Woolf in Winter: To the Lighthouse

Two weeks ago, Mrs. Dalloway was a bit of a revelation for me, and To the Lighthouse has deepened my almost-love of Virginia Woolf. There are a million things going on here that I could write about, and I’ll be thinking about them as I continue with Woolf in Winter because they are definitely a part of Woolf’s “project”—especially her concern with creative types creating things. But I’d like to focus on one scene from the novel, which does bring in a number of its issues: the scene between Lily Briscoe and Mr. Ramsay after the family’s postwar return to the island house.

Mr. Ramsay is waiting for his children to ready themselves for their trip to the lighthouse, and Lily is trying to ignore him and pretend to work on a painting to avoid speaking to him. Mr. Ramsay is emotionally needy, always demanding to be praised, spoiled by his wife and other women who are charmed by him, constantly in search of female sympathy. And Lily Briscoe, a spinster in her forties now, doesn’t like to give in to the baseless demands on her sympathy made by men she doesn’t really care for. Just as she experiments with being less than caring toward Charles Tansley at the dinner party earlier in the novel, she wants to avoid giving Mr. Ramsay her sympathy. But she decides it will be easier if she tries to “give him what she could.”

But he’s so demanding, and she so cold, that she simply cannot do it. She feels “stuck,” “nauseated,” like “the whole horizon [is] swept bare of objects to talk about.”

They stood there, isolated from the rest of the world. His immense self-pity, his demand for sympathy poured and spread itself in pool at her feet, and all she did, miserable sinner that she was, was to draw her skirts a little closer round her ankles, lest she should get wet.

Lily’s behavior toward Mr. Ramsay is almost unbearably cruel. He is all but crying out for help and she is denying him. But she should deny him! After all, what Mr. Ramsay does is “to approach any woman, to force them, he did not care how, his need was so great, to give him what he wanted: sympathy.” He’s done it to Mrs. Ramsay; he’s tortured his children with it. And he does not have this kind of emotional claim on Lily Briscoe. Rather than being “immensely to her discredit, sexually,” her behavior is utterly right—and yet how hard it is to watch, and how hard it would be to carry out.

Even Lily cannot hold, though, and as soon as she can find a way to reach out to Mr. Ramsay she does. It’s just as hard later for his children, Cam and James, to “fight tyranny to the death” as they’d pledged to. And it really is tyranny, this emotional manipulation. Mr. Ramsay is very good at it, and he shouldn’t be rewarded. But when we’re all so small and alone in the world, all wanting praise and sympathy just as he does, it’s incredibly hard to deny it when it’s demanded, even so illegitimately.

What is Woolf saying about men and women here, and families, and friends? A lot, I’m afraid. One of my favorite things about To the Lighthouse is the way it deals with the bundled nature of personalities. What does it mean to like or dislike someone, when they have so many different qualities that you may variously like and dislike? Who does have a claim on our sympathy? Is it right for women to provide sympathy to all and sundry, to hold things together? Mrs. Ramsay seems almost subsumed in that function at times, and she seems to believe it the great purpose of femininity. Lily Briscoe thinks she has escaped it, but she cannot shed it entirely. And what of the tyrant? After all, he is suffering. But that’s simply not Lily’s responsibility!

More questions than answers here, but I’m always very interested in this leaping of the impassable gulf between individuals—or failing to—and Woolf’s depiction of the issue may now be one of my favorites.

Visit Emily at Evening All Afternoon for her post and links to others participating in Woolf in Winter.

12 comments to Woolf in Winter: To the Lighthouse

  • I love how you point out the ‘bundled nature of personalities’ and ‘what it means to like or dislike someone.’ I hadn’t thought about this until now.. that the characters had been swinging back and forth into liking and disliking one another. Mrs Ramsay and Lily on Charles. Charles on Mrs Ramsay and Lily. William Bankes on Mrs Ramsay, on Lily, on Mr Ramsay, on Cam. Cam and James on Mr Ramsay. Mr Ramsay on his wife, on Lily. Lily on Mr Ramsay and Paul and Minta, Mr Carmichael, &tc.

    A story that ‘has a million things in it’ and allows for ‘more questions than answers’ reminds us how intricately and how carefully Woolf must’ve woven it.

    I also thought the scene between Lily and Mr Ramsay rather striking, especially paired with Cam and James protest against their father in the boat. They were the perfect ending.

  • What does it mean to like or dislike someone, when they have so many different qualities that you may variously like and dislike? Who does have a claim on our sympathy?

    It is in precisely this treatment that To the Lighthouse seems such a dramatic evolution from Mrs. Dalloway. In the latter, which I enjoyed very much, the characters had a two-dimensional quality. In To the Lighthouse, perhaps due to the autobiographical emphasis, the characterisation is as complex as I have ever read.

  • Yes, yes, yes! Loved your post, Nicole. The tension Woolf creates between Lily’s conflicting impulses, and between her and Mr. Ramsay, is indeed masterful. Personally I’m always rooting for Lily to withhold sympathy and “niceness” from Mr. Ramsay and Charles Tansley, although on this read-through I felt more sympathetic toward Mr. Ramsay than I have before. More to the point, though, Woolf’s attention to the “bundled nature of personalities,” as you so aptly put it, is so beautiful and complex. Thanks for reading along, and for articulating one of my very favorite things about Woolf’s novels!

    And Anthony: That’s so interesting that you felt the characters in Mrs. Dalloway to be two-dimensional! I don’t know if I agree, but their interactions are different than those in To the Lighthouse, to be sure…those in Mrs. D have a long history with each other, for one thing, whereas not everyone in TTL does. Will have to ponder…thanks for making me think!

  • Hi, thanks for your review, but it has put me off somewhat. i didn’t manage to read the book yet and now I am not sure about reading it. Mr Ramsay sounds just like my ex husband so I am not sure I want to read a book about an emotionally needy man, sounds too depressing:-)

  • Nicole, I’m glad you focused on Lily Briscoe because, on this second reading, she really came forward for me. As a character she is deceptively quiet and modest and, next to Mrs. Ramsay, she almost seems to be in the background. Mrs. Ramsay didn’t care a fig for her painting. Thank heavens for William Bankes, who has the intelligence and consideration to overcome his prejudices and listen to her. What is Woolf saying about this particular friendship? It has completely different dynamics from the marriage relationship of the Ramsays. Mr. Bankes–despite Mrs. Ramsay’s pity toward him as lonely–is not a needy man. I think Woolf is saying that people are complex, “bundled,” as you put it; and all those different relationships that Claire lists–each one is unique. I enjoyed your post!

  • That the tyrant, Mr. Ramesay, is not Lily’s responsiblity is huge! So many women (me, in my twenties) take responsibility for things they have no business acepting, or trying to sooth the mess that tyrants have created. I felt Lily’s pain acutely, and was amazed that Mrs. Ramesay was able to cope with it all so gracefully.

  • GREAT post. That scene is so intense and layered. I too am struck by your point about the characters spending much of the book trying to decide if they like each other. So true to life – we do it all day, even with people we’re completely convinced that we love. What an odd human trait.

  • That scene you chose to focus on is a great one, Nicole, and the resolution with Lily’s comment about the boots is both comical and pitiful in equal proportions. Watching Woolf’s characters resist becoming healers out of principle made me feel really connected to them as believable creations, but I also think it had a distancing effect on me in some way in that they sometimes seemed more stubborn than principled. Still, a very powerful novel. Nice post!

  • Really enjoyed this post. I always avoid dealing with this section of the novel because of the discomfort of reading it. The characters and their interactions do feel so real that I bristle at descriptions of Ramsay’s undeniable tyranny. I pity him. And those he subjects to his neediness. But as said above, what rich characters.

    Thanks for reading along and I hope to see you on the 12th for Orlando.

  • You almost have me convinced to give Woolf a second chance. Had to read To the Lighthouse for a class almost 10 years ago now… probably isn’t a fair way to judge her.

  • This is one of my favorite novels, I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I think this moment of tense interaction, when two personalities have conflict because of differences in their fundamental, inescapable selves, is where Woolf is at her greatest.

  • I appreciate you picking one idea/scene to discuss (if there is such a thing as one thing in a Woolf novel) – I feel my random post was shallow but oh well. I so enjoyed this and everyone’s comments to your ‘bundle of personalities’. I can’t help but restate how fascinated and enjoyable these discussions are. And how everyone brings something different to the experience.