Texts often explore the ways characters are in conflict with themselves, others or society. Discuss this idea with close reference to Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.
Texts often explore different forms of conflict - within a character or between characters, between a character and society – in order to raise important ideological questions about a particular society. Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel To The Lighthouse, published in 1927, represents the inner conflict of one of its central characters, Mrs Ramsay, and external conflict with the female artist Lily Briscoe, to critique traditional ideas about feminine roles and identity. The conclusion of the novel, however, represents the conflict between the patriarch, Mr Ramsay, and Lily, in order to move beyond gender difference and affirm what Woolf herself called ‘the androgynous vision’ as the basis for understanding others and for creating art. The novel’s class politics, however, are less admirable. It presents the conflict between the working-class character Charles Tansley and the privileged upper-middle class, not as an issue of social justice but of class resentment and potential violence. The representation of these various conflicts in the novel, through the use of characterisation, metaphors, narrative point of view and symbolism, thus endorses a progressive gender ideology, while it ultimately perpetuates a system of class inequality.
To The Lighthouse, written in the Edwardian period, reflects the significant shifts in politics of the time, as sections of society that had been largely excluded from wielding power in the past, such as women and the working class, became increasingly politicised. The novel must be read in the context of this period of social change, a change evident in the Suffragette movement and the violent overthrow of the Russian monarchy in 1917. It questions the traditional belief that a woman’s role in marriage was to tend to her husband’s emotional needs and that marriage was the source of her happiness and fulfilment. It also reflects the precariousness of the existing class structure and the deep-seated resentment of the working class towards the existence of privilege.
In this context of social change and disrupted notions of a woman’s role as foremost mother and wife, conflict between the characters of Mrs Ramsay and Lily Briscoe represents the opposing ideologies of the 1920s. Throughout the text, the representation of gender, through characterisation and particularly symbolism contradict and balance each other. Woolf supports Lily’s values, as she is characterised as a level-headed, dependant female who rejects the pressure to marry: “Thank Heaven. I need not undergo that degradation.” The multi-perspective narrative point of view reveals Lily’s conscious resolution to resist to society’s expectations of the time, and remain unmarried. This social conflict in her decision to not conform is matched with conflict with Mrs Ramsay’s values, as a traditional mother figure who believes “an unmarried woman has missed the best in life.”
Mostly, Mrs Ramsey is firm in her values and beliefs that “people must marry, people must have children,” as she is constantly devoted to matching Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley, and even imagines Lily to marry William Bankes. Yet expressed through her inner monologue, a sad inner conflict about these values and ‘truths’ of the necessity of marriage are revealed. There are moments when she is aware and lucid about her predicament – “[b]ut what have I done with my life?” – but for the most part, her internal conflict it is merely her nagging subconscious of indistinct doubt. She acknowledges these “sinister” moments of ambivalence, yet does not resolve them: “she was driven on, too quickly, she knew, almost as if it were an escape for her too…” This shifting narrative point of view and her stream of consciousness reveal her own shifting and contingent values about...