Embodying the spirit of the female artist, Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse examines critical issues pertaining to her role in Virginia Woolf’s novel. In Part Three of the novel, Mrs. Ramsay’s legacy plays an especially important role in Lily’s thinking processes. Flowing experimentally like the sea that day, Lily’s thoughts encompass the novel’s themes of the passage of time, the role of the woman, and the role of the artist.
Though time can break down physical matter, its prodding cannot disperse vivid memories. In the beginning of Part Three, Lily feels that Mrs. Ramsay’s death signals the deadening of emotions over time, for she can feel “nothing, nothing – nothing that she [can] express at all” (125). Lily feels that without Mrs. Ramsay’s art of bringing people together, everything becomes “aimless”, “chaotic” and “unreal” (126). Lily echoes Mr. Ramsay’s sentiments of having “perished” and wishes Mrs. Ramsay were in charge of the household again (126). Although Lily is a friend of the Ramsays, she is deeply affected by the unravelling of the Ramsay’s family life and remarks, “The empty places. Such were some of the parts, but how bring them together?” (126). Lily is able to solve this dilemma at the end of the story; however, for the moment, she can only imagine Mrs. Ramsay saying “life stand still here,” for this is the older woman’s way of turning a moment into something permanent (138). Later in her mind’s eye, Lily sees Mrs. Ramsay through William’s eyes and thinks “beauty had this penalty – it came too readily, came too completely. It stilled life – froze it. One forgot the little agitations; the flush, the pallor, some queer distortion, some light or s...
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...izes it on the canvas. Lily is no longer a passive woman confused about her artistic abilities.
Time’s passage is inevitable, but Lily learns that she can match wits with time by using her artistic talents. Mrs. Ramsay had shown Lily that time can be stopped with beauty, but Lily opts for a more realistic capture of time with artwork that transcends all ages. As a female artist, Lily dashes Mrs. Ramsay’s hopes as well as overcomes the societal expectations for her to become married. Not only does Lily redefines what it means to be a woman, she also renews the image of the artist. Intertwining her reflections on time, womanhood, and artistry, Lily emerges as a more mature person in the end of Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse.
Woolf, Virginia, To the Lighthouse. Edited by Susan Dick. Oxford, United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishers 1992.
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