Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse - Reading with Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Reading with Literary Theory

Feminist Theory * Psychoanalysis * Deconstruction

Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse presents a challenge to Feminism. Mrs. Ramsey is in many ways typical of Woolf's protagonists: middle class, married and somewhat matronly, strong willed, imaginative but not quite artistic, socially confident but AMBIVALENT in deeply ingrained but deeply hidden ways about her own needs and desires. She is beautiful and possesses an almost childlike wonder about the people in her life. “Her simplicity fathomed what clever people falsified” (29), the narrator tells us, and it is this simplicity that makes it possible for her to get at “the still space that lies about the heart of things” (105). As her young house guest, Lily Briscoe, observes, she has the artist's power to transform the world through aesthetic vision. “In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here, Mrs. Ramsay said” (161). At the same time, Mrs. Ramsey is devoted to her philosopher husband and longs for her children to marry and lead exemplary conventional lives. Her attitude towards her husband's line of work - his students are always studying “the influence of something upon somebody” (12) - reveals a gulf between his rationalist sensibility and her own intuitiveness and maternal solicitude. one can read Mrs. Ramsey as a complacent middle-class woman who has sacrificed her own creative energies in order to support her husband's career. But it is also possible to regard her without recourse to stereotypes about housewives. Her desire to bring people together for a meal or a marriage signals not complicity with PATRIARCHAL authority but an assertion of an alternative to the ALIENATING effects of the rationality that characterizes that authority. “They all sat separate. And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her. Again she felt, as a fact without hostility, the sterility of men” (83). Mrs. Ramsey's power, as the artist Lily knows best, lies in her ability to create - not simply the maternal power to reproduce, but the human power to create social bonds within a community.

Woolf's concern for personal relationships - a concern that characterized the Bloomsbury group of writers gathered around Woolf and her sister - invites psychoanalytic readings of a novel so obviously indebted to the Oedipus and castration complexes. The story opens with James, the Ramsey's youngest child, at his mother's feet, both of them posing for Lily. Meanwhile, Mr. Ramsey storms about the house and yard declaiming that there will be no trip to the lighthouse, a journey James very much wants to take. The weather will be fine, his mother murmurs, but his father contradicts her, “it won't be fine” (4). The bond with the mother is looked upon jealously by the powerful father who symbolically withholds the PHALLUs/lighthouse, the means by which James can win his mother's heart but also the sign of his ascension to the SYMBOLIC order. This threat of castration should initiate the normative process of development in which the male child learns to identify with the father and to transfer his desire to a more appropriate love object. Ten years later we discover the outcome of James's development. He is sixteen now, and his mother is dead. He has clearly not resolved the Oedipal conflicts that had surfaced so long before. “He had always kept this old symbol of taking a knife and striking his father to the heart” (184). The imagery is appropriate, especially when we recall that the narrator frequently refers to Mr. Ramsey's presence as an “arid scimitar,” a reference to his ability to use reason, the sine qua non of the Symbolic order, to dismantle reality into its constituent parts. His son appropriates this same image in order to do away with what it represents: the relentless tearing apart of the world under the illusion of understanding its secrets. That James may be moving towards resolution is suggested by his dissociation of his father - “an old man, very sad, reading his book” - from the tyrannical authority that he once wielded: “that fierce sudden black-winged harpy, with its talons and its beak all cold and hard… . That he would kill, that he would strike to the heart” (184). It is odd that he would associate this authority with a “harpy,” a legendary creature with the body of a vulture and the head and breasts of a woman. Perhaps for James male authority and power are a distortion of some primal femininity that he associates with his mother, a most unharpy-like woman. This aligns with a Lacanian reading of Woman as the screen on which men project their desires and from which they receive their sense of masculine identity. The arrival at the lighthouse suggests that the tyrant has been dispatched, the mother is no longer a screen or a threat or an object of desire, and the phallus can now be handed on to James without his father fearing for his own position. “There!” his sister, Cam thinks, as they land. “You've got it at last. For she knew that this was what James had been wanting… . His father had praised him” (206). The scene ends with Mr. Ramsey standing in the bow of the boat “as if he were saying, ’There is no God' ” (207). For James, the father is no longer a god-like tyrant, and there appears to be no longer any obstacle to James identifying with him.

The reader may well wonder about Cam's own relation to her father, and to some degree we get a glimmer of it in the final paragraphs in which Lily Briscoe completes her abstract portrait of Mrs. Ramsey and James from ten years before. In a sense, Lily Deconstructs the novel's oedipal dynamic, the severing and dis-articulating power of castrating reason in an artistic context that exploits a quite opposite power of knitting together, of rearticulating and unifying in an IMAGINARY register what is forestalled at the level of the Symbolic. In Mr. Ramsey's rationalist view, a line is a division and demarcation, knife-like and phallic, not at all like a dome or a triangle or a wedge (images associated with Mrs. Ramsey). It is also the “bar” that separates binomial opposites (man/ woman, adult/child, inside/outside, picture/frame, reality/image). The line is decisive, but it cuts two ways, for the same line that cleaves apart and separates can also cleave things to each other. The moment James lands at the lighthouse, Lily, echoing Cam, says, “It is finished.” She has fi nally harmonized the “nervous lines” she had laid down earlier (158). Now a single line centers and balances her vision: “With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished… . I have had my vision” (209). Lily's creative inspiration puts “under erasure” the other sense of the line, cancels it but leaves it legible as a constituent element of her vision. The same line that draws distinctions (e.g., between genders), that places woman “below the bar” (in the manner of Jacque Lacan's algorithms in which the signified “slides under” the signifier), can also eliminate the bar by transforming it into a space for “merging and flowing and creating.”


Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: HJB, 1989.