To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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Joseph L. Blotner (essay date 1956)

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SOURCE: “Mythic Patterns in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in PMLA, Vol. LXXI, No. 4, September 1956, pp. 547–62.

[In the following essay, Blotner argues for a mythic reading of To the Lighthouse, maintaining that both a coherent narrative plot and the final meaning of the novel can be located in the character of Mrs. Ramsay, who, according to Blotner, embodies the myth of the “Primordial Goddess” that includes the triad of Rhea, Demeter, and Persephone.]


The impulses and convictions which gave birth to Three Guineas and A Room of One's Own carried over into Virginia Woolf's fiction. Their most powerful expression is found in To the Lighthouse. But something, probably her strict and demanding artistic conscience, prevented their appearance in the form of the intellectual and argumentative feminism found in the first two books. In this novel Virginia Woolf's concept of woman's role in life is crystallized in the character of Mrs. Ramsay, whose attributes are those of major female figures in pagan myth. The most useful myth for interpreting the novel is that of the Primordial Goddess, who “is threefold in relation to Zeus: mother (Rhea), wife (Demeter), and daughter (Persephone).” One of the major sources of the myth is the Homeric “Hymn to Demeter,” in which the poet compares Rhea with her daughter Demeter, and makes it clear that Demeter and her daughter Persephone “are to be thought of as a double figure, one half of which is the ideal complement of the other.”1 This double figure is that of the Kore, the primordial maiden, who is also a mother. Also useful in interpreting the novel is the Oedipus myth.

In using myth as an approach to a work of literature, the critic can make one of two assertions: the artist knowingly used myth as a basis for his creation; or, all unaware, he used it as it welled up out of the subconscious layers of his psyche where it resided as forgotten material, as an archetypal pattern or a fragment of the collective or racial unconscious. But one of these assertions leads to a dilemma when it is applied to To the Lighthouse, and the other is fundamentally unsound for either fruitful criticism or sound scholarship. First, Virginia Woolf's diary shows that she read Greek, and “On Not Knowing Greek” shows that she venerated it. And, even had she not read Jung, Freud, and Frazer prior to 1927,2 she would have known about them through other members of the Bloomsbury Group. However, there is no direct evidence that she consciously used myth in the writing of this novel. Therefore, to assert that she did would be only speculation. Second, because of the relatively large number of these patterns as presented by Frazer, Jung, and Freud, and because of the enormous number of variations into which they can be differentiated by particular cultures, one is able to find some sort of referent in them for major elements of many novels. Then, any parallel between the mythic pattern and the work of art, by virtue of invoking the supposedly forgotten, or the archetypal patterns in the artist's unconscious, is argued as sufficient basis for claiming that a causative relationship exists. Virginia Woolf in her diary reiterated the role of her, “subconscious” in the germination of a novel and noted “how tremendously important unconsciousness is when one writes.”3 However, this proposition is susceptible of neither proof nor disproof. These myths may well have risen from Virginia Woolf's subconscious to form the framework of her novel, but this can be shown by neither critic nor psychologist....

(This entire section contains 7288 words.)

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There is, however, a third position. When meaningful, coherent, and illuminating parallels are discerned, the work may be interpreted in terms of the myth. Often what appears fragmentary or only partly disclosed in the work may be revealed as complete and explicit through the myth.

This method is used from the outside, so to speak. It is not an interior approach asserting that myth was present at the conception and execution of the work; it rather asserts that myth may be brought to the work at its reading. It is like laying a colored transparency over a sheet covered with a maze of hues to reveal the orderly pattern which otherwise resides within them unperceived. Thus, in To the Lighthouse the myths of Oedipus and the Kore, superimposed momentarily upon the novel, provide a framework within whose boundaries and by virtue of whose spatial ordering the symbolic people, passages, and phrases of the book can be seen to assume a relationship to each other which illuminates their reciprocal functions and meanings. But since one key may open several doors in a house while leaving several more still unlocked, the mythic approach will not be urged as a Rosetta Stone for fathoming all the meanings of To the Lighthouse. However, this interpretation has several advantages. It shows that this is not, as has often been asserted, a novel which is poetic but plotless.4 The poetry is certainly there but so is the plot, if one reads the novel with all its striking parallels against these myths which are so strong in plot. This is not to suggest that Mrs. Woolf is consciously or unconsciously indebted to The Golden Bough, Bulfinch's mythology, or the sources of these works for her plot, but rather that the mythic approach helps to show that this novel has in fact a clear and coherent narrative beneath its enchanting poetry and evocative prose. In this interpretation Mrs. Ramsay is not merely Goodness (Blackstone, p. 112), nor light, spirit, and spell (Roberts, p. 596). She is more than this and more than the mainspring of the novel: she is the meaning of the novel. This interpretation also relates this work, Virginia Woolf's finest as an artist, to her fundamental convictions as a woman.

Although it has been suggested that To the Lighthouse can be explained in terms of Christian myth,5 there is much evidence, both external and internal, which argues against this interpretation. Virginia Woolf's agnosticism appears on many pages of her diary. And Christian symbolism is quite as inappropriate for Mrs. Ramsay. When the phrase, “We are in the hands of the Lord,” enters her mind, she rejects it: “instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that. Who had said it? Not she; she had been trapped into saying something she did not mean.”6 This has been “an insincerity slipping in among the truths …” (98). The beam from the Lighthouse sweeps over her, “purifying out of existence that lie, any lie” (97). If there is a place in the novel for a male deity, he is not Christ, but Zeus. This deity would appropriately be he, linked with the hidden malevolence Mrs. Ramsay sometimes senses in life, for Zeus was the god who connived with Hades in the abduction of Persephone, and was himself the bridegroom by violence of Demeter.

That Mrs. Woolf's characters are symbolic is quite clear. Mrs. Ramsay and her husband stand watching their children when suddenly a meaning descends upon them, “making them representative … made them in the dusk standing, looking, the symbols of marriage, husband and wife” (110–111). But Mrs. Ramsay is a symbol of much more than this. She is a symbol of the female principle in life. Clothed in beauty, an intuitive and fructifying force, she opposes the logical but arid and sterile male principle. Her influence works toward the mating of men and women, toward their becoming fruitful like herself. Her function is the same on the intellectual level, for she gives her protection and inspiration to both art and science. To Lily Briscoe the painter she gives stimulus and understanding; to Carmichael the poet she gives haven from squalor and a shrewish wife; to Ramsay the philosopher she supplies love, comfort, and reassurance; to Tansley the graduate student she offers protection for a personality rubbed raw by insecurity; to Bankes the botanist she renders affection and respite from a widowed life and priestlike devotion to science. “Indeed, she had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain … finally, for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential …” (13).


Comparing her feelings upon completing The Waves with those she had when she finished To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf wrote that “What interests me in the last stage was the freedom and boldness with which my imagination picked up, used and tossed aside all the images, symbols which I had prepared [italics mine]. I am sure that this is the right way of using them—not in set pieces, as I had tried at first coherently, but simply as images, never making them work out; only suggest. Thus I hope to have kept the sound of the sea and the birds, dawn and garden subconsciously present, doing their work under ground” (Writer's Diary, p. 165). This penetrating introspection gives the keynote for interpretation of Virginia Woolf's use of image and symbol. One must not expect a point-for-point correspondence between symbol and referent, and, by implication, no exact parallel between character and plot on the one hand and mythic personage and mythic pattern on the other. However, there are surprisingly strong correspondences between the two.

Rhea was the oldest of the gods, the child of Gaea, Mother Earth, and Ouranos, Father Heaven. When her brother Cronos overthrew Ouranos, Rhea became Cronos' wife and queen of the universe. Since Gaea was not actually a divinity, however, nor ever separated from the earth and personified, her daughter Rhea is the primal pagan goddess antedating the male gods. Although Cronos was said to have brought in the Golden Age in Italy when he fled there from the victorious Zeus, he cuts a poor figure beside Rhea. Having attained power by mutilating and dethroning his father, he attempted to keep it by swallowing his children. This he did with each of the first five Rhea bore him, attempting to thwart the prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him. By contrast, Rhea is the completely good and loving mother. Wrapping a stone in swaddling clothes and substituting it for Zeus, she has the child spirited to Crete. It is he who later delivers his brothers and sisters by farcing Cronos to disgorge them.

Whereas Rhea has six children, three boys and three girls, Mrs. Ramsay has eight, four boys and four girls. Like Cronos, Mr. Ramsay was sometimes “like a lion seeking whom he could devour …” (233). He has power and authority: “Let him be fifty feet away, let him not even speak to you, let him not even see you, he permeated, he prevailed, he imposed himself. He changed everything” (233). In each family the youngest child, a male, is the one who opposes the father. Zeus, alone in his exile on Crete, might have reflected like James, “I shall be left to fight the tyrant alone” (250). As Rhea protected Zeus from physical harm, so Mrs. Ramsay tries to guard James from psychological wounds. When Mr. Ramsay declares that the weather will not permit the trip to the Lighthouse which James so passionately desires, Mrs. Ramsay tries to induce her husband to modify his pronouncement. She reflects that children never forget; “she was certain that he was thinking, we are not going to the Lighthouse tomorrow; and she thought, he will remember that all his life” (95).

Mrs. Ramsay has many of the physical attributes of a goddess. To Lily's eyes she seems to wear “an august shape …” (80). She has a “royalty of form …” (47). Lily perceives that Mr. Bankes “worshipped” Mrs. Ramsay (75). When Mr. Bankes hears her voice, he visualizes her as “very clearly Greek” (47), and feels that “the Graces assembled seemed to have joined hands in meadows of asphodel to compose that face” (47). Augustus Carmichael bows as if to do her “homage” (167). When Charles Tansley glimpses her standing motionless, a picture of Queen Victoria behind her, he realizes that she is “the most beautiful person he had ever seen” (25). He visualizes her “stepping through fields of flowers and taking to her breast buds that had broken and lambs that had fallen; with the stars in her eyes and the wind in her hair …” (25). And her glance comes from “eyes of unparalleled depth” (77). Even as he speaks of prosaic things, “one would be thinking of Greek temples, and how beauty had been with them there in that stuffy room” (291). Even her bearing is regal: “like some queen who, finding her people gathered in the hall, looks down upon them, and descends among them, and acknowledges their tributes silently, and accepts their devotion and their prostration before her … she went down, and crossed the hall and bowed her head very slightly, as if she accepted what they could not say: their tribute to her beauty” (124).

Mrs. Ramsay's psychic qualities are also those of a goddess. She is possessed of an intuitive knowledge and wisdom, and exercises a dominion over those around her, seeming almost to cast a spell upon them. Lily Briscoe, particularly sensitive to this aspect of her character, struggles with ambivalent feelings. She sees Mrs. Ramsay as “unquestionably the loveliest of people … the best perhaps” (76), yet she chafes at her imperiousness. Lily laughs at her, “presiding with immutable calm over destinies which she completely failed to understand” (78). But at the same time she divines, in the heart of this woman “like treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything. …” (79). When Mrs. Ramsay exercises her powers, her domination, Lily is moved to reflect that “there was something frightening about her. She was irresistible” (125). Her perceptions are clearly psychic: “She knew then—she knew without having learnt. Her simplicity fathomed what clever people falsified. Her singleness of mind made her drop, plumb like a stone, alight exact as a bird, gave her, naturally, this swoop and fall of the spirit upon truth. …” (46). Her grey eyes seem to penetrate the thoughts and feelings of others. Her domination pulls them all together, makes them interact as she wants them to do. But, “directly she went a sort of disintegration set in. …” (168).


If Mrs. Ramsay resembles Rhea, she appears almost an incarnation of Demeter. This divine being, the Goddess of the Corn, was the daughter of Cronos and Rhea and the sister of Zeus. But unlike him and the other Olympians, she was, with Dionysus, mankind's best friend. Hers was the divine power which made the earth fruitful. It was she “who was worshipped, not like the other gods by the bloody sacrifices men liked, but in every humble act that made the farm fruitful. Through her the field of grain was hallowed, ‘Demeter's holy grain’.”7 Even when the originally simple rites in her honor evolved into the Eleusinian Mysteries, their effect was still beneficent. The quality of these observances survived even the decline of Greece and the rise of Rome, for Cicero wrote that “among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which. … Athens has brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and refined into a state of civilization, and as the rites are called ‘initiations,’ so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.”8

Symbols of fruitfulness cluster around Mrs. Ramsay. She plants flowers and sees that they are tended. The others, thinking of her, associate flowers with her instinctively. She adorns herself with a green shawl. Running throughout the book, through her own stream of consciousness, is an almost obsessive concern that the greenhouse shall be repaired and preserved. Many of the figures of speech used to describe her relate to nature. Concentrating, “she grew still like a tree. …” (177). In solitary meditation she reflects “how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one. …” (97). At times she even thinks in terms of myth. Contemplation of a cornucopia-like dish of fruit “made her think of a trophy fetched from the bottom of the sea, of Neptune's banquet, of the bunch that hangs with vine leaves over the shoulder of Bacchus …” (146).

She is an ardent matchmaker, giving Paul Rayley the impetus and encouragement to propose to Minta Doyle, determining to marry Lily Briscoe to William Bankes. She insists that “Minta must, they all must marry … an unmarried woman had missed the best of life. The house seemed full of children and Mrs. Ramsay listening. …” (77). And her attitude toward marriage seems more pagan than Christian. The elaborate dinner over which she presides, coming immediately after Paul's successful proposal to Minta, gives her mixed feelings, a sense “of celebrating a festival, as if two emotions were called up in her, one profound—for what could be more serious than the love of man for woman, what more commanding, more impressive, bearing in its bosom the seeds of death; at the same time these lovers, these people entering into illusion glittering eyed, must be danced round with mockery, decorated with garlands” (151). And this mockery is not at all inconsistent with the character of Demeter. Kerényi writes that in the figure of the Kore “There is, for instance, the strange equation of marriage and death, the bridal chamber and the grave. Marriage in this connexion has the character of murder; the brutal ravisher is the god of death himself. On the other hand, marriage retains its proper and primary meaning as the union of man and woman. But not only does it call forth the lamentations of the celebrants, it also calls forth obscene speech and laughing at obscene actions” (pp. 179–180).

An important characteristic of Mrs. Ramsay in her Demeter aspect is her complete femininity. As Demeter was worshipped more by men than women, as the sacrifices to her were humble and restrained rather than fierce and bloody like those of men, so Mrs. Ramsay in all her aspects is feminine and opposed to that which is undesirable in masculinity. When she gives to Mr. Ramsay the sympathy and reassurance he begs, the action is symbolic: “into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare” (58). By this act, Mr. Ramsay is “taken within the circle of life … his barrenness made fertile. …” (59). This characteristic is not exclusively Mr. Ramsay's: “she felt, as a fact without hostility, the sterility of men …” (126). With her quick intuition, her special knowledge, she is at the opposite pole from them. Although she does not possess their analytical reasoning powers, she is far more perceptive than they. “How much they missed, after all, these very clever men! How dried up they did become, to be sure” (150). There is little doubt that these sentiments are inherent in Virginia Woolf's feminism. In Mrs. Ramsay's thoughts one finds an echo of those of her creator, who wrote, “the egotism of men surprises and shocks me even now,” who found that “the male atmosphere is disconcerting to me. … I think what an abrupt precipice cleaves asunder the male intelligence, and how they pride themselves upon a point of view which much resembles stupidity” (Writer's Diary, pp. 135, 12). Jung concludes his essay on the psychological aspects of the Kore with the comment that “Demeter-Kore exists on the plane of mother-daughter experience which is alien to man and shuts him out. In fact, the psychology of the Demeter cult has all the features of a matriarchal order of society where the man is an indispensable but on the whole disturbing factor” (p. 245).

Even the story of the Fisherman and His Wife, which Mrs. Ramsay reads to James, reflects this attitude. To perceive it, however, one must do what Virginia Woolf did in Orlando: change the sex of the principal character. In To the Lighthouse the individual who makes the insatiable demands is not the wife but the husband. Mr. Ramsay, the philosopher, has driven himself to the Q of mental effort and understanding. He is plunged into melancholy despair at his inability to reach Z. He is described as standing desolate in darkness on a narrow spit of land, the black seas nearly engulfing him. It is his wife who is content with that which they have already received, who accepts their portion and cherishes their gift of love.

The figures of Demeter and Mrs. Ramsay are linked in another important way. They are characterized not only by fruitfulness, but by sorrow as well. This element also serves to point up the transition from the Demeter to the Persephone component of this multiple myth. Demeter's sorrow is caused, of course, by her loss of Persephone. Mrs. Ramsay's sorrow is neither so continuous nor so specifically focused as that of Demeter. But when she falls prey to it, her sorrow is genuine and pervasive, and highly suggestive of that of the goddess: “Never did anybody look so sad. Bitter and black, half way down, in the darkness, in the shaft which ran from sunlight to the depths, perhaps a tear formed; a tear fell; the waters swayed this way and that, received it, and were at rest. Never did anybody look so sad” (46). And this is not a simple weltschmerz, but a genuine reaction to a frightening vision of a real antagonist, for “she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance” (92). Another of Mrs. Ramsay's interior monologues might be that of the goddess implored to make the earth fruitful again: “Why, one asked oneself, does one take all these pains for the human race to go on? Is it so very desirable?” (134)


In the familiar story, Demeter's only child Persephone was abducted by Hades and spirited down to the underworld to reign with him over the souls of all the dead. In her anguish for her daughter, the Goddess of the Corn “withheld her gifts from the earth, which turned into a frozen desert. The green and flowering land was icebound and lifeless because Persephone had disappeared” (Hamilton, p. 57). Finally compelled to intervene, Zeus sent Hermes to Hades with the order that Persephone must be released. Hades complied, but first forced her to eat a pomegranate seed, whose magical properties would insure her return to him for a third of each year. Zeus also sent Rhea to Demeter to tell her that Persephone would be released and to ask Demeter to make the earth fruitful again. Demeter, of course, complied. Edith Hamilton writes:

In the stories of both goddesses, Demeter and Persephone, the idea of sorrow was foremost. Demeter, goddess of the harvest wealth, was still more the divine sorrowing mother who saw her daughter die each year. Persephone was the radiant maiden of the spring and the summertime. … But all the while Persephone knew how brief that beauty was; fruits, flowers, leaves, all the fair growth of the earth, must end with the coming of the cold and pass like herself into the power of death. After the lord of the dark world below carried her away she was never again the gay young creature who had played in the flowery meadow without a thought of care or trouble. She did indeed rise from the dead every spring, but she brought with her the memory of where she had come from; with all her bright beauty there was something strange and awesome about her. She was often said to be “the maiden whose name may not be spoken.”

(pp. 53–54)

Many allusions in To the Lighthouse suggest the Persephone-Mrs. Ramsay correspondence. Barely nine pages into the novel one reads that she had “in her veins the blood of that very noble, if slightly mythical, Italian house, whose daughters, scattered about English drawing rooms in the nineteenth century, had lisped so charmingly, had stormed so wildly, and all her wit and bearing and her temper came from them …” (17).

Early in the novel Mrs. Ramsay has premonitions, foreshadowings of her departure from the green and flowering loveliness of the Isle of Skye, of her descent into the world of shades. As she sits in the gathering dusk, she looks out upon her garden: “the whitening of the flowers and something grey in the leaves conspired together, to rouse in her a feeling of anxiety” (93–94). Her mood deepens until “all the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others” (95). Yet at times these depths are briefly pierced by shafts of light. The sound of the waves on the beach “seemed of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, ‘I am guarding you—I am your support’” (27). It is as if Persephone, sensing the imminence of her rape and abduction, divined also that her salvation would come from her who had sung a cradle song, her mother Demeter, the goddess so close to nature.

Mrs. Ramsay's death is communicated to the reader with shocking suddenness and brevity, as though it were not the event itself which was important, but rather its consequences. In Lily Briscoe's reflections in “The Lighthouse” section of the novel, however, the reader is given Lily's special vision of Mrs. Ramsay's departure. And, of course, it is Lily who is most sensitive to Mrs. Ramsay, to her essence and her function. As Lily paints, the images sweep in on her mind: “It was strange how clearly she saw her, stepping with her usual quickness across fields among whose folds, purplish and soft, among whose flowers, hyacinths or lilies, she vanished. It was some trick of the painter's eye. For days after she had heard of her death she had seen her thus, putting her wreath to her forehead9 and going unquestioningly with her companion, a shade across the fields … all had been part of the fields of death” (269–270). When Persephone had wandered away from her companions, thus isolating herself for Hades' attack, she had been attracted by banks of narcissus, hyacinths, and lilies (Frazer, p. 36). As she was abducted, she dropped the lilies she had gathered.10 Thirty pages later in the novel, Lily's vision of Mrs. Ramsay's departure is resumed: “She let her flowers fall from her basket, scattered and tumbled them on to the grass and, reluctantly and hesitatingly, but without question or complaint … went too. Down fields, across valleys, white, flower-strewn … the hills were austere. It was rocky; it was steep. The waves sounded hoarse on the stones beneath. They went, the three of them together …” (299). The identity of the third figure is problematical. The daughter to whom Mrs. Ramsay is closest, the lovely Prue, follows her mother in death11. It may be that Lily's unconscious mind has joined Prue to her mother in this symbolic vision. Since the unity of the two divine persons is central to the concept of the Kore, this is a workable hypothesis for this interpretation.12 But in terms of the myth, Mrs. Ramsay's failure to question or complain does not seem apt. In view of the other detailed correspondences—the falling flowers, the rocky steepness so clearly suggestive of the chasm out of which Hades rose to seize his prey—this is perhaps one point upon which one might invoke Virginia Woolf's avowed intention of making her symbols work “not in set pieces … but simply as images, never making them work out; only suggest” (Writer's Diary, p. 165).

The very first pages of “Time Passes,” the middle section of the novel, may be seen as symbolic of the transformation of the earth when Demeter withheld her gifts: “a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness …” (189). There is not only darkness, but also dissolution as “fumbling airs” creep into the house; “wearily, ghostlily … they … blanched the apples … fumbled the petals of roses …” (191). “Divine goodness” displays the treasures which might be given to men if they deserved them, but “it does not please him; he covers his treasures in a drench of hail, and so breaks them … the nights are now full of wind and destruction …” (193).

Then, as this section of the novel progresses, vegetation springs up in the solitude as time passes. But there is a horror beneath this growth, now blind, purposeless, and even destructive: “the flowers standing there, looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless, and so terrible” (203). The house becomes a moldering shell, in the process of dissolution. Finally, “If [a] feather had fallen, if it had tipped the scale downwards, the whole house would have plunged to the depths to lie upon the sands of oblivion” (209). This once pleasant place, now reft of the force which had made it beautiful, “would have turned and pitched downwards to the depths of darkness” (208). The time of catastrophes, private and public, has come; Andrew is killed by a piece of shrapnel; Prue dies in childbirth; and the first World War sweeps across the face of Europe.13


The reappearance of Persephone has its symbolic equivalent in the novel in the return of the force which Mrs. Ramsay represented. Mrs. McNab receives orders to have the house restored. The predominant activity in the last section of the book is the expedition to the Lighthouse, upon which Mr. Ramsay is determined almost as if it were a rite of propitiation toward Mrs. Ramsay's spirit. And clearly, her spirit has a profound effect upon Lily. In this, Virginia Woolf may have been influenced by A Passage to India, the novel of her intimate friend, E. M. Forster. This book, which she felt represented Forster in “his prime,”14 appeared three years before To the Lighthouse. The central female figure in Forster's novel is Mrs. Moore, an old Englishwoman. Through her influence, felt returning after her death, some of the wounds inflicted during the conflict between the British and the Indians in Chandrapore are healed. Earlier in To the Lighthouse Mrs. Ramsay has performed an act symbolic of Demeter's role in the rescue of Persephone. Going to the nursery, she has covered the boar's skull which has kept her daughter Cam awake until eleven o’clock at night—covered the skull with her own green shawl. The symbol of death is banished and obliterated by the symbol of fertility. In Lily's first night in the house after her return, she reflects that “peace had come” (213). If the guests were to go down to the darkened beach, “They would see then night flowing down in purple; his head crowned; his sceptre jewelled; and how in his eyes a child might look” (213). This dark and kingly deity, whose symbol had earlier frightened a child from sleep, has now been disarmed. The feminine principle, the Kore, has triumphed over the dark underworld with her release from it.

As the day passes, Lily invokes Mrs. Ramsay, fruitlessly at first. But then she feels her imminence. “‘Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!’ she repeated. She owed it all to her” (241). At times Lily's longing is so intense that “she called out silently, to that essence which sat by the boat, that abstract one made of her, that woman in grey, as if to abuse her for having gone, and then having gone, come back again. It had seemed so safe, thinking of her. Ghost, air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily and safely at any time of day or night, she had been that, and then suddenly she put her hand out and wrung the heart thus” (266).

But finally, of course, as the boat reaches the Lighthouse and the rapport is achieved between James, Cam, and Mr. Ramsay, Lily completes her picture, becomes, in this individual work, fruitful as an artist. Just as Mrs. Ramsay's spirit has been the force which brings about the consummation of the trip to the Lighthouse, so her spirit brings about Lily's epiphany. In that famous passage, “With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision” (310). The return of Persephone is thus twofold. Mrs. Ramsay, in the Persephone aspect of the Kore, has returned as an almost palpable presence to the Isle of Skye from which she had been snatched by death. Persephone has also returned through Lily's final achievement of the artistic vision and triumph denied her ten years earlier.15 As clear as the existence of the relationship between Mrs. Ramsay and Lily is the function of this relationship: “Demeter and Kore, mother and daughter, extend the feminine consciousness both upwards and downwards. They add an ‘older and younger,’ ‘stronger and weaker’ dimension to it and widen out the narrowly limited conscious mind bound in space and time, giving it intimations of a greater and more comprehensive personality which has a share in the eternal course of things” (Jung, p. 225). Both the mother figure and the daughter figure are united in that they are artists—the one in paints and the other in human relationships—and in that they are bound to each other by psychic bonds which remain firm even beyond death. Demeter has effected the liberation of Persephone.


Sigmund Freud's interpretation of the Oedipus myth is almost as famous as the myth itself. This pattern, Freud says, dramatized in the legend of the Greek youth who unwittingly kills his father, marries and begets children with his mother, and then blinds himself in atonement, is fundamental in human experience. It is so basic that “the beginnings of religion, ethics, society, and art meet in the Oedipus complex.” We are moved by Sophocles' play, Freud says, by the consciousness that Oedipus’ fate “might have been our own. … It may be that we were all destined to divert our first sexual impulses toward our mothers, and our first impulses of hatred and violence toward our fathers; our dreams convince us that we were.”16

That the relationship between James, Mrs. Ramsay, and Mr. Ramsay reflects this pattern is so clear as to be almost unmistakable. The intense adoration which James cherishes for his mother has its opposite in an equally strong hatred for his father, “casting ridicule upon his wife, who was ten thousand times better in every way than he was (James thought) …” (10). Virginia Woolf says of Mr. Ramsay that “his son hated him” (57). This emotion is thoroughgoing: “Had there been an axe handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father's breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it” (10). Mrs. Ramsay is solicitous and fearful for James as Jocasta might have been for the young Oedipus: “what demon possessed him, her youngest, her cherished?” (43).

James's jealousy and feelings of rivalry with his father are intensified by his perhaps unconscious knowledge of the sexual aspect of the relationship between his parents. He is made acutely aware of it in the episode early in the novel in which Mr. Ramsay comes to his wife for the sympathy and reassurance he demands. The imagery used to describe this action is patently sexual. James, standing between his mother's knees, feels her seem “to raise herself with an effort, and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy … and into this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare” (58). Then James feels shut out when, the demand complied with, “Mrs. Ramsay seemed to fold herself together, one petal closed in another, and the whole fabric fell in exhaustion upon itself, so that she had only strength enough to move her finger, in exquisite abandonment to exhaustion … while there throbbed through her, like a pulse in a spring which has expanded to its full width and now gently ceases to beat, the rapture of successful creation” (60–61).

Into the third section of the novel, across the space of ten years, James carries these same emotions undiminished in intensity. Of his mother he thinks, “She alone spoke the truth; to her alone could he speak it” (278). Contemplating his father, James realizes that “He had always kept this old symbol of taking a knife and striking his father to the heart” (273). The pattern is so strong that now James and his father compete in another triangle in which Cam has been substituted for Mrs. Ramsay. The two children have made a compact to resist their father's tyranny, but James feels that he will lose to him again just as he had before. As Mr. Ramsay begins to win Cam over, James acknowledges his defeat. “‘Yes,’ thought James pitilessly … ‘now she will give way. I shall be left to fight the tyrant alone’” (250). An instant later, the antecedent of the present experience is dredged up out of the recesses of his memory: “There was a flash of blue, he remembered, and then somebody sitting with him laughed, surrendered, and he was very angry. It must have been his mother, he thought, sitting on a low chair, with his father standing over her” (251).

Freud writes of the ambivalence the child feels toward his father, the conflict between tenderness and hostility. He concludes that unless the child is successful in repressing the sexual love for the mother and hostility for the father, while concomitantly allowing the natural affection for the father to grow, neurosis will be the result. Significantly, at the end of the finally accomplished journey to the Lighthouse, James experiences his rapport with Mr. Ramsay. Cam addresses herself silently to James: “You’ve got it at last. For she knew that this was what James had been wanting. … He was so pleased that he was not going to let anybody share a grain of his pleasure. His father had praised him” (306).


The Oedipus myth is consonant with the Persephone myth in its application to To the Lighthouse and both are reflections of fundamental patterns of human experience. The two old antagonists testify to this judgment of their importance, Freud to the former and Jung to the latter. Appropriately, the symbol for one section of the novel, “The Window,” is female, and that for another section, “The Lighthouse,” is male. Exalting the feminine principle in life over the masculine, Virginia Woolf built her novel around a character embodying the life-giving role of the female. In opposition, she shows the male, both in the father and son aspect, as death-bearing—arid, sterile, hateful, and “fatal” (58). The female principle in life is exalted in all its aspects of love which are opposed to the harsh and critical aspects of the male principle, of fertility with its pattern of triumph over death in rebirth. What, then, becomes of the single obvious central symbol, the Lighthouse? Its use is simply this: in its stability, its essential constancy despite cyclical change which is not really change at all, this symbol refers to Mrs. Ramsay herself. This meaning is revealed to the reader explicitly: Mrs. Ramsay “looked up over her knitting and met the third stroke and it seemed to her like her own eyes, searching as she alone could search into her mind and heart. … She praised herself in praising the light, without vanity, for she was stern, she was searching, she was beautiful like that light” (97). And just as there are three persons combined in the Primordial Goddess, so there are three strokes to the Lighthouse beam, and “the long steady stroke, the last of the three … was her stroke …” (96).

As Mrs. Ramsay gives love, stability, and fruitfulness to her family and those in her orbit, so the female force should always function. It serves to ameliorate or mitigate the effects of male violence, hate, and destructiveness. And should the physical embodiment of this force pay her debt to the world of shades, this is not an ever-enduring loss, for it returns through those whom it has made fruitful and thus drawn into the rebirth pattern. Or it may be sought, found, and embraced as, in their separate ways, James, Cam, and Mr. Ramsay experience it at the end of their ritual and symbolic voyage to the Lighthouse.


  1. C. G. Jung and C. Kerényi, Essays on a Science of Mythology, trans. R. F. C. Hull (New York, 1949), pp. 25, 152.

  2. A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Leonard Woolf (New York, 1953), pp. 205-206. Leonard Woolf, in a recent letter, informs me that he doubts that Virginia Woolf ever read any of Freud's works, but that he (Woolf) had discussed them with her, having read them as he published them in England under the imprint of the Hogarth Press.

  3. A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Leonard Woolf (New York, 1953), pp. 205-206. Leonard Woolf, in a recent letter, informs me that he doubts that Virginia Woolf ever read any of Freud's works, but that he (Woolf) had discussed them with her, having read them as he published them in England under the imprint of the Hogarth Press.

  4. For a statement of this position see Bernard Blackstone, Virginia Woolf (New York, 1949), p. 99; Edwin B. Burgum, “Virginia Woolf and the Empty Room,” Antioch Rev., III (Dec. 1943), 596-611; and John H. Roberts, “Toward Virginia Woolf,” Va. Quart. Rev., X (Oct. 1934), 587-602.

  5. F. L. Overcarsh, “To the Lighthouse, Face to Face,” Accent, X (Winter 1950), 107-123.

  6. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt, Brace Modern Classics, 1927), p. 97. The pages from which further quotations are drawn are indicated in the text.

  7. Edith Hamilton, Mythology (Boston, 1942), p. 54.

  8. De Re Publica, De Legibus, trans. Clinton W. Keyes (London, 1928), pp. 414-415. (Laws II.xiv.36.)

  9. “In ancient art Demeter and Persephone are characterized as goddesses of the corn by the crowns of corn which they wear on their heads and by the stalks of corn which they hold in their hands” (J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, 3rd ed., London, 1912, VII, 43).

  10. The Reader's Encyclopedia, ed. William R. Benet (New York, 1948), p. 886.

  11. Prue's death had come as a result of childbirth. This in itself suggests the inextricable connection of birth and death in the Kore myth.

  12. Kerényi and Jung describe versions of the Persephone myth in which Demeter, as well as her daughter, was a victim of rape (pp. 170, 197, 251). Thus, in another variation, Mrs. Ramsay and her daughter would signify Demeter and her daughter.

  13. In “The Eleusinian Festival” Schiller describes Demeter's wanderings:

    No refreshing corn or fruit
    Her distressing need await,
    Human bones the fanes pollute,
    And the altars violate.
    Wheresoe’er her footsteps turned
    Nought but sorrow could she scan,
    And her lofty spirit burned,
    Grieving for the fall of man.

    Poetical Works of Friedrich Schiller, ed. Nathan H. Doyle, trans. Percy E. Pinkerton (London, 1902), p. 198. Perhaps a better translation is that recited by Ivan to Alexey in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (N.Y.: Mod. Lib., 1950), p. 125.

  14. Virginia Woolf, “The Novels of E. M. Forster,” Atlantic Monthly, CXL (Nov. 1927), 642-648.

  15. There is another factor which confirms Lily's role as a Persephone figure in this interpretation. Mrs. Ramsay's characterization of her as prim and old-maidish is nothing more than emphasis and re-emphasis of a characteristic of Persephone, “whose salient feature was an elemental virginity” (Jung and Kerényi, p. 207).

  16. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. A. A. Brill (New York, 1938), p. 308.


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To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf

(Full name Adeline Virginia Stephen Woolf) English novelist, essayist, and diarist.

The following entry presents criticism of Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse (1927). See also, Virginia Woolf Criticism.

One of the most prominent literary figures of the twentieth century, Woolf is widely admired for her technical innovations in the novel, most notably her development of stream-of-consciousness narrative. In To the Lighthouse (1927) Woolf sought to come to terms with her parents' stifling Victorian marriage and events of her own childhood, as well as to explore such feminist issues as the necessity, or even desirability, of marriage for women and the difficulties for women in pursuing a career in the arts. A striking mix of autobiographical elements, philosophical questions, and social concerns, To the Lighthouse is generally considered to be Woolf’s greatest fictional achievement.

Plot and Major Characters

To the Lighthouse is divided into three parts: “The Window,” “Time Passes,” and “The Lighthouse.” Despite the inherent complexities of Woolf's many themes and stream-of-consciousness narrative, the plot of the novel is simple. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their children, and numerous house guests—including Lily Briscoe, the central consciousness of “The Lighthouse” section—are vacationing in the remote Hebrides islands. An expedition to a nearby lighthouse is put off by Mr. Ramsay, and ten years later, after the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay and two of the Ramsays' children, the trip is successfully executed by Mr. Ramsay and his children James and Cam. “The Window” is the longest section of the book, but it takes place in a single day and focuses primarily on the character Mrs. Ramsay, a beautiful, placid, upper-middle-class Victorian wife and mother who devotes herself to family and friends. The years between the planned trip to the lighthouse and the actual event are poetically recounted in the short section “Time Passes,” in which the effects of time are illustrated in a description of the slow decay of the Ramsays’ empty vacation home, combined with flashes of imagery of World War I, the physical aging of the characters, and death. Lily Briscoe becomes the dominant character in the third section, “The Lighthouse.” A struggling artist who never married—despite Mrs. Ramsay’s attempts to play matchmaker for her—Lily mourns the loss of Mrs. Ramsay, whom she alternately adores and misunderstands, and attempts to resolve her feelings about Mr. Ramsay, whom she considers at times overly philosophical, arrogant, and detached. Lily also must come to terms with her own decision not to marry and to pursue work as an artist, despite social pressure to lead a more conventional life. In the final scene of the novel, Mr. Ramsay and his children reach the lighthouse at last, and Lily finishes the painting she has been working on throughout the novel, both acts signifying the characters’ attainment of an integrated vision of life, art, and death.

Major Themes

After the novel’s publication, Woolf wrote of her depiction of her parents’ marriage in To the Lighthouse, “I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act.” Her own mother had died suddenly when Woolf was thirteen. Considered a model wife and mother, Julia Stephen was known to exhaust herself regularly to please her demanding husband, the writer and intellectual figure Leslie Stephen. But Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are heavily fictionalized portrayals of Woolf’s parents, and neither they nor the other characters in To the Lighthouse are meant to fully represent the Stephen family; rather, they are extremely complex, symbolic, and, some say, mythical figures who are not easily categorized. Literary theorists are sharply divided over the deeper meanings of Woolf’s characters. Some interpret Mrs. Ramsay as the embodiment of the feminine ideal and Mr. Ramsay as that of the masculine ideal—the pure, elemental forces of the genders. Feminist critics dispute this notion, positing instead that the Ramsays’ marriage is typical of most marriages in the pre-World War I period, forcing the wife into the role of “angel of the house”—unquestioning, supportive, generous, and self-sacrificing at any cost to personal ambition and satisfaction. These critics consider Mr. Ramsay an overbearing and domineering patriarch who drives his wife to the brink of feeble-mindedness. Still others surmise just the opposite: namely, that Mrs. Ramsay is a cold-hearted, social-climbing harpy, and Mr. Ramsay a hen-pecked husband. Regardless of conflicting interpretations of the Ramsays, Lily Briscoe is generally considered representative of Woolf’s strong feminist principles, particularly in her refusal to marry and her commitment to painting, despite the urging of others to abandon art. Overriding concerns of To the Lighthouse and all of its characters are death, mourning, and the inexorable passage of time. When Mrs. Ramsay dies, she takes with her the sense of order in the family; children die, Lily and Mr. Ramsay fall into abiding grief, and even the house itself declines into disrepair. The consummation of the trip to the lighthouse and Lily’s completion of her painting, with a single line down the center representing Mrs. Ramsay, signify the triumph of order over disorder and life over death and grief.

Critical Reception

To the Lighthouse has sustained critical predominance in Woolf’s canon since its publication in 1927. It is widely considered her most successful use of stream-of-consciousness narrative, nonlinear plot, and interior monologue, crisply identifying characters without the formal structure of chronological time and omniscient narration, as well as her most perfectly realized fictional reflection on mortality, subjectivity, and the passage of time. The novel is often described as an elegy to Woolf’s mother, and as such it is thought to be a complex and poetic character study, incorporating all facets of personality, including emotions dark and hopeless. In her diary Woolf recorded her many difficulties in writing To the Lighthouse, including her fears about reliving her parents’ deaths—events that precipitated two of her most devastating emotional breakdowns. But Woolf evidently realized the greater significance of To the Lighthouse beyond its fictional portrayal of her childhood; in a diary entry written during her final revision of the novel in 1926 she wrote, “My present opinion is that it is easily the best of my books,” an assessment with which most critics agree.

Ruby Cohn (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: “Art in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Summer, 1962, pp. 127–36.

[In the following essay, Cohn describes Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe as “magnetic poles,” representing, respectively, the forces of life and art.]

When Mr. Ramsay lands on the lighthouse rock, Lily Briscoe finishes her painting. All critics agree on the intimate and essential relation between these final events of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse.1 Several critics have commented, too, on how Lily Briscoe's painting structures the book.2 But there has not been adequate appreciation of the way in which the theme of art functions in To The Lighthouse. Neither Leonard Woolf's term “psychological poem” nor Virginia Woolf's own hesitant suggestion of “elegy” succeeds in classifying the book, for, in part at least, it is a work of art about art—as are Hamlet and Don Quixote; as is much of the creation of artists so various as Yeats, Braque, Pirandello, Mann.

To The Lighthouse, serving to exorcise her parents' dominance,3 absorbing her by the opportunities it provided for perfecting her “method,” astonished its author by the spontaneous fluidity of its composition. In her diary Virginia Woolf comments on the “quick and flourishing attack on To The Lighthouse,” on her “dashing fluency,” on writing “as fast and freely as I have written in the whole of my life.”

The first notes on the novel appear May 14, 1925:

This is going to be fairly short; to have father's character done complete in it; and mother's; and St. Ives; and childhood; and all the usual things I try to put in—life, death, etc. But the centre is father's character, sitting in a boat, reciting We perished, each alone, while he crushes a dying mackerel.

On July 20, 1925, when she had meditated on the novel for at least two months, but had not yet begun writing, Virginia Woolf summarized it: “Father and mother and child in the garden; the death; the sail to the Lighthouse … (I conceive the book in 3 parts: 1. at the drawing room window; 2. seven years passed; 3. the voyage.)”

There is no published record of when or why she modified the plot, if not the basic design, to include Lily Briscoe and her art; perhaps the very rapidity and verve of composition precluded an awareness of the new theme in the novel. Only when To The Lighthouse was nearly completed does the diary make its first mention of Lily. On September 3, 1926, Virginia Woolf noted:

The novel is now easily within sight of the end, but this, mysteriously, comes no nearer. [It was actually completed January, 1927.] I am doing Lily on the lawn; but whether it’s her last lap, I don’t know. … The problem is how to bring Lily and Mr. R. together and make a combination of interest at the end … I had meant to end with R. climbing on to the rock. If so, what becomes of Lily and her picture? Should there be a final page about her and Carmichael looking at the picture and summing up R.'s character? In that case I lose the intensity of the moment. If this intervenes between R. and the lighthouse, there’s too much chop and change, I think. Could I do it in a parenthesis? So that one had the sense of reading the two things at the same time?

Ending on Lily and her vision rather than Mr. Ramsay on the rock, Virginia Woolf nevertheless did—it is generally agreed—achieve the desired effect of simultaneity. Critical disagreement begins with the interpretation of that simultaneity.

During the time she wrote To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf made the usual miscellaneous entries in her diary—reactions to reception of The Common Reader and Mrs. Dalloway (both published in 1925); remarks on landscapes, books, moods, and friends; descriptions of meeting George Moore, of visiting Thomas Hardy; some sketchy reflections on life and art. Nothing notably different from the diary entries of other years; nothing that yields a clue as to why the theme of art should have been woven into the very fabric of her fiction, instead of remaining confined to journal, lecture, and essay, as in former years. But art is central to this novel; in Part I there are ubiquitous if disparate references, and in Part III art emerges as a major motif.

If, as our first approximation, life and art are viewed as polar opposites in To The Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe may be regarded as their respective exponents. The former opens the novel, and the latter closes it, as the stuff of life may be converted, through a particular medium, to a work of art. And indeed, in our first view of her, Mrs. Ramsay is already the subject of Lily's painting. As personification or as abstraction, life is larger than art; thus, Mrs. Ramsay, and not Lily Briscoe, is the main character of the novel; Mrs. Ramsay's tendency to exaggerate is in marked contrast to Lily's diffidence; Part I, in which Life dominates, is almost twice the length of Part III, in which Art is the focal center.

Whereas art needs life to nourish it, life is often unaware of the power of art to give it permanence. Thus, although Lily the painter is in love with Mrs. Ramsay (and, by extension, with all her family and their diverse doings), the latter cannot take Lily's painting seriously. Thus, too, Mrs. Ramsay's quite literal short-sightedness is played against Lily's “vision.” Lily finds it ironic that “Mrs. Ramsay presid[ed] with immutable calm over destinies which she completely failed to understand.” More subtly, Virginia Woolf suggests that life may be its own worst enemy, even as the artist may rebel against art's strict exigencies. Although it is only momentary, Mrs. Ramsay “felt alone in the presence of her old antagonist life.” In Part III, staring at her canvas, Lily is “drawn out of gossip, out of living, out of community with people into the presence of this formidable ancient enemy of hers … this form … roused one to perpetual combat.”

Even as a first approximation, however, the two women are not monolithic symbols, but reveal vivid personalities behind their major meaning.4 It is not “artistic” Lily but “living” Mrs. Ramsay who is endowed with rare beauty, for all her incongruous deer-stalker's hat and galoshes. Both women have a slightly exotic quality—Lily her Chinese eyes, and Mrs. Ramsay a Hellenic face. Both women dress soberly in grey. In spite of her easy, direct spontaneity, we never become familiar enough with Mrs. Ramsay to learn her first name, but Mrs. Ramsay calls Lily by her Christian name, suggesting the pure virgin which, by Part III, when she is forty-four (Virginia Woolf's own age when she wrote the novel), becomes “a skimpy old maid, holding a paintbrush.” These humanizing details root the character to a literal ground, so that they never become figures of allegory, but rather magnetic poles for particular lines of force.

In Part I, Mrs. Ramsay is at the heart of all the busy, indiscriminate activities of her large family and her too numerous summer guests. “Her masterfulness, her positiveness, something matter-of-fact in her” lead her to manage other people's lives, from trivial to important aspects. Lily, in contrast, can barely manage to manipulate her paint-brushes, and shrinks from any strange eye on her canvas. By Part III, Lily has become aware of a fundamental difference between herself and Mrs. Ramsay. The latter, though falling occasionally into meditation, “disliked anything that reminded her that she had been seen sitting thinking.” But “Some notion was in both of them [Lily the painter and Mr. Carmichael the poet] about the ineffectiveness of action, the supremacy of thought.”

Mrs. Ramsay, to be sure, bends all efforts to render her actions effective: first and foremost, she supplies emotional sustenance for her husband and children (when she dies, they are left in the chaotic confusion of the opening of Part III); she is an irrepressible matchmaker; she feels protective towards the whole male sex; she helps the poor and the sick; she strives for the unity and integrity of social scenes such as her dinner party. Quite explicitly, Lily Briscoe acknowledges Mrs. Ramsay's manipulation of life: “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).” Ironically, Mrs. Ramsay is seen “making” while Lily merely “tried.” But Mrs. Ramsay's efforts are doomed from the start; life can not stand still; time must pass; only “in another sphere” can moments be given permanence. Mrs. Ramsay has the rare faculty of ordering a scene so that it is “like a work of art,” but Lily Briscoe creates the concrete work of art.

From our first view of Lily, “standing on the edge of the lawn painting,” to the significant final view, “Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision”—the insistence is upon her art. Although fearful lest anyone look at her canvas, she paints with stubborn integrity to her vision, in the bright colors which Mr. Paunceforte's pastels have rendered unfashionable. It is the resolution to move her tree to the center of the canvas that sustains her through the dinner party, protects her against Charles Tansley's pronouncement that women cannot paint or write, and enables her to resist Mrs. Ramsay's determination to marry her to William Bankes. By Part III, Lily's paint-brush has become for her “the one dependable thing in a world of strife, ruin, chaos.” She seems more sure of her technique: the lines are nervous, but her brush-strokes are decisive. It is she who imagines the artistic credo of Mr. Carmichael: “how ‘you’ and ‘I’ and ‘she’ pass and vanish; nothing stays; all changes; but not words, not paint.” Yet even then, even to the final brush-stroke that brings the novel to a close, she continues to be haunted by the problematical and shifting relationship of art and life.

Lacking the self-sufficient absorption of Mr. Bankes in his science, of Mr. Carmichael in his poetry, Lily is constantly attracted or repelled by—never indifferent to—the life that surrounds her, and her art is intimately related to that life. Unlike the tourist painters who set their easels facing the bay, so as to paint the evanescent lighthouse, Lily turns her gaze on house and hedge, mother and child; she absorbs all the unpredictable storm and calm of Ramsay life; she is in love with the Ramsays precisely because they abound in life, as does the sea that surrounds their island:

The sky stuck to them; the birds sang through them. And, what was even more exciting … how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, becomes curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.

The very redundancy of “ones” emphasizes the basic unity of life through all its diverse manifestations. Thus, in her painting of Part I, Lily converts Mrs. Ramsay and James to a single purple triangle. During the dinner party, Lily comes to see that the tree (with which Mrs. Ramsay has earlier identified herself) must be placed at the center of the canvas. By Part III, Mrs. Ramsay herself does not figure in Lily's second painting, and yet that painting is even more directly dependent upon Mrs. Ramsay's life, and upon that larger, more profound and tragic vision of life, that includes death. When Lily surprises herself by uttering Mrs. Ramsay's name aloud, it is a desperate cry that climaxes her violent need to know why life is so short and inexplicable. In this need, Lily views Augustus Carmichael, the poet, as her partner. Together they probe for the meaning of life, and convert its pain to form, beauty, and permanence: “if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return.” Poet and painter are joined in defiance of death, in defense of life through art.

It is significant that Mr. Carmichael, poet of death, should share in Lily's vision of Mrs. Ramsay's resurrection. In Part I, he is the only character who is unresponsive to Mrs. Ramsay's beauty, who seems at times to dislike her. His opium-induced trances rebuke Mrs. Ramsay's incessant activities; the dryness of his poetic imagery is opposed to Mrs. Ramsay's immersion in sea-rhythms (and the sea is, of course, an age-old metaphor for life); his dealings with death (his poetry becomes popular only during the war) outlast Mrs. Ramsay's life-force. At the last, however, life and death are joined as a larger life; the painter of life and the poet of death are at once and together aware of life's final achievement, the landing at the lighthouse.

Although Mr. and particularly Mrs. Ramsay may be viewed as life-symbols, their life is opposed to art only in certain aspects. At the literal level both Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are sensitive to art, and they are variously involved with the art of literature. In Mrs. Ramsay's busy day, art is reduced to craft: knitting, cutting out pictures from magazines, tossing a shawl over a Michelangelo, reading aloud Grimm's “Fisherman's Wife,” and leafing through a poetry anthology are all in the day's doings. As for full-length books, “she never had time to read them.” Indiscriminately, Mrs. Ramsay envisions her son James as a judge, a statesman, an artist. While she reads Grimm's fairy tale to her son—oblivious to its sea of life that parallels the sea of life surrounding her—she is able to watch her husband and daughter outside, to meditate on her match of Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley, to daydream about her children, defying for them the life she cannot quite define.

At night, when the dinner party is over and the children are in bed, Mrs. Ramsay joins her husband as he sits reading Scott's Antiquary. She repeats the verses recited at dinner, lulls herself by reading from William Browne's “Siren's Song,” scarcely aware of a meaning beyond the music. She bends the final couplet of Shakespeare's Sonnet 98 to her own life, suddenly finding insubstantial the full, active hours that separate husband and wife from morning to night:

Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.

But in our intermittent glimpses of Mr. Ramsay during the day, he storms about like a batallion rather than a shadow, and, appropriately, Tennyson's “Charge of the Light Brigade” is the poem he quotes, indulging his penchant for reciting poetry without preamble or provocation.5 Suiting gesture to bombast, he lays special stress on “Some one had blundered.” First uttered when Jasper Ramsay shoots at the helpless birds, the line refers more specifically to Mr. Ramsay's blundering insistence that it will not be fine enough for James to make the trip to the ligfhthouse; more generally, Mr. Ramsay blunders by his egotistical demands upon his family, without in turn expressing his love for them. But close upon the end of the book, Mr. Ramsay is able to rectify his blunder; spontaneously, he praises his son with a “Well done” when James steers the sailboat skillfully into the lighthouse harbor. Father and son arrive together at the lighthouse.

In another significant instance, Mr. Ramsay's literary reference in Part I becomes part of the texture of his life in Part III. During Mrs. Ramsay's dinner party, Charles Tansley insists that no one reads Scott any more. After dinner, in solitary protest, Mr. Ramsay dips into the Antiquary (Scott's own favorite among his novels). Disdaining the major plot, Mr. Ramsay chooses the chapter which describes the sorrow in the fisherman's hut when Steenie, the fisherman, is drowned. In Part III of To The Lighthouse, the voyage to the lighthouse is made under the guidance of a fisherman who points out the treacherous places where other fishermen were drowned. Mr. Ramsay is equally able to respond to the humble scenes in Scott's novel, and to the real fishermen who guide him to the lighthouse. Professor though he is, his intellectuality relates to reality. Less intuitive than his wife, he nevertheless complements her in a vital rapport with, in a virtual representation of, life.

Mr. Ramsay considers his wife unlearned, but she is capable of some literary reference, and shrewdly guesses that the self-made Charles Tansley “would have liked … to say how he had gone not to the circus but to Ibsen with the Ramsays.” When her “booby” Paul Rayley remembers the name of Vronsky “because he always thought it such a good name for a villain,” she is instantly able to recognize it as coming from Anna Karenina. (The irony of Paul's “villain” emerges in Part III, when Paul himself, like Vronsky, takes a mistress.)

Other minor characters also display their literary culture: Mr. Bankes, the scientist, shares Mr. Ramsay's taste for Scott, and thinks it a shame that the young no longer read Carlyle. Mr. Carmichael, a poet himself, has such catholic taste in poetry that he lies awake nights reading Virgil, and is also able to complete Mr. Ramsay's quotation from “Luriana Lurilee.”6

Insistent as these literary strands are, they do no more in Part I than establish art as one aspect of Ramsay life. In Part III, however, when death has attacked the Ramsays, and art itself becomes a major theme, literary reference all but disappears. The single exception is Mr. Ramsay's reiterated quotation from the last stanza of Cowper's “Castaway”:

We perished, each alone.
But I beneath a rougher sea
Was whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.

The very isolation of the quotation in the final section of the novel calls attention to its importance. From her earliest conception of To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf associated the first of these lines with Mr. Ramsay7 Just before Mr. Ramsay jumps ashore at the lighthouse, he is silent: “He might be thinking, We perish, each alone, or he might be thinking, I have reached it. I have found it.”

Written in the last year of Cowper's life, the description of the drowning of the castaway is turned by the poet into a personal lamentation over his own fate. Similarly, Mr. Ramsay, after the death of his wife, pleads for Lily Briscoe's sympathy, and for that of his children, James and Cam. Although he is presumably concerned with “subject and object and the nature of reality,” he is intensely subjective in attitude and demand. A solitary hero in both his own and his daughter's eyes, he is also a voluble sufferer, violently calling attention to himself. But his fate, finally, is gentler than that of the castaway (or of Cowper): because he is able to verbalize his love for his son, to utter the “Well done” of praise, he is spared from the “deeper gulfs.” Even if each must perish alone, Mr. Ramsay first reaches the haven of the lighthouse.

Other than the repetitions of the “Castaway” lines, Part III of To The Lighthouse is barren of literary reference. Although Mr. Carmichael is by that time a celebrated poet, and Lily Briscoe indulges in speculation about the kind of poetry he writes, direct quotation from his work is carefully withheld. Even more important, although Mr. Ramsay reads throughout his trip to the lighthouse, neither title nor contents of his book is ever revealed. Three times, however, attention is called to its cover “mottled like a plover's egg.” There may well be a suggestion that Mr. Ramsay's intellectualism, now that he is about to express his love for his son, becomes an embryonic form of life. All Mr. Ramsay's intellectual interests of Part I—metaphysics, reciting verse, and books in general—are converted in Part III into more vital action. No longer can art be a mere miscellaneous Ramsay energy; now that death has attacked the Ramsays, they are more fiercely alive than ever. And it is this realization that enables Lily to complete her painting.

The crucial final sentences of the novel, in which Lily Briscoe paints one clean line to finish the picture that is blurred to her sight, establishes form and synthesis through art. But form and synthesis were not present from the start; they had to be earned by the artist, in the passage of time, through suffering and love. In Part I, Lily Briscoe stays not with the Ramsays, but at a village inn. By the end of Part II, she is invited to stay at the house. In the short middle section of the novel, the very use of a lyric mode suggests the ordering action of art, while time erodes the scenes of the life conveyed in Part I. Exterior events are tersely reported within brackets, and three out of the six bracketed passages are announcements of death. Both life and death are bracketed within the large, impersonal movements of time.

Brackets also enclose a single passage in Part III; in the sections that alternate between Lily on the shore and the Ramsays on the sea, in the heart of Lily Briscoe's vision of Mrs. Ramsay, we read: [“Macalister's boy took one of the fish and cut a square out of its side to bait his hook with. The mutilated body (it was alive still) was thrown back into the sea.”]8

Punctuation and position relate the destruction of the fish to the destruction in Part II of Prue, Andrew, and Mrs. Ramsay. Before the bracketed section, Lily dissolves into tears for Mrs. Ramsay and the life she represents. After this section, Lily, controlling her anguish, returns to her picture. It is perhaps not too fanciful to relate Lily and the fish, each suffering anguish and loss, and each being thrown back into the sea of life.

When the voyage to the lighthouse is over, Mr. Carmichael, poet, holding his French novel like a trident (the sceptre of a sea-god), establishes communion with Lily Briscoe, artist, by announcing, “They will have landed.” About the voyage, Lily says, “He has landed. … It is finished.” About her picture, “It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”

During the course of the novel, there are several uses of the word “vision.”9 Very early in Part I, Lily seeks to translate “some miserable remnant of her vision” into her painting. Later, in her conversation with Mr. Bankes, when he attempts to understand what she is doing, she finds herself unable to express herself without a brush in her hand.

She took up once more her old painting position with the dim eyes and the absent-minded manner, subduing all her impressions as a woman to something much more general; becoming once more under the power of that vision which she had seen clearly once and must now grope for among hedges and houses and mothers and children—her picture. (Italics added.)

Years later, in Part III, just before Lily sights the boat on its way to the lighthouse, there are three separate uses of the word on a single page (270). From the time she learned of Mrs. Ramsay's death, Lily has been haunted by a vision of Mrs. Ramsay moving swiftly, surrounded by flowers.10

The closing words of the book—Lily's “I have had my vision”—follow her final brush-stroke, and link the painting both to her vision of Mrs. Ramsay, and to the arrival at the lighthouse of Mr. Ramsay and the children. Early in Part I, Mrs. Ramsay had identified herself with the third long stroke of the lighthouse. By the end of the book, her husband reaches the lighthouse only when he is capable of her own loving spontaneity towards their son. With the words “Well done” Mr. Ramsay moves from his metaphysics and literature to his wife's living relationship with the children. Art has led to life.

On the shore, Lily Briscoe, painter of life, and Augustus Carmichael, poet of death, are joined in their awareness of the landing at the lighthouse. Exhausted by her feeling of having helped Mr. Ramsay, exquisitely conscious of the empty drawing-room steps where Mrs. Ramsay sat in the earlier picture, finding that her painting is as blurred as her last view of the lighthouse, Lily Briscoe wields her brush in the line that unites them all, that translates vision to art. At the lighthouse from which Mrs. Ramsay is absent, in the painting from which Mrs. Ramsay is absent, her life nevertheless endures. Life has given birth to both art and life.


  1. Quotations from To The Lighthouse are from the Harbrace Modern Classics edition (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927).

  2. For example:

    Bernard Blackstone, Virginia Woolf (London, 1949), pp. 99-130.

    David Daiches, Virginia Woolf (Norfolk, 1942), pp. 79-96.

    S. H. Derbyshire, “An Analysis of Mrs. Woolf's To The Lighthouse,College English III (January, 1942), 353-360.

    Norman Friedman, “The Waters of Annihilation: Double Vision in To The Lighthouse,ELH XXII (March, 1955), 61-79.

    James Hafley, The Glass Roof (Berkeley, 1954), pp. 77-92.

    Dorothy Hoare, Some Studies in the Modern Novel (London, 1938), pp. 53-62.

    Charles Hoffman, “To The Lighthouse,Explicator X (November, 1951), 13.

    Jean-Jacques Mayoux, Vivants Piliers (Paris, 1960), pp. 201-228.

    Glenn Pedersen, “Vision in To The Lighthouse,PMLA LXXXIII (December, 1958), 585-600.

    John Hawley Roberts, “‘Vision and Design’ in Virginia Woolf,” PMLA, LXI (September, 1946), 842-847.

  3. See Virginia Woolf's journal entries published in A Writer's Diary (New York, 1954). Also, Frank Baldanza, “To The Lighthouse Again,” PMLA, LXX (June, 1955), 548-552.

  4. My interpretation does not preclude others, and I particularly admire those of Friedman and Mayoux.

  5. Hafley also discusses the significance of the Tennyson poem.

  6. I have been unable to identify these verses.

  7. See the first quotation of this article.

  8. Originally, it was Mr. Ramsay who “crushes a dying mackerel,” but probably in more careful preparation for his praise of his son, the fish is finally transferred to the fisherman's son.

  9. “Vision” is a favorite word of Virginia Woolf; Roberts discusses this aspect in some detail.

  10. Lily Briscoe's vision of Mrs. Ramsay is curiously like that of Charles Tansley, early in Part I.

Principal Works

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The Voyage Out (novel) 1915

Kew Gardens (short stories) 1919

Night and Day (novel) 1919

Monday or Tuesday (short stories) 1921

Jacob's Room (novel) 1922

Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (criticism) 1924

The Common Reader (criticism) 1925

Mrs. Dalloway (novel) 1925

To the Lighthouse (novel) 1927

Orlando (novel) 1928

A Room of One's Own (essays) 1929

The Waves (novel) 1931

The Second Common Reader (criticism) 1932

Flush A Biography (biography) 1933

The Years (novel) 1937

Three Guineas (essays) 1938

Roger Fry (biography) 1940

Between the Acts (novel) 1941

The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays (essays) 1942

A Haunted House, and Other Short Stories (short stories) 1943

The Moment, and Other Essays (essays) 1947

The Captain's Death Bed, and Other Essays (essays) 1950

Granite and Rainbow (essays) 1958

Nurse Lugton’s Golden Thimble [also published as Nurse Lugton's Curtain] (juvenile) 1966

Collected Essays (essays) 1967

Moments of Being [edited by Jeanne Schulkind] (autobiographical essays) 1976

Freshwater [edited with a preface by Lucio P. Ruotolo] (comedy) 1976

The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf [edited by Susan Dick] (short stories) 1985

The Essays of Virginia Woolf [edited by Andrew McNeillie] (essays) 1986

Woolf Omnibus [contains Jacob's Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves] (novels) 1994

John Edward Hardy (essay date 1964)

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SOURCE: “Vision Without Promise,” in Man in the Modern Novel, University of Washington Press, 1964, pp. 96–122.

[In the following essay, Hardy argues that Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay represent the “Masculine Principle and the Feminine Principle” and, as such, symbolize the tension between subject and object and their respective places in reality.]

It would seem impossible to construct the problem of human identity apart from consideration of the mysteries of sex and procreation. The sexual character of the human individual, however inevitably mixed, no one person purely male or purely female—and, indeed, this indecisiveness only serves to emphasize the importance of the dichotomy—is radical. Chiefly in being aware of this character in other persons, which is the procreative potentiality, whether affirmed or denied, deprived or richly endowed, the capacity to bring forth many out of the one, do we recognize the otherness of ourselves.

Virginia Woolf's novel [To The Lighthouse] has as its ultimate theme precisely what Andrew Ramsay defines, in answer to Lily Briscoe's question, as the burden of his father's philosophical preoccupation—“subject and object and the nature of reality.” But Lily is speaking both as woman and as artist when she replies that “Heavens, she had no notion what that meant,” and is instructed then by Andrew to “think of a kitchen table … when you’re not there.” The table of which she entertains a vision, “a scrubbed kitchen table … lodged now in the fork of a pear tree … its four legs in air,” a “white deal” table—“deal” is perhaps a pun on “ideal”—becomes the concrete symbol of the abstracting, rational intelligence, or of reality as seen by that intelligence. It is the first in a long series of things “thought of when no one is there,” in its initial, mere absurdity ironically anticipating the later terror—of the vision of the vacant house in the middle section “Time Passes,” where the eye of the lighthouse beam and the shadows of birds pass over the empty mirrors, and of Mr. Ramsay's and Lily Briscoe's bereavement in the final section, seeking communication with the invisible presence of the dead Mrs. Ramsay. But the matter of first importance to be noted about that table, as symbol of the abstracting intelligence, of one way, rendered manifestly absurd, in which things invisible (what is there when no one is there) may be dealt with—and, by the token of its absurdity, demanding the attempt to reveal, in the rest of the novel, presumably a better way—is its specific identification with the masculine mind.

The table as such, perhaps, is inevitably feminine. As such, it is, or truly represents, reality. But the positioning, so to speak, of the symbol, its awkward lodging in the pear tree, obviously renders it absurd, and makes it representative of the abstracting, i.e., masculine, intelligence—the kind of intelligence that, in Lily Briscoe's view, violates reality.

Now, one is tempted to start making qualifications, stating reservations, right away. Lily Briscoe, besides being an artist, is an old maid, which assuredly qualifies her character as woman. And, I might seem to have implied that her point of view, however we are to define it, is dominant throughout the novel; whereas, in any obvious way, it actually does not become so until the final section. Moreover, especially in the conclusion, her function is somewhat to mediate between the opposed claims of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, after a fashion to reconcile them, rather than unequivocally to champion the latter's cause in her absence. But, to whatever extent that sensibility is or is not finally identifiable with Lily's, not to speak yet of Mrs. Woolf's—and notwithstanding the force of such an argument as Glenn Pedersen's, which would make Mrs. Ramsay the villainess of the piece—the initial effect of the entire opening section “The Window,” by far the longest, is surely to glorify the feminine sensibility, in the person of Mrs. Ramsay, at the expense of the masculine, her husband's.

The pattern of a dialectic opposition is clear. These two are not simply a man and a woman—rather distressingly not that, indeed—a husband and a wife, but Man and Woman, the Masculine Principle and the Feminine Principle. They represent two, clearly opposed truths in competition for the world, for the future, as represented specifically in the proposed trip to the lighthouse but more generally in the future lives of their children, for truth.

Mr. Ramsay's is the truth of things as they are. He “never tampered with a fact.” Mrs. Ramsay's is the truth of perhaps, of things as they might be. They will go to the lighthouse tomorrow “if it’s fine.” “But it won’t be fine,” says Mr. Ramsay. “But it may be fine—I expect it will be fine,” says Mrs. Ramsay.

And, although we suspect from the first that Mr. Ramsay's judgment will be vindicated by the weather on the tomorrow—the set of the wind, the falling barometer, cannot be and must not be argued with—we are given clearly to understand that this does not mean he is right. For it is the “won’t be” that betrays the inadequacy of his kind of truth. He may pretend that it is only facts with which he is concerned, with things as they are, but actually he is radically discontent with present reality; he has no real interest in is except as the basis of will be. The supposed, uncomprising factuality, objectivity, of his mind is revealed as a pathetic egotism. Is, when pushed to will be—cannot, to must not be—becomes, obviously, the instrument of moral tyranny.

Hardly less even than his sycophant Charles Tansley, “the little atheist” whom the children so despise, Mr. Ramsay is a figure of ridicule in this first section of the book. It is only the element of pathos in his egotism, only the evident fact that he himself is the chief victim of his own tyranny of mind, that makes his antics in any way “funny,” and serves somewhat to redeem him as a sympathetic character. But the emphasis is derogatory. He is a disruptive presence, demanding, mean, indifferent to anyone's peace of mind except his own—repeatedly breaking in to destroy the serenity of the mother's communion with her child, abrupting with his wild, self-dramatizing declamations upon the field of Lily Briscoe's vision as she sits on the lawn trying to paint. And the meanness, the cruelty, the demanding relentlessness, is specifically identified again and again with his character as male. The sensibility of the woman, of Mrs. Ramsay, is the “fountain and spray of life,” a “delicious fecundity,” into which “the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare.” And again, “James felt all her strength flaring up to be drunk and quenched by the beak of brass, the arid scimitar of the male, which smote mercilessly, demanding sympathy.”

The very, shameless intensity of his need for sympathy is what most prevents its being, at least from the reader, elicited. And to the extent that Mrs. Ramsay is willing to provide it, despite his unworthiness, her charity serves only further to ennoble her. “There was nobody she reverenced as she reverenced him.” But this reverence, although it is wholly admirable in her, is at the same time one which Mrs. Woolf has made it plain would be very difficult for anyone else to understand or share.

To be sure, we get some few hints at a quality of nobility in him discoverable to others than his wife. Lily Briscoe, comparing him at first unfavorably to Mr. Bankes, remembers suddenly how he had “come down in two coats the other night and let Mrs. Ramsay trim his hair into a pudding basin,” and is filled for a moment with the recognition of “a fiery unworldliness” in the man which makes him seem then infinitely superior to the neat, scrubbed, bachelor botanist. And we catch something of the same in the story of the walk he had taken many years before with Bankes, when he stopped in the path to point his stick at the mother hen with her chickens and muttered “Pretty—pretty”—the gesture in which his friend had sensed “an odd illumination in to his heart,” and, admiring it, yet at the same time had foreseen the drying up of their friendship, what was to come about as the result of Ramsay's marriage and the encumbrances of “clucking domesticities.” The passage elicits a subtle variety of sympathies, for Bankes as well as for Ramsay. It has the true, high pathos, of an insight into one of the ineluctable sadnesses of life—how the love of man and woman always, inevitably, if it is to be fulfilled, destroys the love of man and man—which is momentarily beyond considerations merely of individual personality, and of the relative merits of character. But, in the end, the tendency of it is to confirm Lily Briscoe's intuition of Ramsay's superiority. The “glories of isolation and austerity which crowned him in youth,” which had made him, in the time of the flower of their friendship, most admirable to Bankes, we are led to feel have been worthily put off. Bankes “commiserated him, envied him,” in his having so divested himself. And it is the envy that is proper; the commiseration is the thinnest mask of Bankes's own, mere self-commiseration, in being deprived of the friendship. Ramsay's petty, eccentric vanities are nothing beside the botanist's settled habits of self-solicitude, with his valet and his objections to dogs on chairs.

But this can do little to offset the effect of the other episodes, of Ramsay's cruelty to his wife, and of his absurd, childish daydreams of self-dramatization, as the hero of Balaclava and what not. It is clear enough how pettiness and vanity, in the truly great, may be evidence of actual humility. But the question is, whether Ramsay really is a great man. Humility, especially when it so successfully disguises itself as vanity, requires so much charitable insight on the part of others to be discovered as humility, is not likely to seem much of a virtue unless there is reasonable cause for pride. What, in short, does Mr. Ramsay have to be humble about?

The crucial passage is the one describing his effort to run the “alphabet” of thought—to push on from Q, where he is stuck, to R. He does not make it, of course. And we see clearly the grounds of his fear about his status as professional philosopher. We are told repeatedly how he frets over the suspicion that “young men do not care for him,” that Charles Tansley's opinion of him as “the greatest metaphysician of the time” is pure sycophancy. But the final, ironic point is not just that he is a lesser thinker than someone who could, perhaps, go on to R, or even all the way to Z. Bernard Blackstone, without being able to make much of his insight, has observed that the “shutter,” “the leathern eyelid of a lizard,” which obscures Ramsay's vision of R, is the veil of his egotism. So, rather obviously, it is. Throughout the episode, in the midst of the intellectual struggle, he is so preoccupied with the pathos of his lonely heroism—daydreaming about himself as the leader of a party of shipwrecked seamen, of imperiled mountain-climbers—that he cannot keep to the discipline of his mental task. But the point is not that Mr. Ramsay, in particular, is so grossly self-infatuated that he cannot reach that goal of R. (I take it that R “stands for” Reality.) The point is, rather, that the entire system, the entire conception of thought as the “piano keyboard” or the “alphabet” is a construct of egotism—i.e., of the intelligence acting in the service of the ego—and therefore doomed to failure. No one who thinks in this way is going to reach R, for the simple reason that the Reality so conceived, so reduced, does not exist. R is an illusion.

“For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order …,” Mrs. Woolf says. But we could hardly be given more clearly to understand, than by that “if,” that thought is not like that.

But this, although it somehow universalizes Ramsay, does nothing to dignify him. No matter how universal the tendency of mind that he represents—and Mrs. Woolf pretty clearly regards it as the basic tendency of all, at the very least, English metaphysics—the tendency stands, in him, condemned. The “on to R” skit is a merciless caricature of rationalistic metaphysics, of the kind of thinking that would, precisely, be good enough for directing polar expeditions, rescuing shipwrecked seamen, governing India, any endeavor in which the object is simply to “get things done,” but which is utterly ineffectual when it comes to the fundamental problems of existence. (The farce is more than a little embarrassing, perhaps, in a way not intended by the author. Mrs. Woolf simply doesn’t know very much about the way philosophical investigations are conducted. Her philosopher is a straw man. But the intention is unmistakable.) There is, therefore, an irreducible element of condescension in the “respect” Lily Briscoe professes to feel for Mr. Ramsay's mind, in Mrs. Ramsay's “reverence” for him. He is pitiable, nothing more, in his humiliations; for his greatness, to which the willingness to suffer humiliation, the thoughtless simplicity, should attest, is revealed as monstrous self-delusion.

And, to repeat, that false tendency of mind which would push the processes of rationalism—i.e., the processes of ego-assertion, of practical intelligence—into realms where they do not and cannot apply—i.e., precisely into the realm of the metaphysical, properly so-called—Mrs. Woolf clearly identifies with the masculine intelligence.

The philosopher's wife, on the other hand, is perfection of beauty and wisdom. All (with Mr. Carmichael, to whom we shall come later, the notable exception) dance attendance upon her. She is mysterious, to be adored, at once completely self-contained and completely self-giving. Because she seeks nothing, all things come to her. Her beauty is indefinable; the “nonsense” of Charles Tansley's thoughts as he carries her bag, “stars in her eyes and veils in her hair, with cyclamen and wild violets,” is in fact about as sensible as anyone's efforts to capture it could be. William Bankes is hardly more successful—“one must remember the quivering thing, the living thing …, and work it into the picture,” but “… he did not know, he did not know, … he must go to his work.” She is careless of it, “is no more aware of her beauty than a child,” thinks Mr. Bankes; “she clapped a deer-stalker's hat on her head, she ran across the lawn in galoshes to snatch a child from mischief,” so that “… one must endow her with some freak of idiosyncrasy—she did not like admiration—or suppose some latent desire to doff her royalty of form as if her beauty bored her and all that men say of beauty.” But its indefinability, and her unawareness, her carelessness, are of course to be understood just as the firmest proof of it.

Children, galoshes, and deer-stalker's hat notwithstanding, she is accorded, and accepts, the homage due a queen. Mrs. Woolf repeatedly invokes the metaphor of regality in the account of her presiding at dinner.

In her beauty, her grace of bearing, she is queenly. But in some as it were neo-Platonic conception, the beauty is but the outward light of an inner virtue. She is queenly in her roles of protectress and of giver. “She had the whole of the other sex under her protection”; that, of course, above all, and the passage implicitly states the metaphor of royal patronage—“for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance.” But, besides the children, her guests too are her subjects, and the poor people of the town whose sickbeds she visits, going about dispensing favors from the mysterious bag that Charles Tansley was permitted unworthily to carry for her. (The household, with the children and guests, the latter significantly divided into the two circles of those who are actually staying at the house and those who have taken rooms in town, contains her court; the town itself, and the lighthouse, are her realm.) She is queenly as molder of destinies—as if, not so much merely prompting, but decreeing the engagement of Paul and Minta, appointing in fancy her son to a seat on the Bench.

But the matter of final importance is the implicit identification of beauty, of the virtue that shines forth in the beauty, with wisdom. Lily Briscoe, to be sure, is uncertain of the term. “Was it wisdom? Was it knowledge? Was it, once more, the deceptiveness of beauty, so that all one's perceptions, half way to truth, were tangled in a golden mesh? or did she lock up within her some secret which certainly Lily Briscoe believed people must have for the world to go on at all?” “And yet, she knew knowledge and wisdom were stored up in Mrs. Ramsay's heart.” And the term, then, wisdom, will serve as well as another. The important thing, regardless of the precise term, is that she has a truth—or a source of truth, a way to truth—which is necessary “for the world to go on at all,” which is opposed to the way of her husband's thinking, and which is plainly “preferred” to his, or regarded as superior.

It is also plain that the area of her concern is precisely that defined as her husband's—“subject and object and the nature of reality”—or, in terms that perhaps more accurately suggest the character of her “approach,” existence and being. She is, in brief, albeit unwittingly, a metaphysician. Or, Mrs. Woolf has embodied in her, “symbolically,” the statement of a metaphysical doctrine.

One need not too long hesitate to attach labels—except with due caution to note that the doctrine is one which in itself expressly condemns the habit of attaching labels. The pseudo-Bergsonism is apparent, and has been often observed. (James Hafley, in his generally excellent book on Virginia Woolf, The Glass Roof, presents the most sensible account of this matter to date.) Mrs. Ramsay's experience of knowledge as unity—her identification with the third stroke of the beam from the lighthouse, “the last of the three, which was her stroke,” with “inanimate things, trees, streams, flowers,” how she “felt they expressed one, felt they became one, felt they knew one, in a sense were one”—is a variety of intuition. Her mind at rest, in the “core of darkness,” “when life sank down for a moment,” inhabits Bergsonian time, entertains the experience of self as pure flow of consciousness, the durée réelle, and is indifferent to the limitations of spatialized experience. “Her horizon seemed to her limitless. There were all the places she had not seen; the Indian plains; she felt herself pushing aside the thick leather curtain of a church in Rome. This core of darkness could go anywhere, for no one saw it.”

If the act of self-knowing or self-contemplation, Mrs. Ramsay's ecstatic composure in her momentary solitude when the household quiets down at the end of the day and she listens to the sea and watches for the stroke of the lighthouse beam, is vaguely “Bergsonian,” we must be careful to recognize that the explicit identification in the novel of the capacity of mind for such an act with the feminine, with something deriving from popular notions of woman's intuition, is Mrs. Woolf's own idea. She is also largely on her own in seeming to interpret, finally, the act of creative intuition as identical with the artist's creativity. When Lily Briscoe, in the last section of the novel, is made consciously and directly to draw the analogy between Mrs. Ramsay's composed and composing presence and herself at her easel—“that woman sitting there writing under the rock resolved everything into simplicity … brought together this and that and then this … made … something which survived after all these years complete, … stayed in the mind affecting one almost like a work of art,” and again, “Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent)”—the novelist has exploited for her own purposes a notion that is nowhere more than implied in the writings of the philosopher. But, with these reservations duly made, with due recognition above all that we are dealing with a novel, not a work of formal philosophy, it is not unenlightening to recall Bergson when we attempt to define the issue of the conflict, contest indeed, between Mrs. Ramsay and her husband. I have so far deliberately avoided a terminology that smacks exclusively of the Bergsonian; but there is no harm in thinking of nearsighted Mrs. Ramsay as representative of “intuition,” of farsighted Mr. Ramsay as the “intellect,” so long as we do not suppose that everything in the book can or should be made to fit the formula. The reference will be most useful when we try to determine where Mrs. Woolf herself “stands” with regard to the conflict between the Ramsays.

About the fact of Mrs. Ramsay's triumph, at least in the first section of the novel, there can be little question. She is, we are given clearly to understand, made of far sterner stuff than her husband, is in truth far more of a realist than he. If one might have suspected at first that she is merely the sentimentalist in her opposition to his pretentiously uncompromising factuality—wanting to reassure James, that “it may be fine”—the suspicion is soon dispelled. When, in the course of her meditations as she sits knitting, the voice of an insincere, conventional faith momentarily asserts itself—“We are in the hands of the Lord”—she quickly and firmly rejects it. It is not her voice. “Who had said it? Not she.” “How could any Lord have made this world? she asked … there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that.” And her husband, passing by the window and seeing her, cannot “help noting the sternness at the heart of her beauty,” and is pained and baffled by it. Finally, indeed, he cannot bear it. He must, in defense of his own weakness, the failure of his own philosophical faith to sustain him, come in again and plead silently with her for sympathy, try to compel her to some show of compromising softness.

And when she does, finally, seem to yield—by admitting that she was wrong, that the stocking she is knitting will not be finished, and that, in any event, she knows the weather will not permit the trip to the lighthouse next day—we realize that it is, at the center of her being, no real yielding at all. She can afford to say she is wrong, because she is on another and higher plane so indubitably right. The discovery of self, in the “wedge-shaped core of darkness,” is a loss of self. (Specifically—Mrs. Woolf is very precise—it is a loss of personality. “Not as oneself did one find rest ever, … but as a wedge of darkness. Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir. …”) Just so, when she surrenders to her husband, yields, admits he is right, the surrender is in truth a triumph.

“‘Yes, you were right. It’s going to be wet tomorrow. You won’t be able to go.’ And she looked again at him smiling. For she had triumphed again. She had not said it: yet he knew.”

These are the final lines of Part I, “The Window.”

The unfinished stocking, it is plain, is the web of Penelope. Insofar as, in remaining unfinished, it foretells Mrs. Ramsay's death, it is the thread of her fate, untimely cut off. But, most immediately, in the context of her admission that it cannot be finished, that the trip cannot be made, of her triumphant surrender, it is the web of her wifely fidelity—in which she draws Odysseus finally home.

And yet, I have so far deliberately overstated the case for Mrs. Ramsay as embodiment of the author's view. Not only have we the evidence of Mr. Carmichael's refusal, even to some extent Lily Briscoe's own hesitancy, to join in the dance of praise; but it might reasonably be questioned whether the effect of this final, living picture of Mrs. Ramsay, in triumph over her husband, is altogether flattering to her.

“Little question,” I said, about her triumph. But enough, perhaps. Is it, as I have suggested, altogether the same thing when in her solitude the loss of self becomes self-discovery, truest communion, and when in her confrontation with her husband her seeming surrender becomes a triumph? Cannot the latter be interpreted merely as a psychological maneuver on her part, which—however true-to-life it may be, familiar from our experience of the ways of women with their men, and as such to be appreciated among Mrs. Woolf's many discernings of the kind—is not meant further to exalt the character of Mrs. Ramsay at this crucial point, but rather to diminish it, subtly to reveal its one, fatal weakness, its “tragic flaw”?

As her husband has stood watching her, she has been aware that he would have her tell him she loves him. “Will you not tell me just for once that you love me? He was thinking that, for he was roused, what with Minta and his book … their having quarreled about going to the Lighthouse.” But she cannot. She smiles at him, anticipating her admission, the gesture of submission to his superior practical judgment, and reassures herself—that, “though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him.” But there is a mocking tone of anxiety in the very repetition of the assurances. “He could not deny it.” And when we come to the final words—“For she had triumphed again. She had not said it: yet he knew.”—although, at first glance we might suppose the “it” to be the same as before, supply unthinkingly the phrase “that she loved him” after “knew,” a second look might arouse some misgivings. Perhaps that is not it at all. Perhaps the only thing he really knows is that “she had triumphed again”—which, except from the viewpoint of a colossal egotism, is hardly the same thing as loving.

There is reason to suspect that Mrs. Ramsay is a colossal egotist. We have identified her husband's way of thinking with ego assertion. But does not the metaphysical certainty she secures in her experience of “losing personality”—what she gains through the via negativa (in the term of Blackstone's rather oppressively enthusiastic analysis) of her submergence in the “core of darkness”—become the weapon, consciously and deliberately used, of a purely personal victory in her conflict with her husband? In that victory, she is inevitably compromised; her queenliness is suspect of tyranny. And we have not far to search for other evidences of compromise.

Her vaunted realism—“there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor … there was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that”—is compromised over and over in her actions. In deference to James's wishes, she will not remove the memento mori of the pig's skull from the children's bedroom; but neither is she content to leave it there to frighten Cam, “branching at her all over the room,” but covers it with her shawl, as if, though she herself knows best of all it cannot, the mantle of her benevolent wishes might hide the shadow of death itself. In “Time Passes,” the wind, the slow decay of the fabric, have begun to unwrap the shawl. She has decreed the marriage of Minta and Paul, sent them out to walk beside the sea and become engaged. But the heirloom brooch (Minta's grandmother's), symbol of tradition, of the tie between past and present and future, is lost. And in “The Lighthouse” we learn that the marriage was not successful. It might have been foreseen that it would not be. But, whether it could have been or not, the point is plain that such considerations—i.e., in the ultimate interest of the parties concerned—rarely enter into Mrs. Ramsay's thinking, this, as Lily Briscoe sees it, “mania of hers for marriage.” She is concerned only to make the match, is all but totally irresponsible with regard to its probable outcome. Again, the benevolence is subtlest despotism—is betrayal, and not only of Paul and Minta, but self-betrayal, betrayal of the deepest certainties of her own self-knowledge. “No treachery too base for the world to commit”? But, of course, “she knew that”! She knows it, one begins to suspect, best of all from her own example.

The argument might be pursued primarily on the evidence of the second and third sections of the novel. Several critics have noted the implications of “Time Passes”—that time and decay, wind and water and sand, the birds and beasts and plants, seem to have conspired to defeat Mrs. Ramsay's design. Her children die, in childbirth, in war; the house deteriorates, in a few more seasons would fall into utter ruin; and the island, as island of human order or human time (planned time, projected, plotted time) in the undifferentiated sea-flow of Time, would be obliterated. And if one asserts that this obliteration is precisely what Mrs. Ramsay alone was capable of foreseeing, unflinchingly facing in the depths of her secret wisdom, in the “core of darkness”—and that, therefore, she would have been most vindicated by such an outcome—still, that only states the fact of her self-betrayal in another way. For, outside the core of darkness, she herself has planned, has projected, plotted, has sought to protect, to determine destinies. The design, however paradoxically, was hers. It is only a little more accurate to insist that the conspiracy of time and decay is a conspiracy with her, to the end of her self-defeat.

Further, in the final section, “The Lighthouse,” Lily Briscoe feels for some time a continuing resentment against Mrs. Ramsay. She, whose viewpoint becomes more and more the point of final reference for the reader, congratulates herself, and one feels with every right to do so, on having defied the tyranny of Mrs. Ramsay's matchmaking. (Mrs. Ramsay had tried to pair her off with Mr. Bankes.) She indulges, again righteously, a certain bitter joy of triumph over the tyrant in the knowledge that the marriage of the Rayleys has turned out badly. If the edge is taken off her triumph by the realization that Mrs. Ramsay herself is dead, safely beyond reproach, yet the effect is only to arouse further feelings of indignation against her—for having, as it were, escaped her responsibilities in death.

But all this is anticipated, actually, in the first section. Pedersen has indicated in part the importance of the recurrent references to the fairytale of “The Fisherman and His Wife” which Mrs. Ramsay is reading to James. It is apparent that the reader is expected to remember Grimm's story; and the “moral” of it serves covertly to define the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, the issue of their conflict over the proposed trip to the lighthouse. The philosopher—who keeps interrupting the reading of the story, who precisely does not believe in fairytales, who suspects as dangerous nonsense the kind of defiance of the facts of nature his wife practices in continuing to encourage James and to prepare for the trip in the face of the falling barometer and the set of the wind, but who lacks the courage of his convictions, so fears the woman's displeasure that he humbly offers to “step over and ask the Coastguards” on the chance that he might be wrong—has rather exactly the character of the Fisherman. And Mrs. Ramsay, at second glance, looks very much like Ilsabil. It is not simply that, living in a hovel, she would play the Queen. (Or “King,” as in the story. The theme of discontent with the limitations of sex is also involved.) In Grimm's story, the final outrage, which calls down the wrath of the wizard Fish upon the woman, to punish her pride and send her back to the poverty from which he had rescued her, is her demand for control over the movements of the sun and moon, i.e., she has demanded the power to interfere with the laws of external nature, specifically, to prohibit the passage of time. Just so, Mrs. Ramsay would make of the self-certitude that she has drawn from the sea-depths of her intuitional experience an instrument, in her personal relations, of her possessive will—and again, as we have seen, in a way that specifically involves a defiance of time, the “spatialized time” which is championed by her husband, with his watch on which he wears a compass as a fob.

The stylistic effects, or manifestations, of Mrs. Woolf's time consciousness in this book and others—the pattern of the development of her style, her narrative technique, from the earlier works to the later, in terms of a growing preoccupation with the time problem—have attracted sufficient critical attention. I am concerned here primarily with questions of another, although closely related order—namely, with the moral-psychological implications of the time-experience that she attributes to Mrs. Ramsay (the experience of the self, in Bergsonian terms, as, or as consciousness of, duration), and that, it would appear, is so nearly identical with her own, central, artistic vision.

That vision, that experience, provides a sufficient aesthetic order. The lives of the Ramsays and their friends are composed, rendered, in the novel. We “get the picture.” And it is not difficult to see what the peculiarly plotless character of the narration—the apparently aimless moving about, backward and forward in chronological time, from moment to self-contained moment of consciousness, the emphasis everywhere upon reaction rather than action, upon what the characters are seeing, thinking, feeling, rather than upon what they are doing, with an attendant reliance upon the structure of symbolic motif to provide thematic unity—has to do with our getting it so clearly as life-picture. The life-sense is inseparable from the time-sense, the new order of narrative. But the question is: whether the order provided is merely aesthetic. The novel itself, I think, clearly raises the question whether Mrs. Ramsay's vision has validity in the moral sphere—i.e., in the sphere of personal relationships wherein the persons are conceived, or conceive of themselves, as responsible, moral agents.

The drift of the observations we have been making, about Mrs. Ramsay as the Fisherman's wife, is to suggest that it has not. If, in the “core of darkness,” she can achieve self-realization through the loss of self, a self-communion, yet she cannot realize her husband, cannot lose herself in him. Although that night, of the end of Part I, “The Window,” is not the last night, we have no indication that the situation has changed before the day when, in “Time Passes,” “[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty].” The word of love, which he required, apparently has remained unspoken to the end. The gesture of surrender remains suspect as mere gesture, tainted with egotism. “She had triumphed again.” Mrs. Woolf would seem to suggest that in the love relationship there is no true self-giving, but always a loss, a subduing, of one or the other. “Alone,” with “inanimate things,” it is possible; “they expressed one; … became one; … knew one, in a sense were one.” But not, it appears, with another person. Mrs. Ramsay can, to be sure, with her husband, “read his mind”; she knows what he is thinking, and why. But this penetration is nothing finally resembling that sympathetic intuition by which she becomes one with the trees and streams and flowers. It is an insight that enables her only to prepare an attitude, a strategy for her “triumph.” We are left, at the end of “The Window,” with something very like the Sartrean view of a permanent and inevitable state of conflict between human selves—that situation in which one or the other must be violated, must become object to the other's subject, a being-in-itself to the other's being-for-itself, and thus less than fully human.

We are presented, that is, with a view of man's essential loneliness. Death, the death of Mrs. Ramsay and of the others who follow her, merely confirms in an obvious way the estrangements of life. In the long view (God's view, except that there is no God), the state of things in “Time Passes” is the normal state. Even before the family have left the house, before the last candle (Mr. Carmichael's) is out, the forces of destruction are already at work, the winds tugging at the loosened wallpaper as the household falls asleep. We have been reminded over and over that the battle for order and stability is at best a desperate one, lost from the start. When they have finally gone, and the house is left unprotected, the ineluctable process is not essentially changed, but simply proceeds at a faster pace. The mirrors, symbol and instrument of the vanity of man's self-regarding desire, are simply presented in their true aspect when they are empty, reflecting only the beam from the lighthouse, the shadows of birds passing the windows. For—the root meaning of the word is instructive—vanity, of course, is emptiness.

And the image presented in this middle section—of the frailty of man's habitation, frailty of his hopes, his loneliness and loss and emptiness—is not to be redeemed. Even when the house has been precariously snatched back from oblivion, cleaned, restored, reopened—by the efforts of Mrs. McNabb and associates, the old creature herself ironically a looker in mirrors, whose mad cheerfulness, the croaking gaiety of her ancient music-hall songs, is a mockery of human hope, her mere, instinctive strength to endure an all but subhuman virtue, travesty of fortitude—we understand clearly that this does not imply a restoration of the family life that had inspirited the place in the years before. We understand, indeed, that only by the merest accident, not by any guarantee of fate, is anything at all saved. Just as easily, it is implied, it could have gone the other way, the house, the island itself, could have been obliterated. There is no reason to assume that man and his world should even endure, not to speak of surviving, in the fullest sense, of prevailing. And with the opening of Section III, “The Lighthouse,” there is an unremittingly enforced sense of a restriction and a narrowing, a depriving. The very tone of the prose is saddened, severe, more restrained. Few of the group introduced in “The Window” have returned. And even they have little to say to one another. Each has withdrawn all but entirely into himself.

The dominant impression, almost to the very end, is this one of a nearly unbearable loneliness—of pervading, unbearable silence, with undertones of panic. It is the absence of Mrs. Ramsay, of course, that has cast the spell.

Lily Briscoe cries out silently to her, once almost aloud, afraid that Mr. Carmichael has heard her; and, the cry going unanswered, it is for a moment as if the world were on the brink of annihilation. Here, and in the scene with Lily and Mr. Ramsay—when she feels his silent appeal to her, demand, rather, for the solace he would once have taken from his wife, and in outrage at the shamelessness of his desire, the proposal to use her, poor dry old maid that she is, as a substitute for the dead woman, mentally to rape her, she is unable to speak—the mood is something very near to madness. It is no accident that Mr. Ramsay's beautiful boots, which in the extremity of her desperation she seizes upon as a subject of conversation, pulling herself out of the insufferable silence, should be explicitly referred to as symbol of “sanity.” “They had reached, she felt, a sunny island where peace dwelt, sanity reigned and the sun for ever shone, the blessed island of good boots.” The sense of terror achieved here, I think, is more authentic in its kind than anything Virginia Woolf had done in Mrs. Dalloway, where in the characterization of Septimus Warren Smith she attempted directly to represent a state of insanity.

But, to repeat, we shall have missed the principal point if we interpret either the second or the third sections of the novel simply as contrasts to the first in situation and mood. The title of the long, first section, “The Window,” provides the dominant symbol of that, in opposition to the mirror of “Time Passes.” The window is symbol of perception and of intercourse. It is the aperture between the realms of subject and object, between the human consciousness and the world of external reality—and between the separate consciousnesses of different persons. Mrs. Ramsay sits at the window and looks out at her husband on the terrace, apprehending his state of mind; he, passing by, looks in at her and sees that “sternness at the heart of her beauty.” And so on. But we have observed the reasons for suspecting that the window may have been, all along, no better than a mirror, its transparency an illusion, that neither Mr. nor Mrs. Ramsay can really know, really “see,” the other.

The most appalling implication of the experience of bereavement Lily Briscoe suffers upon her return to the island, suffers only besides and not with Mr. Ramsay, is that Mrs. Ramsay, as her true self, never was really there, never was truly visible—that the loneliness, the self-imprisonment of consciousness, the impossibility of communication, are the permanent conditions of human existence. And there is, finally, the implicit, terrible reproach to Mrs. Ramsay, that if she cannot be charged with responsibility for these conditions, at least she had, and has failed, the responsibility of her knowledge. You knew, Lily Briscoe says in effect to the shade of Mrs. Ramsay, and you did not tell us. You could have forewarned us, but you did not.

But what I have said now would seem to be that both Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are wrong—that neither provides a view of existence which can justify anything other than despair. Where, then, do we stand? Is there not some further design, something perhaps in the nature of a proposed synthesis of the contrary points of view, in the final section, that will yield a less melancholy interpretation of the novel's meaning.

There is, of course. We shall have still to defer the question of whether it is successful. But the intention is obvious.

Mr. Ramsay, with Cam and James, does in the end reach the lighthouse. In the course of the trip, his children's pact of enmity against him is dissolved. They come to know him, to recognize and acknowledge his fatherly authority; and by the same token they achieve self-recognition, are freed from the bondage of their childish hatred into mature awareness and acceptance of their own, each other's, and his separate identities. When, as they prepare to land, Mr. Ramsay says to James, “Well done,” in the classic phrase of paternal recognition, we realize that all three of them have grown up during the journey. And the growing up is nothing more or less than the simple realization by each of one's primary responsibility to the truth of one's own feelings. When this has been accomplished, then they are able to establish a true community of good will, inseparable from the sense of individual, personal independence.

Moreover, there is a tacit but unmistakable implication that the voyage, with all the attendant blessings of its accomplishment, has been undertaken by Mr. Ramsay in homage to the memory of his wife. It is a pilgrimage, a memorial ceremony. In winning the confidence and admiration, the recognition, of his children, he has not won them away from her, but rather for her. This, we are surely to understand, is but the completion of her own, original design, in the trip she had planned years before. To be sure, she is absent now. But we are not to forget that she had never intended to go along on the actual voyage. Then, too, the children were to have been sent out in his care alone. Now, at last, it is his day. James comes to his father's knowledge, sees the lighthouse, reality, the real situation of man in the universe, at this farthest outpost of human society, as his father would see it—looming up, “stark and straight, glaring black and white … a stark tower on a bare rock”—sternly rejecting the council of “old ladies … [who] went dragging their chairs about on the lawn … saying how nice it was and how sweet it was and how they ought to be so proud.” His father is right, rather: “as a matter of fact, James thought, looking at the Lighthouse standing there on its rock, it’s like that.” And yet (Cam, always looking back as they sail, watching the island disappear, but keeping it in her mind in the image of the censer, the hanging garden, which recalls the imagery of Mrs. Ramsay's comforting stories about the pig's skull, embodies the invisible presence of the mother—she is even shortsighted, like her mother), Mr. Ramsay is given his day and his due somehow only at his wife's behest. If it had not been for her, they would never have gone.

And, finally, at the same time that the boat makes its way across the water, Lily Briscoe is winning her struggle to fill the blank space of her canvas, pushing toward the resolution of her own conflict with Mrs. Ramsay, reconciliation to the fact of her absence, the betrayal of her death. The parallel is all but too strictly enforced; we are obviously to assume that Lily's intimation is correct, that the boat is landing, Mr. Ramsay is saying “Well done,” preparing to leap ashore, in the moment just before she makes the final stroke with her brush and utters again, with respect to her own struggle, the “consummatum est.” “‘He has landed,’ she said aloud [to Mr. Carmichael]. ‘It is finished.’” And on the next, and final, page: “… it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.” And much of the same paradox is involved in the two accomplishments, of the homage to Mrs. Ramsay which is identical with her rejection, of the acknowledgment of her presence which is identical with acceptance of her absence.

It is precisely when, realizing that the drawing-room step, where the shape of Mrs. Ramsay reading to James had once provided an essential mass of dark color in her intended painting, is empty now, she no longer cares—when she can say to herself, “she did not want Mrs. Ramsay now”—that she has her. In the conversation with Mr. Bankes in “The Window,” when she tries to explain her intention with the half-finished painting, a particular point is made of the “triangular purple shape … a purple shadow” to which she has “reduced … the mother and child.” Now, in “The Lighthouse,” when she has started the painting afresh (the old, unfinished canvas has been lost somewhere during the intervening years), someone comes to the drawing-room window while she is working and casts again “an odd-shaped triangular shadow over the steps.” There is a moment of obscure intensity in the account of Lily's mental reactions to this phenomenon when we might suppose she is seeing the ghost of the dead woman. But, actually, the final point is exactly and only that the shadow, not the shade, has reappeared—and that this, the shadow, now just as before, is all she really needs. For the purposes of her art, the completion of this “picture” which is identical for her with the reconstruction of the past and, in retrospect, penetration of its meaning, she requires only the mass of color—regardless of who, or what, has provided its counterpart in the actual scene before her. As I have suggested, this experience clearly parallels that of Mr. Ramsay, in Lily's intimation of his state of mind, when precisely by no longer demanding, needing, no longer taking thought of, the denied consolation of his wife's presence, he is enabled to start on the voyage which will do her greatest homage in his own self-fulfillment. But, further, Lily has also unwittingly reproduced, in the “triangular shadow,” exactly the image embodying Mrs. Ramsay's experience of self-intuition—the “wedge-shaped core of darkness.”

That shadow is, in the most profound sense, the very shape, the very presence, the very self as presence, of Mrs. Ramsay. It is not less but more real than the substantial, flesh-and-blood shape of her, in her maternal beauty, and than any apparition, ghost, of that. And we are to understand that the truth of this vision of reality—the reality, again, of the self—is attested principally by what would seem, according to our usual, ego-centered conception of time (Mr. Ramsay's time, as opposed to Mrs. Ramsay's), its brevity. “The great revelation,” Lily has reflected earlier, “had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark. …” Lily's vision, her painting—“it would be hung in the attics … it would be destroyed. But what did that matter?”—is just such an illumination, a match struck in the dark. If it pretended to be otherwise, sought to be longer lasting, we should suspect its truth.

And yet, with this much by way of an account, I think reasonably sympathetic, of the book's attempt to resolve itself, we must ask again the question that I said seemed to be raised by the characterization of the central figure, Mrs. Ramsay—i.e., whether her vision of the self has validity in the moral sphere, the sphere of relationships among persons conceived, essentially, as moral agents. I think it has not, and that the reading of the conclusion we have undertaken, the paralleling of the experience of Mr. Ramsay and his children on the boat trip with that of Lily Briscoe at her painting, really only confirms rather than alters what might have been suspect as the result of oversimplification in the previous analysis—i.e., that the order provided by the vision is purely aesthetic, in a deliberately extramoral sense.

The issue indicated is, essentially, the same as that of the conflict between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. And the way the conclusion of the book “resolves” it is by finally denying its reality.

Pedersen's study furnishes a useful corrective to the conventional readings of the novel which accepted Mrs. Ramsay as unqualified heroine, her point of view as identical with that of the author, and Mr. Ramsay as villain-fool. But it will hardly do simply to reverse the formula, to make Mrs. Ramsay, as I said, the villainess—she is, according to Pedersen, “a matriarch encouraging an Oedipus complex in her son, … deny[ing] the husband and negating the father”—and to present Mr. Ramsay, once the baneful influence of his wife is removed by her death, as hero. There is, I have indicated, an apparent intention on Mrs. Woolf's part to redeem Mr. Ramsay, and correspondingly to reveal the flaws in his wife's character. But it is an intention that falls far short of what Pedersen wants, and that, even in its own measure, is scarcely realized. Mr. Ramsay, with the philosophical attitude he represents, has been too effectively caricatured throughout not to appear somewhat fatally ridiculous even at the end. And too much essential sympathy, or admiration, for Mrs. Ramsay has been built up; her point of view is too closely identified, especially in the last section, with the finally dominant one of Lily Briscoe herself, to permit the interpretation that she is somehow simply routed in disgrace at the conclusion, to be replaced in the heroic role by her husband. The opening statement that Pedersen's article is designed to prove—“‘Someone had blundered.’ The vision of Lily Briscoe reveals that it was Mrs. Ramsay.”—is a vast oversimplification.

So too, although not so relentlessly pursued, is Hafley's contrary assertion: “Seven times in [the first] part of the novel, the phrase ‘Someone had blundered’ is repeated. Either Mr. Ramsay or Mrs. Ramsay is wrong, and the remainder of the novel shows that it is Mr. Ramsay who ‘had blundered.’” Pedersen and Hafley are both right, and they are both wrong.

But this still does not mean that any formula of synthesis or reconciliation of the two opposed points of view, Mrs. Ramsay's and her husband's, can accommodate the book's final effect. In his discussion of Orlando, Hafley quotes a statement of Bergson's:

Intuition and intellect represent two opposite directions of the work of consciousness: intuition goes in the very direction of life, intellect goes in the inverse direction, and thus finds itself naturally in accordance with the movement of matter. A complete and perfect humanity would be that in which these two forms of conscious activity should attain their full development.

I do not, as Hafley seems to, find even in Orlando anything resembling an image of such perfection. And, assuredly, it is not achieved in To the Lighthouse. In a sense, this is what Mrs. Woolf “pretends” to do—to show us Mrs. Ramsay's intuitive experience of “The Window,” wherein she becomes one with the beam of light, now as it were harmoniously “completing itself” in the actual (i.e., “material,” “intellectual”) voyage of her husband with the children to the lighthouse. Or, to put the matter another way: I said at the outset that the function of Lily Briscoe was “somewhat” to mediate between the two, “after a fashion” to reconcile them. But the qualifying phrases were deliberate. The pretended harmonization is a trick, a skillful manipulation of symbolic motifs; there is scarcely anything in the way of psychological realism to account for the strange sea-change of personality undergone by Mr. Ramsay and James and Cam in the brief time of the voyage; that sudden achievement of maturity, upon second examination, must seem little short of a miracle. And what Mrs. Woolf really and finally does, through Lily Briscoe, is to get rid of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay—of those troublesome married people, precisely, both of them, and of their offspring into the bargain.

The man and the children are abandoned somewhere out there in the haze, into which the lighthouse itself has finally disappeared from Lily's view. And the woman is reduced entirely to the symbol of the intuitive principle.

Whatever else might be said about her, it is surely no accident that Lily Briscoe is an artist, and that her viewpoint is the last one presented, the definitive and conclusive one. In effect, any questions of a seeming moral import left over from the scene of the family party's arrival at the lighthouse—questions, that is, of their probable capabilities for the future, the dimension of moral responsibility—are simply “referred” in the end to the aesthetic test, translated into aesthetic terms, out of time. Lily Briscoe, the last person we see, is the artist, and the artist, in the most literal sense, alone. There is nothing left but her and her painting. The human person, in what we are accustomed to calling his representational image in art, necessarily evokes a response which is in some part moral. This image, as we have seen, is deliberately excluded from Lily's painting. Mrs. Ramsay appears only as the triangle of shadow. Humanity, even in the guise of possible, future viewers of the work, has been pushed out of the picture; she doesn’t care if the picture is destroyed, hung in attics. And there can be little question but that that “picture” is, in some at least wishful sense, the novel.

But perhaps the most significant aspect of dehumanization in the final scene is the desexualization. In this we witness the final abandonment of the issue, the conflict of masculine and feminine—the problem, simply, of marriage and the family—which purported to be the book's central, dramatic concern. Lily Briscoe's only “companion” on the lawn at the end is Mr. Carmichael; and he is invisible then. The characterization of Carmichael, also an artist, the poet about the nature of whose poetry we are deliberately told nothing—Lily Briscoe has not read his work, but “thought that she knew how it went,” in a way designed simply to indicate that it does not matter what it is about, the subjects and themes, the character of its technique—is a device for reinforcing certain implications of Lily's experience which might otherwise remain obscure, or seem to have only particular validity.

His presence establishes the point that the order provided by the visual art, the painting, an order which is entirely self-justifying and is not required to render “life” intelligible, is essentially the same order in verbal art. Mr. Carmichael makes, in the penultimate paragraph of the novel, a gesture as Lily sees it of universal benediction—“spreading his hands over all the weakness and suffering of mankind …,” and then lowering one hand slowly, “as if she had seen him let fall from his great height a wreath of violets and asphodels which … lay at length upon the earth.” It is clear that his capacity for making such a gesture, his godlike character (Lily sees him as “looking like an old pagan god”), consists simply in his entire inscrutability. He is silent; to the repeated exasperation of Mrs. Ramsay in the first section of the book, he needs nothing; of all the persons surrounding her, he is the only one who seems, not in any simple sense to dislike her, but to be utterly indifferent to her. He and Lily, we are repeatedly told, communicate silently in this final scene on the lawn. “They had not needed to speak. They had been thinking the same things and he had answered her without her asking him anything.” But what they communicate would seem to be, at last, simply the truth of the impossibility of communication. And essential to this ineffable process of nonknowing, nonintercourse, between the two artists, is the character of the so-called “androgynous” in them that has become one of the central clichés of Woolf criticism.

Actually, despite the intent of Mrs. Woolf's own theorizing on the matter, “androgynous” is the wrong term, with reference to what we find either in this book or her others. She is not a feminist, certainly, in any usual, plain sense. Again, all that is left at the end of her sympathy for Mrs. Ramsay, the woman, as opposed to her husband, is the notion of the superiority of the intuition to the intellect. But neither, then, does she succeed in constructing characters in whom the male and the female are dynamically combined. She needed, as a counterpart to her female painter here, a male poet. But she needs him, finally, to prove that the sexual distinction is, in fact, of no importance—no more essentially meaningful, precisely, than the distinction between verbal and nonverbal art. Lily, the juiceless old maid, is a not-woman; and Mr. Carmichael, a kind of Tiresias figure who has ceased even to prophesy, surviving timelessly into a life simply beyond sex, is a not-man.

This implicit doctrine of the asexuality (not androgyny) of art may well be the one, necessary key to the final impression—it must be recorded, at last—of dryness, thinness, for all their surface richness of design and subtle nuance of feeling, the impression of morbid triviality, that the novels of Mrs. Woolf leave. We have noted now Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, from the very first, appear not so much as male and female, man and wife, but as embodiments of ideal principles, thesis and antithesis, of masculine and feminine. And this peculiar aridity of effect is felt more and more strongly in the final section. In a novel so bristling as this one with sexual symbolism—the lighthouse itself, the window, the red-hot pokers at the edge of the lawn, the stroking of the light beam which bursts “some sealed vessel” in Mrs. Ramsay's mind, the insistently triangular shadow, “wedge-shaped core of darkness” that she is, even Mr. Ramsay's beautiful boots, which poor Lily adores—it is astonishing to realize how little, primary sexuality there is.

It is impossible, I think, to escape the implication. For the purposes of art—and art is everything, the only ultimately dependable source of order, source of being, self-fulfillment, “the one thing that one [does] not play at,” art is directly and unequivocally represented, in Lily's painting, as the true perfection of Mrs. Ramsay's intuitive wisdom—Mrs. Woolf thought that sexuality must be reduced entirely to symbolic status. And this is at one with the denial of communication, the denial of the possibility of an intelligible moral order, the denial of concern with the moral dimension in human relationships, i.e., the dimension of potentiality, of the future. Mrs. Ramsay is, purely exists, only when she is dead, only in the past. We have communication, only with the dead. It is at one with the implicit equation, let us say, of the Crucifixion and Creation—of consummatum est, Lily Briscoe's “It is finished,” with fiat, the creative word—the equation of darkness, the triangular shadow, with the perfection of light, of vision. “… it was finished. … I have had my vision.” But, finally, it is at one with the total denial of value in the art work, as such. Because the art is seen as identical with the vision (process of execution and completion of vision are coterminous, in Lily's experience), the status of the finished work is indifferent. It literally and entirely does not matter that Lily is a poor painter, that the painting is a poor thing. No reliable criteria for critical judgment exist.

To the Lighthouse seems to me the high point of Mrs. Woolf's achievement as novelist; yet one can discover in it the pattern of the decline to follow. What she did here, in effect, was to theorize her craft out of existence. For it is questionable whether novels, in anything of the traditional sense, can be written on the basis of a conception of the human being as a purely aesthetic mechanism—mechanism of aesthetic response—whose life has no purposeful, moral continuity.

Beyond the joking escape fantasy of Orlando, which simply says that man, under the given conditions of his existence, sex and mortality, is impossible, The Waves is an exercise in sensibility completely detached from the concerns of human community. The other characters exist only in the mind of Bernard; and his mind is in no meaningful sense to be distinguished from that of the author. At least the facts of society and social institutions, and the frightful fact of sex, are acknowledged again in The Years and Between the Acts, but with an inevitable sense of despair, of hopeless confusion. For no outrage, even, no attack on society for its cruelties to the individual (The Years), conceived in the conviction that the individual truly lives only between the acts of his community performance, that his being is radically unrelated to fellow beings, can be clearly purposeful. Such a view, moreover, would seem to deny the possibility of a dramatic action, without which the novel as such is hardly conceivable.

Helen Storm Corsa (essay date 1971)

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SOURCE: “‘To the Lighthouse’: Death, Mourning, and Transfiguration,” in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XXI, No. 3, 1971, pp. 115–31.

[In the following essay, Corsa discusses the ways in which To the Lighthouse follows the typical psychological patterns of mourning and Woolf's own efforts to come to terms with the persistent presence of “death in life.”]

In this present year of 1970 Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse has had two interpretive studies that seem to me to have rather impressively explored two important levels of the novel: the conscious and the unconscious. Jean O. Love's Worlds in Consciousness1 examines Mrs. Woolf's novels in the light of developmental cognitive psychology and devotes two chapters (11 and 12) to a close scrutiny of To The Lighthouse; Harvena Richter's The Inward Voyage2 analyzes what she calls “subjective modes” in the novels making use of Freud and Lesser as well as of Piaget, Cassirer, and Langer. It will be sometime, I think, before either of these studies can be fully apprehended and utilized by readers seeking to understand the spell Mrs. Woolf's novels exerts over them. And though one suspects they do not “have the answer” one also suspects it will be a long while before their work is superseded. They have many too many insights to be other than serious roadblocks for others who have been following similar paths of investigation. To adapt the metaphor to the novel, like Mr. Ramsay they have effectively delayed my own voyage to the Lighthouse. What follows therefore is more like an extended footnote to a study I have had to abandon, its obsolescence apparent even before it had arrived at the end of the first draft. In recording my own reading of the novel it may add something to the more detailed readings of Miss Love and Miss Richter.

It is how the novel comes to grips with death that interests me—how some of the characters work through their mourning over the death of Mrs. Ramsay, and how the whole novel, in its pattern and movement evokes, recreates, and delineates the mourning process. The concern with death accompanied the inception of the novel. On Thursday, May 14, 1925, Virginia Woolf records in her Diary that the new novel she is thinking about will “have father's character done complete in it; and mother's; and St. Ives; and childhood; and all the usual things I try to put in—life, death, etc.”3 The writing of the novel and its revision which took about two years was as exhausting as the writing of each of her novels seems to have been, and seems to have been extraordinarily painful. “After Lighthouse I was, I remember, nearer suicide seriously than since 1913” she noted on October 16, 1934.4 It had been a matter of “getting down … to depths” and of “making shapes square up.” But she felt she had been successful. Her sister, Nessa, thought it an “amazing portrait of mother” and had found “the rising of the dead almost painful” and Leonard Woolf, she notes, had judged it “much” her best book, a “masterpiece,” something “entirely new—a ‘psychological poem.’”5 She herself had suggested “Elegy” as a word to describe what it was, and on November 28, 1928, entered an explicit acknowledgement of a therapeutic intention in the writing of it. “Father's birthday” she wrote:

He would have been 96, 96, yes, today; and could have been 96, like other people one has known; but wonderfully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books;—inconceivable.

I used to think of him and mother daily; but writing The Lighthouse laid them in my mind—and now he comes back sometimes, but differently. (I believe this to be true—that I was obsessed by them both unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act).6

However personal and complete the revival of memories was, Mrs. Woolf did not, of course, write autobiography in To The Lighthouse. What she did do, it seems to me, was to create by character, by situation, by narrator's voice a symbolic reenactment of the work of mourning that corresponds in somewhat simplified terms to the pattern of mourning outlined by Freud and by others since then.7 The novel moves on two levels at once: the level of the action shows the characters enduring loss and bereavement, in grief withdrawing interest from the outside world, and finally arriving at ways of detaching themselves from the lost loved one, seem able to relinquish the object and so are freed from the regressive paralysis of mourning, the level of the narrator's voice reveals the primary process level that has been reactivated by the action taking place in the novel and that, indeed, is its generative force. As one feelingly recreates the action of the story one recreatively feels the preverbal psychic reality that underlies the whole novel. The novel is on two levels at once, abreactive for the reader.

Loss in many of its possible manifestations dominates the novel. As its essential subject the loss of Mrs. Ramsay in death is, of course, its focal concern. It is with the creation of her presence in life followed by the working through of the mourning for her death that the whole novel is involved. But other losses are attendant upon this central loss and act as thematic counterparts or as motif symbols, never ceasing to remind us of the presence of death-in-life. Minta's lost brooch is a case in point.

It was not until they had climbed right up on to the top of the cliff again that Minta cried out that she had lost her grandmother's brooch—her grandmother's brooch, the sole ornament she possessed—a weeping willow, it was (they must remember it) set in pearls. They must have seen it, she said, with the tears running down her cheeks, the brooch which her grandmother had fastened her cap with till the last day of her life. Now she had lost it. She would rather have lost anything than that! She would go back and look for it. They all went back. They poked and peered and looked. … The tide was coming in fast. The sea would cover the place where they had sat in a minute. There was not a ghost of a chance of their finding it now. … If the brooch was there, it would still be there in the morning, they assured her, but Minta still sobbed, all the way to the top of the cliff. It was her grandmother's brooch; she would rather have lost anything but that, and yet Nancy felt, it might be true that she minded losing her brooch, but she wasn’t crying only for that. She was crying for something else. We might all sit down and cry, she felt. But she did not know what for. (italics mine)8

Minta's loss, Nancy's grief, her awareness of the excessive distress for the lost brooch precede Mrs. Ramsay's death and occur in the middle of what is more or less a happy gathering of family and friends at the Ramsay summer home on an island in the Hebrides.9 Nancy's psychic weeping is an instance when the grieving and underlies the whole novel thrusts into consciousness.

Anxiety about loss is what initiates the action of the novel—loss in the form of experiencing a denial of one's desire, of suffering the abrupt and painful cutting off of one's hopes. Because the weather “will not be fine” and because his father pronounces it will not be, young James Ramsay must give up the trip to the Lighthouse his mother had promised him. The refusal of the object awakens the rage of the child even as it awakens disturbing “memories” in the reader of more primal, intrapsychic loss and starts the grieving that will be basic to the whole novel. In short, to adapt some of Freud's words to the present concern, the loss in death of Mrs. Ramsay (the reality loss) which will happen in the second of the three parts, is an occasion that extends back to the beginning of the novel to “include all those situations of being wounded, hurt, neglected, out of favor, or disappointed”10; the course of the novel is, in effect, a grieving which is finally “worked through” by the end—the Lighthouse is reached and the two focal characters, Lily Briscoe and James Ramsay seem, each in his own way, on the threshold of an adjustment to the reality of loss.

What it is James and Lily are mourning is, of course, clear since it is the explicit content of the novel. What the grief is that characterizes the voice of the narrator cannot really be defined but it can, perhaps, be seen to reflect its cause in an important nuclear fantasy. What I have somewhat clumsily called “the narrator's voice” corresponds to what Miss Richter calls “the voice of subjectivity”:

It is not the spoken voice of the character or the conventional narrator; it is the inner voice whose exact nature resists definition yet attempts, through language and rhythm, to articulate feeling. It is the tone of the internal monologue but it represents more than mere verbalized consciousness. It is verbalized being; giving voice to the total moment, transcending self and time, its vibrations strike the inner ear of the reader as a familiar voice. … It is not always certain from which direction the voice comes—it issues, at different times, from within, from above, or from the surrounding atmosphere.11

This Narrator's voice creates a view of Mrs. Ramsay that none of the characters in the novel have of her. Sometimes it seems to come from Mrs. Ramsay's fantasies of herself, sometimes it seems to “issue from above, or from the surrounding atmosphere.” Wherever it has its origin, its dominant fantasy is partly that of the Phallic Mother. Mrs. Ramsay is as we shall see, both female and male. She is the Lighthouse in both its masculine and feminine associations, in its phallic and in its maternal role. After her death it is a reminder of her presence, continuing to guard and to protect, to thrust its light into the surrounding darkness, to stand for the wished-for end of the voyage. During her life it is, in Mrs. Ramsay's mind, herself. The narrator's voice records Mrs. Ramsay's translation of herself into the Lighthouse in language that can only be described by the ugly terms—autoerotic, narcissistic, polymorphous perverse. The language evokes disturbing primal fantasies in the reader, fantasies that suggest pre-oedipal rate and grief and hint at the deep-lying grieving permeating the novel. Imagining herself depersonalized as “a wedge of darkness,” freed thus of the “fret, the hurry, the stir” Mrs. Ramsay

looked out to meet the stroke of the Lighthouse, the long steady stroke, the last of the three, which was her stroke, for watching them in this mood always at this hour one could not help attaching oneself to one thing especially of the things one saw; and this thing, the long steady stroke was her stroke.

Her response to the “inanimate thing” is sensual and sexual and self-caressing. She “felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself. There rose, and she looked and looked with her needles suspended, there curled up off the floor of the mind, rose from the lake of one's being, a mist, a bride to meet her lover.” (96–98)12 Holding “the long reddish-brown stocking dangling in her hands a moment” she “looked at the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much her, yet so little her” and the response becomes almost an orgasm:

(the light) which had her at its beck and call (she woke in the night and saw it bent across their bed, stroking the floor) but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotised, as it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!


Mrs. Ramsay is projected as the fertilizing one, the creative one while Mr. Ramsay has the “splendid” but sterile mind. Both the mothering receptive one who sits “folding her son in her arms” she is also the impregnating one, sending in to Mr. Ramsay the sympathy he needs: she seemed “to raise herself with an effort

and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating (quietly though she sat, taking up her stocking again), and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare.”


Passages such as these along with images and symbols that are traditionally female and maternal—the window, the house, the sea—create for the reader Mrs. Ramsay in terms of a primary fantasy: the omniscient, omnipotent, nourishing, creative, and protective one whose presence is both longed for and raged against, for whom attachment is both libidinal and aggressive. The fantasy of the Phallic Mother, the projection and introjection of that image, perhaps even the fantasy of parthenogenesis, seem never, in this novel, to be fully relinquished though the middle section seems to suggest the “voice of the narrator” comes to some acceptance of loss and to some relinquishment of grief. The voice becomes more and more depersonalized as it evokes the particular quality of emptiness present in the now deserted Ramsay summer home. It is a voice that creates the lament for felt loss in the desolateness of things unattended and forgotten in the house deserted now for some ten years. It is the corporate loss felt corporately by all the characters who are not there. This section of the novel can, perhaps, be said to record the fact of death (Mrs. Ramsay's, (p. 194), Prue Ramsay's in childbirth (p. 199), Andrew Ramsay's—blown up in France (p. 201)) while poetically (though in prose) creating alteration in the “inner world” (whose? the narrator's? the reader's?) that resembles a withdrawal of libido from the lost object that necessarily precedes the ending of mourning. Those phenomena attendant upon mourning—despondency, depression, detachment from the world, withdrawal of interest from reality, all are symbolically evoked in the details describing the deserted house. Until the last few pages of this section there are no persons present—only the house on the island, the lamps out, “a thin rain drumming on the roof,” surrounded by “an immense darkness.” The darkness is all consuming, the house inhabited by “little airs” mounting the stairs “wearily, ghostily.” In the natural forces that encompass the house are all the desolate rage and violence of grief:

The nights are now full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them. … Also the sea tosses itself and breaks itself.


There are no consolations to be had, no answers to questions, nothing except “the stroke of the Lighthouse, which had laid itself with such authority upon the carpet in the darkness, tracing its pattern, coming now in the softer light of spring mixed with moonlight gliding gently as if it laid its caress and lingered steathily and looked and came lovingly again.” (199–200).13 The Lighthouse is perhaps now something like a transitional object—to use Winnicott's very useful phrase—a symbol that is important because it is not the object itself but one that stands for the object. It thus becomes an accepted stand-in for the lost and now renounced object, not as an internal image but as a real object and is a significant indication that the way to Reality is being found. In any case, “Reality” in the form of Mrs. McNabb enters. Life once more returns to the empty house with her abrupt busy-ness, “lurching about,” dusting, sweeping, scouring, “looking like a tropical fish oaring its way through sunlanced waters.” (200) Once more the house is inhabited; Lily, James, Cam, Mr. Ramsay, others of the earlier guests who are still alive, return and the voice of the narrator never again seems to hover over the happenings.

The resolution of grief and the acceptance of loss is now to be the work of the two focal characters, James Ramsay and Lily Briscoe. It is in them that the mourning of the narrator seems to arrive at some imagined working through, in them the freeing from the paralysis of uncompleted mourning is fictively projected. According to Helene Deutsch “as long as the early libidinal or aggressive attachments persist, the painful affect (of the real loss of a loved person) continues to flourish, and vice versa, the attachments are unresolved as long as the affective process of mourning has not been accomplished.”14 As the voice of the narrator conveyed the sense of Mrs. Ramsay in terms that are primarily pre-oedipal, in the characters of James and Lily oedipal, as well as pre-oedipal, fantasy relations to the mother are created whose “libidinal and aggressive” components are clear.

The aggressive component of “prolonged mourning” is most clearly seen in James Ramsay. The Lighthouse for James is the embodiment of his desire which is, he feels, deliberately and cruelly denied him by his father. “Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow” he shall be allowed to go there His mother promises and James, age 6, radiates joy at the prospect: “James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss.” (p. 9) Just so are objects endowed with affect—just so they become associated with many other objects, in this case, with Mr. Ramsay: “‘But,’ said his father, stopping in front of the drawing-room window, ‘it won’t be fine.’” The aggressive rage James feels is intense:

Had there been an axe handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father's breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children's breasts by his mere presence; standing, as now, lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one, grinning sarcastically, not only with the pleasure of disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife, who was ten thousand times better in every way than he was (James thought), but also with some secret conceit at his own accuracy of judgment.

(p. 10)

James' hatred of his father and his dependent clinging to his mother15 and her feeling that of all eight children he is her favorite (p. 89) is all we really know of him in the first part of the novel. It is in the third part that his old rage and castration anxiety are finally worked through as he arrives at the Lighthouse, ten years later, in the company of his father, and his sister Cam. James' voyage out is a voyage in. From intense hostility16 he moves to an awareness of his father's splendor and loneliness (a view Mrs. Ramsay had had) and to the beginning of an identification with him, a movement essential for his psychic growth as it is necessary for resolving the early and prolonged mourning.

He looked, James thought, getting his head now against the Lighthouse, now against the waste of waters running away into the open, like some old stone lying on the sand; he looked as if he had become physically what was always at the back of both of their minds—that loneliness which was for both of them the truth about things.


From his father “reading very quickly” James looks to the approaching Lighthouse, looming “up, stark and straight,” at its rock base full of “lines and creases,” at the windows, at the “little figure” of a man who had come out to look at them in the nearing boat.

So it was like that, James thought, the Lighthouse one had seen across the bay all these years; it was a stark tower on a bare rock. It satisfied him. It confirmed some obscure feeling of his about his own character.

That James is here resolving his fantasy of the phallic mother, his own rejection in rage of a phallic identity, and is beginning to move toward an acceptance of his masculine self seems to be suggested in the way “women” associate in his mind with this moment of approach to the Lighthouse:

The old ladies, he thought, thinking of the garden at home, went dragging their chairs about on the lawn. Old Mrs. Beckwith, for example, was always saying how nice it was and how sweet it was and how they ought to be so proud and they ought to be so happy, but as a matter of fact, James thought, looking at the Lighthouse stood there on the rock, it’s like that. He looked at his father reading fiercely with his legs curled tight. They shared that knowledge. “We are driving before a gale—we must sink,” he began saying, exactly as his father said it.


The moving quality of the passage lies in its very obscurity and ambiguity—one is made to feel that preverbal feelings, recalcitrant to clear exposition, are nevertheless, being conveyed.

James' arrival at the Lighthouse is, in a way, his attainment of his mother (since Mrs. Ramsay is the Lighthouse), but it is not, as in the early part of the novel, a fantasy possession. It is an acceptance of the phallic self that was once projected onto the mother, and a concomitant identification with the once-hated father. The “exchange” is a painful and a difficult one to make. James makes it reluctantly and sullenly, but he makes it; and thus he emerges freed of the past. His acceptance of his father and of his own masculine role is corroborated and climaxed by his father's rare words of praise for his navigation: “… having lighted his pipe he took out his watch. He looked at it attentively; he made, perhaps, some mathematical calculation. At last he said triumphantly: ‘Well done!’ James had steered them like a born sailor.” (306) It is Cam, James' sister, who observes his response to their father's approval:

There! Cam thought, addressing herself silently to James. You’ve got it at last. For she knew that was what James had been wanting and she knew that now he had got it he was so pleased that he would not look at her or at his father or at anyone. There he sat with hand on the tiller sitting bolt upright, looking rather sulky and frowning slightly. He was so pleased that he was not going to let anybody share a grain of his pleasure. They must think that he was perfectly indifferent. But you’ve got it now, Cam thought.


For James the voyage to the Lighthouse has been a process that has lessened his rage and his aggressive feelings (at his mother as well as his father), that has seen him relegate his mother to the past and to “women,” and that has allowed him finally to look upon his father with love. Or so I interpret the moments preceding his acceptance of his father. Sensing that Cam will yield to his father's hint she call her new puppy “Frisk,” he seems to put his mother away from him into the class of “them”:

She’ll give way, James thought, as he watched a look come upon her face, a look he remembered. They look down he thought, at their knitting or something. Then suddenly they look up.

A significant memory of his mother returns—“there was a flash of blue, he remembered, and then somebody sitting with him laughed, surrendered, and he was very angry.” (251) The anger and the mother are now identified. “It must have been his mother, he thought, sitting on a low chair, with his father standing over her.” All the while guiding the boat to the Lighthouse, James goes deeper into the self:

He began to search among the infinite series of impressions which time had laid down, leaf upon leaf, fold upon fold softly, incessantly upon his brain; among scents, sounds; voices, harsh, hollow, sweet; and lights passing, and brooms tapping; and the wash of the sea, how a man had marched up and down and stopped dead, upright, over them.


From this, James' moment of deepest penetration into the memories and feelings of the past, his moment that is like a screen memory, the hostility that has been consciously acknowledged in the opening of the book is seen to have been made up of earlier, primal scene memories. The denial made him as a child is here undone; he arrives at the Lighthouse by his own skill in navigation—“they had tacked, and they were sailing swiftly, buoyantly on long rocking waves, which handed them on from one to another with an extraordinary lilt and exhilaration beside the reef.” (306) The language now works symbolically to capture James' sense of release from the island, from the land, from the past when the Lighthouse seemed far away, infinitely desirable, and sadly unobtainable:

On the left a row of rocks showed brown through the water which thinned and became greener and on one, a higher rock, a wave incessantly broke and spurted a little column of drops which fell down in a shower. One could hear the slap of the water and the patter of falling drops and a kind of hushing and hissing sound from the waves rolling and gambolling and slapping the rocks as if they were wild creatures who were perfectly free and tossed and tumbled and sported like this forever.


Like James, Lily Briscoe works through mourning in part three and achieves some measure of freedom from the past. Because she is a painter the mode of undoing and reconstituting the object loss is that of a painter: transforming grief and anger and love into “meaning” on the canvas Lily arrives at a way “to finish her painting”:

Quickly … she turned to her canvas. There it was—her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there in the center. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.


It is in Lily that the largely libidinal attachment to the lost mother is seen. Her love, infantile in its totality and in its idealizing force, dominates the first part of the novel. The grief at the real loss of Mrs. Ramsay that begins part three in Lily's grief: “What does it mean then, what can it all mean? … For really, what did she feel come back after all these years and Mrs. Ramsay dead? Nothing, nothing—nothing she could express at all.” (217)

Lily's struggle from the beginning of the book that summer day ten years ago had been to find how to put upon canvas “the shape.” Her story is a search for a way of finding form to contain and embody her deeply felt devotion to Mrs. Ramsay and all its complex associations. Her search is a search for the symbol—Mrs. Woolf's description of that search is, in effect, one account of how symbols and symbolic constructs accrue associations that makes them meaningful for the artist.17

From the beginning Lily had been severely blocked. Unable to transfer the inner vision to the canvas she found herself often on the “verge of tears” as she sought to find a way, a “passage from conception to work” finding it “as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child.” (32) According to Lawrence Kubie “block is the inhibiting unconscious ‘refusal’ (out of injury, fear and hate) to make the specific binding steps of any particular higher transformation and to hold those steps in the process of the challenging tasks of real and valid as opposed to neurotic competition—an inhibiting refusal and a refusing inhibition dedicated instead to the ‘escape downward’ into an infantile solution.18 Lily does indeed often feel like a child—helpless, inadequate, longing in spite of her 30 some years, to “fling herself (thank Heaven she had always resisted so far) at Mrs. Ramsay's knee and say to her—but what could one say to her? ‘I’m in love with you?’” The longing is to repossess the mother, to possess all that is around and associated with her—“No, that was not true. I’m in love with this all,’ waving her hand at the hedge, at the house, at the children. It was absurd, it was impossible. So now she laid her brushes neatly in the box, side by side, and said to William Bankes: ‘It suddenly gets cold.’” (32–33)

Lily too responds to Mr. Ramsay as if he were despoiler and destroyer of happiness, paralyzed in her painting by him as he “bore down” on her, “shouting, gesticulating.” (31) According to Eidelberg the pre-oedipal attachment “to the mother is intense; she is the most important object in the child's life, an active, omnipotent, and all-giving figure; the father is regarded as an intruder and rival.”19 Lily's attempt to translate her intense feeling for Mrs. Ramsay, her sense of the hovering and intruding presence of Mr. Ramsay dominates the first part of the novel. In her drive to find verbal ways to define Mrs. Ramsay as she searches for ways to translate it all to the canvas Lily reveals what, in the rush of almost photographic, cinematographic detail, are the several memories and fantasies that lie, perhaps, at the heart of her blocking. Lily thinks “she opened bedroom windows. She shut doors. … Arriving late at night, with a light tap on one's bedroom door, wrapped in an old fur coat (for the setting of her beauty was always that—hasty but apt), she would enact again whatever it might be. …” The memory of the near present activates earlier memories, creating in Mrs. Ramsay almost the maternal principle sensuous, fertile—“the house seemed full of children and Mrs. Ramsay listening; shaded lights and regular breathing.” (76–77) In the memory of her presence Lily feels “so little, so virginal.” Shrinking into herself, she pled for her own “exemption” from the law of marriage:

Then, she remembered, she laid her head on Mrs. Ramsay's lap and laughed and laughed and laughed, laughed almost hysterically at the thought of Mrs. Ramsay presiding with immutable calm over destinies which she completely failed to understand.


Daughter and mother, small child against the knee of the loveliest of women, “as close as she could get” the vision Lily has moves ever inward and backward in time, and ever further away from objectification on canvas. “What art was there” Lily asks herself at a moment that seems close to regression:

What art was there known to love or cunning, by which one pressed through into those secret chambers? What device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored? Could the body achieve, or the mind, subtly mingling in the intricate passages of the brain? or the heart? Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one? for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had thought, leaning her head on Mrs. Ramsay's knee.


Lily's magic wish for re-incorporation brings her “Nothing! Nothing!” either at the time of the incident—“Mrs. Ramsay rose. Lily rose. Mrs. Ramsay went”; nor at this, the time of her painting. There “hung about her” for days after the incident a sense of Mrs. Ramsay as “an august shape; the shape of a dome.” (80) The shape that is emerging in her painting, however, is not that of a dome, but of a triangle: “What did she wish to indicate by the triangular purple shape, ‘just there’?” Mr. Bankes asked. It was Mrs. Ramsay reading to James, she said. (81) But it is clearly not just James and his mother, but the whole concept of mother and child that refuses to take shape on the canvas. … “Mr. Bankes was interested. Mother and child then—objects of universal veneration, and in this case the mother was famous for her beauty—might be reduced, he pondered, to a purple shadow without irreverance.” (81) Lily cannot “show him what she wished to make of it,” cannot find the way “to connect this mass on the right hand with that on the left.” It is no use. “She stopped … she took the canvas lightly off the easel.”

It is possible to suggest that Lily's inability to paint this particular painting comes from anxieties roused by the intensity of the longing for reincorporation in and by the mother. For her the grief over the loss of the mother has long preceded the real loss of Mrs. Ramsay. Associated with the longing (which, according to Freud is more important in the female than in the male20) is a conglomerate of affects: rage at the early and necessary separation from the beloved body—she cannot “connect this mass on the right with that on the left”; a fear of that longed for reincorporation—the “danger was” that by finding a way to connect the masses “the unity of the whole might be broken” (83); resentment at the father's presence, his intrusiveness, his possession of the longed for beloved for the triangle is a symbol of mother and child only if it also incorporates the figure of the father.

For Mr. Ramsay also figures in Lily's attempts to finish her painting. Her ambivalent attitude toward him is explicit from the beginning of the novel. Disturbed and irritated by his self-centered intrusiveness that seems to violate the privacy of her painting, she sees him as one who reduces life “to a large kitchen table.” (38) Yet she sees in him qualities she can admire, even love:

You have greatness, she continued, (looking at Mr. Bankes), but Mr. Ramsay has none of it. He is petty, selfish, vain, egotistical; he is spoilt; he is a tyrant; he wears Mrs. Ramsay to death; but he has what you (she addressed Mr. Bankes) have not; a fiery unworldliness; he knows nothing about trifles; he loves dogs and his children. … All of this danced up and down, like a company of gnats, each separate, but all marvellously controlled in an invisible elastic net—danced up and down in Lily's mind, in and about the branches of the pear tree, where still hung in effigy the scrubbed kitchen table, symbol of her profound respect for Mr. Ramsay's mind.


Mr. Ramsay, and the need to come to terms with him, corresponds to her need to come to terms with his relationship to Mrs. Ramsay. Their love she sees as “part of that unreal but penetrating and exciting universe which is the world seen through the eyes of love.” Conscious of it, absorbed in and by it, Lily seems in a moment of inner vision to return to a state when one is still inextricably part of both parents.

And what was even more exciting, she felt, too, as she saw Mr. Ramsay bearing down and retreating, and Mrs. Ramsay sitting with James in the window and the cloud moving and the tree bending, how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.


But “it was bad, it was bad, it was infinitely bad” Lily thinks, as she looks at her painting and thoughts of “Mr. Tansley whispering in her ear, ‘Women can’t paint, women can’t write …’” reveal the deep fears of the male, the father figure.

However one delineates the many painful emotions that ebb and flow, that rise and subside in Lily Briscoe in the attempt to paint, they are clearly inhibiting—each one seeming to cancel out the other, to paralyze the creative understanding that makes for art forms. Lily is not “free” to create as long as she is in the presence of the longed-for mother. Clearly ambivalent toward Mr. Ramsay, her excessive idealization and adoration of Mrs. Ramsay also reveals an unacknowledged ambivalence. There are moments when she is critical of Mrs. Ramsay—she thinks of her occasional “highhandedness” (75), for instance—but the intensity and totality of her love hints at reaction formation. Since an act of creation can be thought to be “motivated by the simultaneous wish to destroy and to make restitution for the wish” according to Louis Fraiberg21 the anxiety roused by the wish to destroy in order to be able to create could be fiercely inhibiting. Old and long repressed anger long since transformed into excessive adoration might well threaten to erupt with all its attendant punishment and retaliation fantasies. Lily cannot finish her painting until real death removes from her the possibility of the unleashing of these early repressed fantasies. In the words of Daniel Schneider the “unconscious repressed can deform and inhibit the mastery of form in which … content is cast.”22 With Mrs. Ramsay gone she can be freed from the fear of being destroyed in the act of destroying in order to create; and the fantasy of the reincorporation in the mother can be transformed into an art object.

This, indeed, is what Lily does in Part Three. Once more taking up her painting, starting over with a clean canvas, she finds the old questions return—how to put all her memories and impressions together and perhaps get “at the truth of things, the question was of some relation between those masses.” (219) In this house “full of unrelated passions” the same blocking seems to threaten. Now at forty-four, Lily feels herself “wasting her time, unable to do a thing, standing there, playing at painting, playing at the one thing one did not play at, and it was all Mrs. Ramsay's fault. She was dead. The step where she used to sit was empty. She was dead.” (223–224) Mr. Ramsay, still “bearing down on her” now looms larger than ever, demanding from her the sympathy he once received so freely from Mrs. Ramsay. Lily cannot give it, will not give it to him. Feeling the intensity of “the pressure of his concentrated woe; his age; his frailty; his desolation” she rejects his need, displacing her response to his “immense self pity” onto his boots:

Remarkable boots they were too, Lily thought, looking down at them: sculptured; colossal; like everything that Mr. Ramsay wore. … “What beautiful boots!” she exclaimed. She was ashamed of herself. To praise his boots when he asked her to solace his soul. …


But Mr. Ramsay had smiled—“they had reached, she felt, a sunny island where peace dwelt … her heart warmed to him.” As he stoops over to tie her shoe she felt herself “tormented with sympathy for him … she felt her eyes swell and tingle with tears. …” (229–230) Though the feeling has “come too late,” for Cam and James interrupt, Lily has had it and has acknowledged it. The departure of the small family group, Cam, James, and Mr. Ramsay, leaves her feeling “curiously divided, as if one part of her were drawn out there—”One begins to sense that something is shifting position in Lily's inner world. Mr. Ramsay has become a real presence, the Lighthouse “looked this morning at an immense distance.” The self that does not accompany Mr. Ramsay seems “fixed … doggedly, solidly, here on the lawn.” Her canvas, empty, blank, uncompromisingly staring “seemed to rebuke her.” Lily, making herself “remember how she was such and such a person, had such and such relations to people … took her hand and raised her brush.” Pain, ecstasy, fear make for inner suspense that is almost unendurable—the great question once more seems unanswerable, how to begin—how to capture “the idea” which “seemed simple” but “became in practice immediately complex.” This time, however, Lily wills herself to “take the risk,” to make “the mark”:

With a curious physical sensation, as if she were urged forward and at the same time must hold herself back, she made her first quick decisive stroke. The brush descended. It flickered brown over the white canvas; it left a running mark. A second time she did it—a third time.


The temptation not to go on is almost intolerable—the fear of the total yielding to “this formidable ancient enemy of hers—this other thing, this truth, this reality, which suddenly laid hands on her” is almost paralyzing. The desire to paint and the desire not to paint engage in combat each seems equally threatening and equally destructive. Once more she feels naked, “like an unborn soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt.” Language such as this in its insistent and exaggerated particularity verbalizes with intensity effects that seem to me to be deeply preverbal—fears of rejection and separation, of punishment, of deprivation, terror that the creative act will blot out the very thing she wishes to capture. In almost a trance she allows the brush to move, seemingly of its own volition; she, Lily Briscoe, seemed in turn to be “losing consciousness of outer things … and her name and her personality and her appearance … her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas—” the image is almost nightmarish—“like a fountain spurting over the glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues.” The female castration anxiety crescendoes in intensity—over and over she hears the old words “women can’t paint, can’t write.” The echo of Charles Tansley's words bring back a memory of Mrs. Ramsay sitting on the beach one windy morning, writing letters, and of herself playing ducks and drakes with Charles—and all of it “seemed to depend somehow upon Mrs. Ramsay sitting under the rock, with a pad on her knee, writing letters.” Resurgence of pain rouses Lily to cry out “Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay” even as once more she is driven to ask the old question “What is the meaning of life? … a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years.”

Lily's question though clearly verbalized and philosophically and historically universal has its deepest source in the primal experience of separation. In this, the climactic moment of her experience in the novel, Lily is about to move into what might be called regression from which she emerges to finish her painting. At this point I confess to my own feeling of inadequacy in summarizing what Virginia Woolf does here. Only a reading of the full text will really make compelling her artistic recreation of Lily's descent from the conscious and self-aware self to the inner posture of the infant folded in the arm of the mother. Her mind moves associatively from clear memories of scenes of the summer ten years before back to her painting toward which she is able to be analytical and critical; then back to Mrs. Ramsay alone, to her voice, her words, her movements; once more to the painting—“and as she dipped into the blue paint, she dipped too into the past there.” The memory of Mrs. Ramsay begins now to become almost entirely visual; Lily cannot now even understand what the memory figures seem to be saying—“something violent … a mutter.” The effect is to give one the sense that Lily from an upright position is now lying down, observing, hearing, cherishing the unarticulatable movements of the loved mother. “She went on tunnelling her way into her picture, into the past.” Though there are moments when she returns to the summer's scenes, and to a conscious acknowledgement that Mrs. Ramsay “was faded and gone … we can over-ride her wishes, improve away her limited, old-fashioned ideas. She recedes further and further from us,” each return to the present awareness seems but a momentary defense and preparation for a deeper plunge until the pain of wanting and not having—“to want and not to have—to want and want—” wrung from her the silent cry once more “Oh, Mrs. Ramsay.” The death, the loss that had seemed an intellectually graspable fact suddenly is apprehended as fully real: “Suddenly, the empty drawing-room steps, the frill of the chair inside, the puppy tumbling on the terrace, the whole wave and whisper of the garden became like curves and arabesques flourishing round a centre of complete emptiness.” Lily's eyes were “full of a hot liquid (she did not think of tears at first) which, without disturbing the firmness of her lips, made the air thick, rolled down her cheeks.” Life seems to her to be “startling, unexpected, unknown” and this time feeling that a sound might fill the empty space, … and “Mrs. Ramsay would return. ‘Mrs. Ramsay!’ she said aloud, ‘Mrs. Ramsay!’ The tears ran down her face.”

Lily's mourning, her old, old grief is now felt and recognized in all its pain. “That anguish could reduce one to such a pitch of imbecility, she thought!” It seems almost as if she entered “into the waters of annihilation.” But slowly the pain recedes and with its withdrawal a thought “that she would never feel sorrow for Mrs. Ramsay again.” There is now, “mysteriously, a sense of some one there, of Mrs. Ramsay, relieved for a moment of the weight that the world had put on her.” At no moment has Lily ceased to work on her painting but now she is innerly aware of all the ways she has sought to capture Mrs. Ramsay. “So much depends, she thought, upon distance.” And then comes the moment of full critical consciousness, once more surfacing from the inner depths to try to understand the “obscure distress” she feels as she looks at her painting. “For whatever reason she could not achieve that razor edge of balance between two opposite forces; Mr. Ramsay and the picture; which was necessary.” Puzzled, desperate, feeling the human apparatus “was a miserable machine … for painting or for feeling” she tries to force the solution.

And then, for the first time, Lily submits to the memory, perhaps more accurately, to the fantasy—memory: “Let it come, she thought, if it will come. For there are moments when one can neither think nor feel. And if one can neither think nor feel, she thought, where is one?” Passive now, Lily has a sense of birth and of death.

Here sitting on the world, she thought, for she could not shake herself free from the sense that everything this morning was happening for the first time, perhaps for the last time, as a traveller, even though he is half asleep, knows, looking out of the train window, that he must look now, for he will never see that town, or that mule-cart, or that woman at work in the fields, again.

Her inner observations of the lawn, of Mr. Carmichael there nearby, her pictorial memories of Mrs. Ramsay that move in and out of her mind kaleidoscopically seem those of the passive infant though her work at the painting never ceases. The need to possess all of Mrs. Ramsay comes upon her with an increased desperateness. The following passage must, I think, be quoted in full; the ways in which the need to possess is felt even as is the pain of non-possession, the way in which the intrusion of the father as responsible for some of the pain of separation is innerly reconstructed, the way in which the parental romance is imagined, resist paraphrase. The moment seems to me to be an important one, for in it Lily seems at her most “regressive” posture and, at the same time, seems to be in the act of coming to grips with the nuclear loss and all its accumulated painfulness that has blocked her all these years. From this deepest of moments she emerges knowing how to complete her picture.

One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with, she reflected. Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with, she thought. Among them, must be one that was stone blind to her beauty. One wanted most some secret sense, fine as air, with which to steal through keyholes and surround her where she sat knitting, talking, sitting silent in the window alone; which took to itself and treasured up like the air which held the smoke of the steamer, her thoughts, her imaginations, her desires. What did the hedge mean to her, what did the garden mean to her, what did it mean to her when a wave broke? (Lily looked up, as she had seen Mrs. Ramsay look up; she too heard a wave falling on the beach.) And then what stirred and trembled in her mind when the children cried, “How's that? How's that?” cricketing? She would stop knitting for a second. She would look intent. Then she would lapse again, and suddenly Mr. Ramsay stopped dead in his pacing in front of her and some curious shock passed through her and seemed to rock her in profound agitation on its breast when stopping there he stood over her and looked down at her. Lily could see him.

He stretched out his hand and raised her from her chair. It seemed somehow as if he had done it before; as if he had once bent in the same way and raised her from a boat which, lying a few inches off some island, had required that the ladies should thus be helped on shore by the gentlemen. An old-fashioned scene that was, which required, very nearly, crinolines and peg-top trousers. Letting herself be helped by him, Mrs. Ramsay had thought (Lily supposed) the time has come now. Yes, she would say it now. Yes, she would marry him. And she stepped slowly, quietly on shore. Probably she said one word only, letting her hand rest still in his. I will marry you, she might have said, with her hand in his; but no more. Time after time the same thrill had passed between them—obviously it had, Lily thought. … She was not inventing; she was only trying to smooth out something she had been given years ago folded up; something she had seen. For in the rough and tumble of daily life, with all those children about, all those visitors, one had constantly a sense of repetition—of one thing falling where another had fallen, and so setting up an echo which chimed in the air and made it full of vibrations.


“Unfolding” thus and innerly verbalizing what is clearly an inextricable “something” she had seen, felt, imagined, fantasied about the parental figures Lily finds a way of objectifying “what it all meant”—once again she turns to the triangular shape as the one most full of the vibrations she is seeking to contain and to project. Even as in her inner mind she sees Mrs. Ramsay “walking rather fast in front, as if she expected to meet some one round the corner” she sees, in the real world, a movement, a figure, behind the window. “At last then somebody had come into the drawing-room; somebody was sitting in the chair”; praying that whoever it was would not “come floundering out to talk to her” Lily notices that the figure “by some stroke of luck” has thrown “an odd-shaped triangular shadow over the step.” Feeling her “mood … coming back to her” she works with deliberate attentiveness—“one must hold the scene”—The “problem might be solved after all,” the block might be broken, the creative force freed. At this moment there seems to come in one last terrible anguish the need for Mrs. Ramsay even as there seems to come the realization that indeed, she is dead, that there can be no reincorporation, that the separation and loss cannot be undone no matter how profound the desire.

Ah, but what had happened? Some wave of white went over the window pane. The air must have stirred some flounce in the room. Her heart leapt at her and seized her and tortured her. “Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!” she cried, feeling the old horror come back—to want and want and not to have.

At this moment the extraordinary need for Mrs. Ramsay becomes ordinary, the unresolved anguish of loss and separation is resolved as it is accepted as “a part of ordinary experience,” as it is seen to be “on a level with the chair, with the table.” Lily has in this instant of acceptance and resignation and sorrow arrived at something approaching detachment and relinquishment of Mrs. Ramsay and can be said to have carried out the work of mourning. Turning from the inner fantasy of Mrs. Ramsay sitting “there quite simply, in the chair” Lily “went past Mr. Carmichael holding her brush to the edge of the lawn” to look out to sea for the boat carrying James, Cam, and Mr. Ramsay to the Lighthouse, “Where is that boat now? And Mr. Ramsay? She wanted him.” (300) To her, as she relegates the lost mother to the reality of death and as she turns to include the third and once resented figure in the triangular shadow, there comes a way to finish her painting:

Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was—her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.


As James has arrived at his resolution of his inhibiting rage so Lily has achieved some freeing from libidinal attachment, so the work of mourning can become a creative rather than a destructive force. By finding a symbolic way of objectifying the lost object (the triangular form) and a way of representing “the meaning of it all” (“a line there, in the centre”) Lily has found a way of ensuring the presence of the lost and the decathexis necessary for giving up the magic wish for actual restitution can occur.23 In the acceptance of Mrs. Ramsay's, and all life's, mortality Lily accepts her own and renounces much of her inhibiting omnipotence—for what does it matter if her painting is “put in attics or destroyed.” For outraged omnipotence is but another manifestation of separation anxiety and is one of the painful components of the blocking that stops the creative process. Once Lily has accepted the reality of Mrs. Ramsay's death, has, in a sense re-experienced and worked through her intense libidinal attachment and the long repressed rage, has, in effect, like James, seemed to “complete the work of mourning” she is released from her narcissistic and infantile fantasy fear of destroying and can psychically afford to create. To quote Louis Fraiberg:

Creation is accomplished by reconstituting the object according to the artist's aesthetic conception, and this means that the image of the object in its natural context must be destroyed. Thus gratification at partial satisfaction of the destructive impulse is achieved, guilt at the destructive wish is alleviated, and pleasure at the new creation is felt, all being experienced concomitantly, and the combined, complicated value of the whole is invested in the created object. To this is added the pleasure which the ego feels in solving artistic problems and in the operation of the psychic apparatus itself.24

To the Lighthouse is a novel that is a complex symbol about the creation of a symbol. Both its central characters come to terms with infantile fantasies about the parental figures that must be resolved before either can move beyond psychic infancy. It is the actual loss in death of the beloved mother that reactivates earlier, primal loss and the long repressed grieving for that primal loss; in the acceptance of real loss in death real grieving revives the old grief and both are worked through in the “inner voyages” James and Lily make to the Lighthouse. I must here in the last paragraph return to the voice of the narrator. About its final peace it is impossible to assert anything. Clearly the voice of the novelist herself to suggest its success or non-success in the work of mourning is to move from a study of the novel into a conjecture about the writer. This I am in no sense prepared to do. But I would like to propose that the novel reveals how far Virginia Woolf could go in “regression in service of the ego”—far and deep and almost to the brink—and create, as her heroine Lily could, art from it. “Works of art” in the words of Paul Ricoeur, “are creations which, as such, are not simply projections of the artist's conflicts, but the sketch of their solution. Dreams look backward, toward infancy, the past; the work of art goes ahead of the artist; it is a prospective symbol of his personal synthesis and of man's future, rather than a regressive symbol of his unresolved conflicts.”25 All we can know about Mrs. Woolf's resolution of mourning for the mother and the father who were in her mind when she wrote To the Lighthouse is in the resolution she sketches for her main characters, though the voice that narrates continues to haunt the reader with its lyrical and elegiac tones.


  1. University of California Press, 1970

  2. Princeton University Press, 1970

  3. A Writer's Diary, edited by Leonard Woolf (London 1954), pp. 76-77.

  4. P. 229.

  5. P. 107.

  6. P. 138.

  7. Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” Collected Papers Vol. IV (New York 1959), pp. 152ff. See also “On Transcience,” Collected Papers Vol. V, pp. 79ff.; Helene Deutsch, Neuroses and Character Types (New York 1965), chapter 17; Margaret Mahler, “Notes on the Development of Basic Moods—the Depressive Affect” in Psychoanalysis—A General Psychology (New York 1966); Ella Freeman Sharpe, “The Impotence of Hamlet” in Collected Papers on Psychoanalysis (London 1968).

  8. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York 1927) p. 117. Subsequent references to this edition will appear in the text.

  9. A question of more or less minor import that has haunted me for sometime—since I persist in believing that “everything has a psychic cause”—has been “answered” by Miss Richter. Why, I have wondered, did Virginia Woolf change the locale from the proposed St. Ives in Cornwall to an island somewhere in the Hebrides? One possible reason is, of course, the need to translate autobiography into fiction—the selection of the locale almost at the other end of the map may have been inspired by Mrs. Woolf's work on her essay on Robinson Crusoe as well as by her interest in De Quincey's childhood. (Richter, p. 79 and p. 156, footnote 16). I’m still searching for “why the Hebrides.”

  10. “Mourning and Melancholia,” p. 161.

  11. Virginia Woolf: The Inward Voyage, p. 129-130.

  12. For the fantasy of the Phallic Mother see especially Ludwig Eidelberg, editor, Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis (New York 1968).

  13. D. W. Winnicott, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, xxxiv, 2, 1953, p. 89ff.

  14. Helene Deutsch, Neuroses and Character Types, p. 235.

  15. See especially pp. 57 ff. “But his son hated him. He hated him for coming up to them, for stopping and looking down on them; he hated him for interrupting them; he hated him for the exaltation and sublimity of his gestures; for the magnificence of his head; for his exactingness and egotism … ; but most of all he hated the twang and twitter of his father's emotion which, vibrating round them, disturbed the perfect simplicity and good sense of his relations with his mother.”

  16. The change in James' view of his father begins on p. 242.

  17. Lily's relationship to Mrs. Ramsay is far more psychologically complex than I have needed to discuss for the purposes of this essay. Indeed, had there been time and space I would be reluctant to “analyze” her since she is so symbiotically related to her creator. I recommend, however, Phyllis Greenacre's essay “Woman as Artist,” the Psychoanalytic Quarterly XXIX, 2, 1960, pp. 208-227, for some interesting ways of looking at both artists—Lily Briscoe and Virginia Woolf.

  18. Lawrence S. Kubie, Neurotic Distortion of the Creative Process (Lawrence, Kansas 1958), p. 104.

  19. Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis. See also Freud, “Female Sexuality” Collected Papers, Vol. V, pp. 252ff.

  20. “Female Sexuality,” p. 258.

  21. Louis Fraiberg, “New Views of Art and the Creative Process in Psychoanalytical Ego Psychology,” in The Creative Imagination ed. Hendrik M. Ruitenbeck (Chicago 1965), p. 235.

  22. Daniel E. Schneider, The Psychoanalyst and the Artist (Mentor Book, 1962), p. 104.

  23. See an interesting essay on this process by Robert Furman “Death and the Young Child” in The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child XIX, 1964, p. 326.

  24. “New Views …,” p. 236.

  25. Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy (New Haven 1970), p. 175.

Further Reading

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Barr, Tina. “Divine Politics: Virginia Woolf’s Journey toward Eleusis in To the Lighthouse.Boundary 2 20, No. 1 (Spring 1993): 125–45.

Discusses To the Lighthousein terms of the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone in order to locate the novel’s full political and feminist implications.

Barzilai, Shula. “The Politics of Quotation in To the Lighthouse: Mrs. Woolf Recites Mr. Tennyson and Mr. Cowper.” Literature and Psychology XLI, No. 3 (1995): 22–43.

Considers the significance of Woolf’s repetition of passages from Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and Cowper’s “The Castaway” throughout To the Lighthouse.

Beer, Gillian. “Hume, Stephen, and Elegy in To the Lighthouse.Essays in Criticism XXXIV, No. 1 (January 1984): 33–55.

Examines the meaning of absence in To the Lighthouse and its relation to the elegiac stance of mourning and coming to terms with loss.

Beja, Morris, ed. Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse. London: Macmillan, 1970, 256 p.

Collection of essays on To the Lighthouse; includes background information and first reviews of the novel.

Clark, Miriam Marty. “Consciousness, Stream and Quanta, in To the Lighthouse.Studies in the Novel 21, No. 4 (Winter 1989): 413–23.

Examines the place of quantum physics in To the Lighthouse.

Daugherty, Beth Rigel. “‘There She Sat’: The Power of the Feminist Imagination in To the Lighthouse.Twentieth Century Literature 37, No. 3 (Fall 1991): 289–308.

Connects the image of Mrs. Ramsay resurrected at the end of To the Lighthouse with Woolf’s attempts to symbolically release her own mother from the bonds of patriarchy.

Davenport, W. A. To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf). Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1969, 93 p.

Brief overview of major themes in and background for To the Lighthouse.

Donaldson, Sandra M. “Where Does Q Leave Mr. Ramsay?” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 37 (Fall 1992): 329–36.

Examines the place of symbolic logic in To the Lighthouse.

Ellman, Maud. “The Woolf Woman.” Critical Quarterly 35, No. 3 (Autumn 1993): 86–100.

Attempts to examine the connection between Sigmund Freud’s study of infantile neurosis in the “Wolf Man” and Woolf’s fictionalized study of her childhood in To the Lighthouse.

Fokkema, Douwe W. “An Interpretation of To the Lighthouse with Reference to the Code of Modernism.” PTL: A Journal for Descriptive Poetics and Theory of Literature 4 (1980): 475–500.

Examines the place of To the Lighthouse in the larger Modernist movement.

Hankins, Leslie Kathleen. “A Splice of Reel Life in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Time Passes’: Censorship, Cinema, and ‘the Usual Battlefield of Emotions.’” Criticism XXXV, No. 1 (Winter 1993): 91–114.

Notes the possible influence of film theory on To the Lighthouse, which Woolf wrote at the same time she wrote her essay “The Cinema.”

Henke, Suzette. “Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse: In Defense of the Woman Artist.” Virginia Woolf Quarterly 2 (1975): 39–47.

Explores the artistic sensibilities of both Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsay.

Hyman, Virginia R. “The Metamorphosis of Leslie Stephen.” Virginia Woolf Quarterly 2 (1975): 48–65.

Examines the connection between To the Lighthouse and the philosophy of Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, in his book The Science of Ethics.

Leaska, Mitchell A. Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”: A Study in Critical Method. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970, 221 pp.

Examines all the major elements of To the Lighthouse—style, point of view, and rhetoric—and includes a foreword by Leonard Woolf.

Lidoff, Joan. “Virginia Woolf’s Feminine Sentence: The Mother-Daughter World of To the Lighthouse.Literature and Psychology XXXII, No. 3 (1986): 43–57.

Discusses the “distinctly feminine tone” of To the Lighthouse and its connection to the psychological implications of the mother-daughter relationship.

Little, Judith. “Heroism in To the Lighthouse.” In Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Susan Koppelman Cornillon, pp. 237–42. Bowling Green, Oh: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972.

Explores the ways in which Mrs. Ramsay qualifies as a hero in the traditional sense of male literary heroism.

Lund, Roger D. “We Perished Each Alone: ‘The Castaway’ and To the Lighthouse.Journal of Modern Literature XVI, No. 1 (Summer 1989): 75–92.

Explains the reasons Woolf may have chosen lines and images from Cowper’s poem “The Castaway” as her “central poetic leitmotif” in To the Lighthouse.

McNichol, Stella. Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse. London: Edward Arnold, 1971, 64 p.

Examines the structure, characters, symbolism, and philosophical framework of To the Lighthouse.

Minogue, Sally. “Was It a Vision? Structuring Emptiness in To the Lighthouse.Journal of Modern Literature 21, No. 2 (Winter 1997-98): 281–94.

Analyzes To the Lighthouseto find keys to Woolf’s beliefs about death and the “brutality” of life.

Pratt, Annis. “Sexual Imagery in To the Lighthouse: A New Feminist Approach.” Modern Fiction Studies 18, No. 3 (Autumn 1972): 417–31.

Examines “The Window” section of To the Lighthouse, providing an overview of critical interpretation of it, in order to develop an innovative feminist reading of the text.

Raitt, Suzanne. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990, 129 p.

Provides cultural and historical perspectives, an analysis of the text, and primary and secondary bibliographies.

Rosenthal, Michael. “To the Lighthouse.” In Virginia Woolf, pp. 103–27. London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.

Provides an overview of major themes in To the Lighthouse.

Vogler, Thomas A., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of To the Lighthouse: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970, 144 p.

Collects essays on To the Lighthouseby a number of important literary figures and critics.

Additional coverage of Woolf’s life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 130; Contemporary Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1914–1945; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 36, 100, 162; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 10; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules:Most-Studied Authors,Novelists; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vol. 1; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 7; and World Literature Criticism.

Sharon Wood Proudfit (essay date 1971)

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SOURCE: “Lily Brisco's Painting: A Key to Personal Relationships in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Criticism, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Winter, 1971, pp. 26–38.

[In the following essay, Proudfit contends that the meaning of To the Lighthouse, and particularly the figure of Mrs. Ramsay, is largely contained in the post-Impressionistic quality of Lily Briscoe's painting and in Lily's ambiguous relationship to Mrs. Ramsay.]

It has become almost commonplace among critics of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse to regard Mrs. Ramsay, unquestionably one of the most perfect statements of feminine sensibility, intuition, and maternal comfort in literature, as a magnetic life force, entering and irradiating the lives of those around her, which must somehow be fulfilled and immortalized through the Ramsay family's final pilgrimage to the lighthouse. Even Jean Guiguet, author of the most recent and certainly the best full-scale work on Mrs. Woolf's writings to date, Virginia Woolf and Her Works, sees the voyage of Mr. Ramsay, Cam, and James as a validation of Mrs. Ramsay's victory over death, as a validation of her ability to haunt the pages of the novel “with a presence that echoes the material permanence of the lighthouse.”1 The counter-interpretation of Mrs. Ramsay, that offered in 1958 by Glenn Pedersen,2 regarding Mrs. Ramsay as a dominating, selfish, suffocating power which must be overcome by the remaining Ramsays through a trip to the lighthouse, symbolically freeing them from the chains imposed by Mrs. Ramsay, has never gained established acceptance. This is surprising in the light of the close readings to which the novel has been subjected, particularly when one considers previous insights and discoveries which lend support to Pedersen's interpretation.

Pre-eminent in this respect is the crucial acknowledgment that Lily Briscoe's painting is both structurally and thematically linked with the voyage to the lighthouse. This becomes central to Pedersen's argument, for it is his contention that the entire action of the novel is unfolded symbolically in Lily Briscoe's painting. He elaborates in detail upon this, interpreting the final line in Lily's painting as a symbol of masculine achievement, the line integrating the painting, just as Mr. Ramsay's success in toppling Mrs. Ramsay's matriarchy brings about the integration of the family. Although Pedersen's argument as it stands is tenable for this reader, two crucial aspects concerning Lily and her painting which would support his interpretation of Mrs. Ramsay and increase its credibility have not received sufficient attention: (1) the Post-Impressionist nature of Lily's painting and (2) the nature of the relationship between Lily and Mrs. Ramsay.

Neither the importance of Lily's final stroke on her painting nor the idea that the painting is Post-Impressionist is new. As early as 1946 John Hawley Roberts did a brief exploratory study of the influence of Roger Fry and Post-Impressionism upon Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.3 Yet Hawley's observations that Lily's final stroke achieves the proper formal relations in the picture, that Lily accompanies her final stroke with a statement echoing Fry in terms of vision and design, “I have had my vision,” while important, function even more effectively in suggesting new levels of interpretation. Since Lily's picture is thematically and structurally integral to the novel, the development of that picture, both as a work of art and as a reflection of Lily's relationship with the Ramsay family, in particular with Mrs. Ramsay, demands close scrutiny. For it is within the process of completing her painting, a process which occupies the full ten-year time span of the novel, that one discovers the interpretive insight which lends its weight in favor of Mr. Pedersen's appraisal of Mrs. Ramsay. It is my purpose in this essay to explore this process in terms of the Post-Impressionist nature of Lily's painting and the nature of the relationship between Lily and Mrs. Ramsay as a key to increasing our understanding of Mrs. Ramsay and her effect upon those close to her.

When one labels a work “Post-Impressionist,” one is essentially placing it within a “movement” introduced into England by Roger Fry in November, 1910, when he brought the First Post-Impressionist Exhibition to London's Grafton Galleries. As Guiguet asserts, it is true that today one can regard Impressionism and Post-Impressionism as “only modalities of style, all directed toward a single goal: the integral expression of the artist's vision, of his impression.”4 Roger Fry, however, considered the two movements as distinguishable, one from the other, and developed a body of aesthetic theory around the Post-Impressionist painters, popularizing both his theories and the work of such artists as Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, and Derain, and in the process establishing the trends in England in the plastic arts for twenty years.5

The context of this essay is not the proper place for a synopsis of all of Fry's aesthetic theories,6 yet those particularly suggestive of the procedure followed by Lily in her painting are relevant. Fry believes, primarily, that the artist, before he begins to paint his picture, is struck by some scene or object, not necessarily because it is beautiful, but because the arrangement of the scene, its formal relations and his vision of them, engender in him an emotional response7 valued for its own sake and independent of any requirement of everyday life.8 In the contemplation of this design, of the formal relations and harmonies into which the vision is dissolved, the artist is overwhelmed by a glimpse of the reality beneath appearance and is consequently enveloped by the “aesthetic emotion,”9 by an “idea,”10 which he feels compelled to transmit and to make concrete through his art form.

The artist expresses his “idea” in his painting, transferring the design he sees to his art work by recreating the formal relations and harmonies, by putting down on his canvas the “significant form” he has discovered. As he does this, the artist is caught up in the rhythm of the aesthetic emotion, a rhythm experienced almost unconsciously, but expressed through the consciousness of the artist,11 a rhythm which holds the artist completely in its grasp:

Almost any turn of the kaleidoscope of nature may set up in the artist this detached and impassioned vision, and, as he contemplates the particular field of vision, the (aesthetically) chaotic and accidental conjunction of forms and colours begins to crystalise into a harmony; and as this harmony becomes clear to the artist, his actual vision becomes distorted by the emphasis of the rhythm which has been set up within him. Certain relations of directions of line become for him full of meaning; he apprehends them no longer casually or merely curiously, but passionately, and these lines begin to be so stressed and stand out so clearly from the rest that he sees them far more distinctly than he did at first. … In such a creative vision the objects as such tend to disappear, to lose their separate unities, and to take their places as so many bits in the whole mosaic of vision.12

This, according to Fry, is essentially what happens within the visual artist in the process of creation. In essence, Fry is trying to describe the procedure by which a Post-Impressionist painting is created.

Roger Fry's response to the Post-Impressionists was both elicited and sustained in great part by his enthusiasm for Cézanne. Indeed, a close analysis of Fry's aesthetic theories reveals that, as his ideas develop, they form increasingly an aesthetic developed to understand and appreciate Cézanne as a painter, an effort toward understanding which culminates in Fry's book-length study, Cézanne: A Study of His Development, first published in 1927, the year in which To the Lighthouse was published. It is perhaps not at all accidental, given Mrs. Woolf's close friendship with Roger Fry,13 her personal acknowledgment of her indebtedness to him,14 and the assertion of such critics as Guiguet of the “profound influence of … [Fry's] theories on Virginia Woolf's development,”15 that the steps followed by Lily Briscoe in the completion of her picture are so similar to those accorded by Fry to Cézanne in the execution of Provençal Mas:

We may describe the process by which such a picture is arrived at in some such way as this:—the actual objects presented to the artist's vision are first deprived of all those specific characters by which we ordinarily apprehend their concrete existence—they are reduced to pure elements of space and volume. In this abstract world these elements are perfectly co-ordinated and organized by the artist's sensual intelligence, they attain logical consistency. These abstractions are then brought back into the concrete world of real things, not by giving them back their specific peculiarities, but by expressing them in an incessantly varying and shifting texture. They retain their abstract intelligibility, their amenity to the human mind, and regain that reality of actual things which is absent from all abstractions.

Of course in laying all this out one is falsifying the actual processes of the artist's mind. In reality, the processes go on simultaneously and unconsciously—indeed the unconsciousness is essential to the nervous vitality of the texture.16

As much as such a statement is a falsification, it is just such a process which Lily attempts to explain to Mr. Bankes; it is just such a process which she attempts to carry out in her own picture. Further, it is precisely in her inability to deprive Mrs. Ramsay “of all those specific characters” by which she ordinarily apprehends her “concrete existence” that poses an obstacle to the completion of the picture until the end of the novel. To overcome this obstacle, Lily must first come to grips with the personal relations enveloping her. This then frees her to pursue unhampered her creative task.

We first come to know Lily Briscoe within the novel through the responses of others toward her. Mrs. Ramsay reflects that “with her little Chinese eyes and her puckered-up face, she [Lily] would never marry; one could not take her painting very seriously; she was an independent little creature.”17 Mr. Bankes observes Lily's sensible shoes, her orderly life, her good sense, which compensates for her being “poor, presumably, and without the complexion or the allurement of Miss Doyle” (31). Although this prepares the reader for Lily's attitude toward herself, her sense of “her own inadequacy, her insignificance” (32), it does not prepare him for her adoration of Mrs. Ramsay, her “impulse to fling herself (thank Heaven she had always resisted so far) at Mrs. Ramsay's knee and say to her—but what could one say to her? ‘I’m in love with you?’ No, that was not true. ‘I’m in love with this all,” waving her hand at the hedge, at the house, at the children. It was absurd, it was impossible” (32–33). Absurd and impossible as it may seem to Lily, the reader soon discerns that Lily is ambivalent in her attitude toward Mrs. Ramsay. As much as she can exult in the rapture of Mr. Bankes's “silent stare” of love for Mrs. Ramsay (74), as much as she considers Mrs. Ramsay “unquestionably the loveliest of people” (76), as much as Lily is attracted to her, Lily also recognizes that about Mrs. Ramsay there is a certain “highhandedness” (75), that “she was wilful; she was commanding” (76); and that “Mrs. Ramsay cared not a fig for her [Lily's] painting, or triumphs won by her, … an unmarried woman has missed the best of life” (77).

Her thoughts of Mrs. Ramsay's dominating ways are mixed with reminiscences of Mrs. Ramsay's obsession to control what she cannot comprehend, of an evening when Lily “had laid her head on Mrs. Ramsay's lap and laughed and laughed and laughed, laughed almost hysterically at the thought of Mrs. Ramsay presiding with immutable calm over destinies which she completely failed to understand” (78). Yet for all of her acknowledgment of Mrs. Ramsay's faults, Lily is attracted to her physically, “sitting on the floor with her arms round Mrs. Ramsay's knees, close as she could get” (78), and desires a more permanent union with her, one that will open the mind and heart of Mrs. Ramsay to Lily: “What device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored? Could the body achieve, or the mind, subtly mingling in the intricate passage of the brain? or the heart? Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one? for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that would be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had thought, leaning her head on Mrs. Ramsay's knee” (79).

Lily's attraction to Mrs. Ramsay raises once more the interest in the relationships possible between women shown by Mrs. Woolf and expressed in her diary where she writes: “If one could be friendly with women, what a pleasure—the relationship so secret and private compared with relations with men. Why not write about it? Truthfully?”18 While Lily's expressed longing suggests Lesbian tendencies on her part, it is likewise true that the attraction and repulsion which she feels simultaneously, her desire for union accompanied by her recognition of Mrs. Ramsay's wilfullness, is not unlike Mr. Ramsay's response to his wife. Neither for Mr. Ramsay nor for Lily is that which they find beautiful and tempting what is best for them. While Mrs. Ramsay lives, while the desire to be sheltered in the cradle of Mrs. Ramsay's arms and warmth is sustained, Lily cannot finish her picture and Mr. Ramsay cannot reach “R.” This stifling attraction of Mrs. Ramsay, significantly enough, affects only those adults within the novel who are truly creative yet susceptible to Mrs. Ramsay—Lily and Mr. Ramsay. Charles Tansley is a pedant, Mr. Bankes doesn’t create, and Mr. Carmichael, who might come under her shadow, abhors and avoids the charms of Mrs. Ramsay. Both Lily and Mr. Ramsay overcome Mrs. Ramsay—Lily by completing her picture, even though Mrs. Ramsay never took her painting seriously, and Mr. Ramsay by reaching the lighthouse, a symbolic achievement of “R,” although Mrs. Ramsay had made her final pronouncement upon that subject prior to her death, “Yes, you were right. It’s going to be wet tomorrow. You won’t be able to go” (186).

Lily's picture provides the key to this, for Lily is painting a picture in which Mrs. Ramsay is one of the objects being painted. For the picture to be completed along Post-Impressionist lines, Mrs. Ramsay must become merely a part of the system of formal relations; and in order to accomplish this, Lily must overcome Mrs. Ramsay's ability to dominate her emotionally. By having Lily paint a Post-Impressionist picture, one in which she sacrifices nothing “of those formal relations to the arousing of emotions connected with the outer world,”19 Mrs. Woolf offers a means for understanding the significance which Mrs. Ramsay has for the other characters within the novel.

We begin to realize that Lily's picture is Post-Impressionist as she attempts to explain her picture to Mr. Bankes, to show him that the purple triangle represents Mrs. Ramsay and James, that “if there, in that corner, it was bright, here, in this, she felt the need of darkness” (81). She elaborates upon her disregard for human likeness, upon the idea that what is important is “relations of masses, … lights and shadows” (82). As Lily talks to Mr. Bankes, she attempts to rediscover her vision, “subduing all her impressions as a woman to something much more general; becoming once more under the power of that vision which she had seen clearly once and must now grope for among hedges and houses and mothers and children—her picture” (82). She remembers the problem is connecting the “mass on the right hand with that on the left,” perhaps by “bringing the line of the branch across so; or break the vacancy in the foreground by an object” (83). But Lily does not want to break the unity as a whole. Lily's demonstration, her explanation, her concern with color, with shapes, with lines, masses, space, light and shadow arranged in the right relation, mark her as a Post-Impressionist. To emphasize this, Mrs. Woolf invents Pauncefort whose ideas Lily rejects, Pauncefort who sees “everything pale, elegant, semitransparent” (32), who sees things with the color “thinned and faded; the shapes etherealised” (75).

That evening during dinner Lily's picture becomes her means of escape from the dominance of Mrs. Ramsay; for although Mrs. Ramsay wills Lily to be nice to Charles Tansley, introducing and dropping tidbits of conversation, finally bringing them all together in serene relations with the lighting of the candles, Lily's mind and emotions are never completely integrated into the scene. Somehow she periodically escapes, planning and explaining her picture, using a sprig on the tablecloth to remind her, moving the salt cellar, until her picture becomes her means of avoiding Mrs. Ramsay's will asserting itself, attempting to force her to marry: “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 degradation. She was saved from that dilution. She would move the tree rather more to the middle” (154).

When Lily returns ten years later, she is reminded of her picture as she sits once more in the same dining room, at the same table, amidst coffee cups, but without Mrs. Ramsay: “When she had sat there last ten years ago there had been a little sprig or leaf pattern on the tablecloth, which she had looked at in a moment of revelation. There had been a problem about a foreground of a picture. Move the tree to the middle, she had said. She had never finished that picture. It had been knocking about in her mind all these years” (220). Lily sets up her easel, recalls the problem of relations of masses, feels “she knew now what she wanted to do” (221). As she stands on the lawn, worrying about Mr. Ramsay “bearing down on her,” she remembers her arrival, recalls her feeling that “it was a house full of unrelated passions” (221). This is the day that those passions are to be related, as are the relations in Lily's picture.

Lily finds she is unable to paint with Mr. Ramsay around, with him begging for sympathy she cannot give. She takes her work seriously. “She hated playing at painting. A brush, the one dependable thing in a world of strife, ruin, chaos—that one should not play with, knowingly even: she detested it” (224). When finally Lily has praised Mr. Ramsay's boots, when he has been appeased, and the Ramsays are ready to depart, Lily observes, “There was no helping Mr. Ramsay on the journey he was going” (230), and she confronts herself with her white canvas. She rethinks the problems of the “relations of those lines cutting across, slicing down, and in the mass of the hedge with its green cave of blues and browns, which had stayed in her mind” (234). These problems, indeed, have “tied a knot in her mind so that at odds and ends of time, involuntarily, as she walked along the Brompton Road, as she brushed her hair, she found herself painting that picture, passing her eye over it, and untying the knot in imagination” (234). With these reflections Mrs. Woolf has covered ten years, has unified the novel, linking “The Window” chapter with “The Lighthouse.” Lily worries over her first mark, knowing that “one line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions” (235). She makes her first mark; it runs; she makes another; and she find herself in the grasp of Fry's aesthetic emotion: “Here she was again, she thought, stepping back to look at it, drawn out of gossip, out of living, out of community with people into the presence of this formidable ancient enemy of hers—this other thing, this truth, this reality, which suddenly laid hands on her, emerged stark at the back of appearances and commanded her attention” (236). She begins dipping her brush, moving it, as the rhythm of the creative vision takes over:

Then, as if some juice necessary for the lubrication of her faculties were spontaneously spirited, she began, … but it was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to her (she kept looking at the hedge, at the canvas) by what she saw, so that while her hand quivered with life, this rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its current. Certainly she was losing consciousness of outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, and whether Mr. Carmichael was there or not, her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues.


Lily pauses, muses about Mrs. Ramsay, thinks of the “great revelation” that never comes and of Mrs. Ramsay's ability to make “of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent)” (241). This is a revelation for Lily: “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! … She owed it all to her,’” (241). At this moment Lily realizes that she, too, can create as did Mrs. Ramsay; that she, too, can make “of the moment something permanent.” At this point Lily becomes one with Mrs. Ramsay, is identified with Mrs. Ramsay as ten years before she had desired to be. Mrs. Ramsay is no longer the dominant figure in the relationship; they share a gift; only the results are different.

After Lily's great revelation, her work becomes easier for her:

Heaven be praised for it, the problem of space remained, she thought, taking up her brush again. It glared at her. The whole mass of the picture was poised upon that weight. Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly's wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron. It was to be a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses. … And she began to model her way into the hollow there. At the same time, she seemed to be sitting beside Mrs. Ramsay on the beach.


As Lily paints, she recalls the last September with the Ramsays, Mr. Bankes, the Rayleys, the failure of the Rayley marriage so carefully pushed by Mrs. Ramsay. And then, engulfed by emotions from the outer world, Lily encounters “some obstacle in her design” (260), and as she pauses, remembers Mrs. Ramsay always urging her to marry, the Rayleys to marry: “For a moment Lily, standing there, with the sun hot on her back, summing up the Rayleys, triumphed over Mrs. Ramsay, who would never know how Paul went to coffeehouses and had a mistress; … how she stood here painting, had never married, not even William Bankes” (260).

Lily has now not only identified herself with Mrs. Ramsay, but also she has triumphed over her. She recalls how, by gazing at the table cloth, she had barely escaped Mrs. Ramsay's insistence that she marry William Bankes. She thinks of her friendship with William Bankes, then of how William responded to Mrs. Ramsay's beauty, and then of Mrs. Ramsay's beauty generally. Gradually she finds herself “half out of the picture, looking, a little dazedly, as if at unreal things, at Mr. Carmichael” (265). Wondering what it all means, these thoughts and emotions about Mrs. Ramsay, “the whole world seemed to have dissolved in this early morning hour into a pool of thought, a deep basin of reality” (266). Looking at her picture she thinks that if Mr. Carmichael would talk to her, would answer her unanswered questions, that he would say “how ‘you’ and ‘I’ and ‘she’ pass and vanish; nothing stays; all changes; but not words, not paint” (267). Lily's pain, her desire for Mrs. Ramsay, begin to subside; she recalls the visions of Mrs. Ramsay which kept recurring for days after Mrs. Ramsay's death, so that “wherever she happened to be, painting, here, in the country or in London, the vision would come to her, and her eyes, half closing, sought something to base her vision on” (270). Then “moved as she was by some instinctive need of distance and blue” (270), Lily looks out and sees the boat. She looks again, and then again, and she thinks about how “so much depends … upon distance: whether people are near us or far from us” (284). She surmises that the Ramsays will arrive at the lighthouse at lunch time, and then looks again at her picture: “There was something perhaps wrong with the design? Was it, she wondered, that the line of the wall wanted breaking, was it that the mass of the trees was too heavy?” (287) Trying to understand what is wrong, she realizes that it “evaded her when she thought of Mrs. Ramsay. … Visions came. Beautiful pictures. Beautiful phrases. But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything” (287). Lily sits down; she rests; she looks at Mr. Carmichael and she thinks that one way to know people is “to know the outline, not the detail, to sit in one's garden and look at the slopes of a hill running purple down into the distant heather” (289). Then she remembers Mrs. Ramsay, that Mr. Carmichael never liked her, how “half one's notions of other people were, after all, grotesque. They served private purposes of one's own” (293). And then she thinks again of Mrs. Ramsay, of the repetition of the life of the Ramsays, how they would quarrel and then come back together, how Mrs. Ramsay would smooth things over. While Lily thinks, recalls, she continues to gaze at the window: “One must keep on looking without for a second relaxing the intensity of emotion, the determination not to be put off, not to be bamboozled. One must hold the scene—so—in a vise and let nothing come in and spoil it. One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on the level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy” (299–300).

Something happens at the window, something white waves while Lily looks: “‘Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!’ she cried, feeling the old horror come back—to want and want and not to have. Could she inflict that still? And then, quietly, as if she refrained, that too became part of ordinary experience, was on a level with the chair, with the table” (300). Mrs. Ramsay has lost her dominance over Lily. Lily looks out over the water for the boat, for Mr. Ramsay. “She wanted him” (300).

Looking out toward the lighthouse which is almost invisible, Lily feels “suddenly completely tired out” (308), and surmises that Mr. Ramsay has reached his destination: “Ah, but she was relieved. Whatever she had wanted to give him, when he left her that morning, she had given him at last” (308–309). Mr. Carmichael, who never liked Mrs. Ramsay, gets up, joins her in looking out over the water, and she realizes he has shared her thoughts the whole morning: “He stood there as if he were spreading his hands over all the weakness and suffering of mankind; she thought he was surveying, tolerantly and compassionately, their final destiny. Now he has crowned the occasion, she thought, when his hand slowly fell, as if she had seen him let fall from his great height a wreath of violets and asphodels which, fluttering slowly, lay at length upon the earth” (309). Lily remembers her picture, its lines, its colors, and she looks again at the steps which are now empty. “With a sudden intensity as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision” (310).

At last, Mrs. Woolf is saying, the proper relations have been achieved. Lily has spent her morning on the lawn slaying the ghost of Mrs. Ramsay, dissecting it, analyzing it, realizing at one time that she too can create like Mrs. Ramsay, can make a moment permanent through her art; realizing at another time that Mrs. Ramsay's will was often misdirected, as with the Rayleys, that in her escape from that will, Lily has triumphed. Lily has struggled, Lily has wrestled, Lily has wept, and finally Mrs. Ramsay has lost her dominance; Mrs. Ramsay has become like all other objects, and Lily can now grasp the formal relations in her picture. One of the masses, the dark triangle, the wedge of darkness with which Mrs. Ramsay identifies herself, is no longer bound up with emotions outside the formal relations of the picture. Lily has overcome these emotions and can finish her picture. Mrs. Ramsay, who could not really take Lily's painting seriously, no longer controls Lily. This is what Lily has given Mr. Ramsay.

With his new freedom Mr. Ramsay no longer needs the kind of sympathy Mrs. Ramsay gave him; Mr. Ramsay can reach the lighthouse on his own, in spite of Mrs. Ramsay's last word on the subject. Mr. Ramsay no longer needs to be coddled and cajoled, to be humored and made to think he is the master of the family, that his tyranny is real. The Mr. Ramsay who arrives at the lighthouse truly is the master of the family; he knows it; his children know it. Assertive, controlling the situation, he will now be able to get beyond “Q.” Sensing this, James can overcome his Oedipal hatred and begin to identify himself with his father, and Cam can look at her father with open respect from the perspective of a young girl in whom her mother's sympathy is balanced by her father's reason. The relations of the family have been properly adjusted, the emotions have been re-arranged and placed in order; and Lily on the lawn, having at last achieved a right relationship with Mrs. Ramsay, and knowing that Mr. Ramsay, in reaching the lighthouse, has attained a similar achievement, can finish her painting, has had her vision.


  1. Trans. Jean Stewart (London, 1965), p. 253.

  2. Glenn Pedersen, “Vision in To the Lighthouse,PMLA, LXXIII (December 1958), 585-600.

  3. John Hawley Roberts, “‘Vision and Design’ in Virginia Woolf,” PMLA, LXI (September 1946), 835-47.

  4. Guiguet, p. 31.

  5. See Douglas Cooper, The Courtauld Collection, A Catalogue and Introduction (London, 1954), p. 52.

  6. They have been well summarized chronologically in Solomen Fishman's The Interpretation of Art (Berkeley, 1963), pp. 101-42, and considered analytically in my unpublished doctoral dissertation, “The Fact and the Vision: Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry's Post-Impressionist Aesthetic” (University of Michigan, 1967).

  7. This is Fry's “creative vision” which he describes in detail in “The Artist's Vision,” Vision and Design (London, 1923), pp. 51-52.

  8. Fry distinguishes between the aesthetic experience and everyday experience in “An Essay in Aesthetics,” Vision and Design, p. 18.

  9. The term “aesthetic emotion” is first defined and used by Clive Bell in Art (New York, 1913), pp. 6-7. Fry uses it interchangeably with “aesthetic state of mind” to distinguish the response which one experiences before works of art from our “mental attitude in other experiences.” See Roger Fry, “Some Questions in Esthetics,” Transformations: Critical and Speculative Essays on Art (London, 1926), pp. 1-2.

  10. Fry borrows the term “idea” from Flaubert and uses it in his attempt to define “significant form”:

    I think we are all agreed that we mean by significant form something other than agreeable arrangements of form, harmonious patterns, and the like. We feel that a work which possesses it is the outcome of an endeavour to express an idea rather than to create a pleasing object. Personally, at least, I always feel that it implies the effort on the part of the artist to bend to our emotional understanding by means of his passionate conviction some intractable material which is alien to our spirit.

    I seem unable at present to get beyond this vague adumbration of the nature of significant form. Flaubert's ‘expression of the idea’ seems to me to correspond exactly to what I mean, but, alas! he never explained, and probably could not, what he meant by the ‘ideas.’ (“Retrospect,” Vision and Design, p. 302)

  11. See Roger Fry, Last Lectures (Boston, 1962), pp. 27-28.

  12. Fry, “The Artist's Vision,” Vision and Design, pp. 51-52.

  13. The seriousness with which Virginia Woolf regarded Roger Fry's criticism and her devotion to him as a personal friend are expressed in her A Writer's Diary (London, 1959), pp. 27, 32, 33, 104, 148, 176-77, 223-25, 233, 235, 262, 303, 311, 325-26, 339.

  14. In the “Preface” to Orlando, written the year after To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf asserts that “to the unrivalled sympathy and imagination of Mr. Roger Fry I owe whatever understanding of the art of painting I may possess.” Orlando: A Biography (New York, 1928), p. vii. She makes a similar expression of her indebtedness to him in “Roger Fry,” The Moment and Other Essays (London, 1964), p. 83.

  15. Guiguet, p. 31.

  16. Roger Fry, Cézanne: A Study of His Development (New York, 1958), pp. 58-59.

  17. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York, 1927), p. 29. All page references to this novel in the text will hereafter appear in parenthetic numerals.

  18. A Writer's Diary, p. 69. Mrs. Woolf's interest in Lesbianism has been treated by Ruth Gruber in Virginia Woolf: A Study (Leipzig, 1935). Quoted by Irma Rantavaara, Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury (Helsinki, 1953), p. 148. Guiguet also deals with this in Virginia Woolf and Her Works, pp. 257-59.

  19. Roger Fry, The Artist and Psychoanalysis, The Hogarth Essays, II (London, 1924), p. 9.

Alvin J. Seltzer (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: “The Tension of Stalemate,” in Chaos in the Novel/The Novel in Chaos, Schocken Books, 1974, pp. 120–140.

[In the following essay, Seltzer examines the inherent lack of integrity and stability in the human personality and the resultant personal and social distance and, ultimately, chaos as chronicled by Woolf in To the Lighthouse.]

Many contemporary novelists have surrendered a good deal or all of their artistic control to the belief that a chaotic vision of life can be truly represented only by a chaotic form. To the extent that artifice is falsification, its presence would seem to undermine the confusion that the author is trying to project. But must all aesthetic order dissolve before a philosophical sense of disorder can be communicated? If so, then the novel may be as dead as it has been rumored to be. But if the novel is flexible enough, it may be saved by the very artifice which has threatened to stifle it. In short, the novel can provide illusions of devastating experience without subjecting itself to the inevitable destruction that the experience itself might lead to. The trick is to know how to handle artistic freedom—and that in itself implies a discipline that many contemporaries are evading or willfully abdicating. Just as Marlow in Heart of Darkness can peer into Kurtz's abyss without falling into it, so the reader can be mentally jarred by the appearance of chaos without being thrust into its real-life equivalent. The author may very well want to give us the sensation of slipping occasionally, but once he pulls us over the precipice, art becomes indistinguishable from life and is therefore rendered superfluous. If art is to heighten and sharpen our awareness of reality, it must provide sufficient stability and detachment to enable the reader to use all his resources in coming to terms with the author's vision—no matter how chaotic that vision is. Otherwise, the reader becomes so helplessly lost in the chaos itself that he is no longer free to feel the kind of impact that art makes possible. The view from Kurtz's psyche may have the advantage of greater immediacy, but that same experience formalized through Marlow's intellect and disciplined by Conrad's artistic devices, gains universality and provides a basis for evaluating that experience. Art, then, need not falsify chaos in order to rescue something from it.

Like Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf values anything that art can salvage from a world that is “too dark altogether,” yet like him too, she is careful not to make too large a claim: the darkness she depicts can never be dispelled. She is under no illusions that the resistance art can offer is tantamount to triumph, but even a stalemate is sufficient assurance for her of art's value in our lives. Here, I think, is where her chief importance lies for us today, both as an artist and as an aesthetician for modern practitioners of the chaotic novel. In her, we may find hope for the future of a form currently in danger of being swallowed up by a vision that sees the futility of artistic control as the end rather than the beginning of a perpetual struggle.

In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf handles chaos with such delicacy that the work seems almost too well-made to reflect her disturbing vision. Nevertheless, the balance between constructive and destructive forces is kept at such a teetering tension throughout, that the novel becomes an exciting, if subdued, contest between art and reality. If art's ultimate victory is tentative and precarious, it is still legitimate, for Virginia Woolf has not underestimated the power of her opponent. While her characterization of chaos lacks the terrifying aggressiveness accorded it by many contemporary writers, it is every bit as eerie, menacing, and devastating. Quietly seeping through the roots of our lives, it extirpates us quite as efficiently as much wilder forces, for it works from within and without. Like dusk descending slowly and silently, it settles over a scene until all forms become obliterated, and man himself is left a “wedge of darkness.”

Because the darkness surrounding our lives originates in the pores of the human personality, we cannot say that it prevents us from knowing ourselves, but rather that this darkness is the deepest thing we can know about ourselves. Like Darl in As I Lay Dying, who must empty himself out for sleep, Mrs. Ramsay also feels the falseness of her identity in active life when, alone, she divests herself of her various roles, which slip away into the night. Only now

she could be herself, by herself. … To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others … our apparitions, the things you know us by, are simply childish. Beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading; it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by.1

It would seem, then, that all appearances are essentially false suggestions of a unified personality. By implying that we can be known and reached, these outward projections of our internal realities are deceptive and ultimately illusory. For the artist who hopes to penetrate facades, therefore, acknowledgment of chaos is mandatory. Lily Briscoe, never deceived by public forms of personality, tries desperately to grasp the private world of Mrs. Ramsay, but recognizes the futility of her efforts when she finds intimacy itself an impossibility. Leaning her head on Mrs. Ramsay's knee, she is shocked to discover that

Nothing happened. Nothing! Nothing! … And yet, she knew knowledge and wisdom were stored up in Mrs. Ramsay's heart. How then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were?

(P. 79)

It is this question that haunts Lily throughout the novel, and her determination to deal honestly with it that dictates Virginia Woolf's themes and techniques, as both author and her fictional counterpart contemplate the chaos separating all human beings from themselves and from one another.

By slipping in and out of her characters' minds, Virginia Woolf reveals all the subtle shifts in mood, idea, and response attesting to the fluidity of human consciousness; and her omniscient point of view enables her to define the remoteness of one mind from another with depressing clarity. We see one person flowing through a rainbow of moods, changing thoughts with the ease of a chameleon changing color, and continually sliding out of one self into another with such protean elusiveness that even the most astute observer must remain forever locked out of another's identity. Furthermore, the observer himself is affected and his own identity frequently modified or significantly altered by what he has perceived in the other person—and that perception itself is hardly constant, but influenced by the perceiver's particular mood, thoughts, and feelings at the moment. Because all this takes place in seconds, we see that even the form of chaos changes from one moment to the next. If truth is to be found at all, then, it is the truth of an instant—those spots of time when we suddenly rise to the surface to become one with our appearance.

Since Virginia Woolf defines the self as a wedge of darkness invisible to others, we may wonder if it is inaccessible as well. Certainly, it would seem that if her people, like Conrad's, are inevitably sealed off from one another and if, like Faulkner's, their own identities block accurate perception, then interaction is apt to be a haphazard collision at best. Like planets revolving in different spheres, all her characters seem separate worlds divided by vast chasms of darkness which absorb most of the signals sent from one body to another. To what extent does such a universe render meaningful communication possible?

one could say nothing to nobody. The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low. … For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express that emptiness there?

(P. 265)

Even if, by chance, the words were to hit their target, their meanings would still be lost by the time they worked their way down into the emotional fabric of the receiver. The words emerging from one sensibility are necessarily distorted in the process of filtering through an entirely different sensibility; even when Mrs. Ramsay puts a relatively simple question to her daughter, “the words seemed to be dropped into a well, where, if the waters were clear, they were also so extraordinarily distorting that, even as they descended, one saw them twisting about to make Heaven knows what pattern on the floor of the child's mind” (p. 84). One must obviously objectify his feelings if they are to traverse the void successfully and reach another's mind intact, but since any kind of objectivity is impossible in such a world, words do indeed seem to be useless vehicles for the transmission of deep currents of feeling. This is why Lily sees the Ramsays without Mrs. Ramsay as “a house full of unrelated passions” (p. 221). Members of the family talk to one another, but no one seems to reach anyone else.

Words are not, however, the only means of trying to reach other people, and Virginia Woolf implies that feelings often can be communicated, even when language fails. The first section of the novel ends with Mrs. Ramsay's triumph in communicating her love to her husband without having to articulate it; and moments after Lily has seen the Ramsay household as one of unrelated passions, she watches the procession of the family across the lawn “drawn on by some stress of common feeling which made it, faltering and flagging as it was, a little company bound together and strangely impressive to her” (p. 231). Just as Marlow in Lord Jim can understand more than he can express and intuit more than he can comprehend about Jim simply because Jim is “one of us,” so, too, does Virginia Woolf suggest that shared instinctive feelings can often overtake chaos to a greater extent than would at first seem possible considering the ultimate isolation of each person. Though words are always inadequate conveyors of one's feelings, communication based on shared sympathies is always possible. When relationships are working well, silence will always transcend speech in eloquence of expression and exactness of thought.

The chaos emanating from within the human personality may, then, restrict self-knowledge and hamper relationships, but shared instinctive feelings can mitigate, if not overcome, the difficulty of having to live and love in such a world. Still, our lives are far more complicated than inner chaos alone would make them; to consider the other half of Virginia Woolf's vision, we must recognize the existence of outer chaos as well, which constantly undermines any order we may try to impose on the universe. This outer chaos is as quiet and invisible as the wedge of darkness at the core of our selves, but its presence is the most distressing fact of our existence because it denies everything we want to affirm, negates the value of our lives, and crushes out meaning with shocking swiftness.

When Lily and William Bankes, while watching a sailboat moving on the waves, feel a “common hilarity,” their silent communication promises to dispel the threat of inner chaos; yet both are cut short in their enjoyment by a sudden movement that turns them toward the dunes far away. They immediately become melancholy “partly because distant views seem to outlast by a million years (Lily thought) the gazer and to be communing already with a sky which beholds an earth entirely at rest” (p. 34). In the middle of a beautiful moment, then, Lily and William are shaken by sudden awareness of their insignificance in time. Their sense of spatial vastness suggests a temporal infinity as well; and they are so dwarfed by both dimensions that even the union of two wedges of darkness cannot combat the realization that they have no share in the world's permanence but must remain strangers all their lives to a universe that will tolerate them only for an instant before swallowing them up. Time is one important component of chaos because it gnaws away at our sense of stability, suggesting how little we can hope to know about life when the most that can be known in one lifetime is worth virtually nothing over the ages which will cover and forget us, bury our bodies and our knowledge as effectively as if we had never existed at all. Our place in life is as significant as the position of an ant on a desert, and our minds can never be at home in such a world.

Another aspect of the outer chaos threatening us is the fluidity of the universe, which constantly undermines our sense of structure and security. For a human being to feel unanchored in the general drift of life is intolerable. Just as our feet were not made to walk in quicksand, so our minds cannot contemplate eternal fluidity without going under; we must presume stability before we can determine order, and we must be assured of order before we can hope to find meaning. The natural fluidity of all things is in direct opposition to the spiritual cravings of our souls, to the philosophical tendencies of our minds, and to the unifying obsessions of our imaginations. Unmoored in a shifting reality, man can acquire neither wisdom nor tranquility but can hope only to keep his balance; and it is the stability of his common cause with fellow human beings that alone can help him resist the hostile element in which he finds himself. Like Faulkner's runners, the sensitive characters in To the Lighthouse often feel as if they had been thrust into a mental and emotional whirlpool where they can never hope to establish order or feel safe. Fortunately, though, they are usually spared immersion by their feelings of fellowship. Even a scene as simple and familiar as the one at the dinner table can, in Virginia Woolf, evoke these feelings:

Now all the candles were lit up, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candle light, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass, which, far from giving any accurate view of the outside world, rippled it so strangely that here inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things wavered and vanished, waterily.

Some change at once went through them all, as if this had really happened, and they were all conscious of making a party together in a hollow, on an island; had their common cause against that fluidity out there.

(Pp. 146–47)

Inner chaos seems insignificant when people who can never know one another much better than they can know the universe itself band together and feel a common unity in their mutual fear of an antagonistic world.

A third aspect of chaos is emphasized in the second section of the novel when time and fluidity become synonymous with decay, disintegration and entropy; chaos here infests man's systematic life to the point where it erodes his most basic assumption of self-importance. As darkness infiltrates the Ramsay's summer home, swallowing up the forms of man's existence,

not only was furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say, “This is he” or “This is she.” Sometimes a hand was raised as if to clutch something or ward off something, or somebody groaned, or somebody laughed aloud as if sharing a joke with nothingness.

(P. 190)

The tenuousness of man's significance is felt keenly as Mrs. Ramsay, her daughter, and her son die in parentheses—victims of time, chance, and the general entropic drive of the universe. As the darkness eats away at the products of a man's life in bigger and bigger gulps, both people and things sink into the chaos with remarkable impartiality. Man's values, dreams and creations are swept off into the chaotic flood which renders them inconsequential and meaningless, while his philosophical, moral, social, and spiritual systems are wiped out as so much presumption. Using Nature and Time as its primary instruments, the dark forces of chaos dominate, then demolish all the order man has brought to his uncertain life:

Listening (had there been anyone to listen) from the upper rooms of the empty house only gigantic chaos streaked with lightning could have been heard tumbling and tossing, as the winds and waves disported themselves like the amorphous bulks of leviathans whose brows are pierced by no light of reason, and mounted one on top of another, and lunged and plunged in the darkness or the daylight (for night and day, month and year ran shapelessly together) in idiot games, until it seemed as if the universe were battling and tumbling, in brute confusion and wanton lust aimlessly by itself.

In spring … the stillness and brightness of the day were as strange as the chaos and tumult of night, with the trees standing there, looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless, and so terrible … (the garden was a pitiful sight now, all run to riot, and rabbits scuttling at you out of the beds).

(Pp. 202–3, 204)

It would seem that man's chief responsibility in a hostile universe is to subdue chaos with all the energy he can muster, for the second he stops resisting it, it takes over and annihilates him, crushing out all the signs and symbols of his existence.

For now had come that moment, that hesitation when dawn trembles and night pauses, when if a feather alight in the scale it will be weighed down. One feather, and the house, sinking, falling, would have turned and pitched downwards to the depths of darkness. In the ruined room, picnickers would have lit their kettles; lovers sought shelter there, lying on the bare boards; and the shepherd stored his dinner on the bricks, and the tramp slept with his coat round him to ward off the cold. Then the roof would have fallen; briars and hemlocks would have blotted out path, step, and window; would have grown, unequally but lustily over the mound, until some trespasser, losing his way, could have told only by a red-hot poker among his nettles, or a scrap of china in the hemlock that here once some one had lived; there had been a house.

If the feather had fallen, if it had tipped the scale downwards, the whole house would have plunged to the depths to lie upon the sands of oblivion.

(Pp. 208–9)

But it is just at this moment, of course, that “slowly and painfully, with broom and pail, mopping, scouring, Mrs. McNab, Mrs. Bast, stayed the corruption and the rot” (p. 209). And so man regains his precarious supremacy over chaos through hard work and conscious will power.

We may leave the hard work to the cleaning ladies for a while, and concentrate on the more complicated mental process involved in combatting and finally controlling chaos. It is obvious that for Virginia Woolf, art represents the ultimate resistance of the mind to the disordered life around us—it keeps airborne that treacherous feather which, once fallen, will upset the scales against us. Although the second section of the book stresses natural chaos, it also embodies the social chaos of a world war and the philosophical and spiritual chaos of a cosmos which refuses to honor man's most prized values, concepts, and beliefs—all of which are founded on an assumption of some order. By facing squarely the aspects of chaos which threaten our security, art attempts to rescue for our benefit what the darkness is continually trying to remove. Thus, we see how the natural pull toward oblivion is met by the artist's struggle to pin down time and make it memorable; the tug toward fluidity is stayed by the permanence of the written word or painted line; the progress of decay is resisted by the vision which unifies and endures. The suction of natural things into a whirlpool of disarray is arrested by the imposition of aesthetic order which freezes reality; and the impulse of nature toward disintegration into unidentifiable atoms is thwarted by the unifying process of creativity.

The struggle of art against chaos is, then, a constant, agonizing, and intense one—infinitely exhausting, yet never futile. To shine a beam of light into the darkness and locate a truth which may be solidified into vision demands all of man's willpower and energy, but the war must be fought before man can ever satisfy his need for meaning. Because “the vision must be perpetually remade” (p. 270), the battle must be perpetually waged; and while any kind of lasting victory must remain impossible, those moments of mastery are enough to provide life with some semblance of order and to offer man the solace of meaning.

I have already mentioned the futility of words as instruments of communication between wedges of darkness, yet the novel does offer simultaneously a vindication for language founded on its permanence, if not its precision. While Lily stands looking at her picture and reflecting on what Mr. Ramsay would have said about her failure to capture her vision on canvas,

a curious notion came to her that he did after all hear the things she could not say. … She looked at her picture. That would have been his answer, presumably—how “you” and “I” and “she” pass and vanish; nothing stays; all changes; but not words, not paint. Yet it would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be rolled up and flung under a sofa; yet even so, even of a picture like that, it was true. One might say, even of this scrawl, not of that actual picture perhaps, but of what it attempted, that it “remained forever.”

(P. 267)

Lily is humble enough to realize that no fantastic claims can be made for the art she is trying to create: its value is uncertain, perhaps even negligible, in a world that can never be grasped or defined. At the most, art's domination of a moment is still such a difficult process that the moment is a thing of the distant past long before art has mastered it. Still, it is the creative process itself which raises man's position from victim to challenger, and so his significance is ascertained independently of the success of his accomplishment.

By inserting the artist into her novel—at first in the background, then later into the foreground—Virginia Woolf is able to duplicate metaphorically her own frustration in the formidable process of wresting shape from chaos. Lily Briscoe may be a good, fair, or poor artist, but her integrity cannot be questioned as she strives to objectify her vision into universal symbols which alone can organize and express what she feels.

But conception and execution are separated by hours of anguish which attest to the difficulty of objectification. How does one translate vague, chaotic feelings into structured, coherent forms? How shed light on darkness without falsifying that darkness? In a passage filled with artistic angst, and strongly reminiscent of Sterne's descriptions of John de la Casse's exasperation while working on his Galateo, Virginia Woolf depicts Lily's effort as an incredible struggle of the will to project an ordered vision onto nothingness:

She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, 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,” and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.

(P. 32)

The artistic temperament suffers as the tension increases between its efforts to objectify feelings and the efforts of chaotic forces to elude formalization. Lily's struggle becomes more desperate as the novel progresses, but even after ten years have gone by, she remains dedicated to her task. Even though “it was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on” (p. 287). In her refusal to ever consider the possibility of surrender, Lily as artist becomes the genuine hero of the novel.

Heroism never comes easily, however, and Lily hovers on defeat throughout the novel: as her emotions build in intensity, so does her frustration, until the canvas itself “seemed to rebuke her with its cold stare for all this hurry and agitation; this folly and waste of emotion. … She looked blankly at the canvas, with its uncompromising white stare” (p. 234). That white void is similar to the whiteness of Melville's whale in its suggestion of meaninglessness—the chaotic vision that mocks man's attempts to interpret the truth beyond appearances by implying that there is nothing really to interpret. “For what could be more formidable than that space?” Lily thinks as she decides to run the risk of filling it (p. 236)—and even the few nervous lines she finally puts there have a soothing effect on her as she watches them enclose and eventually define space. And arbitrary as this might seem, it is not artifice for its own sake, for as soon as the canvas begins to represent appearances, Lily feels a truth, a reality behind them that becomes the new focus of her concentration. It is not the truth which she senses, but a truth of this particular scene at this particular moment; still, it is a genuine reality she has discovered in her invasion of space—that space which represents chaos, yet which can be made to reflect meaning so long as man is willing to impose his imagination upon it.

The fact that chaos can be shaped to yield meaning does not imply, however, that the chaos itself is only an illusion; its inexplicability cannot be contested without gross falsification, and as a result, we must make sure that the process of formalizing never becomes too representational. That would constitute artifice rather than art, because as soon as chaos becomes defined, it disappears; and as soon as it disappears, we have a false sense of knowledge which leads us away from truth, rather than toward it. Chaos remains the reality behind appearances, not simply another appearance. Objectification is crucial, therefore, for rendering chaos only: it should not work to dispel it. This is probably the reasoning behind Lily's abstract method of painting, for a valid aesthetic principle must be an outgrowth of vision, and Lily's vision is one that acknowledges the reality of chaos, even while seeking to defeat it. When William Bankes asks her why she has depicted Mrs. Ramsay and James as a purple shadow rather than as identifiable human shapes, Lily replies that she has made no attempt at likenesses because her picture was not so much of them as of her sense of them. Her abstract techniques are, then, objectifications of her thoughts and feelings, not of the subjects which have evoked them. Art attempts to demonstrate perception rather than to delineate appearances, and so it must be able to mirror the chaos it perceives as an integral part of its vision.

Art, though, does more than reflect chaos; it also conquers chaos in the very act of rendering it. By capturing the symbolic moment that embodies enduring truth, the artist may apprehend a coherence in things that normally remains hidden behind the disarray of appearances. And again, it is not a matter of dispelling chaos, but simply of selecting from it that which is palatable to the human imagination and workable for the human mind. In the fluidity of time, truth—when it is found—exists only for the moment, but even so, these moments are to be treasured for the meaning they contain. Lily recognizes such a moment early in the book when she sees the Ramsays watching their children play ball:

And suddenly the meaning which, for no reason at all, as perhaps they are stepping out of the Tube or ringing a doorbell, descends on people, making them symbolical, making them representative, came upon them, and made them in the dusk standing, looking, the symbols of marriage, husband and wife.

(Pp. 110–11)

And later in the day, while sitting at dinner, she experiences a similar sensation as the kernel of another moment explodes to reveal a harmony symbolizing a universal pattern of coherence:

Nothing need be said; nothing could be said. There it was, all around them. It partook, she felt … of eternity; as she had already felt about something different once before that afternoon; there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.

(P. 158)

These, then, are the moments that art must capture in order to transform life into tiny chunks of meaning which help to stay the chaos of the next moment.

While these moments may be sensed instinctively, they can be expressed only through the indirect means of re-creation; and since the meaning emanated not from the moment itself, but from the sensibility of a sensitive perceiver, the truth cannot be caught through a simple depiction of the moment, but must be molded into a vision embodying it as the moment's inner structure. Art may be constructed from chaos, but only through the painstaking process of selecting, organizing, and filtering impressions of reality through vision. As Lily realizes, the total subjectivity of perception, once disciplined and formalized, can refine life by unifying what exists in its raw state as so much disorganized matter: “There might be lovers,” she thinks, “whose gift it was to choose out the elements of things and place them together and so, giving them a wholeness not theirs in life, make of some scene, or meeting of people (all now gone and separate), one of those globed compacted things over which thought lingers, and love plays” (p. 286).

It is in the act of transmitting a moment into vision that art assumes a philosophical value, for the moment must be arrested before it can be contemplated; and only art can halt time long enough for us to discern shape, form, and the kernels of meaning that the fluidity of our lives keeps submerged. Lily sees her function as artist at the same time she realizes why Mrs. Ramsay is the great woman she has always thought her to be; for Mrs. Ramsay is herself like a work of art in her ability to hold back life long enough for it to yield answers to our one most desperate question:

What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question, one that tended to close in on one with years. 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.

(Pp. 240–41)

Suddenly perceiving Mrs. Ramsay as a synthesizing agent, Lily has an almost mystical revelation, which dismisses the relevance of ever again asking the meaning of life. The “little daily miracles” are the closest we can ever come to finding answers, for the conception of life as a whole is only another of man's illusions; reality contains only a series of seconds which may be known and even universalized as typical, but which can never be consolidated as if they then formed a unity which they never contained separately. One cannot get at life because that is an abstraction of the intellect; but moments, since they partake of the fluidity of time, are real.

Through her revelation, Lily gains an increased understanding of art's potential in a world of flux. The truth of life is in the moment and capturing the reality of the moment is therefore a miracle. But like Joseph Conrad, Lily sees the immense difficulty of rescuing the moment from its fluid setting:

One must keep on looking without for a second relaxing the intensity of emotion, the determination not to be put off, not to be bamboozled. One must hold the scene—so—in a vise, and let nothing come in and spoil it. One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, it’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy. The problem might be solved after all.

(Pp. 299–300)

Art must put life into a vise and hold it there until its reality becomes discernible, making sure, however, not to tamper with that reality by detaching it from the flux in which it lives. Virginia Woolf suggests her own technique for controlling chaos by describing Lily's conception of the painting which acknowledges chaos on one level while defeating it on another:

Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly's wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron. It was to be a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses.

(P. 155)

To have harnessed the strength necessary to bring chaos within the structured and eternal domain of art is already enough to signify that the artist has won the battle of the moment through sheer persistence. We do not, of course, tame chaos simply by capturing it, but we do at least hold it back for a while, and in this sense, the artist of chaos has done all that can possibly be done.

Virginia Woolf's concept of reality is introduced in the very title of the book, which emphasizes not the Lighthouse itself, but the movement toward it, producing an accumulation of multiple relative meanings as we watch it refracted through a succession of different perspectives and points of view. This mode of presentation characterizes every person, scene, and object that we encounter in the novel, and becomes ultimately the only way we can approach its reality.

The bay separating the Ramsay family from the Lighthouse is, for example, a perfect symbol of pure chaos: in its perpetual fluidity, its potential destructiveness as an erosive force, its overwhelming immensity, which devours a man's sense of significance, its flowing rhythms of eternality, which swallow him up in time as well, the sea—now peaceful, now turbulent, soothing or shattering one's nerves—serves as a continual reminder of the undertow beneath all our lives. Yet our sense of this reality is not static, but flickers in and out as our concentration is affected by constant shifts in the other layers of our realities. Early in the book, Mrs. Ramsay suddenly becomes conscious of an inner correspondence to the sound of the waves crashing outside:

The gruff murmur … this sound, which had lasted now half an hour and had taken its place soothingly in the scale of sounds pressing on top of her, such as the tap of balls upon bats, the sharp, sudden bark now and then, “How's that? How's that?” of the children playing cricket, had ceased; so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, “I am guarding you—I am your support,” but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow—this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror.

They had ceased to talk; that was the explanation.

(Pp. 27–28)

Although the sound of the waves has not changed, Mrs. Ramsay's perception of it has; the sudden cessation of distracting noises in the foreground brings the background up to a higher level of her consciousness, and her refocused attention and concentration lead her to intuit a new meaning from a familiar sound: this fresh awareness of the emptiness at the core of her life. This reminder of her insignificance, her mortality, her vulnerability both pains and terrifies her, so that while she has not moved from her chair, her entire system has been shocked, her sensibility unstrung, her life changed.

Action is unimportant in the writing of Virginia Woolf because the movement of our bodies cannot change our realities; these are created, changed, and carried exclusively in the mind. In a world of flux, every perception is relative to all the conditions converging at that instant to produce a particular impression in the imagination which alone constitutes its apprehension of reality at that moment. It is in our mental processes that we live out our lives. And there is no ultimate truth to be discovered, only a progression of perspectives to be held simultaneously in the mind. As James finally gets close enough to the Lighthouse to be able to observe all its details, he responds at first with disappointment, until he realizes that his present perception does not negate, but can only modify his previous ones:

So that was the Lighthouse, was it?

No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.

(P. 277)

And Lily, watching from the shore, finds that the constancy of her angle of vision offers no real advantage in her attempt to keep reality frozen long enough to capture it on canvas:

But the wind had freshened, and, as the sky changed slightly and the sea changed slightly and the boats altered their positions, the view, which a moment before had seemed miraculously fixed, was now unsatisfactory. The wind had blown the trail of smoke about; there was something displeasing about the placing of the ships.

(P. 286)

Thus does Virginia Woolf keep time flowing through her novel, and insure the constantly shifting perspectives characteristic of cubism as artistic process. The reality of the Lighthouse is never shown in stasis, but in constant revolution as the focal point for each mind trying to find its way out of chaos, but having to refocus, recenter, restructure, and rebuild its reality moment by moment. Even those rare moments of coalescence which solidify experience, unify relationships, and reveal a truth through structure are never presented as ultimate, permanent, or static, but are shown to shatter the second the mind has seized them. Like people posing for a group portrait who disband the instant they hear the camera click, all the atoms flowing together to create the molecule of the moment scatter instantaneously in a release toward entropy. Thus, as Lily's observation of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay watching their daughter throwing a ball turns into a revelatory moment in which they suddenly become symbolic of the ultimate meaning of marriage—the inner union between husband and wife—she finds that “after an instant, the symbolical outline which transcended the real figures sank down again, and they became … Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey watching the children throw catches” (p. 111). Like a bubble breaking on contact with a hard surface, the moment bursts just when the mind seems to have caught it. It can be perceived in flight, but any attempt to arrest its motion will end by losing it altogether. Our perceptions, our very realities cannot be detached from time.

I have discussed Virginia Woolf's vision of chaos as a quiet but powerful, persistent entropic force which moves so slowly and subtly that one can never truly distinguish it from the general currents of a fluid universe. Such a vision seems entirely consistent with the “feathery,” “melting,” “evanescent” quality of the book which distinguishes its style, tone, and movement, and which Virginia Woolf has cited as the natural embodiments of her vision. But where in the novel are the clamps and iron bolts which hold this seemingly flimsy fabric together and fasten it onto the matrix of artistic expression? If art's great value is, as Lily comes to believe, its synthesizing function, how has the author managed to “unify” the chaos she sees at the deepest levels of our lives?

Since chaos is a mental reality, it is the mind, too, which must struggle to provide relief through proper discipline of its own impulses toward order. Reality can be fixed only when the mind can concentrate on a focal point which gathers to it all the lines of diverse energies usually running rampant. Ordinary moments are characterized by parallel lines of thought which never converge, but move independently in separate spheres. Thus, Mrs. Ramsay, walking with her husband, dissipates her mental energies by pursuing two lines simultaneously:

then, she thought, intimating by a little pressure on his arm that he walked up hill too fast for her, and she must stop for a moment to see whether those were fresh molehills on the bank, then, she thought, stooping down to look, a great mind like this must be different in every way from ours. All the great men she had ever known, she thought, deciding that a rabbit must have got in, were like that, and it was good for young men … simply to hear him, simply to look at him. But without shooting rabbits, how was one to keep them down? she wondered. It might be a rabbit; it might be a mole. Some creature anyhow was ruining her Evening Primroses.

(P. 108)

Obviously, the mind must steady itself before it can organize its impressions long enough to apprehend a controlling idea; but although Mrs. Ramsay is remarkably effective on the level of action, her mind is never terribly successful in combatting the chaos that unsettles her so at the core of her being. It is here, I think, that we can finally come to understand Mrs. Ramsay's enormous respect for her husband, whom she genuinely and consistently considers a “great man,” even though the reader tends to regard him far less favorably. Even Lily Briscoe, for all her superior powers of perception, cannot comprehend until quite late in the book, the “greatness” ascribed to Mr. Ramsay or the basis for his wife's love and devotion for a man so obviously her inferior. But Mrs. Ramsay's respect for her husband has little to do, really, with what he is. Rather, his real value for those who admire him is as an ordering principle, a resistance to the chaos:

It was his fate, his peculiarity, whether he wished it or not, to come out thus on a spit of land which the sea is slowly eating away, and there to stand, like a desolate sea-bird, alone. It was his power, his gift, suddenly to shed all superfluities, to shrink and diminish so that he looked barer and felt sparer, even physically, yet lost none of his intensity of mind, and so to stand on his little ledge facing the dark of human ignorance, how we know nothing and the sea eats away the ground we stand on—that was his fate, his gift … he kept even in that desolation a vigilance which spared no phantom and luxuriated in no vision, and it was in this guise that he inspired in William Bankes (intermittently) and in Charles Tansley (obsequiously) and in his wife now, when she looked up and saw him standing at the edge of the lawn, profoundly, reverence, and pity, and gratitude too, as a stake driven into the bed of a channel upon which the gulls perch and the waves beat inspires in merry boat-loads a feeling of gratitude for the duty it is taking upon itself of marking the channel out there in the floods alone.

(Pp. 68–69)

In his capacity to confront chaos head-on without being effaced by it, Mr. Ramsay becomes worthy of his wife's awe. Of course, just as courage can often be ascribed to a person's inability to recognize the real danger of his situation, we sense the very limitations of his perception to account for Mr. Ramsay's distinction as a still point in a turning world. While his philosophical investigations do demonstrate one kind of inroad against chaos, his confidence in his discipline impresses us more as presumption than wisdom. Nevertheless, his very presumption makes him a stalwart guardian of order and control which, embodied visually, makes a lasting impact on those who know him. Even Lily is finally able to admit that the man has something about him which causes chaos to recede in his presence. Foolhardy or not, his resoluteness represents something valuable.

Mrs. Ramsay is, of course, too aware to presume that she can contest the chaos she feels in the deepest levels of her mind, but as a mother and hostess, she does achieve in her own life that extraordinary sense of authority which characterizes her, too, as a stake driven into the flood, a marking point for others. Watching her leave a room, Lily notices that “directly she went a sort of disintegration set in; they wavered about, went different ways” (p. 168). Like her husband, then, Mrs. Ramsay provides a point of concentration for others around which otherwise dissipated energies gravitate and lock together to form a meaningful, symbolical, ordered image which makes an imprint on the observer's mind that endures long enough to outlast the chaos. Lily's gratitude and respect for Mrs. Ramsay parallels that lady's feelings for her husband: as marking points in the flood, both blend into the central image of the Lighthouse as an ordering principle, a beacon, a refuge, a resistance to the dark, fluid formlessness which underlies our lives. But if Mrs. Ramsay is the chief synthesizer in the novel, how can we explain the continuous presence of Lily Briscoe, who ultimately seems as least as significant as the woman she so admires?

Obviously, the novel is working toward two objectives at once: (1) the delineation of a reality represented by human characters, and (2) the working out of an artistic theory as symbolized by Lily's effort to project her vision of reality onto a blank canvas. I have already noted Lily's revelation that Mrs. Ramsay's greatness was in her ability to provide a unifying point around which the chaos made up of other people fell into a harmonious pattern; but why, then, is her painting not finished at this point? The answer would seem to be that reality cannot be reflected by direct depiction; it can be grasped only when represented indirectly, as it filters through a selective consciousness. It is Lily who has the vision, yet so long as Mrs. Ramsay is alive, she cannot finish her picture because the immediate reality prevents her from achieving the distance requisite to capturing it aesthetically—that is, “ensnaring” it through the indirectness of metaphor. It is only in the third part of the book, when Mrs. Ramsay's charismatic presence is felt solely as a memory, that Lily feels she can finish her painting.

It is no coincidence that her vision crystallizes immediately after she has been contemplating the Lighthouse, for it is only then that she deliberates on how to make the parts of her painting coalesce. As unifying concepts merge unconsciously in her mind, the Lighthouse suddenly becomes a synthesizing symbol for the fluidity surrounding it in exactly the same way that both Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay have functioned in the first part of the book. Like the jar that Wallace Stevens places in Tennessee, the Lighthouse becomes an organizing principle in a sea of chaos. Lily herself has not yet seen it this way, but she does make the decision to move the tree into the middle of her picture, thereby showing an as yet unconscious awareness of the principle: the particular object being placed in the center is an arbitrary choice, but once that object becomes the central focus, everything immediately gathers around it and becomes ordered.

In the last section of the book, the Lighthouse is seen from all perspectives: from Lily's distant view and from the increasingly closer views of James, Cam, Mr. Ramsay, and the Macalisters as they approach this stark tower in the middle of the water. Seen from multiple perspectives (both psychologically and spatially), the import of the Lighthouse shifts, however slightly, each second that the boat draws nearer (we recall that the vision must be perpetually remade) as one observer surrounds it with his own psychological associations, another sees it as an unapproachable ideal, another as an artistic symbol, and so on. When, in the last chapter, it is seen closeup for the first time, it seems surprisingly insignificant; James is amazed to discover that his enchanted vision from the distance of the shore is nothing but “a stark tower on a bare rock” now that he is face to face with it. Divested of subjective interpretations, the Lighthouse, regardless of proximity, is as meaningless as any building on shore, but that is unimportant: what does count is the meaning people find in it, which renders it as significant as Mrs. Ramsay herself, with whom Lily finally equates it. As the Ramsay family reaches the Lighthouse, Lily suddenly represents it in her picture by drawing a line in the center—and that line is at once the metaphorical expression of both Mr. Ramsay and the Lighthouse. As such, it instantly controls and contains the inner chaos of the human lives on shore, and the outer chaos of the bay's fluidity. Lily is able to say, “I have had my vision” only when she had found a metaphor for it—a symbol to concentrate, centralize, and clarify meaning.

And Virginia Woolf works in exactly the same way: because she has rendered chaos so effectively as a major, ubiquitous element of reality, she must allow her reader, as she has her characters, an axis to keep the centrifugal forces from spinning out of control. This the reader finally finds in Lily herself, for her perception becomes the fundamental organizing principle to which the rest of the novel coheres. It is Lily's imagination which steadies the novel for us, and completes its experience as a meaningful investigation of reality.

Fluid and formless, chaos quite naturally resists our attempts at order, but every time we freeze or structure reality for an instant, we are gaining ground in the struggle to keep our minds on top of the confusion. And this is just what Virginia Woolf does for us as she rescues one image after another from the flood and turns them into powerful symbols which help mark the chaotic channels of our own minds: Lily represents the artist of chaos; the Ramsay home without man symbolizes the infiltration of chaos in our lives, and the Lighthouse functions as the ultimate, conglomerate metaphor for the centralizing factor which resolves the chaos of the author's vision. Such strikingly appropriate, brilliant metaphors are what finally constitute the bolts of iron which clamp the book together. As James Ramsay rides out to the Lighthouse he has been wanting to visit since the first page of the novel, he feels a terror and hatred which he cannot define, but which rests securely at the bottom of the dark abyss within him. Instinctively, he works toward a control of his inner chaos, as

turning back among the many leaves which the past had folded in him, peering into the heart of that forest where light and shade so chequer each other that all shape is distorted, and one blunders, now with the sun in one's eyes, now with a dark shadow, he sought an image to cool and detach and round off his feeling in a concrete shape.

(P. 275)

Nowhere can we find a better statement of the necessity for metaphor to control chaos, and nowhere can we find a more accurate explanation for the powerful projection of chaos in this book where art earns every bit of meaning extracted from its exhaustive struggle. Even so, the artistic triumph is never anything more than temporary relief from the struggle which defines the sensitive life. There is no more touching testimonial to this depressing truth than Virginia Woolf's own death: walking into the sea, she finally found the only possible permanent relief by submerging herself in the chaos which closed over her at last, drowning out anguish, fatigue, and life itself.


  1. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1955), pp. 95–96. All future page references, cited in parentheses, are to this edition.

Norman Friedman (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: “The Waters of Annihilation: Symbols and Double Vision in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Form and Meaning in Fiction, The University of Georgia Press, 1975, pp. 340–58.

[In the following essay, Friedman argues in favor of multiple interpretations of the symbolism in To the Lighthouse,particularly because of Woolf's belief in the supremacy of the individual's inner life over any artificially imposed outer reality.]

So much depends then, thought Lily Briscoe, looking at the sea, which had scarcely a stain on it, … upon distance: whether people are near or far from us.

(To the Lighthouse, p. 284)1

While there is general agreement that To the Lighthouse centers on questions of order and chaos, permanence and change, detachment and involvement, intellection and intuition, male and female, critical unanimity disappears in the actual tracing out of these themes and the analysis of the patterns of imagery evoking them. Thus, for example, it is clear that the simultaneous completion of Lily Briscoe's painting and the arrival of Mr. Ramsay, James, and Cam at the Lighthouse are somehow functioning together to finish the book, but no two commentators have agreed as to what that function means as an ending of what has gone before. S. H. Derbyshire claims that Mr. Ramsay is undergoing a transition from his former intellectual personality to a newly discovered intuitive view; Dorothy M. Hoare and John Hawley Roberts argue that Lily is moving from a concern with form (art) to a concern with content (life); Dayton Kohler sees a shift from time to the timeless; F. L. Overcarsh traces an allegory of Christ's Ascension, involving a movement from the God of wrath to the God of mercy; David Daiches analyzes a transition from egoism to selflessness; while D. S. Savage and Deborah Newton think of this simultaneous convergence as a clumsy device which resolves nothing.2 These examples could be multiplied, but the dominant tendency is clear: to interpret the thematic conflict, whatever it may be, as an antithesis of two mutually exclusive terms, one of which must be rejected in favor of the other. The trip to the lighthouse, in other words, is too often seen as a one-way ride.

But since the symbolism of the book as well as its structure suggests a rather different set of possibilities, there still seems to be room for an interpretive framework comprehensive enough to embrace them. A single view, an either-or strategy, will hardly prove adequate for dealing with the multiplicity of points of view through which each character is seen in the first section, the descending and ascending movement of the second section, and the shifting simultaneity of event which shapes the third. In order to discern here the intricate web of image, attitude, and idea which Woolf has woven on her four-dimensional loom, the critic must develop a more complex tactic.


We are dealing here, in other words, with those tentative and hovering effects which are characteristic not only of modernist literature in general but also of the novels of Woolf in particular, and therefore an even greater burden is placed on the critic to interpret in context than ordinarily. In this case, that context may be seen on three successive levels: particular moments and sequences of moments of thought and feeling experienced by characters in situations, the images and recurrences of images in terms of which these moments are embodied, and the overall plot structure as a whole.

To begin with, since the action and its significance lie so much within the feelings and thoughts of the characters, and since these feelings and thoughts keep shifting in attitude from moment to moment, we must pay close attention to moods, mood shifts, and mood cycles if we are to avoid being prejudicially selective in our use of the evidence and imposing a more abstract pattern of meaning upon the book than that intended by the whole. Woolf, as we know, assumes that human reality resides in our inner life; and she conceives of that life as fluid, tenuous, and ambivalent. We must be careful therefore not to make our interpretation simpler than the book.

Secondly, since we are treating ambivalent internal states, we would expect them to be embodied in and expressed through external and tangible images whose symbolism will be many-sided and ambiguous. We must interpret both the general meaning of these symbols as well as their particular evaluations, at least to begin with, primarily in terms of intrinsic relationships and associations—those accumulating on the one hand from moments and sequences of moments of thought and feeling, and on the other from the overall plot structure. And we must try, in looking for symbolic patterns, to do justice to all the significant recurrences of a given image rather than just those which seem to fit a preconceived pattern. Some of these images may indeed verge upon universal symbols and even archetypal patterns, especially in terms of general meanings (water imagery, for example), but I think we will find that the nature of the case calls for an especially solid base in the text. Not only will it turn out that water imagery has a wide range of particular evaluations in various contexts, but also that other key images (the lighthouse itself, for example, and its flashing light) depend almost entirely upon the text not only for particular evaluations but also for general meanings. It is best, that is, when working with semitransparent envelopes of this sort, to work from within outward rather than from outside inward.

The freedom and ambiguity of these moods and the images they are associated with are structured, finally, by a principle of development and resolution which organizes moments and sequences of moments, images and image patterns into a plot, form, or intelligible whole. Although it would seem that the plot, if there is one, is buried beneath the associative patterns, in that the second part of the book forms a hiatus between the first and third, and several of the main characters disappear in between, it is nevertheless also the case that the third fulfills the first, and that therefore we are not confronting simply shifting mental states and ambiguous patterns of image clusters. We have here a plot with a group protagonist (compare The Nigger of the “Narcissus”) comprised of Lily, Mr. Ramsay, and James, and whose form is their simultaneous change in thought and feeling as Mr. Ramsay comes to experience greater ease about the fragility of life (an education plot), Lily and James achieve a resolution of their tensions in relation to Mr. Ramsay (an affective plot), and Lily finds that her painting is finished (an education plot). The fact that the still-living influence of Mrs. Ramsay helps bring about this resolution provides additional structural continuity.

The basic problem can now be seen as one of determining more precisely just what the nature of that resolution is; and I think that, if we consider what has been said so far about tenuous moods and ambivalent images, we will be careful not to allow our analysis of structure to overstructure our interpretation—either as archetypalists or Aristotelians. While it is true that the journey to the Lighthouse finally does represent a transition from one mental state to another and that this transition does involve such polarities as detachment and involvement, it is also true, as I hope to show, that this change is more a matter of integrating the polarities than of dichotomizing them. Development and resolution embody a double vision in which Lily and James proceed, not simply from detachment to involvement, but rather complexly from detachment vs. involvement to detachment cum involvement.

Detailed attention to moments and sequences of moments, then, will help us to understand the images in which they are embodied, just as detailed attention to the images will help us to understand the moments and sequences of moments they embody. And just as these analyses will help us to understand the plot, so too will understanding the plot help us to understand them. Thus there is a reciprocal pattern of mutual support in interpretation, one approach leading to, checking, and limiting another. The final principle in terms of which the whole is organized, however, in contradistinction to the manner in which we may come to grasp it, is the principle according to which Lily, Mr. Ramsay, and James move from a state of puzzlement, confusion, ambivalence, and frustration, to one of harmony, clarity, balance, and integration. And it is this principle, ultimately, which should guide, control, and limit our interpretation of any of the parts.


“Subject and object and the nature of reality,” Andrew had replied to Lily's question about the content of his father's books (p. 38), and it is exactly this problem which works its way through the novel on three perceptible levels: human relations, metaphysics, and aesthetics. Thus, although Mr. Ramsay's problem is technically an epistemological one, the novel itself can also be seen to have been built around the problem of how the known looks to the knower: of one person to another, of nature to man, and of life to the artist. Further, the overall quality of this relationship may be subsumed under the headings of order—a triumph over life's meaningless flux—and chaos—a giving way to its all but irresistible force, or a blank confrontation of its stark emptiness.

The point is, as we shall see, that a dialectic order is achieved by those who manage to focus their apprehension of the nature of reality simultaneously from two different perspectives—that of subject, or involvement in flux, and that of object, or detachment therefrom—and that the nature of reality, through which one must pass in making his transition from one perspective to the other, finds its image in water as a symbol of surrender. From whatever viewpoint one regards life (thesis), whether it be that of the detached philosopher ironically contemplating from a height man's smudge and his smell, or that of the busy mother and housewife frantically involved in the fever and fret of daily routine, one must give it up in favor of the other (antithesis), becoming immersed in the waters of transition, and emerging with a double perspective (synthesis). To lose this perilous balance, to keep out of the wet, is ultimately to give way to the chaos of a black and lonely darkness on the one side or to the disorder of a terrifying and senseless force on the other.

An interesting passage in which this theme of the double vision and its accompanying water imagery occurs is found almost halfway through the book:

Brooding, she changed the pool into the sea, and made the minnows into sharks and whales, and cast vast clouds over this tiny world by holding her hand against the sun, … and then took her hand away suddenly and let the sun stream down. … And then, letting her eyes slide imperceptibly above the pool and rest on that wavering line of sea and sky, … she became with all that power sweeping savagely in and inevitably withdrawing, hypnotised, and the two senses of that vastness and this tininess (the pool had diminished again) flowering within it made her feel that she was bound hand and foot and unable to move by the intensity of feelings which reduced her own body, her own life, and the lives of all the people in the world, for ever, to nothingness.

(Nancy: pp. 114–115)

Section 1 deals chiefly with the first level, the relation of self to other, and it soon becomes evident that no one single trait or characteristic of a person can be seized upon and cherished as a way of knowing him or her. Mrs. Ramsay, for example, is a charmingly warm and beautiful woman, yet annoyingly concerned with ordering the lives of others (many of her circle resent her mania for marriage); although she is maternal, intuitive, involved in life's common cares, and capable of an unreasoning fear when she allows herself to dwell upon the tragic fragility of human life, she nevertheless is capable also of a triumphantly mystical detachment wherein life's inscrutable mystery appears ordered and revealed. And the significance of her portrayal, as it emerges from the attitudes of others toward her as well as from her own broodings, is that the truth about Mrs. Ramsay encompasses both these aspects of her personality.

Or consider Mr. Ramsay: he is a self-dramatizing domestic tyrant, yet he is also admirable as a lone watcher at the dark frontiers of human ignorance. A detached and lonely philosopher, he nevertheless craves the creative contact of wife and children; he is grim, yet optimistic; austere, yet fearful for his reputation; petty and selfish, yet capable of losing himself completely in a novel by Scott; aloof, yet capable of thriving on the simple company and fare of humble fishermen.

Lily likewise is a complex figure: a spinster uninterested in ordinary sexual attachments, she is nevertheless capable of a fierce outburst of love; an artist perpetually terrified by a blank canvas, she still manages to approach a solution to the complex problem of the art-life relationship. Mr. Bankes, to consider another, is an unselfish friend and a dedicated scientist, yet also a cranky food faddist; a self-sufficient bachelor, he is nevertheless a lonely widower craving the affection of children. Or again, Charles Tansley is an irritating and self-centered pedant, yet also a sympathetic human being—a complexity which Mrs. Ramsay herself sums up: “Yet he looked so desolate; yet she would feel relieved when he went; yet she would see that he was better treated tomorrow; yet he was admirable with her husband; yet his manners certainly wanted improving; yet she liked his laugh” (p. 174).

The climax of the first section occurs at the dinner, a brilliantly dramatic communion meal where each solitary ego, with its petty aggravations and resentments, is gradually blended with the others into a pattern of completion and harmony.

Personality, then, can be known only in terms of a multiple perspective: “One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with. … Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with” (p. 294). Section one provides just such a perspective. Including his or her own interior monologues, each character is presented from at least two points of view: Mr. Ramsay is seen chiefly through the eyes of Mrs. Ramsay, young James, Lily, and Mr. Bankes; Mrs. Ramsay through those of Lily, Tansley, and Mr. Bankes; Mr. Bankes himself through those of Lily; Lily herself through those of Mrs. Ramsay; and Tansley through the eyes of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily. It is by this technique of alternation that each is rendered more or less in the round.

Section 2 deals mainly with the second level, the relation of man to nature; and it does not, as has been frequently supposed, portray merely the ravages of time and tide afflicting the family and their summer home. In addition to the almost complete destruction of the house, we are also shown its equally dramatic renewal. Its focus is on the comic-epic figure of Mrs. McNab, who lurches through the house dusting and wiping, breathing a long dirge of sorrow and trouble, yet who leers, “looking sideways in the glass, as if, after all, she had her consolations, as if indeed there were twined about her dirge some incorrigible hope” (p. 197). It is she and her helpers who fetch up from oblivion all the Waverley novels and who rescue the house from annihilation.

The fortunes of the family undergo several severe setbacks: Mrs. Ramsay dies, Andrew is killed in the war, and Prue dies in childbirth. Yet we are given to understand that Mr. Ramsay's work will endure (the fate of his books was somehow tied up with that of the Waverley novels) and, as the next section proceeds to demonstrate, the family continues to develop and mature. The central section of To the Lighthouse therefore dramatizes not the victory of natural chaos over human order, but the reverse: the forces of destruction are defeated by man's power and will to live.

Section 3 is concerned chiefly with the third level of our theme, the relation of art to life, and continues in the knowledge of loss as well as the achievement of gain. Its structure is based upon the shuttling back and forth between Lily on the island watching those in the boat get farther away, and those in the boat watching the island in turn get farther away. This is accompanied by the corresponding movements of those in the boat getting closer to the Lighthouse, and of Lily getting closer to the solution of her aesthetic problem. The determining factor in each case is love (the “art” of life), which might perhaps be defined as order or the achievement of form in human relations through the surrender of personality: Lily finishes her painting as she feels the upsurge of that sympathy for Mr. Ramsay which she had previously been stubbornly unable to give; James and Cam surrender their long cherished antagonism toward their father as they reach the Lighthouse; while Mr. Ramsay himself attains at the same time a resolution of his own tensions and anxieties. The point is not that they have made a one-directional transition from this attitude to that, but that since each is aware simultaneously both of what is receding and of what is approaching, each has received in his way a sense of what I have called the double vision.


The presence of this duality can be further demonstrated by a closer look at the particular imagery of the book: its figures of speech, its scene, and its plot. The Lighthouse itself as the most conspicuous image functions literally in two ways: as something to be reached, and as the source of a flashing light. The former aspect is to be considered when we discuss plot; the latter suggests that the Lighthouse has a symbolic role of its own to play. In this aspect it appears in two connections: first as it impinges upon the consciousness of Mrs. Ramsay in section 1 after she has finished reading to James and is sitting quietly alone for a moment, and second as it flashes upon the empty house in section 2.

The busy mother of eight children, a woman of grace and ease who delights in social intercourse, and one who visits the poor as well, she often feels the need “to be silent; to be alone.” As she sits knitting, the relief of abstraction from “all the being and doing” grows upon her; it is in this mood that she muses upon the alternating flashes of the light. It is a mood of detachment, peace, rest, and of triumph over life; she identifies herself with the third stroke, the long steady stroke, which becomes for her an image of purity and truth, of strength and courage, searching and beautiful: her “self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless. … Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always some exclamation of triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity; and pausing there she looked out to meet that stroke of the Lighthouse, the long steady stroke, the last of the three, which was her stroke.”

This is the “thesis” of her emotional cycle; the “antithesis” is evoked as her mood soon modulates into one of grim recognition of the inevitable facts of “suffering, death, the poor,” and she gradually descends from her state of triumphant abstraction from the fret, the hurry, and the stir, by seizing upon the light from a different perspective, “for when one woke at all, one's relations changed.” As she looks now at the steady light, it is “the pitiless, the remorseless.”

But the cycle is not yet complete until these two moods become synthesized. The second view seems “so much her, yet so little her”; and then her meditations are crowned, in their third phase, by “exquisite happiness, intense happiness,” and she cries inwardly, “It is enough! It is enough!” As if, by seeing that long steady flash in two different aspects—first as an image of expansion and release, and then of contraction and confinement—she has received a final intuition of the essential truth of the nature of reality: that one must be both subjectively involved in and objectively detached from life, and that true happiness rests neither in the one sphere nor in the other exclusively, but in achieving a harmonious balance, however fragile, between the two. Now she can rest, if but for the moment, content. And to her husband, who is striding up and down the terrace outside the window behind which she sits, “She was aloof from him now in her beauty, in her sadness” (pp. 94–100).

In the middle section, portraying the death and rebirth of the deserted house, the light makes its second appearance by gliding over the rooms “gently as if it laid its caress and lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again.” That this is only one side of its doubleness is evidenced by the sentence immediately following: “But in the very lull of this loving caress, as the long stroke leant upon the bed, the rock was rent asunder; another fold of the shawl loosened; there it hung, and swayed” (pp. 199–200). A few pages on, just preceding the arrival of the forces of renewal in the house, in “that moment, that hesitation when dawn trembles and night pauses” (p. 208), the Lighthouse beam, as an image of expansion and release (life-love-hope) and contraction and confinement (death-destruction-terror) held in relation, “entered the rooms for a moment, sent its sudden stare over bed and wall in the darkness of winter, looked with equanimity at the thistle and the swallow, the rat and the straw” (pp. 207–208).

Finally, it is worth noticing in section 3 that as Lily begins her painting a second time (while those in the boat are embarking for the lighthouse), her brush descends in stroke after stroke: “And so pausing and so flickering, she attained a dancing rhythmical movement, as if the pauses were one part of the rhythm and the strokes another, and all were related.” Thus in echo of the Lighthouse beam itself, her vision begins to emerge from stroke and pause in alternation, and “this truth, this reality, which suddenly laid hands upon her, emerged stark at the back of appearances and commanded her attention” (p. 236).


Having seen that the Lighthouse beam—stroke and pause in alternation—symbolizes quite clearly that the problem of subject and object and the perception of the nature of reality is a matter of opposites held in dialectic relation, we may now proceed to investigate more closely the specific embodiment of the objective-detachment and subjective-involvement themes in the water imagery which obviously permeates the novel on both the literal and figurative levels as scene and as metaphor. And as this theme and this imagery begin to take root together and grow as one, we shall see a second, more pervasive symbol emerging: the act of immersion as surrender and transition.

The fact is, as we have seen, that whatever his attitude toward life may be, whether objectively detached or subjectively involved, each character must immerse himself in the doubleness of reality by making a transition to the opposite attitude, and that this process in one way or another usually finds its image in water. Taking the three or four chief characters in their apparent order of importance, we may begin with Mrs. Ramsay.

Searching for a picture in the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores for James to cut out, Mrs. Ramsay suddenly becomes aware that the gruff murmur of talk out on the terrace has ceased and that now, coming to the foreground of her consciousness, the waves are falling monotonously on the beach. Stationed as she is in a moment of domestic involvement, this sound at first “beat a measured and soothing tatoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, ‘I am guarding you—I am your support.’” The passage continues, however, through the dialectic of transition: “but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, [it] had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea.” And the cycle is complete as this sound is once again accompanied by that of her husband's voice chanting poetry: “She was soothed once more, assured again that all was well, and looking down at the book on her knee found the picture of a pocket knife with six blades which could only be cut out if James was very careful” (pp. 27–29).

As the Lighthouse beam had come to her when she was in a state of detachment and had spoken to her of triumph and fulfilment, and then of failure and frustration, thereby annihilating her abstracted bliss and bringing her back down to the sphere of life's fretful involvements, so too the sea—reversing the process—comes to her when she is in a state of involvement and speaks of consolation and sympathy, and then of terror and remorseless power, thereby annihilating her contented involvement and carrying her up to the sphere of blank and meaningless abstraction. The synthesis which ensues, however, in each case produces a sense of equanimity, peace, and rest. Thus the double vision involves indeed a two-way process: depending upon which direction you are going, whether from subject to object or vice versa, detachment is either joy or fear, involvement either consolation or despair. And, also depending upon the direction, the water imagery becomes now a symbol of the search for human contact and warmth, or of the brute force of the natural cycle, now a symbol of the search for intellectual stability and certitude, or of the bottomless ignorance of the race of men and the profound vanity of their puny knowledge.

Thus, proceeding chronologically through the book, we discover another aspect of the water imagery in connection with Mrs. Ramsay—that of the fountain as a symbol of feminine creativity to which the male must resort in order that his fatal sterility be redeemed. The intellectual husband becomes immersed in the waters of human sympathy and devotion figuratively issuing from the intuitive wife. Emotionally exhausted and depleted, however, by this effort of consolation, she sinks back down into herself, her fountain pulsing feebly; and hearing “dully, ominously, a wave fall,” she doubts all that she had said to him (pp. 58–61).

Reading the tale of “The Fisherman and his Wife” to James, she senses some relation of the story to her concurrent meditations, for the tale “was like the bass gently accompanying a tune, which now and then ran up unexpectedly into the melody” (p. 87). In the fairy tale, the sea becomes increasingly more turbulent each time the poor fisherman arrives to deliver his wife's insatiable demands upon the enchanted fish. How much, after all (Mrs. Ramsay might be thinking), can one ask of the sea? For if one presses it too far in one direction, forgetting the necessity of giving oneself up in turn to the sea in exchange for its gifts, one will lose everything.

Hearing at dinner of the Mannings, old friends she has not seen or thought of for many years, she broods over the relation of past to present, the stasis of the former being imaged as a placid lake and the flux of the latter as water shooting down into the room in cascades. In so far as we are out of the past, we are detached and the water image is a static one; in so far as we are in the present, we are involved and the image is a dynamic one. A few pages later, however, the present also achieves form—in terms of the harmony of all those at the table—so “that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things wavered and vanished, waterily” (p. 147). Here it is the human order as dry land which is being opposed to natural flux as water. We shall see below how Lily comes to feel the necessity of deserting the land for the sea.

Finally, as the perfection of this moment becomes in turn a thing of the past, the party disperses and Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are in the study reading. Thinking of her husband's anxiety over the fragility of his fame, and of her concern over encouraging him, she feels once more a sense of detachment as she knits and watches him read Scott: “It didn’t matter, any of it, she thought. A great man, a great book, fame—who could tell?” (p. 177). Then, “dismissing all this, as one passes in diving now a weed, now a straw, now a bubble, she felt again, sinking deeper, … There is something I want—something I have come to get, and she fell deeper and deeper without knowing quite what it was, with her eyes closed” (p. 178). Brooding over snatches of poetry, she picks up a volume and reads of love lasting and time passing: “her mind felt swept, felt clean. And then there it was, suddenly entire; she held it in her hands, beautiful and reasonable, clear and complete, the essence sucked out of life and held rounded here—the sonnet” (p. 181: Shakespeare's number 98). Once again the emotional cycle is complete, and she has reached a point of stability (the aftermath of the meal) by alternating from involvement (her anxious preparations for the meal) to detachment (the consummation of the meal and the resultant separation from natural flux), the transition being imaged as an immersion in water.


Mr. Ramsay's uncompromising honesty and unflinching courage in the face of the perennial mystery of life and the tragic incapacity of the human mind is imaged as a stake driven into the sea to guide the frail barks which founder out there in the darkness: “It was his fate, his peculiarity, whether he wished it or not, to come out thus on a spit of land which the sea is slowly eating away, and there to stand, like a desolate sea-bird, alone” (pp. 11, 68). His masculine detachment from the commonplace—he doesn’t notice little things, the shape of a flower, the texture of a sunset—is here a positive act, a gesture of defense against the tides of time and ignorance. Yet as we have seen, this standpoint becomes ultimately sterile without a periodic immersion in the feminine waters of life. Or to take it the other way round, his withdrawal from the life around him into his abstracted solitude finds its image also in immersion: “and then, as if he had her leave for it, with a moment which oddly reminded his wife of the great sea lion at the Zoo tumbling backwards after swallowing his fish and walloping off so that the water in the tank washes from side to side, he dived into the evening air” (p. 52).

Or again, his children and his domestic attachments (which somehow signify to Mr. Bankes a betrayal of their friendship), rather than his philosophical solitude, seem to provide the buttress against the floods: “That was a good bit of work on the whole—his eight children. They showed he did not damn the poor little universe entirely, for on an evening like this, he thought, looking at the land dwindling away, the little island seemed pathetically small, half swallowed up by the sea” (p. 106). He needs both the sense of involvement and of detachment, and the water imagery functions now in one direction, now in the other. His demand for the sympathy of women, we may notice, pours and spreads itself in pools at their feet, and Lily Briscoe, resenting him, draws her skirts a little closer around her ankles for fear of becoming wet—of becoming involved (p. 228).

And lastly, as if he has reached a more complex state of mind than hitherto, Mr. Ramsay thinks to himself, as the boat nears the Lighthouse and while he and Macalister are discussing the local shipwrecks and drownings: “But why make a fuss about that? Naturally men are drowned in a storm, but it is a perfectly straightforward affair, and the depths of the sea (he sprinkled the crumbs from his sandwich paper over them) are only water after all” (p. 306). Having cast his bread upon the waters and surrendered to the “destructive element,” his anxieties as to his fame, and his courage in the face of the inevitable dissolution of human endeavors, are resolved in one final symbolic gesture. Cast your bread upon the waters: for you shall find it after many days. He that observes the wind shall not sow; and he that regards the clouds shall not reap. In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening withhold not your hand: for you know not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good (Eccl. 11: 1, 4, 6).


For Lily, likewise, the water imagery functions in its double capacity as destroyer and preserver. She and Mr. Bankes stroll down to the shore, drawn regularly by some need. “It was as if the water floated off and set sailing thoughts which had grown stagnant on dry land, and gave to their bodies even some sort of physical relief.” And they both feel a common hilarity, a sort of exhilaration at the sight. But characteristically, the mood turns, “and instead of merriment [they] felt come over them some sadness—because the thing was completed partly, and partly because distant views seem to outlast by a million years (Lily thought) the gazer and to be communing already with a sky which beholds an earth entirely at rest” (pp. 33–34).

To Lily, the old-maid painter, the great mystery is love: “Love had a thousand shapes. There might be lovers [i.e., artists] whose gift it was to choose out the elements of things and place them together and so, giving them a wholeness not theirs in life, make of some scene, or meeting of people (all now gone and separate), one of those globed compacted things over which thought lingers, and love plays” (p. 286). But the lover in art cannot help being fascinated by the artists of life who do achieve a wholeness in their lives; so Lily, vicariously seeing the world through the eyes of human love—the love of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay—feels “how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach” (p. 73).

She resented Mrs. Ramsay's judgment that an unmarried woman has missed the best of life, and “she would urge her own exemption from the universal law; plead for it; she liked to be alone; she liked to be herself; she was not made for that” (p. 77). Yet the love of Paul and Minta is keenly felt as a contrast to her own barren state: “How inconspicuous she felt herself by Paul's side! He, glowing, burning; she, aloof, satirical; he, bound for adventure; she moored to shore; he, launched, incautious; she, solitary, left out” (p. 153). So coming back on that evening ten years later, Lily goes to sleep lulled by the sound of the sea, for “Messages of peace breathed from the sea to the shore.” And she feels, “why not accept this, be content with this, acquiesce and resign?” (pp. 213–214).

But the next morning she stubbornly sets up her canvas and starts to paint. Like Mr. Ramsay, the philosopher confronting the mystery of nature, she too, the artist confronting life, is imaged as a figure isolated and facing the sea of mystery and chaos alone: “Out and out one went, further and further, until at last one seemed to be on a narrow plank, perfectly alone, over the sea” (p. 256). But as she gives herself up to her art, as Mrs. Ramsay did to her husband, she loses consciousness of outer things, “her name and her personality and her appearance,” and her mind throws up from its depths images, memories, ideas, “like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues” (p. 238). While her ego is held in abeyance, the creative waters of life, welling up within her, help to shape her picture.

She thinks of Mrs. Ramsay, who died in the interval between the two visits, and she remembers Mrs. Ramsay's mania for marriage. Suddenly she recalls Paul and Minta, whose marriage has not worked out well after all, and thinks of the glow which love had caused to shine from their faces: “It rose like a fire sent up in token of some celebration by savages on a distant beach. She heard the roar and the crackle. The whole sea for miles round ran red and gold.” She feels a headlong desire to fling herself down into this sea and be drowned. But the mood shifts, “and the roar and crackle repelled her with fear and disgust, as if while she saw its splendour and power she saw too how it fed on the treasure of the house, greedily, disgustingly, and she loathed it” (p. 261).

The cycle, however, has yet to be completed. She continues her meditation while painting, and thinks again of Mrs. Ramsay. She sees something stir in the window where Mrs. Ramsay used to sit, and has a poignant sense of her living presence there beside her. Her tears well up in an anguish of love and grief, and she cries aloud, “Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!” Called out of her reverie by the unexpected sound of her own voice, she looks around embarrassed. “She had not obviously taken leave of her senses. No one had seen her step off her strip of board into the waters of annihilation. She remained a skimpy old maid, holding a paint-brush” (pp. 268–269). But she has taken the plunge.

Some further light is cast upon the key phrase, “the waters of annihilation,” in this passage by its recurrence in another work by Woolf which will perhaps help to clinch our definition of the symbolic function of the water imagery in To the Lighthouse. That work is a little book of less than thirty pages, which appeared just three years after To the Lighthouse, entitled On Being Ill, wherein she speaks of how “tremendous” is “the spiritual change” which illness effects: “how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, … how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers.”3 Clearly here the act of immersion is a symbol of rebirth, or, as we have styled it, of transition from one state to another—in the novel under examination, of transition from the single view, whether it be that of objective detachment or subjective involvement, to the double vision which apprehends the nature of reality simultaneously from both points of view.


It now remains to tie our strands together by analyzing the significance of the alternating points of view around which the final section of the novel is built. As we have seen, its structure is determined by the double vision of Lily on the island watching the boat approach the Lighthouse while she finishes her painting, and of those in the boat watching the island recede from view while they near the completion of their trip. “So much depends then, thought Lily Briscoe, looking at the sea which had scarcely a stain on it, … upon distance: whether people are near us or far from us; for her feeling for Mr. Ramsay changed as he sailed further and further across the bay” (p. 284).

Similarly James in the boat thinks, as they get closer to their destination, of his childhood and of the time he had hated his father for saying they would not be able to go to the Lighthouse next morning:

The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening. Now—

James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?

No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.

(pp. 276–277)

Dramatically, there is a double tension to be resolved here, each aspect somehow centered around the gaunt figure of Mr. Ramsay. First there is in Lily a curious feeling of frustration due to her longstanding inability to give Mr. Ramsay the feminine sympathy he craves—probably because this would entail performing a more sexually oriented role than she will allow in her desire to keep her artist-spinsterhood intact—and this is somehow tied up with the trip to the Lighthouse and the completion of her painting. As the third section proceeds, “She felt curiously divided, as if one part of her were drawn out there—it was a still day, hazy; the Lighthouse looked this morning at an immense distance; the other fixed itself doggedly, solidly, here on the lawn” (pp. 233–234). She is seeking that “razor-edge of balance between two opposite forces; Mr. Ramsay and the picture; which was necessary” (p. 287).

So too James, in league with Cam, is stubbornly trying to keep a firm hold on his long-standing resentment against his father, to resist tyranny to the death. But “Cam looked down into the foam, into the sea with all its treasure in it, and its speed hypnotized her, and the tie between her and James sagged a little. It slackened a little” (p. 246).

Back on the island, Lily continues her painting, raising in her mind the question of artistic detachment from the common sympathies of life and the consequent lack of emotional stability which has been haunting her all along: “No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle, and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower in the air? Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life?—startling, unexpected, unknown?” (p. 286). As James's childhood resentment against his father prevents him from yielding to his father's emotional demands, thereby standing in the way of the son's identification with the father and consequently blocking his normal growth toward maturity, so too Lily's aloofness from life's routine involvements prevents her from yielding to Mr. Ramsay's demand for feminine sympathy, thereby standing in the way of her acceptance of her sexual role and consequently blocking her achievement of artistic maturity.

Meanwhile James, who has been steering the boat, nursing his resentment, is praised for his navigational skill by his father just as they reach their goal. “There! Cam thought, addressing herself silently to James. You’ve got it at last. For she knew that this was what James had been wanting, and she knew that now he had got it he was so pleased that he would not look at her or at his father or any one.” Mr. Ramsay sits expectantly, waiting to disembark: “What do you want? they both wanted to ask. They both wanted to say, Ask us anything and we will give it to you” (pp. 306–308).

Similarly Lily, as a result of the parallel course run by her emotional cycle, the progress of her painting, and her awareness of Mr. Ramsay in the boat reaching the Lighthouse, feels her tension resolving at the same time:

“He must have reached it,” said Lily Briscoe aloud, feeling suddenly completely tired out. For the Lighthouse had become almost invisible, had melted away into a blue haze, and the effort of looking at it and the effort of thinking of him landing there, which both seemed to be one and the same effort, had stretched her body and mind to the utmost. Ah, but she was relieved. Whatever she had wanted to give him, when he left her that morning, she had given him at last.

“He had landed,” she said aloud. “It is finished.”

(pp. 308–309)

Mr. Carmichael stands beside her, the aging poet “looking like an old pagan god, shaggy, with weeds in his hair and the trident (it was only a French novel) in his hand,” and repeats: “‘They will have landed.’” She feels that this is a moment of communion—one to match, we might add, the similar moment which occurred during the meal in section 1—and she thinks: “He stood there as if he were spreading his hands over all the weakness and suffering of mankind; she thought he was surveying, tolerantly and compassionately, their final destiny. Now he has crowned the occasion, she thought.” And, under the spell of this benediction, “Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was—her picture” (p. 309).

James has come into manhood by identifying himself with his father's attitude of grim and solitary acceptance of the uncompromising reality: “So it was like that, James thought, the Lighthouse one had seen across the bay all these years; it was a stark tower on a bare rock. It satisfied him. It confirmed some obscure feeling of his about his own character. … He looked at his father reading fiercely with his legs curled tight. They shared that knowledge. ‘We are driving before a gale—we must sink,’ he began saying to himself, half aloud, exactly as his father said it” (pp. 301–302).

Finally, Lily has come to see the need of holding art and life in relation by means of the double vision: “One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy” (pp. 299–300). And this complex perspective, we recall, was gained by both James and Lily, as well as Mr. Ramsay, by means of a yielding—whether literal or figurative—to the watery element of transition.


  1. All page references to the novel are to the Harbrace Modern Classics ed. (New York, 1927).

  2. Derbyshire, “An Analysis of Mrs. Woolf's To the Lighthouse,College English, 3 (1942), 353-360; Hoare, Some Studies in the Modern Novel (London, 1938), pp. 53-61; Roberts, “‘Vision and Design’ in Virginia Woolf,” PMLA, 61 (1946), 835-847; Kohler, “Time in the Modern Novel,” College English, 10 (1948), 15-24; Overcarsh, “The Lighthouse, Face to Face,” Accent, 10 (1950), 107-123; Daiches, Virginia Woolf (London, 1945), pp. 84-88; Savage, The Withered Branch (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1950), pp. 87-96; Newton, Virginia Woolf (Melbourne, 1946), pp. 37-40. Cf. also Irene Simon, “Some Aspects of Virginia Woolf's Imagery,” English Studies, 41 (1960), 180-196; Thakur, Symbolism of Virginia Woolf, chap. 5; Leaska, Virginia Woolf's Lighthouse; Morris Beja, ed., Virginia Woolf: “To the Lighthouse”: A Casebook (London: Macmillan, 1970); Thomas A. Vogler, ed., Twentieth Century Interpretations of “To the Lighthouse” (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970); Latham, Critics on Virginia Woolf; Jean O. Love, Worlds in Consciousness: Mythopoetic Thought in the Novels of Virginia Woolf (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), chaps. 11-12; and Claire Sprague, ed., Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971).

  3. Printed and published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, 1930, p. 9. Grateful thanks are due to my colleague Mr. Edward W. Manchester of the University of Connecticut for the loan of this valuable book, one of a limited edition of 250 copies signed by the author, who also set the type. It was reprinted in The Moment and Other Essays (1947), and is now to be found in Collected Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1967), vol. 4, pp. 193-203. I realize, of course, that the context of the image in the essay, unlike that in the novel, is rather witty and ironic, but it seems to me that its basic meaning remains much the same, even though the tone and effect are different.

Jack F. Stewart (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: “Light in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 23, No. 3, October, 1977, pp. 377–89.

[In the following essay, Stewart explores the various meanings of darkness and light in the three sections of To the Lighthouse.]

The essence of the Lighthouse symbol is Light itself. In “The Window,” Light is the positive force of visionary consciousness; in “Time Passes,” it is the negative counterpart of departed consciousness; and in “The Lighthouse,” it is the reanimation of consciousness in a creative rhythm that seeks spiritual and aesthetic Oneness.

At its first appearance in To the Lighthouse,1 the Lighthouse is a rigid vertical dominating horizontal planes of land and sea. It is seen by Mrs. Ramsay, as part of “the view … that her husband loved” (p. 25): “… the whole bay spread before them and Mrs. Ramsay could not help exclaiming, ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ For the great plateful of blue water was before her; the hoary Lighthouse, distant, austere, in the midst; and on the right, as far as the eye could see, fading and falling, in soft low pleats, the green sand dunes with the wild flowing grasses on them, which always seemed to be running away into some moon country, uninhabited of men” (Ibid.). She is aware of a man-made, intellectual reality at the center of her landscape, but also of natural, imaginative aesthetic values, symbolized by the colors blue and green, and supported by feminine images (“soft low pleats”). On the verge of her field of vision is the “feminine” realm of emotion, fancy, intuition, dreams, and the unconscious, where spirit, or anima, rules serene.

The Lighthouse next appears not as a distant object, but as a source of light. As Mrs. Ramsay finishes reading the story of the Fisherman's Wife, she sees its beam palely reflected in James's eyes. “Turning, she looked across the bay, and there, sure enough, coming regularly across the waves first two quick strokes and then one long steady stroke, was the light of the Lighthouse. It had been lit” (p. 98). Mrs. Ramsay, who identifies with “the long steady stroke” (p. 100), sees a reflection of her own dreams in the boy's eyes. The beacon is a reminder of James's longing to go to the Lighthouse, and of his father's stern refusal, but its beam is transmuted by his mother into a maternal, sustaining light that casts its glow over the psychic voyage ahead. The child is put to bed, and Mrs. Ramsay sinks back “to being [herself], a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others” (p. 99). As Ernst Cassirer observes, “light and shadow go together. The light manifests itself only in the shadow it casts. …”2

Thus it is in darkness and solitude that Mrs. Ramsay achieves illumination, as she identifies her being with the Light. Through creative contemplation of the light, Mrs. Ramsay loses all sense of self, while Mr. Ramsay, who “had lost his temper over the Lighthouse” (pp. 102–03), stares “into the hedge, into its intricacy, its darkness” (p. 103), vainly trying to find truth in the labyrinth of self. He envies “the inspired who, miraculously, lump all the letters together in one flash—the way of genius” (p. 58), for his own “splendid mind,” driven by a relentless ego, cannot reach beyond Q in the intellectual alphabet. As he tries to force thought forward, “a shutter … flicker[s] over the intensity of his gaze … a flash of darkness” (p. 57)—like the wedge of darkness between the Lighthouse strokes. Mrs. Ramsay, however, exchanges “the fret, the hurry, the stir” (p. 100) of self for the freedom, peace, coherence, and stability of “letting be.” She withdraws from personal contacts into empathy with a transcendent source of light: “and pausing there she looked out to meet that stroke of the Lighthouse, the long steady stroke, the last of the three, which was her stroke, for watching them in this mood always at this hour one could not help attaching oneself to one thing especially of the things one saw; and this thing, the long steady stroke, was her stroke. Often she found herself sitting and looking, sitting and looking, with her work in her hands until she became the thing she looked at—that light for example” (pp. 100–01). Activity is suspended in contemplation. “Ordinary experience” becomes “a miracle … an ecstasy” (p. 310), as the Lighthouse beam is spiritually transformed into pure Light and Being. Mrs. Ramsay experiences the intensity3 of light in solitary empathy; later Lily Briscoe has a vision of light in communion with Mrs. Ramsay's spirit—a frail white light that sheds illumination out of the past (Ibid.). But Mrs. Ramsay's fragmentary existence—as she ordinarily feels it to be—is enveloped in fullness of Being, as she puts on the spiritual reality of Light. According to J. E. Cirlot's A Dictionary of Symbols,4 “Light, traditionally, is equated with the spirit,” the superiority of which is known by its “luminous intensity”: “Its whiteness alludes to … a synthesis of the All,” and it “[emanates] from the ‘Centre,’ for light is also the creative force, cosmic energy, irradiation. … Psychologically speaking, to become illuminated is to become aware of a source of light, and, in consequence, of spiritual strength” (Ibid.).

This “essence of reality”5 is married to material reality, as the light of the Lighthouse to rock and tower, or as feminine intuition to “the admirable fabric of the masculine intelligence” (p. 164). (An aesthetic parallel is the marriage of lightness and weight, color and shape, that Lily strives for in her painting [p. 264].) Mrs. Ramsay trusts masculine strength and intellect to “uphold her and sustain her” (p. 164)—(as the tower upholds the Light)—although “she pitied men always as if they lacked something—women never, as if they had something” (p. 133). If Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are male and female archetypes, and the Light is God, Spirit, source of all human and cosmic energy, then the roles of Adam and Eve seem to be reversed. Mrs. Ramsay embraces the Lighthouse beam as an ultimate source of creative energy, and is filled with Light. Her family and friends approach the Lighthouse through her. She lives for Light, and they for Light in her. This is one meaning of “The Window,” where the Lighthouse is seen “through a glass darkly,” by all except Mrs. Ramsay, who sees it in a visionary sense, and identifies with its Light. She has no need to go to it, like the others who must see it “face to face,”6 for, looking along its beam, she can penetrate into self and others.

In another figure, Mrs. Ramsay is the sea encircling the rock with its waves, “this fountain and spray of life” (p. 62), that is the fons et origo of all male energies that “fabricate” a world of order. According to Josephine O’Brien Schaefer, “The real lighthouse of the novel … is the one which Mrs. Ramsay carefully sets glowing and which illuminates a space of life even after her death. This illumination becomes a triumph of the human spirit. …”7 In her Lighthouse roles of wife, mother, and creative anima, Mrs. Ramsay becomes an archetypal source of light and energy for others. To James, she is a source of peace and harmony, of “perfect simplicity and good sense” (p. 61), who encourages his hope of one day reaching the Lighthouse. James witnesses the act of sexual sympathy by which she restores his father to himself and to his world, “creat[ing] drawingroom and kitchen, set[ting] them all aglow …” (p. 63). Mrs. Ramsay's personal light is almost spent in sacrificing her energy for others. But, even in exhaustion, she feels “[throb] through her … the rapture of successful creation” (p. 64), a rhythm of expansion and contraction like that of the light. She is a creative spirit, who will remain a source of inspiration even when dead, embodied in the light at the window that helps Lily focus her composition so that she too, “in extreme fatigue,” can declare: “I have had my vision” (p. 320). Both women respond with all their being to the Light that is essential truth and energy. This is the experience of the Lighthouse, that goes beyond self, depleting and completing it.

Mrs. Ramsay's mood, after the Lighthouse “had been lit” (p. 98), and “All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated” (p. 99), is one of resignation—“We are in the hands of the Lord”—tempered by skepticism—“How could any Lord have made this world?” (pp. 101, 102). Above all, she seeks to root out bad faith and be authentic: “She looked up over her knitting and met the third stroke and it seemed to her like her own eyes meeting her own eyes, searching as she alone could search into her mind and her heart, purifying out of existence that lie, any lie” (p. 101). The light that probes her consciousness is a higher consciousness, “meeting,” “searching,” “purifying” self of all evasion and dishonesty. The central source of Being is symbolized by the radiating Light, for Light is the universal “symbol of consciousness and illumination.”8 Mystics are concerned with Inner Light, and so is Mrs. Ramsay: “She praised herself in praising the light, without vanity, for she was stern, she was searching, she was beautiful like that light” (p. 101). Mrs. Ramsay's ecstatic response to the Light is a celebration of her capacity to be, and to create, sustain, and transmit values. Her experience resembles that of certain Indian mystics for whom “the Light mystically perceived denotes transcendence of this world, of profane and conditioned existence, and the attainment of another existential plane—that of pure being, of the divine, of supreme knowledge and absolute freedom. It is a certain sign of the revelation of ultimate reality—of reality devoid of all attributes. This is why it is experienced as a dazzling white Light, into which one gazes blinded and into which one finally disappears, dissolving and leaving no trace. … One who reaches the Light and recognises himself in it reaches a mode of transcendent being beyond the reach of the imagination.”9 Mrs. Ramsay's experience of oneness with the Light symbolizes her achievement of transcendent being: detached from personal ego, she is filled with unlimited Being. That part of her which clings to gratifying illusions is burnt out, as she shares for a moment in the source of all energy and creation. The Lighthouse beam that evokes this deeper consciousness is a symbol that expresses Mrs. Ramsay more clearly than any amount of description could do. What it gives the reader is inner: an essence, a quality, a spiritual impression. “Mankind,” as Whitehead says, “has to find a symbol in order to express itself.”10

The pulsating rhythm of the Lighthouse beam produces trance-like effect, in which barriers between self and other, animate and inanimate, dissolve. Mrs. Ramsay's “invisible” being expands to embrace the visible world: her consciousness, liberated from social roles, finds renewal in nature: “It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to things, inanimate things … felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself” (p. 101). The Light expresses Mrs. Ramsay's feelings, not only to herself, but to the reader. Her love of the sentient world is associated with vague spiritual longings; she is truthful, but highly romantic. Her indirect interior monologue shows a trace of irony; she is aware of indulging a private mood of pantheism, and her response to the Light is expressed in Pre-Raphaelite imagery that would do credit to Burne-Jones: “There rose, and she looked and looked … there curled up off the floor of the mind, rose from the lake of one's being, a mist, a bride to meet her lover” (pp. 101–02). Mrs. Ramsay balances freedom of imagination against firm desire for truth; her experience resembles that of the artist, but is more immediate. As her unconscious reaches out toward the Light, a marriage takes place between existence and being, self and cosmos. Peter and Margaret Harvard-Williams (p. 101) attribute this “spiritual triumph” to “The conscious mind's realisation of the unconscious, with all its emotional power.” The experience is not merely psychological or aesthetic, however; it is mystical. Mrs. Ramsay comes to know an “essence of reality” in which individual and universal are One. She is in love with the life that lies beyond self. Her sense of “losing personality,” her “triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity” (p. 100), may be a premonition of her personal death and sudden withdrawal from human concerns in “Time Passes.”

But if the Lighthouse beam is a symbol of truth, introspection, purification, bringing mystical transcendence of time and existence, it is also an “objective correlative” for the life-force itself. It is rhythm as well as light:

She saw the light again. With some irony in her interrogation … she looked at the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much her, yet so little her, which had her at its beck and call (she woke in the night and saw it bent across their bed, stroking the floor), but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotised, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!

(pp. 103–04)

Mrs. Ramsay is subject to intermittent glimpses into the core of Being that lies beyond rationalizing ego. She has the courage to be, in the withering light of absolute truth that destroys illusions. She transmutes the Lighthouse beam into non-natural Light, that shines out of, as much as into, the darkness of her own being.11 In order to know and be this Light, she must descend into the “wedge-shaped core of darkness” (p. 99) that is her deepest self. The beam that is a “steady light” of Truth is also a rhythmic “stroke” of Energy, fusing sense and spirit in a rapturous marriage of inner and outer, conscious and unconscious Being. Now according to Jung (p. 107), “The symbol is the primitive expression of the unconscious, but at the same time it is also an idea corresponding to the highest intuition produced by consciousness.” This is true of Mrs. Ramsay's self-expression through the symbol of the Lighthouse beam, for her response is at once yielding (the rapturous “swoon” of epiphany), and creative (her concentration on the light, in a sense, constitutes its value). Her response is thus essentially androgynous, like that of Lily Briscoe. Virginia Woolf herself says “some marriage of opposites has to be consummated,” in the mind of the artist, “before the act of creation can be accomplished.”12

Norman Friedman has examined the paradoxical dialectics of “Double Vision,” whereby Mrs. Ramsay is “both subjectively involved in and objectively detached from life,” and therefore able to see it whole.13 This harmonious balance and clear vision suggest the Tao, “the unity of … life and consciousness … whose symbol would be the central white light” (Wilhelm and Jung, p. 103). Summarizing the Golden Flower, Wilhelm (p. 64) describes the Tao as “the undivided, great One, which gives rise to two opposite reality principles, the dark and the light, yin and yang.” The Lighthouse, with its alternating strokes of light and darkness, clearly corresponds to this symbol of the Tao. By opening herself to Light-as-Eros, Mrs. Ramsay fills herself with a fountain of energy, from which she can reanimate her husband in his quest for Truth-as-Logos; her “fecundity” compensates for his “sterility.” The Ramsays embody complementary principles of Eros and Logos, yin and yang, that combine to make a whole human figure; their ultimate unity is symbolized by the revolving light-in-darkness of the Lighthouse. Yet to dichotomize thus is to oversimplify, because the yin and yang exist as “a central monad” in all beings, and would be most closely knit in a truly androgynous personality. In Taoism the Light symbolizes the inner harmony of the Way. It is Mrs. Ramsay's triumph in moments of illumination to overcome the separateness of self and cosmos, and to reconcile the poles of Eros and Logos in her own being—“for she was stern, she was searching, she was beautiful like that light.”

Mrs. Ramsay “interrogates” the light as it has led her to interrogate herself, recognizes its transcendent quality, “[watches] it with fascination, hypnotized,” yields herself to its power, and is flooded with ecstasy. The light is a lover and she is its priestess or handmaid. In a tour de force of spiritual impressionism that penetrates silence and solitude, Virginia Woolf dramatizes the irradiation of consciousness by Being, as outer and inner, “subject and object,” fuse in rhythmic pulsations of One Light. Lyrical imagery flows from the metaphor of bride and lover, as sexual energy is transformed into spiritual, and soul meets Light. The image of “silver fingers” stroking “some sealed vessel” suggests the breaking of the membrane of consciousness, with its self-contained intactness, and the merging of unified Being with the light and movement of a spirit-centered cosmos. All this is skillfully symbolized by the Lighthouse beam that seems to beckon through the darkness. The wave image fuses objective scene (the waves make the light seem to roll across the water and break on the shore), with subjective response, or mental mirror, in which the visual image, dazzling to the eye, becomes an “objective correlative” of vision itself (“The ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind …”). Syntactic rhythms reinforce the dominant imagery, with a wavelike diversion and expansion of the sentence structure that culminates in sheer affirmation of Being: “‘It is enough!’” Mrs. Ramsay's Moment of insight involves a sense of liberation from Time and Self.14 The Lighthouse beam and her response symbolize disintegrative-integrative, destructive-creative loss of self and fulfillment of Being. The sensory impression which is the basis of this visionary experience is conveyed through images of color, movement, and touch, as well as inwardly felt in the kinetic tensions and relaxations of language.

Socially, Mrs. Ramsay's function is akin to that of the Lighthouse beam. At her “festival” dinner, she undertakes “the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating” (p. 131), orders the candles lit (p. 149)—“her face was all lit up—without looking young, she looked radiant” (p. 157)—and observes family and guests with “eyes … so clear that they seemed to go round the table unveiling each of these people, and their thoughts and feelings, without effort like a light stealing under water so that its ripples and the reeds in it and the minnows balancing themselves, and the sudden silent trout are all lit up hanging, trembling” (p. 165). Her look is a radiating searchlight of truth, and she has the power to illuminate and to merge separate consciousnesses into One.

In “Time Passes,” Mrs. Ramsay, the focus of the group, dies, and the Lighthouse beam, “with its pale footfall upon stair and mat” (p. 197), becomes a ghost of departed consciousness. It explores the empty house like an unseeing eye, that merely posits the existence of objects, and of the consciousness that once invested them with meaning. Prying lights and airs inspect personal objects in bedrooms, “wearily, ghostily, as if they had feather-light fingers” (p. 197), suggesting dim traces of the scene in half-conscious recesses of memory. Virginia Woolf's impressionist technique dramatizes the attenuation of solid objects into lingering associations, cut off from sensory stimuli. Whereas the rationalist Mr. Ramsay explores “‘Subject and object and the nature of reality’” (p. 40), Virginia Woolf creates a phenomenological vision of space-time, unmediated by a subject, in which the Lighthouse beam substitutes for eye and brain. Images of “sliding lights” and “fumbling airs” convey a pervading sense of anthropomorphic consciousness. The blank stare neither sustains nor destroys: it reveals, in a kind of alienation effect, the otherness that seeps back into matter as consciousness ebbs.

The dwindling of consciousness with onset of night is dramatized in a ritual blowing out of candles, and withdrawal into sleep, that precedes absence or death. Yet the deserted house is haunted by stray wisps of consciousness. Light becomes transparent, void, a mere reflection of itself illuminating a bare wall: “Now, day after day, light turned, like a flower reflected in water, its clear image on the wall opposite” (p. 200). Occurring parenthetically in the paragraph that follows Mrs. Ramsay's death, this elegiac image of self-reflecting light symbolizes the withdrawal of animating consciousness. The light that searches the empty rooms is like a bereaved lover. Light is defined by its opposite, shadow, as consciousness by the unconscious. Mrs. Ramsay herself is aware of this dualism in human nature—“Wherever they put the light … there was always a shadow somewhere” (pp. 176–77)—as is Lily in art—“A light here required a shadow there” (p. 85). Now: “Only the shadows of the trees … for a moment darkened the pool in which light reflected itself; or birds, flying, made a soft spot flutter slowly across the bedroom floor” (pp. 200–01). These refractions of light in blank space suggest either the essential isolation of consciousness—“So loveliness reigned and stillness, and together made the shape of loveliness itself, a form from which life had parted” (p. 201)—or a mere abstraction from consciousness. This “random light” exposes but does not absorb, illuminates but does not observe. It is an empty, dehumanized focus. Existence is reduced to a nonhuman essence that cannot be thought or seen. Metaphorically, however, the ghostly light does constitute an unseeing eye that reveals an “invisible world.” This blank eye is the negative of consciousness, as nothingness is of Being. There is a surreal quality to such scenes, as in a di Chirico painting, that derives from the uprooting or distancing of consciousness. Distance, perspective, space, void are all-important in “Time Passes,” which is an elegy for that animated spirit that once embraced the Light as lover.

The Lighthouse is also associated, through Mrs. Ramsay, with “the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour … and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore” (p. 198). The power of light as stimulus depends on the subject's response, on that ecstatic marriage of inner and outer which is Mrs. Ramsay's triumph. Given a receptive consciousness, “the image … comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul” (p. 199); without it, the center cannot hold and things fall apart in confusion. “When darkness fell, the stroke of the Lighthouse, which had laid itself with such authority upon the carpet in the darkness, tracing its pattern, came now in the softer light of spring mixed with moonlight gliding gently as if it laid its caress and lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again. But in the very lull of this loving caress, as the long stroke leant upon the bed, the rock was rent asunder; another fold of the shawl loosened; there it hung, and swayed” (p. 206). The “long steady stroke” of the Lighthouse, “which was her stroke” (p. 100), mingles with the “yellow harvest moonlight” in a cluster of images recalling Mrs. Ramsay's spiritual vision. These images are combined with anthropomorphic metaphors of order and love (“tracing its pattern,” “laid its caress”). The modulation of light suggests a prelude to returning consciousness, yet the loosening of the shawl implies a threat of death and disintegration, as forces that sustain civilization become unraveled by the “brute confusion” (p. 209) of Time and Nature.

From Mrs. McNab's instinctual point of view, the Lighthouse beam is Mrs. Ramsay's ghost: “She could see her now … (and faint and flickering, like a yellow beam or the circle at the end of a telescope, a lady in a grey cloak, stooping over her flowers, went wandering over the bedroom wall …)” (p. 211). This ghostly image “had wavered over the walls like a spot of sunlight and vanished” (p. 213). The Lighthouse beam, apart from its associations with Mrs. Ramsay, can be seen as the steady eye of an Other Reality,15 that reveals the encroachment of Nature on human civilization. It sustains an impartial focus on order (human habitation) and chaos (“the fertility, the insensibility of nature” [p. 213]): “Only the Lighthouse beam entered the rooms for a moment, sent its sudden stare over bed and wall in the darkness of winter, looked with equanimity at the thistle and the swallow, the rat, and the straw” (p. 214). Unwittingly, Mrs. McNab, a comic archetype of human labor, transmutes the energy of nature into the order of civilization. In doing so, she is responding to Mrs. Ramsay's ghostly will embodied in the Lighthouse beam. In “Time Passes,” light is chiefly an “eyeless and featureless”16substitute for consciousness, fixed yet random in its movement. It posits what is not there—Mrs. Ramsay's spirit, whose presence-in-absence pervades “The Lighthouse.” Lily Briscoe responds to the spiritual force of the Lighthouse beam, as she sleeps: “tenderly the light fell (it seemed to come through her eyelids)” (p. 220). Lily is one of the dreamers whose return and reawakening symbolize reanimated consciousness.

As she paints, Lily moves between subjective involvement and aesthetic detachment,17 seeking the harmony that Mrs. Ramsay found with the Lighthouse beam. Lily's dimly apprehended vision of the Lighthouse reflects her own dual response: “She felt curiously divided, as if one part of her were drawn out there—it was a still day, hazy; the Lighthouse looked this morning at an immense distance; the other part had fixed itself doggedly, solidly, here on the lawn” (p. 242). Lily is struggling to bring her vision into focus. Space, which had been void of human consciousness in “Time Passes,” has become “virtual space” of Lily's canvas. This space “[looms] out at her,” like the waves over which she gazes, while the man-made form of the distant Lighthouse represents a challenge to her shaping vision.

Lily oscillates, at first, between attraction and repulsion. Soon the triple rhythm18 of her brushstrokes resembles the threefold rhythm of the Lighthouse beam: “she made her first quick decisive stroke. The brush descended. It flickered brown over the white canvas; it left a running mark. A second time she did it—a third time. And so pausing and so flickering, she attained a dancing rhythmical movement, as if the pauses were one part of the rhythm and the strokes another, and all were related …” (p. 244). This rhythm arising from a “curious” tension of impulses is not only creative and celebratory (like Mrs. Ramsay's dance of the “two emotions,” p. 156); it is a magical dance of opposites. The brown and white colors are associated with Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, the stroke and pause of the brush with the light and darkness of the Lighthouse beam. These opposites are linked, in turn, with the rising-falling waves, which symbolize rhythmic recurrence.

As Lily becomes absorbed in the act of painting, she, like Mrs. Ramsay, begins to exchange “the fret, the hurry, the stir” of a driven ego for a deeper source of energy, a change reflected in the rhythm: “her brush was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to her … by what she saw, so that while her hand quivered with life, this rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its current. … And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance … her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues” (pp. 246–47). Lily seems subconsciously to identify the empty space of her canvas with the space defined by the distant Lighthouse, whose hazy presence dominates this palimpsest of imagery: “For the mass loomed before her; it protruded; she felt it pressing on her eyeballs” (p. 246). (One recalls the gentler pressure of light in her dream.) The rhythm of her painting begins to resemble “the long steady stroke” of the Lighthouse beam, with which Mrs. Ramsay identified her Being. Lily's mind, like Mrs. Ramsay's, is an ocean: as she begins to move creatively, its unconscious “depths” are stirred into life. The image of the “fountain spurting” recalls Mrs. Ramsay's “fountain and spray of life” (p. 62), while the “hideously difficult white space” of the canvas seems linked with Mr. Ramsay's “barren and bare” Lighthouse-of-intellect. Lily, like Virginia Woolf, is remodeling the Lighthouse in the colors of imaginative reality.

In “The Window” and “Time Passes,” the Lighthouse is a source of light; in “The Lighthouse,” it becomes a goal. In one form or other, however, the Lighthouse dominates every phase of the novel. As a symbol, it is doubly central: from it emanate lines of light; to it converge paths of voyage.19 Its power is both centrifugal and centripetal: like the mandala, it symbolizes psychic centering. Its meanings radiate through the mind, as a total range of possibilities stemming from a variety of contexts, but limited to none. The voyage to the Lighthouse is any activity of consciousness that reaches out toward the Light, follows a direction, seeks integration. If the reader never quite arrives at the Lighthouse, he sees it from many angles and from many points of view, and in it he seeks his own illumination.


  1. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (London: Hogarth Press, 1927; rpt. 1967). Subsequent references in my text are based on this edition.

  2. “The Dialectic of the Mythical Consciousness,” The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. Ralph Manheim, II, 245. The “bursting forth of light out of darkness is the original symbol of creation in nearly all the myths” ( Ibid., p. 96).

  3. Peter and Margaret Harvard-Williams, “Perceptive Contemplation in the Work of Virginia Woolf,” English Studies, 35 (1954), 111-12, interpret the Lighthouse beam as “a symbol of the heightened nature of the visible world as Virginia Woolf saw it,” and relate it to an intensity of “contemplation which [the artist] cannot sustain.”

  4. Trans. Jack Sage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), p. 179.

  5. See Virginia Woolf, A Writer's Diary, ed. Leonard Woolf (London: Hogarth Press, 1953; rpt. 1969), p. 101. Subsequent references in my text are based on this edition.

  6. I borrow these biblical terms from F. L. Overcarsh, “The Lighthouse, Face to Face,” Accent, 10, No. 2 (Winter 1950), 107-23, without wishing to emulate Overcarsh's allegorizing.

  7. The Three-fold Nature of Reality in the Novels of Virginia Woolf (The Hague: Mouton, 1965), p. 124.

  8. Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Bollingen Series, 42 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), p. 104. Cf. Wilhelm and Jung, p. 98.

  9. Mircea Eliade, “Experiences of the Mystic Light,” The Two and the One, trans. J. M. Cohen (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 44-45. Cf. R. M. Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind (1901; rpt. New York: Dutton, 1969), pp. 9-11.

  10. Alfred North Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect (New York: Macmillan, 1927), p. 62.

  11. Cf. The Secret of the Golden Flower: A Chinese Book of Life, trans. Richard Wilhelm, with a Foreword and Commentary by C. G. Jung (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1962), p. 55.

  12. A Room of One's Own (1929; rpt. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1957), p. 181.

  13. “The Waters of Annihilation: Double Vision in To the Lighthouse,ELH, 22, No. 1 (March 1955), 67.

  14. Cf. Jung, Commentary, pp. 106-07; Eliade, The Two and the One, p. 72.

  15. Cf. Irène Simon, “Some Aspects of Virginia Woolf's Imagery,” English Studies, 41, No. 3 (June 1960), 190-92.

  16. See Diary, p. 88.

  17. See Mitchell A. Leaska, Virginia Woolf's Lighthouse: A Study in Critical Method (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 122-23.

  18. Allen McLaurin, Virginia Woolf: The Echoes Enslaved (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 177-206, examines the recurrence of three-part patterns in Woolf's style.

  19. Cf. Jean Guiguet, Virginia Woolf and Her Works, trans. Jean Stewart (London: Hogarth Press, 1965), pp. 252-53.

Ian Gregor (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: “Spaces: ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in The Author in His Work: Essays on a Problem in Criticism, edited by Louis L. Martz and Aubrey Williams, Yale University Press, 1978, pp. 375–89.

[In the following essay, Gregor argues that the autobiographical elements in To the Lighthouse ultimately compromise the novel's success because of Woolf's difficulty in distancing herself from her narrative and her characters.]

I, I, I,—how we have lost the secret of saying that.1

—Virginia Woolf


On Wednesday, 28, November 1928, a year after the publication of To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary:

Father's birthday. He would have been 96, 96, yes, today; and could have been 96, like other people one has known: but mercifully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books;—inconceivable.

I used to think of him and mother daily; but writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. And now he comes back sometimes, but differently. (I believe this to be true—that I was observed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act.) He comes back now more as a contemporary. I must read him some day. I wonder if I can feel again, I hear his voice, I know this by heart?

So the days pass and I ask myself sometimes whether one is not hypnotised, as a child by a silver globe, by life; and whether this is living. It’s very quick, bright, exciting. But superficial perhaps. I should like to take the globe in my hands and feel it quietly, round, smooth, heavy, and so hold it, day after day.2

In this casual diary entry we have, loosely assembled, elements central to the novel itself—the autobiographical pressure, the consolations of art, the persistent attempt to image the notion of “Life.” These elements, imaginatively recreated and controlled, go into shaping a novel generally considered to be Virginia Woolf's most successful single work. The ease with which the diary entry recalls concerns present in the novel indicates the centrality of the personal element in its making.

This element has, of course, been widely noted and usually in the way indicated by a comment once made by Dr. Leavis:

The substance of this novel was provided directly by life. … We know enough about Leslie Stephen, the novelist's father, and his family to know there is a large measure of direct transcription … [and there] is a clear relation between this fact and the unique success of To The Lighthouse.3

There is a truth in that judgment, but it is an equivocal truth. I would like to suggest in this essay that the relation between “the fact” and “the success” was considerably less “clear” than Dr. Leavis claims and that, so far from working in favor of the novel, the element of autobiography eventually begins to work against it.

To reflect on the criticism the novel has received in the fifty years since it was written is to be struck quite forcibly by two things which, taken together, seem somewhat at odds with each other. The first thing is that we can say with some confidence that, of all of Virginia Woolf's novels, To The Lighthouse has made the most immediate appeal. It has been written about again and again with a warmth and affection absent from accounts of her other novels, however much they may have been admired. The reasons are not far to seek—the generous presence of Mrs. Ramsay suffusing the novel, the depth and variety of the family relationships, the poignant reflections on death and the passage of time, the sharp sense of place. These admiring and affectionate accounts do not, however, prevent us noticing another thing: namely, the plurality of interpretation of the novel's overall meaning.

What would seem useful is a reflection on the novel which would concern itself with the disjunction between the clarity and immediacy with which the fiction makes its appeal and the troubling interpretative questions it seems to raise. I would like to argue that such a reflection will make us aware that this situation is caused by a flaw within the form of the work, a flaw which is itself the result of the novelist's attempt to meet the changing demands of the fiction as it develops. We can characterize those demands by saying that they bring about a change in the involvement of the novelist with her work which she feels she cannot evade. The fiction brings her to a point where she needs to change the inflection of her voice in a way that makes us recognize the justice in her own critical observation, “I, I, I,—how we have lost the secret of saying that.”


In “The Anatomy of Fiction” Virginia Woolf observed, with Emma in mind, “Between the sentences, apart from the story, a little space of some kind builds itself up.”4 This sense of space is central to Virginia Woolf's own practice as a novelist. Central aesthetically, in that it is expressive of the dramatic expression she seeks; central metaphysically, in that it is ineluctably expressive of the void, the horror of which is both the source and the substance of her creative energy. “Space,” “absence,” “void”—these words lie at the heart of her work, and to see them at work in To The Lighthouse is to see the imaginative movement of that novel as it gradually develops and takes shape.

Though we talk of To The Lighthouse as being a novel in three sections, it is really the first of these sections, “The Window,” which makes the decisive impact on the reader. It is this section that constitutes the achievement of the novel, a section which has its own artistic completion, a perfectly accomplished “novella” posing awkward problems for the novel which contains it.

Towards the end of section nine in “The Window” there occurs a conversation between Lily Briscoe and William Bankes about the picture she is painting. The drift of the conversation could well have occurred in Virginia Woolf's book on Roger Fry, turning as it does on the general question about representational and nonrepresentational art.

What did she wish to indicate by the triangular purple shape …? It was Mrs. Ramsay reading to James, she said. She knew his objection—that no one could tell it for a human shape. But she had made no attempt at likeness.

The debate is a familiar one. Bankes recalls a favorite picture in his own possession, “cherry trees in blossom on the banks of the Kennet,” and while going on to accept Lily's own very different interest in terms of masses, lights, shapes, insists on the question “what did she wish to make of it”? Lily's rejoinder is to grasp her brush (“she could not even see it herself, without a brush in her hand”), resume her position at the canvas, and try to find “her picture” among “hedges and houses and mothers and children.” “It was a question, she remembered, how to connect this mass on the right hand with that on the left … bringing the line … breaking the vacancy. …” But then suddenly her whole mood changes and she is flooded with gratitude to Bankes for the experience they have shared. The point at issue is no longer the “attempt at likeness” or “the triangular purple shape,” her “picture” is not on the canvas, but within her, in the intensity of her response to the scene. It is Bankes's recognition of this that draws them together in affectionate sympathy. Earlier, Lily has talked of “that passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child,” and Bankes's gentle curiosity has enabled her to find comfort in his unobtrusive recognition of her as someone whose painting should be thought of not in terms of its “aims” but rather an expression of her deepest self. The conversation concludes in a mood of exhilaration—“that one could walk away down that long gallery not alone anymore but arm in arm with somebody.” A discussion which begins with talk about aesthetic principles concludes with a release of shared feeling, and has no need of formal expression for Lily and Bankes to feel its impact. It is a feeling caught and held in the way Lily “nicked the catch of her paint-box to, more firmly than was necessary, and the nick seemed to surround in a circle for ever the paint-box, the lawn, Mr. Bankes, and that wild villain, Cam, dashing past.”

The beautiful gradations of feeling from the painting to the person work in an opposite way at the dinner party, when Lily, looking at Mrs. Ramsay, feels that she is pitying William Bankes:

He is not in the least pitiable. He has his work, Lily said to herself. She remembered, all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure, that she had her work. In a flash she saw her picture and thought, Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space.

“That awkward space” presenting itself here sharply as a technical problem has behind it the earlier scene with Bankes, so that now we feel Lily has only to recall their “work” for their mutual feeling to be recalled and affirmed—the awkwardness of the space made awkward no longer.

The most intense moments in the dinner party belong, of course, to Mrs. Ramsay, and it is during one of these that we feel the harmony between contingent detail and individual feeling given its richest expression. Mrs. Ramsay, as the dinner party draws to an end, feels the occasion has been a great success:

“Andrew,” she said, “hold your plate lower, or I shall spill it.” (The Boeuf en Daube was a perfect triumph) Here, she felt, putting the spoon down, was the still space that lies about the heart of things, where one could move or rest; could wait now (they were all helped) listening; could then, like a hawk which lapses suddenly from its high station, flaunt and sink on laughter easily, resting her whole weight upon what at the other end of the table her husband was saying about the square root of one thousand two hundred and fifty-three, which happened to be the number on his railway ticket.

“The still space that lies about the heart of things where one could move or rest” is created by the density of particulars which surround it, and within those particulars, the reader, like Mrs. Ramsay, is free to maneuver, take his bearings, and share in the serenity of her mood. If Mrs. Ramsay can feel “the still space,” it is because the very mobility of her sensibility has created it for us, a mobility created by the intensity of her response to the detail of the world about her. This space is not to be identified with any particular, but nevertheless can only exist by the defining presence of those particulars—the conversation, the company, her husband, “the exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice from the great brown dish”—all blend, for Mrs. Ramsay, into an exquisite harmony. It is a harmony made imaginatively present for the reader too, so that in his memory of the dinner party, it is the detail which remains suffused by a glow of feeling which exists somewhere “between” the characters and the author, the author and the reader. This notion of a space between, present in the conversation with Lily and Bankes and then much more powerfully in distinctive moments during the dinner party, becomes the virtual substance of an extended scene between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, which brings the first section of the novel to a close.

The episode opens with the Ramsays absorbed in their reading, he with Scott's novel, she with a volume of poems. “They did not want to speak to each other. They had nothing to say, but something seemed, nevertheless to go from him to her.” Scott's novel dominates Mr. Ramsay's attention, “the poor old crazed creature in Mucklebackit's cottage made him feel so vigorous, so relieved that he felt roused and triumphant.” He forgets himself completely as the fiction proceeds. “Steenie's drowning … Mucklebackit's sorrow … the astonishing delight and vigour it gave him.” It is not the tragic tale that Scott tells which moves him so much as the completeness with which the novelist has understood, mastered, and communicated what he has to say. Scott's triumphant form has given form to Mr. Ramsay's feelings, and his reaction is one of delight and gratitude. The response which Mrs. Ramsay is making to the poem is similar. “All the odds and ends of the day stuck to this magnet; her mind felt swept, felt clean. … And there it was, suddenly entire … the essence sucked out of life and held rounded here—the sonnet.” Again it is the achieved form that liberates and gives shape to the inchoate feelings of the reader. In this heightened state of awareness, first Mrs. Ramsay and then her husband long to break the silence but find the appropriate idiom hard to find, hard because it will be too sharply self-revealing, too explicit a gesture of dependence. “Do say something, she thought, wishing only to hear his voice … say anything as if for help.” He breaks the silence and she takes his reproving remark with gratitude. The emotional pendulum swings, “He wanted something—wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him.” The silence deepens. “Then, knowing that he was watching her, instead of saying anything she turned, holding her stocking, and looked at him. And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it.” Nothing is said, but the communication is complete.

This scene is for me the finest in the novel and arguably one of the finest in Virginia Woolf's work as a whole, because it conveys with unerring precision and delicacy the depth of feelings without words, feelings which have behind them years of shared living. Virginia Woolf in these pages is giving us a sense of married love which could be set without loss beside certain of the best pages in The Rainbow. To put it like that, however, is to see how radically different in approach the two novelists are. Lawrence making his language keep pace with the kaleidoscope of feelings he describes; Virginia Woolf making us feel its inadequacy, its hurried improvisations, its grateful acceptance of silent gesture: “… for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him.” That is the dominant note sounded in the passage and it recalls her remark about Emma, “Between the sentences, apart from the story, a little space of some kind builds itself up.” Again and again throughout this first section of the novel and culminating finely in the scene between the Ramsays, we feel that Virginia Woolf has created just such a space, which is not an absence or a vacancy, but something, as she rightly says, “built.” That building is partly the novelist's, creating a suggestively defining set of particulars which give the scene its substance, but it is also the reader's. The plentitude of imaginative life so effortlessly present in “The Window” is testimony to Virginia Woolf's mastery of her form, so that like Mr. Ramsay reading Scott we too, in reading these pages, are liberated into a sense of “astonishing delight.”


“Such were some of the parts, but how string them together” wonders Lily as she watches preparations being made for the eventual sail to the lighthouse. It was a thought shared by Virginia Woolf as she contemplated the final section of her novel. In her diary we find her writing:

5 September 1926. At this moment I’m casting about for an end. The problem is how to bring Lily and Mr. R. together and make a combination of interest at the end. I am feathering about with various ideas. The last chapter which I begin tomorrow is In The Boat: I had meant to end with R. climbing on to the rock. If so, what becomes of Lily and her picture? Should there be a final page about her and Carmichael looking at the picture and summing up R's character? In that case, I lose the intensity of the moment. If this intervenes between R. and the lighthouse, there’s too much chop and change, I think. Could I do it in a parenthesis? So that one had the sense of reading the two things at the same time?5

It is interesting that the difficulty of “an end” should present itself in such unequivocally “technical” terms, interesting because it helps to confirm the impression that in the last section, in marked contrast to the first, there is a sense of strain, or calculated effect. Or, putting it another way, there is the air of “a problem” being posed and “a solution” being looked for.

In one way, problem and solution emerge clearly enough and lend themselves to description. The most obvious feature of the third section is its structure, consisting of contrasting meditations on Mr. Ramsay's sail to the lighthouse juxtaposed with those of Lily as she tries to complete her painting. “The end” being reached when a significant conjunction is established between the two. Behind both enterprises we have the continuing influence of Mrs. Ramsay, tacitly present in the whole idea of the voyage, overtly present in Lily's thoughts as she struggles with her picture. Both voyage and painting take up and try to complete “unfinished business” of ten years previously.

From gloomy beginnings the sail prospers. The children gradually lose their hostility to the trip and to their father, and when, at last, James wins spontaneous praise from Mr. Ramsay for his steering, we feel amends have been made for the thwarted trip of years ago. When Mr. Ramsay, far out at sea, looks back at the house and sees it as a “frail blue shape like the vapour of something which had burnt itself away,” the unhealthy spirit of an irrecoverable past would seem to have been exorcised, Mrs. Ramsay's spirit has triumphed, and the way is clear for a renewal of the relationship between Mr. Ramsay and his children.

Just as the voyage begins with the travellers ill at ease and uncertain of its outcome, so does the painting of the picture. “Here was Lily, at forty four, wasting her time, unable to do a thing, standing there, playing at painting, playing at the one thing one did not play at, and it was all Mrs. Ramsay's fault. She was dead. The step where she used to sit was empty.” Unlike Lily's first picture, Mrs. Ramsay is no longer its subject, instead of “the triangular purple shape” there are only “empty steps.” It is an overwhelming sense of an inner emptiness that Lily calls upon Mrs. Ramsay to fill, to the point at which she cries her name aloud, demanding why life is so short, so inexplicable. Perhaps then “the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape; if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return.” Her cry is heard. “Some wave of white went over the window pane. The air must have stirred some flounce in the room. … Mrs. Ramsay—it was part of her perfect goodness—sat there quite simply, in the chair, flicked her needles to and fro, knitted her reddish-brown stocking, cast her shadow on the step. … And Mr. Ramsay? She wanted him.” Mrs. Ramsay, absent from the party to the lighthouse, absent from the picture, has returned to animate them both, making the past part of the present. In their respective ways James and Lily come to realize that no thing is one thing; the lighthouse is a visionary gleam and also a tower stark and straight, barred with black and white; tables and chairs can be on a level with ordinary experience, they can also be miraculous. The voyage is made, the picture completed; life and art are held in equipoise.

This would seem to be the formal design and intention of the last section of the novel; the problem is that it remains like that. Even in such a bald description as I have tried to give, some of the difficulties that Virginia Woolf has had to face in this section can be suspected.

The first and most obvious is with the character of Mr. Ramsay himself. The whole treatment of the voyage, delicately conveyed as it is, is that of moral discovery, the children for the father, he for them. But this must, of necessity, involve the reader in a kind of knowledge about Mr. Ramsay which he does not possess. On the boat the children gaze at him, eager to do his bidding. “But he did not ask them anything. He sat and looked at the island and he might be thinking, We perished, each alone, or he might be thinking, I have reached it. I have found it; but he said nothing.” That description of Mr. Ramsay is entirely appropriate to the way in which Mr. Ramsay has been presented in the first half of the novel, but here it comes across as an evasion. His silence is very different from the silences that punctuated the reading scene with his wife, different because the inarticulateness of that scene is accompanied at every point and felt through the sensibility of Mrs. Ramsay. That guiding presence has now been withdrawn. Clearly, however, Virginia Woolf requires us to take Mr. Ramsay's approving “Well done” to James as a moral climax, a transcending of his egoism. But for this to be imaginatively communicated it would require a greater insight, or more accurately a different kind of insight, into Mr. Ramsay's character than anything we have been previously given. We have a climax without a context, and so far as the reader is concerned, trust has to do the work of recognition.

If an inadequacy between climax and context is felt in Mr. Ramsay's gesture of approval, it is felt more acutely in the presentation of Lily Briscoe painting on the lawn, not least because it is here that Virginia Woolf seems to want the main stress of the section to fall.

In the first section we have seen how deeply interfused Lily's reactions to her painting are with her reactions to William Bankes, Mrs. Ramsay, and the family in general. In the present section, the picture is again central and the terms in which she thinks about it are familiar. “The question was of some relation between those masses. She had borne it in her mind all these years.” She begins to paint “… lightly and swiftly pausing, striking, she scored her canvas with brown running nervous lines which had no sooner settled there than they enclosed (she felt it looming out at her) a space. … For what could be more formidable than that space?” So far as this section of the novel is concerned, “that space” is too formidable. Here Virginia Woolf has not discovered a way of describing the painting which will enable her to put it within a psychological or metaphysical context. The picture remains stubbornly a canvas on a frame, the problems it sets, aesthetic ones of mass and line, the space, a vacancy. In a remark like the following, where Lily is recalling Mrs. Ramsay looking out to sea, we detect Virginia Woolf seeking an intensity of meaning, and obtaining only an exclamatory tone:

Is it a boat? Is it a cork? … Lily repeated, turning back, reluctantly to her canvas. Heaven be praised for it, the space remained, she thought, taking up her brush again.

The painting, the picture are being pressed into an imaginative service they cannot sustain. We can feel the same thing in the sharp interrogation and assertion of the passage in which, with the gnomically silent Mr. Carmichael, Lily feels that if they both “demanded an explanation, why was [life] so short, why was it so inexplicable, said it with violence … then … the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape; if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return.” The tone would seem to indicate the extravagance, the hopelessness of desire, but Mrs. Ramsay does “return.” It is the theatricality—the “light stuff” behind the window, “the stroke of luck” causing “the odd-shaped triangular shadow” to fall across the step—which indicates how far the novelist's reach, at this stage, has exceeded her grasp.

In this last section of the novel Virginia Woolf has set up too rigid a structure, so that the impression it gives is that of a steely dialectic, between Mr. Ramsay's voyage to the lighthouse on the one hand and Lily painting her picture on the other. In consequence, everything becomes emblematic, every gesture representative and significant. The fluidity and particularity so characteristic of the first section yield here to the overriding pattern. Looking about her, Lily sees Mr. Ramsay stride past talking to himself, “and like everything else this strange morning the words became symbols, wrote themselves all over the grey-green walls.”

In making the influence of the past so pervasive, the section comes over as an epilogue to a tale already told, an epilogue whose function it is to make plain, to interrogate, to qualify, but not to bring imaginative life and bring it more abundantly. So we find monologues which seem to break free from a controlling dramatic context in their bleak explicitness. “What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in with the years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illustrations, matches struck in the dark. …” It is not the assertive explicitness of this as such that is troubling, but rather the loss of imaginative pressure that has made it possible. The fiction fades, and Lily's voice becomes interchangeable with the author's. To see why this is happening, it is useful to look at the short middle section of the novel, which begins to pose the problem of whose voice is speaking.

Virginia Woolf was in no doubt about what she wished to do in the section titled “Time Passes” and under no illusion about the difficulty of doing it. “Here,” she writes in her diary, “is the most difficult abstract piece of writing—I have to give an empty house, no people's characters, the passage of time, all eyeless and featureless with nothing to cling to. …”6 She is to set about the creation of vacancy; the dense life so vividly recreated in “The Window” is to give way to its opposite, give way, in Donne's words to, “absence, darkness, death; things which are not.”7 It is a hazardous enterprise particularly for a novelist, raising a problem not only about content, but, more radically, about whose voice is to be heard by the reader. It cannot be that of any individual character and it cannot, in the nature of things, be that of an omniscient narrator. Virginia Woolf seeks to overcome the difficulty by employing not one voice but many.

There is the harshly factual:

(Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty).

The gently elegiac:

Loveliness and stillness clasped hands in the bedroom, and among the shrouded jugs and sheeted chairs, even the prying of the wind, and the soft nose of the clammy sea airs, rubbing, snuffling, iterating, and reiterating their questions—“Will you fade? Will you perish?”—scarcely disturbed the peace.

The apocalyptic:

… gigantic chaos streaked with lightening could have been heard tumbling and tossing, as the winds and waves disported themselves like the amorphous bulks of leviathans whose brows are pierced by no light of reason and mounted one on top of another, and lunged and plunged in the darkness or the daylight … in idiot games, until it seemed as if the universe were battling and tumbling, in brute confusion and wanton lust aimlessly by itself.

Certainly, passages like this come across as having no specific voice, but in the way that pastiche has no “voice.” If there is anonymity, it is the anonymity of a ventriloquist where the manner of the performance becomes its own end. The style which seeks to escape style becomes all style.

With the reassembly of the house party we might imagine that the authorial presence would be easier to modify. But the questions raised by “Time Passes” are, even in terms of the narrative, too insistent to allow the fiction simply to resume its course. In the final section, “The Lighthouse,” the author is under a dual obligation which could be divisive. On the one hand there is the obligation to a specific narrative history initiated in part one; on the other, there is the obligation to questions raised in part two by “the passage of time, all eyeless and featureless.” No matter how we describe this difference, what seems clear is that the first two sections of the novel are juxtaposed in a way that makes the structural effort of the final section one of mediation. Lily Briscoe as a friend of the Ramsay family will help to carry the narrative forward; Lily Briscoe as a painter will enable the novelist to enter her fiction with a new directness and allow free play to that question with which the last section begins: “What does it mean then, what can it all mean?”


Questions of “meaning” seem far away when we come across the first mention of the novel in the diary on 14 May 1925:

I’m now all on the strain with desire to stop journalism and get on To The Lighthouse. This is going to be fairly short; to have father's character done complete in it; and mother's and St. Ives; and childhood; and all the usual things I try to put in—life, death, etc. But the centre is father's character.8

The autobiographical emphasis is firm and unequivocal and though we can observe marked shifts of emphasis, the intention becomes the deed, and “father's character … mother's and St. Ives and childhood” are the material that make up the opening section and give it its memorability. We can judge the degree of personal involvement present in this re-creation when we recall Virginia Woolf's remark that she used “to think of father and mother daily” and that writing about them had laid their spirits to rest for her. Nevertheless, that involvement had become transfigured in the absorbed intentness of her re-creation, and though Mrs. Ramsay was, according to Vanessa Bell, “an amazing portrait of mother,” she was also for Virginia Woolf a person whose sensibility allowed the author to explore her created world completely. We are not surprised to find her noting in her diary during the writing of this part of the novel, “I live entirely in it, and come to the surface rather obscurely. …”9

The very completeness of Virginia Woolf's imaginative re-creation of her parents carries within it, for her, its own skepticism so that she is driven on beyond it into asking what such re-creation means, what value it possesses, what can turn “an absence” into “a presence.”

“But the centre is father's character.” It is here of course that the novel departs most markedly from the scenario of intentions, departs not simply in its detail, but in the nature of its concern. The process of writing has taken her out of a re-created past, however vivid, into the obscurity and uncertainty of the present. “The centre,” if we can think of the resolution of the novel in this way, is not to be found in any object of her imagination, but in looking at the act of imagining itself.

The recollection of her parents, the mutability of life, the affirmation and the limitations of art—we can see all these elements at work in the novel, but what we also see is that every extension of the elements has created new difficulties, and it has created them because it has involved the author more and more directly until there is nothing to separate the novelist from the novel. The structure has been worn thin trying to hold together a fiction which is really completed with Mrs. Ramsay's death and a fiction about the artist which emerges out of the contemplation of that death. But for Virginia Woolf these two fictions must be one; they are the story of the writing of this novel. What makes them discordant is that her imagination can no longer make coherent what her experience has given her as fact. And when Lily draws a line “there, in the centre” of her canvas to complete her picture, Virginia Woolf must do the same for the novel; it is not a conclusion, it is a line drawn across a space, a mark indicating a break in a work in progress.

The closing of that final space, bringing the painting and the novel simultaneously to their completion, concludes a treatment of space which, throughout the novel, has provided a dramatic notation for the constantly shifting involvement of the author.

In “The Window” Virginia Woolf, in re-creating her past, explored the resonance of the space between people, space which both extended and guarded the individual, where feelings could find wordless expression, where speech could become gesture. That she was able to do this so triumphantly is testimony to the confidence with which she knew and felt that vanished world in a way that allowed her to become a loving but impersonal mediator. In “Time Passes” she seeks to strip that world of all its detail, and in place of the life-enhancing space she creates the space of emptiness and decay, death and the void. Having to write in no voice, she tries to write in many, but we begin to hear only her own, as questions start to form themselves, meanings begin to be insisted upon. The multiple voices of “Time Passes” become a dramatized presence in “The Lighthouse.” In Lily's voice we can hear the author's. Space is now no longer a metaphor, “lying about the heart of things,” it is there on the canvas, an invitation and a challenge, and “what could be more formidable?” The difficulties of the painting (“the question was of some relation between those masses”) and the difficulties of writing the novel (“how to create a combination of interest at the end?”) become virtually interchangeable. Spaces which, at the beginning of the novel, were created by the richness of its texture, become, by the end, gaps in the texture itself. But such a texture, we have to go on to say, could only have been created by an imagination of such purity of intent that its every creation contained within it its own skepticism. And it is in the unflinching acting out of that struggle that we see the difficulty of saying “I” for Virginia Woolf was the more radical difficulty of finding the “I” she had to express. To The Lighthouse may not have been wholly successful in this, but it enabled her to see what was at issue in such a way that the rest of her fiction would echo with Lily's questions as she painted her canvas and contemplated its “formidable space.”


  1. “Reading,” Collected Essays, 2 vols. (London, 1966), 2: 29.

  2. A Writer's Diary (London, 1953), p. 138.

  3. “After To The Lighthouse,Scrutiny 10 no. 3 (January 1942): 207.

  4. “The Anatomy of Fiction,” Collected Essays, 2: 138.

  5. Diary, p. 99.

  6. Ibid., pp. 76-77.

  7. “A Nocturnall upon S. Lucie's Day.”

  8. Diary, pp. 76-77.

  9. Ibid., p. 85. It is interesting to note how close in feeling the novel is to the mood she describes in the memoir she wrote in 1939. “Until I was in my forties … the presence of my mother obsessed me. I could hear her voice, see her, imagine what she would do or say as I went about my day's doings. She was one of the invisible presences who after all play so important a part in every life. … Then one day walking round Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, To the Lighthouse; in a great involuntary rush. … I wrote very quickly; and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.” “A Sketch of the Past,” printed in Moments of Being (London, 1976), pp. 80-81. The whole memoir is of considerable interest in describing the emotional background of the novel.

Martin Corner (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: “Mysticism and Atheism in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 13, Winter, 1981, pp. 408–23.

[In the following essay, Corner discusses what he sees as Woolf's intersection of atheism and mysticism in To the Lighthouse, finding that the characters come to have faith in a greater pattern but still recognize the universe as other.]


Virginia Woolf was an atheist: she was also a mystic. Both the mysticism and the atheism are there in some words that she wrote not long before her death. She is talking about the sudden shocks that life delivers, and of how she no longer finds in them “an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life”; instead, they are “a token of some real thing behind appearances. … From this I reach what I might call a philosophy … that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art. … But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God. …”1 The point of this article is to consider her atheism and her mysticism together; only in this way does it seem to me possible to understand either. I shall concentrate on To the Lighthouse, though this is not to imply that these issues are ignored elsewhere in her work. The Waves, in particular, touches on both. But the important connections and distinctions are at the center of To the Lighthouse; they enter vitally into Virginia Woolf's discriminations of character, as into her appraisal of the world that those characters inhabit.


The starting-point for discussions of mysticism in To the Lighthouse has usually been Mrs. Ramsay. This is understandable in that it is certain experiences of hers which are most immediately recognizable as mystical. But to concentrate on Mrs. Ramsay has the effect of emphasizing a kind of mysticism which, I shall try to show, Virginia Woolf mistrusts and perhaps even rejects. Instead I shall start with Lily Briscoe; in her experience, and indirectly in Mr. Ramsay's as well, Virginia Woolf can be seen to trace a strain of mysticism of a quite different kind, one for which she has a much deeper sympathy.

When Lily sets about finishing her picture in the third part of To the Lighthouse she thinks about what she is doing through one image in particular: it is an image that expresses both what her art requires of her and what life as a whole demands. The image grows out of her feeling of risk as she confronts the “uncompromising white stare” of the blank canvas. As always when she turns from life to painting “she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt.”2 The figure on the pinnacle seems to be hesitating before a leap, and the leap is the making of the first mark on the canvas. That this is indeed what is intended is confirmed a little later, though here the reference is more inclusive and takes in life as a whole as well as painting: “Was there no safety? No learning by heart of the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle, and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air?” (TL, p. 277). It is clear that the “leaping” image expresses for Lily the essence of her relationship with the world. The readiness to leap is the precondition of everything; without the leap of the brush there can be no picture, and without the leap away from safe understandings of the world, no life.

What is it that makes this desperate leap inevitable? Lily's understanding of painting offers an approach to the answer, though—like the leaping image itself—the point is generalized to take in all of life. For Lily, to face the blank canvas is also to confront “this formidable ancient enemy of hers—this other thing, this truth, this reality, which suddenly laid hands on her, emerged stark at the back of appearances and commanded her attention” (TL, p. 245). “This other thing”: Lily sees it most directly in the objects in front of her, in “this form, were it only the shape of a white lamp-shade looming on a wicker table” which “roused one to perpetual combat” (TL, p. 245). Yet it is clearly more than form; it emerges “at the back of appearances” and it asks to be described in words such as “truth” and “reality.” Nor is it something that passively allows itself to be observed: it suddenly lays hands on her and commands the disciplined attention of her art.

Lily has a similar experience a little later, but this time it has nothing directly to do with the painting of the picture. As she stands on the lawn she feels as though everything is approaching a point of comprehensibility. The world seems “dissolved … into a pool of thought, a deep basin of reality” (TL, p. 275), and Lily feels that she is within reach of some conclusive revelation. Perhaps if Mr. Carmichael were to join her in demanding an explanation of everything “something would emerge. A hand would be shoved up, a blade would be flashed” (TL, p. 276). But Mr. Carmichael does not speak, and she dismisses all this as nonsense: the great revelation never comes. Then, involuntarily and inexplicably and with a sense of shock, she finds herself weeping: “Was she crying then for Mrs. Ramsay, without being aware of any unhappiness? She addressed old Mr. Carmichael again. What was it then? What did it mean? Could things thrust their hands up and grip one; could the blade cut; the fist grasp? Was there no safety?” (TL, p. 277), and she goes on that all is “miracle” and “leaping from the pinnacle.” What she hoped for has happened, but not in the way she wished. In her sudden painful awareness that there is no evading time and change, and that not even art provides a refuge, a hand is once again laid on her: the sword is thrust up, but not as a sign or explanation. Instead it cuts, and the fist grasps; whatever is “at the back of appearances” issues a summons that makes the leap inevitable.

This discussion has led into an area that can only be described as mystical. But it is important to be clear about the kind of mysticism that is involved here, and to see how it differs from that other kind which is familiarly associated with To the Lighthouse and in particular with Mrs. Ramsay. Varieties of mystical experience have sometimes been categorized as “introvertive” and “extravertive”: one turning inwards to the pure self, and the other outwards to the world, so that the mystic blends into a union with natural objects or with “Nature” as a whole.3 Broadly, the mystical experiences which Virginia Woolf describes in her fiction and her personal reminiscences are of the extravertive kind; as with Lily on the lawn, they occur as part of the interchange between an individual and the world around. The important distinction for Virginia Woolf is between two varieties of extravertive experience. On the one hand, there are moments that fit the definition just given, in which the self blends into unity with something else, a single object or the world as a whole. On the other there are experiences in which the self faces a reality which is of a different order from that given in commonplace awareness, something supremely worth attention, but yet remains quite distinct: no blending or merging takes place. One might call them, respectively, “fusing” and “facing” experiences.

Mrs. Ramsay's moments are predominantly of the “fusing” kind. When she is released from the pressure of activity an undifferentiated self emerges which absorbs or blends into certain objects (as, for example, the lighthouse); on other occasions she forges such a unity among those around her that she feels herself and them absorbed into a unity which is more than human, embraced and surrounded by a transcendental stability, “the still space that lies about the heart of things” (TL, p. 163). Virginia Woolf accepts the reality and importance of such experiences, but she also sees danger in them. In the first place, they are momentary and involuntary: they fix points, but they do not mark out a path. As Lily comes to realize in Part III, “matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” do not cast their light very far (TL, p. 249). Secondly, and this is more decisive, these “fusing” experiences do not readily reveal their true nature; they are delusive, not in the sense of being unreal, but in that they tend to impose false interpretations. This can best be seen in Mrs. Ramsay when she sits down after the children have gone to bed. She looks toward the beam of the lighthouse, and feels that she is dissolved into it: “watching them in this mood always at this hour one could not help attaching oneself to one thing especially of the things one saw; and this thing, the long steady stroke, was her stroke. Often she found herself sitting and looking, sitting and looking, with her work in her hands until she became the thing she looked at—that light for example” (TL, pp. 100–101). This blending of self and not-self gives Mrs. Ramsay an immense sense of security; there is no longer an opposing world set over against the self and threatening it. And it is out of this sense of security that the unexpected words well up into her mind: “We are in the hands of the Lord.” But there is an immediate reaction: “instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that. Who had said it? not she; she had been trapped into saying something she did not mean” (TL, p. 101). She has been trapped partly by the traditional language for such experiences, but partly also by the experience itself. For these moments of “fusing,” in which the gulf between man and the world disappears and the human blends with the nonhuman, have the effect of humanizing the world: nothing seems alien any more. And the step from this to the use of theistic language is an easy one, but one that Virginia Woolf refuses to take. Thus when in the passage quoted earlier she suggests that “the whole world is a work of art,” she explicitly refuses to talk about an artist: “but there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God” (MB, p. 72).

Mrs. Ramsay is equally emphatic: “How could any Lord have made this world?” It denies all the qualities that make us human: “there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that” (TL, p. 102). The world constantly reminds us of its otherness, and it is this that makes theistic language impossible for Mrs. Ramsay. She is caught in a deep conflict here. On the one hand, her most vivid experiences are of a mystical unity with the world around her; on the other, she is forced into an atheist position by her awareness of an impassable gulf between the human and the nonhuman. But if this gulf is really quite impassable (and the rest of the novel, particularly Part II, seems to insist that it is), then how are these “fusing” experiences to be understood? There is no clear answer in To the Lighthouse. But a glance ahead to The Waves is helpful here. As he looks at the willow-tree, Bernard has an experience in certain respects similar to Mrs. Ramsay's as she looks at the lighthouse. He too attaches himself with peculiar intimacy to one object among many, and he finds in it the stability which Mrs. Ramsay also feels. The tree has a radiance which lifts it out of the everyday order of being and ensures that Bernard will remember it for the rest of his life: it is mystically perceived and it becomes a part of himself. But Bernard is able by the end of the novel to understand the intimacy of this experience more fully than Mrs. Ramsay understands hers. In retrospect he can give this account of his experience: “as I looked in autumn at the fiery and yellow branches, some sediment formed; I formed; a drop fell; I fell—that is, from some completed experience I had emerged.”4 These moments are not, Bernard realizes, moments in which the self is diffused into other things; they are occasions of precipitation or condensation, in which the self uses other things to form itself. The object, tree or lighthouse, works as a symbol of this formation, and it is only through the discovery of the appropriate symbol that the formation occurs. They are moments when the self is “with sudden accretions of being built up, in a beech wood, sitting by a willow on a bank, leaning over a parapet at Hampton Court” (TW, p. 310). She does not consciously make this analysis, but it is implicit in the way that Mrs. Ramsay comes to see the beam of the lighthouse after she has rejected “the hands of the Lord.” It symbolizes herself, and in particular her honesty: “it seemed to her like her own eyes meeting her own eyes, searching as she alone could search into her mind and her heart, purifying out of existence that lie, any lie. She praised herself in praising the light” (TL, p. 101). In these moments of “fusing” the self is merged with the object only insofar as the object becomes an enabling symbol of what the self now knows itself to be. The fusion is that of the symbol with its meaning.

In both To the Lighthouse and The Waves Virginia Woolf allows great importance to such experiences. But to have known moments in which objects become symbols and catalysts of our own meaning can feed a desire for the whole world “out there” to become symbolic and to repeat to us our own humanity; and to give way to this desire is, for Virginia Woolf, the mistake of theism. In To the Lighthouse this is made plain through the unnamed mystic of Part II. Summer brings him the promise of “cliff, sea, cloud, and sky brought purposely together to assemble outwardly the scattered parts of the vision within” (TL, p. 204), and at such moments everything seems on the brink of becoming symbol. But the final clarifying fusion of world with human meaning never takes place; the mystic can never “read in the littered pieces the clear words of truth” (TL, p. 199). What the anonymous mystic is trying to do is to extend momentary experiences of a “fusing” kind to the point of inclusive completeness, at which point the gulf between the human and nonhuman would disappear. But Nature fails to “supplement what man advanced,” to “complete what he began” (TL, pp. 207–8). In the end the nonhumanity of the world is as terrifyingly apparent in its beauty as in its violence. “Violets came and daffodils. But the stillness and the brightness of the day were as strange as the chaos and tumult of night, with the trees standing there, and the flowers standing there, looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless, and thus terrible” (TL, p. 209). Such reminders of the world's irreducible strangeness and otherness constantly defeat the attempt to build an inclusive truth out of moments in which man and the world seem fused in a single meaning; and Virginia Woolf's atheism is, in essence, her determination to be faithful to that otherness. She is compelled, therefore, to distrust a variety of mysticism which tends always to cast over the world a reassuring tinge of human meaning.


Outside of the novels, though, most of Virginia Woolf's descriptions of mystical experiences are of the “facing,” not the “fusing” kind; these, I shall argue, are intrinsically more compatible with her atheism, and bring us back to Lily on the lawn. Here is Virginia Stephen as a child in the garden of Talland House: “I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; ‘That is the whole,’ I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower” (MB, p. 71). Here there is no blending of subject with object, human with nonhuman; the child remains distinct, looking at the “real” flower which has suddenly become apparent to her. And though fuller and more consciously developed, Virginia Woolf's adult experiences take the same form. In February 1926 (while working on To the Lighthouse) she records that, as she walks through Russell Square, “I see the mountains in the sky: the great clouds; and the moon which is risen over Persia; I have a great and astonishing sense of something there, which is ‘it.’”5 In September of the same year she talks about the object of her attention as an artist in a way that recalls Lily's frightening antagonist “at the back of appearances”: “it is not oneself but something in the universe that one's left with. It is this that is frightening and exciting in the midst of my profound gloom, depression, boredom, whatever it is. One sees a fin passing far out” (WD, p. 101). In both instances the stress is on something “out there,” apart from herself; there is no hint of “fusing,” nor is the language at all theistic. Even when, as in the following passage from September 1928, there is a suggestion of union with the “something,” the union is prospective only, and not known in the moment of vision. She has come to Rodmell, and “got then to a consciousness of what I call ‘reality’: a thing I see before me: something abstract; but residing in the downs or sky; beside which nothing matters; in which I shall rest and continue to exist” (WD, p. 132). In this, Virginia Woolf's clearest expression of the “facing” variety of mystical experience, there is a strong affinity with what Lily sees as she confronts her canvas. She too is aware of something not herself, “this other thing,” which is “truth” and “reality”; which is there in the white lampshade, but yet is abstracted from it to emerge “at the back of appearances”; which more than anything else is worth her attention.

Yet there is one striking difference. Lily's “reality” challenges her to combat: hands are laid upon her, and the sword-blade cuts. She has no choice but to leap into a dangerous engagement. Virginia Woolf's “reality,” on the other hand, stands quietly and unaggressively before her, promising not struggle and risk but rest and permanence. By the time that the picture is finished, however, the difference has become very much less. Lily's “vision” does in the end reach a point of rest and stability; how this comes about is best seen by looking at what happens in the completion of the painting.

As Lily begins to paint the sense of engagement with something commanding and uncompromising is very strong; her brush “was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to her (she kept looking at the hedge, at the canvas) by what she saw” (TL, p. 246). The image of the leap reappears, though this time instead of the tower Lily is walking the plank: “It was an odd road to be walking, this of painting. Out and out one went, further and further, until at last one seemed to be on a narrow plank, perfectly alone, over the sea” (TL, p. 265). The sudden surge of feeling for Mrs. Ramsay seems to carry her off into the waves; but luckily no one has noticed, “no one had seen her step off her strip of board into the waters of annihilation” (TL, p. 278). Once again, what is true of painting is true of life as a whole: it is all danger and risk.

As the picture develops, Lily's struggle is to keep two things in balance. She has a moment quite late on when she is convinced that her morning has been wasted: “she could not achieve that razor edge of balance between two opposite forces; Mr. Ramsay and the picture; which was necessary” (TL, p. 296). Mr. Ramsay embodies something which is a condition of artistic success, but which her picture all too easily obscures and denies; and in this the picture is like Mrs. Ramsay. “What was the problem then? She must try to get hold of something that evaded her. It evaded her when she thought of Mrs. Ramsay; it evaded her now when she thought of her picture. Phrases came. Visions came. Beautiful pictures. Beautiful phrases. But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it had been made anything. Get that and start afresh” (TL, pp. 296–97). Mrs. Ramsay and the picture have this in common, that they try to blend subject and object into a moment of vision, and by so doing they soften the otherness of the world. But Mr. Ramsay is an unwavering witness to the nonhumanity of the world; he therefore represents to Lily that otherness which must somehow be got into the picture if it is not to be false.

“Beautiful pictures. Beautiful phrases.” The last words point ahead, once again, to Bernard in The Waves. Like him, Lily is made to see that there is something suspect in the power of any art—whether through paint or through words—to beautify the world and to translate it into human terms. She recognizes that her painting ought to preserve an awareness of the gulf between vision and the thing itself untransmuted; only by achieving this does art remain faithful to the distance between man and the world. Some artists, of course, neglect this; like Mr. Paunceforte they cultivate a reassuring idiom which they impose indiscriminately, so that the picture admits no distance between vision and object. But the true artist does not retreat into false humanization: Lily understands the need to work on the razor edge of balance between art and what precedes art, with all the risk that this involves. Any stroke of the brush may betray the vision or the world: every stroke is a leap into the gulf between the one and the other.

But it turns out that the leap is rewarded. The impossible happens: Lily discovers that by risking both vision and world she glimpses at least the possibility of securing both. Her picture is finished and she has her vision. But through the fidelity of attention which this demands of her she also sees the world with a directness and immediacy which calls from her the word “miracle.” Just before the picture is finally resolved she feels that:

One must keep on looking without for a second relaxing the intensity of emotion, the determination not to be put off, not to be bamboozled. One must hold the scene—so—in a vice and let nothing come in and spoil it. One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy. The problem might be solved after all.

(TL, pp. 309–10).

The possibility of seeing the world as miracle and ecstasy is Lily's reward for the leap and the struggle. The miracle is not, however, a miracle of the extraordinary but of the ordinary. It springs from the attempt to see the world as it is in itself, unmolded to our humanity: “the thing itself before it has been made anything.” It is toward this that Lily concentrates all her effort, and by the end of the morning she has come somewhere near achieving it.

Lily is striving for a perfect transparency of perception: “let nothing come in and spoil it.” Insofar as she attains this she passes beyond the struggle and conflict to a moment of rest and stability which recalls Virginia Woolf at Rodmell. But in what sense can this be said still to be mystical? Earlier I related mystical perception to “a reality … of a different order from that given in commonplace awareness”; Lily, surely, is stressing the very reverse, the desire “to be on a level with ordinary experience.” But this is not to be ordinary experience ordinarily experienced. The whole discipline and concentration of the morning have been directed toward that transparency of perception in which commonplace things are what they are and yet are miracle and ecstasy, and so prove to be of a different order from that which ordinary experience imposed on them. This, and the supreme worth of the world so seen, establishes Lily's perception as genuinely mystical.

Lily's moment of vision is less a satisfactory ordering of the world than a discovery of the world as ordinary and yet transformed; it is this that makes art's ordering possible and truthful. What is revealed in that last moment of sudden clarity and intensity is supremely worth attention and the occasion of great joy, but the perceiver remains conscious of the distance between herself and what is perceived, does not blend or fuse with the world around her, and is not tempted to talk of it in theistic terms. Lily is, I would suggest, Virginia Woolf's fullest expression in this novel of the “facing” variety of mystical experience, a kind that is much closer to the heart of her view of the world than that with which we are familiar from discussions of Mrs. Ramsay.


There are, then, two kinds of mystical experience in To the Lighthouse, one suggesting security and the other risk, one “the hands of the Lord” and the other the lonely figure on the pinnacle of a tower. There are also two kinds of atheism, and, as with mysticism, Virginia Woolf reveals a preference for one rather than the other. Mr. Ramsay's atheism is implied from the start; but, interestingly, it approaches explicit expression only at the very end of the novel, and then in connection with a “leap” which recalls Lily's as she stands before her canvas. The boat is about to reach the lighthouse: Mr. Ramsay “rose and stood in the bow of the boat, very straight and tall, for all the world, James thought, as if he were saying, ‘There is no God,’ and Cam thought, as if he were leaping into space” (TL, p. 318). In this moment the children see their father more clearly than ever before: to James, Mr. Ramsay's whole being proclaims its deepest truth. Why does Virginia Woolf wait so long before connecting Mr. Ramsay with an explicit declaration of atheism, and why does she make it so central a part of what he is at this culminating moment? It is, I would suggest, because she wishes us to see his atheism as something fully achieved only in this moment: something toward which his whole life has been a preparation.

The point is made clearer by a contrast, and one that is established very early in the novel. The only other explicit mention of atheism is to do with Charles Tansley, as he talks to James at the beginning of the book:

“It’s due west,” said the atheist Tansley, holding his bony fingers spread so that the wind blew through them, for he was sharing Mr. Ramsay's evening walk up and down, up and down the terrace. That is to say, the wind blew from the worst possible direction for landing at the Lighthouse. Yes, he did say disagreeable things, Mrs. Ramsay admitted; it was odious of him to rub this in, and make James still more disappointed; but at the same time, she would not let them laugh at him. “The atheist,” they called him; “the little atheist”

(TL, pp. 14–15)

Tansley's atheism, suggested by the gesture of his skeletal hand, is made to seem petty, meager, almost sadistic; it is presented as a label, and consequently it seems superficial and assumed. And though Mrs. Ramsay is given a sympathy for Tansley which prevents her from condoning the children's mockery, there is in the passage a sense that Virginia Woolf is distancing herself from his intellectual position. For her, as for the children, he is “the atheist Tansley”: his atheism is such that he can be stamped and categorized within three pages of the novel's opening, whereas it is not until two pages from its end that Mr. Ramsay's position is made explicit.

From this it is fair to conclude that Virginia Woolf's intention is to discriminate between atheisms just as she discriminates between mysticisms. There is the atheism of the “little atheist,” a ready-made intellectual position which can be slipped into like an overcoat by a young man with his way to make in the world, which James and the other children instinctively mock; and there is the atheism which declares itself only at the end of a life, and with such dignity that it transfigures the father in the eyes of his children. Mr. Ramsay's life is an achievement of atheism; and the nature of this achievement brings his atheism into relation with the “facing” variety of mysticism that is there in Lily's completion of her picture.

Cam sees her father (before he springs from the boat) “as if he were leaping into space.” The meaning of this is best understood by looking back over Mr. Ramsay's development as Virginia Woolf traces it in the third part of the novel. Mr. Ramsay's “leap” starts from a point quite different from Lily's. Hers begins as creative risk; it is what the “truth,” the “reality” of art require of her. From that it broadens into a response to something “out there” which is aggressive and demanding, but which rewards those who do not attempt evasion with the miracle of ordinariness transfigured. Mr. Ramsay's leap, however, is essentially moral; it takes place not on a level of aesthetic attention but in his overcoming of certain moral limitations that are partly cause and partly consequence of an evasion of the world outside of himself. He is in no sense a mystic, and he never reaches the point at which a different order of being emerges. But though the word “mystical” is no longer appropriate, the idea of “facing” still is. Just as the “fusing” mystic may turn the world into a mirror of himself and so deny its otherness, in a parallel way atheism may be a form of egoistic lament, a preoccupation with a private despair which stands between the individual and the world. Mr. Ramsay has to learn to face the world and his position in it, and in particular to overcome the egoistic preoccupations that stand in the way of such a confrontation. His experience is a nonmystical analogue of the “facing” mysticism implicit in Lily's art.

“Has to learn to face the world”: but surely Mr. Ramsay stands out from the start for his complete honesty in recognizing the otherness of the world and its nonhumanity? This is true; this is apparent on the second page of the novel, when he tells James that it will not be fine enough to go to the lighthouse. He cannot bear that people should deceive themselves about the world, and he suspects that his wife sometimes encourages self-deception. Intellectually, his atheist honesty and rigor are not in doubt. But morally the situation is different; here his atheism is at first not fully achieved. In his emotional life, and consequently in the way that he treats others, there are signs that he does not altogether accept what he admits intellectually. In his craving for reassurance and sympathy, and in his self-pity, there is a hidden outcry against the fact that he, directly and personally, should be a victim of the situation which he has, generally and theoretically, described. And in the assertiveness, at times almost the sadism, of his insistence on the inhumanity of the world, there is more than a trace of resentment that things should be as they are. It would not be altogether misleading to say that Mr. Ramsay begins as the kind of atheist who has not forgiven God for not existing; and such an atheism is incomplete.

He needs, then, to get beyond this stage and to accept the world as it is with everything that follows for his own position. Virginia Woolf hints at this early on when she makes Mr. Ramsay, for all his intellectual penetration, scarcely aware of the physical world around him. To Mrs. Ramsay it is as though he were “born blind, deaf, and dumb to the ordinary things, but to the extraordinary things, with an eye like an eagle's” (TL, p. 111). He is not, in Lily's words, “on a level with ordinary experience”; he cannot say “that’s a chair, that’s a table” because his table is an abstraction, the object of the subject-and-object problem. He must learn to attend to the ordinary, and it is here that Scott helps him. What he enjoys in The Antiquary is above all “this man's strength and sanity, his feeling for straightforward simple things, these fishermen, the poor old crazed creature in Mucklebackit's cottage” (TL, p. 185). But the learning cannot be done at second hand. Steenie's drowning is one thing: the death of Mrs. Ramsay, the drowning of the sailors in the bay, his own death and the obliteration of his works (anticipated in the drowning of Cowper's castaway), these are something else, and it requires a hard-won moral transformation to face an ordinary world which contains all this.

At the beginning of Part III Mr. Ramsay's horizon is filled, understandably, with his grief at the death of his wife. As he stands with Lily on the lawn, he can see the bay and the lighthouse only as trivial distractions from the real matter in hand, his need of sympathy: “Why, thought Mr. Ramsay, should she look at the sea when I am here? She hoped it would be calm enough for them to land at the Lighthouse, she said. The Lighthouse! The Lighthouse! What’s that got to do with it? he thought impatiently” (TL, p. 234). For Lily, his very presence seems to drain ordinary things of their color and substance: “his gaze seemed to fall dolefully over the sunny grass and discolour it” (TL, pp. 235–36). But release comes, and it comes for both of them through an everyday object, Mr. Ramsay's boots. He notices untied laces, she the boots themselves, and she praises them, but with an immediate fear that she has committed the unforgivable triviality. She expects “complete annihilation,” but “instead, Mr. Ramsay smiled. His pall, his draperies, his infirmities fell from him. Ah yes, he said, holding his foot up for her to look at, they were first-rate boots” (TL, pp. 237–38). To Lily, the boots are Mr. Ramsay; she is struck by how well they express the man. But to Mr. Ramsay they are simply boots, and in that entirely fascinating; and he delivers a brief lecture on boot-making, quite free for the moment from grief and self-pity. It is not just that he has been given something else to think about: in a small way he has discovered Scott's directness and ease with the ordinary world.

The effect of this is that, as he sets off with the children to the boat, Mr. Ramsay is transformed in Lily's eyes. To her “it seemed as if he had shed worries and ambitions, and the hope of sympathy and the desire for praise, had entered some other region, was drawn on, as if by curiosity, in dumb colloquy, whether with himself or another, at the head of that little procession out of one's range” (TL, p. 242). He seems now to be looking outwards; to Lily it is at least a possibility that he is engaged with some reality apart from himself, “drawn on” in a way that parallels Lily's “exacting intercourse” with the reality “at the back of appearances.” If Lily's intuition is right (and in Part III the intuitions of other characters about Mr. Ramsay seem generally to be authoritative), a “dumb colloquy” has begun with something beyond his grief that is real and worth attention; Mr. Ramsay is beginning to move, though quite nonmystically, into a position which parallels that of the “facing” variety of mysticism.

But Mr. Ramsay still has a long way to go. Once in the boat he falls back into self-pity; he sees himself in imagination walking on the terrace of the house, alone: “he seemed to himself very old, and bowed. Sitting in the boat he bowed, he crouched himself, acting instantly his part—the part of a desolate man, widowed, bereft; and so called up before him in hosts people sympathizing with him; staged for himself as he sat in the boat, a little drama” (TL, pp. 256–57). He declaims, to Cam's significant embarrassment, “But I beneath a rougher sea. …” Gradually, though, he turns outwards again, and resumes the colloquy which Lily sensed on the lawn. Part of this is a continued approach toward the ordinary world, sometimes clumsy and scarcely disinterested (as when he asks about Cam's puppy) but sometimes natural and successful (as when he eats bread and cheese with the fishermen). It is most striking when he talks to Macalister about the great storm. James notices how “he leant forward, how he brought his voice into tune with Macalister's voice,” and Cam hears “the little tinge of Scottish accent which came into his voice, making him seem like a peasant himself” (TL, p. 254). His assimilation to the ordinary world is here almost physical.

But another aspect of this development, and one that Virginia Woolf links to this acceptance of the ordinary, is Mr. Ramsay's growing ability to face death without self-pity and the demand for others' sympathy. This is conveyed most forcefully at the moment when the boat crosses the spot where, in the great storm, three men were drowned. The children dread another self-pitying outburst, but instead “to their surprise all he said was ‘Ah’ as if he thought to himself, But why make a fuss about that? Naturally men are drowned in a storm, but it is a perfectly straightforward affair, and the depths of the sea (he sprinkled the crumbs from his sandwich paper over them) are only water after all” (TL, p. 316). The sprinkling of the crumbs is particularly suggestive of acceptance; in its casualness it might seem cold and inappropriate, but yet it is a gesture which by its very casualness accepts the ordinariness of death.

In the last chapter of the crossing there are several details which emphasize in Mr. Ramsay a new openness and a new readiness to step outside the refuges of reassurance and sympathy. He lowers the book which has protected him from the turbulent emotions of the children; he sits there “bareheaded with the wind blowing his hair about, extraordinarily exposed to everything. He looked very old” (TL, p. 311). To James, he seems like “some old stone lying on the sand,” unprotected but strong enough now to need no shelter. He glances back toward the island which they have left, and we see him suspended between the “dwindled leaf-like shape” which is his past life and the unknown which lies ahead of him. He is drawing himself free of egoism and the accretions of personality, and in words that go beyond the physical situation Virginia Woolf tells us of his “complete readiness to land” (TL, p. 317). There is in this an unflinching directness with the world and with death which is more than intellectual, which is reflected in the changed quality of his relations with the children, and which, in its own way, parallels Lily's desire to be “on a level with ordinary experience.”

For Lily, the reward of success was to know the ordinary as miracle; for Mr. Ramsay too his new openness to “the thing itself” has its reward. We see him in these pages only through the eyes of James and Cam, but there are suggestions that their minds are increasingly in tune with their father's. Now that egoism and self-pity have abated, James's thoughts fall quite naturally into step with Mr. Ramsay's: for both of them “loneliness” is the truth of things (TL, p. 311). And at one point James almost echoes the “Castaway” outburst: “‘We are driving before a gale—we must sink,’ he began saying to himself, half aloud exactly as his father said it” (TL, p. 312). The same intuitive understanding seems to be there in the last moments of the crossing: “they both wanted to say, Ask us anything and we will give it to you. But he did not ask them anything. He sat and looked at the island and he might be thinking, We perished, each alone, or he might be thinking, I have reached it. I have found it, but he said nothing” (TL, p. 318). “We perished …,” offered without any of the earlier self-pity, is now a true recognition and not a complaint. “I have reached it” is corroborated by Lily in the last chapter, when she says “He must have reached it” (TL, p. 318). Mr. Ramsay has had his reward. But what has he reached? It is not what he was struggling toward, the “Z” at the end of his philosophical argument. It is, however, presented as something equivalent, a matter of experience and not of philosophy; and it is clear that he could not have reached it if he had not been able to make himself “extraordinarily exposed to everything.” Its nature is partly suggested by its coincidence with Lily's attainment of her vision: the two moments of fulfillment are sufficiently akin to be offered in parallel. Virginia Woolf is suggesting that here Mr. Ramsay reaches his vision (the vision of a mind very unlike her own, and so seen always from the outside), and the content of that moment is tentatively indicated in the last paragraph of Chapter 13: “He rose and stood in the bow of the boat, very straight and tall, for all the world, James thought, as if he were saying, ‘There is no God,’ and Cam thought, as if he were leaping into space, and they both rose to follow him as he sprang, lightly like a young man, holding his parcel, on to the rock” (TL, p. 318). In the eyes of his children Mr. Ramsay reaches a moment of transfiguration, from extreme age to youth, from dominance and coercion to a natural authority; and this has to do with the dignity and completeness, emotional as well as intellectual, of his atheism, which now for the first time finds clear expression. For Mr. Ramsay himself it is as though the truth of his life is now securely possessed: he discovers a new lightness and freedom in his release from egoism, and, once the leap has been taken and the “dwindled leaf-like shape” left behind, he finds an unexpected firmness in that nonhuman reality toward which the leap is directed. His feet land on the rock.


In the light of Mr. Ramsay's development, what is Virginia Woolf saying about atheism and its relationship to mysticism? As far as atheism is concerned, her central insight is that if it is to progress beyond the stage of the “little atheist” it must be a faithfulness, moral as well as theoretical, to the nonhumanity of the world. She presents it as a training of the whole person toward a comprehended truth, a truth which must be grasped emotionally as well as intellectually. And this is a process which involves risk; only when a person is able to leap from the pinnacle of the tower, away from whatever limited certainties are available—the self-protective ego, the familiar life—does the process achieve its fulfillment. And here a paradox appears which connects Mr. Ramsay with Lily, the atheist with the mystic. Without God, the leap ought to end in disaster, in the chaos of that void which Virginia Woolf evokes so powerfully in Part II of To the Lighthouse. But those of her characters who succeed in facing the world nakedly and without evasion are shown to discover, mystically or otherwise, that they are not leaping into a void. Something emerges to meet them—the rock beneath Mr. Ramsay's feet, the reality “at the back of appearances,” the ordinary world transfigured into miracle and ecstasy, and for Virginia Woolf herself that abstraction which nevertheless resided in the downs near Rodmell and beside which nothing mattered. This is the key to her atheist mysticism. For her, atheism was the renunciation of inappropriate expectations toward the nonhuman world; but it was also a condition of that purified perception which would reveal the world as ordinary and yet miraculous, as nonhuman in its otherness and yet beyond everything worth our attention.


  1. Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being, ed. J. Schulkind (Sussex: The Univ. Press, 1976), p. 72. Hereafter referred to as MB.

  2. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, Uniform Edition (London: The Hogarth Press, 1930), p. 245. Hereafter referred to as TL.

  3. E.g., W. T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy (London: Macmillan, 1960), p. 60.

  4. Virginia Woolf, The Waves, Uniform Edition (London: The Hogarth Press, 1933), p. 277. Hereafter referred to as TW.

  5. Virginia Woolf, A Writer's Diary, ed. Leonard Woolf (London: The Hogarth Press, 1953), p. 86. Hereafter referred to as WD.

Jane Lilienfeld (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: “Where the Spear Plants Grew: the Ramsays' Marriage in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, edited by Jane Marcus, University of Nebraska Press, 1981, pp. 148–69.

[In the following essay, Lilienfeld contends that the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay is founded on Victorian social and personal principles that are destructive to them both and that Woolf, in To the Lighthouse, is attempting to offer an alternative in the third part of the novel.]

They had reached the gap between two clumps of red-hot pokers. … No, they could not share that; they could not say that. … They turned away from the view, and began to walk up the path where the silver-green spear like plants grew, arm in arm. His arm was almost like a young man's arm, Mrs. Ramsay thought, thin and hard, and she thought with delight how strong he still was, though he was over sixty, and how untamed and optimistic. …1

Virginia Woolf projects the Ramsays' relation onto the landscape throughout To the Lighthouse. Here we see that the Ramsays' marriage, based on love, has imperfections like the hedge.2 To associate them in this way with the rootedness of Mrs Ramsay's garden might confuse us as to the soil of their union. Is their relation, so embedded in the flux of the waters, the hills of the land, a perception of certain eternally true modes of male-female union?

The beautiful Mrs Ramsay, appearing to be magnanimity robed in charm and grace, has captivated scores of readers. One group, well-represented by Bernard Blackstone,3 David Daiches,4 Lord David Cecil5 and Roger Poole6 sees her as the motherly, all-giving Angel in the House. To these criticis, she has no flaws and is thus unable to ward off harrassment by her desiccated husband, to whom she lovingly sacrifices herself. Opposition to this idealised view was first ventured by Glenn Pedersen7 and Mitchell Leaska8. They find that Mrs Ramsay—feather-brained self-satisfied manipulator—is actually the reason for her husband's unhappiness and her son's failure to reach the lighthouse.

These diametrically opposed views depend on a common perception: all assume the Ramsays' marriage is the eternal union of the masculine and feminine principle. The masculine principle, seen by James Ramsay as ‘the arid scimitar of the male,’ ‘bitter and barren,’ must, in this view, of necessity draw sustenance from the female principle, the ‘leafy voluptuousness,’ of the wife-mother's self-sacrificing love. It is indeed surprising that Virginia Woolf, outspoken as a feminist, known to object to traditional views of sex roles, should be seen to have created a novel celebrating their unquestioned existence.

She did not, of course. Woolf's vision of the Ramsays' marriage is a mature, sharp critical examination not only of the relations between her own parents,9 but also of the destruction wreaked by the Victorian social arrangement on human capacities for freedom and growth. Woolf offers alternatives, for the very women Mrs Ramsay urged to ‘marry, marry, marry’ explode the prison represented by the Ramsays' relation and turn her prescriptions into their critical opposites, thus making Part III of the novel a re-evaluation by the 1920s of their Victorian predecessors. Using the tools of feminist criticism, this essay will examine in detail Woolf's vision of the Ramsays' marriage, proving that as she celebrates and criticises it she makes clear the urgency for creating new modes of human love and partnership. I shall show that the Ramsays' marriage is time-bound, founded on middle-class Victorian roles and values. Arguments that the family as structured by the patriarchy is the bulwark of morality, the state and stable human character have not changed much since the 1850s.10 It is this ideological persuasion about patriarchal marriage that underlies most criticism of the marriage in To the Lighthouse and obscures Woolf's point that the Ramsays' marriage is debilitating to both parties.

In order to examine the framework of the Ramsays' marriage, it is necessary to make explicit Woolf's hints about the novel's time scheme. Part III takes place in 1919 as the Great War has ended; in it Mr Ramsay tells Macalister that he is seventy-one. Since Mr Ramsay was over sixty in Part I, we know that Part II covers ten years, making Part I occur in 1909. Since Prue is eighteen in Part I, the Ramsays must have been married at least nineteen years, having married about 1889 or earlier. Thus we can argue that the Ramsays had been raised in the England of the 1860s, a time of momentous intellectual turmoil.

Burns's historical analysis of mid-Victorian England11 reveals that underneath the staid and increasing prosperity of the Victorian middle classes were festering issues. One of these, women's inequity before the law, was fiercely protested. The 1860s saw Emily Davies and her sisters organise the assault on the male colleges of Cambridge that finally, in 1948, enabled women to have full rights there. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon's committee kept the issue of women's legal rights before the public for decades, and was victorious in the passing of the Married Woman's Property Act of 1882, the year of Woolf's birth. A strong buttress of this protest was John Stuart Mill's urging of women's suffrage in his 1866 Parliamentary Bill, and in his publication in 1869 of The Subjection of Women.12

Growing out of this mid-Victorian revolt were the arguments of the 1880s advocating marriage reform, the widening of women's roles, political action for women, and an end to sex-role imprisonment for men as well as women.13 This feminist activity had its theoretical underpinnings in social theories of character and family structure. The Victorians invented the idea that culture itself was relative,14 and out of this fertile soil grew protests such as Morgan's, Engel's and Westermarck's that ‘human sexual arrangements’15 were not eternal, natural law, nor ordained by God. Engels saw that men had enslaved women socially, legally and politically, and on their bent backs had invented patriarchal rule.16 He urged revolutionary change in patterns of ownership, the family and the state.

Attacks even less extreme than Engels's horrified and frightened traditional upholders of the status quo. Leslie Stephen, the original of Mr Ramsay, was typical of speakers for the tradition. To him, the family was both the crystalline form of all cultural bonding and the specific mode of order imposed on civilisation.

Stephen's statements in ‘Forgotten Benefactors’ and The Science of Ethics17 reveal fears that the reforms saluted by Engels and others were aimed at the underpinning of his own house. To Stephen it was natural law that a wife should have no legal rights, no right to her own property or money, no training for any job, nor any hope of obtaining one. Though he bound Julia Stephen tightly, she resisted covertly.18 This resistance he met with the emotional blackmail to which he admitted in The Mausoleum Book.19 But the daughters of Leslie and Julia Stephen were keen observers, and their mother's maintaining of her selfhood and the revolutionary theories of women's new chances filtering down in the culture were not lost on them. They smashed the patriarchal superstructure of marriage as Leslie Stephen enforced it, and reworked the emotional mode of the marriage bond. In it they encompassed friendship, artistic alliance and sisterhood.20 Part of the history of this struggle lies in the argument of To the Lighthouse.

In order to buttress male control of the actual world, Victorians developed an ideology of women's limited potential; this in turn justified the very narrow opportunities for mental vigour allowed the Victorian middle-class woman. Mrs Sarah Stickeney Ellis's idealised marriage and conduct books insist on the strictly circumscribed family role allowed such women, and are a running commentary on Mrs Ramsay's behaviour.21

In her marriage manual The Wives of England: Their Relative Duties, Domestic Influence, and Social Obligations, Mrs Ellis insists that wives are by nature inferior to husbands:

[You should remember] the superiority of your husband simply as a man. It is quite possible that you may have talent, with higher attainments, and you may also have been generally more admired, but this has nothing whatever to do with your position as a woman, which is, and must be, inferior to his as a man.22

It is quite clear that Mr Ramsay's behaviour is based on this assumption, but not so clear that Mrs Ramsay agrees with it.

Mrs Ellis's admonitions about women's constitutional and behavioural inferiority were the superstructure of women's whole training. In the family girls were a poor second to their brothers, who went off to public school and then university while the girls stayed at home to be tutored by ‘a little woman with a red nose who is not well educated herself but has an invalid mother to support.’23 Virginia and Vanessa Stephen remained home while Thoby and Adrian Stephen went to school, and their inferior education, much like Mrs Ramsay's, paid for ‘Arthur's Education Fund.’24

Wittily agreeing with Mrs Ellis, John Ruskin in his famous lecture of 1865, ‘Of Queens's Gardens,’ admonished, ‘It is not the object of education to turn woman into a dictionary.’25 Ruskin joins Mrs Ellis in insisting that woman must accept God's law as laid down by man: she may be polished, but she is not to be critical; she may be beautiful, but should not be argumentative. So educated, it is no wonder that Mrs Ramsay has no systematic grasp of facts or the practice to shape them into logical structures. Mill uneasily admitted that middle-class women were badly crippled by their narrow education and even narrower prospects: women saw no overarching theoretical principles, no truth, but only the particulars of the moment.26 So circumscribed, their minds were in the state of ‘an educated Elizabethan woman's.’27

Mrs Ramsay's training has the desired effect. While she is not as stupid as her husband needs to think her in order to buttress his own self-worth, Mrs Ramsay is frightened of her own potential for intellectual achievement. ‘Books, she thought, grew of themselves. She never had time to read them’ (I, v, p. 43). Watching her read a sonnet, her husband ‘wondered what she was reading, and exaggerated her ignorance, her simplicity, for he liked to think she was not clever, not book-learned at all. He wondered if she understood what she was reading. Probably not, he thought. She was astonishingly beautiful’ (I, xix, p. 182). Mrs Ramsay's indirect interior monologue illuminates Mill's and Woolf's realisation that the stupider the wife appears to the husband, the more desirable she becomes.28 To make the wife so childlike intellectually that she must remain emotionally dependent was the object of her education and upbringing.

What did it all mean? To this day she had no notion. A square root? What was that? Her sons knew. She leant on them; on cubes and square roots; that was what they were talking about now; … she let it uphold and sustain her, this admirable fabric of the masculine intelligence, which ran up and down, crossed this way, and that, like iron girders spanning the swaying fabric, upholding the world so that she could trust herself to it utterly, even shut her eyes or flicker them, for a moment, as a child. … (I, xvii, p. 159)

The swaying fabric which sustained also entrapped. Mr Ramsay's rational constructs depend on the ideology of Mrs Ramsay's limited sphere.29 Cam uncritically recognises that her father ‘liked men to work like that [as fishermen in danger of drowning] and women to keep house, and sit beside sleeping children indoors' (III, iv, p. 245). Because she has partially given her assent to Mr Ramsay's division of the world into the masculine and feminine sphere, Mrs Ramsay is thus a prisoner of the drawing room.

According to Mrs Ellis, one prisoner of the drawing room should help another: ‘In every mistress of a family, the poor in every neighbourhood should feel they have a friend.’30 To them the wife should give not merely money, but also ‘a few useful hints on the best methods of employing scanty means.’31 Perhaps without the condescension of Mrs Ellis, Julia Stephen had entered the lives of the poor in St Ives, Cornwall. Her efforts resulted in the regular employment of a nurse in the town, and many were made more comfortable by her in the poor homes of the fishing village.32 Fully aware of the limitations of this ideology which squandered women's energy on sustaining a status quo dangerous both for the visiting women and for the poor trapped in the structures of a laissez-faire economy, Virginia Woolf reminds us that Mrs Ramsay

visited this widow or that struggling wife in person with a bag on her arm, and a notebook and a pencil with which she wrote down in columns carefully ruled for that purpose wages and spending, employment and unemployment, in the hopes that she would one day cease to be a private woman whose charity was half a sop to her own indignation, half a relief to her curiosity, and become what with her untrained mind she greatly admired, an investigator, elucidating the social problem. (I, i, pp. 17–18)

Mrs Ramsay is here on her way to the vision her adopted daughters live out: one must take action to improve the lives of women shackled to the domestic sphere. In this passage lies an implicit sisterhood which impels Mrs Ramsay towards struggling wives, towards the best in Minta Doyle and Lily Briscoe.

Mrs Ramsay's service to others begins with her self-sacrifice to her husband and children.33 Explaining this entrapment and its seeming acceptance by so many women, Mill points out ‘Women are brought up from earliest years … to live for others, to make complete a negation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections.’34 These affections must be severely restrained by the marriage bond.35 ‘Only in the married state can the boundless capabilities of woman's love ever be fully known or appreciated.’36 Engels saw clearly that, unless women's passions were simultaneously denied and curtailed, patriarchal descent might be endangered.37

Giving oneself fully to one's husband, Mrs Ellis argues, is the wife's first duty. The ‘master of the house should be considered as entitled to the choice of every personal indulgence.’38 ‘It is unquestionably the right of all men (no matter their character or position) to be treated with deference and made much of in their own homes.’39 ‘The great business of [a married woman's] life is to soothe and to cheer, not to depress, to weary, or to annoy.’40 According to Mrs Ellis, this angel did not require anything beyond the good done by her self-abnegation.41 For, ‘if the wife can thus supply to the extent of [her husband's] utmost wishes, the sympathy, the advice, the confidence, and the repose, of which he is in need, she will have little cause to think herself unfulfilled.’42 To many critics, the Ramsays' marriage could not conform more nearly to the ideal praised by Ruskin, Mrs Ellis and Leslie Stephen.

Virginia Woolf makes it clear that Mrs Ramsay does not agree. The sequestered wife's unconscious anger at her position shapes her behaviour, as for example in I, vi and vii, the argument about going to the lighthouse. Mr Ramsay is infuriated by Mrs Ramsay's comforting James and saying the winds might change. He stamps his foot and says, ‘Damn you’ (I, vi, p. 50), enraged at ‘the extraordinary irrationality. … The folly of women's minds.' It is, of course, this very irrationality in sustenance of which women are denied any intellectual training.

After Mr Ramsay's chastened apology, Mrs Ramsay ruminates on her submission to her family and her self-abnegation

They came to her naturally since she was a woman, all day long with this and that; one wanting this, another that; the children were growing up; she often felt she was nothing but a sponge sopped full of human emotions. Then he said, Damn you. He said, It must rain. He said, It won’t rain; and instantly a Heaven of security opened before her. There was nobody she reverenced as she reverenced him. She was not good enough to tie his shoe strings, she felt.

(I, vi, p. 51; italics mine)

A woman striving for honesty, Mrs Ramsay nevertheless denies her fury. She finds the children's demands reasonable if exhausting, but cannot quite subdue herself over Mr Ramsay's argument, so strongly must she keep down anger. Mrs Ramsay's anger explodes into an excessive paean of devotion. Typical Victorian hypocrisy, idealisation and a refusal to admit and work through anger are the bases of much of the Ramsays' interaction, for Mr Ramsay, like his wife, is forced to lie, conceal, submit.

Seeing his wife silent in her garden, Mr Ramsay resents her separateness from him, then thinks, ‘he would have been a beast and a cur to wish a single thing altered’ (I, xii, p. 106). No, he would have been a normal human being. Could he have admitted some of his less mature feelings to his wife, he might not have needed to exact from her so much support. He seeks to answer his wife's ‘half teasing, half complaining’ remark that their marriage interfered with his work: ‘He was not complaining, he said. She knew that he did not complain. She knew that he had nothing to complain of’ (I, xii, pp. 106–7). Seizing and kissing his wife's hand, Mr Ramsay's beautiful gesture brings tears to her eyes. But to deflect attention to their passionate attachment or to the Victorian myth of women's holiness does not blot out the fact that he does sometimes regret his marriage and feel as trapped by it as she does.

Because she has felt so angry, Mrs Ramsay gives even more of herself when Mr Ramsay comes again to her in I, vii. Still vulnerable from his fantasies of intellectual struggle, Mr Ramsay appears, and Mrs Ramsay, in James's view, seems ‘to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray,’ while she is simultaneously alight, ‘burning and illuminating’; into ‘this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare’ (I, vii, p. 58). The imagery makes clear that this is James' point of view.43 To James his father is ‘lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one’ (I, i, p. 10), a good image of James's fear and hatred of his father's power over his mother. James watches his father displace him as he stands erect between his mother's legs.

Like James, Mr Ramsay wants nothing less than to be ‘assured that he too lived within the heart of life; was needed; not only here, but all over the world’ (I, vii, p. 59). Mrs Ramsay, upright in her gray skirt, gives off the light of the lighthouse to her husband (ibid).44 There is sexual invitation in her dancing fire. Their home is her body, and she bids Mr Ramsay roam it with the rhythms of intercourse (I, vii, p. 59–60).

James, enraged, experiences himself as the trunk of the tree his mother offers to his father, and so feels attacked when his father plunges into his mother's body.45 But James's image of rapacious plundering is very different from the joyous entering of rooms his mother offers his father, for her waving boughs of fruit deliberately entice the bird. As her husband finishes drinking sustenance from her, Mrs Ramsay experiences a relief as after orgasm, so that ‘in exquisite abandonment to exhaustion’ she feels throb through her ‘the rapture of successful creation’ (I, vii, p. 61).

The imagery makes clear that Mr Ramsay is simultaneously suckling at the breast and entering his wife. A good Victorian wife, Mrs Ramsay dares not discuss her husband's intellectual problems. Thus, rather than encouraging him to tell her in detail what he is so afraid of not having accomplished, she offers sustenance to her husband as ‘a nurse’ does to ‘a fractious child’ (I, vii, p. 60). Through her mode of sustaining him, she encourages his immaturity. But, honest and intelligent, Mrs Ramsay admits to herself the flaws in ‘the rapture of successful creation.’

Mr Ramsay's self-questioning is so strong, and his inability to face it so large, that he accepts, even as does his wife, the limits of the marriage relation. The hedge is not just a signpost of his many past efforts, its leaves being written on with discarded words; it signals the barrier to the efforts he has made for the family situation: ‘Years ago, before he had married … he had worked ten hours at a stretch. One could worry things out alone’ (I, xii, p. 105). But now ‘the father of eight children has no choice.’ To look at ‘the figure of his wife reading to his little boy, he turned from the sight of human ignorance … and the sea eating the ground we stand on, which had he been able to contemplate it fixedly might have led to something’ (I, viii, p. 69). He lets family life obscure his view of truth, and so ‘he had not done the thing he might have done’ (I, viii, p. 70). Had he examined philosophically the very ground he stands on, he would, like the honest man he is, have been bound to admit its shortcomings.

But his wife on whom he stands examines the texture of their interchange. She admits her ‘physical fatigue’ is ‘tinged.’ So thorough was her training that the man is not to be questioned that ‘she did not let herself put into words her dissatisfaction’ (I, vi, p. 61). Yet she ‘heard dully, ominously, a wave fall.’ Mr Ramsay's demands have wrenched askew the ‘iron girders' keeping her safe from the ocean's threat. The wave falls through her reading to her son the tale of ‘The Fisherman and his Wife,’ which aptly suggests the price of concealing the flaws in the Ramsays' marriage. In the fairy tale, the fisherman's wife ‘wills not as I’d have her will,’ he says to the flounder. Disgusted with his limited wishes, his wife says, ‘if you won’t be King, I will’ (I, x, p. 87). Even so, Mrs Ramsay recognises her enjoyment of her kingly rights.

Mrs Ramsay, who ‘did not like, even for a second, to feel finer than her husband,’ recognises how she ought to feel: ‘Of the two he was infinitely more important, and what she gave the world, in comparison with what he gave, negligible’ (I, vii, p. 62). Here she cannot admit that her unacknowledged power over Mr Ramsay gratifies her (ibid.). She must subdue herself, lie to her husband, keep her discontent from her children, and get along somehow with the worry that her husband's intellectual abilities are lessening as he ages (ibid.). It is an unfair bargain to each participant, this marriage relation.

John Stuart Mill understood such relations as the Ramsays':

Women are schooled into suppressing [their aggressions] in their most natural and healthy direction, but the internal principle remains, in a different outward form. An active and energetic mind, if denied liberty, will seek for power; refused the command of itself, it will assert its personality by attempting to control others. … Where liberty cannot be hoped for and power can, power becomes the grand object of human desires.46

Mrs Ramsay manipulates Mr Ramsay by withholding herself from him as in I, xii and xix, but others she manipulates through ambition, aggression, and a desire for mastery.47

For example, she cannot look too closely at her matchmaking between Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle. ‘And here she was, she reflected, feeling life rather sinister again, making Minta marry Paul … ; she was driven on, too quickly she knew, almost as if it were an escape for her too, to say that people must marry; people must have children’ (I, x, p. 203). Neither Minta nor Paul can resist her. Paul seems to feel it is to Mrs Ramsay he has proposed, ‘because he felt somehow that she was the person who had made him do it’ (I, xiv, pp. 118–19). Minta is more mysterious, though Mrs Ramsay does recall to mind a woman's accusations once of ‘“robbing her of her daughter's affections”. … Wishing to dominate, wishing to interfere, making people do what she wished—that was the charge against her, and she thought it most unjust’ (I, x, p. 88).

A circumscribed Victorian woman, Mrs Ramsay has no direct power outside the domestic sphere. She can leave no mark upon the world other than her image in the lives of others. And it is a form of immortality she had wanted in matching Minta and Paul, for, as she climbs the stairs to the nursery, she thinks ‘how, wound about in their hearts, however long they lived she would be woven’ (I, xviii, p. 170).

Only over her children does she exert a mastery as over Paul and Minta, so it is just that Mrs Ramsay should doubly experience her claims to immortality as she climbs toward her last little ones in the nursery. ‘She would have liked always to have a baby. She was happiest carrying one in her arms. Then people might say she was tyrannical, domineering, masterful, if they chose; she did not mind’ (I, x, p. 90). ‘The ideology of motherhood’ is designed to keep women powerless, for the only power they are allowed in patriarchal society is their ambiguous hold on small children.48 Though she may drain others of autonomy, Mrs Ramsay has no real power. And, though she may extend in imagination her own parents' furniture to Minta and Paul, it does not become the seat of the Rayleys' marriage.

The model of marriage which Mrs Ramsay wishes passed on to the young people is composed of many silences, many withholdings. Mrs Ramsay does not, for example, like her husband to see her thinking. In I, xii, during the walk in the garden, she asks what he had been thinking. ‘He did not like to see her look so sad, he said. Only wool gathering, she protested, flushing a little. … No, they could not share that; they could not say that’ (I, xii, p. 104). Mr Ramsay's reaction to this self-withholding is to remember his times of solitude before marriage. Mrs Ramsay does not want to be unguarded, as much for protection as from the self-restraint Mrs Ellis insisted on in wives, for ‘the position of looking up to another is extremely unpropitious to complete sincerity and openness with him … there is an unconscious tendency to show … the side which is the one he likes most to see,’ as John Stuart Mill so perceptively named it.49

But Mrs Ramsay's silences always retain their ambiguous character. As much as she feels they could not share her philosophical sadnesses, she knows that in silence they speak. Her silence serves to insulate her against her husband, while it equally grants a medium in which to give herself to him in a manner both can accept.

Their sexual relation remains a hint swathed in silence.50 Immediately after Mrs Ramsay refuses to share her thoughts about the lighthouse with her husband comes the passage with which this essay began. The couple turn from the gap in the hedge—their relations—and walk off arm in arm. Mrs Ramsay feels a sexual thrill of pride run through her as she admires the shape and firmness of her husband's arm (I, xii, p. 107). Their physical closeness is indicated by such a trifle as ‘she thought, intimating by a little pressure on his arm that he walked up hill too fast for her, and she must stop a moment’ (I, xii, p. 108). They know through years of knowledge communicated through intimacy what their unspoken signals mean. That pressure speaks of a closeness which survives resentment, a physical respect for one another's pace which partly balances the reasons for the silence in which it unfolds.

A physical and emotional need draws the Ramsays together at the end of the day in Mr Ramsay's study. ‘She had come to get something she wanted’ (I, xix, p. 176), and ‘He liked to think that everyone had taken themselves off and that he and she were alone’ (I, xix, p. 181). Soon ‘the shadow, the thing folding them in was beginning, she felt, to close round her. … Through the crepuscular walls of their intimacy, for they were drawing closer together, involuntarily coming side by side, quite close, she could feel his mind like a raised hand shadowing her mind’ (I, xix, p. 184). This image intermingles ‘the iron girders’ of ‘the swaying fabric’ Mr Ramsay has built for his wife's insulation with something more threatening than comforting, implying as it does a force gathering to descend and swamp.

Mr Ramsay's pressure on his wife in the study is at once comforting and aggressive. She meets it with an equal aggression, a sensible reaction considering her circumscribed position. He asks with his eyes, she thinks, for her to tell him ‘that she loves him’. Rather than do so, making excuses to herself about her inability to use language, Mrs Ramsay ‘stood at the window with her reddish brown stocking in her hands, partly to turn away from him, partly because she remembered how beautiful it often is—the sea at night. … She knew he was thinking, You are more beautiful than ever. And she felt herself very beautiful’ (I, xix, pp. 185–6). Women have through the centuries realised their concerns through exactly such indirect action, as Mrs Ramsay does by not telling her husband she loves him.

Her silence becomes physical rejection; instead of speaking, she turns her back on her husband and goes to the window to look at the sea. Now in touch with that element of herself which is the sea and the lighthouse, Mrs Ramsay is certain her husband knows she loves him. But what proof does she have of this? Not one word of this indirect interior monologue issues from him. The wife reassures herself that her behaviour means the same to both, but, in reality, from what does her happiness come? It surges through her very manipulations. Subtly, she gives him verbally an assurance of agreement, for she says the weather will prevent tomorrow's trip to the lighthouse. Mrs Ramsay's repetitions to herself of the words, ‘he knew,’ similar to Mr Ramsay's earlier insistence that ‘he was not complaining,’51 renders ambiguous what they assert. What he knows is that she has triumphed.

Is she aware of the ambiguity of her ‘triumph’—that favourite word of hers? Mrs Ramsay has done what was expected of her; yet the way she has done so has altered the meaning of her behaviour. She has given in to her expected role, and appears to have subdued her will to that of her husband. But she has not poured out love in a romantic transcendence of barriers.52 In fact, the romantic transcendence possible in this instance would mean that Mrs Ramsay is dominated by a husband to whom she gives every last part of herself, as Mrs Ellis suggested Victorian wives should do.53 In resisting, Mrs Ramsay salvages that secret part of herself in touch with the lighthouse from which she draws the energy to continue in her demanding role. Yet she knows herself profoundly and powerfully tempting to her husband as she deliberately arrays herself, like the lighthouse, in her beauty against the night sky.

But, and this is the measure of Mrs Ramsay's sophistication, neither has lost completely. The Ramsays love one another, in spite of their private lies and maneuverings; they communicate very well in silence. Further, does Mr Ramsay want his wife to say she loves him? Perhaps his not saying so outright is equally indicative with her silence that both want certain barriers maintained.

In the economy of the novel, Mrs Ramsay's ascension into unattainability as ‘The Window’ closes, anticipates the loss which comes suddenly as Mrs Ramsay is snatched by death (II, iii, p. 194). A rejecting goddess even as she is just a Victorian housewife, reticent, glad to get a little power over her husband in what is a very unequal allotment, Mrs Ramsay in I, xix, pp. 185–6 merges again into the body of the black night and the lighthouse tower, as she had earlier done in I, xi, pp. 95–7. In I, xix, pp. 185–6, she is ‘to the Lighthouse’. She faces her husband; she is the lighthouse itself, and he is further frustrated in his quest for R. Now unattainable, his wife is part of that for which he has always striven.

Virginia Woolf's subtle vision of this marriage makes clear that it contains unresolvable ambiguities. The Ramsays do love one another; yet their marriage compromise restricts growth, keeps each frustrated, and does not allow mature intellectual interchange. If Mr Ramsay had been able to admit his wife's great intelligence, he need not have faced his intellectual fears alone. If he could have confided to her in clear discourse the very problems he fantasises about, their union would have enabled him to face his tasks and perhaps have brought him closer to R. On the other hand, had Mrs Ramsay had some direct say in the things closest to her husband's heart, if she had had some access, too, to self-fulfilment outside the limited domestic sphere, she would not have insisted on her husband's dependence on her, nor dominated Minta, Paul and Lily. For at the dinner party, when she hears the conversation turn to the subject of artists' immortality, she knows her husband's worst fears will be activated. In a moment of openness she thinks, ‘But she wished it was not necessary [that she assign Minta to assuage his fears]. Perhaps it was her fault that it was necessary’ (I, xvii, p. 162). It is partly her fault that he is dependent on her false praise rather than capable of facing and dealing with his hesitancies about his work. It is no wonder Mr Ramsay is obsessed by his boots—he cannot walk further than the garden in which his trapped wife encloses him. His needs coalesce with her role restraints, and thus each is a lesser being than together and separately they might have become. It is an unfair bargain, finally, this marriage bond, and it needs to be reformed.

The fact that the complexities of the Ramsay's marriage are clear is a tribute to Woolf's power to deal in herself with very deep and painful feelings. At the time of writing To the Lighthouse, she admitted to being obsessed with her parents. The most deeply felt and less verbally available rages and losses Woolf formed into archetypal images and scenes, thus conveying symbolically what psychoanalysts call ‘primary process feelings,’ those feelings we experience before we attain language, from the most primitive layers of the self and psyche.54 On a more rational plane, Woolf showed a flawed marriage in so truthful a way that those who do not accept feminist views of the world have always found the Ramsays to be male and female traits personified, and their marriage the best way for role mates to live together.55 The language of ambiguity in which the marriage is clothed, however, and the motivations which force each partner to compromise reveal that Woolf was criticising as well as remembering and creating. This criticism shapes the third section of the novel, where Lily Briscoe and Minta Doyle break free of Mrs Ramsay's impositions of her own role restraints on their lives.

Minta Rayley is present only in Lily's memory in part III, but Lily has thought through the dissolution of the Rayleys' marriage. It has become a partnership wherein each member lives a separate life. Minta accepts the fact that Paul has a mistress with whom he shares his political concerns. It is implied that Minta leads a full social and sexual life without Paul (III, v, pp. 257–8). That ‘they were excellent friends, obviously’ (III, v, p. 258) does not change the fact that this marriage flouts Mrs Ramsay's expectations for the couple she united. Mrs Ramsay had expected what Paul had fantasised about:

The lights coming out suddenly one by one seemed like things that were going to happen to him—his marriage, his children, his house; and again he thought, as they came out on the high road, which was shaded with high bushes, how they would retreat into solitude together, and walk on and on, he always leading her, and she pressing close to his side (as she did now).

(I, xiv, p. 118)

Paul here visualises a perfect Patriarchal marriage. The ‘high bushes’ refer back to the Ramsays' gaping hedge. The possessive pronouns which ring with such insistence remind one that Woolf had no illusions about what marriages like Paul's give the unaware male. In fact, Paul is much worse in this fantasy than Mr Ramsay ever is in reality, for Mr Ramsay loves his wife and regards her and his children as theirs, not as some possession solely under his domain. In a buried mark of sisterhood, even as Mrs Ramsay did not always follow where her husband directed, neither does Minta.

Minta's suggested promiscuity is a political action, for it is one way to transcend Victorian restraints on women as males' property. The imagery of garish red and gold in which Minta is always celebrated (III, v, pp. 257–8; I, xvii, p. 149) is highly sexual and in part III Minta is free to luxuriate in a power the Ramsays only discreetly expressed. Interestingly, Minta and Paul's companionship, and their acceptance of one another's intellectual and sexual freedom, could be based on Vanessa and Clive Bell's opening their marriage to include others by 1912.56

Mrs Ramsay has manipulated Minta but not vanquished her. Lily Briscoe, however, was in much more danger from Mrs Ramsay's expectations and manipulations than Minta. In some ways Lily Briscoe is the least powerful person in ‘The Window,’ and thus is well chosen to represent the Ramsay girls, who are also powerless under their mother's dominion (I, i, p. 14). Unlike flaming Minta, Lily has no sexual resources to ease her relations with men. Nor are her dealings with Mrs Ramsay free of Lily's anxiety. So great is Lily's love for Mrs Ramsay that it sometimes makes her self-destructive. Under pressure of Mrs Ramsay's expectations in ‘The Window,’ Lily is many times untrue to her feelings of right and wrong. For instance, she is forced to salve Mr Tansley's wounded feelings at the dinner party (I, xvii, pp. 137–8), and her relation with Mr Bankes, whom Lily likes and admires very much, is sometimes strained by her guilt over not wanting to follow Mrs Ramsay's wishes that she marry him.

But Lily Briscoe's complex resolution of her love for and dependence on Mrs Ramsay in part III is a psychological paradigm for women who seek autonomy. In Lily's moving beyond Mrs Ramsay's mode of behaviour we see a major transition in women's use of the power of selfhood, as the centre of power shifts away from the narrow scope of the home to the outer world of work and self-actualisation. Lily comes to cherish in herself powers different from those that motivate Mrs Ramsay. Sorting through her memories and feelings for the older woman in part III, criticising her and the men they had known in common, Lily disentangles herself from Mrs Ramsay's expectations for her in relation to these men, for Lily ‘had never married, not even Mr. Bankes’ (III, v, p. 260). Mourning Mrs Ramsay, Lily arrives at new ways of loving herself and others.57

Readers have long known what is now certain, that Lily Briscoe is an artistic surrogate for the author, and that Lily's formal task is analogous to Woolf's.58 But as a woman Lily has generally been dismissed as a narrow, scared alternative to Mrs Ramsay; a poor dried-up spinster whose lack of social and sexual panache seriously harms her completeness as an adult, for this is the very way both Ramsay parents judge her (I, iii, p. 29; III, ii, p. 225). But at this moment in our culture we are questioning whether a Mrs Ramsay is the apogee of female development. It is clear now that Lily's refusal to marry, and her avoidance of heterosexuality as Mrs Ramsay had envisioned it, are not a failure to be womanly, for being womanly no longer means being defined by one's relations to men or to one's reproductive system.

Lily's interior union with Augustus Carmichael, (III, v, passim) and her friendship with Mr Bankes, (III, xii, p. 263) prepare her to deal with Mr Ramsay, to whom she turns at last (III, xiii, pp. 308–9). Accepting both the Ramsays as flawed but monumental human beings, no longer trapped into seeing them as all-encompassing archetypes, Lily Briscoe realises that her imaginings about their lives have ceased to imprison hers. She realises that she has rejected Mrs Ramsay's strictures about what is proper behaviour for ‘real women,’ strictures that had crippled Lily's talent and prevented her from finishing her painting. Lily, as she puts the final stroke to her picture, can now accept her validity as a single woman, an artist whose power comes not from manipulating others' lives for fulfilment, but one whose mature vision encapsulates and transcends reality. Mrs Ramsay's mode is thus blasted apart, and the single woman and the married woman are each enabled to reach beyond the domestic sphere and the life and work of the husband or lover to act in the world of maturity and decision. Once Lily has become autonomous she can imagine walking beyond the spear plants in Mrs Ramsay's garden, ‘not alone anymore but arm in arm with somebody,’ either man or woman.


  1. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927) I, xii, pp. 104-7. References in the text (by part, chapter and page) are to this edition.

  2. Mitchell Leaska, Virginia Woolf's Lighthouse: A Study in Critical Method (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970) pp. 117-20; and his The Novels of Virginia Woolf from Beginning to Ending (New York: John Jay Press, 1977) pp. 151-2.

  3. Bernard Blackstone, Virginia Woolf: A Commentary (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1969) p. 100.

  4. David Daiches, Virginia Woolf (New York: New Directions, 1963) p. 86, for example.

  5. Lord David Cecil, ‘Virginia Woolf’, Poets and Story Tellers: A Book of Critical Essays (London: Constable, 1949).

  6. Roger Poole, in The Unknown Virginia Woolf (London: Cambridge University Press, 1978), not only finds that the Ramsays' and the Stephens' marriage were a blend of what we now recognise as the sex-role stereotypes of masculine and feminine, but also argues that this division into male and female modes of thought and spheres characterised the marriage of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. For his discussion of Mrs Ramsay as ‘the female mind’, see pp. 260-1.

  7. Glenn Pedersenn, ‘Vision in To the Lighthouse’, PMLA, LXXIII (1958) 585-600.

  8. Leaska, Virginia Woolf's Lighthouse, p. 120.

  9. Virginia Woolf, ‘A Sketch of the Past’, Moments of Being, Unpublished Autobiographical Writings, ed. Jeanne Schulkind (Brighton, Sussex: University of Sussex Press, 1976) pp. 64-137. See also Sir Leslie Stephen's Mausoleum Book, ed. Alan Bell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).

  10. Compare Lee Holcombe, ‘Victorian Wives and Property: Reform of the Married Woman's Property Law, 1857-1882’, in A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women, ed. Martha Vicinus (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977) p. 15, to Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (New York: Basic Books, 1977) passim.

  11. William L. Burns, The Age of Equipoise (New York: W. W. Norton, 1964).

  12. On the agitation for the reform of women's education, see Rita McWilliams-Tulberg, ‘Women and Degrees at Cambridge University, 1862-1897’, in A Widening Sphere, pp. 117-45. For a discussion of women's legal situation, see Holcombe, ibid., pp. 3-28. See also John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women (1869), ed. Alice Rossi, in Mill and Taylor, Essays on Sex Equality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).

  13. Cf. Mona Caird, Is Marriage a Failure? and The Morality of Marriage and Other Essays (1897), to Mrs Sarah Stickney Ellis, The Wives of England: Their Relative Duties, Domestic Influences, and Social Obligation (New York: Appleton, 1843).

  14. Walter Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957) p. 179.

  15. Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, ed. E. B. Leacock (New York: International Publishers, 1973), is based on the findings of the anthropologist Morgan.

  16. Engels, Family, pp. 120-3. Socialist family theory, investigated by Engels in his insistence on the radical effect industrial capitalism had on family structure, is the basis of most feminist theory of the family: for example, of Annie Oakley, Woman's Work: The Housewife, Past and Present (New York: Vintage, 1976); and Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Los Angeles and Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1978). This view is under intense debate among all schools of family theorists. Peter Lazlett, going beyond his earlier The World We Have Lost (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965), argues in his edition of Household and Family in Past Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), that the family has always been nuclear—a very radical theory and a radical change from his earlier views (see Household, pp. 2-86, esp. p. 29). Disagreeing with Lazlett, Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (New York: Harper & Row, 1977) sets himself diametrically opposite Engels as well (see esp. pp. 661-2). These scholars have not emphasised or even remarked on a point their findings nevertheless make explicit: women have been second-class citizens to men in all traditional family arrangements across recorded time. For feminist criticism of patriarchal family theory see the superb article by R. Rapp, E. Ross and R. Bridenthal, ‘Examining Family History’, Feminist Studies, Spring 1979, pp. 174-200.

  17. Leslie Stephen, The Science of Ethics (London: Smith and Elder, 1907) p. 128.

  18. ‘Jean Love finds Julia Stephen's nursing career a deliberate attempt on her part to get out of the house and away from her husband's and children's demands—demands she covertly encouraged and expected.’ Personal communication, Harvena Richter.

  19. Stephen, Mausoleum, pp. 57-65, esp. p. 60.

  20. See, for example, Ellen Hawkes's essay in this volume, as well as Jane Marcus, ‘Some Sources for Between the Acts’, Virginia Woolf Miscellany, Spring 1977, pp. 1-3.

  21. Ellis, Wives. See also William B. Mackenzie, Married Life: Its Duties, Trials, Joys (1852); John Maynard, Matrimony, or, What Marriage Is, and How to Make the Best of It (1866); and Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management. Sarah Ellis writes so well, and is clearly so intelligent, one wishes she had been on the other side. It is illuminating to compare these books to such as The Total Woman, available today.

  22. Ellis, Wives, 24-5.

  23. Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1938) pp. 4-5.

  24. Ibid.

  25. John Ruskin, ‘Of Queen's Gardens’, in Sesame and Lilies (New York: Putnam's, n.d.) pp. 170-1.

  26. Mill, Women, p. 190.

  27. Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out (London: Hogarth Press, 1965) p. 31.

  28. Mill, Women, p. 142.

  29. To socialists, such ideology keeps intact women's unpaid support of the family under industrialised capitalism. To feminists, such ideology prevents women from taking control of their own lives and from living separately from men if they so desire.

  30. Ellis, Wives, p. 215.

  31. Ibid., p. 213.

  32. It was in upholding this fabric with its narrow lines and visiting the poor and sick that many of the most militant Victorian feminists understood from their work that Victorian economic horrors were indubitably intertwined with women's oppression. As Ray Strachey puts it in a work Woolf knew (see Three Guineas, p. 148, n. 12), ‘as they realized the evils of society, [they] grew dissatisfied with the powerlessness of their own sex, so that quite a short probation in this school [of “social work”] was enough to produce feminists by the score’—The Cause (repr. Bath: Cedric Chivers, 1974) p. 88. Quentin Bell, in Virginia Woolf: A Biography (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1972) vol. I, p. 38, discusses Julia Stephen's nurturance as a force in all the lives she touched.

  33. See Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976) for a full explanation of this. See also L. Blum, M. Homiak, J. Housman and N. Scheman, ‘Altruism and Women's Oppression’, eds C. Gould and M. Wartofsky, Women and Philosophy: Toward a Theory of Liberation (New York: Putnam's, 1976) pp. 222-47.

  34. Mill, Women, p. 141.

  35. Jill Conway, ‘Stereotypes of Femininity in a Theory of Evolution’, in Suffer and Be Still, ed. M. Vicinus (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972) pp. 140-5.

  36. Ellis, Wives, p. 111.

  37. Engels, Family, pp. 120-3, and passim.

  38. Ellis, Wives, p. 76.

  39. Ibid., p. 67.

  40. Ibid., p. 123.

  41. Virginia Woolf later parodied the being whom Coventry Patmore—a close friend of Woolf's grandmother—and Mrs Ellis had enshrined as the Angel in the House.

  42. Ellis, Wives, p. 117.

  43. Leaska, The Novels of Virginia Woolf, p. 133.

  44. See my ‘“The Deceptiveness of Beauty”: Mother Love and Mother Hate in To the Lighthouse’, Twentieth Century Literature, 23 Oct 1977, pp. 345-76, for a mythic interpretation of Mrs Ramsay.

  45. According to Freud, children do imagine intercourse between parents as assaultive behaviour.

  46. Mill, Women, p. 238.

  47. Any reading of novels by Dickens, Trollope and Gaskell, or any opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, will show that married middle-class Victorian women were expected to be matchmakers.

  48. Blum et al., in Women and Philosophy, p. 237. Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering, is a brilliant investigation of motherhood in patriarchy, as in Rich, Of Woman Born. See also Jane Flax, ‘The Conflict Between Nurturance and Autonomy in Mother-Daughter Relations and within Feminism’, Feminist Studies, 4, June 1978, pp. 171-89.

  49. Mill, Women, p. 512.

  50. Lytton Strachey found that To the Lighthouse had no sex in it. This disgusted him; see Michael Holroyd's biography (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968) vol. II, p. 531, n. 1.

  51. See above, p. 155.

  52. The romantic transcendence of barriers between selves Woolf found a novelist's convention, and rejected it in her first novel, The Voyage Out. This convention, to her, lied about love's complexity.

  53. In The Novels of Virginia Woolf, pp. 122-5, and Virginia Woolf's Lighthouse, pp. 65-76, Leaska asks of Mrs Ramsay what Mrs Ellis asks of Victorian wives.

  54. See my ‘“The Deceptiveness of Beauty”’, in Twentieth Century Literature, Oct 1977, pp. 350-5; and also Helen Storm Corsa, ‘Death, Mourning, and Transfiguration in To the Lighthouse’, Literature and Psychology, XXI 3 Nov 1971, pp. 115-31, for a superb, albeit Freudian, reading of the movements of the unconscious in To the Lighthouse.

  55. See Cecil, in Poets and Story Tellers; Blackstone, Woolf: A Commentary; and Daiches, Virginia Woolf.

  56. Bell, Woolf, vol. II, p. 169.

  57. See, for instance, Lily's maturity in helping Mr Ramsay stand on his own two feet, and use his boots, III, ii, pp. 229-30.

  58. Thomas Vogler, Twentieth Century Interpretations of ‘To the Lighthouse’ (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970) pp. 10-13. On the last page of the holograph of To the Lighthouse in the Berg collection of the New York Public Library, Woolf has divided the page into thirds, even as Lily's painting is divided. Down these patches she has drawn a central line, as Lily does, to finish her painting. Psychic unity lies in that strong stroke.

Bruce Bassoff (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: “Tables in Trees: Realism in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 16, No. 4, Winter, 1984, pp. 424–434.

[In the following essay, Bassoff argues that in To the Lighthouse realism is centered on individual sight and experience.]

Toward the beginning of To the Lighthouse, young James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from an illustrated catalogue, endows one of the pictures with all the “heavenly bliss” he feels as his mother speaks.1 As the child is father to the man, moments like these are the prototypes of the Woolfian epiphany or spot of time: the moment when some consciousness—either dramatized within the text or implied by the text—transcends its usual limitations by transcending the usual appearances of the world. Cézanne once made a famous remark that painting from nature is not copying the object but realizing one's sensations. For that reason, as Robert Hughes points out, Cézanne's goal became “presence, not illusion”: “The fruit in the great still-lives of Cézanne's late years … are so weighted with pictorial decision—their rosy surfaces filled, as it were, with thought—that they seem twice as solid as real fruit.2 For Virginia Woolf, similarly, writing from nature is realizing certain psychological states—states of desire, dependency, and conflict—that may be particularly acute in the sensitized artist but that are common to others. To read Woolf is to realize how the res of traditional realism is weighted with individual needs and decisions—a kind of cross-hatching that is the “real” subject of Woolf's novels.

When Lily Briscoe, the amateur artist in To the Lighthouse, wants to understand what Mr. Ramsay's books are about, one of Mr. Ramsay's sons says, “Subject and object and the nature of reality.” He then illustrates this notion by instructing Lily, “Think of a table … when you’re not there” (p. 38). When Lily tries to imagine this reality, however, she imagines a kind of beached animal: the kitchen table stuck “in the fork of a pear tree … its four legs in air” (p. 38). In addition, as Avrom Fleishman points out, it is a dining table “that structures relationships in the major scene of part I.”3 Closer to Woolf's notion of realism, then, is the observation Lily makes about Charles Tansley, one of Mr. Ramsay's students: “His subject was now the influence of something upon somebody” (p. 22), or “the influence of somebody upon something” (pp. 101–02). That is, what Woolf constantly reveals in this book is that the crucial problem of “realism” is not the relation between subject and object but the relation between subject and mediator—the Other who mediates our relation to the world because he seems to have what we lack. “Something was lacking” is one refrain in the book, “someone had blundered”—a line from The Charge of the Light Brigade—another. As she does elsewhere, Woolf implies that civilization has blundered, that it has become synonymous with its discontents.

“Influence” is so important in modern fiction precisely because freedom is so important. To assert one's freedom, in Woolf's novels, is to see the world in one's own way—without the kinds of subtle or overt coercion that Mrs. Dalloway complains about after Septimus Smith's suicide. Making this difficult, however, is the illusion that the world is seen more fully and intensely by others—people whose glamour is both attractive and overwhelming: “Suddenly, as suddenly as a star slides in the sky, a reddish light seemed to burn in her mind, covering Paul Rayley, issuing from him. It rose like a fire sent up in token of some celebration by savages on a distant beach. She heard the roar and the crackle. The whole sea for miles round ran red and gold. Some winey smell mixed with it and intoxicated her [Lily Briscoe], for she felt again her own headlong desire to throw herself off the cliff and be drowned looking for a pearl brooch on a beach” (p. 261). We will come back to this destructive temptation, but for now perhaps we can look at two other passages that demonstrate “the influence of somebody upon something.” At one point Cam, one of Mr. Ramsay's daughters, wonders what her father sees: “With his long-sighted eyes perhaps he could see the dwindled leaf-like shape standing on end on a plate of gold quite clearly” (p. 307). The prestige attributed to this long-sighted vision is suggested by the iconic image. When Lily thinks about the short-sighted Mrs. Ramsay, whose short-sightedness is also different, but not inadequate, she asks, “What did the hedge mean to her, what did the garden mean to her, what did it mean to her when a wave broke?” (p. 294).

Lily aims at harmony, rather than point-by-point likeness (or realism). She aims at seeing things in relation to the whole: “If there, in that corner, it was bright, here, in this, she felt the need of darkness” (p. 81). The values of light and dark are compositional, are psychological, are metaphysical. Mrs. Ramsay, who is constantly aware of the effect her appearance has on others, thinks of the “real” self as a “wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others”: “Not as oneself did one find rest ever, in her experience … but as a wedge of darkness. Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir” (p. 96). Only in death, perhaps, can one become this wedge of darkness since in life it is only others who appear so still and self-sufficient. Mr. Carmichael is a shadow on the page of Mrs. Ramsay's book (p. 62); Lily Briscoe thinks of Mr. Bankes as extending a “shade” over himself and others (p. 75); Mrs. Ramsay experiences Mr. Ramsay's mind as a “raised hand shadowing her mind” (p. 184); Lily Briscoe, thinking about the way Mrs. Ramsay affected the design of her painting, speculates that “[t]here must have been a shadow” (p. 239). When James “blunders” into an imagined forest (p. 275), he confronts his father, who is both model and obstacle to him. Although James rejects his father's tyranny, which suppresses his own individuality, he models himself after his father, whose phrases he repeats (p. 302). That James in the “chequered” forest is so troubled by the optics of longing and frustration derives from the fact that he can neither accept his father's authority as absolute nor reject it as meaningless.

Light and shade, white and black, truth and untruth oscillate in the novel like the “pale blue censer” that swings across Lily's mind (p. 303). They signify “difference” in the way x and y do in an algebraic equation. The censer implies that this “difference” is religious: that Woolf's characters dispute the grace that is no longer God's to give but people's to command from one another. Its swinging reveals, moreover, that this grace alternates between people whom no stable differences, like clan or caste, separate. As Mr. Ramsay approaches Lily and Mr. Bankes, “swinging, careless, oblivious, remote” (p. 72), Woolf implies that those psychic currents that Nathalie Sarraute calls “tropisms” are previous to personality itself. To form and maintain an image of himself, Mr. Ramsay must command the sympathy and admiration of others—the current of their feelings. Mr. Ramsay's “personality”—his remoteness and carelessness—is a strategy, however unconscious, for commanding such feelings and for distinguishing himself. As Mitchell Leaska points out, moreover, Mrs. Ramsay uses a similar strategy: “Her shabbiness, we might suspect, is part of the trapping that belongs to her self-depreciating apparatus with which she plays out the larger drama of gaining sympathy, first; and getting people to do what she wished, second.”4 Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are brought together in this respect by Lily's expanding vision since the “something incongruous” she sees in the middle of the bay is both Mr. Ramsay's boat and the incongruous element always associated with Mrs. Ramsay (pp. 270, 47).

Although Mrs. Ramsay deprecates “differences,” she tries to believe in her beauty as others believe in it—as something absolute and uncompromised: “She praised herself in praising the light, without vanity, for she was stern, she was searching, she was beautiful like that light” (p. 97). In complementary fashion, she seems to pity the incompleteness of men (p. 129). But Mrs. Ramsay, who herself often knits, lets the “admirable fabric of the masculine intelligence” uphold her world “like iron girders” so that she can “trust herself to it utterly” (p. 159). She needs to believe in the essential difference between herself and her husband, and in the truthfulness of what he says. But “truth” is really “being” in this book—an illusion of metaphysical completeness; and it vacillates according to one's perspective. To James, it is his mother who speaks the truth (p. 278)—partly because he remembers her real qualities of kindness and sympathy but partly because he still idolizes her (and partly because he can thereby disavow the father whose acceptance he has never won). “Erect” and “severe” in her beauty, Mrs. Ramsay is related to the lighthouse, which is “stark and straight, glaring white and black” (p. 301). That description sums up much of what the lighthouse represents: a kind of ding an sich—stark and uncompromising—that people seek in one another: “the sternness at the heart of her beauty” (p. 98). “Glaring,” the lighthouse recalls the “glare” that desire solicits from its object: “One got nothing by soliciting urgently. One got only a glare in the eye from looking at the line of the wall, or from thinking—she [Mrs. Ramsay] wore a grey hat” (pp. 278–79). The glare that comes from “soliciting urgently” functions like the gloire in Racine's plays. Because the hero of those plays is the cynosure of many regards, he seems bathed in an aura that Racine calls la gloire. If one of the audience, however, turns away, as the young heroine does from Nero in Britannicus, then the hero is deprived of this aura. Lily must overcome the “uncompromising white stare” of her canvas in order to have her vision (p. 234).

The goal of desire is really a mystical one—union with the mediator who seems “to centre everything,” as Susan says of Jinny in The Waves, “like rays round the star in the middle of a smashed windowpane. She brings things to a point, to order.”5 In To the Lighthouse Lily asks of Mrs. Ramsay, who has the same charisma: “Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one? for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired” (p. 79). The child James has something like that unity with his mother, before it is disturbed by his father's intrusion. The sense of wonder he associated with the fairy tale his mother reads and with his mother's person is also associated with the beam of the lighthouse, “something wondering, pale, like the reflection of a light, which at once made him gaze and marvel” (p. 94). But that beam is really the beam of his own wondering regard. Similarly, when Mrs. Ramsay perceives the beam of the lighthouse, she seems to be meeting “her own eyes” (p. 97).

What many writers and critics now contemn as the “pathetic fallacy” may not be true to the positivism of science, but it is often true to the nature of desire, which finds in the world—the res of traditional realism—signs of its own hope and frustration: “It was odd,” Mrs. Ramsay thinks, “how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one. … There rose … there curled up off the floor of the mind, rose from the lake of one's being, a mist, a bridge to meet her lover” (pp. 97–98). The “bride,” like the long-sought partner in Aristophanes' myth of androgynous man in The Symposium, is the Other who will complete us. Lily Briscoe, for example, compares the “abundance” of Mrs. Ramsay with her own “poverty of spirit” (p. 152). But Mrs. Ramsay, in turn, contrasts her own skimpiness (which she compares to Lily's) with the “lustre” or “richness” of girls like Minta Doyle (p. 149). Endowing the other with these ineffable qualities does not result, however, in unmitigated admiration. Despite Mrs. Ramsay's need to believe her husband, for example, she feels overshadowed by him and uses reticence as subtle retaliation: “She had triumphed again. She had not said it [that she loved him]: yet he knew” (p. 186). From another perspective, moreover, that reticence or remoteness becomes a sign of her transcendence—to Mr. Ramsay as well as to others—a kind of metaphysical chastity: “The spring [with whose personification Mrs. Ramsay is associated by the clothing each puts on] without a leaf to toss, bare and bright like a virgin fierce in her chastity, scornful in her purity, was laid out on fields wide-eyed and watchful and entirely careless of what was done or thought by the beholders” (p. 198).

Lily, from time to time, takes pleasure in triumphing over the (to her) transcendent Mrs. Ramsay: “For a moment Lily … triumphed over Mrs. Ramsay,” who would never know how awry her plans for people had gone (p. 260). Space, as Lily Briscoe recognizes, is the problem: “It was a question, she remembered, how to connect this mass on the right hand with that on the left” (pp. 82–83): how to fill up the emptiness that Woolf's characters dread—the solemn pause that accompanies the stroke of Big Ben in Mrs. Dalloway, the falling wave that accompanies Mrs. Ramsay's doubts about her husband (p. 61). Lily first attempts to fill the gap in her painting with a tree which symbolizes stability (“Her world was changing: they [the branches] were still” [p. 169]). That stability may be masculine and analytical—the “myriad layers of the leaves of a tree” to which Mrs. Ramsay entrusts herself like a child (p. 159)—or feminine and intuitive—the tree that settles “leaf by leaf, into quiet” to which Mrs. Ramsay is compared (p. 177). But the Other who provides this stability also becomes an obstruction: seeming always to sit “precisely in the middle of view” (p. 128), as Lily perceives about Charles Tansley. Similarly, Mr. Ramsay's children contemplate him sitting “in the middle of the boat” (p. 242), which Lily, struggling to complete her painting, sees “in the middle of the bay” (p. 271). In fact, since the Other's prestige is in great part tied in with the obstruction he seems to present, the stability of the tree is also associated with the complexity and the impenetrability of a hedge—and with the knots that the model-obstacle seems to be tying for one's perpetual undoing: “There was something … she remembered in the relations of those lines cutting across, slicing down, and in the mass of the hedge with its green cave of blues and browns, which had stayed in her mind; which had tied a knot in her mind” (p. 234). Mr. Ramsay ties knots (p. 230); Mrs. Ramsay knits. The images of “cutting” and “slicing,” moreover, like those of blades, knives, razors, scimitars, and knitting needles that pervade the novel, indicate the hostility that underlies these perplexing relationships since the Other with whom one identifies seems also to crowd one out.

Mrs. Ramsay's beauty, for example, has a “penalty”: “It came too readily, came too completely. It stilled life—froze it” (p. 264). If the models in Henry James's “Real Thing” thwart the artist-protagonist because they have the prestige of being absolutely real, absolutely themselves, Mrs. Ramsay thwarts Lily's efforts to paint her so long as Lily endows her with something like the secret of life (p. 78). It is only when beauty “roll[s] itself up” that the space will fill, the empty flourishes will “form into shape,” and Lily will be able to complete her creation (p. 268). Mr. Ramsay's severity is equally imposing: “To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people's feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilization so wantonly, so brutally, was to her [Mrs. Ramsay] so horrible an outrage of human decency that … dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked” (p. 51). But this brutality is what causes her to revere him: “There was nobody whom she reverenced as she reverenced him. … He said, Damn you. He said, It must rain. He said, It won’t rain; and instantly a Heaven of security opened before her” (p. 51). But that Godlike peremptoriness is undermined by Mr. Ramsay's all-too-human vanity and insecurity: “Such a gift he had for gesture. He looked like a king in exile” (p. 222). Similarly, Lily's love for Mrs. Ramsay is for the whole world that the latter seems able to create around her. But that world is equally precarious since time decreates what Mrs. Ramsay creates.

In the fairy tale Mrs. Ramsay reads to James, the exacerbated pride of the fisherman's wife causes a darkening storm. In the novel, Cam recalls the “bitter storms” Mr. Ramsay raised in her childhood, and Nancy imitates that formidable power: “Brooding, she changed the pool into the sea, and made the minnows into sharks and whales, and cast vast clouds over this tiny world by holding her hand against the sun, and so brought darkness and desolation, like God himself, to millions of ignorant and innocent creatures, and then took her hand away suddenly and let the sun stream down” (pp. 114–15). That movement of her hand anticipates the heiratic movement of Mr. Ramsay's hand (p. 279) and the creative gesture of Lily Briscoe's (p. 235). Immediately, however, Nancy sees “some fantastic leviathan,” which slips into “the vast fissures of the mountain side”: “And then … she became with all that power sweeping savagely in and inevitably withdrawing, hypnotized, and the two senses of that vastness and this tininess (the pool had diminished again) flowering within it made her feel that she was bound hand and foot and unable to move by the intensity of feelings which reduced her own body, her own life, and the lives of all the people in the world, for ever to nothingness” (p. 115). The energy that was once bound by God and channeled by cultural differences now sweeps in and out as each person plays God himself or contemplates God (or Leviathan) in others.6 Light and dark, vastness and tininess, everything and nothing convey the pulse that desire lends to the world. Everything (and nothing) is at stake in the conflict between oneself and others—a conflict in which to be God one must overcome the God in others.

Perhaps now we can understand why Woolf, in her famous essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” claims that human character has changed and that the materialism of writers like Arnold Bennett is inadequate to render that character: “All human relations have shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.”7 These relations have “shifted” because the interdictions that surround them—what Shakespeare calls “degree”—have come to seem arbitrary. Consequently, in our middle-class court the king is both nowhere and everywhere. Since what is crucial in our relationships is not the objects that we valorize and covet but the prestige we attempt to wrest from one another—often by means of those objects—the materialism of the writers Woolf talks about is misguided. Woolf's own books often seem so abstract, despite their occasionally lyrical prose, because desire is abstract; because nothing material can satisfy it; and because the nothing that can satisfy it—call it kudos, mana, charisma, or what you will—vacillates constantly between antagonists.

Not only does Woolf render this movement dramatically—in the way characters view each other and themselves—but she also renders it cryptographically: “For her husband, with his caustic saying that it would not be fine, had dashed his spirits she could see. This going to the lighthouse was a passion of his, she saw” (p. 26, emphasis mine). “He would laugh at Minta, and she, Mrs. Ramsay saw, realizing his extreme anxiety about himself, would, in her own way, see that he was taken care of” (p. 162, emphasis mine). In addition to suggesting this seesaw movement by word and by rhythm, Woolf also sets up a semantic field by rhyming words like “he,” “she,” and “see,” to which elsewhere she adds “be”: “She was so short-sighted that she could not see, and then Charles Tansley became as nice as he could possibly be. He began playing ducks and drakes” (p. 239, emphasis mine). “Being” is at issue between these characters, who seem to regard it as something monopolized by one person or another—as it was once monopolized by God, in whom Sartre's pour soi and en soi coincided.

While Woolf's characters turn and turn in this widening gyre, the center does not hold: “The rock was rent asunder; another fold of the shawl loosened; there it hung, and swayed” (p. 200). The rock on which the lighthouse stands is “bare,” and the waves—symbolic of the “fluidity of life” (p. 237) but also of its destructive power—break against it “like smashed glass upon the rocks” (p. 301). Broken is the surface of the pools and mirrors that pervade the novel, which suggest the images of wholeness that characters create to still their agitation: “That dream, of sharing, completing, of finding in solitude on the beach an answer, was then but a reflection in a mirror, and the mirror itself was but the surface glassiness which forms in quiescence when the nobler powers sleep beneath?” (p. 202). Just as the rock on which they try to found their existence is “rent asunder,” the “mirror” in which they regard this image is “broken” (p. 202). Looking to still life, Mrs. Ramsay and Lily make life appear more antagonistic: “A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her” (p. 92). Ultimately, life gets the better of Mrs. Ramsay in a manner that parodies her own effort to get the better of it: “Nothing it seemed could break that image, corrupt that innocence, or disturb the swaying mantle of silence [reminiscent of Mrs. Ramsay's shawl] which, week after week, in the empty room, wove into itself the falling cries of birds, ships hooting, the drone and hum of the fields, a dog's bark, a man's shout, and folded them round the house in silence” (p. 195). It is Mrs. Ramsay who once folded herself together (p. 60), and the combined sounds of “drone” and “hum” remind one of the “dome” that Lily imagines as Mrs. Ramsay's shape (p. 80).

Similarly, Lily tries to ward off Mr. Ramsay, whose demands on her are tantamount to “ruin” and “chaos” (p. 221), by using her easel as a barrier. But realizing soon that the sympathy she has withheld from him makes it impossible for her to paint, she attempts to achieve “that razor edge of balance between two opposite forces; Mr. Ramsay and the picture; which was necessary” (p. 287). To achieve “that razor edge” (the phrase seems to recall and to sublimate the images of weapons in the book), she must achieve not only a balance between Mr. Ramsay and Mrs. Ramsay but also a balance between her differing views of each. Her reaction to Mr. Ramsay has, by and large, been either prudish disapproval—“his face had that touch of desperation, of exaggeration in it which alarmed her, and made her pull her skirts about her” (p. 233)—or frustration—“her feeling had come too late; there it was ready; but he no longer needed it” (p. 231). Her reaction to Mrs. Ramsay has been either intense idealization or amused disparagement: “Then, she remembered, she had laid her head on Mrs. Ramsay's lap and laughed and laughed and laughed, laughed almost hysterically at the thought of Mrs. Ramsay presiding with immutable calm over destinies which she completely failed to understand” (p. 78). Lily's hysterical laughter is a defensive reaction to the union she seeks with Mrs. Ramsay—a union that can only suppress one person or discredit the other as all-too-human. Lily and James both come to understand the same thing: that “nothing was simply one thing” (p. 277). “So much depends,” Lily realizes, “upon distance: whether people are near us or far from us” (p. 284). For James both lighthouses are true: the lighthouse he sees as a young adult—“Stark and straight … barred with black and white” (pp. 276–77)—and the lighthouse he saw as a child—“a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening” (p. 276). Similarly, Lily wants “to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, it’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy” (p. 300). Through the work of art, Lily will be able to understand and accept both her need for transcendence and the humanity of those who seemed to point the way to it. The strokes of her brush are like the strokes of the lighthouse (pp. 236, 96) as she mimes the dynamics of longing.8

Lily's epiphany is a release from the Manichean values that pervade the book: “One need not speak at all. One glided, one shook one's sail … between things, beyond things. Empty it was not, but full to the brim. She seemed to be standing up to the lips in some substance, to move and float and sink in it, yes, for the waters were unfathomably deep” (pp. 285–86). Unlike the drowning about which Mr. Ramsay declaims, which leaves each person alone, Lily's is a dissolution of fixed and rigid boundaries: “The sea was more important now than the shore” (p. 284). For Lily to have her vision, she must relinquish the idealized Mrs. Ramsay. For her to make life stand still in art, she must relinquish the idea that Mrs. Ramsay can make it stand still in life. Mrs. Ramsay herself is sometimes aware that her own terms for order are only clichés: “But instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that. Who had said it? Not she” (p. 97). But she never gives up those terms, which precipitate, momentarily, the waters of life into a “surface glassiness” or mirror that reflects her own need for order. “Did Nature supplement what man advanced?” asks the anonymous voice of the book. “Did she complete what he began?” Despite the consolations beauty offers, which allay momentarily the restlessness of the soul, beauty stills life and freezes it (p. 264). The “nobler powers” that are stilled by its lure (la promesse du bonheur) are the energy that can both destroy and create—the waves in which one can drown or on which one can pass exuberantly: “They had tacked, and they were sailing swiftly, bouyantly on long rocking waves which handed them on from one to another with an extraordinary lilt and exhilaration beside the reef” (p. 306). The “beak of brass” (the book's image for male sterility) has become the prow of a boat that kicks up water reminiscent of Mrs. Ramsay, who is able to “pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating” (p. 58). In this climactic moment the colors of rock and water are also reminiscent of Mrs. Ramsay—of the brown stocking she knits for the son of the lighthouse keeper, and of the green shawl she used to cover the skull of death. Although it is now only human—no longer that of an earth goddess—Mrs. Ramsay's sympathy survives in Cam, in James and in Lily, whose brush flickers “brown” over the white canvas, and whose three “strokes” remind one of the three strokes of the lighthouse (pp. 234–35).

Lily is distinguished from Mrs. Ramsay by her commitment to work, which links her to the male characters in the book. Her force combines that of Mr. Ramsay and Mrs. Ramsay: “As she lost consciousness of outer things … her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space [her canvas], while she modelled it with greens and blues” (p. 238). The orgasmic qualities of this description remind us that Lily has sacrificed something in keeping her independence. Not on her canvas are the colors of red and gold, which are the colors of girls like Minta Doyle (p. 149) and of passions like Paul Rayley's (p. 261). But her sexual longings are sublimated in work. As she looks, toward the end, at the lighthouse, she sees it melt away “into a blue haze” (p. 308), which reminds one of the mist—“a bride to meet her lover”—that the lighthouse caused to curl up off the floor of Mrs. Ramsay's mind (p. 98); and of the sexual imagery associated elsewhere with the lighthouse.9 If one were unaffected by desire, one would have an “austere” vision of the world—abstracted from its “secondary qualities”: “The kitchen table was something visionary, austere; something bare, hard, not ornamental. There was no colour to it; it was all edges and angles; it was uncompromisingly plain” (p. 232). Mrs. Ramsay thinks that to be outside of things would be to see them “truly”: “robbed of colour” (p. 126). But to be outside of things is to be God, and the book reminds us of how all-too-human that ambition is. The tower of the lighthouse, which is “barred” with the extremes of black and white, is also the tower of man's hybris: “What did it mean? Could things thrust their hands up and grip one; could the blade cut; the first grasp? Was there no safety? No learning by heart of the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle, and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air?” (p. 268) Christ resisted the temptation to show his divinity by leaping from the pinnacle of a temple. The self that aspires to be God, however, can seldom resist the temptation to flaunt its autonomy, especially when it is most dependent on others. Lily's own dependence sometimes takes reckless form: the desire to throw herself off a cliff, for example, to partake of Paul's and Minta's glamorous passion. But she realizes that at best they have achieved a kind of mutual toleration and acceptance once their inordinate expectations of one another have worn off: “They’re happy like that,” Lily thinks; “I’m happy like this” (p. 260). In a sense, Mrs. Ramsay's influence has been an unhappy one, for she has made people expect more of their relationships—something transfiguring—than they can deliver.

To see “truly,” then, is not to see the world like the scientist in The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, who sees the world as a skeleton. It is to see the world as it is colored by others: grey-green by the inscrutable Mr. Carmichael; red and gold by Paul and Minta; brown and green by Mrs. Ramsay; crepe black at times by Mr. Ramsay, intricacies of blue and green and brown at other times. It is then to compose those colors, or some of them, into a vision of one's own: “There it was—her picture. Yes, with all greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something” (p. 309).


  1. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927), p. 9. All subsequent page references will be included in the text.

  2. Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New (New York: Knopf, 1981), p. 125.

  3. Avrom Fleishman, Virginia Woolf: A Critical Reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1977), p. 99.

  4. Mitchell Leaska, Virginia Woolf's Lighthouse: A Study in Critical Method (London: Hogarth Press, 1970), p. 70.

  5. Virginia Woolf, The Waves (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1931), p. 120.

  6. Mr. Carmichael is “like some sea monster” (p. 284), and leviathans tumble “in brute confusion and wanton lust” as time passes (pp. 202-03).

  7. Virginia Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” in Approaches to the Novel, ed. Robert Scholes (San Francisco: Chandler, 1961), p. 189.

  8. See also Norman Friedman, “Double Vision in To the Lighthouse,” in To the Lighthouse: A Casebook, ed. Morris Beja (London: Macmillan, 1970), pp. 149-68.

  9. It appears in “the gap between two clumps of red-hot pokers” (p. 104), and it strokes “some sealed vessel” in Mrs. Ramsay's brain “whose bursting would flood her with delight” (p. 99).

Jack F. Stewart (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: “Color in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 31, Winter, 1985, pp. 438–58.

[In the following essay, Stewart compares Woolf's literary technique in To the Lighthouse with the artistic techniques—particularly the use of color—of painters of the post-Impressionist movement.]

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 colourists. …”1 While “sound and sight seem to make equal parts of [her] first impressions,” Woolf stresses their painterly quality.2

In To the Lighthouse, Woolf's search for spiritual essences is expressed in light and color.3 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.4 Itten (AC, p. 153) 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.’”5

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 (RF, p. 149). 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’” (RF, p. 154), Woolf urged novelists “to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit. …”6 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 by 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.”7 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.”8

While color in the novel expresses individual qualities, color/character associations are not reducible to one-to-one symbolic equations.9 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”10—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’” (C, p. 270). 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 (C, p. 72) 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 interrelationships 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” (Fry, as quoted by Woolf in RF, p. 154). 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.11

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.”12 Merleau-Ponty's comment (p. 16) 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 (AC, p. 30) 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 (TL, p. 97), or enters the “wedge-shaped core of darkness” (TL, p. 95), transcends colorific diffraction and becomes pure being. After “burning and illuminating” (TL, p. 58), she sinks back through the violet end of the spectrum (Lily's “purple shadow” [TL, p. 81]) to achromatic invisibility (TL, p. 95). “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 as black. …”13 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 (TL, p. 160). 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,14 Lily relates to Color as the contingent substance of reality and art (TL, p. 75). 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.”15 Rood (MC, p. 106) 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 colour plays separately and yet at the same time fuses its sonority in the total effect.”16 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” (TL, p. 261), Cam with a “green light” (TL, p. 272), James's memory of his mother with “a blue light” (TL, p. 278), and Mrs. Ramsay with “the light of the Lighthouse” itself (TL, p. 94). 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.17 Thus, when Mrs. Ramsay's spirit revives to reanimate the voyage and the painting, the “essence” of “that woman in grey” (TL, p. 266) 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.

Mrs. Ramsay discusses local artists with Charles Tansley, who infers that “the colours [aren’t] solid” (TL, p. 24). This is a clue to Lily's art, which, like Cézanne's, is a structuring of space through mass and color: “The jacmanna was bright violet; the wall staring white. 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” (TL, pp. 31–32). Lily's X-ray eyes, that so easily anatomize Tansley, look for an underlying architecture in nature that can support the intensity of her color vision. She does not want “the colour [to be] thinned and faded; the shapes etherealised” (TL, p. 75); she has glimpses of a more constructive vision: “She saw the colour burning on a framework of steel; the light of a butterfly's wing lying upon the arches of a cathedral” (Ibid.). This stereoscopic vision fuses surface and depths, color and form, impressionist radiance and post-impressionist structure. Its leading exponents are Cézanne in painting, and Proust in literature.18

For Lily, as she dips into luscious blue or glistening red, or squeezes thick green pigment onto her palette, “Color expresses something in itself. …”19 She does not analyze her emotions: she feels “some instinctive need of distance and blue” (TL, p. 270), and “dip[ping] into the blue paint, she [dips] too into the past there” (TL, p. 256). The antithesis of her sensuous vision is Mr. Ramsay's abstract philosophy, symbolized by a kitchen table: “something visionary, austere; something bare, hard, nor ornamental. There was no colour to it; it was all edges and angles; it was uncompromisingly plain” (TL, p. 232; my italics). Andrew first proposed the image to illustrate Berkeley's theory of perception, but in Lily's mind the table becomes a surreal emblem of Locke's “primary qualities” of shape and extension, divorced from “secondary qualities” of color and feeling. She sees “a phantom kitchen table” (emblem of the “muscular integrity” of the male mind) grotesquely superimposed upon the sensuous reality of a pear tree, and reflects: “Naturally, if one's days were passed in this seeing of angular essences, this reducing of lovely evenings, with all their flamingo clouds and blue and silver to a white deal four-legged table (and it was a mark of the finest minds so to do) … one could not be judged like an ordinary person” (TL, p. 38).

Locke's assumption of the primacy of form over color puts him squarely in the masculine/intellectual tradition of Mr. Ramsay (who is planning a lecture on Locke, Hume, and Berkeley [TL, p. 70]). Lily's task is not to reject such empiricism, but to marry it to Mrs. Ramsay's mysticism: “One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately … to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy” (TL, pp. 299–300). Clearly this dual way of seeing, at once true to the object and expressive of the subject, combines two ways of looking represented by the two Ramsays. The artist's imagination transforms the bare idea (“Think of a table when you’re not there”) into a sensory image, reversing the Lockean process whereby sense impressions are transformed into ideas.

Working counter to the mathematical/philosophical thought of Andrew and his father, Lily's mind (like Cézanne's) perceives the bare structure of reality, but clothes it in sensuous light. Similarly, James achieves double vision of the lighthouse as an achromatic structure and as “a misty-looking tower with a yellow eye” (TL, p. 276)—fusing daylight and nighttime vision, fact and fancy, yin and yang. Only the androgynous artist can reveal “the nature of reality” as a matter of shifting perceptions, at once objective and subjective, analytic and sensuous. This twofold grasp of reality is characteristic of Cézanne's art, which achieves, in Denis' words, “an equilibrium, a reconciliation of the objective and subjective,” in an effect “at once shimmering and forcible” (D, pp. 213, 279).

Unconsciously Lily strives to create an “androgynous form” that will be the equivalent of harmonious being:

Heaven be praised for it, the problem of space remained, she thought, taking up her brush again. … The whole mass of the picture was poised upon that weight. Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly's wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron. It was to be a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses. And she began to lay on a red, a grey, and she began to model her way into the hollow there.

(TL, p. 255)

Lily is tackling a fertile dilemma, for, as Anton Ehrenzweig remarks, “in the conflict between strong colour and strong form each adversary grows in stature and power through their mutual confrontation. … Strong form and space inhibit colour interaction while strong colour interaction obliterates form and space.”20 Lily brings this dialectic to a “razor edge of balance between two opposite forces” (TL, p. 287). The forces that have been released battle for domination of the picture space: Lily feels the plastic stress disrupt the flat surface of her canvas, and threaten her own psychic balance (TL, p. 236). The more she plunges into her painting and tackles the problems of color and form, the more she encounters the unconscious substructure of her personality.

Blue is the visionary color for Woolf. In her sketch, “Monday or Tuesday,” “space rushes blue,” while the narrator of “An Unwritten Novel,” seeking spatial form, exclaims: “There's the vista and the vision—there's the distance—the blue blot at the end of the avenue. …”21 William Gaunt notes the importance to the impressionists of primary blue as “the atmospheric colour par excellence of sky and distance,”22 while Émile Bernard observes of Cézanne's aquamarine that “in fact, the atmosphere is this blue; in nature it is always found over and around objects and they merge into it the more they draw away towards the horizon.”23 Blue, in To the Lighthouse, is associated with sea, sky, a bird's plumage (TL, p. 45), shadows of the hedge (TL, p. 234), pigments on Lily's palette or canvas (TL, pp. 237, 238, 256, 308), a parental shadow (TL, p. 251), distance and vision (TL, pp. 270, 284), Mrs. Ramsay's aura (TL, p. 278), the reflecting surface of the sea (TL, p. 284), smoke and unreality (TL, p. 285), the microcosmic form of the island fading like memory in the distance (TL, p. 307), and the eyes of all the male characters except the poet Carmichael.

James encounters the shade of his mother “in a blue light” (TL, p. 278) associated with coolness, memory, and truth. The persistence of blue in memory—its spiritual power—would be greater than that of red, for, as illumination declines, “colors of long wave lengths (reds) will fade out sooner than colors of short wave lengths (blues).”24 To James, his mother has become an aura, rather than a figure with clear outlines. The blue wavelength is naturally related to Mrs. Ramsay's Madonna role, for “blue light … is very difficult for the eye to focus and will cause objects to appear blurred and surrounded by halos” (CFS, p. 45). As a colorist, Woolf's intuitions are remarkably close to optical phenomena. Even in a most lyrical description of Mrs. Ramsay's response to the light—“it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon …” (TL, p. 99)—Woolf's color observation is accurate, for “an ultramarine blue surface does not reflect the yellow wavelengths, but only the blue.”25 The seaward-looking Mrs. Ramsay achieves ecstasy through an alternation of complementary colors, mediating a deeper interplay of light and darkness.

Mrs. Ramsay's peculiar combination of radiance and somberness—at one extreme, “‘blue is darkness made visible’”26—agrees with the tonal range of blue from height to depth, sky to sea, “bright steel to soft purple” (TL, p. 45), and blue-white to blue-black. “[Blue] is the only colour which can be seen as a close neighbour to and essentially akin to both dark and light …” (C, p. 58). The fluctuating intensities of blue relate it to the rise and fall of Mrs. Ramsay's animating energies. For Kandinsky, “the tendency of blue to deepen is so strong that in fact it becomes intrinsically more intense and characteristic in deep tones,” while for Goethe blue “at its highest degree of purity … is like a stimulating negation” (cited in C, p. 59). The dual extremes of palest and darkest blue relate to the light/darkness duality of Mrs. Ramsay's being. Despite her strong affinity with the stern, searching, beautiful light—“it seemed to her like her own eyes meeting her own eyes …” (TL, p. 97)—she alternately finds her true being in the “wedge-shaped core of darkness” (TL, p. 95), which gives freedom, peace, and stability. With rhythmic oscillations, like those of the lighthouse beam, she plunges into ecstatic or contemplative moods that are equally impersonal—as if fusing life and death in a single rhythm. While these states lie beyond the spectrum, with its individual chromatic differences, it is a fact that blue, above all colors, is capable of diffusion or condensation into light or darkness, day or night—being, as Denis says, the very color of the atmosphere.

Mrs. Ramsay's spiritual experience is mediated by images of light and darkness, but her sensory response to the lighthouse is keyed to color contrast: the “blue” of the waves in daylight is succeeded by the “pure lemon” of the beams in darkness (TL, p. 99). Behind this interaction of colors lies a fluid interchange of opposites27—waves of darkness in light and light in darkness—that stimulates Mrs. Ramsay's ecstatic moment of being. Just as she sinks her being in darkness or expands to meet the light, so she is associated with a whole range of color—that is, the reader's response to blue in various contexts and degrees of saturation merges with his response to the character's stream of consciousness, so that chromatic sensations are progressively fused with spiritual equivalents. This fusion of color and being matches the actual fusion of color and form that Lily strives for in her painting.

The “total effect of blue” involves “a complete reconciliation of the opposing qualities of ‘excitement and repose’” (C, p. 59). This makes blue the color of creative imagination. James and Lily seek integration (psychological and aesthetic) through memories of Mrs. Ramsay steeped in ideal or actual blue. Their unconscious needs are transposed into color sensations, and this process works for the reader too. Lily's sense of time, for instance, is related to the vertical range of blue. The present moment is “like a drop of silver in which one dipped and illumined the darkness of the past,” while the past itself is identified with her “blue paint” (TL, p. 256). Lily's need of blue parallels Cézanne's, for “it is blue … the colour with which it is possible to blend most other colours in harmonious and rich conjunctions (unlike brown, to which it is infinitely superior from the colourist's point of view), which gives definition to this existence based wholly on colour …” (C, p. 81). Nietzsche says that “in books there are blue shades of colour with which their author seeks to steady his taut sensitivity” (quoted in C, p. 60), and this may be true of Woolf herself in To the Lighthouse.

Considering Mrs. Ramsay's energizing role in her marriage, it is ironic to note that “cool hues such as blue and violet, being passive, make ideal backgrounds.”28 However, her encouraging attitude toward her husband, children, and protegés makes her at least a potential source of harmony. Blue may be used as a background to show off other colors. Thus Van Gogh aimed to “paint infinity, [as] a plain background of the richest, intensest blue” (CL, pp. 3, 6), and Cézanne told Bernard: “‘Blue gives other colours their vibration, so one must bring a certain amount of blue into a painting” (quoted in C, p. 57). Mrs. Ramsay provides the visionary “background” of Woolf's novel, its sense of spiritual space and depth, but her wavelike outpourings of energy in support of others exhaust her individual “chroma,” leaving her to seek light and darkness beyond the human spectrum.

Red and blue are often found in conjunction in the novel. Itten (AC, p. 68) describes the conjunction of red and blue in “La Belle Verrière,” a stained-glass window in Chartres Cathedral: “This Madonna is the Queen of Heaven, born of the primeval cosmic blue. She shines like a young star with cold energy, surrounded by the red light of matter. The Child, the incarnate Son of God, is garbed in dark red.” This contrast parallels that of mother and son in To the Lighthouse, where Mrs. Ramsay imagines James, with “his fierce blue eyes,” growing up to be “all red and ermine on the Bench” (TL, p. 10), while she herself, a Madonna figure who “[has] the whole of the other sex under her protection,” is associated with “the great plateful of blue water …” (TL, p. 23). Under her tutelage, Charles Tansley, whose life lacks grace or pleasure, watches a man posting a circus bill in “glistening reds and blues” (TL, p. 21). These separate intensities of hue caricature the clash of opposites embodied in the Ramsays. With red and blue there must either be conflict or chromatic marriage resulting in some shade of purple.29 Tansley, despite his “purple book” (TL, p. 238), fails to achieve integration between the restless red of his ego and the tranquilizing blue of Mrs. Ramsay's spirit, and so remains dehumanized at one end of the spectrum, with the “red, energetic, shiny ants” (TL, p. 293). But Lily, who synthesizes spiritual rays of mother and son into a “triangular purple shape” (TL, p. 81), is “moved”—after an outburst of imaginary red (TL, pp. 261–62)—“by some instinctive need of distance and blue” (TL, p. 270) that helps her to harmonize her painting. Her synthetic view of Mrs. Ramsay and James merges their auras, and integrates their figures in a pyramidal structure characteristic of Renaissance religious art. The resultant purple triangle is also, in its tripartite form, a plastic abstraction of the fictional shape that Woolf creates from her own experience.

The vivid contrast of red and blue in painting goes back at least to Titian, who “intensified the blue of the horizon beyond all natural verisimilitude, and intensified the colours of the sky and the sea to such a degree that they acquired completely equal status with the reds” (C, pp. 69–70). In balancing her foreground and background colors, Woolf is also balancing the “psychological volumes” of the Ramsays. Their marriage brings into contact opposite wavelengths of red and blue that, in ideal synthesis, would create the impersonal illumination of white light. The color red is associated with effort and excitation. Mr. Ramsay's vision is blocked, giving more heat than light: “[the] break in the thick hedge, [was] guarded by red hot pokers like braziers of clear burning coal, between which the blue waters of the bay looked bluer than ever” (TL, p. 33). The point of view is that of Lily and Bankes, but they are looking at the color tones of the Ramsays, who form the spiritual axis of the novel. In To the Lighthouse, mental and spiritual, personal and impersonal energies are polarized in juxtapositions of red and blue.

Mr. Ramsay's ego conflicts (red tonality) emphasize the desirability of impersonal vision (blue). Blue, the maternal/visionary color, is associated with liberation and expansion: “First, the pulse of colour flooded the bay with blue, and the heart expanded with it and the body swam …” (TL, p. 33). For Lily and Bankes, this glimpse of transcendence is quickly “checked and chilled by the prickly blackness” (Ibid.)—suggesting their personal limitations. Similarly, the infrared blur that obscures the alphabet from the letter R on suggests the limits set by Mr. Ramsay's identity. Instead of a “pulse of colour” that signifies a response to light and life, there is a hectic pulse of blood that signals forcing of the will: “The veins on his forehead bulged. The geranium in the urn became startlingly visible …” (TL, p. 54). The bloodred blur is a symptom of self-blinded ego, for one sees red if one closes one's eyes against the light. The prominence of geraniums and veins implies a consciousness suffused and overheated with itself.30 The geraniums provide an objective correlative of Mr. Ramsay's thought patterns, but when he “[lowers] his gaze” to the flowers around him, he notices only “something red, something brown” (TL, p. 102). The lighthouse itself is glimpsed “between the two clumps of red-hot pokers” (TL, p. 104), as the blue bay had been through the hedge. Thus the hyperintense quality of volition is thrown into relief against the cool blue of spiritual vision. Even Mrs. Ramsay's sympathetic assertion of fantasy in the face of fact—“‘Perhaps you will wake up and find the sun shining and the birds singing’” (TL, p. 26)—is consistent with color interactions, for “blue on red-orange retains its dark figure, yet becomes luminous, asserting and maintaining its strange unreality” (AC, p. 136; my italics). Mrs. Ramsay's imagination ultimately has the power to modify her husband's actions—just as his actions are destined to fulfill her unrealized dream.

Optical imagery occurs in the contrast between farsighted Mr. Ramsay and his nearsighted wife. Woolf's accuracy appears again, for “the eye focus[es] differently to different colors (farsighted for red, nearsighted for blue) …” (CFS, p. 60). As L. Moholy-Nagy explains: “Red makes the eye ‘far-sighted,’ by causing the lens to grow thicker. This action will give red a nearer position than blue which causes the eye to grow ‘near-sighted’ as it flattens the lens.”31 Mrs. Ramsay's vision is linked with the euphoric “pulse of colour [that] flooded the bay with blue” (TL, p. 33), yet she is so “short-sighted” (TL, pp. 21, 48, 109) that she cannot distinguish between “a lobster pot” and an “upturned boat” (TL, p. 239). In the color-coding of the Ramsays, blue is associated with distance, imagination, shortsightedness; red with closeness, rationality, farsightedness. Mrs. Ramsay gazes out through the window, taking a long view over the bay; Mr. Ramsay gazes into the intricate detail of the hedge. Both kinds of looking have their drawbacks. The long view is free of complexity but unfocused—“Blue and purple become hopelessly lost to blur in darkness and distance” (CFS, p. 45)—while the short view is accurate but unsynthesized. If one thematic pole of the novel is merging—which dissolves individual outlines—the other is separating, which defines outlines in painful detail, while losing sight of the whole. In a balanced vision, these two modes of seeing—one synthetic, fusing the alphabet into a unity, the other analytic, breaking thought into a sequence of letters—must reinforce each other. The eye of the artist strives to see the object two ways—as a structure of parts and as a luminous whole.

Mrs. Ramsay knits a “reddish-brown” stocking for the lighthouse keeper's boy, and ten years later Mr. Ramsay sets off for the lighthouse “carrying brown paper parcels …” (TL, p. 231). His masculine ethos is associated with brown things, from earth and hedge to books and boats, causing a series of interactions between brown and blue. Lily needs Mrs. Ramsay's spiritual blue frequency, but she also needs Mr. Ramsay's close earthy quality: the question is how to combine these opposites. She switches her attention from Mr. Ramsay in the boat to “the mess of the hedge with its green cave of blues and browns …” (TL, p. 234); her brush “flicker[s] brown over the white canvas” (TL, p. 235); “she [begins] precariously dipping among the blues and umbers” (TL, p. 237); then, “moved … by some instinctive need of distance and blue, she look[s] at the bay beneath her, making hillocks of the blue bars of the waves, and stony fields of the purpler spaces, [and] again she [is] roused … by something incongruous. There [is] a brown spot in the middle of the bay. It [is] [Mr. Ramsay's] boat” (TL, p. 270). Itten (AC, p. 136) notes that dark brown and blue juxtaposed “excite” and “awaken” each other, and that “the brown … is resurrected by the power of the blue.” Mr. Ramsay is certainly resurrected from sterility by his wife's animating energy, which finally sends him on his voyage.

Merging opposite ends of the spectrum produces the color purple, which is therefore a direct sign of integration. According to Rood, “this sensation cannot be produced by one set of waves alone, whatever their length may be; it needs the joint action of the red and violet waves, or the red and blue” (MC, p. 107). Thus spiritual integration cannot be achieved either by Mr. Ramsay's intellect or by Mrs. Ramsay's intuition working separately; the two extremes must meet in a complete circle, just as masculine and feminine components must mingle in a fully creative (androgynous) self. Indeed, “the spectrum really has no ends … for red and violet are adjacent, psychologically—their mixture results in purple, which lies outside the spectrum but fills the gap between red and violet in a spectrum which we might imagine bent into a ring.”32

In To the Lighthouse, red (and the energies of fire) becomes constructive only under the aegis of Mrs. Ramsay, who gives the order to “‘Light the candles’” (TL, p. 145). The “flames [stand] upright,” illuminating the microcosmic fruitbowl, and conjuring up a festive image of Bacchus “among the leopard skins and the torches lolloping red and gold” (TL, p. 146). Minta “[wears] her golden haze” (TL, p. 148) and Mr. Ramsay likes such “golden-reddish girls” (TL, p. 149), but Lily feels “scorched” by “the heat of love” in Paul. Mrs. Ramsay, a maternal goddess who has the power to ignite human energies, is “fire-encircled” by her children's laughter. She presides over the “yellow and purple” cornucopia of fruit and the brown-and-yellow dish of meat, bestowing the blessings of sun and fire. She herself is a fountain of energy, “burning and illuminating” (TL, p. 58), as she dispenses heat and light. Her emblem of radiant integration is the ruby that “shines out” (TL, p. 158).

Fire that burns more than it illuminates is destructive, and here such consuming fire is associated with the red light of a dangerous sexual passion. While Lily struggles to harmonize colors in her painting, “suddenly … a reddish light seemed to burn in her mind, covering Paul Rayley, issuing from him. It rose like a fire sent up in token of some celebration by savages on a distant beach. … The whole sea for miles round ran red and gold. Some winey smell mixed with it and intoxicated her” (TL, p. 261). This ritualized, atavistic image of sexuality (burning, drowning, drunkenness) is the negative counterpart of Mrs. Ramsay's civilized fertility rite. Lily is fascinated by the raw force of sexuality—directly expressed to her painter's sensibility as reddish light and crackling fire—yet it seems to threaten not only her psychic balance, but the very fabric of a culture based on sublimation.

The threat is valid aesthetically, as well as psychologically, for “red light, placed against a green surround, would ‘flare’ over the green and neutralize it” (CFS, p. 118). Baudelaire took a perverse “delight in the combination of red and green,” which suggested to him “the fusion of violence and peace,”33 and Van Gogh, in his “Night Café,” “tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green,” projecting into this “clash and contrast of the most alien reds and greens” the shock waves of his own psyche (CL, pp. 3, 28). Lily, however, is striving for equilibrium. She needs to deal with the counterforce of the masculine ego, as she needs to balance the colors and masses in her painting. When colors call forth their complementaries, the result may be either conflict or harmony. Itten notes that “two such colors [i.e., pigments] make a strange pair. They are opposite, they require each other. They incite each other to maximum vividness when adjacent; and they annihilate each other, to gray-black, when mixed—like fire and water” (AC, p. 78). When Lily thinks of the Rayleys' marriage, she “squeez[es] the tube of green paint” (TL, p. 257) in an act of self-assertion, then arms herself by “taking the green paint on her brush” (TL, p. 258). It is the dominance of green on her palette that incites the blaze of red in her imagination.

But the tendency of red to annihilate green (or of Rayley or Tansley to destroy Lily's confidence) is countered by the tendency of “a green areola” in vision to surround any “red circle” placed on canvas (LCC, p. 92). Moreover, “Red and Green are of all complementary colours the most equal in depth” (LCC, p. 51), and green is intensified by proximity to red.34 Thus Lily's reflections on her masculine opposites stimulate, rather than inhibit, her color sense and vision. Goethe points out that “single colors affect us, as it were, pathologically. … However, the need for totality inherent in our [optical] organ guides us beyond this limitation. It sets itself free by producing the opposites … and thus brings about a satisfying completeness.”35 The “reddish light” Lily encounters while concentrating on her painting may be seen as a composite of everything outside her normal wavelength, and therefore as antagonistic to the limits of her self. For, “if we isolate one hue from the prismatic spectrum, for example green, and collect the remaining colors … with a lens, the mixed color obtained will be red, i.e. the complementary color of the green we isolated” (AC, p. 18). In her life, as in her painting, Lily is committed to a search for integration, and thus has to face the opposing self—an interaction that Woolf dramatizes in terms of color.

Cam, in the boat, is associated with green, providing another link with Lily on the lawn. She looks into “green cascades” (TL, p. 246), and green light saturates her mind, as she penetrates the luminous underworld of the unconscious: “Her hand cut a trail in the sea, as her mind made the green swirls and streaks into patterns and, numbed and shrouded, wandered in imagination in that underworld of waters … where in the green light a change came over one's entire mind and one's body shone half transparent in a green cloak” (TL, p. 272). This is the underworld of Marvell's oceanic mind that creates other seas, “Annihilating all that's made / To a green thought in a green shade.” Cam's enchanting green sea is the imaginative counterpart of the rougher existential seas of Cowper's “Castaway,” as recited by her father. The green sea also has “a purplish stain … as if something had boiled and bled, invisibly, beneath” (TL, p. 201). The complementary green and purple, brought together, imply a continuum of experience ranging from ecstasy to suffering, and from creation to destruction.

The color green is also associated tangentially with Mrs. Ramsay, and directly with Lily. Green and blue are frequently juxtaposed, suggesting affinities between aesthetic and spiritual modes of vision. According to Rood, “positive green” is particularly difficult to incorporate into a painting without disrupting the chromatic balance. “The ability to solve this problem in a brilliant manner,” says Rood (MC, p. 241), “is one of the signs which indicate an accomplished colourist, and, when the green is combined with blue, the task becomes still more difficult and success more praiseworthy.” Cézanne successfully harmonizes blues and greens in such paintings as “The Great Pine” (1892–96) and the lyrical late “Mont Sainte-Victoire” (1904–06), in which “the sky … bursts into … an explosion of clouds of blue and green, as deep and strong as the blues and greens of the earth. …”36 In Lily's painting green and blue are consistently linked (TL, pp. 234, 238, 241, 309). As she “[loses] consciousness of outer things … her mind [keeps] throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues” (TL, p. 238). The unconscious aim of Lily's art is to strip herself bare and remodel the blank space with the greens and blues of imaginative and spiritual reality. Like Cézanne, she constructs a space in which things exist, through rhythmic alternations of color, and this space is an extension of herself.

“Green is the intermediate between yellow and blue” (AC, p. 136), which clearly reflects Lily's position in the color scale between her fellow artist, Carmichael, and her spiritual mother, Mrs. Ramsay. At the same time, “red, as regards its brilliancy, is midway between yellow and blue; and in green these two extremes are united” (LCC, p. 51). By analogy, Mr. Ramsay's vibrant egotism (red) can be seen as midway between Mr. Carmichael's detached illumination (yellow) and Mrs. Ramsay's spiritual density (blue), while the green paint that Lily squeezes onto her canvas may signify her attempt to combine aesthetic and spiritual qualities (yellow and blue) in opposition to disturbing passions (red). Lily models the “hideously difficult white space” of her canvas “with greens and blues” (TL, p. 238). Her strong impulse toward blue (the color of spiritual distance) is an inner necessity inspired by her craving for Mrs. Ramsay, while her need for aesthetic distance is implied by Carmichael's quiet presence. Placed between the primaries yellow and blue, “green finds no simple complementary color in the spectrum; it requires a mixture of red and violet, or the color called purple” (MC, p. 158). Thus Lily's search for integration (green/red; green/purple)37 is matched by her need to join opposite ends of the human spectrum in her painting (red/blue). Her purple plays a key role as the chromatic signifier of integration.

Yellow is the motif of contemplative, catlike Augustus Carmichael, whose “otherwise milk white” beard is stained with a “vivid streak of canary-yellow” (TL, p. 19). His addiction to opium is a token of his rejection of outward reality in favor of an inner sun of mystic/poetic illumination. “In China,” observes Itten (AC, p. 17), “yellow, the most luminous color, was reserved to the emperor, the Son of Heaven. None other might wear a yellow garment; yellow was a symbol of supreme wisdom and enlightenment.” Mr. Carmichael's poetry is imagined to be oriental and majestic in flavor (TL, pp. 289–90). A venerable figure dressed in yellow slippers (TL, p. 65), he assumes a godlike role as he casts his blessing on the voyage and the vision. Phenomenologically, “yellow is the most light-giving of all hues. … Golden yellow suggests the highest sublimination of matter by the power of light, impalpably radiant, lacking transparency, but weightless as a pure vibration” (AC, p. 132). The centrality of Carmichael, his closeness to both earth and sun, sense and spirit, is supported by data of color perception. Birren (CFS, p. 47) notes that “yellow will be seen as the nearest and largest of colors”: Augustus, “drinking soup, [is] very large and calm in the failing light, and monumental and contemplative …” (TL, p. 145). The passivity of yellow, often used as a luminous background in painting, relates to Carmichael's lethargy; his presence, however, is subliminally helpful to Lily, as she wrestles with her painting on the lawn, and he seems to “[crown] the occasion” with “a wreath of violets and asphodels …” (TL, p. 309). Asphodels have “white or yellow flowers like lilies,”38 while the color violet is the complement of greenish-yellow—a mixture of motifs associated with Mrs. Ramsay, Lily, and Carmichael. The fact that “yellow is the lightest and violet the darkest hue” (AC, p. 64) further suggests an aesthetic synthesis.

Yellow and blue-violet (which approximates purple) are also complementaries—that is, combined they produce white light. Mr. Carmichael and Mrs. Ramsay are united by “looking together” at the “yellow and purple dish of fruit” (TL, p. 146), whose pyramidal structure recalls Cézanne's still lifes. Their unity once more signifies integration of aesthetic and spiritual modes of vision. “Her eyes had been going in and out among the curves and shadows of the fruit, among the rich purples of the lowland grapes … putting a yellow against a purple, a curved shape against a round shape, without knowing why she did it, or why, every time she did it, she felt more and more serene …” (TL, p. 163). Aesthetic bliss here has a basis in the science of optics, for visual purple and visual yellow are mutually transforming agents: “[The] purplish pigment in the rods of the retina, bleached to visual yellow by the action of light [is] considered a factor in transforming light rays into the sensory impulses of vision …” (WNWD). Thus Mrs. Ramsay's intuitive combination of colors exactly renders the physical basis of spiritual vision.

In the geometry of the Color Circle (AC, p. 64), the yellow/violet axis (with its “light-dark contrast”) stands at right angles to the green-blue/red-orange axis (with its “cold-warm contrast”). Similarly, in the color geometry of “The Lighthouse,” aesthetic and emotional axes are based on similar color contrasts—yellow/violet: the glow of Carmichael/the shadow of Mrs. Ramsay's spirit; red/green: the passionate warmth of Mr. Ramsay, Tansley, Rayley/the coolness of Cam and Lily. The formal geometry of Part Three creates a continual oscillation between the predominantly aesthetic and psychological spheres of lawn and boat, until, with a single stroke of her brush, Lily resolves the opposition into harmony.

Allen McLaurin's discussion of yellow focuses some of the problems of dealing with color in literature. McLaurin (EE, p. 194) says that “in her use of yellow. … Woolf is trying to come close to the ‘pure’ colour of a painting—colour without any literary meaning.” Yet when he adds that “yellow is a positive avoidance of logical meaning,” and that the quality of autonomy “rubs off on to the colour” from Carmichael, he comes perilously close to assigning negative meanings. At the same time, McLaurin cites G. E. Moore in support of his contention that “yellow means simply yellow … [and] cannot be translated into other terms.” The critical difficulty of distinguishing between plastic and symbolic values in the novel may be a sign of Woolf's success. In transposing color into words,39 she exploits a field of subtle interrelations between sensation and idea.

As Itten (AC, p. 36) notes, “our sense organs can function only by means of comparisons. … Color effects are … intensified or weakened by contrast.” For Van Gogh, “there is no blue without yellow and without orange” (CL, pp. 3, 491) while Badt (C, pp. 37-38) claims that “every touch of paint” that Cézanne laid on his canvas was aimed at “intensification of the relationships within the picture.” Especially relevant is Rudolf Arnheim's observation (AVP, p. 62) that “the identity of a color does not reside in the color itself but is established by relation. We are aware of this mutual transfiguration, which makes every color dependent on the support of all the others, just as the stones of an arch hold one another in place.” This is exactly the kind of construction with color that Lily practices in her painting, and that Woolf attempts to match in To the Lighthouse.

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 (EE, pp. 73, 80) 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 known 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” (AWD, p. 104) 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.


  1. Virginia Woolf, “Walter Sickert,” Collected Essays (London: Hogarth Press, 1966), II, 241; my italics. Subsequent references in my text are based on this edition.

  2. Jeanne Schulkind, ed., Moments of Being (London: Hogarth Press, 1978), p. 66.

  3. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927; rpt. New York: Harcourt, n.d.). Subsequent references in my text are based on this edition, abbreviated as TL.

  4. See Johannes Itten, The Art of Color, trans. Ernst van Haagen (New York; Van Nostrand, n.d.), p. 13: “Color is life. … Colors are primordial ideas, children of the aboriginal colorless light and its counterpart, colorless darkness. As flame begets light, so light engenders colors. Colors are the children of light, and light is their mother.” Subsequent references in my text are based on this edition, abbreviated as AC.

  5. Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry: A Biography (1940; rpt. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1979), p. 225. Subsequent references in my text are based on this edition, abbreviated as RF. Fry adapts the notion of “psychological volumes” from Charles Mauron, The Nature of Beauty in Art and Literature, trans. Roger Fry (London: Hogarth Press, 1927), pp. 66-67. Fry's “Plastic Colour,” Transformations (London: Chatto and Windus, 1926), pp. 213-24, and Cézanne: A Study of His Development (1927; rpt. New York: Noonday Press, 1958) are contemporaneous with To the Lighthouse (1927).

  6. Woolf, “Modern Fiction,” Collected Essays, pp. 2, 106.

  7. Vincent Van Gogh, The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, 2nd ed. (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1978), pp. 3, 25. Subsequent references in my text are based on this edition, abbreviated as CL.

  8. Kurt Badt, The Art of Cézanne, trans. Sheila Ann Ogilvie (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1965), p. 49. Subsequent references in my text are based on this edition, abbreviated as C.

  9. See David Daiches, Virginia Woolf, rev. ed. (New York: New Directions, 1963), pp. 87-88. Allen McLaurin, Virginia Woolf: The Echoes Enslaved (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 193-94, notes that “the use of colour becomes less ‘literary’ in the traditional way” (than Daiches recognizes). “Colour,” he writes, “is used to convey something which can be described vaguely as an emotional equivalence, a subtle reaction which is not logical.” Subsequent references in my text are based on this edition, abbreviated as EE.

  10. Hubert Wellington, ed., The Journal of Eugène Delacroix, trans. Lucy Norton (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1980), p. 200.

  11. Fry, Cézanne, p. 77, finds color, as well as form, to be “geometric,” and in “Plastic Colour,” Transformations, p. 220, he defines “the central idea of Cézanne's later work” as “the construction of clearly articulated plastic wholes by means of the interplay of coloured planes. …”

  12. Quoted in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Cézanne's Doubt,” Sense and Non-Sense, trans. Hubert L. and Patricia Allen Dreyfus (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1964), p. 15. Subsequent references in my text are based on this edition.

  13. M. E. Chevreul, The Laws of Contrast of Colour, trans. John Spanton, new ed. (London: Routledge, 1868), p. 2. Subsequent references in my text are based on this edition, abbreviated as LCC.

  14. See my article, “Light in To the Lighthouse,Twentieth Century Literature, 23 (1977), 377-89.

  15. Ogden Rood, Modern Chromatics, ed. Faber Birren (New York: Van Nostrand, 1973), p. 104. Subsequent references in my text are based on this edition, abbreviated as MC.

  16. Maurice Denis, “Cézanne—II,” trans. Roger Fry, Burlington Magazine, 16, No. 83 (1910), 279. See also Denis, “Cézanne—I,” trans. Fry, Burlington Magazine, 16, No. 82 (1910), 207-19. This two-part essay is a vital source for the evolution of Fry's views on Cézanne. Subsequent references in my text are abbreviated as D.

  17. Ewald Hering, cited in Itten, The Art of Color, p. 21.

  18. See Virginia Woolf, A Writer's Diary, ed. Leonard Woolf (London: Hogarth Press, 1953), p. 72: “The thing about Proust is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain. He is as tough as catgut and as evanescent as a butterfly's bloom.” Subsequent reference in my text is based on this edition, abbreviated as AWD.

  19. Van Gogh, Letters, pp. 2, 428. Cf. Wellington, ed., The Journal of Eugène Delacroix, p. 151: “… colour gives the semblance of life.”

  20. Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1971), pp. 158-59, 160. Fry, Transformations, p. 216, observes: “There is almost inevitably a conflict between the decorative and plastic uses of colour. It is yet another aspect of the incessant tension between the organisation of a picture upon the surface and its organisation in space.”

  21. Virginia Woolf, A Haunted House and Other Stories (London: Hogarth Press, 1967), pp. 13, 24.

  22. William Gaunt, The Impressionists (London: Thames and Hudson, 1970), p. 19.

  23. Quoted in Badt, The Art of Cézanne, p. 57. According to Badt (p. 72), the impressionists “succeeded in fusing their pictures into unity in a blue-hued space,” but he contrasts their atmospheric blue with Cézanne's compositional use of the color.

  24. Faber Birren, Color, Form, and Space (New York: Reinhold, 1961), p. 96. Subsequent references in my text are based on this edition, abbreviated as CFS.

  25. Egbert Jacobson, Basic Color (Chicago: Theobald, 1948), p. 117.

  26. J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, trans. Jack Sage (New York: Philosophical Library, 1962), pp. 51-52.

  27. See Rudolf Arnheim, “Perceptual Analysis of a Symbol of Interaction,” Toward a Psychology of Art (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1972), pp. 222-44.

  28. Faber, Birren, Creative Color (New York: Reinhold, 1961), p. 52.

  29. Experiments in color fusion show how purple light can be generated from red and blue: “If a red card is exposed to one eye and a blue card to the other eye (simultaneously), perfect fusion in the center of the brain will result in a mixture of the two (a purple)” (Birren, Color, Form, and Space, p. 44).

  30. According to Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), trans. Michael Sadleïr et al. (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1947), p. 45, chromotherapy has shown that “red light stimulates and excites the heart, while blue light can cause temporary paralysis.”

  31. L. Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion (New York: Theobald, 1961), p. 155.

  32. Gordon Lynn Walls, The Vertebrate Eye (1942), quoted in Jacobson, Basic Color, p. 116.

  33. Alison Fairlie, “Aspects of Expression in Baudelaire's Art Criticism,” in Ulrich Finke, ed., French Nineteenth Century Painting and Literature (New York: Harper, 1972), p. 51.

  34. Jean Sutter, ed., The Neo Impressionists, trans. Chantal Deliss (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1970), p. 29, offers the following succinct definitions of Chevreul's Laws: “Simultaneous contrast means that two colour-areas placed side by side will tend to exaggerate their differences, and, if complementaries, they will acquire an unusual brilliance. … Successive contrast means that one colour-area will fatigue the eye after a moment and induce an after-image or surrounding halo of the colour-opposite.”

  35. Quoted in Rudolf Arnheim, “Color,” Art and Visual Perception, New Version (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1974), p. 362. Subsequent reference in my text is based on this edition, abbreviated as AVP.

  36. Meyer Schapiro, Paul Cézanne (New York: Abrams, n.d.), p. 124.

  37. Purple and green are sometimes juxtaposed ( TL, pp. 33, 286) as, implicitly, in Lily's vision of Mrs. Ramsay “stepping … across fields among whose folds, purplish and soft, among whose flowers, hyacinths or lilies, she vanished” (TL, p. 270). (Here the purple of integration merges with the green-and-white of Lily's emblematic flower.)

  38. Webster's New World Dictionary, College Edition (New York: World, 1957). (Subsequently referred to in my text as WNWD.)

  39. Cf. Denis, “Cézanne—II,” p. 275: “Every work of art is a transposition, an emotional equivalent … Cézanne taught us to transpose the data of sensation into the elements of a work of art.” Woolf had to adapt this lesson to fiction, taking valuable hints from Cézanne and Fry, as well as from Proust.

Mary Lou Emery (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “‘Robbed of Meaning’: The Work at the Center of ‘To The Lighthouse,’” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp.217–34.

[In the following essay, Emery examines patriarchal and colonialist elements in To the Lighthouse.]


Critiques of “Western feminism” have demonstrated convincingly that much of feminist discourse constructs its subject through processes of exclusion (see, for example, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Chandra T. Mohanty, Biddy Martin and Chandra T. Mohanty, and Gayatri C. Spivak's “Texts” and “Foreword”). A passage from Virginia Woolf's well-known essay “A Room of One's Own” exemplifies the dynamic: “It is one of the great advantages of being a woman that one can pass even a very fine negress without wishing to make an Englishwoman of her” (52). The sentence constitutes its subject—“woman” and “one”—as exclusively English and white. It excludes black women from the category “woman” and presumes to judge them as “very fine” in the same breath that it criticizes masculine imperialist habits of thought.

Woolf's sentence demonstrates the deconstructive dictum that, in opposing a system of power, “one” nevertheless becomes complicit in the system through the structures of language that oppose, exclude, and appropriate. The sentence also, however, enacts the dialogism Mikhail Bakhtin and Bakhtinian critics claim is inherent in language.1 It swings between an assumption of one colonialist discourse, to which it replies, and another assumption—“high feminist” and also colonialist—to which it anticipates response.2 The assumption to which Woolf's sentence responds opposes the English “civilized” subject to the colonized Other and desires simultaneously to claim the Other for England. To that discourse, this sentence replies ironically and critically by inserting the difference of gender in the construction of the English subject. It does so by differentiating between the desires (and their absence) of English male and English female subjects on the occasion of passing an already colonized Other. Thus it lends subjectivity to Englishwomen, who now may have desires of their own different from those of Englishmen, and it criticizes the expropriating actions of male-governed colonialism. But it also repeats the colonialist construction of womanhood as an identity created in the positioning of a “negress” who can be gazed upon and judged by an “Englishwoman.” To this second assumption—of womanhood as something characterizing the “one” of the speaker in contrast to the “negress” under the speaker's gaze—the sentence's irony anticipates critical reply. Particularly in the suggestion that something called an “Englishwoman” can be wished for and made by Englishmen resides an invitation to critical response, to the kind of critique that stresses the making of the “free,” “civilized,” female subject through colonialist discourses.

If we are concerned to criticize and transform the colonialist legacies within “Western feminism,” analysis that takes into account the discourses to which a feminist text responds and the ways in which it anticipates reply should help us to do so. If we can identify ideological turning points within especially influential writings by feminist authors in the English canon, for example, we may be able to reflect upon the turnings available to contemporary feminist writers and critics. The canonized status of To the Lighthouse as a classic in modernist narrative and the authorizing position of Virginia Woolf in much of contemporary feminist thought make this novel a particularly significant case study. Read dialogically, To the Lighthouse sets into motion a critique of English colonialist patriarchy that simultaneously repeats colonialist assumptions about “Englishwomen.” It also—by both including and suppressing them—represents the “mumblings” of a counter-discourse.3


A modernist female Künstlerroman,To the Lighthouse portrays an unmarried woman who paints and whose single unifying brush stroke at the novel's end announces her long-awaited achievement of artistic vision. Lily Briscoe's “line there, in the centre” represents as well the aesthetic vision of the novel. Her artistic triumph concludes the novel's passage beyond the requirements of heterosexual romance in Woolf's efforts to “write beyond the endings” of either marriage or death that conventional nineteenth-century novels require. Rachel Blau DuPlessis has argued that To the Lighthouse emphasizes brother-sister ties, male-female friendships, and a larger communal vision in which binary oppositions, especially that of masculine/feminine, are undone (96). The undoing of such oppositions, one might add, subverts the local patriarchal power buttressing the colonialist system of England in the beginnings of its twentieth-century decline.

The novel undoes these oppositions, however, not by simply joining them in Lily's painting but by first reversing the values traditionally accorded the binary opposition of masculine/feminine and then displacing them. One way in which Part One of To the Lighthouse reverses the hierarchical opposition of masculine/feminine is by removing the masculine “sphere” of activity from the novel. The public world of masculine activity—of business, “high” culture, and academic knowledge—in which Mr. Ramsay makes his living and upon which he founds his identity, is alluded to but absent from the novel. The novel narrows its world to the domestic wherein Mr. Ramsay's professional relationships, as with Charles Tansley, seem more like those of father and son. Within this domestic world, Mrs. Ramsay's creative, sympathetic, and maternal presence reigns supreme, whereas Mr. Ramsay appears at various times and from different points of view as child-like, violently patriarchal, absurdly ridiculous, or comically pathetic. In this way, masculine opposition to Mrs. Ramsay's domestic sovereignty cannot be taken seriously; rather the most significant challenge comes from within the household and from an Englishwoman, one not sufficiently “womanized,” however, in Mrs. Ramsay's eyes.

Through the increasing authority of Lily Briscoe's voice, the value and nature of Mrs. Ramsay's powers come under criticism. We see the self-effacement demanded by such middle-class femininity even as characters such as Mr. Bankes and Mr. Ramsay, whom it benefits, continue to idealize it. We sympathize, too, with Lily's inner protests, at the dinner table, for example, when against her wishes she must be nice to Charles Tansley. Mrs. Ramsay may hold court with her Boeuf en Daube, but at great cost to herself and others. We are allowed to see, through Lily's contrary thoughts, that Mrs. Ramsay's insistence upon conscripting Lily to the institution of marriage insists also on the construction of Lily as “civilized,” English, and a woman. Lily's marrying will alleviate the strangeness of her Chinese eyes and her eccentricities which make her not beautiful, according to Mrs. Ramsay, not to a man anyway. Within Part One, the question of marriage becomes a question of the making of “woman”; it also signals a novel straining against conventional narrative plotting. However, although it allows for inner dissension, the reversal of sex/gender values and powers afforded by the focus on domestic relations does not suffice to take Lily Briscoe beyond the conventional ending of marriage. For as long as Mrs. Ramsay's “femininity” resides in her loyalty to the institution, she will continue to construct moments of triumph based upon engagements to heterosexual marriage.

In Part Two the inner dialogues generated by Lily Briscoe's protests and the question of who will win in securing the novel's ending result in a narrative break. “Time Passes” breaks the pattern whereby Victorian sex/gender hierarchies are reversed and, in doing so, breaks the ground for Lily's reconfiguration as a Modern Woman. The break is only partially afforded by Mrs. Ramsay's death. Although this section of the novel seems distant from domestic or public or even human affairs, in it, the social violence of war, which Woolf often characterized as masculine, enters the novel and necessarily broadens its scope beyond the house and domestic values. The much larger scale of time and events in Part Two enables the passage from pre-war sensibilities to those of the modern post-war period. It allows also the violent and chaotic passage beyond the endings of nineteenth-century fictions.

The passage beyond demands more than the change in Lily's attitude toward Mr. Ramsay that DuPlessis and other critics describe as a turning point (DuPlessis 97, Ruotolo 138, and Zwerdling 199). It demands a theft. For the “we” of Woolf's emerging collective vision is not “all”; the “synthesis of polarities” through the portrayal of a Modern Woman requires, in fact, another “Other,” on whom the Otherness of two kinds of middle-class English womanhood is displaced. Although this figure becomes Other, it also, improbably, acts as subject of masculine violence, absorbing its threat and making post-war peace a possibility.


At the center of the novel's three-part structure enters a working-class woman named Mrs. McNab who, along with her coworker Mrs. Bast, is the only literally human presence in the main part of the middle section. However, the “airs” and “darkness” that invade the Ramsays' house in “Time Passes” are personified and militarized forces, “advance guards of destruction.” In the midst of trees like “tattered flags,” the airs ask, “Were they allies? Were they enemies?” Through figures of winter, night, darkness, and silence, interspersed with moments of light, summer, and warmth, World War I takes its turns and its toll.

In one of those turns, just at “that moment, that hesitation when dawn trembles and night pauses, when if a feather alight in the scale … the house … would have turned and pitched downwards to the depths of darkness” (TTL 208), Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast appear as a “force working”:

But there was a force working; something not highly conscious; something that leered, something that lurched; something not inspired to go about its work with dignified ritual or solemn chanting. Mrs. McNab groaned; Mrs. Bast creaked … they got to work … some rusty laborious birth seemed to be taking place. …

(TTL 209–210)

The negatives “not highly conscious” and “not inspired” cast the women as barely-human, incapable of giving meaning to their work. Yet they seem about to give birth.

Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast labor distinctly as females, but not as fully human females, rather as forces disassociated from Mrs. Ramsay's creative, harmonizing maternity. Because the natural becomes human in this section (the “airs” that ask questions), we might see the dehumanization of Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast as the other side of the inversion, a metaphorical naturalization of the cleaning women. The “force working” would then be one associated with nature and its indifference to human meaning. We might also read the metaphorical reversal as a displacement of Mrs. Ramsay's feminine Otherness—her procreative nature—onto the bodies of the colonized women. However, Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast are specifically associated, not with nature, but with creaking, rusting hardware; furthermore, they pit themselves against, rather than join, “the fertility, the insensibility of nature.” No simple inversions or reversals explain their metaphorical connotations. They seem to partake of the female, the inhuman, the natural, and the mechanical simultaneously and indeterminately.

Their indeterminancy is heightened when we consider Mrs. McNab's first appearance in the text at another moment in the downpour of darkness. She enters the Ramsays' house “tearing the veil of silence with hands that had stood in the wash-tub” (196). The image compares her movement to the violent gesture that exposes a hidden, veiled woman. Her wash-tub hands invade a house coded feminine and veiled by nature, as it were, with a personified silence. In this way, she becomes perhaps human once more, but not as a woman, rather as a violating masculine figure, “grinding [the veil] with boots” (195). Yet the gesture joins her with geological forces which similarly loosen the fold of a shawl “with a roar, with a rupture” (196). Mrs. McNab invades and occupies the house as did the airs and darkness, natural forces personified and masculinized, and she wins, in the end, a “magnificent conquest over taps and bath” (210).

Why all this metaphorical oscillation? Why does the figure of a cleaning woman inscribe so many contradictions in the coding of colonialist forces, gender, nature, and the human? Most obviously, she seems to embody the incredible chaos of the war, its annihilation of all distinctions previously thought essential to human civilization, including those between self and Other, masculine and feminine, public and private, culture and nature. If Mrs. McNab represents the war's battles and chaos, she also partakes of the violent masculine qualities earlier ascribed to Mr. Ramsay with his plunging brass beak. Her ridiculous lurchings and nonsensical mutterings resemble too his stumbling recitations of Tennyson, embarrassing because meaningless to his children. She labors and gives birth within the house, and she assaults it. Thus, in the midst of annihilated ideological distinctions, Mrs. McNab absorbs into her body the opposing gender qualities that shaped the Ramsays' characters and marriage. The old order, with its rigid sex/gender oppositions, is gone.

Yet the Ramsays' house and its objects remain; the human identity, meaning, and value of which they are traces must be reconstructed by fully human voices and wits. It is the task of the female artist to do so. Lily Briscoe cannot achieve her vision, however, unless she escapes the narrative requirements of marriage or death. And she cannot make her escape until “time passes,” until Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast have forcefully invaded, occupied, and given birth within the house. The ideological dialogue engaged by the novel now no longer concerns marriage but art and the making of “woman” as a creative being and force within the world. The struggle to represent creative womanhood has shifted from Mrs. Ramsay and Lily to Lily and Mrs. McNab. We might best understand the indeterminancy of Mrs. McNab and her coworker as directly related to the modernity of Lily Briscoe. I suggest that Lily's emergence as Modern Woman and artist turns upon the novel's efficacy in responding, not to the Victorian “Angel of the House” ideal of womanhood represented in Mrs. Ramsay, but to the more self-consciously modern discourses of sexology and their descriptions of the “nature” of women.


The writings of the sexologists Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter offer a significant context in which to place the gender, colonialist, and class dynamics of the novel. By the 1920s and '30s, Ellis' work had become extraordinarily influential and popular. Woolf's library contained volumes by both Ellis and Carpenter; her audience would have been familiar with their ideas, if not their actual writings (Fassler). In defining woman's sexual “nature,” Ellis described it as inherently heterosexual, masochistic, and ultimately fulfilled in motherhood.4 The behavior of colonized women and those he called “savages,” studied “scientifically” by English anthropologists, served as evidence for his theories, allowing him to universalize some characteristics and prove others by distinction. For example, according to Ellis, because aboriginal women (as do European women) show signs of shocked modesty when an anthropologist comes upon them bathing, all women are, by nature, modest. All women fulfill themselves in motherhood, all women are capable of sexual desire, but only western European women supposedly suffer from frigidity. As part of a theory that glorifies women's sexual and maternal fulfillment, this last point cannot be read as merely descriptive; it labels pejoratively women who remain unmarried or prefer celibacy. Further, it suggests a model of “primitive,” “natural” female sexuality somehow desirable yet impossible for “civilized” women to experience fully if at all.

Ellis' writings express an ambivalent primitivism found in other modernist texts. In the paintings of Gauguin, Modigliani, and Picasso, among others, the “primitive” is admired, envied, and appropriated yet insistently differentiated from the “civilized” sensibility for which it provides simultaneously a critique and an Other. Women and “the primitive” are often presented as composite figures in the mask-like female faces of these painters' most compelling works.5 Primitivism and explorations of the feminine conjoin also, although in different ways, in the fictions of Joseph Conrad and D. H. Lawrence. In spite of the differences between Lawrence and Woolf, he too was influenced by the sexologists, especially Carpenter; he devoted much of what he thought of as his primitive (nonlinear, repetitious) narratives to disclosing women's “natural” attractions to the moon and, very much unlike Woolf, to American Indians (“primitives”) and to forceful masculinity. As critics of Lawrence have noted, his works are also permeated with misogyny and an associated fear of the masses.6

The “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse refers to the threatening sources of such ambivalent modernist associations: “a purplish stain upon the bland surface of the sea” (201), “death in battle” (192), and the bones that “bleach and burn far away in Indian sands” (192) allude to the war and to the colonies and their increasing rebellions; they prophesy perhaps the post-war events of decolonization, events “difficult blandly to overlook” (201) and sufficient to break the mirror in which Mrs. McNab views herself, recalling songs of her youth. Her mumbling of “an old music hall song” alludes to the mass culture that so many bourgeois intellectuals of the time deplored, even as some of them, like Walter Benjamin, envisioned within it the potential for social democratic change. Not surprisingly, writers of the period often perceived the claims and activities of feminists as an assault by mobs of women, behaving savagely, on the universities, professions, and public streets.7 The emergence of the Modern Woman devolved upon the same events and ambivalences that, in “Time Passes,” break the mirror of the past.

The ambivalences surrounding and associating “the primitive,” “the feminine,” and “the masses” brought contradictory responses in sexology. For instance, Ellis' diagnosis of frigidity as an unfortunate consequence of civilization and the middle-class might have placed in a positive light the view of working-class sexuality as more natural, active, and forceful. Work for women of all classes might have been re-imagined along with concepts of their sexuality. Significantly, however, Ellis argued against women working in any occupation outside the home. Clearly, his prescriptions were written for middle-class women only and placed those compelled to work beyond the pale of “civilization.” In Love's Coming of Age, Carpenter more sympathetically distinguished three types of women: the lady, the “working-wife,” and the prostitute, all to be supplanted by labor-saving devices, communally shared housework, and the demands of “free women” for social equality with men. Although sympathetic to the sufferings of the second type whom he also describes as “the household drudge,” Carpenter portrays her as lacking “much conscious movement” and “too little illuminated by any knowledge, for her to rise of herself to any other conception of existence” (58). Carpenter sees her much as Woolf presents Mrs. McNab, without inspiration, idea, or imagination. In describing the “Modern Woman,” who he believed would change conditions for all women, Carpenter professed beliefs similar to Ellis':

The women of the new movement are naturally largely drawn from those in whom the maternal instinct is not especially strong; also from those in whom the sexual instinct is not preponderant. Such women do not altogether represent their sex; some are “homogenic,” that is, inclined to attachments to their own, rather than to the opposite, sex; some are ultra-rationalizing and brain-cultured; to many, children are more or less a bore; to others, man's sex-passion is a mere impertinence, which they do not understand, and whose place they consequently misjudge. … Perhaps the deficiency in maternal instinct would seem the most serious imputation.

(Carpenter 66–67)

As Lillian Faderman has pointed out, both Ellis and Carpenter acknowledged lesbianism, but Ellis' diagnosis of lesbianism as an “inversion” of the “normal” (Ellis) policed women's sexuality in a newly modern way, while Carpenter could not avoid associating lesbians with “mannish” women whose maternal instinct he assessed as undeveloped (Faderman). This last alleged characteristic troubled him particularly because, for him, motherhood was “woman's great and incomparable work” (Carpenter 54).

Nevertheless, the sexologists were and still are by some social historians considered progressive. Ellis and Carpenter argued for women's right to sexual pleasure, and Ellis campaigned against the Contagious Diseases Act and for women's suffrage. The writings of Carpenter, in particular, influenced Woolf and other members of Bloomsbury. His relative sympathy for homosexuality and “androgyny” made him less dedicated perhaps to classifying women within the constraints of heterosexuality; his views of ideal heterosexuality, moreover, appear more equitable and balanced than those of Ellis.

Thus, sexology puts Modern Women or even those sympathetic to feminism in a double bind: they might be heralds of a new age, but they were also abnormally nonmaternal and therefore unfulfilled, “victims” of frigidity or lesbianism. Their more “normal” sisters were distinguished by the potential for a “natural” orgasmic heterosexuality, most fulfilled in “innocent” sado-masochism and maternity. We might view sexology as a negotiating discourse. The frequent references in sexological tracts to “savage” colonial natives yoked with diagnoses of European women's sexuality and either disdain for the working-class or prognoses for a more socialist future for the masses negotiate between admiration for and fear of an overdetermined Other. Its Other is at once savage, female, and multiple. As its name implies, sexology also mediated a perceived gap between popular ideology and science, laying claim to objective methods of observation and classification and giving rise to a plethora of marriage manuals designed for the ordinary middle-class reader. It reinstitutionalized marriage while arguing for changes within marriage relations, and it recolonized women's sexuality while arguing for women's sexual pleasure.


Characterizing the “Modern Woman” in Lily Briscoe, Virginia Woolf wrought one compromise with the contradictions sexology presented to feminist thought. By linking Lily Briscoe's vision as a painter with her re-vision of the traditional wife and mother, Mrs. Ramsay, Woolf suggests the infusion of one woman's artistic creativity with that of another woman's more domestic activity. In Part Three Lily cries out, “Mrs. Ramsay!” and conjures the dead woman as she had once sat, “knit[ting] her brown stocking” (300); only after seeing Mrs. Ramsay knitting again and at a distance can Lily complete her painting.

But Lily cannot see Mrs. Ramsay with new eyes until Mrs. McNab has entered the house violently and occupied it in two apparently contradictory ways: as a natural and therefore dehumanized yet feminine force and as a militarized and therefore human, dehumanizing, and masculine force. Following Mrs. McNab's occupation of the house and of these contradictory metaphorical positions, the Modern Woman can have it all (or most of it): androgyny, or the dissolution of masculine/feminine oppositions; female bonding with the domestic, maternal woman; and artistic vision that may grant her public identity. What she still lacks, however, are the “maternal instinct” and “sexual instinct” of the women who “represent their sex” (Carpenter 66–67), and she risks classification as “not a woman, but a peevish, ill-tempered dried-up old maid, presumably” (TTL 226), as Lily describes herself. The qualifier “presumably” is important. I think that, textually, Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast labor to protect Lily from a sexological diagnosis of “homogenic” or “frigid” and to free her for a revised, more ambiguous modern womanhood. They do so by laboring with their bodies and, momentarily, with their imaginations. The value of their labors—the meanings their labors might have acquired—are, however, stolen from them. As a result of this theft, Lily Briscoe acquires her vision.

When Mrs. McNab's lurching body enters the house, her voice is “robbed of meaning”:

Rubbing the glass of the long looking-glass and leering sideways at her swinging figure a sound issued from her lips—something that had been gay twenty years before on the stage perhaps, had been hummed and danced to, but now, coming from the toothless, bonneted, care-taking woman, was robbed of meaning, was like the voice of witlessness, humour, persistency itself, trodden down but springing up again, so that as she lurched, dusting, wiping, she seemed to say how it was one long sorrow and trouble, how it was getting up and going to bed again, and bringing these things out and putting them away again.


The passage raises several questions. If the sound issuing from her lips once had meaning, it was a meaning realized “perhaps” in the realm of popular working-class culture; but how and why has it been robbed of this meaning? How can this witless, meaningless voice yet “seem to say” something about trouble? And, if it is “like the voice of witlessness,” how can such witlessness achieve self-reflexivity, as another passage suggests: “she was witless, she knew it” (196).

To answer the first question of how and why Mrs. McNab's voice is robbed of meaning, we must turn to another passage in Part Two. In this passage, Mrs. McNab occupies a more positively human position, as “one woman” or “one person” who, given voice momentarily, remembers Mrs. Ramsay, sees her repeatedly as she had been and hears her voice as she had spoken. She recalls Mrs. Ramsay in the terms of Carpenter's three “types,” as a lady:

Poor lady! … She was dead, they said. … She could see her, as she came up the drive with the washing, stooping over her flowers … she could see her with one of the children by her in that grey cloak. … Yes, she could see Mrs. Ramsay. …


The passage gives to Mrs. McNab creative, human memory for the purpose of recalling Mrs. Ramsay. She recalls her former employer as “she” carries a basket of washing; the ambiguity of the pronoun links the two women and their activities. In a structurally similar image, Lily later “sees” Mrs. Ramsay knitting, the act of making and connecting that Lily's final “vision” might be said to achieve in a new way. Thus does Mrs. McNab become human for a moment, connecting the past to the present as her rusty, mechanical labors give birth to something new. She becomes human, it seems, in order to labor with her imagination, and then to have the value of her labor appropriated. For it is precisely the act of seeing Mrs. Ramsay again that allows Lily Briscoe her epiphany:

“Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay! she cried. … Mrs. Ramsay—it was part of her perfect goodness—sat there quite simply. … There she sat.”


From this moment of vision, Lily's larger vision unfolds, and she completes her painting.

Admittedly, that both Mrs. McNab and Lily “see” Mrs. Ramsay does not, in itself, imply that the meaning of Mrs. McNab's earlier vision has been stolen in order to facilitate Lily's creativity. The theft becomes more conclusive when we examine the contexts in which both of their voices and visions might (or might not) gain meaning.

Now we can return to the question of how the “voice of witlessness,” “robbed of meaning,” can yet “seem to say” something. In spite of her meaningless sounds, Mrs. McNab “continued to drink and gossip as before” (198). Evidently, Mrs. Bast understands her gossip; it becomes meaningful to another old cleaning woman, working alongside her, giving birth metaphorically, conquering “taps and bath.” The meaning stolen from her voice then must be that which once made her sounds comprehensible (“gay”) in some other space—the public spaces of the music hall, the popular stage, or the pubs of her youth. This is a public space different from that occupied by Mr. Ramsay and might offer Lily Briscoe as she progresses in her painting career an alternative to the bourgeois masculine realm that in Part One is implicitly the only world, other than Mrs. Ramsay's domestic one, to which she might aspire. The vulnerability to ridicule of Mr. Ramsay, his academic mind, and his relations with students in Part One makes it clear that a place in his world cannot be Lily's aim. So what about the public spaces of Mrs. McNab's youth? Perhaps in ripping the “veil of silence,” Mrs. McNab does not violate the house, but ends its purdah and makes the appearance of women possible. Can she and Lily Briscoe forge an alliance, labor together, and create an alternative public sphere for women of diverse classes and nationalities?

I think this possibility recurs in Part Three, lingers as a question and possibility, but that finally it is rejected. The modernist female Künstlerroman requires instead the theft and the exclusion of Mrs. McNab. The theft is necessary to readers' perceptions of Lily Briscoe's “birth” as an artist and necessary to Woolf's achievement of aesthetic unity.


Haunting the portrayal of women characters as either subsumed by marriage and motherhood or unnaturally independent of them is the “natural” heterosexuality imputed by the dominant masculine discourse to the colonized or working-class woman. It is thus important that Mrs. McNab thinks of her husband and her children. However, the narrative undercuts the “joy there must have been” with her children by inserting parenthetically “(yet two had been base-born and one had deserted her)” (197). If the working-class Scottish woman can appear in the text as natural to the point of witlessness, dehumanized, and dehumanizing, the “rusty,” creaking births for which she labors and her previous history of “base-born” children will hardly stand as joyful, fulfilling contrasts to the middle-class female artist, unmarried and without children. Such a contrast, as Mrs. Ramsay provided during her life, would give further evidence of “abnormal” lesbian tendencies or “unnatural” frigidity in the woman artist. With the metaphorically indeterminate representation of Mrs. McNab in Part Two, however, the dichotomy in Ellis' and Carpenter's writings collapses; natural desire and maternal plenitude no longer appear in opposition to overly cultured and therefore repressed and distorted femininity. If we read the image of “tearing the veil” as that of a rescue in which the silence of women is broken, albeit violently, we can find even further indication of the “force” with which Mrs. McNab assaults the house as one that makes possible the emergence of the Modern Woman. But most important, Lily Briscoe as that particular modern woman may now paint and achieve her vision without incurring the charge of unnatural or abnormal womanhood.

Further, Mrs. McNab's appearance as a violent, masculine force and as a creature in the act of giving painful birth can inoculate Part Three against Mr. Ramsay's aggressive brass beak and Mrs. Ramsay's self-effacing maternity, in effect curing the Ramsays' marriage of the sado-masochism that Ellis stated was natural in heterosexual relations. Mrs. McNab labors to release Lily from stigma and to free Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay to reform themselves and their marriage.

We see this second result of her labors in the formal narrative structure of Part Three. Just as Lily steps to the edge of the lawn in Part Three to gaze toward the lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay alights upon the shore, springing “lightly like a young man, holding his parcel” (308). The parcel comes from his daughter, Nancy, but was, ten years ago, to be from his wife, and so recalls Mrs. Ramsay and her gift. Immediately before disembarking, “in complete readiness to land he sat looking back at the island,” and Cam wonders “What could he see? … What was it he sought … ?” (307). Readers may guess that he seeks his wife, whom Lily's act of imagination, profiting by Mrs. McNab's labors, has brought to life again. The events of these last passages are narrated in a deliberately nonsequential pattern designed to give the effect of simultaneity, “so that one had the sense of reading the two things at the same time” (D III 106).8 The novel's shifting perspective in the final passages creates a discontinuous yet ultimately unified moment in which house and lighthouse, Mrs. and Mr. Ramsay are joined.

Lily's movement to the edge of the garden and the shift of her gaze from Mrs. Ramsay's resurrected presence to Mr. Ramsay's rejuvenated figure create this new order and its re-formed marriage; her brush stroke, “a line there, in the centre,” gives it finality and meaning. The resulting meaning for modernist narrative is creation of a formal shape wherein things are separate, even fragmented, yet simultaneously unified or reunified. This new narrative form and the woman artist emerge like twins in the novel's conclusion, and the simultaneity of the passages parallels Lily's assertion of an independence that is at once tied to the past. Moreover, her position as she paints in the garden, between the feminized house and masculinized lighthouse, suggests an androgynous space or perhaps a feminized public sphere. This potential for an alternative public space and the boundaries that ultimately restrict it are the contexts in which Lily's creativity acquires value. In them we also find another clue to the theft upon which that value depends.

The break in the pattern of reversal brought by Part Two with its annihilated dichotomies preempts a more simplistic feminist reversal in which women might occupy a previously masculine public sphere. Lily has moved outside the house and its domesticity, but not very far. She paints on the lawn of a summer house far from any urban center of culture and speculates that she will remain anonymous, that her painting will be hung “in the servants' bedrooms” (237). In this trope for anonymity, we find again the possibility of association between Lily and Mrs. McNab.

Will Lily's painting hang in Mrs. McNab's bedroom? What does such a definition of “anonymous” mean? Lily decides that even if her painting were to be flung under a sofa, “One might say, even of this scrawl, not of that actual picture, perhaps, but of what it attempted, that it ‘remained for ever’” (267). In this way she modifies Mr. Carmichael's philosophy of art as that which remains forever by ascribing permanence not to the “actual picture” but to “what it attempted.” Perhaps this revision opens her mind to the possibility that the staying power of her painting resides in an alliance with another class, of women and of servants, in whose bedrooms it might “invisibly” hang. Confronting the likelihood of her anonymity as an artist, and acting as “one” who can determine the meaning of that anonymity, even if uncertainly, Lily continues to paint and completes her picture.

This response to the hierarchy of values represented by Mr. Carmichael, now become a famous poet dozing in his lawn chair, makes Lily a potential candidate for the Outsiders Society Woolf describes in her later essay “Three Guineas.” In that essay, anonymity becomes feminine resistance to the overweening pride of the masculine public sphere and its tendencies toward acquisitiveness and war-making. To the Lighthouse makes similar associations, although more subtly, and in this light, Lily stands for Outsiders, for peace, and for the prevention of further war. The reference to servants' bedrooms might allude, then, to a possible future in which servants and women painters will form an alternative artistic community.

However, not only does Lily become the “one” who determines artistic value, but also she continues to construct her identity as artist through sharp class distinctions. Although it no longer matters to her that her painting may hang in an attic or be viewed by servants, it no longer matters because the product of her vision, the painting itself, no longer matters; rather the effort and its culminating vision take the place of the object as the thing that will remain forever. Her sensibilities as an artist are defined by contrasting them to those of servants and members of the working-class such as Charles Tansley whose misogyny is coupled in her mind with his cheap tobacco and inability “to know one picture from another” (292). A servant's viewing of Lily's painting attests only to the invisibility of the painting; ironically, this hypothetical anonymity becomes an opportunity for Lily then to redefine artistic value in terms of process, “scrawl,” and “attempt.” The future of Lily's painting and of Lily as meaning-giver depends on a servant unable to bestow meaning either through her voice or her gaze. Neither Mrs. McNab's bedroom nor the working-class public sphere where her voice once meant something will hold a meaningful audience for Lily's creativity. Rather, Lily makes her triumphant line “there, in the centre,” the space analogous to the center of the novel where Mrs. McNab has worked. Thus her “work” of art marks over and supplants the work performed by Mrs. McNab. Much more than Lily's painting, Mrs. McNab, her coworker, and their labors have become invisible, while Lily's “attempt” remains forever, and Lily is the “one” who decides it is so. The servant's central place in the novel has been reoccupied, and her gaze, as well as her voice, has been robbed of meaning.


Although marking the passage beyond heterosexual marriage as a narrative ending, Lily Briscoe's rise as even an alternatively public woman and meaning-giver does not then fully dismantle the ideological dichotomy of public/private that To the Lighthouse encodes in Part One as masculine/feminine. A textually as well as more literally overworked figure, Mrs. McNab keys into the complex and contradictory associations of the feminine, the primitive, and, to the extent that she represents the classes of working and colonized people, the masses. She and Mrs. Bast work without “dignified ritual or solemn chanting,” as wild, savage, inarticulate forces. Their labor is “uninspired”; they, themselves, cannot give it meaning. They belong to a class of creatures the direct opposite in experience and consciousness to that of the artist; yet they make possible—give birth to—the individual artist's creativity. The metaphorical oscillations through which they are portrayed partake of war-time chaos but also prepare for the emergence of a new order, one in which middle-class English womanhood may connect with its traditional past while moving, exempt from stigma, beyond it.

Creating one kind of feminist vision, the text at its pivotal center preserves the distinction between private and public experience that depends upon a naturalized “Other.” The household remains the realm of necessity where labor those who in the classic Greek division of oikos and polis are unfree, deprived of citizenship and, in this case, virtually deprived of humanity. The novel may undo an opposition of masculine/feminine, but it does so by displacing the hierarchical relation to one of “Modern Woman”/“household drudge.” The displacement suggests that, in spite of Carpenter's prophecies, the Modern Woman would not transform the lives of all women with her claims to freedom. The theft from Mrs. McNab that renders her voice and her gaze meaningless is the condition for Lily's completed painting and for the positioning of the middle-class English woman as arbiter of artistic value and the individual owner of meaningful vision (“I have had my vision”).

The case of To the Lighthouse and my analysis suggest that modernist feminist women's writing may indeed become complicit in the constitution of a colonized Other at least in part because of its feminist aspirations to write beyond the ending. Such aspirations for public identity and meaning require complicated and creative acts of reenvisioning subjectivity, but they also involve dialogic response to discourses that compromise them.

Modernist European and Anglo-American women writers battled not only the past and its “Angel of the House” ideal of femininity. They also faced the “progressive” doublebinds of sexology's classifications and diagnoses of their sexuality—diagnoses that linked them to “savages” yet deplored their “civilized” repressions; that made “normal” women sexually masochistic yet found “free women” to be pathologically frigid, abnormally “mannish,” and nonmaternal; that made sexual passion women's natural right yet one “naturally” governed by husbands. These constraints, in the context of world war and of colonial, working-class, and feminist rebellion, shaped modernists' rejections of conventional realism as much as the desire to be rid of their Victorian past. New characterizations of women and characterizations of Modern Women draw on sexology's types while constructing complex strategies for displacing the Otherness of women's nature as sexology paradoxically defined it.

To the Lighthouse thus reconstructs in Part Three the public/private dichotomy encoded as masculine/feminine in Part One. However, it also reinscribes continually the dialogic qualities of Part One and thus questions its reconstituted dichotomy of Modern Woman/household drudge. Even as the novel moves toward representing the modern, independent, and creative Englishwoman, it questions the conditions upon which its own closure and “vision” are founded. If Mrs. McNab is “witless, and she knew it,” by what methods does she know it? What else does she know? The narrator informs us of the theft she has suffered and thus suggests possible meanings simply unavailable to us, exacted as the price for the meanings we are in the process of discovering. Lily's line at the center draws our attention as readers to other centers and thereby away from the novel's conclusion to its middle where, once again, we encounter the indeterminancy of Mrs. McNab. In this way, the novel's closure invites a return to the chaos it recuperates, and it displaces its own center. Lily's revised aesthetic philosophy values art “work” as creative activity and process, rather than as final result, and thus links the “work” of making art to other labors. In this suggestion of a counter-discourse, To the Lighthouse acquires much of its richness and dynamic beauty. If the novel's response to the Victorian marriage plot is the modern female Künstlerroman, it is also and simultaneously an anticipation of another question and challenge to the “high feminist” subject it creates.


It should be clear by now that my point in this essay is not to question the moral intentions and purposes of Virginia Woolf's writing nor simply to indict “Western feminism” once again. Rather, by reading the modernist narrative strategies of To the Lighthouse as responding dialogically to the discourses of sexology, I wish to suggest ways of examining feminist processes of self-representation and exclusion in historically specific ways.

In To the Lighthouse, we see a stereotype constructed in the sense defined by Homi K. Bhabha—not a false image or a scapegoat, but “an ambivalent text of projection and introjection, metaphoric and metonymic strategies, displacement, overdetermination, guilt, aggressivity …” (34). Mrs. McNab as stereotype is not a character but a process of subject-positioning. She “works” structurally at the center of the novel to reposition an ideological dichotomy of private and public so that a new female subject may be negotiated in contest but also in compromise with dominant representations of women's “nature.” Those who call themselves feminist critics inherit this model of subject-positioning, but we have acquired also the distance to re-envision it once again. With what dominant representations of womanhood does feminist theory conduct its current negotiations and to the exclusion of whom? What shift or, perhaps, relinquishing of the gaze is called for now to envision a new subjectivity other than that of the reformed middle-class family and its psychologies of “one” individual consciousness? What social relationships, what kind of womanhood, what kind of beauty would Mrs. McNab's knowing “mumblings” disclose were she to tell the story and decide its meaning?


  1. See Mikhail Bakhtin. Graham Pechey's “On the Borders of Bakhtin” has informed my use of Bakhtinian concepts in this essay.

  2. Gayatri Spivak refers to “the language of high feminism within English literature” as that of feminist individualism. (“Texts” 273).

  3. Helen Tiffin explains and extends the concept of “counter-discourse.” According to Tiffin, counter-discursive strategies “invoke an ongoing dialectic between hegemonic centrist systems and peripheral subversion of them; between European or British discourses and their post-colonial dis/mantling” (17). I am not suggesting that To the Lighthouse is a postcolonial text, but that, following Graham Pechey's description of “dialogical leakage” in the English novel, it allows for the dialogizing of “at least one side of the imperial relationship”—the colonizer questioning colonization—and thus anticipates its own counter-discourse. See Pechey 54-55.

  4. See Ellis. For discussions of Ellis' work in the contexts of feminism and the New Woman, see Margaret Jackson and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg.

  5. For a recent exploration of ways in which “the feminine” and “the primitive” conjoin in English modernism, see Marianna Torgovnick.

  6. See, for example, Cornelia Nixon.

  7. Andreas Huyssen describes a discourse of modernism that associates “the feminine” with the perceived threat of the masses and mass culture. See also Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Volume One. In Volume Two, Gilbert and Gubar describe the sexualized language of colonialism and its decline, an association of “the feminine” and “the primitive” that Anne McClintock has explored in her reading of H. Rider Haggard's novels.

  8. My interpretation of the concluding passages agrees to a certain extent with that of Alex Zwerdling who describes them as striving “to create the effect of harmony and reconciliation” (208) and acquiring an “apparent poise and decisive finality” (209). However, Zwerdling states that the novel cannot be described as a liberation narrative because Lily clings to the old order and “is not a confident or successful artist.” On this last point, I agree with Lucio P. Ruotolo that the kind of liberation suggested in the final scenes of To the Lighthouse requires that Lily not achieve what would be for Woolf a questionable public success. But I differ from Ruotolo in my view that, although Lily achieves a certain kind of feminist liberation, she does so through a modernist closure that invokes class and colonialist hierarchies.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Bhabha, Homi K. “The Other Question—The Stereotype and Colonial Discourse.” Screen 24.6 (1983): 18–36.

Carpenter, Edward. Love's Coming of Age. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1902.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.

Ellis, Havelock. Studies in the Psychology of Sex. 1913. 2 vols. New York: Random, 1936.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendships Between Women From the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Morrow, 1981.

Fassler, Barbara. “Theories of Homosexuality as Sources of Bloomsbury's Androgyny.” Signs 5.2 (Winter 1979): 237–251.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988–1989.

Huyssen, Andreas. “Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism's Other.” After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.

Jackson, Margaret. “Sexual Liberation or Social Control?” Women's Studies International Forum 6.1 (1983): 1–17.

Martin, Biddy, and Chandra Talpade Mohanty. “Feminist Politics: What's Home Got to Do With It?” Feminist Studies/Critical Studies. Ed. Teresa de Lauretis. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.

McClintock, Anne. “Maidens, Maps, and Mines: The Reinvention of Patriarchy in Colonial South Africa.” South Atlantic Quarterly 87 (Winter 1988): 147–192.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Boundary 2 12/13.3/1 (Spring-Fall 1984): 333–353.

Nixon, Cornelia. Lawrence's Leadership Politics and the Turn Against Women. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.

Pechey, Graham. “On the Borders of Bakhtin: Dialogism, Decolonisation.” Bakhtin and Cultural Theory. Ed. Ken Hirschkop and David Shepherd. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1989. 39–67.

Pratt, Minnie Bruce. “Identity: Skin Blood Heart.” Yours in Struggle. Elly Bulkin, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Barbara Smith. Brooklyn: Long Haul, 1984.

Ruotolo, Lucio P. The Interrupted Moment: A View of Virginia Woolf's Novels. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1986.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “The New Woman as Androgyne: Social Disorder and Gender Crisis, 1870–1936.” Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985. 245–296.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” “Race,” Writing and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986. 262–280.

———. “Translator's Foreword” to “Draupadi” by Mahasveta Devi. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. London: Methuen, 1987. 179–196.

Tiffin, Helen. “Post-Colonial Literatures and Counter-Discourse.” Kunapipi 9.3 (1987): 17–35.

Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Oliver Bell. 5 vols. New York: Harcourt, 1977–1984.

———. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt, 1929.

———. Three Guineas. New York: Harcourt, 1938.

———. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt, 1927.

Zwerdling, Alex. Virginia Woolf and the Real World. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.

Rebecca Saunders (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Language, Subject, Self: Reading the Style of ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 2, Winter, 1993, pp. 192–213.

[In the following essay, Saunders discusses Woolf's style in To the Lighthouse and its relation to the notion of self that she constructs.]


The project of this paper is to investigate the relationship of Virginia Woolf's style in To the Lighthouse to concepts of the self—both to establish the significance of this style to the individual “selves” within the novel and to investigate the notion of self in abstracto that is constructed by way of this style. I would emphasize two things from the outset: first, that this is not a paper about how style “parallels” meaning, but about how style itself means and, second, that Woolf's style, like a garden of forking paths, will lead us in various and suggestive directions which cannot be entirely explored within this paper; indeed, many of the notions about the self posited by Woolf's style are of a complexity which should not, in my view, be wrenched into facile resolutions or determinate “statements” about the self. While numerous studies have treated concepts of the self in Woolf's work thematically, and several have made tenuous connections between the affective, non-semantic qualities of language and the self,1 my focus will be on three specific constituents of Woolf's style: first, a phenomenon I will term “unclaimed consciousness,” second, passive constructions, and third, the use of the pronoun “one.”2

However, we must note before proceeding further that the term “self” (a word, appropriately, of obscure origin) carries multifarious and in fact contradictory meanings. Paul Smith, for example, in his book Discerning the Subject, distinguishes between subject, human agent and individual—all more specific concepts subsumed by the general term “self.”3 Further, a single rendering of “self” such as the term “subject”—a term which I have intentionally exploited in this paper precisely for the implicit association that it makes between language (or grammar) and the self—can, for example, alternately signify (any or all of) the following:

a) a bearer of consciousness by and/or against which the phenomenological world is posited;

b) one who is “sub-jected,” particularly by political domination (as in a “British subject”) or by determinant economic forces (as in Marxist thought);

c) a part of speech; or

d) the object of study in psychological or phenomenological discourse.

It is readily apparent, then, that our notion of the “subject” (and, by contagion, our notion of “self”) is oxymoronic, that it inherently sets up a debate, for example, between the active agent of German classical philosophy (the bearer of consciousness and agent of action) and the acted-upon, even oppressed, being without agency of radical materialist thought. The word “subject” itself then is concerned with issues of power and oppression, with the relationship of individual to community, with the possibility and the consequences of distinguishing self from other, all issues which are, of course, of vital concern to Woolf and to her readers.

Hence, it is not out of imprecision that I appropriate terms as ambiguous as “self” and “subject” (and occasionally conflate them), but precisely because their syncretic and problematic nature makes them, it seems to me, particularly germane to a discussion of Virginia Woolf. That is to say, then, that rather than measuring the suggestions made by Woolf's style against a preconceived and rigidly delineated decision about what the self is, I will take her style, like the notion of “self” itself, as a receptacle of tentative formulations about being and knowing and doing, a matrix of problems, perhaps indeterminate, but inherently and necessarily the site of debate. So if in speaking of Woolf's style and of the “self” we seem to be speaking about many things at once it is because that notion is something like the Trojan horse—ostensibly of a piece, but teeming inwardly with an activity that is deceptively silent and decidedly contentious.

We must begin by distinguishing between two sorts of subjects in a text: while characters within a text are constructs of language and do not exist outside of language, the text at the same time lays claim to representation of “real identities” such as Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, Lily Briscoe and Charles Tansley. There exist, then, two different kinds of subject in the text—the grammatical subject (the subject implied by predication) and the subject of representation (character). Hence we have both Mrs. Ramsay as a part of speech (as a noun), and Mrs. Ramsay as the representation—of a beautiful woman who knits, reads to her son and serves Boeuf en Daube. Both of these subjects then—the grammatical subject and the subject of representation—are ostensibly unitary, clearly delineated and identifiable entities. We can distinguish “Mrs. Ramsay” from “to her son” or “conveyed” grammatically (as the distinction between noun, prepositional phrase and verb), and we can distinguish Mrs. Ramsay from Mr. Ramsay as the distinction between a beautiful woman who knits, reads to her son and serves Boeuf en Daube, and a not particularly handsome middle-aged man who broods over his intellectual capacities and is outraged by guests so indecorous as to ask for another plate of soup.

However, once we have provisionally established these two kinds of unitary subjects within the text, we will find (as one would suspect from the very multifariousness of the linguistic designation) that the selves of To the Lighthouse do not remain settled: beneath them lurk polymorphous experiences of the self—anterior to language and associated with instinctual drives—the “wedge-shaped core of darkness,” for example, which exists beneath the Mrs. Ramsay who appears at dinner, wears amethysts, laughs, gesticulates and serves the Boeuf en Daube. Julia Kristeva has taught us to regard the subject, and specifically the subject posited by language, as a “sujet-en-procès” constituted by an inherent dialectic between two signifying dispositions in language—the “semiotic” and the “symbolic.”4 In psychoanalytic terms, the “semiotic” is the trace of a phase which precedes both the “mirror stage” and the entrance into language, “the operation that logically and chronologically precedes the establishment of the symbolic and its subject” (Revolution 41).5 In texts, the semiotic appears as “a heterogeneousness to meaning and signification” or as “a mark of the workings of drives” (Identity 136).

While Kristeva asserts that the realm of the symbolic does not obliterate or replace the semiotic, but rather, hides it—that all social language “presupposes these two dispositions” (Identity 134)—her own textual analyses have focused on texts in which “semiotic constraints,” subliminal, rhythmic and musical effects, disrupt syntax and meaning. Indeed, she claims that “starting with the Renaissance and the brief Romantic celebration of the sacrifices made in the French Revolution, poetry had become mere rhetoric, linguistic formalism, a fetishization, a surrogate for the thetic” (Revolution 83), and that:

it has only been in very recent years or in revolutionary periods that signifying practice has inscribed within the phenotext [language that serves to communicate] the plural, heterogenous, and contradictory process of signification encompassing the flow of drives, material discontinuity, political struggle, and the pulverization of language.6


I note Kristeva's association of “linguistic formalism” with the thetic consciousness and her emphasis on avant-garde texts because the focus of this study is on a prose style comprised of syntactically intact sentences that are in salient contrast to the ellipses, detached sentential rhythms and profanity of, for example, Ferdinand Céline, or the “polylogue” of Phillipe Sollers. While a close reading of Woolf's style would seem to corroborate the concept(s) of subjectivity theorized by Kristeva, the very fact that these concepts are constructed in Woolf's text within conventional syntax—the “guarantee of the thetic consciousness” according to Kristeva (Identity 133)—calls into question, I will argue below, Kristeva's contentions about revolutionary language, syntax and the constitution of the subject posited by language.


There exist in To the Lighthouse portions of text that can not be positively designated as the consciousness of any single character, passages that I will term “unclaimed consciousness.” Such passages are a function of point of view, rather than voice, though To the Lighthouse, which is told almost entirely from the point of view of the characters (with a few exceptions of dialogue and narrated action), might seem to be a kind of direct enactment of consciousness or pure mimesis.7 On the one hand, critics such as Erich Auerbach contend that “the writer as narrator of objective facts has almost completely vanished; almost everything stated appears by way of reflection in the consciousness of the dramatis personae” (534). And Woolf herself in “Modern Fiction,” wishing to distinguish the techniques of her own generation from the “materialists” of the previous generation, suggests (in a much quoted passage), “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness” (155). On the other hand, it becomes readily apparent that we do not, in fact, in the case of To the Lighthouse, get “the atoms as they fall upon the [average] mind” in a “disconnected and incoherent” manner, but a highly stylized and metaphorical text comprised of grammatically precise sentences; we do not, in fact, get a pure enactment of consciousness (as we seem to, for example, in the “Penelope” chapter of Ulysses), but rather a narratized, stylized, literary representation of consciousness.8 For example, when Mr. Bankes feels “rigid and barren, like a pair of boots that has been soaked and gone dry so that you can hardly force your feet into them” (84), it would appear that this is a creative narrator's figural representation of the way Mr. Bankes feels, rather than a portrayal of Mr. Bankes' thought, and that indeed Mr. Bankes has thought nothing whatsoever of boots. There exists, then, in To the Lighthouse, the presence of what Seymour Chatman calls “covert narration” by way of which “some interpreting person must be converting the characters' thoughts into indirect expression” (197).

By asserting the presence of a covert narrator, we are tacitly distinguishing between “voice” and “point of view,” between whose voice is speaking in a given passage of text, and whose consciousness is being portrayed. In the example above, then, the voice is the covert narrator's, but the consciousness or point of view is Mr. Bankes.’9 This observation in itself is significant to the novel's formulations of self, as we are suggesting by distinguishing “voice” from “point of view” that voice and consciousness do not necessarily coincide. The subject of representation is, as it were, silenced or disallowed from speaking for him/her self. While the mediating narrator has almost entirely given up his/her more traditional task of external reportage and informed commentary, s/he has usurped the discourse from the characters, speaking, ostensibly, as the plenipotentiary of their consciousness.10 And it should not be overlooked that we are using terms here that connote an ethics of power relations—to speak of “usurping” the discourse is to imply that it rightly belonged to someone (presumably the bearer of consciousness) in the first place, and even a term like “covert narration” has the air of something deceptive about it, something of dubious ethicality. Such a rhetoric then seems to pose the question—who has the right to speak for whom?—a question which I would hasten to point out was of utmost concern to Woolf who returned throughout her life to the issue of the ethical responsibilities of “daughters of educated men” and their relation to women of the underclass.11 And such questions of the ethics of discourse are, of course, presupposed by much of the feminist criticism which invokes Woolf as its spiritual mother: a title like Jane Marcus’ Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy, for example, implies a struggle over the possession of discourse, while Rachel Blau DuPlessis explicitly issues the imperative that “women must become speaking subjects of their own discourses.”12

We must examine further, then, the consequences of this alleged “usurpation” of voice. The narrating voice, by speaking for characters, formulates their amorphous thoughts and inarticulate feelings into language, even when the characters themselves are unable to do so, as for example, in the following passage:

What does it mean then, what can it all mean? … for she could not, this first morning with the Ramsays, contract her feelings, could only make a phrase resound to cover the blankness of her mind until these vapours had shrunk. For really, what did she feel, come back after all these years and Mrs Ramsay dead? nothing, nothing—nothing that she could express at all.


Hence the narrator expresses that which Lily is unable to; that is to say, s/he establishes the possibility of communication. On the other hand, achieving this act of communication has its price: to speak the unspeakable is, it would seem, at best to approximate the experience and at worst to falsify it entirely, as Lily suggests in the following passage—a passage which is itself a most ironic debate between style and semantics, a passage in which the narrator speaks for Lily's consciousness, which is in the act of speaking for Mrs. Ramsay's consciousness, which is ruminating on the incommunicability of consciousness:

She was glad, Lily thought, to rest in silence, uncommunicative; to rest in the extreme obscurity of human relationships. Who knows what we are, what we feel? Who knows even at the moment of intimacy, This is knowledge? Aren't things spoilt then, Mrs Ramsay may have asked (it seemed to have happened so often, this silence by her side) by saying them?


Speaking, then, allows for communication, while speaking for another—or even for the self—may falsify. But to speak of speech as “falsifying” consciousness or the self is, of course, to imply that in some other form consciousness or self is more “true,” and this notion of a “more true” and “less true” self is, it seems to me, a presupposition of the kind of ethical feminist criticism discussed previously. Marcus, for example, maintains that the drafts and unpublished versions of Woolf's work often seem to be the “truer” text and that this is perhaps true of all women writers, perhaps “true of all oppressed people's writings” (xii). Aside, then, from deciding who has the right to speak for whom, such ethical criticism must address the question of whether it is a “true” self that is being spoken; the “usurpation of voice” that characterizes Woolf's style would seem to suggest that indeed the narrator's articulation of Lily's (hypothetical) consciousness may be “more true” than the amorphousness of her feelings, in the way that Mrs. Ramsay, reading poetry, feels that “the words seemed to be spoken by her own voice, outside her self, [but] saying quite easily and naturally what had been in her mind the whole evening while she said different things” (102)—a proposition which, of course, problematizes the kind of imperative made by DuPlessis.13 This notion of a “more true” and “less true” self is also a fundamental presupposition of psychoanalysis, which contends that the conscious self knows the self but imperfectly, that selves often need assistance in articulating, or even knowing, the “truth” of the self.

The phenomenon of “unclaimed consciousness,” then, is a function of point of view; while “the whole book is the product of one voice which at times assumes the role of a given character and approximates his patterns of thought” (Naremore 123), the point of view is not only constantly shifting, but is often indeterminate. While direct narratorial statement, instances of narrated action and context are all, to be sure, indicators of point of view, these aspects of the text designate point of view with varying degrees of determinacy. For example, the phrase, “What damned rot they talk, thought Charles Tansley” (80) indicates definitively that this is Mr. Tansley's consciousness, whereas the following passage merely suggests (by proximity to identified speech) that the phrase “She was a wonderful woman” is most likely Mr. Bankes' consciousness:

How did she manage these things in the depth of the country? he [Mr Bankes] asked her. She was a wonderful woman. All his love, all his reverence had returned and she knew it.


However, in light of the end of the paragraph, where point of view has shifted to Mrs. Ramsay's consciousness, the phrase could in fact be Mrs. Ramsay's perception of Mr. Bankes' sentiments.

The following passage is almost entirely comprised of phrases which, rather than being neatly designated and clearly delineated thoughts attributed to individual characters, are a set of point of view possibilities, or more precisely a set of ultimately indeterminable probabilities vis-à-vis the ownership of consciousness:

[1] But his son hated him. He hated him for coming up to them, for stopping and looking down on them; he hated him for interrupting them; he hated him for the exaltation and sublimity of his gestures; for the magnificence of his head; for his exactingness and egotism [2] (for there he stood, commanding them to attend to him); [3] but most of all he hated the twang and twitter of his father's emotion which, vibrating round them, disturbed the perfect simplicity and good sense of his relations with his mother. [4] By looking fixedly at the page, he hoped to make him move on; by pointing his finger at a word, he hoped to recall his mother's attention, which, he knew angrily, wavered instantly his father stopped. [5] But no. Nothing would make Mr Ramsay move on. [6] There he stood, demanding sympathy. … It was sympathy he wanted, to be assured of his genius, first of all, and then to be taken within the circle of life, warmed and soothed, to have his senses restored to him, his barrenness made fertile, and all the rooms of the house made full of life. …

[7] Charles Tansley thought him the greatest metaphysician of the time, she said. [8] But he must have more than that. He must have sympathy. He must be assured that he too lived in the heart of life; was needed; not here only, but all over the world.


In the first portion of the passage [1], we are probably within James' consciousness, although I emphasize again that this is most certainly not James' voice; even the most precocious of four-year-olds would rarely think in terms of “the exaltation and sublimity” of gesture. However, it is also possible that this portion of text is Mr. Ramsay's perception, although it is less likely that Mr. Ramsay would think, for example, of the magnificence of his own head or of his own egotism. Likewise, this portion of text could be Mrs. Ramsay's perception, although again, it is less likely that she would think of James as “his” (Mr. Ramsay's) son, instead of as “her” son. Further, there exists the improbable possibility that these are the thoughts of one of the household guests such as Mr. Tansley, Mr. Carmichael or Lily Briscoe, although we have not been specifically told that any of these characters is present. In the section that follows [2], the fact of the parentheses seems to suggest an “aside” of the narrative voice or an editorial comment, although it is also possible that this is James' consciousness, Mr. Ramsay's or Mrs. Ramsay's, although it is least likely that Mr. Ramsay would think of himself in the third person. In section [3], it is probable that we are again inside of James' consciousness, as the terms “his father” and “his mother” would be designations made by James, although again, it is possible that this passage is thought by Mrs. Ramsay (who is characteristically sensitive to these kinds of emotions), by Mr. Ramsay, by a household witness or by the narrator. Section [4] is even more indeterminate: although it would at first seem probable that this passage is from James' point of view, it is questionable whether a four-year-old would be conscious of looking fixedly and pointing at a word for such specific purposes. While Mrs. Ramsay would be more likely to be aware of the significance of such gestures, she would not be likely to think of herself as “his mother,” nor would Mr. Ramsay, who might also think this passage, be likely to think of himself as “his father.” The following section [5] seems to be the narrator's consciousness, or conceivably a household witness, as the three family members (with the possible exception of Mrs. Ramsay) would be less likely to think of Mr. Ramsay as “Mr. Ramsay.” In section [6] similar point of view possibilities exist, although it is probable that this is Mrs. Ramsay's consciousness as it is the sort of perception for which she has an instinct and it is unlikely that James would recognize such subtleties of emotion or that Mr. Ramsay would refer to himself in the third person or even be self-aware enough to know what it is he is asking for. The following sentence [7] is an instance of pure mimesis followed by direct narratorial statement (“she said”), while the final sentences [8] could be the thoughts of either Mr. or Mrs. Ramsay, or both of them together, although Mrs. Ramsay, being the more emotionally sensitive of the two, is perhaps most likely to consciously “register” these thoughts. Again, it is possible, although less probable, that these sentences are thought by James, a household witness, or by the narrator.

The first thing to be noted here is that we are speaking in terms of probability and that whatever the degree of probability that an unassigned phrase “belongs” to the consciousness of a specific character, and whatever one does to determine that degree of probability, when all is said and done, it is not possible to make such assignations positively; the point of view remains indeterminate and indeterminable. Critics such as Mitchell Leaska have tended to view this as a “problem” in the text and hence by way of solution have attempted to determine methods for parcelling out these fragments of unclaimed consciousness to the “appropriate” character in the text. Stating that “one major problem of the multiple-point-of-view novel is determining the consciousness presenting the material at any given point” (45), Leaska subsequently contends that in order to read the multiple points of view correctly, in order to determine in whose consciousness the text resides at any given moment, one must pay attention to “verbal signals” in the text, and that failure to do so has, in the past, resulted in “numerous misjudgments of character and misinterpretations of thematic material” (14). I would argue, on the contrary, that rather than being a hindrance to “getting the point” of such passages, this indeterminacy is itself “the point.”

What then, does this indeterminacy of point of view and this phenomenon of unclaimed consciousness have to do with notions of the self? First, it is crucial to recognize that even in the case of such unassigned and indeterminate phrases, there exists, grammatically speaking, an implied predication and hence an implied subject—a “s/he thought” or “s/he said.” However, while there exists, in such phrases, an implied grammatical subject and while there exists, in the novel, a pool of potentially correlative subjects of representation (Mr. Ramsay, Lily, James, et. al.), it is impossible to definitively associate the implied grammatical subject with a corresponding character. Not only then has consciousness been severed from voice, but consciousness has been severed from the very self. It is as if these implied grammatical subjects—discrete, but generic and disincarnate—are the form of a self without the content of an identity, ontological receptacles waiting to be filled by the phenomenon of a character. Woolf's style then, it seems to me, theorizes something like an absolute subject, a self emptied of objective phenomena, the self not of “I think therefore I am” but “I am that I am”—a self in which phenomena (and most fundamentally the phenomenon of consciousness) are only loosely tied to being, and not by any means definitive of it.

Second, these portions of consciousness which do not seem to be authoritatively “owned” by any one character suggest a dissolution of the boundaries of the ego, or an ability to coalesce both with the consciousness of others and with the external world, an experience similar, then, to the one described by Freud in Civilization and its Discontents in which “an infant at the breast does not as yet distinguish his ego from the external world” (13), or by Nancy Chodorow, who (in The Reproduction of Mothering) describes this “primary identification” as follows:

At birth, the infant is not only totally dependent but does not differentiate itself cognitively from its environment. It does not differentiate between subject/self and object/other. … The infant experiences itself as merged or continuous with the world generally, and with its mother or caretakers in particular. Its demands and expectations (not expressed as conscious wants but unconscious and preverbal) flow from this feeling of merging.


This breakdown in ego boundaries then, suggested stylistically in Woolf, is analogous to the “uncertain and indeterminate articulation” (Revolution 25) of the “chora,” the traces of which appear in the semiotic disposition of language, and as a mode of consciousness is similar to that of Mrs. Ramsay who feels, “with her hand on the nursery door, that community of feeling with other people which emotion gives as if the walls of partition had become so thin that practically (the feeling was one of relief and happiness) it was all one stream” (105). It is a phenomenon, then, which allows characters to “think the same thoughts without need of speech,” as Lily and Mr. Bankes both feel “a common hilarity, excited by the moving waves” or as Cam and James know simultaneously, on the way to the Lighthouse, that their father “[will] never be content until they were flying along,” and hope simultaneously “that the breeze [will] never rise, that he might be thwarted in every possible way, since he had forced them to come against their wills” (152).

Feminist criticism has often claimed this phenomenon of the permeable ego boundary to be peculiarly feminine. Jean Wyatt, for example, in her reading of Mrs. Dalloway contends that protagonists in the fiction of twentieth-century women often reject a sense of self as a contained ego, affirming instead the inchoate nature of the self, a sense of a diffused self, and/or a sense of self in flux.14 Chodorow, in perhaps the most rigorous and convincing attempt to link permeable ego boundaries to the feminine consciousness, traces this allegedly feminine prerogative to gender differences in the preoedipal period, arguing that “the preoedipal attachment of daughter to mother … sustains [for a longer period than most mother-son attachments] the mother-infant exclusivity and the intensity, ambivalence and boundary confusion of the child still preoccupied with issues of dependence and individuation” (97). Further, she argues that the preoedipal period is often not only longer for girls, but more complex, that girls retain pre-oedipal attachments to the mother and hence “come to define and experience themselves as continuous with others; their experience of self contains more flexible or permeable ego boundaries” (169).15 In adult life, according to Chodrow, “regression to these modes tends not to feel as much a basic threat to their ego” (167).16

However, designating such an experience “feminine” has its consequences. For this experience heterogenous to the allegedly fixed subject of symbolic discourse is figured in Woolf's text neither by way of a portrayal or description—this passage is not about permeable ego boundaries—nor by mimesis of asymbolic discourse or preverbal utterances, but by and through syntactically intact sentences. Hence it would follow, it seems to me, that language—and particularly the symbolic register of language—is neither as gender marked (i.e. masculine), nor as intrinsically “patriarchal,” as many works of feminist theory and criticism have contended. Further, it would follow that syntax is not, as Kristeva has argued, any guarantee at all of the thetic consciousness (see Identity 133); rather, it would seem that the symbolic, as well as the subject it posits, is disrupted not only by the kind of revolutionary language, grammatical transgression and semiotic constraints described by Kristeva, but by the instrument of its own (symbolic) functioning. Finally, it would follow that linguistic formalism—the ornate, if not precious, style of Woolf for example—can not be read, as Kristeva has contended, merely as a “surrogate for the thetic” (Revolution 83).

This breakdown in ego boundaries also seems, in the long passage quoted above or in the dinner scene, for example, to result in a kind of communal ownership of consciousness. In such passages, the form of unitary selves exist (as we have noted above), but identity seems to exist only as a kind of atmosphere of consciousness that characters inhale and exhale, only provisionally laying claim to a particular part of it as theirs and theirs alone. To state things this way at first seems contradictory, as identity ordinarily implies identifiability or an entity clearly distinguished from other entities. However, because individuated, named identities do in fact emerge in the novel and “claimed consciousness” exists as well, this communal reservoir of consciousness seems to serve as a backdrop or anteriority to individuated identity. Hence “individual” identities seem to be intersubjectively determined,17 a construct of the community—a group effort, albeit perhaps an unconscious one. Stylistically then (and I emphasize that the passage is not semantically “about” breakdown in ego boundaries), we get a foreshadowing of the sort of “choral protagonist” of Woolf's later novels, which “[makes] the group, not the individual, the central character” (DuPlessis 164). Indeed, the notion of “community” has been valorized by Woolf critics: DuPlessis argues that dissolutions of ego boundaries “are not simply or only statements about personal psychology” but are “‘deeply political’” (167), and Melba Cuddy-Keane has suggested that this “choral protagonist” decenters authority and “celebrates an irreversible dismantling of order and actually advocates a permanent instability” (280).18 Yet communities as well as individuals can, of course, be hegemonic, and this phenomenon, which figures characters inhaling a consciousness that does not necessarily originate in or by them, could also be read as positing subjects who, without agency, invoke discourses or consciousness itself from an always already existent social or political structure, a structure that is, of course, potentially oppressive.19

Finally, even in solitude, this dissolution of the boundaries of the ego allows characters to merge with the external world, in the way that Mrs. Ramsay does:

… [looking] out to meet that stroke of the Lighthouse, the long steady stroke, the last of the three, which was her stroke, for watching them in this mood always at this hour one could not help attaching oneself to one thing especially of the things one saw; and this thing, the long steady stroke, was her stroke. Often she found herself sitting and looking, sitting and looking, with her work in her hands until she became the thing she looked at—that light for example.



A second constitutive element of Woolf's style is the use of passive constructions, two types of which occur in the novel: constructions in which the grammatical subject appears as the object of a preposition and constructions in which the grammatical subject is elided altogether. In the first instance, the subject implied by predication is identified but is not the subject of the sentence, as in the following example:

Now all the candles were lit, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candle light, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass. … Now the same effect was got by the many candles in the sparely furnished room. …

(91, emphasis mine)

Here then, the subjects implied by predication—candle light, panes of glass, the many candles—have become objects of a preposition (“by”), “demoted” in discourse from active, predicating subjects to passive objects of prepositions, following hesitantly behind the effects of their predication. There is a concomitant shift in emphasis then: the passage is “about” faces, the night, the effect, more than it is “about” candles and glass. Further, our awareness as readers—a sequential revelation—is first of effects and only secondarily of causes, hence the passage is imbued with a sense of mystery, with a consciousness which seems to be only casually aware of the physical world and vaguely cognizant of the logical order of things.

But beyond these semantic implications, there exist in such passive constructions rival subjects so to speak (and we are talking specifically about grammatical subjects here): there is a subject which is, grammatically speaking, the subject of the sentence or phrase, and there is a subject implied by predication. For example, in the phrase, “the mournful words were heard quite clearly by them all” (155), “the mournful words” is the subject of the phrase while “them” (or “they”) is the subject implied by predication. The subject of predication (“them”), therefore—has been displaced by Mr. Ramsay's “mournful words”—

But I beneath a rougher sea
Was whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.

And it is significant that this displacement is accomplished not by Mr. Ramsay himself, but by the words that embody the heroic image he wishes to project—words that displace the others in the boat (“them all”), grammatically privileging then, his sorrow and his plea for sympathy, as do the semantics of the “mournful words” themselves.20 Further, the subject in these instances remains implied but indeterminate for a time when reading the sentence, such that the subject, implied by predication before being named, is held momentarily in abeyance before being formed into a symbolic designation (“them”); we are witness, so to speak, to the entrance of the subject into language—the transition from the self as indeterminate to the self as symbolically determined, from the preoedipal self, in psychoanalytic terms, to the self of the thetic consciousness, from the self as portent to the self as phenomenon. Finally, in such passive constructions, it should be noted that the phenomena of the self precede the subject, as if the sentence itself confirms a sort of Cartesian deduction: something was heard, ergo, someone must be.

The second type of passive construction found in the novel is a kind of “anonymous predication,” in which the subject implied by predication is entirely absent, or remains anonymous as, for example, in the phrase, “she had been seen sitting thinking” (65). The subject of the phrase (or “false subject” as it is sometimes called), the pronoun “she,” distinct from the implied subject of predication), does not “predicate” but is an object posited by the implied but absent subject of predication; “she” then, is predicated or acted upon (which is to say, passive). The passive subject “she,” then, has been acted upon without her consent so to speak—violated perhaps—and we know contextually in this instance that in fact “[Mrs. Ramsay] disliked anything that reminded her that she had been seen sitting thinking” (65). What emerges from such a grammatical construct then (and we note such words as “passivity” and “violation”) is an issue of power relations; we seem to get, by way of this grammatical construct, a subject whose very subjectivity is formulated by the act of being predicated upon, a subject who is logically preceded by predication, a subject theorized or constructed out of what is “really” the object of predication. And such a subject, grammatically speaking, is, of course, not allowed to act, is ostensibly without agency, potentially oppressed.21

On the other hand, the ostensibly passive “she” of the phrase “she had been seen sitting thinking” has, in a sense, subsumed or consumed the implied subject of predication: because this is Mrs. Ramsay's thought, the seeing subject (the implied subject of predication) is a function of her consciousness (although not, like the passive construction itself, of her voice). It is as if the sentence itself were an equivocation—or rivalry, one might say—between a thinking subject (in whose consciousness the active subject is implied) and an active subject (by way of whose predication the thinking subject is posited). This rivalry for possession or control of the self is, it seems to me, left unresolved, sustained in equivocation, much perhaps, like that equivocation between a self like Mr. Ramsay, whose “activity”—“Boldly we rode and well” (21)—is for the most part a function of thought, and a self like Mrs. Ramsay, who desires to convert her activity into thought “in the hope that thus she would cease to be a private woman whose charity was half a sop to her own indignation, half a relief to her own curiosity, and become, what with her untrained mind she greatly admired, an investigator elucidating the social problem” (14).

Further, in the same phrase (“she had been seen sitting thinking”), a hypothetical subject of prediction—Mr. Ramsay—is posited by context: Mr. Ramsay, wishing to apologize for having said “Damn you” to his wife, has said instead that he does not like to see her so sad, and Mrs. Ramsay, in response, has protested, “flushing a little.” This subject, then, which is not named, might, on the one hand, be read as the effacement or negation of the self, a figuration in which Mr. Ramsay is grammatically eradicated and in which Mrs. Ramsay's thought is privileged over Mr. Ramsay's presence (which might suggest that the “thinking subject” is, in fact, valorized over the “active” one). On the other hand, one could also view this (and other) “unnaming(s)” as the figuration of a self in the form of a radical absence that is stripped of the things that conceal the self, of mendacious and approximate signs. Hence, this resistance to symbolic designation, this construction that refers without naming, without the messiness of the notoriously slippery signifying process, constructs a form of the self that is, perhaps, a counterargument to the ontological receptacle implied by the phenomenon of “unclaimed consciousness”—a self whose existence can be deduced by way of its phenomena, but which remains nevertheless both uncontained and without presence.

There exist numerous variations of anonymous predication in the novel, instances, for example, in which the implied but anonymous subject of predication is plural, as in the phrase, “from the dawn of time odes have been sung to love; wreaths heaped and roses,” in which the implied subject is a community of selves, if not the entire human race. In this phrase, Lily Briscoe, arguing with herself over the nature of love—“so beautiful, so exciting” and at the same time “the stupidest and most barbaric of passions”—seems to invoke the authority of a hypothetical community, presumably to stack the deck for the beautiful and exciting side of love, which has prompted her “to offer, quite out of [her] own habit, to look for a brooch on a beach” (95). However, at the same time that Lily invokes the reinforcement of this “hypothetical community,” she refuses to name or define it, resisting symbolization and holding it in indeterminacy—as if, in fact, the existence of such an entity were suspect. For there is something decidedly ambivalent about a self “relating” to a community when the community is a function of the self (as this community is a function of Lily's consciousness)—an ambivalence, incidentally, rather like Woolf's oxymoronic “society of outsiders” in Three Guineas, a notion that wants to be inside and outside at the same time, or like Lily, both “undiluted” and “like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored” (50). Hence, such anonymous predications seem to call into question the notion of “communal consciousness” considered above; they seem, that is to say, to question whether community is not an imaginative illusion—a wish realized by the self for the self—to question how in fact one knows whether the community exists or not and how one knows where the self ends and that community begins. Similarly, Mr. Ramsay's preoccupation—“How long would he be read?” (99)—is (like Lily's thought) an instance of an implied but anonymous subject that is plural, in this case, a hypothetical intellectual community or reading public. In addition, this phrase contains a kind of inverted metonym, such that “Mr. Ramsay” has simultaneously become a function of his own work (a metonym) and an object posited by the intellectual community, a construction singularly, and perhaps tragically, apposite to a character whose lifework is all about “subject and object and the nature of reality” (26).

Finally, there is a form of passive construction in the novel, which I will call “miraculous predication,” in which context does not supply us with a (hypothetical) subject of predication, as in the phrase, “even the fissures and humps on the bark of the pear tree were irrevocably fixed there for eternity” (27) or “some weight was taken off them” (91). While an implied subject of predication still exists in these constructions, it is radically anonymous; it is a mysterious, inscrutable, unnameable presence, only the signs or predications of which are seen, a mystical thing that can only be known by its approximations. The implied subject of these miraculous predications, then, seems by implication to be “something more” than that constituted by the immediate predication itself, particularly in passages such as the following, which provisionally, synecdochically, name and rename—“this other thing, this truth, this reality”—before abandoning naming altogether by way of passive constructions:

Here she was again, she [Lily] thought, stepping back to look at it [her canvas], drawn out of gossip, out of living, out of community with people into the presence of this formidable ancient enemy of hers—this other thing, this truth, this reality, which suddenly laid hands on her, emerged stark at the back of appearances and commanded her attention. She was half unwilling, half reluctant. Why always be drawn out and haled away? Why not left in peace, to talk to Mr Carmichael on the lawn?


This self, then, that draws one out of things, perhaps the most enigmatic and fascinating self of the novel, is both absent and pervasively present; it is Being that is no one and can not be named, a potentially omnipotent but radically unknowable signifier.


One of the most repeated devices in To the Lighthouse is the use of the pronoun “one,” which aside from being a convention of British upper-class parlance, is a kind of trompe-l'oeil: while constructing a single, symbolic subject grammatically, it does not necessarily do so semantically—“one” can mean anything from everyone to this particular one, to no one (in particular). While on the grammatical level it is singular, on the semantic level it resists numerical formulation and positive particularity.

Naremore cites the following passage as the locus classicus “for a kind of experience which had an extraordinarily powerful hold on Virginia Woolf's imagination … [which] involves a loss of personality and an intimation of death and eternity.” He suggests that in this passage, “Mrs. Ramsay feels she has drawn closer to an essential self which can only be defined negatively, as a vast dark realm which everyone has in common, apart from the external personality, ‘what you see us by’” (139), a passage which I note because of the repeated use of the pronoun “one”:

Not as oneself did one find rest ever, in her experience … but as a wedge of darkness. Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir. … One could not help attaching oneself to one thing especially of the things one saw. … It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to things, inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself.


Semantically contextualized, the “one” of this passage seems, of course, to be Mrs. Ramsay herself, her own experience of the self: she could not help attaching herself to one thing. Hence Mrs. Ramsay, referring to herself as “one,” has expanded the boundaries of the self (like Lily with her hypothetical community) to include a reinforcing companionship. She has tacitly posited that there are others who feel this way as well, and has defined this hypothetical community in terms of her own consciousness, formed a community out of the material of her self.

Further, she has replaced the concept of her determinate, symbolic self with an indeterminacy, with the kind of disintegration of unicity that takes place repeatedly in this novel, as, for example, when Lily Briscoe feels that “that's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, It's a miracle, it's an ecstasy” (180) or when James, having seen the lighthouse from two perspectives, concludes that “nothing was simply one thing” (172). Similarly, Mrs. Ramsay, who seems herself to have the ability like the pronoun “one” to be both no one and everyone, is able, with a toss of her shawl, to make the boar's skull in her children's bedroom appear both as the skull itself (for James) and as “a mountain, a bird's nest, a garden” (for Cam) (106).

Even more significantly (and ironically), Mrs. Ramsay, thinking of herself as “one,” has set up a kind of distancing mechanism from the self, an other that, while not the self, is a close enough representation of it to facilitate self-reflection. This thing that is “other” than Mrs. Ramsay though is not the fixed imago of Lacanian psychoanalysis that allows the child to constitute him/herself as a unified subject, but, as we have already noted, is an indeterminacy. If this self-reflection implies a metaphorical mirror, it is to be sure of the sort found in circus funhouses. The thetic phase has, in a sense, failed to occur: the preparation for entrance into the symbolic order has gotten muddled; the reflected imago has not constituted the subject into the fixed, unitary subject that is the precondition for signification, but rather, has thrown the subject back into indeterminacy, into the amorphousness of a stage anterior to language. The consequence of this disruption of the thetic process is two-fold: it allows for a kind of self-experience (or self-knowledge) undistorted by Lacanian méconnaissance; yet, at the same time, it produces a self that cannot be communicated as it does not meet the precondition for signification—the thetic phase, the positing of the symbolic imago.22

It is not, however, only Mrs. Ramsay who refers to herself as “one.” Mr. Bankes, for example, ruminates in a similar manner:

It was in this sort of state that one asked oneself, What does one live for? Why, one asked oneself, does one take all these pains for the human race to go on? … Foolish questions, vain questions, questions one never asked if one was occupied. Is human life this? Is human life that? One never had time to think about it.


One has the impression, then, that it is Mr. Bankes asking himself these questions, but that, like Mrs. Ramsay, he is doing so in a manner that has dissolved the symbolic self and created an indeterminate representation of the self that becomes a self-interrogating subject. Again it is significant that this self-interrogating subject, the imago necessary for self-reflection, is indeterminate, that the characters take themselves outside of the symbolic order to contemplate such things as life and the human race, a thing that would no doubt appall Mr. Ramsay who is portrayed as thinking with the symbolic precision of the alphabet itself, but who, on the other hand, can never “get to R,” which is perhaps to say, that he can never get to Ramsay, to the self.

When Lily Briscoe refers to herself as “one,” as she appears to do in the following passage, she often seems to do so not so much for the point of self-reflection as (again) for self-support: “She would have snatched her picture off the easel, but she said to herself, One must. She braced herself to stand the awful trial of someone looking at her picture. One must, she said, one must” (51). It is of course she, Lily, who must allow someone to look at her picture, but by referring to herself as “one” she seems to be “trading in” her self in the hope that the “one” she gets in return will have greater strength, or greater endurance than she has “alone” and isolated in a unitary self.

In other instances, the pronoun “one” seems, rather than replacing the thinking subject, to refer to another, albeit specific person, as, for example, in the following passage:

One seemed to hear doors slamming and voices calling … “What does one send to the Lighthouse?” as if she were forcing herself to do what she despaired of ever being able to do. … What does one send to the Lighthouse?—opened doors in one's mind that went banging and swinging to and fro and made one keep asking, in a stupefied gape, What does one send? What does one do? Why is one sitting here after all?


Again, thematically contextualized, the question “What does one send to the Lighthouse?” seems not to be asking what any one would send, but what Mrs. Ramsay, the pervasive absence of the final section of the novel, would have sent. This permutation of Mrs. Ramsay into an indeterminate pronoun seems simultaneously to evade the painful presupposition of the question—that Mrs. Ramsay is dead—and to reaffirm that a vacancy has been left in the community of being that no specific “one” dare try and fill. Further, the indeterminate pronoun seems to describe the very essence of her being in the final section of the novel: a presence that is both nowhere and everywhere, of the nature, perhaps, of the self of miraculous predication.

Finally, the pronoun “one” functions, at times, as a kind of double entendre. In the long passage cited above, for example, when Mrs. Ramsay feels that things “knew one, in a sense were one,” the final “one” of this passage could mean alternately that these phenomena were her, or that they were one and the same, a unity. Similarly, Cam, in the boat, on the way to the lighthouse senses that “one heard the waves breaking and flapping against the side of the boat as if they were anchored in harbour. Everything became very close to one” (169), which could indicate either that everything became close to her, or that everything became so indistinguishable as to seem a single entity. Cam then, by way of this double entendre has taken on the conventions of her mother's self-reflection, both referring to herself as “one” in a way that bifurcates the self and holds it in indeterminacy and inheriting her mother's sense of fusion with the external world.23 “One,” then, is a self that can not only multiply, but can unify, can assimilate, that is to say, the non-self, the Other, the phenomenological world, and make it self, if in fact it was ever anything else.


In lieu of concluding—and in a deliberate effort to resist reducing the complexity of Woolf's style to an axiomatic meaning or a determinate definition of self—I will close by overtly signalling two assumptions that have been implicit throughout the preceding discussion.

First, I would contend, in opposition to a large body of feminist and materialist criticism, that style and Woolf's “lyrical formalism” in particular, is neither a seductive disguise of the “real” project nor a self-indulgent lapse into bourgeois aestheticism; neither are considerations of Woolf's style, in my view, an “avoidance” of her ideas as Marcus, for example, maintains.24 On the contrary, I would suggest that Woolf's style is as much her thought as anything else, and that the ideas posited by her style should be taken as seriously and thought through as rigorously as anything else in or about her work.

Second, I would note that critics have often been frustrated with attempts to reconcile the equivocations and contradictions in Woolf's life and thought, with efforts to reconcile the Woolf of To the Lighthouse and The Waves with the Woolf of A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas—the introspective, aesthetically preoccupied Woolf, with Woolf, the political and feminist thinker. I would read such “equivocations”—and specifically, the unresolved arguments with and about the self that we have located in Woolf's style—as an impressively rigorous form of uncertainty, one that indicts deceptively facile resolutions, and insists that this thing we call the “self,” in its complex and collusive relations to language, gender, community and being, is a subject to be thought about at length and in detail.


  1. The classic study of self in Woolf is James Naremore's The World Without a Self: Virginia Woolf and the Novel. Some more recent studies which explore concepts of self in Woolf are Makiko Minow-Pinkney's excellent book, Virginia Woolf & the Problem of the Subject, Daniel Albright's Personality and Impersonality: Lawrence, Woolf and Mann, and Louise Poresky's The Elusive Self: Psyche and Spirit in Virginia Woolf's Novels. Bette London's provocative investigation of voice in The Appropriated Voice: Narrative Authority in Conrad, Forster and Woolf explores ways “postmodern” reading strategies interrogate the authentic voice of self-identity through which modernism (allegedly) constituted itself. Jean Wyatt's “Avoiding self-definition: In defense of women's right to merge (Julia Kristeva and Mrs. Dalloway)” discusses non-semantic aspects of Woolf's language and its relation to self-definition. Toril Moi, in her introduction to Sexual/Textual Politics, critiques feminist proponents of the “male-humanist concept of an essential human identity” (9), and briefly, via Julia Kristeva, suggests relationships between narrative technique, identity and gender.

  2. One might also profitably investigate instances of delayed identification, the use of indefinite subjects such as “someone” and “something,” the reliance on the conjunction “for,” or the “yes … but” and “So … so” sequences that Thomas Matro has signalled in “Only Relations: Vision and Achievement in To the Lighthouse.

  3. Smith defines “subject,” “human agent” and “individual” respectively as a “term inaccurately used to describe what is actually the series or the conglomeration of positions,” “the place from which resistance to the ideological is produced or played out” and “the illusion of whole and coherent personal organization” (xxxv). Smith endeavors, under an imperative of political contestation, to elucidate a notion of the subject that is neither the subject of humanist thought nor the “decentered” subject of poststructuralist thought.

  4. The French term “sujet-in-procès” has a dual meaning—both a “subject-in-process” and “a subject-on-trial.” The semiotic, according to Kristeva, designates:

    according to the etymology of the Greek semeion, a distinctive mark, trace, index, the premonitory sign, the proof, engraved mark, imprint—in short, a distinctiveness admitting of an uncertain and indeterminate articulation because it does not yet refer (for young children) or no longer refers in psychotic discourse to a signified object for a thetic consciousness.

    (Identity 133)

  5. Kristeva terms this phase which is anterior to language “the semantic chora,” borrowing the word from Plato's Timaeus to denote an essentially mobile and extremely provisional articulation constituted by movements and their ephemeral stases” (Revolution 25). In order for signification to take place, according to Kristeva, language must pass from the semiotic chora through what she terms the “thetic” phase, a phase analogous to Lacan's “mirror stage” in which the child identifies his/her image in a mirror, associates the unified image with his/her “self” (a “meconnaissance” according to Lacan), and assumes the “alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject's entire mental development” (Lacan, Ecrits 4). It is this experience of the other that prepares the child for entrance into the symbolic realm of language where s/he will be expected to formulate the previously “semiotic” and polymorphous self of instinctual drives into a unitary and symbolic part of speech—a grammatical subject. Kristeva views this thetic phase then, like Lacan's mirror stage, “as a place of the Other, as the precondition for signification i.e., the precondition for the positing of language.” It is this phase that “marks a threshold between [the] two heterogeneous realms: the semiotic and the symbolic” (Revolution 48).

  6. Kristeva cites Lautreamont, Mallarmé, Joyce and Artaud as authors that exemplify this “revolution.” Smith contends that in Kristeva's recent work her “championing of avant-garde textuality” has functioned to “turn her emphasis away from the mutually constraining dialectic between the semiotic and the symbolic, and toward a revindication of a putative priority and primacy of the semiotic” (126).

  7. There has been intense critical disagreement over what to call Woolf's prose method—interior monologue? indirect interior monologue? style indirect libre? stream of consciousness?—a controversy arising perhaps out of the fact that hers is not one method, but a combination and/or palimpsest of techniques. See Naremore (65 ff.) or McLaurin (30 ff.).

  8. In fact, as Gerard Genette points out, “The truth is that mimesis in words can only be mimesis of words. Other than that, all we have and can have is degrees of diegesis” (164).

  9. In Genette's view, the term “point of view” includes both voice and “perspective.” Hence he christens the term “focalization” to describe that for which we have used the more traditional term “point of view.” His more precise term for Auerbach's “multipersonal representation of consciousness” would be “multiple internal focalization” (189 ff.).

  10. London's provocative and important study (which appeared after this article was completed), explores voice and its appropriation in “Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown,” signalling consequences similar to those explored below. (See chapter 5 of The Appropriated Voice.)

  11. The interrogatory strategies of “Professions for Women,” for example, seems to suggest both the desire to articulate that which women entering the professions might not be able to articulate for themselves, and the fear that one is presumptuous in the extreme to claim to express the sentiments of another.

  12. This imperative of DuPlessis' is part of her reading of The Voyage Out and a paraphrase (and perhaps misappropriation) of Woolf's own phrase in A Room of One's Own: “To break even the sympathetic male sentences, women must become speaking subjects of their own discourses” (51).

  13. Indeed, London asserts “a voice of one's own” to be the central fiction that Woolf's narrative strategies deconstruct. Moi summarizes and criticizes feminist scholars (particularly Elaine Showalter and Patricia Stubbs) who have chided Woolf for not speaking in a more straightforward, unified or “authentic” voice. She asserts, for example, that Woolf's prose “becomes incantation” and [persuades] the reader too, to give up the burden of structures of the symbolic self,” (122) (although I would contend that neither the author nor the narrator has “given up” anything symbolic here).

  14. Although Wyatt discusses potential drawbacks to this “feminine” experience of the self, she nevertheless valorizes it (in a way that Chodorow does not).

  15. She argues, for example, that “mothers of daughters tend not to experience these infant daughters as separate from them in the same way as do mothers of infant sons” (109). By contrast, she contends that a mother's attachment to a boy “expresses his sense of difference from and masculine oppositeness to her” (97). Chodorow's project is to investigate “the reproduction of mothering as a central and constituting element in the social organization and reproduction of gender” (7). She argues that gender is “neither a product of biology nor of intentional role-training” (7), but a function of the asymmetrical organization of parenting. In addition to her revisions of the pre-oedipal and oedipal paradigms vis-à-vis girls, Chodorow reinterprets penis envy, relates the reproduction of gender to the structures of capitalism and explicitly calls for a reorganization of parenting.

  16. Again, by contrast, “boys come to define themselves as more separate and distinct, with a greater sense of rigid ego boundaries and differentiation. The basic feminine sense of self is connected to the world, the basic masculine sense of self is separate” (169). Freud on the other hand, deems this experience “in which the boundary lines between the ego and the external world become uncertain or in which they are actually drawn incorrectly” (13) to be, in most cases, pathological when it occurs in adulthood.

  17. See Lacan (See Ecrits 49 ff.).

  18. Specifically, DuPlessis, in her discussion of The Years, suggests that the choral protagonist, because it is “not based on individual Bildung or romance, but rather on a collective Bildung and communal affect” is a strategy for what she terms “‘writing beyond the ending,’” a strategy, that is to say, that “sever[s] the narrative from formerly conventional structures of fiction and consciousness about women” (x). She suggests that “the communal protagonist” operates “as a critique both of the hierarchies and authoritarian practice of gender and of the narrative practice that selects and honors only major figures” (164). Along similar lines, Cuddy-Keane has argued, in her reading of “The leaderless and fragmented community” of Between the Acts, that “Woolf's choric voice” (275), by “subtle manipulation and transformation” (276) of comic modes, fragments the leader-centered group of Freudian theory and epic narratives, that it not “so much retrieves meaning from fragmentation as discovers how fragmentation is meaningful” (282) and that this strategy is “not merely an attack on patriarchal politics but a new apprehension of the nature of community” (283–84).

  19. London explores ways in which the characters of To the Lighthouse appropriate voice, which seems, in her work on To the Lighthouse, to have become a metaphor for consciousness, from more authoritative voices, such as literary convention. (See Chapter 6 of The Appropriated Voice.)

  20. This movement into the passive is even more salient within the context of the paragraph in which the active subject “he” is repeated eight times before the phrase “there was given him in abundance women's sympathy”—which effectively (and safely) detaches this sympathy from any “real” woman in the novel and replaces “her” with the impersonal subject “there”—and twice again before the phrase “the mournful words were heard quite clearly by them all” (in which he is himself displaced):

    He had found the house and so seeing it, he had also seen himself there; he had seen himself walking on the terrace, alone. He was walking up and down between the urns; and he seemed to himself very old, and bowed. Sitting in the boat he bowed, he crouched himself, acting instantly his part—the part of a desolate man, widowed, bereft; and so called up before him in hosts people sympathizing with him; staged for himself as he sat in the boat, a little drama; which required of him decrepitude and exhaustion and sorrow (he raised his hands and looked at the thinness of them, to confirm his dream) and then there was given him in abundance women's sympathy, and he imagined how they would soothe him and sympathize with him, and so getting in his dream some reflection of the exquisite pleasure women's sympathy was to him, he sighed and said gently and mournfully,

    But I beneath a rougher sea
    Was whelmed in deeper gulfs than he,

    so that the mournful words here heard quite clearly by them all.

    (155, emphasis mine).

  21. A critic such as Marcus, who views “all of Virginia Woolf's work [as] an attack on the patriarchal family” (4) might want to read this grammatical construction as a further formulation of this alleged “attack.” According to Marcus, “female heterosexuality is most often represented in Woolf's fiction as victimization or colonization. Those women who accept the ideology of female submission in patriarchal marriage,” she claims, “are silently condemned” (77). However, while issues such as tyranny and submission are certainly central concerns of To the Lighthouse, I would argue that the novel is far more ambivalent than Marcus suggests: even semantically, it seems to me to be the exploitation, rather than the existence of family relations (or authority) which is indicted—James realizes that it is not the “old man reading” whom he hates, but the “tyranny, despotism, he called it—making people do what they did not want to do, cutting off their right to speak” (170), and the novel is, in addition, full of images of benign and desirable authority or protection—the Lighthouse itself or the hen “straddling her wings out in protection of a covey of little chicks, upon which Ramsay, stopping, pointed his stick and said ‘Pretty—pretty,’ an odd illumination into his heart” (24). And of course even Mrs. Ramsay, the ostensible “victim” of female heterosexuality is quite capable, according to Minta, of “dominat[ing], wishing to interfere, making people do what she wished” (56).

  22. This is apparently a mode of experience over which Woolf felt tremendous ambivalence. On the one hand, even in an early text like “An Unwritten Novel,” she valorizes its aesthetic beauty, while questioning, cryptically, its ethic:

    But when the self speaks to the self, who is speaking? The entombed soul, the spirit driven in, in, in to the central catacomb; the self that took the veil and left the world—a coward perhaps, yet somehow beautiful, as it flits with its lantern restlessly up and down the dark corridors.


    On the other hand, it is mode of experience ostensibly associated in Woolf's mind with madness. Tori Haring-Smith contends, for example, in her examination of private and public consiousness in To the Lighthouse, that for Woolf “the isolation of the private consciousness is terrifying” (155). Marcus quotes a fascinating passage from the diary of James Stephen (Woolf's “mad” uncle), in which he describes feeling as if he were “‘two persons in one and were compelled to hold a discourse in which soliloquy and colloquy mingled oddly and even awfully’” (Marcus, 99)—a description that bears striking resemblance to the sense of “self” suggested by the pronoun “one.”

  23. This passage is followed, significantly, by one in which James takes on identification with his father, such that the familial roles are repeated, it would seem, in the next generation:

    and there he had come to feel, quite often lately, when his father said something which surprised the others, were two pairs of footprints only; his own and his father's. They alone knew each other.


  24. Marcus suggests vis-à-vis A Room of One's Own, for example, that:

    the author tries to hide her feminist impulses behind the skirts of several narrators and plants her darts at the patriarchy in between passages of fine writing, meant to seduce and solace the male reader. E. M. Forster and his ilk could then, by avoiding her ideas, praise passages of description and create Virginia Woolf the lyrical formalist, minor mandarin, for generations of critics to analyze.


    Showalter, Stubbs, and Marcia Holly are all critics who have taken even less indulgent positions towards Woolf's style and towards formalist criticism. A summary and critique of their positions can be found in Moi's introduction. Showalter, for example, criticizes Woolf's “strenuous charm” and “stylistic tricks” and urges feminist readers to remain “detached from [a text's] narrative strategies” (quoted by Moi 2–3, 7). Holly contrasts “formalist criticism” to “standards of authenticity” (quoted by Moi 7). Moi takes issue with these critics as well as with Marcus’ “emotionalist argument” (17) and insists that Showalter's recommendation to remain “detached from the narrative strategies of the text is equivalent to not reading it at all” (10).

Works Cited

Albright, Daniel. Personality and Impersonality: Lawrence, Woolf and Mann. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis. Tr. Willard R. Trask. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1953.

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Cuddy-Keane, Melba. “The Politics of Comic Modes in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts.PMLA 105.2 (1990): 273–285.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Writing beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. Tr. James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1961.

Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Tr. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Haring-Smith, Tori. “Private and Public Consciousness in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.Virginia Woolf: Centennial Essays. Eds. Ginsberg and Gottlieb. Troy, NY: Whitson Publishing, 1983.

Kristeva, Julia. “From One Identity to an Other.” Desire in Language. Trs. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine and Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

———. Revolution in Poetic Language. Tr. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. Tr. Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1977.

Leaska, Mitchell. Virginia Woolf's Lighthouse: A Study in Critical Method. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.

London, Bette. The Appropriated Voice: Narrative Authority in Conrad, Forster, and Woolf. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1990.

Matro, Thomas. “Only Relations: Vision and Achievement in To the Lighthouse.PMLA 99.2 (1984): 212–224.

Marcus, Jane. Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

McLaurin, Allen. “Consciousness and Group Consciousness in Virginia Woolf.” Virginia Woolf: A Centenary Perspective. Ed. Eric Warner. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.

Minnow-Pinkney, Makiko. Virginia Woolf & the Problem of the Subject. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Naremore, James. The World Without a Self: Virginia Woolf and the Novel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973.

Poresky, Louise. The Elusive Self: Psyche and Spirit in Virginia Woolf's Novels. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1981.

Smith, Paul. Discerning the Subject. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Woolf, Virginia. “An Unwritten Novel.” A Haunted House And Other Short Stories. London: Grafton Books, 1982.

———. “Modern Fiction.” The Common Reader: First Series. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1953.

———. Three Guineas. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1938.

———. To the Lighthouse. London: Granada Publishing, 1977.

Wyatt, Jean. “Avoiding self-definition: In defense of women's right to merge (Julia Kristeva and Mrs. Dalloway).” Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 13 (1986): 115–126.

Martha C. Nussbaum (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia Woolf's ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in New Literary History, Vol. 26, Autumn, 1995, pp. 731–53.

[In the following essay, which was originally presented at the Seventeenth International Wittgenstein Symposium in Kirchberg/Wechsel, Austria, in 1994, Nussbaum discusses the ability of people to know and understand the minds of others as Woolf sets forth her theory in To the Lighthouse.]

“How, then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were?”1 Sitting close to Mrs. Ramsay, “close as she could get” (78), her arms around Mrs. Ramsay's knees, loving her intensely, Lily Briscoe wonders how to get inside her to see the “sacred inscriptions” in her heart, “which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public” (79). She searches for a technique by which these internal tablets might be read: “What art was there, known to love or cunning, by which one pressed through into those secret chambers?” (79). The art eludes her, and yet she continues to long for it: “How, then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives, which were people” (79–80).

People are sealed hives full of bees that both attract other bees and keep them off. In her complex image Lily Briscoe indicates both that knowledge of the mind of another is a profound human wish—it feels as if to have that knowledge would be to be finally at home, in one's own hive—and, at the same time, that this knowledge is unattainable. The hives are sealed. Their sweetness or sharpness lures us—and then all we can do is to hover round the outside, haunting the hive, listening to the murmurs and stirrings that are the signs of vibrant life within. We can never see whether those murmurs and stirrings really come from other bees like ourselves, rather than, say some engine constructed to make bee-like noises. And even if we assume there are bees inside, we can never fully decode their messages, can never be certain of what they are thinking and feeling. And yet we pursue the goal obsessively. Knowledge is a project that draws us to one another, and we cannot bear to let that project go.

The first part of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse depicts, repeatedly, both our epistemological insufficiency toward one another and our unquenchable epistemological longing. But the first part is also called “The Window.” The authorial image of the window stands in tension with Lily's image of the sealed hive, suggesting that Lily is blind to a possibility. And Part I ends with a scene in which, or so it would seem, knowledge of another mind is attained. Mrs. Ramsay stands close to her husband, who looks at her as she looks out of the window. “And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it. … She had not said it: yet he knew” (185–86).

Virginia Woolf tackles a venerable philosophical problem. I believe that she makes a contribution both to our understanding of the problem and to its resolution (or perhaps its nonresolution). She may well have discussed this issue with philosophers, and she may well have profited from her philosophical reading. It is not these connections, however, that I wish to investigate. I shall focus here on what is philosophical in the novel itself, both in what it says about the problem of other minds and in the way it says it—for I shall argue that the statement of both problem and “resolution” is made not only by overt statements inside the text, but also by the form of the text itself, in its manner of depicting both sealed life and communication.

Woolf's approach to the problem is very different from that of many philosophers who have investigated it: for she suggests that the problem of other minds is not simply an epistemological problem, a problem of evidence and certainty, but, above all, an ethical problem, a problem produced by the motives and desires with which we approach beings who are both separate from us and vital to our projects. Although for many reasons I shall avoid speaking directly of comparisons between Woolf and the thought of Wittgenstein—not least being the knowledge that we would never get started with Woolf if we once tried to get agreement about Wittgenstein on this issue—I shall simply state that her approach can in some respects be fruitfully compared with some interpretations of the later Wittgenstein, particularly that found in Stanley Cavell's The Claim of Reason, and with Cavell's own approach to the problem of skepticism.2 In other ways, as I shall indicate, her approach is intimately related to the portrait of skepticism and jealousy in Proust's Recherche, which certainly must count as one of the profound philosophical contributions on the topic. Woolf makes a distinctive contribution, however, through her depiction of the sheer many-sidedness of the problem of other minds, by her indication that it is not a single problem at all, but many distinct human difficulties that are in complex ways interrelated. She is distinctive, too, in her insistent focus on ethical character and on the virtues of persons that make knowledge possible.

In pursuing these issues, I shall examine, first, the statement of the problem in Part I of the novel: why is it that people are sealed hives to one another? I shall then return to the scene in which Lily Briscoe attempts to know the thoughts and feelings of Mrs. Ramsay, asking how Lily understands the epistemological project and why, so conceived, the project is doomed to failure. I shall then turn to Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, asking how it comes about that these two people, so deeply dissimilar, so lacking in first-hand understanding of one another's goals and aims, should nonetheless claim, at least, to have solved Lily's problem, communicating and receiving the knowledge of one another's love. On what does Mrs. Ramsay base her claim, and what should we make of it?


If one were to stage the overt actions and interactions of To the Lighthouse as a play, one would have hardly enough action and dialogue to fill half an hour. Most of the novel is set inside the minds of its various characters, and its drama is a drama of thought, emotion, perception, memory. Very little of this thinking and feeling finds expression in language. The reader is thus constantly made aware of the richness of consciousness, and of the tremendous gap between what we are in and to ourselves, and the part of the self that enters the interpersonal world. Only the prose of the novel bridges the gap—and this, we are made to feel, imperfectly and incompletely. Thinking about Mr. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes, Lily finds a host of thoughts and perceptions crowding in on her, a few of which the authorial voice manages to pin down—but then suggests the limits even of its own accuracy: “All of this danced up and down, like a company of gnats, each separate, but all marvelously controlled in an invisible elastic net—danced up and down in Lily's mind, in and about the branches of the pear tree … until her thought which had spun quicker and quicker exploded of its own intensity” (40–41). The crowd of gnats in the net become an explosion of uncountable fragments, and we recognize that even the lengthy summary we have been given—none of which any of the other characters will ever know—is no doubt only a crude pinning down, a linguistic simplification, of processes far more elusive and complex.

In this sense, as the novel shows repeatedly, people really are sealed hives—buzzing centers of intense activity, little of which is communicated to any other hive. The novel begins with a single sentence spoken aloud by Mrs. Ramsay. This sentence is followed by a page and a half representing the thoughts of James Ramsay, which is followed in turn by five words spoken aloud by his father, and then one more page from James's thoughts, eleven words aloud from Mrs. Ramsay—and so on. The ratio of internal action to external communication is frequently more lopsided still than this, rarely less so.

What, then, is the problem of access to the other, as the novel presents it? Why are the insides of the hive not made available for the secure grasp of others? First of all, there is the sheer problem of time. The inner world, like the company of gnats, moves extremely rapidly, has many many small pieces, each complexly connected to the others. If one were to set oneself to communicate everything, one would never be done with it, and one would certainly not be able to get on with life. (In this sense the stance of the authorial voice presents itself as radically detached from the ordinary activities of life: by determining to burrow into consciousness and to record its small movements in language, the novel is taking on a task strangely unnatural in the detachment from ordinary activity that it requires, and hubristically ambitious in its goal—a task that is hardly fit for a human being, that could be completed, perhaps, only by a god.) Lily thinks of Mr. Bankes and Mr. Ramsay: “Standing now, apparently transfixed, by the pear tree, impressions poured in upon her of those two men, and to follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one's pencil” (40). Human beings cannot even take down the dictation of their own thought, so rapidly and complexly does it move. How much more difficult, then, is it to communicate this thought to another; how impossible, it would seem, by following the signs given by another to attain access to the rapid complex inner world that exists inside another body.

But time, rapidity, and complexity are not the only obstacles to communication of the inner world. The novel shows us, as well, that language, the instrument we must use to make ourselves available to one another, is in some ways a very imperfect instrument of understanding. It is, first, a general medium of exchange, its meanings blunt and serviceable. It appears to be too crude to express what is most personal, what is deepest in the individual consciousness. Mrs. Ramsay thinks of the language of daily social interchange as a crude lingua franca that offers uniformity at the cost of suppressing individuality: “So, when there is a strife of tongues, at some meeting, the chairman, to obtain unity, suggests that every one shall speak in French. Perhaps it is bad French; French may not contain the words that express the speaker's thoughts; nevertheless speaking French imposes some order, some uniformity” (136).

This is not a claim that each person has a language of thought that is in its essence private. The fact that all these thoughts are contained in a novel shows that this is not Woolf's view. The claim is, instead, that the meanings of the common language become inflected with the peculiarities of each person's history and character and taste, in such a way that, although in principle language might express the peculiar character of an individual's thought (if we waive for a moment our reservations about time and density), in fact the shopworn common language of daily social interchange rarely does so. We also have here a self-referential claim on behalf of the language of the literary artist, which is able to render individuality in a way that most of us, speaking, cannot.3

Because the language of daily life is a blunt imperfect medium, and because each of us has a distinctive history and set of experiences, we find ourselves using the same words in different ways, to mean very different things. If we try to gain knowledge of another person's consciousness by listening to his or her words, and then asking ourselves what meanings these words conjure up in our own consciousness, we will frequently go wrong. Mr. Ramsay thinks about the universe, with a comfortably self-indulgent fatalism:

“Poor little place,” he murmured with a sigh.

She heard him. He said the most melancholy things, but she noticed that directly after he had said them he always seemed more cheerful than usual. All this phrase-making was a game, she thought, for if she had said half what he said, she would have blown her brains out by now.

It annoyed her, this phrase-making, and she said to him, in a matter-of-fact way, that it was a perfectly lovely evening. And what was he groaning about, she asked, half laughing, half complaining, for she guessed what he was thinking—he would have written better books if he had not married.


This highly complex passage reminds us that words, in life, are used to convey meanings that are shaped by an individual history. What Mr. Ramsay means by “poor little place” is not what Mrs. Ramsay would mean if she said something like that about the universe. For her, prone as she is to real depression, such a fatalistic utterance would only be chosen as an expression of despair. To keep herself away from the depression that menaces her, she tries to avoid such phrases. Her husband, by contrast, with his taste for the melodramatic, for “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and other images of courage pitted against disaster, takes a certain delight in characterizing the universe this way. The phrase expresses his image of himself as a courageous solitary voyager pitted against fate. That image pleases him, restores his sense of pride in himself. As she recognizes, the original thought that prompts the phrase is a serious one—he would have written better books if he had not married—but his choice of the quasi-tragic phrase is his way of avoiding the sadness such thoughts might induce, by portraying himself as a victim of fate, to be commended for his courage in sticking it out in a hostile universe. What would for her be a capitulation to depression is his device for keeping depression at bay.

Language, in short, issues from a personal history. It reports the speaker's meanings, which are often highly idiosyncratic, though in principle nonprivate and tellable in the way and to the extent that a novel is told. In some cases we might need a history of novelistic complexity to get at what those meanings are. Moreover, language also does things to and in that history. The words we use to others are not just reports of the inner world, they are also agents. To understand what Mr. Ramsay is saying here we need to know not only how he uses that phrase and phrases like it on many occasions, what actions and other gestures accompany that phrase; we also need to know or guess why he speaks at all, what he is trying to do with and by the phrase—in this case, to distance himself from real personal loss and guilt by the projection of a beloved image of solitary courage. To understand what he means—if, indeed, Mrs. Ramsay does (and we must always remember that her conjectures are shaped by her own needs and desires and are fallible, as any interpretation is fallible)—she does need to know the pattern of his actions and utterances, his history, but she also needs to know his desires and projects, what he wants, what he is seeking to do to himself and his world. To grasp all this, even in an intimate relationship of long duration, is a formidable challenge. Most people lack such information about themselves.

Suppose that these problems could be overcome—for example, by taking up the supple fine-tuned language of literary art, together with the literary artist's willingness to tell the story of a unique character so that we can get a grip on that character's idiosyncratic meanings and dynamic goals. We do suppose that we know things about the minds of others when we read novels of consciousness, and we suppose this with good reason, given that novels present us with data requisite for adequate interpretation of a human life, data that social interaction frequently denies us.4 The novel now shows us, however, that these are not the only obstacles to knowledge of another. For so far we have been supposing that people want to make their meanings known to one another. This, for many different reasons, may not be the case.

This novel contains no Iagos, no evil manipulative characters who systematically deceive, saying one thing and thinking another. In fact, it contains very little dissimulation of a morally blameworthy kind. And yet these characters almost always resist being known, speak and act in ways that actively impede the encroaching movements of an alien understanding. Social form is one prominent reason for this resistance. The novel is not just incidentally about middle-class English people, who carry with them cultural habits of reticence so long developed that they have become a part of their very character, making it impossible for them to give direct expression to most sentiments, especially deep emotions, especially any socially discordant thought. As Mrs. Ramsay speaks the polite “French” appropriate to social intercourse, Charles Tansley thinks of the more violent, expressive language he would use with his lower-class friends, “there in a society where one could say what one liked” (136) without worrying about decorum. He “suspected the insincerity” (136) of the social language, and thinks of how he will call it “nonsense.” But this is not simply a point about English social habits. Any social code, the novel suggests, imposes some discipline on the expression of emotion; in order to achieve order and uniformity, it teaches people to have at least some reticence, some reluctance to be known.

But there are other more personal motives for this reluctance. Above all, the novel shows us the strength of shame as a motive for self-concealment. Behind Charles Tansley's anger and his fantasies of denouncing the Ramsays to the people of his class is a profound feeling of embarrassment and inadequacy that he is not like them, does not belong, has nothing appropriate to say. He desperately conceals this insecurity beneath his angry silence. For Mr. Ramsay, the root of shame is not class-linked but personal—the sense of professional failure that underlies all his bluster and his fatalistic assertiveness. As we learn in a passage that is probably set in Lily Briscoe's consciousness (although it follows seamlessly a passage in which Ramsay himself is contemplating his career), we see him depicted as a man who standardly takes refuge in self-consoling disguises:

But … his glory in the phrases he made, in the ardour of youth, in his wife's beauty, in the tributes that reached him from Swansea, Cardiff, Exeter, Southampton, Kidderminster, Oxford, Cambridge—all had to be deprecated and concealed under the phrase “talking nonsense,” because, in effect, he had not done the thing he might have done. It was a disguise; it was the refuge of a man afraid to own his own feelings, who could not say, This is what I like—this is what I am; and rather pitiable and distasteful to William Bankes and Lily Briscoe, who wondered why such concealments should be necessary.


Out of shame at what he feels to be a gap in his attainment, Mr. Ramsay conceals himself systematically from others. Of course they guess at this—and we are led to think their guesses accurate. But the real emotions are not honestly “owned.”

The case of Mr. Ramsay shows us something else about concealment: that it is a way of getting power. Mr. Ramsay is not just attempting to cover his shame. That already has a strategic role: covering one's true weakness and vulnerability is one way people have of trying to exert influence over others. But Mr. Ramsay's strategic use of concealment is more complex: his blusterings and his cheerful fatalisms, which conceal from himself and others what he's really worried about, also have the role of soliciting attention and comfort from others in his circle, especially women. The utterance “poor little place” (106)—which Mrs. Ramsay knows to be a way of distancing himself from the thought of his failure—is also a solicitation, a request that she comfort him. She goes to him, as always, asking “what was he groaning about.”5 After Mrs. Ramsay's death, Lily Briscoe feels continually the now unanswered demand for comfort as something “bearing down on her” (221)—“and she pretended to drink out of her empty coffee cup so as to escape him—to escape his demand on her, to put aside a moment longer that imperious need” (219).

Here we arrive at a subtle point. Mr. Ramsay is not only in some respects a concealer; he is also a self-dramatizer. He makes himself more emotionally transparent, in a certain way, than the other characters do, especially in the third part of the novel—but even this transparency is both statement and demand: “Mr. Ramsay sighed to the full. He waited. Was she not going to say anything? Did she not see what he wanted from her? … He sighed profoundly. He sighed significantly. All Lily wished was that this enormous flood of grief, this insatiable hunger for sympathy, this demand that she should surrender herself up to him entirely, and even so he had sorrows enough to keep her supplied for ever, should leave her … before it swept her down in its flow” (226). Even the apparently frank statement of grief is not to be taken at face value. Mr. Ramsay does feel grief, but he is also putting on a show to get from Lily the sympathy he wants. It may be impossible for him or for anyone else to say to what extent he exaggerates or changes his grief in the process. Emotions don't stand still to be inspected like so many stones or bricks. The act of bringing them to consciousness frequently changes them; the act of expressing them to another almost always does so.

In fact, one might even ask how clear it is that there is a fact of the matter about Mr. Ramsay's grief that his external statements either do or do not render correctly. The inner world is fluid and dynamic, complexly linked up with the strategies and the aims of the outer. Indeed, it is frequently also undemarcated and in flux, a buzzing of confused conflicting feelings and impulses, which cannot be reported in definite language without being changed. In short, even when we have what seems most like frankness, we may have something far more complicated and strategic. The very concept of frank depiction of the inner may itself involve an oversimplification.

Shame and power are not the only sources of concealment and misrepresentation in the novel. The sheer desire for liberty and privacy is another. Mrs. Ramsay, who lives so much for and toward others, protects her few moments of solitude, cherishing these as what is most real, what is most herself:

She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband. … [I]t was a relief when they went to bed. For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of—to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. … This core of darkness could go anywhere, for no one saw it. They could not stop it, she thought, exulting. There was freedom, there was peace, there was, most welcome of all, a summoning together, a resting on a platform of stability. Not as oneself did one find rest ever, in her experience … but as a wedge of darkness. Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always some exclamation of triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity.

(91, 95–96)

Mrs. Ramsay protects her private self. But we notice that it is not the same neatly shaped conscious self that she might communicate to others. Her solitude is not formed for or toward the outer world. We reach here an especially deep difficulty in the way of knowing another mind. What we usually think of as “the mind”—that is, its conscious mental acts, acts that could at least putatively be rendered in language and communicated to another—are only, perhaps, a part of the mind, a part bound up with the outer world of “being and doing,” a sort of marshaling of the mind preparatory to communication.

Woolf's depiction thus supports a view of consciousness similar to the one advanced by Nietzsche in Gay Science, where he depicts self-consciousness as a relatively late evolutionary arrival, useful only in connection with communication. Most of our mental life, he plausibly stresses, could be carried on without it, at a level of experience and awareness more like that we are accustomed to attribute to other animals. This account has recently received strong support from research in neuroscience and evolutionary biology.6 Mrs. Ramsay supports this idea; what she feels like in and of herself is something dark, made up of intuition and free-ranging meditation. The more hard, definite, verbalizable parts of her are the parts she associates with being at the disposal of others, not with the core of her self. This may not be true of the identities of all individuals. For example, Mr. Ramsay is almost certainly more fully identified with his consciousness than his wife is. He feels most fully himself when he forms himself into words and concepts. But if we admit that Mrs. Ramsay's account of herself is a true account of many people much of the time, we have a very tough obstacle in the way of our knowledge of others: for the very presentation of self as a possible object for knowledge may be a kind of self-change—or even, as Mrs. Ramsay thinks, a making of a nonself, an internalized artifact of the public realm from which she flees.7

Woolf supports this outer-inner distinction: but she also calls it into question. For Mrs. Ramsay's identity for the reader is fundamentally constituted by her care for others, her public doings and actings. When she herself uses the language of the “outer” and the “inner,” and associates the core of her selfhood with the wedge-shaped core of darkness, the reader both assents and dissents. We understand this distinction not as a universal metaphysical claim but as a very particular psychological fact about Mrs. Ramsay—namely, that she likes to flee at times from the demands of others and to identify herself with her nonverbal meditations. The point about the significance of the non-linguistic stands: but it is more complex than Mrs. Ramsay's language initially suggests. For the public realm is a crucial constituent of the self; the meditative realm is both the hidden self and, at the same time, the death of the self. Consider the way the passage goes on: “Not as oneself did one find rest ever, in her experience. … Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir.” Mrs. Ramsay feels herself at such moments to be very close to, almost identical with, certain inanimate objects, “trees, streams, flowers” (97). But that both is and is not to be Mrs. Ramsay.


In the light of all these obstacles in the way of knowledge, it is no accident that the novel is saturated with images of hiddenness and remoteness: the image of a loved child's mind as a well, whose waters are both receptive and distorting (84); the image of thoughts and feelings hidden as if under veils (160); Lily's images of the loved person as hive, as secret treasure chamber (79). The novel's very structure shows us this hiddenness, by giving us a miraculous access to thoughts of the characters, an access that they are far from having to one another, though at the same time it is still plainly incomplete—itself too succinct, too strategically plotted, too much a construct of consciousness and language, to constitute in itself a full response to its own challenge.8

(As we notice the novel's way of solving a problem human beings seem not to solve so well in life, we should recall that this novel represents Woolf's own personal attempt to know the minds of her own parents—that Mr. Ramsay's anxiety and Mrs. Ramsay's depression are conjectures that fill the hives of Leslie Stephen and her beautiful remote mother with definite sounds, as the bee haunts their outsides and uses the power of art to represent what may [or may not] have been within.)

Responding to the fact of hiddenness, Woolf's characters try to solve the problem of knowledge by attempts to invade the chambers of the other, to possess, to grab hold, even to become one with the other's thoughts and feelings. For possession would be, it seems, the most satisfying solution to their epistemological problem. The most elaborate case of this is Lily Briscoe's attempt to know Mrs. Ramsay, in the passage with which I began. We now need to examine this passage at length:

Sitting on the floor with her arms round Mrs. Ramsay's knees, close as she could get, smiling to think that Mrs. Ramsay would never know the reason of that pressure, she imagined how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public. What art was there, known to love or cunning, by which one pressed through into those secret chambers? What device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored? Could the body achieve, or the mind, subtly mingling in the intricate passages of the brain? or the heart? Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one? for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had thought, leaning her head on Mrs. Ramsay's knee.

Nothing happened. Nothing! Nothing! as she leant her head against Mrs. Ramsay's knee. And yet, she knew knowledge and wisdom were stored up in Mrs. Ramsay's heart. How then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hives, ranged the wastes of the air over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives, which were people.


Lily's attempt to know Mrs. Ramsay is, we notice, unilateral: it coexists with her own amused pride in her own self-concealment. This suggests that the project of knowing, as she conceives it, has itself something of the desire for power in it, is just as strategic as the desire to protect herself from knowing. I shall later return to that point.

Lily thinks of the project of knowing as, first, a kind of reading: we go (somehow) inside the room of the other mind and we read the sacred inscriptions that nobody else can see. But reading is not intimate enough, after all. It substitutes an internal object for an external object, but it doesn't really yield the grasp of what it's like to be that person, to have that person's thoughts and feelings. It is this, not just propositional book-knowledge, that Lily desires. She now thinks of the possibility of becoming fused with the person one loves, “like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same.” She conceives of this possibility in a frankly sexual way—as a union to be achieved by either the body or the mind, “subtly mingling”—“loving, as people called it.” In this way she alludes to the pervasive idea that sexual intercourse achieves not just intimate responsiveness but an actual oneness. She attempts, through the very intensity of her adoring thought, to achieve some simulacrum of this union. The attempt fails—she has no illusion that she has become closer to Mrs. Ramsay's mind than she was before. She then asks herself the question with which I began: given that people cannot be entered and possessed—are, in fact, sealed hives—how in fact can we know one thing or another thing about them? Notice that she abandons the goal of complete fusion and also the goal of complete unmediated access to the “sacred tablets,” and substitutes a more modest goal—knowing “one thing or another thing.”

There is, I think, a progress here, both epistemological and moral. The goal of complete transparent access to the “sacred tablets” is not just unattainable, it is morally problematic, since it asks that Mrs. Ramsay surrender her privacy and her boundedness before Lily's curious gaze. We note that Mrs. Ramsay is in fact most unwilling to give up her privacy, which she regards as a central constituent of her selfhood; we also recall that Lily herself wishes to be able to conceal her thoughts from Mrs. Ramsay, even while she dreams of removing from Mrs. Ramsay all possibility of concealment. The move from unmediated reading to fusion deepens the problem: for the wish to be fused with Mrs. Ramsay isn't a wish to know her as other, as Mrs. Ramsay—as Lily quickly recognizes; it is a wish to incorporate her power, to be that powerful envied presence.9 But, as Lily soon discovers,10 having the other person's thoughts and feelings as oneself, in one's own body and mind, is neither necessary nor sufficient for knowledge of the other: not sufficient, because that would precisely be not to know the other, the separateness and externality of that life, those feelings; not necessary, because we can conceive of a knowledge that does not entail possession, that acknowledges, in fact, the impossibility of possession as a central fact about the lives of persons. That alternative remains to be discussed—and I think that Woolf in many respects anticipates Cavell's argument. But there appears to be wisdom in Lily's shift from the grandiose demand for possession to the modest demand to know “one thing or another thing” about those sealed hives that murmur and buzz as we hover greedily around them. At the very least, Lily's new question involves a more adequate conception of herself—as not a superhuman but a human being, finite in both body and mind, partial and incomplete, separate from other humans of necessity and always.


Woolf's image of the window suggests that people are not completely sealed to one another. There is an opening, one can see through or see in, even if one cannot enter. Part I of the novel ends with a knowledge-claim: “She had not said it: yet he knew” (186). In not a trivial but a central matter—a wife's love—Mr. Ramsay is said by his wife to have gained knowledge. What is the basis for this claim? And to what extent does this case offer a solution to the problems of knowing raised elsewhere in the novel?

Very clearly, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay do not gain knowledge by any kind of unity or mingling of experience, nor by any violation of one another's solitude and privacy. One of the distinctive features of their relationship is a cautious respect for that which the other wishes to conceal. Mrs. Ramsay senses a good deal about his academic insecurity and his sense of incomplete achievement. But she does not try to get at those insecurities or to show her knowledge of him by dragging them out into the open. Think what it would be for her to demand that he talk about his failures; suppose, in the scene we have examined, she had said to him, “Tell me what's really going on when you say, ‘Poor little place’—you aren't worrying about the universe really, are you, you are worrying about your book.” We see that such a claim or demand for “knowledge” would be a way of belittling him and asserting ascendancy over him. She shows him respect and love by allowing him his concealment. She doesn't even try to grasp his failure sharply in her own mind—for it would be incompatible with her love to see him as a failure. We might even say that this respect for hiddenness, and this reluctance to pry even in imagination, are Mrs. Ramsay's ways of knowing her husband's insecurities in the context of his life—of seeing their importance and their role, of behaving in a way that acknowledges their importance and their role. (Notice that this means that knowing is a very individual thing: in another relationship one might be aware that the person was longing to be “seen through,” thrived on that particular kind of intimacy.)

On his side Mr. Ramsay, who is accustomed to burst in on the privacy of others, “bearing down” on Lily and the children, is very careful with his wife's solitude.

He turned and saw her. Ah! She was lovely, lovelier now than ever he thought. But he could not speak to her. He could not interrupt her. He wanted urgently to speak to her now that James was gone and she was alone at last. But he resolved, no; he would not interrupt her. She was aloof from him now in her beauty, in her sadness. He would let her be, and he passed her without a word, though it hurt him that she should look so distant, and he could not reach her, he could do nothing to help her.

(100; see also 103)

Mr. Ramsay knows his wife, we might say, in a way in which he knows no other character. What does this mean? It means, I think, that he attends to her more fully as a person separate from himself existing in her own right, rather than as an instrument of consolation for himself. His knowledge of her separate being is expressed in, and perhaps also constituted by, such small episodes of noticing and respecting, of refusing to burst in upon her. He puts her own mind at the center of the stage and subordinates, for once, the imperious demands of his own. All that may be at least part of what it is to know another mind as other.

Nor do Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay know one another by analogy, or by similar and parallel structures of experience. Of course at a very general level they do analogize—they interpret one another as human beings and as sharing with them certain goals and aims characteristic of human life as they know it. But analogy of that sort doesn't go very far, especially in the context of both idiosyncrasy and socially taught gender differences.11 We know that they are very dissimilar, in thought patterns, in thought content, in patterns of emotional response, in goals and actions, in what they mean by their words. Part of what convinces us that they do have knowledge of one another is the fact that, in case after case, they allow for these differences, they refuse to analogize. He knows that she doesn't want comfort, even though with similar utterances that is exactly what he would be thinking about and wanting. She knows that he is more exhilarated than despairing when he says the words that to her would mean despair. This doesn't even mean that they can vividly imagine what it would be like to be the other person. Sometimes they can, and sometimes they can't. Mr. Ramsay cannot empathetically conceive of her depressed ruminations, though he can learn to respect them; Mrs. Ramsay thinks his mind is strangely different from her own, while recognizing that she cannot really quite imagine what it is like to be him:

Was it not odd, she reflected? Indeed he seemed to her sometimes made differently from other people, born blind, deaf, and dumb, to the ordinary things, but to the extraordinary things, with an eye like an eagle's. His understanding often astonished her. But did he notice the flowers? No. Did he notice the view? No. Did he even notice his own daughter's beauty, or whether there was pudding on his plate or roast beef? He would sit at table with them like a person in a dream. … [T]hen, she thought, stooping down to look, a great mind like his must be different in every way from ours.


Here we see that in one sense Mrs. Ramsay has only the most rudimentary knowledge of her husband's mind. She has no idea what he thinks about, nor has she any inclination for the sort of abstract thinking she associates with her vague notion of “the great mind.” All she can say about it is what it leaves out; and she herself couldn't think in a way that leaves out those daily things.

How, then, do they know each other, insofar as they do? We might say, they know one another as we know them—by reading. Having lived together for a long time, they have gathered a lot of information about patterns of speech, action, reaction. Among other things, they have learned a lot—partly by making mistakes with one another—about the limits of analogizing, about relevant similarities and differences. They have gathered this information, furthermore, not in the manner of a detached scientist, but in the course of interactions to which both ascribe enormous importance. They work hard to “read” the other, to fit the data into a meaningful and predictively accurate pattern, because each loves the other more than anyone else in the world, and it thus matters tremendously that they should get one another right, as far as possible. They spend a good part of their solitude thinking about each other, piecing together what they perceive and think, learning to read not just statements, but also gestures, facial expressions, silences. Each learns the idiosyncratic text of the other in the way that one might learn a foreign language—never having a once-for-all guaranteed translation manual, but holistically piecing it all together, trying to make the best sense, over time, of all the words and phrases.

The novel suggests that their love for and need of one another plays an important role in making them good readers. Because of this love and need, they hover around one another, they allow signals from the other to pull them out of themselves. When Mr. Ramsay, chuckling at the story of Hume stuck in a bog (which comforts him, on account of its metaphorical relation to his intellectual predicament), notices the way she purses her lips while knitting, he quickly reads a good deal in the expression: “he could not help noting, as he passed, the sternness at the heart of her beauty. It saddened him, and her remoteness pained him, and he felt, as he passed, that he could not protect her, and, when he reached the hedge, he was sad. He could do nothing to help her. He must stand by and watch her. Indeed, the infernal truth was, he made things worse for her. He was irritable—he was touchy. He had lost his temper over the Lighthouse. He looked into the hedge, into its intricacy, its darkness” (98-99). Here love pulls him toward perceptions and reflections that elude him completely in the case of other people. A simple facial expression is read in ways that pull in data from years of knowledge of her sadness—so that he knows, as he passes, not only what she is likely to be feeling, but also what he can and cannot do to help. And this leads him to a more accurate reading of himself, since to himself he is a text just as difficult to read correctly as any other mind. Later, at the dinner party, with their focused intensity of mutual concern, the two are able to carry on complicated conversations about the proceedings simply by small gestures and expressions: “And why not? Mrs. Ramsay demanded. Surely they could let Augustus have his soup if he wanted it. He hated people wallowing in food, Mr. Ramsay frowned at her. He hated everything dragging on for hours like this. But he had controlled himself, Mr. Ramsay would have her observe, disgusting though the sight was. But why show it so plainly, Mrs. Ramsay demanded (they looked at each other down the long table sending these questions and answers across, each knowing exactly what the other felt)” (144). Once again, both long familiarity and an intensity of focus inspired by love are at work to make their language vastly more efficient than the clumsy “French” of social interaction. Because they have been in similar situations together and talked about them afterwards for many years, each caring what the other feels, the smallest facial sign conveys a history. The theory of truth underlying the knowledge claim is a coherence theory, clearly—they each have no independent unmediated access to the “sacred tablets,” either in self or in the other. But there is every reason to feel, here, that the demands of coherence have been well met.

We now need to examine the scene with which “The Window” ends, as it builds up to its final knowledge claim. Mrs. Ramsay watches her husband as he reads a novel of Walter Scott. She reads the meaning of his expressions of pleasure and satisfaction—by combining what she knows of his anxieties about his own work, combined with the likely effect of Charles Tansley's dismissal of Scott at dinner (177). She knows well the persistence and centrality of his worries about whether his books will be read, even though at the same time she doesn't quite know what it is like for him to have those worries. (“It didn't matter, any of it, she thought. A great man, a great book, fame—who could tell? She knew nothing about it” [177].) She then thinks in a general way about his truthfulness and outspokenness. “If only he would speak! She had complete trust in him” (178).

This is an important moment, since it reminds us that none of the knowledge either has of the other is immune to doubt, based as it all is on reading and interpretation. They get from coherence to knowledge not by any extra step of grasping or possessing, but simply by trusting, by waiving the skeptical questions that could arise even about such a complex and carefully sorted fabric of data. Trust, of course, is itself not blind; she trusts his truthfulness because her experience has shown her that he can be trusted. But experience never really shows this; it never really rules out a refined clever deception.12 So in allowing her experience of him to have this meaning, to lead all the way to trust, Mrs. Ramsay does add to the evidence an extra ingredient—a willingness, we might say, to be at his disposal, to leave her life open to what he says and does.13 Roused from her reverie by the sound of her husband slapping his thighs with pleasure, she knows that he is delighted by the fact that Scott's novel holds up and gives delight—and so perhaps his writings have some lasting life in them, and perhaps it doesn't even matter. “Their eyes met for a second; but they did not want to speak to each other. They had nothing to say, but something seemed, nevertheless, to go from him to her” (179).

As she reads a sonnet, she falls into a pleasant trance, and feels the peace of a mind swept clean and clear (181). He looks at her, and she feels what he is thinking. The novel itself now shifts rapidly from one center of consciousness to the other, so that we can hardly tell who is having what thought, so rapidly and accurately do they communicate: “But she was becoming conscious of her husband looking at her. He was smiling at her, quizzically, as if he were ridiculing her gently for being asleep in broad daylight, but at the same time he was thinking, Go on reading. You don't look sad now, he thought. And he wondered what she was reading, and exaggerated her ignorance, her simplicity, for he liked to think that she was not clever, not book-learned at all. He wondered if she understood what she was reading. Probably not, he thought. She was astonishingly beautiful” (182). If in part the exaggeration of her ignorance is in his mind, it is also, equally, in hers—she knows how he sees her, and perhaps, too, he knows that he exaggerates. (In this odd way, knowledge can be present even when mistakes are clearly being made.) He knows that he finds her beautiful, but she also knows that he finds her beautiful. It is on that account that she puts down her book and responds to his smile. Mrs. Ramsay now mentions the engagement; she wants him to respond, so she tries a joke—“the sort of joke they had together” (183)—another reminder of their long habits of intimate communication.

Mrs. Ramsay now feels the shadow of sadness closing round her. She looks to him, as if to appeal for help, speaking silently. He thinks of Scott and of Balzac, and yet they are responding with ever closer responsiveness and knowledge: “But through the crepuscular walls of their intimacy, for they were drawing together, involuntarily, coming side by side, quite close, she could feel his mind like a raised hand shadowing her mind” (184). The image of the shadowy wall shows us that barriers are never removed—but somehow the walls become more like shadow than like substance, and she can feel the action of his mind as if it stood between her and life, casting protection over her mind. He fidgets, thinking how little he likes her “pessimism.” He says, in a sharp tone, “You won't finish that stocking tonight.” The words are trivial, but they communicate far more. “That was what she wanted—the asperity in his voice reproving her. If he says it's wrong to be pessimistic probably it is wrong, she thought” (184).

Here we are returned to our earlier point about words and actions—but with a difference. For earlier we observed that people use words to conceal vulnerability and to gain power over others. Here, too, the use of words is strategic, but the strategy is one of comfort. His asperity is protection.

Now she senses that his look has changed. “He wanted something—wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him” (184). She finds it difficult to put her emotions into words. She recognizes their mental difference here—for him verbal articulation of emotion is natural and easy, for her it is not. Instead, she looks for an action through which she can convey the meaning he wants: “Was there no crumb on his coat? Nothing she could do for him?” (185). She stands by the window with the stocking in her hand; he watches her, demanding an expression of love.

Then, knowing that he was watching her, instead of saying anything she turned, holding her stocking, and looked at him. And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. And smiling she looked out of the window and said (thinking to herself, Nothing on earth can equal this happiness)—

“Yes, you were right. It's going to be wet tomorrow. You won't be able to go.” And she looked at him smiling. For she had triumphed again. She had not said it: yet he knew.


How is knowledge conveyed? The entire pattern of the marriage is the necessary background. A smile, a trivial sentence—all this would mean nothing without the years of intimacy and of daily life that lead up to the moment. In the moment, she conveys her love simply by turning to him and looking at him, only that. It is only after she feels the happiness of knowing that he knows that she says her indulgent words about the weather, healing the slight quarrel that had erupted in the morning. How does he know that she loves him? Only by his experience of her verbal reluctance, her beauty, her willingness to turn to him with her beauty. None of this is beyond skepticism, clearly; and Mr. Ramsay, demanding words, is at times not immune to doubt and the need for reassurance. But here doubts are put aside and trust, it would seem, enables him to move from interpretation to knowledge. They don't raise doubts not because all grounds for doubt have been extinguished, but because that is the way they are, that is the way their marriage is. Skepticism is an attitude, a way of relating, that is just not their way, at least in the context of this history of long intimacy and loyalty.

How far, then, have the problems of knowledge, as the novel presents them, been answered? As fine readers of one another's words, gestures, and actions, the Ramsays have clearly gotten beyond the crudeness of everyday speech as a medium of communication, and have also come to a refined understanding of the differences in the personal meanings with which each invests words and gestures. They have not, however, found a magic remedy for the deeper issues with which the novel presents us: problems of shame, of power-seeking, of the sheer need for hiddenness. They surmount these problems, to the extent that they do—and we feel that this is considerable, though not total—simply by making a continual patient effort to be a certain sort of person in relation to one another, to be willing to put aside shame or pride, to be willing to use the power of marriage generously rather than manipulatively, to be willing to allow their privacy to be qualified by the needs of another. If Mrs. Ramsay triumphs in conveying the knowledge of love, the triumph is one of yielding generosity—for she has allowed him to summon her out of herself. If Mr. Ramsay triumphs in extracting the much-desired communication, it is again a triumph made possible only by his being the sort of person who is ready to come to her aid. Knowledge, in short, is a function of character.


As readers of Woolf's novel, we may become aware that our own activity is analogous to that of the Ramsays. We read as the characters read one another, going over the presented features carefully and with emotionally rich attention, trying to develop an interpretation on the basis of both familiarity and concern. The role of novel reading is discussed in this very scene, so that we are invited to explore the parallel. Mr. Ramsay responds to the Scott novel as to a beloved and intimate friend. He allows it to delight him and in a sense he trusts it—he doesn't read it with detachment in the manner of a skeptical theorist of interpretation. We feel that he “knows” Walter Scott not only by virtue of his familiarity with the novels but also by virtue of the vigor, openness, and unsuspiciousness of his response. But in his love of his wife there are also features that novel reading lacks. There is an intense absorption with a particular being who is seen as necessary for one's own life; there is a willingness to be extremely vulnerable toward her, to put much of his life at risk; there is sexual desire; there is, finally, an intense desire to give protection and love to her.

All of these features make personal love in some respects more problematic than novel reading. In the context of these deep needs and vulnerabilities there are ample opportunities for skepticism and jealousy to arise; there are many reasons why one inclined to such love might respond with shame-inspired concealment of self, or with projects of possession and incorporation. We don't really see what those possibilities would be in the case of our relation to the literary text. All this led Proust to hold that it was only in relation to the literary text and its author that we could really have knowledge of another mind. All our relations with real people in real life are marred by a possessiveness and jealous skepticism that are the more or less inevitable outgrowths of our sense of ourselves as needy and incomplete.14 Proust is convinced that this response to our own weakness obscures any accurate perception of the other person, since we make ourselves the construct we need. It also prevents any sort of trust in the evidence with which the other person presents us. We never rule out the possibility that the whole fabric is an elaborate ruse concealing something altogether different. With the literary text, by contrast, we are intensely concerned but not personally at risk. The author is not going to hurt us, and in a sense, we don't really need him. This alone permits us to have what amounts to knowledge of the mind of another living person.

Woolf's response to these points is not exactly epistemological; it is ethical. One can, of course, be the sort of person Proust describes. It is not difficult, in fact, to imagine the Ramsay marriage taking a turn in this direction—if, for example, she had come to feel that his whole relation to her was exploitatively patriarchal, that he underrated her capacity for autonomy, that he was using love and sex to bring about an unequal and unjust division of domestic labor. There is much truth in all these claims, and in some moods I feel she would have been right to focus on them and to be more skeptical of his love. Women frequently buy a kind of domestic harmony at the price of justice; skepticism in circumstances of inequality is a rational response.

On the other hand, one has to grant that a relationship based on this sort of suspiciousness of the intentions of the other could not be a good marriage, and would yield little of the interpretive knowledge they attain. And I also want to say that the relationship itself, whatever its deficiencies, has excellences—and the Ramsays, as parties to it, have excellences—that can and should be cultivated, whatever else we seek. If they are cultivated sufficiently, Proust's problem can be overcome. The marriage of the Ramsays has yielded a kind of understanding and trust that is admirable as an ethical norm even if we would prefer to see it realized in the context of greater justice—as indeed it could be, given different upbringing and different expectations on the part of the two partners.15

But this means that there simply are possibilities for generosity, for the defeat of shame and anxiety, that Proust has not acknowledged. To develop these possibilities would be the theoretical job of an ethics of character, the practical job of parents and teachers of children, and of friendships of many kinds.

It is no surprise that this account of Woolf's novel should end with broader ethical and social speculations. For it is the distinguished contribution of this novel to show how a problem that philosophy frequently cordons off from the messy stuff of human motivation and social interaction is actually a series of human problems of great complexity, many of them ethical and social, which can't really be adequately described, much less resolved (where resolution is possible) without reflecting about emotions and desires, without describing a variety of possible human loves and friendships in their historical and social setting, without asking, among other things, how love, politics, power, shame, desire, and generosity are all intertwined in the attempt of a single woman and man to live together with understanding.

Wittgenstein saw, if Cavell is right, that the problem of other minds had to be investigated in some such way, as part of the history of our acknowledgment and avoidance of one another. But there is little concrete pursuit of that investigation in Wittgenstein, nothing to compare with the rich detail we find in Woolf. This, it would seem, is because the concrete pursuit of that particular philosophical investigation requires narrative depiction of individual lives and their interplay, and this was simply not a task in which Wittgenstein was engaged as a writer. (I leave to others the question whether the joy and generosity displayed in Woolf's narrative approach, and so important a part of her “solution,” would have been compatible with his personal response to life.) A narrative approach to this set of problems is present in Proust, but in a form that denies the resourcefulness of human generosity and universalizes a primitive longing for comfort as all there really is to love, an obsessive peering at one's own mental constructs as all there is to knowing the loved one. Unlike Wittgenstein, Woolf depicts our searches for knowledge in something like their full human complexity and many-sidedness. Unlike Proust, she does so with an optimism about good character that makes the problem of skepticism a sometimes soluble ethical problem. The mysterious grand problem of other minds thus has, here, a mundane humble tentative answer or rather answers, whose meaning can only be fully grasped in the context of a narrative as complex as this novel: by working patiently to defeat shame, selfish anxiety, and the desire for power, it is sometimes possible for some people to get knowledge of one thing or another thing about some other people; and they can sometimes allow one thing or another thing about themselves to be known.


  1. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York, 1955); hereafter cited in text.

  2. Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (Oxford, 1979), esp. Part IV.

  3. Compare Marcel Proust: “Style for the writer, no less than colour for the painter, … is the revelation … of the qualitative difference, the uniqueness of the fashion in which the world appears to each one of us” (Remembrance of Things Past, tr. C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and Andreas Mayor [New York, 1982], pp. 931-32). Proust, however, focuses here on the unconscious expression of individuality by the artist in the creation of the work as a whole, whereas Woolf draws attention to the power of the artist consciously to represent individuality in the creation of characters, each with a different texture of consciousness.

  4. Note, however, that novels frequently do this by making meanings more definite and coherent than they are in real life. To put a meaning into words is already to impose an interpretation on what may have been an undermarcated buzzing.

  5. See also: “But he must have more than that. It was sympathy he wanted, to be assured of his genius, first of all, and then to be taken within the circle of life, warmed and soothed, to have his senses restored to him, his barrenness made fertile” (p. 59).

  6. Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Genius of the Species,” in The Gay Science, tr. Walter Kaufman (New York, 1974), sec. 354, pp. 297-300.

  7. We should compare the posing of this problem in Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable (New York, 1958), where the attempt to “say myself” is shown to contain a self-contradiction: putting himself into language, the narrator feels himself becoming a public non-self, a generalized “pupil Mahood”; and yet (as with Mrs. Ramsay here) to cease to use the categories of consciousness is in a significant way to cease to be.

  8. Part II takes on the task of depicting reality from the point of view of nonconscious nature—a paradoxical task, given that the novelist's tools must still be words and concepts, but a task that shows us Woolf's sense of the importance of a reality that is alive but nonconscious.

  9. See the related argument about sexual fusion in Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire (Princeton, 1994), ch. 5. On Proust's related arguments, and their defects, see Martha Nussbaum, “Love's Knowledge,” in my Love's Knowledge (New York, 1990), pp. 261-85.

  10. See the similar argument in Stanley Cavell, “Knowing and Acknowledging,” Must We Mean What We Say? (New York, 1969), 238-66. See also Cavell, The Claim of Reason, Part IV. On the way in which a desire for knowledge can generate a desire for incorporation, but then, in turn, the realization that incorporation would precisely not be knowledge, one might fruitfully compare aspects of Hegel's “Master-Slave” dialectic.

  11. What this brings out, among other things, is that the common “analogy” solution to the problem of other minds is too crude to be really informative: for what makes all the difference is to say which analogies are helpful and which analogies are not. The novel suggests that there is no single answer to this question—one just has to learn by experience.

  12. On all this, see Cavell, The Claim of Reason, especially the reading of Othello at the end.

  13. Could hate generate knowledge of another? In some respects, it might: for it could motivate a close intense focusing on the pattern of the other person's sayings and actions that would make the hater a good reader. On the other hand, if the hatred is mutual and known to be such, skepticism about the evidence would always be a reasonable response, and would defeat the epistemological aim. In an asymmetrical hatred—for example, in the relationship of Iago with Othello, perhaps one-way knowledge might be attained—but note that its condition is Othello's open-hearted trust in his “friend,” and Iago's consequent trust in the evidence with which Othello presents him.

  14. See Nussbaum, “Love's Knowledge.”

  15. Here I have in mind the discussion of love and justice in Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family (New York, 1989).

Eric P. Levy (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Woolf's Metaphysics of Tragic Vision in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 75, Winter, 1996, pp. 109–32.

[In the following essay, Levy argues that “at the most profound level, To the Lighthouse portrays the journey toward tragic vision, where the object perceived is the transience of the perceiving subject and the tendency of time to efface the structure on which personal stability depends.”]

In “The Brown Stocking,” a much quoted chapter of his celebrated study, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Eric Auerbach argues that To the Lighthouse inverts the conventional relation in fiction between inner and outer events: “In Virginia Woolf's case the exterior events have actually lost their hegemony, they serve to release and interpret inner events, whereas before her time … inner movements preponderately function to prepare and motivate significant exterior happenings.”1 According to his analysis of the novel, events external to character are subordinate to the subjective musing or “chains of ideas” (477) they evoke, as if the function of the outer world were to provide a stimulus for the inner one: “the exterior objective reality of the momentary present … is nothing but an occasion. … The stress is placed entirely on what the occasion releases, things which are not seen directly but by reflection, which are tied to the present of the framing occurrence which releases them” (478). As a result, the very notion of reality is transformed. That which happens as “exterior occurrence,” though indisputably concrete and actual in its own right, becomes merely the context or frame in which “a more real reality” (477) unfolds. This pre-eminent reality is constituted by the subjective processes (such as rumination and contemplation) activated through experiencing the objective or external world.

Auerbach concludes from his investigation of the real and the more real that the mimetic project of To the Lighthouse is to represent how life is experienced as the ongoing need to formulate its own meaning: “We are constantly endeavoring to give meaning and order to our lives in the past, the present, and the future, to our surroundings, the world in which we live …” (485). Yet, while his reading brilliantly highlights the hermeneutic tendency of character in the novel, it simultaneously obscures the very meaning which this need to interpret intends. For, if the search for meaning is somehow more real than the reality to be explained, the inevitable result of this inquiry will be to devalue the significance of what it explicates. The experience of explaining becomes more important than the experience it explains. Or, to invoke Auerbach's own phrases, the “interpretation of life” enjoys a higher reality than “life itself” (485).

As we shall see, though invaluable for emphasizing the two realities, outer and inner, this exegesis ultimately distorts their relation in the novel. But brief consideration of a later author, Samuel Beckett, whose fiction takes to its logical conclusion the very dichotomy that Auerbach describes, will help us clarify Virginia Woolf's approach to the problem. In Watt, the eponymous hero, bewildered by the unintelligible events in Mr Knott's abode, is consumed with the vain attempt to hypothesize meaning: “the long dwindling supposition that constituted Watt's experience in Mr Knott's house.”2 In The Unnamable, the struggle to interpret is not only more real than exterior reality: it is the only reality. For the narrator is now situated inside his own state of absolute perplexity: “Where now? Who now? When now?”3

In To the Lighthouse, characters display a similar tendency to reduce reality to the subjective inquiry concerning it: “For the whole world seemed to have dissolved in this early morning hour into a pool of thought, a deep basin of reality. …”4 But the paradoxical result of such intense introspection is, not to preempt what Auerbach calls “the exterior objective reality” (478), but to deepen the sense of connection with it. The fundamental voyage implied by the title is toward a point of view or perspective from which the polarity between subject and object, inner and outer reality, is temporarily overcome: “What device for becoming, like waters poured into a jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored” (60). Like Mr Ramsay, its distinguished “metaphysician” (44), the novel explicitly treats the question of “[s]ubject and object and the nature of reality” (28). But, whereas he, as professional philosopher, no doubt formulates his propositions in appropriately technical terms, the novel develops a different mode of expression—and one that ultimately concerns, not the distinction between subject and object, but the means of their momentary union.5

At the most profound level, To the Lighthouse portrays the journey toward tragic vision, where the object perceived is the transience of the perceiving subject and the tendency of time to efface the structures on which personal stability depends: “It will end, It will end, she said” (74); “this cannot last” (120); “How long would they endure?” (144).6 Thus, what is seen ultimately confirms the intrinsic strength of character necessary to perceive it: “But this is what I see; this is what I see” (23); “What could he see? Cam wondered. It was all a blur to her” (235). Yet, just as the tragic vision demands separation and independence, it also involves identification through community; for the harsh truth which it confirms is valid for all who live. This universality, however, entails more than a negative unity, where all inevitably confront the same “oblivion” (158). The most vital function of the tragic vision is to reveal, not merely a common vulnerability to disaster, “in a world of strife, ruin, chaos” (170), but some positive value or good founded on this insecurity and capable of transfiguring the meaning of every life lived.7

In To the Lighthouse, the redeeming value derives from the flux of time itself. For once this tragic condition is recognized, life becomes an “adventure” (117) whose wonder is its evanescence, always mingling the familiar with the strange. Inevitable loss, though the fundamental cause of pain, assures newness: “nothing stays; all changes” (204). Every moment can thus become a “treasure” (98), never to be taken for granted: “One wanted, [Lily] thought … to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, It's a miracle, It's an ecstasy” (229—my emphasis). Here, as in Auerbach's analysis, we find explicit reference to two levels of reality. But where for him the two levels concern the real and the more real (or the exterior and the interior), the passage before us offers a different dichotomy: “ordinary experience” versus “ecstasy.”

In this ecstasy, the subject is transported out of mere subjectivity by the act of perception; for that which is perceived is no longer just an object registered by the mind and subordinate to it, but a separate existence maintaining itself against ineluctable “nothingness” (144) and hence present with the vibrant immediacy of a “miracle” (229). To perceive in this way is not merely to intend or become aware of an object but to participate perceptually in its own act of being. Therefore, this mode of experience is also called “visionary” (176); for it perceives the object, not as a sense datum whose value depends on interpretation, but as a manifestation of irreducibly independent presence. Life, of course, can be lived only momentarily on this intense level. But it is established in the novel as an ideal—and equally as a reward.

To reach this “sudden intensity” of “vision” (237) or “intensity of mind” (52) is supreme victory of character in the novel, but one whose accomplishment requires surrendering the very illusions of security on which character ordinarily depends. Objects can stand out in the fullness of their own being only if the need to consider them against a subjectively constituted horizon or background of meaning is first overcome. But the task is not an easy one. For the inveterate human tendency, as presented in the novel, is to make objective reality reflect the assurances of stability and purpose which the subject prefers to see in it: “In those mirrors, the minds of men, in those pools of uneasy water … dreams persisted … that good triumphs, happiness prevails, order rules …” (150-51—my emphasis). The most importunate intellectual need involves, not truth, but certainty. The first principle which the mind seeks to affirm is security, even if that requires distorting “the nature of reality” (28) in the false “mirrors” (150) of thought. Thus the opposition, already noted, between “ecstasy” and “ordinary experience” (229) presupposes a more fundamental one: that between the tragic vision and mere mirror vision. The tragic vision confronts life or, to use Joyce's more capacious phrase, “the reality of experience”8 directly and without the embellishment of persistent “dreams” (150). In contrast, mirror vision sees the meaning of life as “a reflection in a mirror, and the mirror itself … forms in quiescence when nobler powers sleep beneath” (153).

The passage from mirror to tragic vision thus implies a psychological awakening as vivid as the physical one Lily experiences at the end of the second section: “Her eyes opened wide. Here she was again, she thought, sitting bolt upright in bed. Awake” (163). Significantly, the Lighthouse itself, that magnificent symbol, as we shall see, of the tragic vision which looks unflinchingly at the inevitability of destruction, is described in terms of indefatigably wakeful watchfulness: “Only the Lighthouse beam entered the rooms for a moment, sent its sudden stare over the bed and wall in the darkness of winter, looked with equanimity at the thistle and the swallow, the rat and the straw. Nothing now withstood them …” (157). Moreover, in one great scene early in the novel, Mrs Ramsay's own tragic vision is explicitly identified with the Lighthouse beam and opposed to mirror vision.

While contemplating the brevity of life (and of childhood), Mrs Ramsay “suddenly” thinks: “We are all in the hands of the Lord” (74). But just as suddenly she repudiates this thought (“Who had said it? not she”), and affirms that life is lived without divine protection. At that moment, she notices the Lighthouse, flashing rhythmically across the waves. The truth of her own perception is identified with its beam: “She looked up over her knitting and met the third stroke and it seemed to her like her own eyes meeting her own eyes, searching as she alone could search into her mind and her heart, purifying out of existence that lie, any lie” (74—my emphasis). Nowhere in the novel is the opposition between tragic vision and mirror vision more effectively expressed. In gazing at the Lighthouse beam, Mrs Ramsay has the impression of “her own eyes meeting her own eyes,” exactly as would occur were she looking in a mirror. But in this case, there is no mirror. What she sees is not a reflection of her need for security, but profound awareness of her own willingness to perceive the “pitiless” (75) truth about vulnerability: “No happiness lasted” (74). Soon after this recognition, as she continues her contemplation, Mrs Ramsay's mind is flooded with “waves of pure delight” (76) released by the perfect harmony of this moment and by the memory of similar moments of “intense happiness” (75) in the past: “It is enough! It is enough!” (76). Through accepting transience, she finds fulfillment. There is nothing more to ask from life than the fleeting moments of “ecstasy” (76) that occur in it.9

But momentary plenitude is not the greatest reward offered by the tragic vision; for if it were, life would have no higher purpose than the accumulation of what Maslow has called “peak experiences.”10 Repudiating the false reflections of order created by mirror vision and acknowledging the “gigantic chaos” (153) to which life is necessarily exposed enables a more durable and authentic order to be constituted—one whose validity is founded on the ephemeral: “Mrs R 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” (183—my emphasis). This extraordinary union of the momentary and the permanent, chaos and shape, flux and stability, is the seminal paradox of Woolf's tragic vision. The answer to the recurrent questions about the purpose and meaning of life depends on it: “What does one live for?” (103); “What does it mean then, what can it all mean?” (165); “What is the meaning of life?” (183); “Who knows what we are, what we feel?” (195); “What does it mean? How do you explain it all?” (203).

The source of these questions is the tragic awareness of mutability—that “eternal passing and flowing” (183) which, in virtue of its ceaseless alteration, seems without definite or intrinsic meaning. But this same unintelligible mutability becomes the medium in which immutable meaning abides and can be perceived: “there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out … in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby” (121). In this formulation, the flux of time (“the flowing”) is the medium through which form (“coherence”) manifests itself (“shines out”), just as in the Thomistic aesthetic (as Maritain paraphrases it) “beauty is [the] splendour of form shining on the proportioned parts of the matter” (20—original emphasis).11 Though the Woolfian and Thomistic interpretations of art and reality are radically different, pursuing the implications of this important connection between them will deepen our understanding of the novel and the role of the moment in it. For the relation between matter and form in the Thomistic metaphysics of substance (derived directly from Aristotle) is analogous to that between time and the moment in the tragic vision expressed in To the Lighthouse. But before showing how the concepts of matter and form apply to the novel, we must clarify their original philosophical meaning.

According to Aristotle, Being presupposes intelligibility: that which is must have a distinct and unambiguous identity in order to be known as itself and nothing else. As Owens explicates, “Entity implies determination”12—and “determination” here means to be provided with differentiating or specifying attributes. Now that which par excellence is determinately constituted in its own identity and no other is substance or the individual thing. Hence actuality belongs primarily to it. As Windelband explains: “The truly real is the individual thing constituted in itself by its form.”13 But every individual thing in the natural world (as opposed to the immaterial world of the heavens) is subject to a process of development or becoming whereby its own distinct identity tends toward full expression (entelechy). In virtue of this tendency, each substance is necessarily a composite of form and matter.

Form designates the “whatness” or specific identity of the substance which, through the process of self-realization just mentioned, progressively achieves complete determination, as the form of treeness is progressively fulfilled as the individual tree itself grows. In contrast, matter is understood as that which underlies this process. In Father Copleston's words, matter is “the ultimate basis of the real changes that [substance] undergoes”;14 to Owens, it is “the substrate of generation and corruption”;15 to Ross, “Matter [is] that which is presupposed by change.”16 Since this notion of matter will be invaluable in clarifying the Woolfian notion of time, some further explication of it is necessary.

The crucial point to emphasize is that Aristotelian matter is not material in the conventional sense. As the metaphysical counterpart of form, it is itself “wholly formless” (Mat. 199, n.6.) and “conceptually indeterminate” (His. 1:144). It is the thing considered only as bare subject disposed, as Owens explains, “to receive predication” (Mat. 203). As such, matter signifies the potency or aptitude to manifest form, as Windelband succinctly states: “The matter or … substratum is the possibility of that which, in the complete thing, has become actual or real by means of the form” (His. 1:148). It is crucial to recognize with Owens that, unlike the matter studied by physics, Aristotelian matter has no physical attributes: “Nor can the Aristotelian matter be represented by anything capable of detection by means of a pointer-reading. There is nothing about it, in itself, that could register in quantitative terms” (Mat. 201). Matter is simply that whose very “indeterminateness” (Doc. 345) is presupposed by the process of developing determination or form.

Equipped with these concepts, we can return to the novel. There we find a similar emphasis on matter and form, but one pertaining to a reality that is temporal, not substantial. Just as matter is the substratum of change in the Aristotelian metaphysics, so time is the substratum of change in reality as perceived by the tragic vision. But this time is not as innocuously abstract as that expressed in the conventional philosophical notion compactly summarized by Whitehead: “Time is the ordered succession of durationless instants.”17 Instead, tragic time is a seething flux of generation and corruption, a formless “chaos” (183) of coming to be and passing away, with no purpose other than its own continuation: “… as if the universe were battling and tumbling, in brute confusion and wanton lust aimlessly by itself” (154). But from this formless flux elements can be retrieved and ordered so as to create one composite experience whose “wholeness” or integral form becomes a means of illumining the meaning of the lives in which it is remembered: “There might be lovers whose gift it was to choose out the elements of things and place them together and so, giving them a wholeness not theirs in life, make of some scene, or meeting of people (all now gone and separate) one of those globed compacted things over which thought lingers, and love plays” (218–19—my emphasis).

These “globed compacted things” are Woolfian moments, as the novel defines them. The description of moments as “things” highlights the transposition of the language of substance from its original context to one involving the tragic experience of time. Just as, in the Aristotelian doctrine of substance, form achieves “phenomenal manifestation” (Doc. 1:143) only through the matter it orders, so in To the Lighthouse the moment achieves form only through giving stable “coherence” (121) to the disparate and transient elements in time which it comprises. Yet, these moments are not to be construed as identical units following each other in “ordered succession” according to Whitehead's notion of time noted earlier. The Woolfian moment is not so much a measure of time as the principle by which the experience of time achieves structure and intelligibility: “Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that remains for ever after” (121). Just as form “constitutes the ground of the coherence of individual characteristics” (Doc. 1:142), so the moment constitutes the ground of the “coherence in things” actually experienced (121). And just as matter, though itself bereft all characteristics, becomes the “vehicle of some conceptual determination,”18 so time, in the tragic vision, though itself mere flux, becomes the vehicle of that luminous conceptual determination which is the moment that “shines out … in the face of the flowing, the fleeting … (121).

Yet whereas, according to Aristotle, the emergence of form from matter typically results from the natural process of development, in the tragic vision the emergence of form from the flux of time depends on some creative agency, as in the example of Mrs Ramsay: “… she brought together this and that and then this, and so made out of that miserable silliness and spite … something … which survived, after all these years, complete … and it stayed in the mind almost like a work of art” (182–83—my emphasis).19

The locus classicus for the creation of a moment occurs during the Boeuf en Daube dinner party near the end of the first chapter. At first each diner is isolated in unshared preoccupations: Mr Carmichael swills his soup, Mr Ramsay deplores such “disgusting” (110) gluttony, Charles Tansley yearns for his books, Lily remembers her painting, and Mr Bankes wishes he were “free to work” (102). Eventually, however, through the influence of Mrs Ramsay, all are “united” (112) by participation in the same experience: “There it was, all round them. It partook, she felt, carefully helping Mr Bankes to a specially tender piece, of eternity … (121—my emphasis). Significantly, the phrase, “There it was,” indicating the sudden intuition of presence, recurs later as Mrs Ramsay reads one of Shakespeare's sonnets (No. 98): “And then there it was, suddenly entire shaped in her hands, beautiful and reasonable, clear and complete, the essence sucked out of life and held rounded here—the sonnet” (139—my emphasis). The juxtaposition of these two passages obviously suggests that somehow the moment, like the sonnet, also expresses the “essence sucked out of life and held rounded here.” The suggestion is reinforced when we remember that sphericity is attributed not only to the “rounded” essence expressed in the sonnet but also to moments as “globed compacted things” (218–19), each of which moreover, as we have noted, is “almost like a work of art” (182–83).

To clarify the essence or form expressed by the moment, we must return to the description of the dinner party. As they engage in animated conversation, the diners are “composed … into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass, which, far from giving any accurate view of the outside world, rippled it so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things wavered and vanished, waterily” (112). This is a crucial image founded on an extraordinary paradox. While emphasizing the opposition between “inside” and “outside,” the image simultaneously implies their identity or congruence. Initially, inside and outside are opposed, because the former appears as “order and dry land” and the latter as a rippling “reflection” of wavering and vanishing figures. Yet this opposition yields to the pressure of a subtle but insistent irony. Since the objects revealed by the glass appear to be reflected, the window is here associated with a mirror. But since the diners are facing the glass, they themselves become the implied referent of the “reflection” appearing in it, as if the seemingly reflected figures that “wavered and vanished” mirrored their evanescence.

This unusual mirror rewards closer examination. Ordinarily, no object more effectively establishes individual identity than a mirror. A subject knows himself or herself as this particular self by affirming the relation of sameness obtaining between himself or herself and the reflection.20 But instead of establishing individual identity, the implied mirror in the passage before us reflects its inevitable disintegration. Hence, the dinner party moment constructs what might be called the tragic mirror (the contrary of the false mirror connected earlier with “mirror vision”). To see oneself in the tragic mirror is to see one's own identity vanish “waterily” (112) into the same flux as that which dissolves everyone else's.

Yet, by thus foregrounding flux, the mirror here paradoxically reveals a principle of identity more stable than self-relatedness or ipsorelation. That principle is the “common feeling” (176, 218) or “community of feeling” (131) through which the moment itself is constituted and through which the separate and transient identity of each participant is subsumed by “the unity of the whole” (62): “that community of feeling with other people which emotion gives as if the walls of partition had become so thin that practically … it was all one stream, and chairs, tables, maps, were hers, were theirs, it did not matter whose …” (131—my emphasis). As a result, the notion of flux (“it was all one stream”) receives a different signification. Flux now portends, not the tragic extinction of individual identity, but its subsumption by a higher order of unity than that which individual identity sustains.

Thus, the tragic mirror symbolized by the glass-enclosed room reflects the extraordinary paradox on which Woolf's tragic vision is founded.21 On the one hand, the momentaneity of the moment implies the existential transience of each of its participants. But on the other hand, the collective experiencing of this momentaneity constitutes a supervenient unity that is said to partake of “eternity” (121); for its value abides “for ever after” (121), even though the moment engendering it has elapsed. To resolve this paradox, we must focus on the conclusion of the dinner party moment. On leaving the room, Mrs Ramsay turns back for one last look at the moment which has just ended: “With her foot on the threshold she waited a moment longer in a scene that was vanishing even as she looked, and then … it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past” (128). The terminal clause in this passage deserves close attention; for here the moment is described as simultaneously ending and undergoing transformation. After reaching the term of its development in the present, the moment ends but in doing so continues to develop; for it becomes the past: “it had become … already the past.”

This new opposition between ending and developing clarifies the earlier one concerning momentaneity and permanence that we found at the ontological core of the moment. If, after elapsing, the present moment is actually to become the past and not merely vanish into the undifferentiated flux of time, it must be remembered. The past which the present moment becomes depends for its very being on being remembered by a subsequent present moment—or series of them. For the past, to be is to be perceived, by memory. What is permanent in the moment pertains to the memory of it as the past. What is transient in the moment pertains to its inevitable elapsing in the present.

Here the distinction between the Woolfian and conventional notions of time is crucial. In the conventional notion, time is conceived as a conveniently ordered series extending backward and forward as past and future from any present point or instant. According to this view, the past is construed as a segment of time which the present moment automatically joins after expiry, subsisting there unchanged except for temporal position. But as we saw when consulting Whitehead, this is precisely the notion of time which the tragic vision dispels. Time in this novel is not linear, but “chaotic” (166). It is an indeterminate “fleeting” (121) which must be given “coherence” (121) in order to achieve structure and meaning. Under these conditions, there is no past in the sense of a separate section or compartment of time distinct in kind from the present and future. There is simply an undifferentiated temporal expanse, sometimes symbolized in To the Lighthouse by the nocturnal ocean where “our frail barks founder in darkness” (6). Indeed, the most devastating result of tragedy is to destroy the flimsy compartments separating the tenses, so that the present, losing its proper boundaries, seems engulfed by a sea of meaningless duration which heaves relentlessly in every direction: “… as if the link that usually bound things together had been cut and they floated up here, down there. … How aimless it was, how chaotic, how unreal it was, she thought, looking at her empty coffee cup. Mrs Ramsay dead; Andrew killed; Prue dead too” (166).

The extraordinary transition in focus here from the vast sea of time to the empty coffee cup invites examination. To the victims of tragic loss, time seems at once boundless and void of significance; for what once was is now no more than shattered wreckage floating precariously in the memory. Each day, however beautiful, succumbs to the inexorable necessity by which “night … succeeds to night” (145), and life itself seems but “a little strip of time” (69) tenuously suspended above the “waters of annihilation” (205). But when the sheer passage of time is seen as the sole abiding reality, and everything occurring in it appears as the mere elapsing of adjectives that qualify time temporarily but are themselves evanescent and hence ultimately “unreal” (166), then a deeper understanding of both time and reality can be achieved. When time is suffered as “aimless” (166) flux that “eats away the ground we stand on …” (52), a “passing and flowing” (183) in which “nothing stays; all changes” (204), the very function of memory changes.

Ordinarily, the function of memory is to recall the past, to summon it into mental presence. But in the midst of the tragic agon depicted in the novel, when the present seems to contain nothing but scattered memories of a past into which it too must inevitably vanish, to remember the past is to be aware only of absence and futility. Remembering, in these circumstances, is strangely similar to forgetting, because it now heightens awareness of loss, not retention. To remember is to intensify awareness of a void where once there was presence, an emptiness that no future can fill, an appallingly spreading darkness where once there was light. But from this nadir of despair, memory enables a staged ascent toward the sublimity of tragic vision. Though not clearly differentiated in the text, these stages are implicit in the narration, and can be discriminated by analysis. A vigorous dialectic unfolds through these stages, wherein a certain thought or insight engenders its own antithesis so that resolution must be sought in a higher order of unity which, in turn, generates its own contradiction and so on until the ultimate resolution is reached in the moment of tragic vision.22


The longer memory remembers, the farther recedes the past which is recalled, as Lily herself recognizes when grieving for Mrs Ramsay: “She recedes further and further from us” (198). But this very confirmation of the temporal distance between remembered past and remembering present can overcome the grief it entails; for the object of nostalgic longing becomes “… something receding in which one has no longer any part” (188). Hence, instead of evoking pain, memory can achieve detachment from the past, with the result that the value of the past as a guide for the present can eventually be illumined.


As the past becomes more remote, the present becomes more immediate. Past and future, as points of departure and destination, seem temporarily withdrawn or bracketed, so that only the momentaneity of the fleeting present remains: “[Lily] could not shake herself free from the sense that everything this morning was happening for the first time, perhaps for the last time, as a traveller … knows, looking out of the train window, that he must look now, for he will never see that town, or that mule-cart, or that woman at work in the fields, again” (220). Here momentaneity or transience undergoes revaluation. Instead of reducing the present to a succession of instants, each equivalently meaningless because inevitably replaced by the next, awareness of momentaneity now gives supreme value to the present as that which is unrepeatably unique—and hence, by implication, uniquely memorable or worthy of remembrance: “he will never see that town, or that mule-cart, or that woman at work in the fields, again.” But paradoxically, the consecutive momentaneity of these images ensures that they can never be remembered with the distinct individuality which constitutes their claim for attention in the present. For as swiftly as the train carries the traveller toward new perceptions in the future, so the present ones recede into the past where they become too numerous and distant to recall clearly or even differentiate.23


The novel elsewhere emphasizes this paradoxical tendency of memory to become an increasingly complex and intricate accumulation of forgotten content: “He began to search among the infinite series of impressions which time had lain down, leaf upon leaf, fold upon fold, incessantly upon his brain …” (192). As accumulated in memory, the past has no intelligible form, and subsists as a “vast imbrication” (to interpolate a Beckettian phrase) of overlayed and undifferentiated content.24 Hence, the function of recollection in To the Lighthouse is not simply to recall what was forgotten. It involves more than “the actualizing … of memory which has become merely potential, i.e. has disappeared from consciousness” (to invoke a passage from Ross's discussion of Aristotelian memory).25 Memory in the novel does not provide a mere inventory of what once was present, but instead determines what is essential in that which is recalled: “She 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 to hold it before her …” (129–30).

Thus, the function of memory is to abstract the form or fundamental meaning of the past from the myriad particulars in which it is concealed, as Lily recognizes when remembering Mrs Ramsay: “… that essence … that abstract one made of her …” (203).26 In becoming the past, the present moment loses its inviolable singularity, and becomes matter for the formation of a larger unity. Just as conception is the act by which the mind understands its own content, so recollection is the act by which the mind orders the past into formal clarity, and allows its form—its intelligible structure or meaning—to shine out from the recollected matter in which it is embedded. In fact, To the Lighthouse provides an unexpectedly profound gloss of Wittgenstein's famous dictum: “Man learns the concept of the past by remembering.”27 Just as, in preparation for Mr Ramsay's return, the neglected objects inside the “ruined” (158) house must be “rescued from the pool of Time” (159—my emphasis) by the toiling charwomen, so by means of focussed contemplation can particulars be arduously retrieved from the flux into which they have lapsed, then rearranged and perfected so that, as shown by a passage quoted earlier, memory becomes a creative act which actually constitutes the remembered past and thus transforms the meaning of the remembering present: “There might be lovers whose gift it was to choose out the elements of things and place them together and so, giving them a wholeness not theirs in life … over which thought lingers, and love plays” (218–19).

A detailed expression of this process occupies much of the concluding chapter where Lily's act of painting, synchronized with Mr Ramsay's sailing to the Lighthouse, ultimately symbolizes the act of rememoration: “She went on tunneling her way into her picture, into the past” (197).28 Painting and remembering are further linked by the imagery pertaining to each. The physical act of “dipping her brush” (229) into the palette is suggested in the description of remembering: “she dipped into it to re-fashion her memory of him, and it stayed in the mind almost like a work of art” (183).29 But the tendency to abstract the form of the past from the matter comprising it draws attention from the present, and risks reducing it to the mere occasion of rememoration.


Once again a contradiction must be resolved at a higher level of unity—in this case, one where past and present are fused in one sublime moment of comprehensive awareness. The ultimate purpose of Lily's rememoration is to use the past as a painter might use the colours in her palette—as matter to be formed into the expression of her own vision of reality in the present. The past is “illumined” (195) by the perspective in the present which it enables and focusses. In this context, the description of the canvas confronting Lily before she begins to paint is extremely significant. Glaring at her “with its uncompromising white stare” (178), the canvas is perceived as a “presence … which suddenly laid hands on her, emerged stark at the back of appearances and commanded her attention” (180). The perspectival imperative expressed by the blank canvas can be explicated by juxtaposition. The “white stare” of the canvas corresponds to the “sudden stare” (157) of the Lighthouse and to the “serious stare from [Mrs Ramsay's] eyes of unparalleled depth …” (58–59). These associations suggest that, just as Mrs Ramsay during her communion with the Lighthouse identifies her own “searching” view of life with its beam (“it seemed to her like her own eyes meeting her own eyes”—74), so Lily in remembering must identify with the “uncompromising white stare” of the canvas, probing for reality “at the back of appearances” (180). Through truthfully “illumin[ing] the darkness of the past” (195), the perspective reached by Lily in the present can become a beacon that “shines out” (121) across the welter of experience, “the waste of the years” (42), like the Lighthouse beam across a tumultuous sea.

To do so, Lily must exploit her own need for the past as the means of focussing her perspective in the present. Though she remains unaware of her own strategy, the narrative vividly implies it through an extraordinary interpolation. As Lily succumbs to “grief” (172), her longing for Mrs Ramsay becomes overwhelming: “To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain” (203). Suddenly the narrative of her “anguish” (205) is interrupted by a brief description of Macalister's boy baiting a hook with a small “square” (205) of flesh cut from a living fish which he then throws back into the sea. The narrative immediately returns to Lily whose “pain” (205) grows so intense that she falls (metaphorically) into “the waters of annihilation” (205). The interpolation of the brief Macalister section between the much longer sections concerning Lily has powerful implications. Just as Macalister's boy inflicts pain on the fish in order to catch a bigger one, so Lily (unconsciously) increases her agony concerning loss in order eventually to achieve her own tragic vision. It is as if Macalister's fish willed the excision of its own flesh in order to enjoy enhanced sight on returning to the sea. For Lily's experience of vision in the present (“I have had my vision”—237) is gained only by forcing herself to concentrate on the painful loss of the past: “One must keep on looking without for a second relaxing the intensity of emotion, the determination not to be put off, not to be bamboozled” (229).

Her arduous concentration is eventually rewarded by the sudden apparition of Mrs Ramsay, manifested as “an odd-shaped triangular shadow” suddenly cast on the step as if by someone seated in the drawing-room beside the window (229). Overcoming consuming grief (“to want and want and not to have”), Lily incorporates this presence into the retrospective moment she is experiencing with such equanimity that the invisible figure knitting “her reddish-brown stockings” (230) comes to signify, not just the deceased Mrs Ramsay, but the extraordinary facility for unifying awareness which Mrs Ramsay displayed and which memory of her inspires in Lily. Mrs Ramsay's characteristic act, knitting, beautifully epitomizes her gift for unifying the awareness of others in a shared moment which each remembers ever after: “… she brought together this and that and then this, and so made … something … which … survived, after all these years, complete …” (182). Bu