Section 17 Analysis Virginia Woolf to the Lighthouse
To the Lighthouse
Read Section 17 and discuss how this relates to Woolf’s methods and concerns.
Revolting against the Victorian and Edwardian writing methods which concentrate on the outside world, Virginia Woolf’s modernist technique collapses the boundaries between the external and internal, oscillating creatively from mind to memory in an abstract kaleidoscope of images and words. Woolf introduces the reader to a completely new narrational strategy, bombarding the reader’s senses with multiple characters psyches. Throughout section, Mrs. Ramsay questions her existence and purpose in life, echoing the novelist Virginia Woolf’s own existential angst and concerns of being agnostic and therefore without belief of a next life. The novel, which consists of three individual parts: The Window, Time Passes and The Lighthouse, is a general portrayal of James Ramsay’s ten-year journey from the Ramsay’s house to the lighthouse, a period with a minimal plot-line, during which Mrs. Ramsay‘s death is quasi-unnoticed; unlike the dramatic death-bed scenes of Victorian novels, Mrs. Ramsay departure, ‘having died rather suddenly the night before’, remains simply one of Lily Briscoe’s fleeting thoughts in Part Two, Time Passes. Past, present and future coalesce within the continuous stream of consciousness in flashbacks and flash-forwards. Woolf uses parenthesis only to insert various characters remarks or identification to break up the incessant flow of thoughts which creates a confusingly long syntax and spills over the page, for example, Mr. Ramsay philosophizing over his ‘splendid mind’, like the ‘keyboard of a piano’. His train of thought continues without leash, ‘divided into so many notes…onto R, once more. R—’ Mr. Ramsay’s failure to reach the subsequent letter after ‘Q’ causes him to realize his own failure as a philosopher, as he sinks back into existential angst. Mrs. Ramsay opens section 17, facing her own existential angst with ‘what have I done with my life?’. Just as Lily Briscoe attempts to preserve her experiences through her artwork, knowing it is the only thing that will outlive her: ‘nothing stays, all changes; but not words, not paint’, Mrs. Ramsay endeavours to preserve her experiences in match-making Lily to William Bankes and securing her memory in holding dinner parties, where Woolf models her on Mrs. Dalloway’s heroine Clarissa, the ‘Perfect Hostess’, which she uses to mask her concerns, in which her external and internal fail to correspond: ‘she had a sense of being past everything, through everything, out of everything’. As ever, the reader is presented with the association of water and hence emotions and thoughts through the ‘eddy’ and ‘soup’, symbolic of Mrs. Ramsay’s whirlpool of emotions. She attempts to put Tansley more at ease, suggesting that they speak in French, to impose ‘some order, some uniformity’. William Bankes, ‘replying to her in the same language’ suggests that they are conversing not in the same idiom but rather the same wavelength. However, Tansley’s custom of being ‘lied to’, leads him to ‘suspect its insincerity’. His perception of French, or a language that he has ‘no knowledge of’ leads the reader to deduce that he is one of the more judgmental, xenophobic and sexist characters Virginia Woolf intended to be mocked. Significantly, the dining room scene is the culmination of the day. ‘They all sat separate. And the whole effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her’ here, the group moves from irritation and detachment to connection and harmony, which Mrs. Ramsay, the epitomic model of maternity and Mother Nature is responsible for. Private soliloquies of the day are abandoned, the meal and conversation is shared. Mrs. Ramsay compares the party to time’s ‘old familiar pulse’ of ‘one, two, three, one, two, three’. The comparison is followed by the repetitive ‘and so on and so on’, reminding the reader of the ‘soothing tattoo’ of the sea and echoes of thoughts and voices. As Lily examines Mrs. Ramsay through her artistic perspective, the reader notices that she only looks animated when her internal thoughts coalesce positively with the external world. Mrs. Ramsay’s mood at the start of the meal is despondent. The worries and misunderstandings of the day have accumulated and she asks herself what she has done with her life and thinks, ‘it’s all come to an end’. Lily perceives this, reading the pessimism off her expression and thinking: ‘how old she looks, how worn she looks’, ‘and how remote’. Using Lily Briscoe’s artistic perspective, Woolf paints a visual characterisation of Mrs. Ramsay so the reader might see her—and the other characters— from many different points of view, hence a frequent kaleidoscope of images, or a myriad of impressions. Simultaneously, Lily’s train of thought links to ‘a flower in the pattern in the table-cloth’ to one of her other paintings and she decides to ‘put her tree further in the middle’ to ‘avoid awkward space’. Woolf portrays the uncontrollable flow of reflection as a river of ideas, such as the phrase ‘you will never step into the same river twice’, as the sub-consciousness, submerged in its own ocean of imagination, is ever changing and evanescent. ‘That’s what I shall do. That’s what has been puzzling me. She took up the salt cellar and put it down again on a flower in the pattern in the table-cloth’. Here, Virginia Woolf’s narrational strategy oscillates between Lily Briscoe’s thoughts but also changing perspectives such as the omniscient narrator. However, in examining Charles Tansley, Lily Briscoe seeks ‘a little revenge’, ‘by laughing at him’. She decides he ‘the most uncharming human being she has ever met’ when his sexist declaration states, ‘Women can’t write, women can’t paint’. She teases him, saying, ‘Oh, Mr. Tansley’ and ‘do take me to the Lighthouse with you. I should so love it’. In recognition that he is being lied to and refusing to be ‘made a fool of by women’ Charles Tansley lashes out rudely, claiming ‘it would be too rough for her to-morrow. She would be sick.’. His hostility leads to his discomfort when he realizes Mrs. Ramsay, whom he ‘admired’ and ‘liked’ is listening in. Tansley is depicted through the entire novel as a lonely, self-pitying and bitter ‘dry prig’ of a man. His purpose in life appears solely to be mocked and despised by the other characters. In some respects he is a personification of Karma, as in to say he reaps hate and bitterness and thus only receives such emotions from others. And yet, like every character, he too feels the sting of existentialism as he ‘wished only to be alone and to take up that book. He felt uncomfortable; he felt treacherous. That he could sit by her side and feel nothing for her. The truth was that he did not enjoy family life. It was in this sort of state that one asked oneself ‘what does one live for?’ used to being isolated and rejected, Tansley shies from human contact, condescending of such life forms, addressing the ‘human race’ as a ‘foolish’ and ‘vain’ ‘species’. Alone, he philosophizes why ‘does one take all these pains for the human race to go on? Is it so very desirable? Are we attractive as a species?’ The reader perceives Life as a myriad of impressions filled with the binary oppositions such as ‘rigid and barren’ associated with the male ‘arid scimitar’, while the female is presented by the ‘sea’ and ‘apples’ to symbolize fertility and emotions. The reader might associate Mrs. Ramsay’s claim to be ‘drowning in seas of fire’ with the water imagery but also this is possibly prophetic of Woolf’s later suicide. Using her creative myriad of impressions, Woolf switches Mrs. Ramsay’s dejection for joy when she realizes ‘she admired him so much’ ‘she glowed all over’, expressing how spontaneously ones emotions can change. Mr. Ramsay, furious that Augustus Charmichael has demanded ‘another plate of soup’, exchanges a private conversation with his wife based on the physiognomy perceived: ‘the whole of his body seemed to emit sparks but not words. He sat there scowling. He had said nothing, he would have her observe’. ‘They looked at each other down the long table sending these questions and answers across, each knowing exactly what the other felt’. We can see here that their relationship enables them to play two halves of a whole in seeing into each other’s souls. At Mrs. Ramsay’s instruction to ‘Light the candles’, the atmosphere becomes softer, calmer and more picturesque. Colours such as ‘red and gold’ and ‘leopard skins’ suggest warmth, wealth and colonization. Indeed, the new ambiance harmonizes the mood of the party, ‘and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candle-light’. Reference to ‘twilight’ signifies the transience from day to night, and the ‘window’ symbolically represents a shield in a world of duality and transience, and the demarcation that Woolf collapses between Mrs. Ramsay’s inner psyche and the external world, ‘night was now shut off by panes of glass’. Significantly, ‘the outside world, rippled it so strangely’ and ‘order and dry land’ accurately depicts the binary oppositions of the sea and thus internal, female presence and the masculine ‘arid scimitar’, external. Like survivors on an island, they sit together in the circle of light at the table, ‘making a party together in a hollow, on an island’. The ‘faces seen by candlelight’ expresses the transfiguration and transformation of perceptions, rendering them into a shallow appearance and chimera. Minta Doyle is portrayed innocent and flirtatious. Aware she is wearing her golden haze’, she has no fear of the serious Mr. Ramsay and rather looks up at him doe-eyed; ‘a suffusion in her large brown eyes’. in return, he banters her, calling her ‘such a goose’ with patronizingly endearing and flirtatious affection. Her relationship with Mr. Ramsay is epitomic of the gender constructs: while he is ‘fearfully clever’, she is perceived as ‘more ignorant’ and ‘he liked telling her she was a fool’. Hence the depiction that the feminine role is supposed to soothe the male role, keep out of academic discussions and instead ‘flutter and shine’, such as Blanche Ingram in Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre. Woolf’s method of characterisation examines the psyche of the observing Mrs. Ramsay in depth as she experiences a twinge of jealousy in watching the exchange between her husband and Minta Doyle. Indeed, as with Clarissa Dalloway, we reach into Mrs. Ramsay’s ‘leaf-encumbered forest, the soul’. Looking in the glass, she realizes that only she has significantly affected by age in the past few years. She feels resentment for her husband’s double standards for ‘favourites’ who are permitted to ‘interrupt him at his work’, and how he remains ‘a young man’, ‘a man very attractive to women’, ‘not burdened’ ‘with the greatness of his labours’. This here is most possibly a reference to the twelve labours of Hercules, for example, he takes on the feat of carrying the sky on his back: ‘the sorrows of the world and his frame and his failure’. This alliterative ‘f’ emphasizes Mr. Ramsay’s unsuccessful attempt at philosophy. Symbolically, Mrs. Ramsay experiences a flashback to when ‘she had first known him, gaunt and gallant; helping her out of a boat, she remembered; with delightful ways’, showing the reader that Mr. Ramsay was not always as dominant and tyrannical over James and her, but suave and charming. In relation to this, Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle’s recent betrothal might be perceived as a prophetic reminiscence of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s unification between two separate individuals becoming one: ‘We’. In this way, ‘him and her’ versus ‘them’, just like the antithesis of love and death ‘for what could be more serious that the love of man for woman, what more commanding, more impressive, bearing in its bosom the seeds of death’. Reading into this, one might find the significance of new life found in giving birth but simultaneously the presence of death as even a child’s life is temporal since we will all eventually die, due to our existence in this transient world.