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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Romantics in the House

Long ago, I saw the 3’ x 4’ painting below in the jumble of cats and canvas and old wine bottles at Cheryl‘s home studio, and I fussed and flattered and cajoled until she finally said, “Aw, hell, just take it.” In lieu of cash, I give her this tribute of thoughts.

bayou lafourche1 Depending on the time of day or my vantage point as I walk by, it strikes different aesthetic keys from the abstract to the representational. Sometimes my eye catches firefly flecks of color randomly appearing in the textured darkness (a rich blue darkness not well captured here) – but with brushstrokes too large and thick for flecks — more like thumbprints pressed in. Sometimes I absorb it in its representational aspect, as a personalized vision of Bayou Lafourche. In this aspect, it’s like having a trace of the Romantic movement hanging at the bottom of my black spiral staircase, with those impressionistic flecks resting upon the older, richer colors of a Romantic base, a remote natural scene full of darkness and depth, but at the place of greatest depth, the vanishing point at center left, we’re lost not in darkness but in a patch of dim light. Still, the light does not dominate. This is not an airy or ethereal painting. The darkness, the thickness of the atmosphere, the closeness and earthbound quality dominates. The sense of losing oneself in the depth of nature strikes a romantic register, but it strikes a note more brooding than festive.

Compare to Kyle’s 4’ x 6’ triptych (“Ghosts in the Range,” referenced also in my entry on the 4 sheaths) on the side wall of the same room for a different kind of Romanticism.

kyle cropped1Kyle’s vision follows Blake, bringing into focus a Romantic recapitulation of classical themes – archetypal, cosmic, eternal symmetries rolling through, or out from, the sunspot Magna Mater at the center. Cheryl’s painting, on the other hand, triggers the moody pensiveness of a Wordsworth or Coleridge, a mysterious personal communion with some local and obscure and fleeting corner of nature. If the Romantic aesthetic is the sublime aesthetic, I’m not even sure I can call Cheryl’s landscape style sublime. Kyle better fits the Kantian model of the sublime (Critique of Judgment), where one is overwhelmed by the tremendous power (Kant’s dynamical sublime, as in creation or destruction on a massive scale) or tremendous size (Kant’s mathematical sublime, as in the infinity of stars in the clear night sky) of the representation at hand. Then again, if the defining affect of the sublime is the affect of being overwhelmed, Cheryl’s painting might give a different, internalized version of the same, where one is overwhelmed not by any vast external power but by a brooding melancholia within that swells and swamps in its own local space until it overwhelms in its own right.

Either way, each of these paintings replays in its own way the Romantic push off the more neatly contained rational pleasure of the neoclassical aesthetic, and I can’t believe how lucky I am to have both in my house where they keep folding themselves ever more deeply into my unconscious. Cheryl and Kyle, you’ve wormed into my psyche “like a maggot in a nut,” as Mr. Bounderby says of himself in Dickens’s Hard Times, which I assume is an old English way of saying that you’ve pretty much gotten in and not getting out. Works for me.

(Compare to my thoughts on other New Orleans artists, Thomas Morrison and Sarah Dunn.)