To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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How does the world shape the feminine imagination in To The Lighthouse and "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

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Both of these texts take a markedly different approach to the feminine imagination and how it expresses itself. In To the Lighthouse, for example, Woolf focuses on the differences between men and women, and how women are able to express their different way of seeing the world even within a patriarchal union such as marriage. Note the following example, which is Mrs. Ramsay's response when Mr. Ramsay asks her to declare her love for him:

She could not say it... 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. 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.

Mr. Ramsay wants to hear his wife say openly that she loves him. Mrs. Ramsay, however, refuses to allow herself and her actions to be shaped by her husband, and expresses her love through what she chooses not to say rather than what she says. In Woolf's depiction of men and women, men are rational, logical creatures, who want direct communication, whereas women are presented as being driven by their emotions. The feminine imagination is allowed to express itself in a manner that is not impacted by the very different ways in which men see the world. The way that Woolf suggests that Mrs. Ramsay "had triumphed again" points towards a coexistence of these two approaches that are not mutually exclusive.

The same cannot be said for "The Yellow Wallpaper," where the feminine imagination is shown to be, from the very first, restricted, curtailed and something that contributes to insanity. Note the way that the narrator is forbidden from writing and is denied any intellectual stimulation whatsoever. The message of this story is that the feminine imagination must be expressed, and if it is not allowed an opportunity to express itself, it will only manifest its presence in a more disturbing fashion. This is of course evident through the narrator's realisation that the yellow wallpaper actually acts as a cage for the woman who is behind it, shaking at the bars:

Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.

This masterful short story points towards the very dangerous consequences of not letting the feminine imagination express itself naturally and openly.

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