Wednesday, 24 July 2013

To the Lighthouse: An In-depth Analysis

This blog hop for July has been a lot of fun and I am glad that so many people are interested in reading my favorite classic novel: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. However, it occurred to me that I have not written extensively on it at all and decided to read it again this weekend. Not surprisingly, I ended up loving it even more and can safely say without a shred of doubt that it is now my favorite novel of all time. I wanted to write a more comprehensive review than the one previously posted a few years ago but ended up getting carried away and wrote an essay instead. There are endless ways to approach this marvelous work but I decided to focus on the character of Lily Briscoe and the feminist undertones percolating throughout the novel. There will obviously be some spoilers here (albeit, minor) but I doubt anyone will want to read this long essay anyways. Still, I do plan on writing more about this novel again sometime in the unknown future.

Lily Briscoe: The Liberated Female Artist
By Jason C.

In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the struggle to obtain and assert female autonomy is constantly threatened or undermined by a society built upon the foundations of patriarchy. The clash of gender ideologies permeates much of the novel and Woolf emphasizes a subversion of traditional female gender roles through the character of Lily Briscoe. She represents an idealized feminist woman who challenges male hegemony to achieve a sense of individuality. Her finished painting and epiphany at the end of the novel serves to establish her role as a truly liberated female artist.

The desire to break away from conventional female cultural norms and stereotypes in order to achieve autonomy can only be fully realized when she experiences the “vision” after the completion of her painting at the end of the novel. Woolf is keen to stress Lily’s role as an outsider attempting to analyze and comprehend her precarious social predicament. Her status as a middle-aged woman, who values artistic achievement over the prospects of marriage becomes increasingly difficult to maintain against the circumscribed expectations of society. The pressure to conform to specific female gender roles weighs heavily upon her conscious: “Even while she looked at the mass, at the line, at the color, at Mrs. Ramsay sitting in the window with James, she kept a feeler on her surroundings lest someone should creep up, and suddenly she would find her picture looked at” (13). Lily suffers from a moral crisis over her desire to pursue art as a vocation because of gender inequality and male prejudices imposed upon women. She is challenging the status quo by picking up a paintbrush and experiences a pervasive sense of guilt as if committing a heinous crime. Lily is fully aware of the gender stereotypes and impediments of circumstance that society places upon women, which explains her shrewd disposition to remain inconspicuous. Considering that she is adamant to conceal her painting from prying eyes suggests that her art is essentially metaphorical: a radical political statement of feminist ideals. Yet, she is not confident enough in her abilities to showcase this controversial work to a judgmental public. Her personal independence from the negative influences of male hegemony is directly linked to the aesthetic development as an artist; thus, it is only after reaching a satisfactory level of creative expression that the submerged metaphor becomes most vivid.

Indeed, since Lily is unable to obtain an empowering sense of female liberation until she has finished the painting at the end of the novel, the first section emphasizes the juxtaposition between her destabilized sense of self as an artist and as a woman living in a world ruled by patriarchy. The tenuous relationship between the subjective and the objective self is a cause of great psychological distress because of her shifting attitudes towards female gender roles. Lily’s first appearance in the novel provides a suitable qualification of her social status as an outsider. She is introduced through the perspective of Mrs. Ramsay sitting in the openly transparent window of the cottage with James, her youngest son. They are both having their portrait painted by Lily who is looking at them through the window from a position outside on the lawn: 

Lily’s picture! Mrs. Ramsay smiled. With her little Chinese eyes and her puckered-up face she would never marry; one could not take her painting very seriously; but she was an independent little creature, Mrs. Ramsay liked her for it, and so remember her promise, she bent her head (13). 

Woolf is deliberately stressing Lily’s position as an outcast both literally and figuratively by utilizing the window as a metaphor – a reflective looking glass where she simultaneously perceives herself as a distinctive contrast to the female idealism embodied by Mrs. Ramsay and as someone who can only be an objective spectator because of her non-conformist ideals. Furthermore, it is Mrs. Ramsay who is comfortably stationed behind the window within her nest of security while the stigmatized younger woman is outside in the chaotic world of immorality. She is not a mother of eight children like Mrs. Ramsay; instead, Lily yearns to be an artist and the consequences of such a decision is that she must remain on the margins, looking through the window into a society unwilling to fully accept her idiosyncratic lifestyle. If the window is to be understood as an implacable barrier that prevents her from gaining access to this social world, it seems reasonable to suggest that it is only through art that she can vicariously experience assimilation and still retain her independence.

Moreover, Mrs. Ramsay’s physical description of Lily as having “Chinese eyes” and a “puckered-up face” is condescending but also highlights another qualification of Lily’s inferior social status. Here, Mrs. Ramsay is under the assumption that Lily is still unmarried because she does not possess the standard of beauty that most respectable men would find attractive. In contrast, Mrs. Ramsay is often praised for her beauty whereas Lily eschews vanity in the pursuit of artistic achievement. The acknowledgement of Lily’s painting as trivial and that she will “never marry” further asserts her haughty superior status. However, she also contradicts conservative values by envying Lily’s autonomy as an “independent little creature” and she still agrees to pose for the portrait despite her disapprobation towards women who take up the occupation of painting. This dichotomy between Lily and Mrs. Ramsay will progress throughout the novel but as is evident with these lines, the subsequent contrasts are not always so clear-cut in their dualism. Woolf purposefully employs contradictions and ambiguity to emphasize the anxieties that can accompany generational conflict.

The dialectical interaction between the subjective and objective self to achieve female autonomy takes place largely within Lily’s own mind. Woolf uses the narrative technique of “stream-of-consciousness” in a variety of innovative ways but most importantly, it provides access into Lily’s fragmented psyche where she attempts to find a resolution to these opposing female gender ideologies. She is often frustrated with nagging doubts concerning whether or not she should simply conform or continue the fight against female oppression. For instance, early in the novel Lily conjures up a scenario in her imagination involving a devious Mrs. Ramsay who reproaches her for not finding a husband by saying, “there could be no disputing this: an unmarried woman (she lightly took her hand for a moment), an unmarried woman has missed the best of life” (36). Mrs. Ramsay’s solicitous concern is indicative by “lightly” holding Lily’s hand but there is also a hint of pity in the action. Lily is aware of Mrs. Ramsay’s disapproval of her because she is perceived as committing sedition against the established order by remaining single and taking up an artistic vocation. The internalized dialogue is a method to work through the problem. Mrs. Ramsay’s predisposed belief that a woman’s genuine happiness can only be obtained through marriage is in direct conflict with Lily’s own ideas of female independence. The repetition of the words “unmarried woman” reveals the tremendous concern this issue has on Lily’s consciousness. She fears that a possible negative consequence of not settling down with a man and raising children will cause her to “miss the best of life” -- the implication that an intelligent woman should not waste her time with trivial endeavors such as painting. 

Despite the inexorable pressure to conform to societal norms and values, Lily still maintains a sense of resistance. The narrator describes her defiance as thus: 

Yet, as the night wore on…gathering a desperate courage she would urge own exemption from the universal law; plead for it; 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. (36)

The opposing female gender ideologies of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily are drawn together once more; however, this passage is most explicit in supporting female independence at the expense of social solidarity. Lily must hold steadfast to a wavering inner strength (“desperate courage”) in order to persevere against the oppressive influences of patriarchy (“universal law”) but the most striking aspect of these lines is that she is not vehemently averse to the idea of marriage; rather, she simply desires the freedom to make her own life choices (“she was not made for that”). As an artist, the preference for solitude over companionship makes sense (“she liked to be alone”) and though she is willing to endure scornful derision from others, there is still the possibility that her efforts will be in vain with Mrs. Ramsay abrasively calling her a “fool” for choosing to paint instead of finding a husband.

If Mrs. Ramsay personifies the conventional Victorian woman, it seems appropriate to acknowledge Mr. Ramsay as the apotheosis of patriarchy. His friend Charles Tansley can be distinguished as a man that attempts to emulate similar hegemonic values (perhaps even to a larger degree than Mr. Ramsay) but he lacks the dominating authority of his respective host. Mr. Ramsay is the central figure of authority in the household because the structural hierarchy is primarily based on rank and gender. Women do not possess the same rights or privileges as men and are therefore expected to remain subservient. Her initial impression of Mr. Ramsay is that of an imperious and narcissistic brute but her feelings towards him oscillate dramatically over the course of the novel. For instance, she retracts her previous view of Mr. Ramsay by admiring his egotism as an attractive quality: “But in her opinion one liked Mr. Ramsay all the better for thinking that if his little finger ached the whole world must come to an end” (33). This hyperbolic statement entirely contradicts her notions of female independence because it reinforces gender hierarchy. Mr. Ramsay is being compared to a sovereign ruler or a martyr figure whose actions and circumstances influence his obedient loyal subjects; of course, those being his family and others belonging to his social network. She then goes on to criticize his insulting arrogance: “He asked you quite openly to flatter him, to admire him, his little dodges deceived nobody. What she disliked was his narrowness, his blindness, she said, looking after him” (34). Again, Lily clearly disapproves of Mr. Ramsay’s male egotism but the significant words here are “narrowness” and “blindness” because they emphasize the negative qualities of male hegemony. Since Mr. Ramsay is absorbed in his own narcissism and prejudices towards women, he remains ignorant to the needs of others around him. 

Lily’s inconsistent evaluation of his character may be surmised by what has already been remarked, as paradoxical: “A bit of a hypocrite? she repeated. Oh no – the most sincere of men, the truest (here he was), the best; but, looking down, she thought, he is absorbed in himself, he is tyrannical, he is unjust…” (34). The vacillation between these contradictory attitudes further emphasizes Lily’s disjointed state of mind on the perplexing issue of gender. To praise him as “sincere” and as the “truest” only to quickly retract these statements and call him “tyrannical” shows that she is restlessly engaged in the analytic process of taking disparate elements of inherent male gender roles and trying to formulate a unified conclusion. Unfortunately, Woolf is reluctant to provide any definitive answers to Lily’s dilemma and instead, effectively employs paradox to create discourse. For instance, Lily condemns Mr. Ramsay’s despotism but the underlying paradox implies that she cannot fully abhor him because it is the patriarchal system that influences his male gender identity. One further point should be made: the troubling paradoxical fusion of attraction and repulsion towards both Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Ramsay cannot merely be interpreted as an accurate depiction of the sexual politics operating within the novel’s culturally specific landscape for the primary reason (albeit, perhaps obvious one) -- we are working with a piece of fiction. Woolf is stressing the overt tension between ideas; she is interested in examining dichotomies such as gender through paradox as well as metaphor in order to deconstruct and synthesize meaning. 

The battle of the sexes – more specifically – the subversion of conventional female gender roles and the assertion of male hegemony are rendered aggressively unstable during the dinner party scene. Lily is promptly challenged by social decorum to defend the honorable womanhood of her maidenly disposition against Charles Tansley’s rugged hyper-masculinity; a confrontation with an ironic twist where she experiences both stinging defeat and triumphant revelation. The metaphorical implications surrounding Lily’s art takes on even greater significance as she faces the abasement of social interaction:

She remembered, all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure, that she too had her work. In a flash, she saw her picture, and thought, Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space…She took up the salt cellar and put it down again on a flower in the pattern in the table-cloth, so as to remind herself to move the tree. (61)

What is being fashioned here is not merely Lily’s art as a means of escapism or refuge from male hegemony. On the contrary, it is a metaphor that recapitulates the central theme of her desire to break free from the bondage of female oppression. The symbolism of the tree is worth a closer look since it is an important recurring image that will take on even greater significant meaning by the end of the novel. By projecting an impression of the unfinished painting in her mind, she is able to contemplate the aesthetic process: there is an imbalance of “awkward space” and placing the tree in the middle of the frame will act as a counterpoise. The question asks itself, what is the significance of the tree and how does it relate to the implied metaphorical conceit? One possible interpretation is that the tree underlies what has been hinted at earlier in the novel; namely, that it represents Lily herself but with a different persona. She is no longer going to remain self-effacing on the margins of society as an outsider looking through the “window” just because she refuses to accept cultural gender roles. Accepting this premise, “the awkward space” stands in for society because although gender inequality exists, women such as Lily do possess more independence than the previous generation. This awkwardness can refer to the discomfort associated with the implementation of new female gender roles that subvert male hegemonic values. In short, moving the tree to the middle implies Lily’s own personal transition from isolated repression to the forefront of fighting for blatant political change. Thus, the tree itself transforms into a metaphor: a radical declaration of the liberated female artist.

Charles Tansley’s vain superiority and impertinent attitudes towards women is explicitly evident with lines such as, “For he was not going to talk the sort of rot these people wanted him to talk. He was not going to be condescended to by these silly women” or “It was the women’s fault. Women made civilization impossible with all their ‘charm’, all their silliness” (62). The repetition of the phrase “silly women” distinctively channels notions of patriarchy but the specific use of the word “condescended” plainly refers to a reversal of gender hierarchy where class structure, though not always successful, determines authority – or, perhaps to put the matter more succinctly, Lily is a threat to Tansley not only with these so-called elegant feminine “charms” but also because of her privileged social rank. 

Taking the role of the objectified other, Lily is psychologically afflicted by Tansley’s intense male hegemony: “Then why did she mind what he said? Women can’t write, women can’t paint…why did her whole being bow, like corn under a wind, and erect itself again from this abasement only with a great and painful effort?” (62). The imagery of the wilting corn stalk struggling to position itself upright in order to grow healthy again is an effective contrast to Lily’s own conflict against patriarchal authority. She too needs to exert “a great and painful effort” (another reiteration of the “desperate courage” mentioned earlier) to rise up and challenge these antagonistic forces of patriarchy. At this particular moment during the gender debacle, Tansley manages to obtain the upper hand by resorting to sadistic tactics. Here, one notices that Lily takes a serious affront to his hostile comment that women lack artistic talent (“women can’t write, women can’t paint”). Unwilling to admit defeat, she attempts to prove his prejudice as erroneously fallacious: “She must make it once more. There’s the sprig on the tablecloth; there’s my painting; I must move the tree to the middle; that matters – nothing else” (62). The functional aspect of her painting as a metaphor takes precedence; it can be wielded as a powerful weapon against Charles Tansley and all of the male hegemonic values associated with his character. Once again, the image of the tree returns, though this time, it takes on a slightly different contextual meaning. The insistence that she “must move the tree” and that everything else is irrelevant suggests a real urgency to finish the painting as opposed to before when she speaks hypothetically by saying, “Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle” (61). The contradistinction between “must” and “shall” seem obvious enough. The crucial point is that the implications of the tree metaphor are now modified as a severe protest against male tyranny. 

In contrast to Lily and the noble Ramsay family, Charles Tansley’s inferior social status renders him emasculated and reticent during the majority of the dinner conversation. To a certain extent, he shares a similar discomfort of exclusion experienced by Lily although for different reasons; it is class, not gender that act as constraints. He is denied the opportunity to properly assert his male egotism and Lily cleverly uses his discomfort to her advantage by refusing to help him escape from this unpleasant situation while in the process, unequivocally denounces male hegemony. She refers specifically to female gender roles as a “code of behavior” that is immorally absurd because women are supposed to remain submissive to the male subject in order for them to wholly assert their authority (66). Lily purposefully takes a political stand to infuriate Charles Tansley even more by remaining silent: “So she sat there smiling” (66). Here, Lily achieves a small victory and her smile is not sincere in the least; rather, it comes across almost like a sneer of derision. Unfortunately, her act of rebellion is ephemeral and she reluctantly accepts defeat once Mrs. Ramsay intervenes. She observes the psychological battle going on between Lily and Charles and decides to put an end to it by throwing a harsh gaze in the direction of her younger female friend. The two women reach a tacit understanding: if Lily is not “nice” to Mr. Tansley, the dinner party will be ruined and by implication, the entire social order will collapse (66). This apparent contradiction in Lily’s moral principles is another instance of the novel’s complex shifting gender ideologies. She undoubtedly wants to separate herself from Mrs. Ramsay but is still influenced by the authority of the older generation.  

Yet, her decision to conform against her better judgment is not to say that the issue of gender in the novel is resolved; it is only a minor setback in the journey towards establishing female independence. The metaphorical conceit of Lily’s painting suggests that the possibility to obtain and assert female autonomy still exists: “For at any rate, she need not marry, thank heaven: she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution. She would move the tree rather more to the middle” (74). The painting is a source of personal solace and redemption. The tree metaphor takes on another layer of meaning as it moves even closer to the center of the frame (“more to the middle”): the renunciation of marriage as a “degradation” and “dilution” is obviously not an indication that she is willing to relinquish to patriarchy. Ironically, ten years pass before Lily returns to the Ramsay cottage and is able to actually finish the painting.

Glossing over the second and third section of the novel may seem unwarranted but for our purposes, Lily’s finished painting is the most significant metaphor that most accurately establishes her role as a truly liberated female artist:

There it was -- her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and cross, its attempt at something. It would be hung up in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did it matter? She asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps: they were empty; she looked at her canvas; blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the center. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision. (154)

The striking final image of the painting with a definitive line drawn the middle is open to a host of interpretations and reflects the complex ambiguities of the novel. If we accept Lily’s rejection of patriarchy and the assertion of female independence as a metaphorical conceit, the implication is that Lily does achieve success in this enterprise but whether or not it is possible for her to maintain this new sense of identity in the future remains uncertain. To accuse Woolf of being deliberately glib would be a serious misreading because she has been subtly working towards this powerful moment of revelation, especially with the emphasis placed on the symbolism of the tree. The first two parts of the novel are meticulously constructed around patterns of thematic progression towards Lily’s climactic moment of transcendence. The resolution of her fragmented self and conflicting gender ideologies is unified by the aesthetic principles of artistic creation. Prior to drawing the vertical line, her painting appears to be a chaotic design with “lines running up and cross” as an “attempt at something”, implying that it is not representational of a particular subject or object; rather, her painting is some kind indefinable image. Thus, it seems rational to conclude that the painting is indeed a metaphor because the “blurred canvas” also suggests an abstraction of ideas where there exists a deeper meaning beneath the convoluted surface of green and blue lines.

Lily Briscoe’s concern with the artistic quality of her painting, whether or not it will endure the test of time (an echo of another persistent theme in the novel) and lamenting the deceased Mrs. Ramsay (the “empty steps” she used to sit on) all contribute to this “sudden intensity” of inspiration to draw a line down the “center” of the canvas. After ten long years, she finally completes her painting (“It was done; it was finished”) by moving the tree directly to the middle, which provides the frame with equilibrium. The tree, of course, is no longer recognizable because it transforms into the last stage of metaphorical development as a line segment. The “vision” can be seen as both the flood of memories from the past leading up to the completion of the painting and an epiphany that is represented by the metaphorical conceit: a potential resolution to repudiate male hegemony and embrace female independence. The vertical line represents a division from the old system of subservience and misogyny; that is, it not only establishes Lily’s own sense of female individuality as an artist but also symbolizes feminist principles pertaining to egalitarianism and the rights of women.
Works Cited
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. 1927. London: Wordsworth Classics, 1994.