Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse examines the role of women or more specifically, the evolution of the modern woman. The two main female characters in the novel, Mrs Ramsay and Lily Briscoe, both represent different views on life and follow different paths on their search for meaning. Lily Briscoe transcends the traditional female gender roles embodied by Mrs Ramsay; by coming into her own as an independent and modern woman, she symbolises the advent of modernism and rejection of traditional Victorian values.
The traditional female gender roles of passivity and submission are first reinforced by Mrs Ramsay's attitude and behaviour towards her husband and the guests at her house. Mrs Ramsay is not a helpless woman but she is not independent in the way that Lily Briscoe is. While she is perfectly capable of being the boss of trivial and "womanly" things such as dinner, the higher level decisions are always made by her husband. For example, in the beginning of the novel, Mrs Ramsay tells her son, James, that, weather permitting, they would go to the lighthouse the next day. Mr Ramsay insists that, "it won't be fine" (9). They do not go to the lighthouse. Mrs Ramsay submits to her husband's decision.
Mrs Ramsay has the ability to "arrange people", both literally at the dinner table, and figuratively, as she plays match maker with her guests. However, her actions are either domestic and/or maternal.
But what have I done with my life? thought Mrs Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table . . . 'William, sit by me,' she said. 'Lily,' she said, wearily, 'over there.' . . . she [had] only this - an infinitely long table and plates and knives. At ...
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...it is irrelevant because she is dead. By Lily's completion of her painting of Mrs Ramsay and the arrival at the lighthouse, Mrs Ramsay can also be "ended", in a sense. James, having forgiven his father, no longer has to Freudianly prefer his mother. Lily, having finished her painting, can now reject Mrs Ramsay as a model, both for the portrait and for her life.
Lily is the embodiment of art in the novel; she strives for meaning in art. Mrs Ramsay, however, finds meaning in less abstract terms, she is fulfilled by her children and hopes to see them married. Lily finishes her painting but Mrs Ramsay does not live to see her children married. This is a statement on the validity of art and abstraction, as embodied by Lily Briscoe, and a negation of realist thought.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1989.
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