Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Harcourt, Inc, 1981.

Summary of Work
This is a work of stream of consciousness narrative split into three sections. The first section starts just before WWI. Mr. Ramsay and his wife and eight children go to their summer home in the Hebrides, and their home overlooks a lighthouse. Their son James wants to go to the lighthouse, and he is told they will if the weather is nice, but it looks not to be. James resents his father for not being able to go and thinks he says it just to be mean to the kids. The Ramsays host many guests including Charles Tansley, a fan of Ramsay’s philosophical work. Lily Briscoe is a young painter who also comes around to paint Mrs. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay wants Lily and her old friend William Bankes to fall in love and marry, but Lily wants to stay single. Despite this disappointment, Mrs. Ramsay does arrange the marriage of two other friends, Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle. Paul proposes the same day Lily starts painting Mrs. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay tries to reconcile her son James and Mr. Ramsay, who is fretting over his philosophical work.

The same evening, they give a dinner party that goes disastrous, with Paul and Minta returning late from a beach walk with two of the Ramsay children, Lily being upset that Tansley believes women can’t write or paint, and Ramsay being rude when Carmichael asks for seconds. Despite these issues, the dinner party is able to make a happy evening of it. But when Mrs. Ramsay leaves the room, the happiness of the party doesn’t last. She wants to sit in peace, but is unable to because her husband is in need of her comfort and assurances of her love. She cannot abide his needy attitude, but does talk to him about the weather being too bad for a trip to the lighthouse. One night passes into another night, and time starts passing quickly.

World War One starts, and the Ramseys’ oldest son is killed in the war. Another of their children dies in childbirth. Mrs. Ramsay dies suddenly. The family doesn’t go to the summer home to vacation anymore, and the house is in shambles. It is a decade before the family goes back to the home, and it takes a handful of people to get the house back in good condition just as Lily returns to the place. This time, James and Cam and Mr. Ramsay decide to go to the lighthouse, but delays upset Ramsay. He goes to Lily to get sympathy, but Lily cannot give him the love and comfort he needs. The Ramsays start out to the lighthouse anyway, and Lily sits out in the yard to complete a painting she had started but left unfinished the last time she was at the house. James and Cam are embarrassed by their father’s needy nature and self-pity, but they get to the lighthouse, and they do feel a love for their father. James even has a connecting moment with him as he praises his sailing skills, despite his resentment for his father. While they are at the lighthouse, Lily finishes her canvas.

Discussion of Work
One of the big themes running through this work is the “Angel in the House.” Women at that time were expected to sacrifice everything for their family, taking the worst of everything and never thinking of themselves. With eight children and a husband who needs constant reassurance, Mrs. Ramsay is much more an object in use all the time than she is a person with talents and needs and a life. This is telling as she is largely the figure that the novel revolves around, but she is rarely thinking of herself: she is knitting for her son, looking through catalogues, thinking of friends and their needs as she meets them in town or invites them to her home, calming her husband’s irrational outbursts. When Carmichael, the failed poet, rejects her and her aid, she is hurt, largely because her whole identity or existence depends upon helping those she meets.

Lily represents another option for a woman: a self-fulfilled life outside of marriage. She doesn’t want marriage or children, wants to make a living on her own and to paint, and believes that she, like any man, can make her way in life with her skills and talents. She is offended by the idea that she cannot be a full and good woman without marriage and children. But despite her efforts, most do not take her seriously, as evidenced by when the painting of Mrs. Ramsay is nearly knocked over. Lily is also able to stay a stable person through the years, although the people who were so dependent on Mrs. Ramsay seem unable to do so.

There is also some Freudian influence in this work, with James loving his mother and being resentful of his father, wishing he would go away so he could spend more time with his mother. When his mother dies, he is no less resentful of his father, meaning he never moved past his Oedipal complex. The whole work, with the stream of consciousness narrative, remains subjective, giving us only brief visions of life as it passes the characters by, leaving many opportunities unexplored as the woman of the household can only do so much for them, and they are unable to do the rest for themselves.

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