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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M Gandhi and Ayn Rand

“How does one live a good life?” was the core question for Plato and other classical Greek philosophers. Here are two mutually exclusive answers from the 20th century:

Gandhi: Through service to others and simplicity of lifestyle.

Ayn Rand: Through rational self-interest and the advancement of capitalism.

Pick your path to happiness and to our best possible future. I know which one I lean toward.

Blurb on Ayn Rand


I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged but read the The Fountainhead not too long ago (along with The Virtue of Selfishness and some additional bits and pieces). I had always heard of Ayn Rand’s commitment to rational self-interest and capitalism, and of her blueprints for conservative politics. What captured my interest over the years is how she seems to gain converts from among people who would not ordinarily lean that way. So I read The Fountainhead, and I do think it helped me to better understand both the appeal and the danger of buying into her ideas.

In some ways my initial reaction is probably quite the opposite of most people’s. I get the impression that most people take the political/ethical philosophy quite seriously but skip over the aesthetic/artistic value. I, on the other hand, was surprised at the literary quality of The Fountainhead – from cubist descriptions to provocative analogies and metaphors and symbolic values, complex characters in interesting situations, etc., I found the book to have great literary merit and great cinematic potential. But in terms of politics and ethical philosophy, I find her at best naïve, at worst a danger to herself and others.

Her characters start out as complex, passionate, literary creations with real cinematic value. The problem arises when the characters come to express abstract syllogisms — e.g., according to Rand, if we consider compassion a virtue, then we must wish others to suffer so we can express that virtue — Toohey in The Fountainhead slides from being a wonderfully complex character into a silly caricature when she reduces him to this abstract principle. What’s worse, the principle is patently untrue. Of course I can feel compassion for my daughter when she is sick without “wishing” her to be sick. In Rand’s books, my compassion would be “rigged” to be a bad thing, but in real life my compassion for my daughter is obviously not bad. We are interconnected whether we like it or not, and those rare occasions, times of loss, etc., where I’ve felt the flow of compassion between myself and another, are some of the most life-affirming and authentically human moments in my life. Ironically, those who try to deny our interconnections (as Rand would have us do with her stark individualism) end up leading shallower, less authentic lives, or are forced to become hypocrites (ironically, since that’s what Rand was trying to avoid). To embrace Rand’s abstract principles, just because they worked out fine in her novels, puts one on a very dangerous moral track.

If Atlas Shrugged is similar to The Fountainhead, it will start out rich with literary value, and then in the second half Rand will self-destruct as an artist — i.e., she will reduce villains and heroes alike to abstract, one-dimensional principles in ethics/politics — worse, she will reduce them to principles (such as the above) that are demonstrably false in real life. So the potentially first-rate artist deteriorates into the second-rate philosopher.

I have this hunch that when Ayn Rand was a kid, some adult admonished her (probably rightly) to quit being so selfish, and she became so enraged that she devoted her entire life to an elaborate justification of her own selfishness. The trick is that she weaves the self-serving justification into an engaging story with enough philosophical threads of real value (e.g. embrace your own integrity rather than following convention; envision the highest human potential and try to achieve it; trust your reasoning mind over other people’s opinions) to make it quite appealing to a casual reader … hence the real danger she poses to the mass of uncritical readers.

To summarize, if one reads her characters as figures of compelling literary/cinematic value, and possibly as starting points for philosophical discussion, the rewards are great, but if one reads her heroes as role models to emulate in real life, one is making a big mistake.

The irony is that one of her strongest thematic points was that acting with integrity means never being a follower. And what is her biggest legacy? A worldwide organization (The Ayn Rand Institute) of people who, for the most part, uncritically hang upon everything she said.

 … And in response to some of my friends who have come to Rand’s defense …

I perfectly agree with some components of her ethics, including tenets to embrace your own integrity rather than following convention; to envision the highest human potential and try to achieve it; to trust your reasoning mind over other people’s opinions, the value of self-reliance, etc. These excellent principles come right out of 18th-century Enlightenment and Romantic traditions and have been embraced by many philosophies besides Rand’s. Thus, the part of her philosophy that I appreciate most is not essentially “Randian” but just things that she shares with the many.

It is by weaving these essentially good tenets into her philosophy that she lures people into a kind of complacent agreement, but the devil is in the other details. The more controversial and the signature Randian stuff, like the ideas that selfishness is always good and compassion always bad, would be silly on the face of it were they not intermixed with the self-evidently true tenets. Those good tenets are the teaspoon of sugar that gets people to swallow the toxin. And in the U.S. some very high profile people swallow the toxin. E.g., the recent Republican budget put forth by Paul Ryan is right out of Ayn Rand — more tax cuts for the rich and eliminate programs that help the poor and middle class.

Yes, I had thought about Ayn’s Bolshevik connection in the same vein as my fantasy about some adult telling her to be less selfish. I.e., in witnessing the excesses of Bolshevism, she swung to an opposite but equally unprofitable extreme, the negative emotional investment in Bolshevism from her childhood blinding her to some of her adult weaknesses.

Think of Aristotle’s ethics, wherein vice is a virtue carried to an extreme (you might recall his example that courage is a mean between extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness). One might argue that Rand carried good positive ideals to such an extreme (think Pasha/Strelnikov in Dr. Zhivago) that she becomes as bad as the tyranny she’s fighting against. The virtue of self-reliance, e.g., is radicalized into “Never ask for help or give help under any circumstances because to do so will weaken the moral integrity of both parties.” She is the kind of automobile driver that would not slow down to let you over when you’re trying to change lanes because to do so would mean (1) sacrificing her own interest for no reason  and (2) reinforcing weakness in the other driver by selflessly easing his path instead of letting him rise to the occasion and take his rightful position on the force of his own strength. All of this sounds great, but I’d rather somebody just let me over, and I’d do the same for them.

Three points/counterpoints

Ayn Rand

“The Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest.”

Reverend Sun Myung Moon

“The principle of the universe is for everyone to live together, for the sake of one another.”


Ayn Rand

“A rational man … does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, does not sacrifice himself to their needs, and the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern.”

Dalai Lama

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”


Jean-Paul Sartre

“Man is condemned to be free … thrown into the world …  no excuse behind us, nor justification before us. We are alone, with no excuses.”

Alan Watts

“The prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination… We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree … We can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone.”