– Notes Essay, Research Paper
1Pause, reflect, and the reader may see at once the opposing yet relative perceptions made between life, love, marriage and death in Virginia Woolf?s To the Lighthouse. In this novel, Woolf seems to capture perfectly the very essence of life, while conveying life?s significance as communicated to the reader in light tones of consciousness arranged with the play of visual imagery. That is, each character in the novel plays an intrinsic role in that the individuality of other characters can be seen only through the former?s psyche. Moreover, every aspect of this novel plays a significant role in its creation. For instance; the saturation of the present by the past, the atmospheres conjoining personalities and separating them, and the moments when things come together and fall apart. This paper will explore such aspects of To the Lighthouse while incorporating the notion that the world Woolf creates in this novel is one that combines finite and infinite truth. A created world that recognizes both limitation and isolation and how these themes are interrelated in and throughout the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. Conceptually, Woolf combines all of the aforementioned realities of life into the presentation of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, a married couple that seem to stand for both accurate and visionary approaches to the reality of life. It is important, then, to consider that To the Lighthouse is not only representational of life, but that it also catches life. It is thus the goal of this paper to readily show why this is so.
In the novel, the theme of marriage is a fundamental one. The actual meaning of this marriage, however, receives differing clarifications. In a book by Alice van Buren Kelley, for example, an interpretation of the Ramsays? marriage by Herbert Marder is considered: ?Herbert Marder feels that Virginia Woolf ?viewed marriage from two
2essentially different points of view, describing it, in an intensely critical spirit as a patriarchal institution, but also expressing a visionary ideal of marriage as the ultimate relation?? (Kelley 115). This quotation seems to illustrate both the strife and harmony of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay?s relationship to one another. One could further suggest that the Ramsays? marriage represent an ideal balance between seemingly conflicted truths. This observation of opposing truths is depicted in both characters. At the beginning of the novel for instance, Mr. Ramsay is portrayed as a man who is always truthful: ?What he said was true. It was always true. He was incapable of untruth; never tampered with a fact; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being, least of all of his own children…? (Woolf 8). This quality that Mr. Ramsay possesses, however positive or negative, is juxtaposed with that of an opposing quality which is characterized in Mrs. Ramsay: ?But then again, it was the other thing too ? not being able to tell him the truth, being afraid, for instance, about the greenhouse roof and the expense it would be…? (Woolf 45). To the Lighthouse, then, is really a story of a struggle between two kinds of truth ? Mr. Ramsay?s and Mrs. Ramsay?s. For him, truth seems to be concrete, factual; for her, truth seems to be one?s endeavor toward truth. To further clarify this claim, I will make reference to a point in the novel in which the reader is able to see just how different Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay perceive life. It is when they are discussing their son Andrew, and what he might accomplish in life: ??Oh scholarships!? she said. Mr. Ramsay thought her foolish for saying that, about a serious thing, like a scholarship. He should be very proud of Andrew if he got a scholarship, he said. She would be just as proud of him if he didn?t, she answered? (Woolf 74). The differing
3approaches of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, (whether perceived as right or wrong) present a choice between the former and the latter; which is indeed a matter of preference; of perception. For in this novel there lies an alternative for the reader, a choice or option that is illustrative of life.
I will now shift focus back to Mr. Ramsay, to further emphasize just how his concept of truth correlates with that of Mrs. Ramsay?s in relation to reality. To begin, it is necessary to question why exactly, does Mr. Ramsay insist upon imposing on his family, and all the while in doing so combats himself? From Mr. Ramsay?s perspective, the answer seems to be objective. This statement proves true when Lily Briscoe offers to the reader some insight into this claim: ?Whenever she ?thought of his work? she always saw clearly before her a large kitchen table. It was Andrew?s doing. She asked him what his father?s books were about. ?Subject and object and the nature of reality?, Andrew had said. And when she said Heavens, she had no notion what that meant, ?Think of a kitchen table then?, he told her, ?when you?re not there?? (Woolf 28). One may consider this quotation as evidence of the belief Mr. Ramsay holds about truth. It seems as though he?s constructed a concrete, factual reality. A reality that almost discards the notion of beauty. Furthermore, Lily also sees that Mr. Ramsay is almost larger than life in his dedication to unveiled truth. She sees him almost as a machine that processes rather than appreciates: ?Naturally, if one?s days were passed in this seeing of angular essences, this reducing of lovely evenings, with all their flamingo clouds and blue and silver to a white deal four-legged table (and it was a mark of the finest minds so to do), naturally one could not be judged like and ordinary person? (Woolf 28). In reading this, it may seem
4easy for one to claim that Mr. Ramsay is missing something in his life, although he bravely grasps at the truth that he so uncompromisingly percieves. For this, his character must be ascribed, as Alice van Buren Kelley comments that: ?Like the body of the lighthouse, then, Mr. Ramsay stands, facing the limitations, the fact of isolation in life. Without being able to accept a truth which is based upon unity and boundlessness, without, in other words, sensing the vision, he provides the firm foundation that lies at the core of that vision, the fact that must be perceived as solid before it can take on transcendence? (Kelley 171). Thus, Mr. Ramsay?s attitude and perception of life and truth play an intrinsic role in To the Lighthouse. For he is a man who maintains great character; he has substance. He also has Mrs. Ramsay.
Who is Mrs. Ramsay? She is indeed a character that can be defined in many different ways, which has been done so by many different critics. However, in relation to this paper, she may be defined above all as a wife and mother. She has eight children and enjoys playing a maternal role for all those who surround her. She is also a character who seems to alternate over her world, providing order and unity throughout her life and even after her death. She is almost eternal, and her perception of truth in relation to life differs greatly from that preserved by Mr. Ramsay. The combination of opposing attitudes toward life is what makes this novel work; it is also what makes Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay work. Again, their perceptions of truth differ, a statement that may be exemplified in many passages throughout the novel. However, among all the differences in Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay?s attitude toward truth, there is one passage that defines Mrs. Ramsay?s character and what truth really means to her. It is a passage that demonstrates
5Mrs. Ramsay?s concern for her son James? not being able to go to the lighthouse; it also allows the reader to get a sense for who Mrs. Ramsay really is. ?In a moment he would ask her, ?Are we going to the Lighthouse?? And she would have to say, ?No: not tomorrow; your father says not.? Happily, Mildred came in to fetch them, and the bustle distracted them. But he kept looking back over his shoulder as Mildred carried him out, and she was certain that he was thinking, we are not going to the Lighthouse to-morrow; and she thought, he will remember that all his life? (Woolf 68).
However, it is necessary in noting that Mrs. Ramsay must not be depicted as a dreamer of sorts. She can indeed be overbearing, almost trifling, but she is not a woman who is able to wander through a dream world from which the nastiness of life is ignored. She is most definitely aware, except her approach to life simply differs from her husband?s; which in turn is necessary for the novel (not the story) to progress. Moreover, in a very perceptive commentary on To the Lighthouse, John Graham captures the full significance of the Ramsays? marriage, stating clearly everything that I have been building toward in this paper: ?Crudely put, Mrs. Ramsay equals eternity, Mr. Ramsay equals time; they are married. For Mrs. Ramsay, though she triumphs in time, triumphs because she intuits eternity; and Mr. Ramsay, though he loftily seeks a philosophical absolute which will solve the problem of ?subject and object and the nature of reality?, cannot break his bondage to time without the aid of his wife. Together they fulfill each other, and are the creators of life? (Latham 34). They think nothing alike, yet they need each other nonetheless. Therefore, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are deeply interdependent. Without one it seems as though the other would not exist, nor would there exist an all
6encompassing journey of transcendence to the lighthouse.
In summation, the substance of To the Lighthouse is provided directly by life, it catches life in a fashion that I have yet to see in any other novel. I enjoyed this book very much, however I recognize reasons for people?s not liking it so much. It is undeniable that To the Lighthouse lacks progressive action that involves moral choices and decisions. The novel must tell a story. Although, who needs a story when an author perfectly captures a concept such as the world of mind time and the world of linear time and their relation to each other? For both are related to an inner and ceaseless reality.