To The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

28 July 2011
Chapters 1-10
I’m going to have to read these chapters again. We’re at the end of an afternoon in September and we’re inside the consciousness first of one character, then another: Mrs Ramsay, her youngest son James, the ‘atheist’ Tansley who seems to be universally disliked… and so on. I’d decided that the painter, Lily Briscoe, is the one closest to Woolf’s own insecurities and preoccupations, but now I’m not so sure. All these people seem to have self-esteem issues: the various academics on holiday with the family; Mr Ramsay, the most conventionally successful of them, worrying away at whether his life’s work as a philosopher is actually worth anything; his wife, seeming to make a fetish of idolising him and denigrating her own accomplishments in bringing up eight children and doing her good works. All of them – is it really all? – seem bound up in the idea of whether any mark they make on the world will really amount to a hill of beans…. And I’m thinking of Lily Briscoe again, the artist: how on earth can you use the primitive means at your disposal to transform the world into, well, art? And if this isn’t Virginia Woolf’s own struggle, what is it?

Chapters 1-10, again
I haven’t changed my mind: what plagues these people is their own pointlessness, insignificance, silliness. As soon as I started reading the first time I wondered whether it might be best to read it as satire, to treat them all as faintly ridiculous. Or very ridiculous: Mr Ramsay proclaiming ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, Mrs Ramsay unaware – but aware really – of her own beauty; Lily Briscoe certain of nothing but the impossibility of turning gobbets of oil paint into something she feels in her soul – and self-conscious of her failure to the point of never wanting anyone to see her work; and Tansley, Bankes and Carmichael, all worn out by the absurd battles they fight with – gulp – life.

Does that sound like satire? Or does it sound like existential despair? I’m tempted to believe it’s both. What better way for a writer living in the centre of a perpetual existential crisis – I’m guessing, but surely? – than to ask the burning questions of existence in the context of this bunch of buffoons who are just like her? We get practically the whole of it on the first page, with the Lighthouse question. Uber-sensitive James asks, Mrs Ramsay replies, in that giving, womanly way we come to recognise, Mr Ramsay issues his forthright, rational, male negation – and James immediately has thoughts of killing him with an axe or some other sharp object. Later on, Mr Ramsay is a scimitar. There’s plenty of Freudian imagery in this book: James and his pathological wish to kill his father, the Lighthouse itself – apparently a symbol of maleness for Mr Ramsay, which he decides is not in the gift of the woman – and the enfolding female equivalent in the person of Mrs R. It’s got to be satirical.

For now, I’m going to assume that the reader’s exasperation with them – and any 21st Century reader is going to be exasperated by all this navel-gazing – is what Woolf is after. She is satirising – or, at least, worrying away at – the fact that the people of her own class haven’t got enough to occupy them. Ok.

This being a Virginia Woolf novel, there are a lot of other things going on. There are the disorientating, random-seeming shifts in the point of view that mean the reader is not always sure whose impression it is that we’re receiving. Sometimes we are sure – everybody seems to have an opinion about everybody else – but sometimes things morph into something more universal. Mrs Ramsay, for instance, is there in the consciousness of most of the adults, beautiful or giving or comforting or whatever: a short walk into the village with her is enough to make Tansley fall in love with her; Lily Briscoe decides not to say something critical when she realise that Bankes is in a rapture as he looks at her.

What seems to be happening, although not all the time, is a merging of all the points of view. There may be – how many? six? eight? – separate consciousnesses, but really they are all one, all stumbling and struggling to make sense of it all. And I’m back with my first impression of the novel, that it’s a meditation on existence. Often it seems frankly pointless, as when Woolf has Mr Ramsay imagine a full understanding of his subject as an alphabet – and he’s stuck on the letter Q. He doesn’t really think in these terms: Woolf begins to use the image as a sort of short-cut to the workings of his mind, but soon she has him making his sorry progress through from A to Z. By the end of his musings he’s fixing his ambition on reaching R…. It’s no accident that his reputation rests on his work as an academic philosopher, visualised by the literal-minded Lily Briscoe as an upturned table lodged wherever she happens to be looking. Its imagined presence in the fork of a tree is one of the novel’s frankly comic moments.

And it’s no accident that his wife, at one level undeniably the representative of the female force in the novel, is an earth-mother. Have I said enough about her? I mentioned the eight children, but not that she wishes the two youngest might never grow up, that she’s never happier than when she’s holding a baby…. Then there’s her arranging of this annual holiday, the invitations to too many people to stay, her visits to the poor of the local village, her knitting of things for the ailing child of the lighthouse-keeper. (This becomes a political thread: Mrs Ramsay focuses on inequalities – her thought about ‘differences’ between people in Chapter 1 refers to the economic realities she finds troubling rather than the existential separateness of one person from another that I took it for originally. And the hated Tansley is a scholarship boy, ill-at-ease in this middle class milieu.) In Mrs R we are shown a constant need to give, which seems to make her the gravitational core for absolutely everybody in the novel: the children, the guests… she’s the focus not only of the sad academics’ hopeless thoughts of love, but of Lily’s painting.

And, of course, she rescues her husband. No matter that he’s trampled all over poor James’s hopes – the Lighthouse visit really is the core narrative thread in defining their relationship – he is a man, and it’s her job to be there for him. We’ve already had a satirical riff as he becomes the standard-bearer in her mind of male achievement culminating in the rule of India – and she must nurture the hero. So she does. After his personal existential crisis – he bears down on her to tell her that he’s a failure – she restores him to himself, ‘renewed’. Their encounter, in public, is the nearest thing to sex we’ve had so far, and she is exhausted after this act that represents ‘the rapture of successful creation’, worries away at the idea that people might get the wrong impression that he, God forbid, might be the one who depends on her. It’s a good job she’s already 50, or there’d be the patter of a ninth pair of tiny feet before too long.

A quarter of the way through the novel, Virginia Woolf clearly hasn’t finished with this core theme: what are men for? What are women for? Should women like Mrs Ramsay carry on bringing young people together and encourage them to marry? (She herself frets away at this, because nobody is sure of anything in this novel.) Or should a young woman be like Lily, determined to put her art first, knowing that marriage would be an end of it? Should Ramsay have married at all? Bankes regrets it while he envies his old friend’s domestic life. He remembers that walking holiday when Ramsay saw a mother hen with her chicks and was charmed: ‘Pretty – pretty!’ He got married soon afterwards, and it was the end of a beautiful friendship – and the mother hen becomes another comic image to put next to the upturned table in the tree. Interesting how these images are in the heads of the two most independent ones, Bankes and Lily. Maybe, Lily thinks, they’ll get married – he’s a widower old enough to be her father, except he never had children – or maybe not. Perhaps she’ll know by the end of the evening.

3 August
Chapters 11-19 – to the end of Part 1
…And perhaps she won’t. Lily Briscoe, I mean, and knowing any more about a possible future with William Bankes. Does anybody know anything? As evening turns to night, certainties are constantly revealed to be nothing of the kind: relationships, reputations, literature. (There’s a debate about the value of the two writers they single out as the greats: Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott. Shakespeare has come up before in Mr Ramsey’s thoughts, to the extent that he wonders why he seems to be singling him out for a kind of downgrading. It’s Scott he goes to later in the evening, not Shakespeare, to confirm for himself the value of literature – a satirical dig by Woolf, surely?)

Words are also uncertain things in this universe. Mrs Ramsey puts far more faith into looks or gestures, because words are suspect. One phrase just pops into her head, something like, All will be well, God willing. She’s annoyed that something without any real meaning for her should form itself in her mind, some second-hand phrase which doesn’t signify anything. Now I come to think of it, this is the only time that God is ever mentioned in Part 1 – so, as well as making a comment about the limited usefulness of words as signifiers, Woolf is reminding us of something about existence: in this universe, God has no meaning, and Mrs R is annoyed by the intrusion. Gulp.

She uses looks rather than words to reprove her husband as he fails to disguise how annoyed he is by Carmichael at the dinner table. As far as she is concerned, they have had a kind of silent conversation – and as the evening goes on, words disappear into meaningless for her. They are flowers floating on water, or little coloured lights, or they are simply rhythms: she is more comforted, gets more ‘relief and pleasure’ from the refrain of a song – ‘Luriana, Lurilee’ – than from any words spoken to convey meaning. At the end of the evening it is simply impossible for her to tell her husband that she loves him. It has to be done with a look and a smile in the final paragraph of Part 1. ‘She had triumphed again.’

What? What? Time to rewind, I think.

4 August
Chapters 11-19, again
The only other book I’ve ever done this with – the instant re-read – is… guess. Virginia Woolf didn’t like what Joyce was doing in Ulysses, published six years before To The Lighthouse, but one thing they share is their sheer density. The authors have different ways of suggesting the complexity of what goes on inside their characters’ heads, and neither of them would claim that they have achieved verisimilitude: Woolf foregrounds the chasm that exists between the things we perceive and the ways we have of representing them – and words for one of her main characters are flighty, ephemeral things; as for Joyce, well, this isn’t about him.

I’m hugely impressed. There’s so much care in the construction, with echoes and chiming themes that link the different consciousnesses into something that’s more like a poem than a novel. Half a day with a middle class family on holiday is only the scaffolding: these characters are real only in the most notional way, and the leaking of ideas and perceptions from one to the other is part of the fabric of the narrative. It’s no surprise when, during a discussion about politics that Woolf keeps deliberately vague during dinner, all the characters have the same thought. They all hope that nobody can see that, honestly, they really don’t care. And it’s no surprise, for instance, when Mrs Ramsey imagines the fruit-bowl enlarged to the size of a whole landscape of hills and valleys, because Nancy was doing exactly the same thing with a rock-pool that same afternoon.

Meanwhile, at the same table, Lily opts out of the conversation, which is offering her nothing anyway. She notices the pattern on the tablecloth, thinks about her picture. She thinks about – what else? – her painting, moves a salt-cellar in that tactile, literal way of hers to try out how she might improve the composition by moving a tree to the middle. It’s the clearest indication ever of the irrelevance of words for her – and of how central art is to her compared to all the nonsense represented by the men in the conversation. She isn’t going to be marrying anybody.

But the real connection is, well, the lack of connection. These people live in a bleak world in which at dinner they each seem to contemplate the difference between the polite interactions of conversation and the reality of what they are feeling. Lily puts it in almost these very words. Mrs Ramsey simply finds her mind entering an altered state as she is captivated by the fruit-bowl or the strange reality presented by the rippling glass in the window after the candles are brought in. And I’ve just remembered that Part 1 is subtitled The Window, which makes me think I ought to have another look at that passage. I will in a bit, but I’d better mention the abyss-like bleakness of her vision in Chapter 11. this beautiful, capable, universally admired woman sees herself as a ‘wedge of darkness’. (Was Lily’s near-abstract rendition of her and James in her painting also wedge-shaped in an earlier chapter? I wouldn’t be surprised.)

Mrs Ramsey, whose consciousness Woolf constantly returns to throughout Part 1, has trouble with identity. She identifies with the things around her to the extent that, somehow, she becomes them. At one level she feels she is the long, third pulse of light from the lighthouse. At the social level she gives the impression of not existing in her own right, only in terms of what she can help to bring about. The dinner is a ‘triumph’ – a word that is used at least three times in connection with her in these chapters – and she really has succeeded in getting two of their guests to become engaged, comforted her children who can’t get to sleep, comforted her husband in almost exactly the same way. What are women for? If they’re anything like Mrs Ramsey they are social lubrication. It’s male intelligence that provides the ‘iron girders’ that modern civilisation is made out of; women make sure they’re in a fit state to do it. But at what cost to themselves?

The relationship between men and women is one aspect of the novel’s bleak core. That encounter between Mr and Mrs Ramsey at the end of Part 1 is a culmination, the space between people described in essence. Woolf shows us that in her world-view, communication simply does not happen and the ‘intimacy’ Mrs Ramsey perceives does not exist. She might comfort herself that it does, that she does not need to say a word for her love to be quite explicit. But we know otherwise. In her thought-stream, as given in the text of the novel, ‘he knows’ she loves him. But Woolf leaves it deliberately ambiguous: this passage, from Mrs Ramsey’s point of view, gives us an entirely one-sided interpretation of their relationship, and there are all sorts of reasons why she might want to believe that it is like this. But what does she know?

Relationships and interactions between other men and women in the novel seem to present facets of this central one…. And, meanwhile, I’m beginning to think that each of the other characters opens out an aspect of the human condition as typified by the two we meet on the first page. Tansley, for instance, is one aspect of Mr Ramsey’s younger self, apparently ‘cocksure’ (as one of the other male characters sees him) but in fact an ocean of insecurities, as Lily can see quite clearly at dinner. Like the older man, he focuses on his work as if nothing else matters – and, again like the older man, he is desperate for approval. Whatever he says, all Lily can hear is the ‘I, I, I’ that means – what? – Love me, admire me, pay me some attention. In other words, he’s a bloke: this is what men are like in Lighthouse-land.

To any observer (like Woolf, like us) Mr Ramsey is needy in exactly the same way, and his needs take precedence over anything else. As his wife silently remonstrates with him over his infantile behaviour at dinner, she reminds herself – it has to be part of her everyday consciousness – that ‘he loathed people eating when he had finished.’ She tolerates it, just as Lily, equally well schooled, tolerates Tansley at the same dinner-table. As though to make it explicit, Wolf has a silent complicity grow up between these two women: Lily realises they are playing according to an identical set of rules.

There are other men, of course, two clever men and a ‘booby’. Like Tansley, Bankes derides the pointless middle-class ritual of dinner. He usually avoids it, wishes this one would end, calculates what useful work he could be doing instead. And, while we never hear Mr Ramsey coming out with it so explicitly – I don’t think he’s ever honest with himself about what he finds frustrating in his life – he needs constant reassurance that his work really is good. The implication is that, at some level, he is with Bankes on the marriage question, is tortured by the idea that he would have got further if he hadn’t married and started a family. (Middlemarch is mentioned at dinner and, although Lydgate isn’t mentioned explicitly, I wonder if there’s a tacit reference to him in Bankes’s judgment that marriage has prevented Ramsey from reaching his potential.) ‘Someone had blundered,’ is what we’ve heard Mr Ramsey intoning desperately, just before barging in on his wife and son and insisting that she comfort him. Who blundered? He did, but he won’t let himself see that this is his biggest fear.

And guess what Paul Rayley, the ‘booby’, has just done? He’s only gone and asked Minta to marry him. He insists to himself that it was Mrs Ramsey who made him do it, and when he did ‘it was the worst moment of his life.’ This is one of Woolf’s extraordinary ambiguities. Is it merely embarrassment? Shame? Or a dawning realisation of the life he’s let himself in for? He contemplates the prospect ahead of him, which takes the form of the lights he can see. By the time we get to the end of Chapter 15, when all this is going on, it’s the lights in the house – ‘lights, lights, lights,’ he repeats, twice – that stun him into a daze. He realises he’s been following an all too familiar script, and it is ‘an appalling experience.’ Gulp.

Next. Carmichael: not an academic, but a poet. His lone candle-lit vigil ends the day in the first chapter of Part 2 (I peeped), and his is the voice quoting the ‘Luralee’ lines that Mrs Ramsey finds so engaging, presumably because they are not trying to insist on meaning. And… and what? Who is he anyway? Some unmarried minor poet who seems to have no function in life, the male of the species in all his uselessness, stripped of any social significance. Or am I missing something? (I bet I am.) Perhaps he represents a kind of ideal for Mr Ramsey: pure thought, unencumbered by any ties. But is it a satisfactory ideal? He has Mr Ramsey’s habit of declaiming, but a yearning fantasy of love, not an almost nihilistic critique of war. I think it’s no accident that he is the one who seems most incompatible with the children: Cam, the youngest girl, thinks he hates her, and she might be right.

Next. The younger women and girls. The beach chapters show us Nancy – disgusted, like her brother Andrew, by the coming together of Paul and Minta. In her young mind, uncluttered by thoughts of marriage – or perhaps she’s against the whole idea, having seen what it has done to her mother – there are whole other worlds. The rock-pool becomes a huge landscape, and the shadow of her hand is like the will of God. I don’t know whether this fantasy of control is the daydream of a powerless child, but the reality is elsewhere on the beach…

…where Minta’s existence seems to have become hideously proscribed, reduced to the brooch she’s lost. There’s something inevitable about it being an heirloom – it had been her mother’s mother’s – and its loss is all she wants to talk about. This is her script, as constraining as the vision of his future life that Paul has later. Paul decides to act according to the script written by convention, gallantly offers to do the male thing by getting up early next morning and looking for it. (Lily Briscoe, having no part in the script, doesn’t understand why her help in the search will not be required.)

What else is there in these chapters, aside from Mrs Ramsey, organising? Plenty, I’m sure, but dinner is over and it’s night now. The young ones – definitely they alone – are going to the beach, and all that’s left for Mrs Ramsey to do is check on the children. Lily has seen her go, sees her as the presiding spirit. Perhaps she is, but I’m never sure whether Woolf has any satirical intent in basing all her triumphs on the work of cooks and servants – one of whom has let her down. The nursemaid hasn’t settled the children, and she has to do it herself. She lullabies Cam, the girl, with the meaningless sounds of words. Then she lulls James, the boy, with the comforting thought that he’s got his own way over the pig’s skull hanging in the room. That’s how you deal with boys: they’re just like little men.

And so to the bedroom, which we know about, and Part 2, which we don’t yet.

11 August
Part 2, Time Passes
Woolf chooses to place years of world history in the context of the house on the island during those same years. Outside, for some of the time, there’s a war on. Inside, the loosening of that shawl is described as though it’s an earthquake. How we laughed.

So there’s massive significance in the extinguishing of the lamps, as ‘a downpouring of darkness began.’ And so on. Once people have left – the end of the pre-war holiday and the beginning of a post-war one are a framing device – Woolf offers what strikes me as a pastiche of a certain kind of descriptive writing. There are wandering, inquisitive breezes that find their way into the intimate nooks and crannies… etc. It’s as though she’s daring us to object to what almost becomes anthropomorphism.

And, reader, the people who have been lurking in the background for 100 pages are suddenly there before us: the servant class. Previously, the Ramsays could take the credit for keeping everything going, but not now. I was wondering all through Part 1 whether we were supposed to notice little details like Mrs R taking all the credit for the triumph of the meal she hasn’t cooked, for being a wonderful mother to all those children when there’s a workforce in the background doing the everyday stuff like putting them to bed (or incompetently failing to)…. I’m never sure how satirical Woolf is being.

And, meanwhile, time passes. Deaths occur, slipped unexpectedly into sentences that had seemed to be taking us somewhere else entirely. Mrs Ramsay goes first, so Prue has to carry the banner of beauty. She marries – and dies in childbirth. Andrew is bombed to bits in the trenches.

The house could have collapsed in a heap: the drop of a feather would have left nothing to show a passing wanderer but a grassy mound and garden flowers gone wild. (No need to comment on the metaphorical significance of all this.) But the old place is needed again, the servant class rolls its sleeves up – people we’ve only glimpsed on the margins live in families and communities, it seems – and, hurrah, the place is ready for the arrival of…

…of who? (Or whom?) Mrs McNab, the old housekeeper we only caught an anonymous glimpse of in Part 1, can’t remember whether it’s Mr or Mrs Ramsay who died – one of Woolf’s neatest comments on the transience of, well, everything because it’s so understated – but it seems to be neither. The first in is Lily Briscoe, of course, safely out of the clutches of (spit) married life. And I notice that Part 3 is subtitled The Lighthouse, so maybe this time they’ll get there.

19 August
Part 3 – to the end
At last Woolf has stopped hiding it: she and Lily Briscoe are the same person. ‘Women can’t write, women can’t paint’ goes the remembered refrain in her head, as though to confirm that one of these activities is standing in for the other. Lily struggles to make sense of the whole meaning of existence as she paints her picture, a narrative thread that runs parallel to Mr Ramsay’s trip to the Lighthouse with the two youngest family members. It comes after a morning in which Woolf sets the tone from the first sentence: ‘What can it all mean?’ is the question that seems to at the centre of the novel, and it is followed by fraught encounters between Lily, now routinely referring to herself as an old maid, and the man whose demands for sympathy are even more blatant now that the woman who used to supply it is dead.

But the opening question also seems to confirm that mismatch between the level of existential angst and the circumstances leading to it that I have been thinking of as satirical. Lily asks it because she doesn’t know what to do about coffee: nobody seems to be around to give her a second cup, and she feels stranded in the house she hasn’t been to for ten years. It’s not unlike the effect of the incident on the first page of the novel, where a small disappointment leads a six-year-old boy to contemplate, in detail, the murder of his father. As then, though I’m convinced we’re supposed to smile at the bathos, the train of thought it begins is presented as deadly serious. Small lives, big themes.

In the first few chapters we’re almost entirely with Lily – but with Mr Ramsay bullying his way into her consciousness from time to time to revive an old thread: his all-conquering neediness. Lily – any woman, in fact, as Woolf makes quite explicit – is forced to act as a stand-in for the irreplaceable Mrs Ramsay. Except she isn’t going to play along, She sees through his ‘Pity me’ overtures for what they are, the calculated gambits of an old hand at this game. (Woolf is quite explicit that Lily is right in the short passages when we are inside his head. Blatant.) Woolf revives other old themes in these encounters. Lily worries away at how forms of words do, or don’t, stand for what they seem to: she knows what convention demands of her, knows what sort of soothing phrases old Mrs Beckwith would come up with, but she won’t say them. They are ‘a catchword… from some book, fitting her thought loosely.’ In fact, this sentence comes from the first page of this section, when the catchword is ‘What does it mean?’ But it clearly applies to her mistrust of all words, which is almost identical to Mrs Ramsay’s: ready-made phrases – for Mrs R it was ‘I love you’ – just won’t do.

Lily is as desperate for him to go away as he is for her to offer him some solace. We get one of Woolf’s comedy moments when she notices his beautifully made boots. Complimenting him on them turns out not to be the gross faux pas she fears: it allows him to lecture her on the impossibility of getting decent boots unless you know ‘the only man in England’ who can make them – and follows it with another lecture, on how nobody knows how to tie a bootlace. Except him, of course. This is Mr Ramsay in his element, proving to a woman that he knows about what she doesn’t. He’s found all the solace he needs. Lily, appalled, contemplates what Mrs Ramsay’s life must have been like. Then she goes back to contemplating the painting she has been thinking about, off and on, for ten years.

The painting. Woolf gives it an almost impossible amount of work to do in these chapters, because she makes it stand for – what? – the complexity of the whole creative process. I’m not sure it works, because the creative process she knows about is writing, and the task she seems to have set herself in this section is to deal with the evocation of memories. Question: how can you do that in a painting? Answer: you can’t…. So she has to create a thread for Lily to trawl through her own memories, running parallel to a description of the marks she actually makes on the canvas. This kind of works, but only at a level that I found rather crude: the painting has to include Mrs Ramsay, and Woolf can only allow this to happen by having a ghostly visitation I didn’t like at all, though it’s clearly not to be taken literally.

A problem for me is that I can never quite visualise the picture she paints. It seems to have the house, the sea, the lighthouse – I think – and… and I’m not sure what else. It seems to have to represent the essence of Lily’s experience of the place not only now, but ten years ago…. Too much, surely? For me, the only way that Woolf can write plausibly about memories is by having them unadorned by references to painting. It takes a lot more than a smudge of shadow to represent the complex ways that Mrs Ramsay remains a constant presence in the house. It’s to do with Mr Ramsay’s continuing neediness, the way that Mrs Ramsay seems still to decide what is going to happen – it’s for her that Mr Ramsay is forcing his youngest children to visit the Lighthouse – and the way that people’s lives have been shaped through her influence. That day ten years ago is made to stand for the whole of the past, with Paul’s decision to propose, Lily’s own decision to focus on her art – she remembers moving the salt-cellar on the table, remembers it now as a decision never to marry – and her first attempt to paint it all.

In her head she has a kind of argument with the dead woman. At one stage she thinks that Mrs Ramsay’s creation of experiences for her family and guests is exactly like artistic creation. (For some reason I thought about Middlemarch again, and George Eliot’s eulogy to those women who live a hidden life. What with these hints, and Woolf’s sceptical portrayal of her characters, it’s that novel that I think of most as an antecedent to this one.) At other times, she wants to be able to show Mrs R that she got it wrong: there’s a whole section in which Lily remembers visiting ‘the Rayleys’ – Paul and Minta – and how problematic the marriage had become. Except… she admits to herself that she is making up at least one of the memories, excusing herself with the thought that such inventions prove how well we really know other people. To me, this is Woolf illustrating far more successfully than through the painting metaphor the ways that memory works and, specifically, what you have to do as a writer in order to turn memory into a plausible narrative. You turn it into fiction.


I’ve had another look at Chapters 5-13, roughly the second half of Part 3, and I realise there’s more to be said about Mrs Ramsay. If Lily is Virginia Woolf, who is Mrs Ramsay? Somebody that Lily, or Virginia, is having difficulty pigeonholing, a maternal figure who might be flawed, but who seems somehow to represent everything good about domestic womanhood. There’s that scene Lily remembers – it’s the first time we’ve heard about it, so I’m wondering if it was a scene that Woolf deleted – in which, on the beach, Mrs Ramsay’s presence somehow makes Charles Tansley into a human being. He plays a boyish game, speaks like a fully rounded person to Lily and Mrs Ramsay; somehow, remembering Mrs R is making Lily remember Tansley in a better light. This is all new to us: in Part 1 he was never presented as anything but a git. So Lily’s musings on Mrs R are changing the reader’s views of the world as well….

But it isn’t all about Lily: several chapters take place in the boat sailing to the Lighthouse. And if Lily is finding her way towards some kind of completion, well, so are three members of the Ramsay family. James and Cam are hugely annoyed at their father’s insistence that they go, have reached a kind of pact that they will not accept it with any sort of grace. To them, he is a tyrant and it has become their duty to ‘fight tyranny to the death’. It’s ridiculous, obviously, but it’s also exactly how it feels to 16 and 17-year-olds with a domineering parent. The gradual resolution of their sense of outrage – about his treatment of them in general, not just on this trip – is the main thread running through their chapters.

It’s James who is the real originator of the pact. He is the one with his hand on the tiller – Woolf draws our attention to the metaphor, daring us to take the piss – and Cam feels trapped between two immovable forces. She is her mother’s daughter, can’t help finding ways to become reconciled: she aches to be able to meet her father’s need, is a hair’s-breadth away from agreeing to name her new puppy after the dog he owned as a child. She is able to fantasise that her father is a hero, would save them if the need arose…. James, by contrast, is ready to stick a knife into his father’s heart. It’s an almost exact echo of his thought on the first page and, later in the section, Woolf has James return to that childhood moment.

In fact, James has come a long way in ten years in reaching an understanding not only of his father but of himself. He realises that it isn’t this ‘old man’ he wants to put a knife into, but the ‘black-winged harpy’ that somehow takes him over. We’ve had Lily’s memory of the plate-throwing incident, and Cam’s fear of his mockery when she can’t remember directions. But James’s memory of the incident that opens the novel is given a kind of mythological status. He is imagining a state of affairs – one of several times in Part 3 when characters somehow pass into a different dimension of experience – a kind of golden world in which people are civil to one another there are no crashes and eruptions. He searches for a metaphor – Woolf is explicit that this is what he’s doing – to express the horror of the foul intrusion into that world that his father represents. Imagine someone’s foot, healthy-looking and whole, suddenly crushed by the wheel of a wagon. It isn’t the wagon’s fault – the word ‘innocent’ is used – but look at the foot now, purple, crushed, broken. And, painstakingly, James fits this together with the early memory of his father telling him they would not be going to the Lighthouse. Just as it does for Lily, that day comes to represent for James the whole of a past….

The rub is, he understands. When his father goes to some dark and frozen place, behaves in ways that everybody else finds inexplicable… James is with him. There are two sets of footprints in the snow, because – and we’ve pieced this together by now – James is subject to the same rages as his father. Oh.

Woolf appears to be in a generous mood. By the time the little boat has reached the Lighthouse, it’s as though she feels James deserves some kind of reward. Or, perhaps, if that day ten years ago represents the past, perhaps this day represents hope for the future. For the first time ever, Mr Ramsay praises his son. And maybe it isn’t just about Woolf being generous. Almost all of what we learn about Mr Ramsay in Part 3 is based on his past behaviour. But – and I’m only really piecing this idea together as I write – maybe there’s more to the present than mere accretions of the past. Sure, it’s nice that Mr Ramsay can become the agent of a satisfyingly fair conclusion, the nearest thing to a happy ending we’re going to get. But it’s more than that. The thought processes of his son and daughter have brought us to the realisation that, in spite of everything we thought we knew about him, he is not beyond redemption – or, at the very least, his faults can be understood. And if his children, the ones who have suffered his black moods all their lives, can find it in themselves to forgive him, anybody can.

Lily gets her happy ending as well. It’s never clear what her painting actually depicts, but she manages a decisive stroke at the very end that turns something formless, ‘blurred’, into something she is satisfied with: ‘It was done; it was finished.’ I’m not going to try to unravel what the new line at the centre of the picture might mean – unless it’s the immutable self, proudly independent – but it has taken all her energy. She, no doubt just like Virginia Woolf, is exhausted – but ‘I have had my vision.’ Woolf can pretend that these are Lily’s words, but we know better.

The end, yes?

Obviously not… because these two main threads are presented in the context of a hugely rich interleaving of memories and thoughts of the present – and an interleaving of the two parallel narratives. Lily frets over the gap in her picture’s composition as she thinks about what Mrs Ramsay meant to her and the other people around her. She doesn’t recognise her tears for what they are at first, and a crisis is reached. The hole in her life left by the death of Mrs Ramsay has left her with a sense of desolation that takes her completely by surprise, and she actually cries out the name: ‘Mrs Ramsay, Mrs Ramsay!’ This isn’t some routine acquaintance we’re talking about here, this is an ‘ignominious cry… stop, pain, stop.’ Meanwhile, in what must be the shortest chapter in the book, the son of the sailor accompanying the Ramsays in the boat cuts out a square of flesh from the side of a fish to use as bait, and tosses the still living creature back in the sea. No further comment needed.

There’s far more happening. Lily and Cam each contemplate the difference that distance makes. For Cam, life back on their little island seems like an impossibility as it fades from sight behind them. ‘They don’t feel a thing there,’ she thinks, and if we think she means the dying fish in the boat, we’re wrong. She’s looking at the shore, means the people back – where? James is looking the other way, is seeing the Lighthouse close-up for the first time. Ah, he thinks, so that’s what it looks like – except he’s learnt enough to understand that the reality of it also includes the way it looks from their own island miles away, For Lily – what? – the journey of the tiny boat seems to make any contemplation of Mr Ramsay more difficult as he passes out of sight and out of her consciousness. It’s clear that Woolf wants this to represent something else. Memory? The limitations of the human apparatus in dealing with the phenomenology of, well, everything? (Lily is constantly exasperated by the difference between her perceptions of the world and her representations of it, and Woolf has her referring explicitly to the limitations of the human frame…. And it isn’t accidental that Lily remembers an instance of how Mrs Ramsay was always satisfied with a very vague approximation whenever numbers were involved; Tansley pulls in his chin when she describes the ‘thousands’ of pairs of glasses she loses each summer.)

Phenomenology. It’s clearly Mr Ramsay’s own field, what with Lily’s constant references to his concern with kitchen tables. It’s another one of those instances I mentioned ages ago about every consciousness in the novel really being part of a single one – Woolf’s own project of attempting to make sense of a world of chaotic-seeming phenomena. But what’s an artist to do? (And hasn’t she been asking that all along? Haven’t I in this diary?) What she does is make the attempt. It doesn’t matter that the final work will only be hung in the attic, will be rolled up under someone’s bed. What matters is the fact that ‘I have had my vision’ and, however exhausting it might be, that the artist has made an attempt to convey it.

The end, again?

Nearly. The one loose thread for me is Mr Carmichael. In Part 1 he’s the most peripheral of the adult characters, avoiding everybody – especially the extrovert Cam, who seems to intrude too far into his consciousness. He’s a minor poet and, if his declamation of (somebody else’s) poetry at the dinner -table is anything to go by, he isn’t terribly concerned with life as most people live it. For Lily in Part 3, he seems to be wool-gathering in the sun, collecting – what? – words to do something elegant with. He’s become famous during the war – giving Woolf the chance to have Lily muse on how her perception of him and that of the world prove how no one identity can be regarded as the single true one…. Lily hasn’t read his work, but decides that she knows what it must be like – and that it can have no relevance for her. I’m guessing that this is Woolf being satirical again, this time about how art of a conventional, academic kind holds no value for the real – i.e. questioning – artist. Carmichael, despite being physically nearby as Lily paints, can say nothing that she hasn’t thought of herself. ‘They will have landed,’ he says – precisely the thought she has already had. Is there any point to him at all? And isn’t a rolled-up canvas in the attic, if it is the product of a real attempt to engage, better than all the meaningless fame in the world?


1 Response to To The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

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