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.