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To The Lighthouse: Lily Briscoe And Breaking The Chains

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In a social system of patriarchy, where men have the power and authority, women are chained by the society’s code of behavior. Patriarchy has deprived women of their rights. Hence, men have been the owners of properties, decision makers and dominators of the public sphere. Moreover, women are limited to the image of “the angel in the house”. They are regarded as biologically and culturally inferior which lead to a lack of self-esteem. Women are seen through sex-role stereotyping as submissive, dependent, passive, and accommodating mothers and housewives who must stick to the private sphere. Thus, in the nineteenth century, feminism has emerged to change the status quo and curb these chains. It seeks autonomy and equality between sexes and opposes the hierarchical structure. These principles of feminism are represented in the works of many feminist writers such as Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf is a feminist female writer that belongs to the first wave of feminism. Thus, she portrays women’s resistance in her works. She represents her fundamentals of resistance through two of her works which are: her essay A Room of One’s Own, and her novel To The Light House. The essay is regarded as an integral part of her feminist perspective. She states that for a woman to become a successful artist, she needs to gain financial independence, and have a separate sphere. These ideas are portrayed in Lily Briscoe; the female protagonist of the novel. Woolf depicts many of her own life events in Lily’s character, hence, she is considered Woolf’s counterpart. Lily suffers from many inner conflicts that have lead to a transformation in her character. She walks along a way full of hesitations and obstacles to finally become a new woman who is not marginalized, inferiorized, subordinated, or commodified. Hence, she guides women to unfold their true potentials. Woolf succeeds in opposing the patriarchal ideology and represents the gender issue through the feminist character of Lily Briscoe.

The character of Lily Briscoe is a representation of a chained artist. Patriarchy, represented in the male figures in the novel like Mr. Ramsey and Charles Tansley, imposes a specific code of behavior or a 'universal law' by which women must abide. Despite those pressures, Lily seeks to be a female painter. She attempts to finish her painting but the interference of those male figures hinders her. She uses her art as a rebellious tool against the external world. Hence, White states that “outwardly timid, awkward, and unprepossessing, Lily carefully guards the secret of how much her art means to her' (To The Lighthouse 86).Furthermore, she keeps struggling due to the patriarchal ideology. For instance, Mr. Ramsey requires sympathy and pity from the other sex. He views this as one of the women's main roles. On the other hand, Lily keeps resisting this ideology that imposes on her specific gender conventions. Her internal conflict arises upon hearing Tansley saying 'Women can’t paint, women can’t write...'(lighthouse 48).His words affect her psychological state. Thus, she begins to doubt her dreams and true potentials as a woman artist. “Why then did she do it? She looked at the canvas, lightly scored with running lines. It would be hung in the servants' bedrooms. It would be rolled up and stuffed under a sofa. What was the good of doing it then, and she heard some voice saying she couldn't paint, saying she couldn't create…'(Lighthouse 126).Regardless, she has a desire to continue painting even without knowing the fate of her art. Her purpose is to finish the painting in order to see the complete view in front of her. With these conflicting feelings, she struggles to reach a resolution.

Throughout the novel, Lily is torn out between what she believes in and what patriarchy imposes on her. Thus, her transformation as a female artist has been full of obstacles. Furthermore, she stands against sex-role stereotyping of the patriarchal ideology by falling upon her work “…there's my painting; I must move the tree to the middle; that matters - nothing else.” (Lighthouse 17).She decides to draw attention to her work despite Charles Tansley’s words, “…and if she wanted revenge take it by laughing at him?” (Lighthouse 17).Hence, as a woman who can actually paint Tansley’s words no longer strangles her. Moreover, staying with the Ramsays has emerged a conflict inside Lily that she manages to settle-“…staying with the Ramsays, was to be made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time…” (Lighthouse). Although, in her opinion love is“puerile, and inhumane” it is also “beautiful and necessary”. Nevertheless, art, independence, and autonomy are what she chooses over love and marriage. Lily decides that what matters is; to finish her painting even if its destiny is unknown. Her success at finishing the painting symbolizes the victory of the woman artist and the failure of the hierarchical structure of patriarchy. Accordingly, her Painting is a representation of Woolf’s feminist artistic view. According to A Room of One's own, Lily is a different person when she returns to the house ten years later at the end of the second section and throughout the third. The way her painting is described is much more confident and she doesn’t fear having anyone near.”Burt, John.

Lily views the Ramsays as the typical Victorian couple. Mr. Ramsay represents the patriarchal ideology, while Mrs. Ramsay represents “The Angel in The House”. Mrs. Ramsay is a good wife, a caring mother, and the manager of her household. She has a rigid mentality about women’s role. Lily believes that she doesn’t need a man in her life because she is more than capable of earning her own living. She struggles with her thoughts, and rebels against Mrs. Ramsay’s views on marriage that “they all must marry [...] there could be no disputing this [...] an unmarried woman has missed the best of life.” (Lighthouse 43). Even when Lily is attracted to William Banks she pleads that 'she liked to be alone; she liked to be herself; she was not made for that; and so have to meet a serious stare from eyes of unparalleled depth, and confront Mrs. Ramsay’s simple certainty (and she was childlike now) that her dear Lily, her little Brisk, was a fool.' (to the lighthouse 42). Men gain power and authority from inferiorizing Women and placing them in the position of the “Other”. As a result, women become a mirror held up to men and that is what Lily considers Mrs. Ramsay. Furthermore, Mrs. Ramsay obeys her husband blindly and attends to his every need. For example, she depends on him, and she is unable to live without him. In addition, she states before her death that she would be happy to die before him because she wouldn’t be able to provide financial support for her children.

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Virginia Woolf represents the mandatory elements that help Artists to be Creative in her extended essay A room of one’s own by suggesting that ”a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (A Room of One’s Own 4). Thus, art requires a private income and a separate sphere. Lily Briscoe manages to complete her painting because she has those elements. Her income is enough to make her live comfortably among the middle class. Moreover, she has her own place where she can paint by herself. According to Woolf that is what makes women artists finish their art. Briscoe’s painting is structurally and thematically linked with the voyage to the lighthouse. The entire action of the novel is unfolded symbolically in Lily's paintings. For example, the final line in Lily's painting is a symbol of Masculine achievement. Also, Lily's use of a purple triangle to represent Mrs. Ramsay and James (lighthouse 52) could symbolize many different things. According to Lily, “It was a question [of] how to connect the mass on the right hand with that on the left hand” (Lighthouse 53). To connect one with two requires three, the completion of a triangle, the third stroke. Mrs. Ramsay is a representation of that third stroke. The artist before starting to paint is struck by some scene or objects, not necessarily because it is beautiful, but because of the arrangement of the scene. Its formal relation and her visions of them, the artist is overwhelmed by a glimpse of the reality and enveloped by aesthetic emotion “idea' which she feels compelled to transmit it through her art form as in Lily's Painting. There was an obstacle to the completion of the picture until the end of the novel. Thus, to overcome this obstacle Lily must first come to grips with the personal relations enveloping her. For example, Mrs. Ramsay must become a part of the system formal relation and in order to accomplish that, Lily must overcome Mrs. Ramsay’s ability to dominate her emotionally. This then frees her to pursue her creative task.

The third space of Lily is represented accurately by Woolf. It is the imaginative space which enables lily to overcome the restrictions of the unjust patriarchal society. Moreover, it is highlighted through her successful portrait that she crafts by the end of the novel. According to Maze, The novel ends at the same time Lily finishes her painting which projects that the conflict ends once she actually manages to create this space. She used to struggle because of Mr. Ramsay’s interruptions. However, in the end she manages to overcome these struggles through the creation of the third space. In addition, this portrait is highly symbolical as it symbolizes the destruction of the patriarchal beliefs regarding women. Furthermore, it damages the moral double standard of the patriarchal society. Thus, upon the end of the portrait and the novel, Lily Briscoe becomes a new woman.

After Lily faces a lot of internal and external conflicts, she is finally capable of breaking the chains and set herself free from the patriarchal ideologies. She rejects the stereotypical image of women as the “Angel in the House” portrayed in Mrs. Ramsey. Thus, Lily resolves to be a single woman by her own choice. Hence, Mrs. Ramsey’s words that an unmarried woman could be missing the “best part of her life” (Lighthouse 43) no longer have any power over her. She knows for sure that marriage is doomed to fail by time. As evidence, she reminds herself of three different incidences: first Paul and Minta’s marriage has failed although Mrs. Ramsey put so much effort to make it work. Second, the Rayleys marriage has failed too although they have been together for a very long time. They no longer feel love or affection towards each other. However, they were able to be great friends. Third, her relationship with Mr. Banks is going well as it is; friendship and companionship, not as his wife. Thus, Lily’s stance towards marriage is undoubtedly clear; it’s destructive to art. Furthermore, Lily rejects to pity men as a mean of rejecting the role of women imposed by patriarchy; they are expected to be “looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size” (A Room of One’s own 36). (

“…she pretended to drink out of her empty coffee cup so as to escape him --- to escape his demand on her, to put aside a moment longer that imperious need… she turned her back to the window lest Mr. Ramsay should see her. She must escape somehow, be alone somewhere” (Lighthouse 110))Thus, when she meets Mr. Ramsey after Mrs. Ramsey’s death he tries to reveal his desperate loneliness because he wants sympathy. However, Lily tries to ignore and avoid him.

Finally, Woolf portrays Lily as the opposite of Mrs. Ramsey. Then by the death of Mrs. Ramsey, she symbolizes the death of the “Angel in the House” and declares rebellion against patriarchy. Thus, Lily represents a bridge between the two worlds of the ideal woman and the new independent, autonomous and self-reliant women.


  1. Aleeba, Fatima. 'A Feminist study of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse'. International journal of English language and literature.V.VI (2007).,Dec,2018.
  2. Burt, John. “Irreconcilable Habits of Thought in A Room of One’s Own and to The Lighthouse.” ELH 49.4 (1982): 889-907. JSTOR. Web. 20, Feb, 2014.
  3. Deivecchio,Marina. 'Feminist Book Review: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse'.,july.2014.Online.19,Dec,2018.
  4. Munca.Daniela.'virginia Woolf's answer to 'women can't paint, women can't write' in the light house'. Journal of International Women's Studies.10.4 (2009),Dec,2018.
  5. Proudfit, Wood. “Lily Briscoe's Painting: A Key to Personal Relationships in ‘To the Lighthouse”. Criticism.13. 1, (1971): 26–38.,Dec,2018.
  6. The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica.'Lily Briscoe' Britannica, inc.4,jan,2019.
  7. White, Roberta. A Studio of One’s Own. Fictional Women Painters and the Art of Fiction. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005.
  8. Woolf, Virginia. A Room Of One’s Own: Hogarth, 1935.print.
  9. Woolf, Virginia. To The Lighthouse. London: Hogarth, 1927.print.
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