Virginia Woolf is one of the most famous writers of the modernist era, she was not merely a writer, at the same time she was a biographer, an essayist and also a feminist. Critics tend to agree that Woolf’s finest novel is To the Lighthouse (1927), which is certainly one of the central works of the modern imagination.
To the Lighthouse is Woolf’s most autobiographical novel, she uses the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse as surrogates for her own parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen.
Being a female writer in a patriarchal society, Woolf raises issues on gender and gender roles, and challenges the role of the Victorian woman, both in her novels as well as in her essays. The ideas of women, their role and identity become especially obvious in her novel To the Lighthouse. Woolf in this novel clearly juxtaposes the two images of women, namely the Victorian ideal and the New Woman. Woolf herself contributes greatly to shaping the new woman’s identity, as she sets out to destroy the stereotype of that time which suggested that only men can be important writers.
The Victorian Womanhood
The Victorian woman was often seen as the ideal woman, the Angel in the House, even long after the Victorian era. The term “angel” stems directly from Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem “The Angel in the House,” in which he described his meek and pious wife. Central of the Victorian ideology of the feminine was the idea of ‘true womanhood’. The four ‘cardinal virtues’ in the true woman were piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. This was not totally new, but the emphasis was different. Idealisation of women became heavily domestic in the nineteenth century. The notion of the domestic idyll and woman’s place in it, was essentially middle class.
To rationalise this domesticity, the notion of the separate spheres of the sexes was popular. During the Victorian era (1837- 1901) the public and the private sphere were increasingly identified with ideas of gender, so that the life of a woman in Britain revolved entirely around the private sphere of the home, the family and motherhood. Whereas men, being in a superior or privileged position, were able to be part of both spheres, the public and the private. The nineteenth century was confident that it knew the difference between the sexes and that these differences were total and innate.
Marriage was the major goal for most women, ignoring their possibilities to emancipate themselves. Staying single meant that a woman lost her social position and only attracted disapproval of society. The odd woman – the woman who could not marry -undermined the confortable binary system of Victorian sexuality and gender roles.
Politically the New Woman was an anarchic figure, who criticized the society’s insistence on marriage as woman only option for fulfilling life. Women were taught at a young age that they were to get married and have children, and thus also their education was targeted at these goals. A large proportion of their education included domestic duties such as sewing and preparing her for marriage in general. As Woolf pointed out for women in the nineteenth century” Marriage was the only profession open to her.”
Woolf’s novel is set in the Ramsay family’s summer home in the Hebrides, on the Isle of Skye. The gender landscape of the book is highly traditional despite of the fact that the novel is set between 1910 and 1920. Mrs. Ramsay devotes herself to her family and friends. She embodies the virtue of duty, subservience, self-sacrifice and other qualities which are proper for a Victorian woman. Mrs Ramsay’s character symbolizes the essence of the Victorian womanhood. There is no clear reference to her first name or maiden name in the novel, she exists only as Mr. Ramsay’s wife. We don’t know any information, details about her life before her marriage, before she became Mrs. Ramsay. Mr. Ramsay, the patriarch – known only by his surname – is an authoratian, emotionally distant philosopher. Mrs. Ramsay is described in the novel through the technique of interior monologue.
Mrs. Ramsay’s first word in the novel’s opening scene is “yes”, which discloses her affirmative and positive nature. This opening scene represents an idillyc picture about Mrs, Ramsay and her son. The tenderness and protectiveness likens this picture to the Madonna and child paintings. Mrs. Ramsay is the generative force in the novel who must literally provide and create life for all of her family. ”They came to her naturally, since she was a woman, all day long with this and that; She often felt she was nothing but a sponge sopped full of human emotions.”
Lily Briscoe’s reflection about Mrs. Ramsay at the end of the novel emphasises her giving character. ”Giving, giving, giving, she had died — and had left all this. Really, she was angry with Mrs. Ramsay. With the brush slightly trembling in her fingers she looked at the hedge, the step, the wall. It was all Mrs. Ramsay’s doing.”
According to Mrs. Ramsay the universal law in life is marriage. The contemporary society was committed to marriage as a cultural imperative. Lily Briscoe is unconventional and strictly rejects marriage, which Mrs. Ramsay disapproves, evaluating this situation as a deficiency. Mrs Ramsay strictly assures that “An unmarried woman has missed the best of life.”
Mrs. Ramsay asserts that no matter what Lily has, it is not worthwhile as she is alone. Mrs. Ramsay is afraid of being alone and that’s why she wants everybody around her and she has this unifying force. Mrs. Ramsay has limited possibility for the intellectual life. ”Books, she thought, grew of themselves. She never had time to read them…. disgraceful to say, she had never read them.
Mrs. Ramsay knitting complies with ideals of traditional femininity, reflects her role as the creative center of the house and the family. Mrs. Ramsay lives mostly in silence. This silence is connected to her repressed emotions. She and her husband have seemingly an ordinary marriage, but they both have some reservations about their own selves. Mrs. Ramsay can’t tell her love overtly to Mr. Ramsay even though she knows that he really wants this revelation; ”heartless woman he called her; she never told him that she loved him. But it was not so — it was not so. It was only that she never could say what she felt.”
Mrs. Ramsay’s experience of being unable to find her voice in this intimate situation signifies that she inhabits an inadequate traditional role.
Mrs. Ramsay couldn’t create her own independent self, she interiorized the dominant norms of victorian womanhood. But she can reflect on her life objectively in the opening part of the dinner scene, and she begins to question her place in life. The dinner scene is the central climax of the novel, which is narrated both from Lily Briscoe’s and Mrs. Ramsay’s perspectives. “But what have I done with my life?” asks Mrs. Ramsay in the the dinner scene. Mrs. Ramsay looks herself and her family life more realistic way than before without illusions. She even questions her feelings for her husband.” She could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion or affection for him.”
According to the dominant image about the Victorian womanhood Mrs Ramsay’s main task is to create a beautiful home for the comfort of her family. To decorate the ideal home was an artistic activity for middle class women, the beautiful home is a work of art. When Mrs. Ramsay sees her home shabby, she realises her failure. ”The room (she looked round it) was very shabby. There was no beauty anywhere.”
Moreover Mrs. Ramsay realises her failure as the unifying power of her social circle, people are separeted around her, they do not merged. The turning point of the dinner scene when Mrs. Ramsay starts to play again her social role, and continues to create beautiful illusions for herself, for her family and for their guests. As soon as Mrs. Ramsay leaves the dining room, the magic begins to fail.
Mrs. Ramsay even after her death, is still dominant in the lives of the characters in the novel. Mrs. Ramsay’s tragedy is the tragedy of ”The Angel in the House”, which was a social construction, and a harmful fantasy. Woolf staged the symbolic killing of the ”Angel in the House” in To the Lighthouse. Woolf struggled for her personal freedom and the autonomy of female artist. She wrote in her essay ”Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.”
Woolf depicted a realistic portrait of the gender structure of the first decades of the 20th century in her novel. Only Lily Briscoe’s character represents a new role for woman in To the Lighthouse. She could struggle for her art and for her self in a world which is full of Victorian prejudices of the role of women in the family and society. (‘Women can’t paint, women can’t write …”) Lily Briscoe could finish her painting about Mrs. Ramsay at the end of the novel: ”It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”
- Allen, Elisabeth. A Woman’s Place in the Novels of Henry James. London: Macmillan Press, 1984
- McIntire, Gabrielle. Feminism and Gender in To the Lighthouse /The Cambridge Companion to To The Lighthouse. (Edited by Alison Pease) Cambridge University Press, 2015
- Showalter Elaine. Killing the Angel in the House: The Autonomy of Women Writers. The Antioch Review Vol. 50, No. 1/2, 50th Anniversary Issue (Winter – Spring, 1992), pp. 207-220
- Showalter, Elaine. Sexual Anarchy. London: Virago, 2009
- Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. (Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations) New York: Chelsea House, 1988
- Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. New York, Harcourt, 1966
- Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. London: Penguin Classics, 2000