Virginia Woolf's Novel To The Lighthouse as a Feminist Text
When looking at To The Lighthouse we see the conventional usage of
feminism's challenged. Woolf uses many different styles and
techniques, and although the term feminist is never used within the
novel, it clearly is a feminist text. Woolf
's work challenges
representation and treatment of women; and the social relationship
between men and women, this is shown most poignantly within the novel
To The Lighthouse
. I intend to investigate the usage of feminist
writing within this text.
Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe are the two main female characters in the
novel. Women, Mrs. Ramsay believes are there to care for others, marry
people off and harmonize everyone. They are also there (shown within
her inner monologue) to protect men, and to nurture their ego.
'She had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons
could not explain, for their chivalry and valour.' (13. To The
To The Lighthouse is a novel that is fascinated by women, as the
perspectives of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily are the most fully developed
narratives within the text. Woolf's To The Lighthouse asks the
question of the sexuality of women, and questions the women's role
within the family. Lily does represent Woolf's 'ideal women' and Mrs.
Ramsay in direct contrast is portrayed as the 'angel of the house.'
Woolf's essay 'Professions For Women' attacks Victorian institutions,
she writes about 'killing the angel of the house', which she
successfully manages through Mrs. Ramsay's death in To The Lighthouse.
Mrs. Ramsay is a product of the Victorian era, she is described in
terms of delicateness of feminity and Woolf, romanticizes her and uses
passive language to portray her. Woolf's theory in 'A Room Of One's
Own' is significant because it helps to understand her issues with
gender and feminist politics set by patriarchies.
'Whether there are sexes in the mind corresponding to the two sexes in
body, and whether they also require to be united in order to get
satisfaction and happiness…. In each of us two powers reside,
one male andfemale…It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and
simple, one must be women
Manly or man womanly. (93. A Room Of One's Own.)
Woolf attempts to show these differences through her portrayal of Lily
and Mrs. Ramsay, and again through Mr. And Mrs. Ramsay. Woolf believed
that patriarchy always tried to silence and repress women and women's
experiences, this is why she rejects the series of feminine
characteristics set by patriarchy; sweetness, modesty, humility and
subservience..., and shows these qualities in direct contrast to Mr.
Ramsay, and his masculine rationality that has reason, order and
lucidity. In keeping with Woolf's 'Angel Of the House' figure, Mrs.
Ramsay is projected more as a symbol as the 'earth mother' than as an
individual, as she is never called by her first name, she represents
an era of Victorian values and Lily Briscoe represents the feminist
figure as she rejects irrationality, chaos and fragmentation, which
has come to represent feminity.
This is shown more clearly in Charles Tansley's treatment of Lily and
her painting; as an artist Lily is sensitive about the role of women
and feels constantly pressurized by Mrs. Ramsay into bolstering the
male ego. This draining effect Lily feels when she is expected to
boost Tansley's ego is connected with the sensation she has when he is
around, that he is constantly deprecating her work: 'Women can't
write, Women can't paint' (130. To The Lighthouse.) Through creating
Lily, Woolf is representing a different kind of women; she is
investigating the variety of experiences accessible to women, the
constraints and the possibilities..
Mrs. Ramsay's character at times does seem confused, on one hand she
is trying to marry people off and maintain all the attributes that we
have come to expect from 'the angel of the house', but there are times
when we are ale to experience her inner thoughts through her stream of
consciousness. When Mrs. Ramsay sits everyone down, we have first her
thoughts, then her words and actions. In her thoughts she feels weary,
as if her life has produced nothing, while her words to others are
'But what have I done with my life? Thought Mrs. Ramsay, taking her
at the head of the table, and looking at all the plates making white
it..only this -- an infinitely long table and plates and
(125. To The Lighthouse.)
Her female experiences translate into seeing the endless table with
plates and cutlery -- a very solid, concrete, domestic example.
Her moods, responses and the slant she puts on the interactions
between them all, move around and differ. In particular, how Mrs.
Ramsay views others is with a polarized gender expectation,
particularly with William Bankes and Lily Briscoe: 'Smiling, for it
was an admirable idea, that had flashed upon her this very second
-- William and Lily should marry.' (42. To The Lighthouse.) As
her defined role of wife and mother to everyone, Mrs. Ramsay believes
she is there to care for others, harmonize everyone, marry people off
and be protected by men. She also believes that women are there to
protect the men, to nurture their egos, and to smooth over any awkward
moments. Lily's character however breaks many conventional gender
roles, she is an independent, educated women who has a talent to
paint, and is not confined to the home domestically. At times Mrs.
Ramsay appears to want to curtail Lily's independence, through
attempting to marry her off to William. Mrs. Ramsay appears to feel
persecuted when people do not conform to marriage and escape their
Woolf does highlight the absence of women from higher education
through oppressive protocol within To The Lighthouse; this does
enforce the difference of gender roles. The male figures within the
novel are educated, are studying for degrees and admire each other for
their academic achievements. Science within the novel is seen
objectively, and is portrayed as a masculine image:
'Her husband, however, is one of the clever people, a distinguished
with an acute intellect that was incapable of untruth; never tampered
with a fact.'
(13. To The Lighthouse.)
Mrs. Ramsay's gender roles are shown in soft response to Mr. Ramsay,
Mr. Ramsay emerges as a heroic tyrant and appears to represent the
'typical male'. He is compared to sharp instruments, knives, axe,
poker with which his son wants to hit him: 'Had there been an axe
handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have killed him, there and
then James would have seized it.' (10. To The Lighthouse.) The
language the surrounds Mr. Ramsay is assertive, opinionated, slightly
patronizing and shows his philosophical prowess. He
has reached the level of 'ordinary experience'; as Lily calls it: he
feels simply; 'that's a chair, that's a table', however in Mr.
Ramsay's term he has managed to reach Q, but not R. The use of the
alphabet shows the male mind; logical, chronological and linear but
also child like:
'Still, if he could reach R it would be something. Here at least was
Q. He dug
his heels in at Q. Q he was sure of. Q he could demonstrate…
Then R. He braced
himself. He clenched himself.' (54. To The Lighthouse.)
R to Mr. Ramsay is a failure, as it represents knowledge, achievement
and aspirations. Rachel Bowlby (Feminist Destinations 1988)
illustrates how Mr. Ramsay's world view is logical and linear but it
is limiting, rigid, despairing, she continues stating: 'The step from
one logical step to the next is compared to letters of the alphabet,
and contrasts with women's outsider position. However, women are seen
as offering a kind of tour through life, through thought patterns,
which are more flexible and fluid, various and able to hold opposition
in harmony.' ( 132.)
However, Woolf show how the prioritization of the domestic space has
repressed women and prevented them from taking part in everyday
activities -- Commerce, Travel, Work and Education. This is seen
in To The Lighthouse in the public and private realms; Mrs. Ramsay and
Lily find that oppression in the public realm is linked to that of the
private. This illustrates how Woolf can deal with material and
economic, historic conditions, which effect men and women's lives, and
their ways of viewing the world, their perceptions and imaginative
response's that differ. This is highlighted in To The Lighthouse with
the constant comparisons between Mr. And Mrs. Ramsay, this is shown
through the inner monologue of the characters and the inter
subjectivity. Woolf investigates gender and the power of men and
women, she explores the way in which we are constructed as gendered
beings, and how culture, and society, restricts our actions,
opportunities, and speech. Mrs. Ramsay eases us into this:
'…For the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India,
finally for an attitude towards herself which no women could fail to
to find agreeable…pray heaven it was none of her daughters!'
(13. To The Lighthouse.)
Although at times Mrs. Ramsay does appear to be a idealized version of
a women, being 'the angel of the house', thorough her inner monologue
it is seen that inwardly she questions male and female roles and that
in her inner thoughts an independent thinking women is trying to
eradicate the presence of the Victorian female ideal. Although as an
idealized perfect mother figure, she has greater aspirations for her
'Her daughters, Prue, Nancy, Rose - could sport with infidel ideas
which they had
brewed for themselves of a life different from hers; in Paris,
perhaps; a wilder
life; not always taking care of some man or other; for there was in
all their minds
a mute questioning of deference and chivalry, of the Bank Of England
Indian Empire, of ringed fingers and lace….which called out the
their girlish hearts.'(14. To The Lighthouse.)
However Lily portrays Mrs. Ramsay outwardly, within a painting as
Madonna with child, she displays the strength in the representation of
women. Lily's painting of mother and child is painted in abstract
because she is painting the inner thoughts; her painting is in
opposition to gender and creates an oppositional act. The men in the
novel cannot understand what Lily's painting stands for (potential
space and freedom), Lily is welcoming a loss of personality and is
shredding her responsibilities and her cares through retreat (social
pressures and responsibilities). Her painting challenged convention
because it is abstract and is painted by a woman.
Perhaps, one of the most important running themes within the novel is
self-deception, Virginia Woolf does not intervene on her characters,
nor does she give objective views, their chains of thoughts question
their identity. Woolf uses the automatic expectation of conforming to
gender that society demands certain institiunal behavior.
The symbolism in the novel is poignant to out entire understanding of
To The Lighthouse. The Lighthouse represents symbolically Mrs. Ramsay
as the guiding force, this symbolizes her gender role and that the
social construction of womanhood is one of protection and guidance.
The waves symbolize women and their duties and responsibilities, as
the waves are about constant repetition and the metaphor of the depths
of women's consciousness. Routine and duties are portrayed through the
ticking of the
watch, this contrasts the automatic and mechanical behavior of women.
Mrs. Ramsay appears to panic when she is silent, as she has no public
role, just internalized feelings.
'the old familiar pulse began beating, as the watch begins ticking
-- one, two, three.
One, two, three. And so on and so on, she repeated, listening to
fostering the still feeble pulse as one might guard a weak flame with
(126. To The Lighthouse.)
Mrs. Ramsay finds the silence terrifying, as the clock stopping seems
to show her identity falling apart. Mrs. Ramsay's ambitions can only
be achieved when she is dead, and through Mrs. Ramsay's death, Lily
achieves Mrs. Ramsay's unconscious desires. Yet unconsciously ( in
life) Mrs. Ramsay wants the freedom that Lily has, she rebuffs it
because she cannot have the freedom:
'She could never marry: one could not take her painting very
was an independent little creature, and Mrs. Ramsay liked her for it;
remembering her promise, she bent her head.' (29. To The Lighthouse.)
The painting is the one thing that holds the novel together, and
reconciles everything that has happened, through Mrs. Ramsay; Lily has
clarity and is able to have clear vision;
'She must escape somewhere, be alone somewhere. Suddenly she
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
She would paint that picture now:' (216. To The Lighthouse.)
The painting orders life and unifies, it shows how everything is
related to each other:
'….All were related,' (232. To The Lighthouse.)
As they finally reach the lighthouse, it ends on a woman achieving her
vision with negotiating the pitfalls and expectations of gender. The
ending of To The Lighthouse, is significant in relation to the essay
title because Lily is unable to make the self-sacrifices that Mrs.
Ramsay made, she is unable to provide the sympathy to Mr. Ramsay that
he feels is the women's role to provide for a man. Because she can't
and won't give sympathy, she is able to achieve clarity and be selfish
in order to complete something that interests her. She is able to do
this because she refuses to conform to her gender role, thus showing
'To The Lighthouse' as a feminist text
, as Woolf gives rise to a
feminist analysis of a women's situation of the female experience.
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