Sight Within the Lighthouse Walls

November 19, 1995
E 389

In this world there are many different ways of interacting with others, Nature, and life. In To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf examines two very different ways of viewing life. The first reflects an interaction with life through direct communication with others. The other reflects the experience of living through sense and artistic style. Set in turn of the century Britain, the novel attempts to find the best way to interact in a quickly changing world. The novel is a journey which takes the reader through each type of personal development to come to the conclusion that survival within a quickly changing world the latter must be developed. Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe, two characters within the novel, reflect each one of these types of interaction. Whereas Mrs Ramsay is a model spokesperson for the first type of development, Lily represents the artistic, introverted path to discovery.

The novel opens with an in-depth look at the first type of interaction, that of direct communication and openness between everyone. Although a relatively short span of time is described in this section (which is 125 pages long- longer than the last two sections put together), Woolf’s stream of consciousness narration shows how much thought goes on in one’s head during this short time. Entitled “The Window,” this first section shows that the window is a constant reminder of how relationships are viewed during the Victorian era. Open communication was an important factor for keeping the family together and happy. During this era, it was seen as the women’s duty to keep the window of communication open between family members. Therefore throughout this section, the reader sees Mrs. Ramsay trying to keep the lines of direct, personal communication open between the family and friends.

Mrs. Ramsay is a very traditional Victorian woman. She adheres to the separate spheres ideal that divide men and women according to their work habits and social roles. As the stream of consciousness narration enters Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts, all they pick up is her worries and concerns for her family. Her first duty is to attend to the household. Most of her day is filled with tasks of cooking and cleaning, traditional womens’ work. “When she looked in the glass and saw her hair grey, her cheeks sunk, at fifty, she thought, possibly she might have managed things better- her husband; money; his books. But for her own part she would never for a single second regret her decision, evade difficulties, or slur over duties” (Woolf 6). This quote is typical of the thoughts Mrs. Ramsay has towards her life. Where a woman today would look in the mirror and be more concerned with the regrets of dreams not fulfilled, Mrs. Ramsay is more preoccupied with thoughts on how she can manage the family and its affairs better, more efficiently. She has no regrets on how she has lived her long and fruitful life.

Her second and happiest duty is the continued happiness of her family, and more importantly her children. Much of her time is devoted to their care and enjoyment of life. She delights in telling her youngest children stories and is always quick in praising them. The reader glimpses Mrs. Ramsay watching her children share a secret joke between them which Mrs. Ramsay thinks is odd (109). To her it is odd that the children would be keeping secrets between one another and from her, disturbing the harmony of open communication. But, she keeps quiet about it because they are happy and she doesn’t want to ruin their happiness.

Mrs. Ramsay’s route to life, then, is intertwined with the practicality of her duties. Her world is filled with hard, tangible facts and concepts which provide her life with a controllable order. She has no needs for the abstract world of art and knowledge, because she hasn’t the means to understand those concepts. During a discussion with Andrew and Lily Briscoe, she is asked to try and grasp ” Subject and object and the nature of reality’ ” and cannot (23). They try to relate the concept in terms of a kitchen table, something ordinary from her sphere, and how it would be if she wasn’t there to see it (23). She cannot think about it in this sense and decides that “if one’s days were passed in this setting of angular essences… naturally one could not be judged like an ordinary person” (23). Poor Mrs. Ramsay cannot grasp the meanings behind the objects or words themselves. Everything is to be taken at face value. It is interesting to note that during this discussion the only other person who is able to understand some of the discussion of Nature and reality is Lily, who has grown up in world of books and art and abstract thought.

Enter Lily Briscoe, a friend and general outsider of the family who seems to take no particular joy in traditional womens’ interests. Although she is seen in lesser detail than Mrs. Ramsay, Lily is an integral part of the book. She is unmarried and spends the majority of her day reading or learning new techniques of painting, in which she explores the development of looking at the world. It seems that throughout most of the book Lily is seen either in the act of painting portraits, cleaning brushes, or discussing techniques of artistic qualities with one or more of the Ramsay family. Lily, in turn, uses these new discoveries, to create what she feels is her view and expression of the world. She cannot accept that Mrs. Ramsay’s way of life is the best and desires to search for other ways of being and seeing the world.

She has a very questioning personality and is constantly questioning the very nature of things. “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?” describes the very troubling core of Lily’s soul (50). Lily desires to know these answers to these questions that no one, at the time, seems to care about. Unlike Mrs. Ramsay, Lily hasn’t found her true voice and place. She is not content with the daily hustle and bustle that Mrs. Ramsay aspires to; yet, she is jealous of Mrs. Ramsay for finding the order of life amongst the chaos of Nature.

Both Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsay look at nature through these filters of their life. Where Mrs. Ramsay sees Nature as tangible objects, Lily chooses to see Nature as a means to provide her with creativity and feeling. Mrs. Ramsay sees life in terms of objects and hard tangible facts. To her there is no other greater joy than her children and caring for them. In every thing she does, the reader can feel the passion of her life being fulfilled.
… they would come to her of an evening, quietly, and talk alone over her fire. She bore about with her, she could not help knowing it, the torch of her beauty; she carried erect into any room she entered; and after all, veil it as she might, and shrink from the monotony of bearing that it imposed on her, her beauty was apparent. She had been admired. She had been loved (41).

In this passage the reader sees the commanding force of love and respect that Mrs. Ramsay holds over her family and guests. She is loved, just as the passage suggests, and doesn’t feel the need to question the nature of things or reality. She has her family to contend with in order to maintain the family free from chaos.

Lily Briscoe, on the other hand attempts to find the deep hidden meanings of life in everything she does. She draws from the chaos, her own sense of order that can only be explained through her artistic nature. Her attempts in capturing all these elements of life lead her to painting in Monetesque, and sometimes bizarre fashions. The reader’s final description of Lily is of her painting and her ability to finally capture the essence of life.

There it was- her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempts 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 (208-209).

Only in her painting and the addition of a line splitting the middle, does Lily find what she has been searching for throughout the novel. She has found her unique vision of the world, and only through art could she discover its true meaning. Where Mrs. Ramsay’ legacy lives on through the remaining living children, Lily’s sight and perspectives of the world are now captivated within an object that will, in her eyes, last forever. Lily sees the love which flows in the family and thinks, “they became part of that unreal but penetrating and exciting universe which is the world seen through the eyes of love” (46-47). To her, the ordinary way of life is unreal to her and later on in the novel she believes that she’ll never be a part of the bond that ties a family members together.

As time passes, the world changes and with it, people must adapt to the changes it brings about, in order to survive. Times are changing as the Victorian era draws to a close, and the twentieth century unfolds its chaos on everyone. The era filled with happiness has just ended and the world is swept over with confusion. The confusion comes from the development of an mechanistic industry where individual people become the central focus rather than life as focused around the family. No longer can the policies of the Mrs. Ramsays of the world provide adequately for these new days.

Woolf’s second section, entitled “Time Passes” is filled with this chaos and what changes have occurred during this passing age. Rather than directly stating the changes occurring within the Ramsay family, she describes the changing world itself, only adding occasional landmark snippets from the family’s history. World War I breaks out creating doubt and an unsettling feeling of unhappiness. It is during this time when the reader hears of Mrs. Ramsay’s death, as well as that of her firstborn children. It is also during this time when chaos seems to replace the order and stability that Mrs. Ramsay held. The changing world is in demand for a new perspective on life.

Lily Briscoe is just the person to forge this new sight. Since Mrs. Ramsay has died, along with the rest of the Victorian ideals, Lily’s discovery for this era is found in the abstract world of art, and how it draws feelings from a person. It is because of this ability to see life in a different perspective which will provide future generations with a successful life in the modern world.

During her own lifetime, Virginia Woolf had to come to terms with her own sight. Although she never went blind, her struggles to find her own identity and voice lead her to write To the Lighthouse and several other books dealing with women and their place and identity in the early twentieth century world. In many ways the characters of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe represent Virginia and her own mother, and Lily’s search to find her own identity, Virginia’s own search for the very same.

Nature brings all sorts of changes as the world turns. How humans deal with the change reflects on the uniqueness of the individual. Mrs. Ramsay’s vision of life is the interaction with the practicality of her duties and is filled with hard, tangible facts and concepts which provide her life with a controllable order. Mrs. Ramsay’s insight into life is astute and refined so that anything outside of her world, composed of her family and household, or daily tasks is eliminated. On the other hand, Lily who cannot see in this light forges a new perspective on life through the abstract world of art. It is she who searches for a greater purpose and ultimately gains more out of life, in creating her own insight into the way to see life. People can learn a lot about themselves by looking through different perspectives. But, ultimately it is the integration of these ideals which may yield the greatest insight in attaining the answers to the mysteries of life.