Understanding Lily for Woolf's "To the Lighthouse"

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Understanding Lily
Understanding Virginia Woolf’s mind within the weaving prose of To the Lighthouse is an undertaking that forces the reader to step back and consider, and indeed, reconsider everything that has just been read, assuming of course, that everything within her evolving story is remembered and comprehended. Woolf is known to challenge her readers with her unstructured worldview as to how an individual appears as people perceive the world around them. She uses her novels for more than just telling stories, but her stories are not merely a method in which to ultimately tell a moral. Both the story and the messages that can be taken from them are integrally important to Woolf’s literature. To the Lighthouse shares a similar message to Mrs. Dalloway, another one of Woolf’s better known works. Lily Briscoe reveals this particular message well when she muses that “fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with” (Woolf 198). This is to say, Mrs. Ramsay could not be understood from fifty different perspectives, let alone one. For Woolf, labeling someone, or choosing to view a person from only one viewpoint is a narrow understanding of an individual and is a discredit to mankind. This applies to how her books are perceived too, for it would seem that Woolf hated the idea of having her readers only come away with only one collective impression. Therefore, the moral of being sure to view an individual with many different viewpoints is only one part of To the Lighthouse, and assuming that it is the only viewpoint of this story would do injustice to Woolf’s intentions. However, it is a central part to the development of Lily Briscoe, the frustrated artist staying with the Ramsays; trying to paint what she sees. Woolf includes changing elements to all of her characters, but her major characters are especially diverse, a trait that ensures that no one viewpoint can be generalized about any of them. Lily plays a central part to the story, a part that is more obscure and hidden from the reader than the parts of other major characters, but a part that in the end is crucial to understanding the many viewpoints that built To the Lighthouse into the multifaceted piece of literature that makes it famous.

Lily is not initially set up to be a character that the reader is meant to be drawn to. Her introduction is an abrupt thought from the mind of Mrs. Ramsay: “with her little Chinese eyes and her puckered-up face, she would never marry; one could not take her painting very seriously; she was an independent little creature” (17). She is terrified of anyone seeing her painting, she keeps a large part of her senses and attention on making sure no one comes up behind her instead of focusing on finishing her painting. First impressions of Lily amount to an image of some paranoid little animal that thinks itself the prey of its own species; when she realizes that Mr. Bankes had come around her and was now analyzing her painting, she “winced like a dog who sees a hand raised to strike it” (52). Another uncertainty raised against her is her character, which is continually examined throughout the story as being easily impressed upon. Charles Tansley is an individual for whom Lily harbors no love. Even so, his words “women can’t write, women can’t paint” appears many times throughout the story as a haunting reminder to Lily. It bothers her as if she almost believes it; and therefore, it may be that she keeps painting to spite Tansley’s nagging whispers. She is also portrayed as unable to take a stand on her viewpoint of any individual. This ends up being a merit of hers when lined up with Woolf’s ideas on labeling someone, but it makes her appear as indecisive when first reading about her. Her struggle lies with Mr. Ramsay. “He is petty, selfish, vain, egotistical’ he is spoilt; he is a tyrant; he wears Mrs. Ramsay to death” (24). However, she holds a profound respect for the man, even if it is reliant on her early,...
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