To the Lighthouse is a book preoccupied by death, and gender is formulated by the difference in response to its threat. Women pursue immortality through creation of illusion and men through pursuance of facts. The novel questions the distinction between the sexes that became rigidified into pre-WWI gender roles which are exemplified in the institution of marriage. A younger generation fights against the rigidity of gender boundaries, Lily being the chief representative of this rebellion. She must learn to integrate her masculine and feminine qualities into a balanced whole so that she will be a creator of illusion and a pursuer of facts. Lily’s painting is her creative representation of the underlying truth of gendered life and will achieve her immortality.
The major interpretive difficulty of this novel is Woolf’s use of multiple perspectives. Josephine O’Brien Schaefer writes:
“The window in Part I is, naturally, the literal one at which Mrs. Ramsay sits with her small son James…The title, however, has a much wider application. Each of the characters has his window opening on the world, and much of the first section of the novel differentiates the frames of references [of the different characters]... Virginia Woolf, adding her own voice to the voice of the characters, bit by bit completes a view ‘in’ as well as ‘out,’ in other words, a view of the viewer framed by the window. The moments of vision which occur much later in Part III must be understood as occurring within the frames supplied in Part I” (Latham, 72).
It is easy to accept one character’s version of reality as true and Woolf periodically warns us, through the confusion of her characters...
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... society has tried to discourage such mixing of gender within self by creating distinctive roles for women and men. Woolf feels that women must learn to accept their femininity, cultivate their masculinity and choose the role that they want to play. Only when they do this can immortality through self-fulfilment be achieved.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar, Susan. No Man’s Land, Volume 3,: Letters From the Front. London: Yale University Press, 1994.
Latham, Jacqueline, ed. Critics on Virginia Woolf. Florida: University of Miami Press, 1970.
O’Brien Schaefer, Josephine. The Three-fold Nature of Reality in the Novels of Virginia Woolf. The Hague: Mouton and Co., 1965, pp. 111-13, 118-25. (Latham, pg. 72-78).
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Introduction by D.M. Hoare, Ph.D. London: J.M. Dent and Sons
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