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To The Lighthouse - Portrait of a Real Woman
Until To The Lighthouse, I had never read anything that so perfectly described women: wives, mothers, daughters and artists. I felt like shouting "Eureka!" on every page. These were my thoughts, beautifully written.
Virginia Woolf writes of the essential loneliness and aloneness of human beings. In the first passage I am examining Mrs. Ramsay is the heart of the group gathered around the dinner table. It is because of her that they are assembled. She is the wife, the mother. "And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her." But she feels disconnected, "outside that eddy" that held the others, alone. She views her husband almost as an inanimate object. "She could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion or affection for him." The room has become shabby. Beauty has dissolved. The gathering for which she is responsible is merely a group of strangers sitting at the same table. "Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate." Mrs. Ramsay understands that she must bring these people together. "Again she felt, as a fact without hostility, the sterility of men, for if she did not do it nobody would do it." So she drifts into the eddy to do her duty -- albeit reluctantly. "...she began all this business, as a sailor not without weariness sees the wind fill his sail and yet hardly wants to be off again and thinks how, had the ship sunk he would have whirled round and round and found rest on the floor of the sea."
This passage is so true! In a traditional family (my family) there is a man (husband and father), a woman (wife and mother), and children. The woman is claimed by all. She is held responsible, both in the eyes of her family and in her own eyes, for the happiness and well-being of all. She is the glue, the anchor, the spark, the damper. She is lonely but never alone. The idea of drifting to the bottom of the sea can seem inviting Ð to be free and alone! This short passage aptly illustrates a real woman's very complicated feelings about the demands of family and society upon her. I think it is no less valid now then it was in the 1920s when the book was written.
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Earlier in the book a scene takes place that illustrates another aspect of this issue. Mrs. Ramsay is reading to James when Augustus Carmichael walks by. Mrs. Ramsay senses that Mr. Carmichael does not care for her Ð "he shrank from her." She feels that Mr. Carmichael knows that a not insignificant reason for her caring for and kindness to others is vanity.
"It injured her that he should shrink. It hurt her. And yet not cleanly, not rightly. That was what she minded...the sense she had now when Mr. Carmichael shuffled past, just nodding to her question, with a book beneath his arm, in his yellow slippers, that she was suspected; and that all this desire of hers to give, to help, was vanity. For her own self-satisfaction was it that she wished so instinctively to help, to give, that people might say of her, 'O Mrs. Ramsay! dear Mrs. Ramsay...Mrs. Ramsay, of course!' and need her and send for her and admire her? Was it not secretly this that she wanted, and therefore when Mr. Carmichael shrank away from her, as he did at this moment, making off to some corner where he did acrostics endlessly, she did not feel merely snubbed back in her instinct, but made aware of the pettiness of some part of her, and of human relations, how flawed they are, how despicable, how self-seeking, at their best." (To The Lighthouse, pp.41-42)
So Mrs. Ramsay is the helper, the giver, the organizer and arranger. But her reasons for being these things are many: she feels compelled by her family and her friends and by society; she knows that men are "sterile" and incapable, and that "if she did not do it nobody would do it;" she truly loves her husband much of the time and her children all of the time; she enjoys the approbation that she receives.
Mrs. Woolf has written a portrait of a real woman.