imitate form, but to create form, not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent for life." While the novel illuminates life, it completes its significance within the magic circle of art. Woolf accomplishes this condensation by seeking out "plastic equivalents" and constructing a virtual space that incorporates many of the subtle properties of color contrast. Color in the novel is not only an equivalent of feeling, it is also a component of form. The variously tinted streams of consciousness interconnect, so that "geometric colour" becomes a structural principle as in Cézanne's painting.

What Cézanne says of shape and color applies to To the Lighthouse: "The outline and the colors are no longer distinct from each other. To the extent that one paints, one outlines; the more the colors harmonize, the more the outline becomes precise ... When the color is at its richest, the form has reached plenitude." Merleau-Ponty's comment on Cézanne's portraiture can be applied, with slight modifications, to Woolf's characterization: "One's personality is seen and grasped in one's glance, which is, however, no more than a combination of colors." In the novel, the single "glance" becomes a series of subjective reflections, and "personality" a complex of sense perceptions, memories, verbal rhythms, and color.

Just as white light refracted through a prism produces the seven colors of the spectrum, so being refracted through self produces the psychological spectrum of the novel. To the Lighthouse is built on a nexus of light and color. Its Neoplatonic theme is the relation of the One to the many, the noumenal to the phenomenal. What Itten says of his students' "color combinations" applies to Woolf's characters: "Intrinsic constitution and structures are reflected in the colors, which are generated by dispersion and filtration of the white light of life and by electromagnetic vibrations in the psycho-physiological medium of the individual." Objects do not have colors, but for the eye all objects exposed to light absorb some rays and reflect others. Only Mrs. Ramsay, as she identifies with the light, or enters the "wedge-shaped core of darkness," transcends colorific diffraction and becomes pure being. After "burning and illuminating," she sinks back through the violet end of the spectrum (Lily's "purple shadow") to achromatic invisibility. "If the light which falls on a body is completely absorbed by that body," says Chevreul, "so that it disappears from sight, as in falling into a perfectly dark cavity, then the body appears to us black…" Mrs. Ramsay's absorptive powers are seen in her withdrawal into darkness, but she is also a powerful reflector of light, who illuminates other lives. In this oscillation she emulates the lighthouse with its revolving beams. Her powers of absorption and reflection relate to a rhythmic embrace of light and darkness symbolized in the Tao, and ultimately to the "white light" of cosmic being.

If Mrs. Ramsay relates to Light as essence, Lily relates to Color as the contingent substance of reality and art. Part I, "The Window," is dominated by the transcendent symbol of the Light, Part II, "Time Passes," by darkness and silence, and Part III, "The Lighthouse," by the refraction of Mrs. Ramsay's spiritual light into action (the voyage) and form and color (Lily's painting). At one end of the spectrum, Mr. Ramsay's intellectual vision dissolves in infrared rays; at the other, Mrs. Ramsay's spiritual vision dissolves in a blue haze bordering on ultraviolet. In his discussion of "Coloured Spaces in the Prismatic Spectrum," Ogden Rood observes that "the space out beyond 0 is occupied by a very dark red … and outside of the violet beyond 1,000 is a faint greyish colour, which has been called lavender." Rood adds that "the eye seems far more sensitive to changes of wavelength in the middle regions of the spectrum than at either extremity." A similar blurring at the ends and sensitivity in the middle can be observed in To the Lighthouse, where green and yellow are associated with the androgynous, aesthetic vision of Lily and Carmichael. A synthesis of blue and red extremes appears in the "triangular purple shape" on Lily's canvas, a momentary negation of the entire spectrum in James's close-up view of the lighthouse as a "black and white" structure.

Within a given band of the spectrum, the dominant color serves to express related qualities of several characters. In the novel, color permeates the various streams of consciousness and is also an element in the overall design. As in Cézanne's painting, "the whole canvas is a tapestry where each color plays separately and yet at the same time fuses its sonority in the total effect." The various reds form a masculine complex including Mr. Ramsay's red-hot pokers, red geraniums, and reddish-brown hedge; the reddish-brown stocking that Mrs. Ramsay is knitting for the lighthouse-keeper's son; her image of James "all red and ermine on the Bench"; Paul Rayley's blaze of amorous passion; and Charles Tansley's red raucousness. The feminine/intuitive wavelengths are more flexibly varied than the dense red glow of male egotism. Blue and green are frequently combined—blue associated with sea, distance, transcendence; green with "flowing grasses," green shawl, illusion, and imagination. Yellow—Mr. Carmichael's eyes and opium, the "yellow eye" of the lighthouse, the "pure lemon" of its beams, the harvest moon—is associated with meditation and intoxication. As for specific auras, Paul is associated with "a reddish light," Cam with a "green light," James's memory of his mother with "a blue light," and Mrs. Ramsay with "the light of the Lighthouse" itself. In "Time Passes," the shade of Mrs. Ramsay's spirit is gray—which lies outside the spectrum. Physiologically, "neutral gray" is appropriate to this visionary, transitional phase, as it combines "dissimilation" and "assimilation," "consumption" and "regeneration" of the optic substance. Thus, when Mrs. Ramsay's spirit revives to reanimate the voyage and the painting, the "essence" of "that woman in grey" is a paradoxical fusion of presence and absence, fullness and emptiness, color and colorlessness—just as gray is the "abstract" of all complementaries and of all colors combined.

In tracing Woolf's use of the four visual primaries, blue, red, green, and yellow, I have, in each case, discovered patterns of reaction and integration that function aesthetically as well as psychologically. Instead of being tied to fixed symbolic meanings, Woolf's colors vibrate together, causing dramatic tension before achieving what Fry calls "a harmonious plastic unity." McLaurin suggests that "some sort of keyboard of colours can be constructed, some 'system of relations' as in Cézanne's art," and that "language might be able to create a relation similar to that established by colours in a painting." The sense of interaction is particularly significant in literature, where direct effects of light and color on the retina must be replaced by imagined responses. In To the Lighthouse, each character has, as it were, its own frequency, and is know by its own range of color associations. Moreover, each character modifies and is modified by a complex "system of relations"—involving virtual color, mass, and line—that helps to unify the novel as "a psychological poem" and as a self-reflexive work of art. The language of color is integral to Woolf's vision and design, as she explores the interface between fiction and painting. Only through color interactions—complementing, but transcending, psychological relationships—can Woolf's reader pass beyond printed words and experience that "luminous silent stasis," in which aesthetic contemplation and human understanding become one.

Source: Jack F. Stewart, "Color in To the Lighthouse," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1985, pp. 438-58.

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Critical Overview


To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf