Gender Complications in Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”

Those of you who are not predisposed to read gender according to the preconceived ideas you learned in college might note that Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are each a mixed bag from page one. The whole book is framed by their opening answers to little James’s request to go to the lighthouse tomorrow. Mrs. Ramsay’s “Yes” is supportive and kind, but factually false. Mr. Ramsay’s “No” (the weather won’t be fine) is factually correct but emotionally hollow. To his credit, his expressed intention is to teach the kids the value of “truth” and the “courage” to face “uncompromising facts.” But little James, not yet initiated into the world of cold, hard facts, only recognizes the generosity of “yes” and the tyranny of “no.”

So Mr. Ramsay is never quite likable, but he is drawn by Woolf with remarkable sensitivity and compassion. He rightly surmises that he would have written better philosophy books had he not married. And yet he loves his family and thinks he is a brute to even have that thought (69). His life, like all lives in Woolf, is a jumble of successes, sacrifices, and irretrievable losses. He thinks that Mrs. Ramsay, even at age 50, is the most beautiful woman in the world (123), and yet his excessive neediness prevents us from quite liking him for the sentiment. On one level Mrs. Ramsay finds comfort in his “truthfulness,” in “the admirable fabric of the masculine intelligence, which ran up and down, crossed this way and that, like iron girders spanning the swaying fabric, upholding the world, so that she could trust herself to it utterly” (106). And although his initial “no” showed no malice but a cold adherence to fact, it is poignant that years later when he finally takes James to the lighthouse, fulfilling the promise of Mrs. Ramsay and perhaps trying to atone for his own earlier failure, James responds with almost pure hatred of the old man.

Mrs. Ramsay is the archetypal mother, the Magna Mater, presiding over the domestic rituals that bind abstract individuals into community. Where Mr. Ramsay clings (perhaps desperately) to philosophy and Truth as an anchor of meaning (his lighthouse), Mrs. Ramsay clings (perhaps less desperately because less aware of the limitations of her world view) to domesticity and family feeling. She plays the role of Magna Mater magnificently, presiding over her intersubjective world with precision, as beautifully expressed in the scene with her family and dinner guests:

“At the moment her eyes were so clear that they seemed to go round the table unveiling each of these people, and their thoughts and feelings, without effort like a light stealing under water so that its ripples and the reeds in it and the minnows balancing themselves, and the sudden silent trout are all lit up, hanging, trembling” (87).

Her role as Magna Mater, though, has problematic implications for her both as a person and as a social force. As a person, she has had to sacrifice her individuality. Between all her serving and doing, there are flickering moments where she asks, “What have I done with my life?” (82), or allows herself to linger on the thought for a full few seconds, as when she senses “something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband, a sort of transaction … in which she was on one side, and life was on the other, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her” (59).

Furthermore, Lily, a shrewd observer and perhaps the closest character to Woolf’s point of view, sees the dynamic of Mr. Ramsay’s neediness and Mrs. Ramsay’s giving him pity differently than Mrs. Ramsay sees it. To Mrs. Ramsay, he is needy and she doesn’t mind giving him pity because he is more important than her and it’s a generous thing for her to do even if she finds it draining at times. But Lily suspects “that all this desire of hers to give, to help, was vanity. For her own self-satisfaction … that people might … need her and send for her and admire her” (41). There is a little bit of Ayn Rand’s Ellsworth Toohey in Mrs. Ramsay. She exposes this in the first few pages in her vision of life at the lighthouse, as she fantasizes misery in order to pity it (5). Or a few pages later, why does she suddenly say of the sullen Tansley, “She liked him warmly, at the moment” (11)? It seems inexplicable but go back a few lines and you’ll see that he exposed himself as in need of pity. This is what made her suddenly warm up to him. And her need to pity men in general approaches delusions of grandeur: “She had the whole of the other sex under her protection” (6). This is certainly not the whole Mrs. Ramsay, but it is one onion skin in the fabric of her identity.

As a social force, Mrs. Ramsay is actively complicit in the traditional gender scheme. She pities men for their inability to “feel” things right but she admires and is grateful for their competence in public affairs. But everyone’s first duty is to get married and have a family. Paul and Minta must get married (they do and it turns to disaster). Lily and Mr. Bankes must get married (luckily they never do). But in Mrs. Ramsay’s vision, there is no other option: “People must marry; people must have children” (60). It is deliciously ironic that perhaps the most powerful and attractive character in all of Woolf’s corpus, the darling of so many feminists, is also a tremendous gravitational force pulling people back into traditional gender norms. This is expressed most succinctly in a scene at the dinner where Lily toys with the idea of violating the gender code but one knowing glance from Mrs. Ramsay and Lily “had to renounce the experiment” (92).

Lily, by contrast, plays a more “feminist” role. She is the artist who chooses not to marry. But her consciousness too is conflicted and multi-layered. She feels the full weight of what Mrs. Ramsay represents, the Great Mother towering over the ages, very powerful, very beautiful, very instrumental in human community. And she feels very insignificant by comparison. And yet she sees that marriage would be a trap for her and chooses artistic creation over procreation, almost as an absurd hero chooses moral action, knowing in advance the futility of doing so. In a nutshell, Mrs. Ramsay in the window is the very picture of the Beautiful Woman, the Great Mother, the cosmic procreative power, but she is also the picture of a woman trapped in, framed by, and complicit in the deadening Victorian gender norms of a dying age. This is why the first of the three books is called “The Window,” and this is why it takes Lily so long to get her painting of Mrs. Ramsay, and all that Mrs. Ramsay represents, just right.

Overall, one might see Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Ramsay both tangled up in the double-binds of Victorian gender norms. Mrs. Ramsay must be the great Magna Mater but must also be self-sacrificing, self-negating, insignificant relative to the Husband. To succeed at one task is to fail at the other. Mr. Ramsay has one foot in philosophy and one in family, unable to complete himself in either. The Victorian code enjoins the stoical, factual male of the public sphere but also glorifies the Family. Men and women are both trapped in these codes. I’d say that Mr. Ramsay is more aware of the trap than Mrs. Ramsay, but this frees Mrs. Ramsay to show that the age that is passing away is more than just a trap – it is also something archetypal, eternally beautiful, something with a transcendental as well as a material frame of reference. It is up to Lily’s painting (of Mrs. Ramsay in the window) to capture the full beauty, the shimmering transcendental glow of that age, so that we can let it go and move on.

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Goodbye, Maggie hits the bookstores

NOW AVAILABLE: GOODBYE, MAGGIE                                                                        BY GARY GAUTIER

Celebrate, cast across the blogosphere, write reviews, share with friends, lovers, dreamers and debauchees!

In a culture of health nuts, gurus, quacks, and seekers, Phil’s stagnant life collapses when his charismatic brother, Magnus, announces that he has murdered someone and asks for sanctuary. Thus starts a comic drama of misdirection, as Magnus disappears – with Phil’s girlfriend, Hermia – and Phil lands on an uneasy road trip through small town Louisiana with Gus, another rival for Hermia’s attention. Phil and Gus, white and black, find racism, madness, and unlikely friendships as they crisscross the bayous into New Orleans.

Amazon link here.
Author site here.
Facebook link here.

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Hippies in the yard

Here’s another small clip from my novel, Hippies. In this one, several characters of the two-house commune are being introduced as they play around in the yard. (The two houses are the Duck and the Island.) Had you the decency to read the book, you’d know about half of these characters from the previous chapter.

Duck common residents: Ziggy, Jazmine, Ragman, Stormy, Rose Petal
Island common residents: Tex, Hoss, Gina, Pepper

x x x

Stormy paused, and Rag walked back into the elongated house, the Duck. Meanwhile, Gina and Hoss came out of the fat square house, the Island, from across the yard. Gina was a tiny, quiet thing, and Hoss a big, garrulous walrus of a man – perhaps too garrulous. Like Pepper, he did not know when to shut up, but with completely opposite results. She was all waspish wit, ready for a smack-down, and he was all love and trust and geniality, with a ready bear-hug for any stranger. Indeed, it was his affability that led him to think that a tray of pot brownies would be enjoyable for all at a faculty/student social his sophomore year. That he was expelled for such a kindness seemed a cosmic injustice, but he was good enough with the guitar to make a few bucks at cafes and on the street, and he did contract work at bigger music venues like The Warehouse, so he took it all in lumbering stride. Gina’s place in the Island was ambiguous, as the best anyone could tell was that she moved between the Island bedrooms of Hoss and Pepper, occasionally shifting to the couch if she needed her own space and no bohemian transients were in town and on it. Tex held the remaining bedroom in the Island and he mostly kept his room to himself.

“Hey, Stormy, where’s the Rag?” bellowed Hoss.

“He’s inside watching Rose Petal.” Rose Petal was Stormy’s two-year-old daughter. Together with Ragman, Ziggy, and Jazmine, this mother-daughter pair completed the permanent roster of Duck residents, at least for the time being. Of course, both the Duck and the Island had their parade of transients and hangers-on.

“Hahaha, that Rag,” roared Hoss inexplicably, shaking his head like a giant potato all covered with coarse, bushy hair.

He unclasped his guitar case, and he and Tex plucked out a few lines together. Then Tex strummed out the first chords of a song, and Hoss laid on with the notes. Hoss would sing this one, mellowing his voice to the sweet timbre of a Jewish cantor on a High Holiday.

A new day is coming, people are changing
Ain’t it beautiful, crystal blue persuasion . . .

In the pauses one could tell — Tex was good, but on guitar Hoss was master.

“My god,” Jazmine said. “Look at that crescent moon and Venus so bright. It’s like something planetary is really happening. A sign of something coming.” Everyone looked at the sky, a velvet blanket full of stars, no doubt, but with the moon and Venus most illustrious.

Stormy, spinning with her dress spread out as the song ended, chanted at the sky: “Gnomes of the earth, Nymphs of water, Sylphs of the air, and Salamanders of fire.”

“Where do you come up with this shit, Stormy,” asked Hoss cheerily, adjusting the guitar on his lap.

“Elemental spirits, baby, you can get ‘em from a book if it ain’t in your soul. Like Pepper says, don’t y’all ever read anything?”

“Hoss never got past picture books,” Tex quipped. Then he strummed another random chord while Hoss took a hit on the joint and sprawled back to look at the stars. But random as Tex’s chord was, Stormy knew what he was thinking, and as soon as he hit the strings again, she was singing along:

When the moon is in the seventh house
And Jupiter aligns with Mars

She sang it from a soulful, timeless depth, like it was no joke, and kept swaying, her carob skin gleaming a perfect blend of spiritual mystery and sensual presence.

Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars.
This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius . . .

Under that Venus and that moon on that early spring night of 1970, a half dozen hippies believed earnestly, joyfully, that indeed a planetary change was coming. The tragic naivete of their idealism had not yet hit.

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Hotel Hastings

Hotel Hastings (a poem in 49 cantos)
by Eduardo Padilla (in Spanish)

Free pdf of the complete 75-page poem here, with permission of the author.
Publisher: Cinosargo ediciones  

Reviewed by Gary Gautier

As a second-language speaker of Spanish, I may have got it all wrong, but if you want to know what I thought and what I like, I will tell you and you can listen.

Hotel Hastings reads more like a novella, less “poetic” in rhythm and form than Padilla’s other poetry that I’ve read. It has the easy flow of narrative, but with little Pound-like hooks in imagery and free associations across the page that remind you – it is related by, and you, the reader, are locking consciousness with, a poet.

The first part is masterful in its integrated vision of street-level grit and Kafkaesque surrealism.

“En el norte me dicen Ed y acabo de enterarme de que los cartógrafos le dicen Ed a las islas de Existencia Dudosa,” reads the epigraph (in my amateur translation, “In the north they call me Ed, and I just found out that cartographers call islands of doubtful existence ‘Ed’”).

Is he the island of doubtful existence, or is it his shadowy gray setting, Vancouver, whose existence is dubious? Either way, the epigraph sets me up for a surrealistic journey. This is supported in the first line of the first canto, when Ed leaves school (presumably from Mexico) to go live in East Hastings “con los demás fantasmas” (“with the rest of the ghosts”) in a mausoleum-like hotel above a butcher shop where flies dance on the floating heads of bodiless pigs. The characters who populate his floor have a symbolic, dreamlike aura, despite their grit – the pimp’s apprentice, the drug dealer, and at the end of the hall, the drug dealer’s only client, “vive y muere” (“living or dying,” depending on how you choose to look at it). Also, the pickpocket, “with hands more beautiful than those of a mannerist saint,” and the Invisible Man, a “human hieroglyph,” who walks only in straight lines, turns only in 90-degree angles, and looks, if you can catch a glance when he takes off his glasses, like a Dustin Hoffman lookalike. Here, among this range of low-life archetypes, the narrator, though a foreigner, finds for the first time in his life his own element 😊

Thus begins our hero’s tale, scrounging for jobs, or better yet unemployment checks, trying to sell the CDs he’s been carrying around for five years, one eye forever on the next cheap beer. The surreality persists (e.g. in Canto 12, where “tourists pass through my room and around my bed, taking pictures of me,” although this may have been presented as a dream – don’t ask me, my Spanish isn’t good enough to get all the context). But gradually it becomes clear that this is not a bizarre alternative world being recorded in the simplest terms possible, as in Kafka, but a gritty real world of Vancouver streets being recorded by a batshit crazy poet, a poet who ponders how he fits into his 2-story hotel and concludes, “I am the 13th floor,” a poet who “was born [with an unfulfilled desire] to see Eraserhead,” a poet who at one point admits his memory is shattered and asks the reader to step in and help him sort out the pieces.

I like the first half of the book better, where the language has me flying in Kafka space rather than walking the grungier streets of the actual city of Vancouver, but the second half, which smacks more of William Burroughs’s Junky than of Kafka, brings me closer to the poet, to the human element underneath it all. Maybe you need both halves, the yin and the yang, the id and the ego, the world of make-believe and the world that hits you in the face. Maybe the batshit crazy poet knew what he was doing.

x x x

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