To the Lighthouse


Welcome to the second round of Woolf in Winter, hosted by yours truly! I'll be proactive about checking around at all the blogs that posted on Mrs. Dalloway two weeks ago, but if I've missed you please leave a comment below and I'll add your post as soon as I can. I can't wait to discuss To the Lighthouse with everyone! (Note: I will be at work this morning, and I abstain from the internet on Saturdays have moved my no-computer day to Sunday in order to keep arguing so pleasantly with y'all, so if your post doesn't get linked right away it's just because I'm away from the computer.)

Edit: It's been real, guys. I really am taking Sunday off the computer, but this discussion has been grand. Thanks to everyone who read (or is reading) along, stopped by and/or commented!


It's often said that To the Lighthouse is Virginia Woolf's "most autobiographical" book. Personally, I think aspects of Woolf's biography slip into all her works in interesting ways (Orlando is based on her lover Vita Sackville-West's family background; Mrs. Dalloway contains her most explicit depiction of mental illness). It's certainly true, though, that Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are modeled on Woolf's own mother and father, celebrated beauty Julia Duckworth and famous National Biography writer Leslie Stephen, and that the Ramsay family's summer home on the Isle of Skye mirrors Talland House, where the Stephen family spent summers in the 1880s and 1890s. (As you can see from the link, modern-day Talland House has been converted into a suite of "luxury holiday apartments" and painted a somewhat blistering chartreuse.) Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf's sister and fellow Bloomsbury Group member, wrote to her after first reading To the Lighthouse that the first part of the book you have given a portrait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived of as possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead. You have made one feel the extraordinary beauty of her character, which must be the most difficult thing in the world to do. It was like meeting her again with oneself grown up and on equal terms and it seems to me the most astonishing feat of creation to have been able to see her in such a way. You have given father too I think as clearly but perhaps, I may be wrong, that isn't quite so difficult. There is more to catch hold of. Still it seems to me to be the only thing about him which ever gave a true idea.

And Woolf herself wrote to Vita:

I don't know if I'm like Mrs. Ramsay; as my mother died when I was 13 probably it is a child's view of her: but I have some sentimental delight in thinking that you like her. She has haunted me: but then so did that old wretch my father. Do you think it sentimental? Do you think it irreverent about him? I should like to know. I was more like him than her, I think; and therefore more critical: but he was an adorable man, and somehow, tremendous.

I like this second short letter fragment because it gets at much of the ambivalence in To the Lighthouse toward both senior Ramsays and everything they represent. In many ways the novel is an affectionate, sympathetic look back ("an adorable man, and somehow, tremendous"), but in other, perhaps more important ways, it's a definitive break with Woolf's parents' generation. Like Lily Briscoe, Woolf acknowledges the tremendous appeal, the tremendous charisma of women like her mother: Victorian beauties, Angels in Houses, models of self-abnegation, providing steadfast moral and emotional support for all the men and children in their lives - and at the same time, like Lily placing her salt-shaker on the tablecloth to remind herself to move her painted tree more to the middle, she gently refuses to take on that role herself.

Not only that, but she explores the way in which Victorian men used such women as crutches, and the way in which such women themselves were instrumental in coercing other girls and women to conform. Lily notes that Mrs. Ramsay holds women to a higher standard than she does men, that she "pitied men always as if they lacked something - women never, as if they had something." As such, she is forbearing with men even when they act like complete babies, but stern with her daughters and other women if they diverge from her idea of proper feminine behavior. Mrs. Ramsay, albeit with great charm, belittles the importance of Lily's painting, arguing that any woman who fails to marry is missing the best of life; Mr. Ramsay barely notices Lily enough to deprecate her art. (Woolf herself said that if it hadn't been for her father's death when she was a young woman, she would never have been able to write.)

Oh, but, Lily would say, there was her father; her home; even, had she dared say it, her painting. But all this seemed so little, so virginal, against the other. Yet, as the night wore on, and white lights parted the curtains, and even now and then some bird chirped in the garden, gathering a desperate courage she would urge her 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 child-like now) that her dear Lily, her little Brisk, was a fool.

Likewise, although Woolf does, in a way, admire and even enjoy men like her father - note that in her letter to Vita she identifies more strongly with Leslie than Julia - she is also harshly critical of a system that allows boys, men and husbands to remain emotionally infantile, blindly twisting any situation to put themselves at its center, and being supported by a group of women trained to safeguard their delicate egos at all cost. As Lily observes while Mrs. Ramsay coerces her into conciliating Charles Tansley, saving the dinner party when Tansley is being an ass, this kind of social structure makes naked sincerity between men and women well nigh impossible - it's unfair to both women (who never get the chance to assert themselves) and men (who never get the chance to do anything else). "What happens if one is not nice to that young man there?" Lily asks herself, and one can almost hear the tantalizing possibilities simmering behind her question, the unaccustomed freedom in demanding that both parties treat each other equally. But no, she must abandon the experiment to suit the charm of Mrs. Ramsay, and the tyranny of men like Mr. Ramsay. I think one reason Woolf could look back affectionately on her parents' generation is that she herself had achieved what Lily only finds later with William Bankes: she had a frank, multi-gendered, intellectually stimulating group of friends who respected each others' humanity and intelligence enough to delight in honest conversation. That's one reason.

And another reason is to be found in the darkness surrounding Mrs. Ramsay, a near-nihilism reminiscent of the grimmest portions of Mrs. Dalloway. For as much as her children and acolytes strain against her influence, strive for a different life that seems impossible; as much as she seems to Lily always to get her way in the end, Time Passes: even overweening personalities can be snuffed out quietly, in a sudden parenthesis, as if they hardly mattered at all. And even before Mrs. Ramsay is whisked from the land of the living, she herself feels uneasily the emptiness, almost a panic, at her own core:

And yet she had said to all these children, You shall go through it all. To eight people she had said relentlessly that (and the bill for the greenhouse would be fifty pounds). For that reason, knowing what was before them - love and ambition and being wretched alone in dreary places - she had often the feeling, Why must they grow up and lose it all? And then she said to herself, brandishing her sword at life, Nonsense. They will be perfectly happy. And here she was, she reflected, feeling life rather sinister again, making Minta marry Paul Rayley; because whatever she might feel about her own transaction, she had had experiences which need not happen to every one (she did not name them to herself); she was driven on, too quickly she knew, almost as if it were an escape for her too, to say that people must marry, people must have children.

As Lily notes, it's "almost impossible to dislike any one if one looked at them," and in looking so carefully at the inner workings of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, Woolf is able to critique her parents' generation while also making her peace with them. Their lives were what they were, beautiful and flawed, and she chose to live hers differently.

And although that would probably be the best ending for this little essay, I can't resist inserting a few notes on odd, disconnected things I love about this novel. This time around (this is my third read through), I was struck by Woolf's skill at evoking entire exchanges with just a single line. When Charles Tansley, walking with Mr. Ramsay on the terrace, is heard to pronounce "Brilliant but I think fundamentally flawed," the reader feels the entire conversation - Tansley's and Ramsay's absorption in ideas, their self-satisfied pomposity - present in those few words. (Woolf's entire introduction of Tansley is, I think, hilarious.) Likewise, when William Bankes protests the English habit of cutting the skins off vegetables, "'In which,' said Mr. Bankes, 'all the virtue of the vegetable is contained,'" one can hear the palpably mounting indignation on the part of Mr. Bankes and Mrs. Ramsay as they egg each other on about British cooking, and eventually bring the rest of the dinner guests to break down in laughter. There is not much dialogue in this book, but entire conversations are conjured into the imagination with a few deft strokes.

My other favorite effect, of course (I mentioned it with regard to Mrs. Dalloway) is Woolf's conflation of the interior and exterior worlds of her characters, so that one bleeds into and reflects the other. The characters' experiences of the world around them are inextricably tied to their emotions and inner workings, so that James sees his magazine pictures "fringed with joy" at the thought of going to the lighthouse, Lily marks her artistic breakthrough by placing the salt-cellar on the tablecloth, and Mr. Ramsay perceives the urns and hedges of the house as having "so often decorated processes of thought," and externalizes his inner conflict with a bombastic and almost confrontational recitation of Tennyson. Like the rest of this novel, it's beautifully done.

In case it's useful...I think it's fun to analyze Woolf's references to other texts, and maybe other people do, too. Here are a few links, if you're curious, and thanks to Julia for pointing me to "The Fisherman and His Wife":
  • "The Fisherman and His Wife" by the Brothers Grimm: the story that Mrs. Ramsay is reading to James as she poses for Lily's painting
  • "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: the poem Mr. Ramsay is reciting as he charges around the yard and almost runs into Lily and Mr. Bankes
  • "The Invitation" by Percy Bysshe Shelley: The source of a line Mrs. Ramsay remembers Mr. Ramsay shouting at "poor Miss Giddings"
  • "Luriana Lurilee" by Charles Elton: recited as the dinner party is breaking up
  • "Sonnet 98" by William Shakespeare: the poem that forms the denoument of the passage describing Mrs. Ramsay's reading process
  • "The Castaway" by William Cowper: which dominates the last section, "The Lighthouse."

Be sure to drop by others' posts! And please consider joining us for a discussion of Woolf's Orlando (at Nonsuch Book on February 12) and The Waves (at Kiss a Cloud on February 26).


  • I really enjoyed your post. I haven't been able to step back from To the Lighthouse and look at it with a critical eye. I felt that I was just dragged in and sucked under this time I read it. I was so moved by the book, and am in awe of Woolf's ability to convey so much in so few words. I am seriously in love with Woolf's writing right now!

  • Emily, as always, what you've written opens up so many things in my head. (The extracts about her mother and father, particularly illuminating.) Like Violet, I was only able to immerse in VW's words and her world and her people, thus can only be subjective (which I always am, after all, haha). But wow, what a book. I cannot believe how deftly she weaves her words.. truly a work of art.

    I especially feel enlightened with your observation that Lily reflected VW herself, and how she was able to 'critique her parents' generation and chose to live her life differently.' I had zero knowledge about her life before we started Woolf in Winter and how fascinating that someone whose life was farthest from my own could evoke such emotion in me. I'm in awe of the connection and universality of the human spirit.

    I also found the parts about Charles Tansley funny; also Mr Ramsay's enthusiasm with the poem. :)

    Thanks for providing the reference links!

  • Wow, you have made my ramblings seem insignificant and fairly rubbish. Ha! Its nice to see people so empassioned by Virginia but then at the same time I do feel rather like I am looking at a party through a window and I cant get in... and boy am I trying!

    I prefered this to Mrs Dalloway, I am just not sure Ginny is for me! Amazing post you have here though.

  • I just barely scratched the surface of some of these ideas in my post today, but you have done a wonderful job here. I'm really enjoying the group read, but what's frustrating me about it is that I can see I'll need to read all these books over again to really be able to say anything worthwhile about them, they are so richly packed.

  • Emily, you have left no stone unturned! This is a wonderful, thorough post. Among the "odd, disconnected things," feeling a conversation that is represented by one line: after the first several pages, it seemed to me that I was feeling almost everything. If I got to a character or a situation I couldn't feel, it seemed odd.

  • Oh thank you so much for that wonderful post! I understand so much more now. I think I kind of 'get it'. I had a hard time understanding the tension/positioning of Mrs. Ramsay to Lily Briscoe and your comments concerning their place in the social structure of the day helped immensely. And what a wonderful description you write of the role of women to men and also of Lily's refusal to be part of it. It is such a different world today.

  • A wonderfully comprehensive and illuminating post, Emily! Thank you for hosting.

    I need to step back and gather my thoughts a little before immersing myself in discussion but here are my impressions:

  • Great post! I read the book 15 years ago and you make me want to take it up again for a reread right now, forget everything else I am currently in the middle of. The nice thing about books though is that they wait patiently for you. One of the things I love and admire about Woolf is the way she can say so much with a sentence or even a few words. Every now and then I try to figure out how she does it and I never can. But the effort of trying to figure it out always leaves me with a deeper appreciatian for her brilliance.

  • Your post opened so much more up to me and I really want to check out the literary references links a little later. Love your point about men being treated as infants, what an odd disconnection between their status in the male world as intelectuals and the almost god like reverence their women had for them at times.

    It's hard to decide which is the best part of this book the writing style, or the ideas. Thanks for the nudge to go back to try her again, this was such a different experience tha Orlando. Here are my little thoughts:

  • Thank you for hosting To The Lighthouse.

    I had never read Woolf before this, although I had tried in my early twenties. But I'm glad I've come to it at this stage of my life. It just seems right.

    I too enjoyed the moving of the salt cellar.


  • Thank you, Emily, for this superb post and for the links to the texts referred to by Woolf. The Cowper poem is powerful. You are spot on in emphasising the humour in the story. I hadn't appreciated Woolf's own brand of humour prior to reading Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.

  • Violet: A completely understandable reaction! I feel like I'm just starting to get on my critical feet with this novel, on the third time through and after a few years since my first read. :-) I thought your post was beautiful!

    Claire: I'm so pleased that you loved the book so much! That's fantastic. And really, we're all just subjective, aren't we? I just figured after my full-throated gushing over Mrs. Dalloway that I should be a TAD bit more objective about the novel I'm hosting! :-)

  • Simon: Well, I've studied the book in classes, written papers on it, etc. Sorry to hear you don't particularly click with Woolf, but thanks for your thoughtful posts about these two books. And I'm glad you enjoyed my post! :-)

    Nicole: Thanks for the nice words! I can see why the necessity for re-reading would seem frustrating, but rest assured - these books DEFINITELY repay the effort of re-reading. They deepen & become more complex and interesting with every read. (At least I think so!). Thanks for reading along!

  • Julia: Oh, there are MANY stones that still remain to be turned! But I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. I so know what you mean about really feeling the characters and exchanges. Can't wait to get around to comment on all these posts!

    Jess: High praise indeed! I'm so glad my post was helpful to you. I always feel like To the Lighthouse is one of Woolf's more explicitly political novels, so all the social positions of the characters are definitely useful to understand. Thanks for joining us!

  • WEll, I deleted my first comment accidentally - it was very long, so perhaps that's a sign that I shoulud shut up, more :). But I guess, I wanted to say I saw Woolf's opinion of her own generation a lot more ambivalently. I think that, more than any of the books I've read, To the Lighthouse rolls around the idea of what is and is not permanent, and that, the conclusion is that while forms change, essentials do not. In the Ramsay's generation, there were Boobies and there were Enablers. And in the present there's the same. And will be forever. Teh forms? These we can change, and we can even see small changes for a time, but it's something like the tide - though a spit of land is gained, a spit of sea is lost, and the two are essentially impermanent, permanently. While Woolf's generation gained one thing, it lost another, and had it's own psychic wounds to deal with - different from those of the Victorians, but equal in their virtue and vice. For me, that's why Lily is so ambivalent to the end. She hasn't really won - and she never really rebelled - against the past, against convention. She simply continued to live, and lived how she wished as best she could wihtout getting in anyone else's way. And that's, I guess, really what Woolf would have us all do, to me.

  • This is a fantastic post! I didn't enjoy reading To the Lighthouse, as I like my books to at least have a tiny scrap of plot, but appreciate that Woolf writes beautifully.

    It was so interesting to read a bit more about her life and the inspiration for this book. Thank you for hosting a great read-along!

  • Claire: I loved your post, and I'm glad you found mine illuminating! Thanks for reading along. :-)

    Stefanie: Yes, it will wait for you - and whenever you get around to it, re-reading will repay your effort a thousandfold, if my experience is any guide. :-) Woolf really does have that poetic compression of language - so much in such a small space.

  • Jodie: An odd disconnect indeed - in both women treating men as infants, and men treating women as idiots. Re: style and ideas, one thing I love about the book is that the two seem so well-suited - seem inextricably linked, in fact. Thanks so much for joining us!

    Christy: You're not the only one who's saying that the timing just seems right for reading Woolf now, and I'm so glad you feel that way. Love the salt cellar!

  • I loved your review, Emily, and how you led a novice to Woolf such as myself through the intricate layers which may have laid undisturbed the first time around.

    One of my favorite parts of your post came at the end when you noted the books which were mentioned by Woolf in this book. Of course I saw the Grimm Fairy Tale, and wondered if that bore any relationship to Mrs. Ramsay wanting more from life as the fisherman's wife did?, but most of the other's escaped my attention. There were a lot of titles mentioned once you pointed them out!

    I find this foray into Woolf's work infinitely fascinating, and much enriched, thank you to your lead and the reviews of all the participants. This is a wonderful way to start the year with books, and I thank you.

  • Anthony: Thank you so much for the nice words, and I'm glad you found the links useful. Yes, the humor! I'll make myself guilty of a Mrs. Ramsay-style exaggeration and exclaim that "Nobody ever talks about Woolf's humor!" :-) But they should.

    Jackie: I'm sorry you didn't enjoy the book, but glad you found my post useful and the readalong worthwhile! Thanks for reading along, even if it turns out Woolf isn't for you. :-)

  • Jason: Interesting! (My comment will be equally long.) I heartily agree with you on some points and strongly disagree on others. Specifically, I agree that Woolf's generation had their own losses and vices aplenty, but I do think she's more critical of her parents' generation than her own - or maybe more accurately, I think her own psychic scars have to do with the faults of her parents' generation, more than the faults of her own. It's true that in the "present" of the third section of the novel we see James starting to replicate the behaviors of his father, and Cam starting to replicate those of her mother. But I think there is legitimate, if subtle, change: Lily sticks to her decision not to marry, for example, and forges a friendship of equals with William Bankes. That seems to me significant. It actually does seem a rebellion in itself, considering how strong the persuasions of women like Mrs. Ramsay were to Lily in the first part. I think part of what Woolf is saying is that if Victorian women didn't strenuously rebel, they would end up married and replicating the status quo as a matter of course. Just the act of remaining unmarried by choice was a big deal.

    Also, the Rayleys seem to be living a kind of Bloomsbury-ish New Marriage, having evolved from unhappy lovers into companionable friends, each with their own love affairs. I'm not personally arguing for the breakdown of monogamy necessarily, but I think Woolf saw the ability for men and women, husbands and wives to exist on a footing of intellectual equality as a breakthrough of her generation that was SYSTEMICALLY impossible during her parents' generation because of the philosophy of separate spheres, Angel in the House, etc. That men and women were trained to condescend to one another based on gender, which she saw her generation as doing their best to overcome (with only partial success, of course).

    Whew! Debate away. :-)

  • Belleza: You're making me blush over here! :-) I'm so pleased with the way the readalong is going, as well, and I'm glad you found those links interesting. I was thinking about the Grimm, too - it seems to me there's a parallel between the always-needy wife in the tale and Mr. Ramsay. Would that make Mrs. Ramsay the husband, or the flounder? If the latter, it would suggest that she does have some kind of breaking point - maybe what she reached just before her early death? Anyway, thanks so much for reading along!

  • Perhaps Mrs. Ramsay would be more the flounder than the husband, as it seems she has an infinite gift of giving...until her breaking point. It's an interesting comparison to make; I saw her giving in so many areas: her husband, her children, her house guests, and the poor people who lived in the lighthouse. No wonder her loss was so deeply lamented by those who knew her.

  • I've just decided that Charles Tansley was GREAT! Every part that involved him made me grin a little, and the part where Lily is trying not to talk to him at dinner was definitely funny. Actually that whole dinner scene was wonderful, and contained so much that I've experienced in group social settings. Brilliantly written too, of course.

  • Emily, the biographical details and the intertextual links you provide are quite useful. Thanks! And although I didn't mention it in my post, one of the most interesting things about To the Lighthouse to me from a thematic standpoint was the ambivalence toward the Ramsays that you mention: that weird way in which Mrs. Ramsay could (consciously?) be the glue of the family and a gloomy nihilist at almost one and the same time. On a related note, if I can jump in on your discussion with Jason above, I'd like to ask you if you think it's possible for one to stake out a middle ground in between your position's and Jason's re: the generational blame game? In particular, the war references in the "Time Passes" segment and afterward make me feel that maybe Woolf was a little more critical of her own generation than you might have owned up to although I agree that she blames the social ills more on her parents' generation than on her own. Can you see that, too, or are we about to have a messy argument in public? Just kidding, my friend, of course, and thanks for another dynamite post!

  • Sarah: No question, the dinner party scene is amazing. We actually re-enacted it in one of the college classes in which I read this book, and it was one of the high points of my entire college career. I can't even explain why...there was one classmate who was DYING to play Augustus Carmichael, and at one point the girl who was playing Mr. Ramsay, apropos of nothing in the conversation, ad-libbed the line "Ah, Voltaire!" We were all in stitches. Now whenever I read the scene I have an extra layer of fondness for it. And re: Charles Tansley, I especially love the passage in his introduction where Woolf writes that he would to go picture-galleries and ask if one liked his tie, and "God knows, said Rose, one did not."

    Richard: You wanna take this outside?!? ;-) Maybe I've overstated my case re: the generational war. (If so, Jason, I apologize!) I don't think Woolf was un-ambivalent about her own generation; it's just that I think she portrays some modicum of social progress re: gender stuff, rather than an ever-repeating pattern of, as Jason so aptly puts it, Boobies and Enablers. Or maybe I just want to think so, because it lines up with my own experience...I'll have to think on it. In other news, thanks for the nice words. :-)

  • Ms Emily (And Mr Richard, apparently!) - I must claim foul before we start because of the three of us, I am the only one with a name that doesn't sound like it could be a Woolf character, so I'm at an obvious disadvantage. Beyond this, I will confess to having a really poor knowledge of Ms Woolf's life, and an interpretation of her works that I am 900% sure speaks more to my ignorance and thickwittedness than any hidden meanings Ms Woolf may have inserted. So perhaps for me to say that Woolf was critical of one generation ofr another was arrogant, because I really have no idea - I could make some vaguely educated guesses from what I do know, but after all, what I was saying in Mrs Dalloway, is one of the things I LOVE about Ms W - that she simply paints things as they are, while doing so vididly enough that you can;t help but feel something about them. So, what I SHOULD have said is, in the old and new generations Woolf paints, *I* do not see one generation as any better than the other. To me, the anipathy between the two generations is as cyclical as everything else - generations dislike the generation previous, and plame their problems on it/pontificate endlessly on their parents ignorance. We still do it now. The past always has to be glamourized or damned, you know? And usually there's one group doing one thing, and one doing the other. While I can't vouch for Woolf's personal opinions on marriage and sex, I don't see the young married couple as really being any happier, better off, or more likely to produce happy children or improve the world than the Ramsey's. Nor are they more miserable. They are simply different. Social change is real, I'm not arguing it isn't, but it changes the configuration of the world, not it's real, basic makeup. We can remove the artificial miseries that we, as a society impose on each other. But this doesn't make people 'better', just less impeded.

  • Great review! I read this book in college, and it was one of the most important experiences that turned me into a feminist. I love the book for the reasons you mention here -- the analysis of gender relations is just wonderful.

  • Oooo! Such excitement in these comments. Well, if we are taking this outside, I have to admit to taking Jason's back on this one. Especially agree with this clarification in follow-up comment:

    "... one of the things I LOVE about Ms W - that she simply paints things as they are, while doing so vididly enough that you can't help but feel something about them. So, what I SHOULD have said is, in the old and new generations Woolf paints, *I* do not see one generation as any better than the other."

    Yes. I think both are compartmentalized in a way, closed off by the confines of their own value systems.

    And in terms of gender politics, I always wonder if Mrs. Ramsay is somehow freed from some of those constraints by her knowledge and manipulations? True, it is also somewhat sad that her power, influence resides there but ... Hmmm.

    Great post, Emily. In addition to all your great insights into the text, you provided some really useful background and links here.

  • Ms Frances makes an interesting point - and actually one that is even more explored in parts of Orlando (though other parts certainly back up the argument that Woolf didn't think a whole lot of the Victorian period). In some ways, particularly in Woolf's day, for a woman to tak the new rights that were available (for instance, be an artist, or a bluestocking), one had to give up something else. This is not a kind of nostalgia - I'm glad we're not all living in old Victorian mores. But, to be a bluestocking in the turn of the century one had to be brave - and that implies that there was a danger to it that didn't exist for the women of the previous generation. I think you see this ambivalence even in some of the people of the day - sort of that dichotomy between the sexual politics of, say, Emma Goldman and Mother Jones. It's much the same as, for instance, the immigration arguments in the US today. Sure, says our power structures (usually anyways), we'll let someone from Mexico take the advantages of being an American. In return, we'll put them in this twilight land, between legality and illegality, and make them work the jobs we'd rather not do, and generally trap them in the place we make for them. There was a song back in the 70's (I think) called 'I Want to be an Engineer' that talked about this a little. IT was a feminist satirical song, where the woman wants to be an engineer, and can't, because of the structure of things, then finally when there is an economic downturn, she gets a job as an engineer - just so that the boss can pay her a woman's wage instead of a man's. IT doesn't demean the courage of what she's doing, of course, and it is a good thing that she was able to break in to engineering. But, as a trade, she lost half her family income (her husband lost his job), and women were, eventually, put in the position that is so common today - both parents HAVE to work whether they'd liek to or not, and the woman still has all the duties she had as a homemaker before. So, now, Lily has certainly gained certain things, certain freedoms. But she's also been put into a place where, frankly, she must expend most of her mental energy in worrying about whether or not she's measuring up to her own rebellion, and where, even if she does measure up, the world thinks of her as an old maid and won't respect her, and throws her paintings up in the attic. The generation before had it's disadvantages, of course - but the things Mrs Ramsay created WERE at least appreciated mostly, and lived on after her death. This isn't to say the Victorians were BETTER off.

  • Wonderful review! Great that you included a list of Woolf's references to other texts into your post. I, too, read To the Lighthouse with good intentions to join the discussions & post about the book, but did not have time to construct a post. I'm looking forward to joining the fun with Orlando, though.


  • Dorothy: Thanks! I agree - the gender relations analysis is a highlight (among many!).

    Tiina: Yay, glad you enjoyed the post, and greatly looking forward to your thoughts on Orlando!

  • Jason/Frances/Richard: First of all, I wish for a Virginia Woolf character named Emily! Of course with my luck she would be a Miss Kilman type.

    OK, so I'm trying to boil down exactly what we're arguing about here. I, too, completely agree with this statement:

    "... one of the things I LOVE about Ms W - that she simply paints things as they are, while doing so vididly enough that you can't help but feel something about them. So, what I SHOULD have said is, in the old and new generations Woolf paints, *I* do not see one generation as any better than the other."

    I don't think it's right to say that one generation is "better" than the other - as both Jason and Frances rightly point out, they are both closed off in their own value systems. Nor are Paul, Minta and Lily necessarily happier than the Ramsays. BUT I do think that Woolf's own value system aligns more with Lily's than with Mrs. Ramsay's - and maybe that's just because I've read a ton of her other stuff and I know that she felt that a society which limits female roles to those played by Mrs. Ramsay was tantamount to prostituting half of the entire human race. Here she is describing a Mr.-and-Mrs.-Ramsay-ish interaction in Three Guineas:

    Man liked to think he was doing his job himself when, in fact, he was doing just what the woman wanted, but the wise woman always let him think he was running the show when he was not. Any woman who chose to take an interest in politics had an immensely greater power without the vote than with it, because she could influence many voters. His feeling was that it was not right to bring women down to the level of men. He looked up to women, and wanted to continue to do so. He desired that the age of chivalry should not pass, because every man who had a woman to care about him liked to shine in her eyes.

    And so on.

    If such is the real nature of our influence, and we all recognize the description and have noted the effects, it is either beyond our reach, for many of us are plain, poor and old; or beneath our contempt, for many of us would prefer to call ourselves prostitutes simply and to take our stand openly under the lamps of Piccadilly Circus rather than use it.

    So it's hard not to read into her depictions of Mrs. Ramsay reassuring Mr. Ramsay that he's running the show, and of Mr. Ramsay "looking up to" the shining light of Mrs. Ramsay, a critique - not of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay themselves necessarily, but of the system that expected them to conform to those roles, and that glorified the idea of Mrs. Ramsay self-actualizing only through ministering to others. In other words, although the individual people of any generation are not better or worse, I do think Woolf is taking a stand that there are ways we could run our society that are better than others.

    [to be continued...]

  • [...part 2]

    THEN there's the really interesting point that both Jason and Frances bring up (that will come up again with the character of Jinny in The Waves) that although I believe Woolf is actively arguing against a society so restrictive toward women, she also writes a lot about the ways in which "traditional" women, women who conform to the expected roles, do find ways to be artists. And, as y'all point out, their art is often more appreciated by those around them than the art of female painters/writers/architects, because everyone in society is ready to receive it. Whereas, like Jason says, women trying to rebel and break out of the mold must divert so much energy just to the act of rebelling and the act of convincing the outside world to pay attention, that sometimes little is left for actual art-making.

    So Mrs. Ramsay's dinner parties are works of art, and Jinny's glittering extroversion is a work of art, and Rose's lovely fruit basket is a work of art, and although none of those is "permanent," Woolf makes the point that even Shakespeare is impermanent so let's not get hung up on it. So obviously, for women to whom those traditional roles feel natural, life is a lot easier! They get to make their art AND be appreciated, AND have a family and suitors and so on and so forth. I think Woolf is arguing for us to acknowledge that the things those women do should be recognized as art. But I ALSO think she's arguing that for many women (like Lily), those roles DON'T feel natural, and we should organize our society so that they have an opportunity to make their varieties of art as well - have their visions, get their voices heard. And the Stephens/Ramsays don't particularly honor that.

    I think Woolf is closer to Goldman than Jones, in other words. She understands the appeal of the mother figure, but doesn't want to shoehorn all women into that role.

  • Wow, it sounds like you really "got" it. I certainly didn't feel like I did and I'm sad that I'm not even remotely interested in rereading it. It didn't capture me as it did you and so many others!

  • I am a little behind the schedule but I have just posted my thoughts on To The Lighthouse now! Thank you for your wonderful review and thoughts Emily - as a new Woolf reader I am gaining so much from being a part of the read along and being able to learn from others.

  • I'm late to the party, but eager to follow the discussion!

  • Rebecca: I don't know if I get it or not, but I sure do enjoy it. :-) Sorry it wasn't your favorite, but I'm really glad you read it along with us anyway - I enjoyed your review, as always.

    Karen: It makes me feel really good that people are finding the group reading experience helpful. To tell the truth I hadn't thought much about that going into it, but it's awesome that it's the case. And your post about it brought a very interesting perspective to the table - thanks for joining us!

    Amy: Loved your review! Thanks for reading along.

  • Great discussion you have going on here. I was out of it for over a day as I am sick with the flu, but Emily, you have touched on points that I really think worthy of lighting upon:

    "So it's hard not to read into her depictions of Mrs. Ramsay reassuring Mr. Ramsay that he's running the show, and of Mr. Ramsay "looking up to" the shining light of Mrs. Ramsay, a critique - not of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay themselves necessarily, but of the system that expected them to conform to those roles, and that glorified the idea of Mrs. Ramsay self-actualizing only through ministering to others."

    "Woolf is actively arguing against a society so restrictive toward women."

    "I think Woolf is arguing for us to acknowledge that the things those women do should be recognized as art. But I ALSO think she's arguing that for many women (like Lily), those roles DON'T feel natural, and we should organize our society so that they have an opportunity to make their varieties of art as well - have their visions, get their voices heard."

    I think this (your first quote) was most evident when Mrs Ramsay was reading to James and Mr Ramsay stood looking at her. If I may flip to other side of the coin here (your second quote), I think VW was also not just reiterating the restrictions towards women in his parents' generation, but also towards men. Men were epitomized as the stronger vessel and in light of women not being taken seriously for their own intellect/art, men were also not taken seriously for their own feelings. I remember William Bankes and Lily, while observing Mr Ramsay then, from afar.. (p.51 in my book)

    "It was a disguise; it was the refuge of a man afraid to own his own feelings, who could not say, This is what I like - this is what I am; and rather pitiable to William Bankes and Lily Briscoe, who wondered why such concealments should be necessary; why he needed always praise; why so brave a man in thought should be so timid in life.."

  • I found this book quite humorous at points, which balanced out the heartbreak - as is often true in real life. I love how Woolf can really get at the core of situations that I have encountered in my own life and bring so much to them.

  • Wait, let me catch my breath for a moment...

    Ok... You do realize, dear Emily, that this essay you've written can be used as an introduction to a new edition of the book (I'm thinking hardcover, deckle-edge pages, and a beautiful painting in front), do you? It felt like reading one of those Oxford Classics or Barnes & Noble intros (without getting boring, hehe).

    I must say I like the way with which you described and explained everything here, and that as you said in the comments about Woolf, there's also this poetic compression in your lines (and I really like the sound of that in particular, poetic compression—I must borrow that and use in a sentence soon!)

    It's very interesting to me that you pointed out how "entire conversations are conjured into the imagination with a few deft strokes" (another great line). Writing analysts and essayist often praise some writers' ability to evoke such deep and unspoken emotions with just a few spare dialogues, but the ability to portray entire conversations themselves without actually saying the lines is quite another magic in itself. And Woolf's writing certainly accomplished that.

    Brilliant essay; it's always a delight listening to your thoughts :)

  • I'm a bit late, but here's my post. I agree with your points about what Woolf was saying, but unfortunately the book just didn't do it for me.

  • Claire: Excellent, excellent point! Yes, I think she's definitely also talking about the oppression toward men - that both genders are boxed into these super-restrictive roles, and neither can achieve their full potential or express themselves honestly. I'm so glad you brought that up. (And these comments have exceeded my wildest expectations; I'm very happy with them!) Feel better soon, lady!

    Sarah: Totally. Humor. The overlooked Woolfian element.

  • Mark David: Well, we can just be a mutual admiration society then, because I thought your post was totally charming. :-) Thanks so much for all the nice words, and I'm glad you related to the point about conversations - it was something that really struck me on this reading, that hadn't particularly on previous trips through the book.

    Lindsey: Sorry you didn't enjoy it, but thanks for reading along! I'm off to read your post right now. :-)

  • This post is such a plethora of thoughts. I have read To the Lighthouse recently and I enjoyed it more than Mrs. Dalloway. While they are equally difficult to read, as Woolf immerses in the interior as well as the exterior of the world of her characters, I find the To the Lighthouse more unified in the message that it strives to convey. The collective challenges of the characters: the painter who strives to paint Mrs. Ramsay's portrait, the little son who anticipates making the trip to the lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay's struggle with his shortcomings being a philosopher---all converge and conform to the rhythm of the rays irradiating off the lighthouse.

    I second the opinion about Lily's firm refusal to being what a woman is expected. Women cannot paint or write. In defying this notion and proving herself, she perseveres in the portrait. She is also the one person who has witnessed the changes of the family as well the decadence of the summer house.

    As the novel has repeatedly suggests, through the interminable rise and fall of heavenly bodies and the unbreakable rhythm of tides, personal will is no rival to time. What is in store that might prove to be unbearable is news broken by time itself. The strokes of light that radiates off the Lighthouse testify to the truth that destinations seemed most palpable and surest can be unobtainable.

  • I enjoyed reading your post so much--you really got to the heart of it all. And I wanted to thank you for stopping by and including me in the discussion.

  • I also loved To the Lighthouse for the reasons you mentioned. Great review. And this Woolf in Winter (although summer down here) is a lovely idea. Will try and read Orlando in time to join in next year!

  • I'm woefully behind; I'm only half way through this book so I'm at a severe disadvantage for the next books as well. I just needed to say that your post and these comments are incredible. That "the group reading experience (is) helpful" is a gross understatement! I'm enjoying these discussions so much and am falling in love with VW. This readalong is a true highlight in my book blogging experience.

  • Matt: Thanks so much for stopping by! It's interesting to me how peoples' opinions differ toward Mrs. D. and TTL! I do agree that To the Lighthouse uses interior worlds to such a great effect. I also like your construction of "personal will is no rival to time" - my favorite image of this is the green shawl gradually coming unwrapped from the skull. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Kaye: But of course! :-) And thanks for the nice words about my post.

  • Pete: Thanks! And the only thing more pleasant than reading Woolf in Winter? Reading her in the beautiful summertime! :-)

    Care: Wow, high praise! It means a lot to me that the reading experience is such a highlight for you, and no worries at being "behind" - these books deserve to be lingered over. :-)

  • Virginia Woolf ‘s To the lighthouse in 1927 when she was well into her literary career. She considered it her best work at the time despite the reviews which favoured her previous book Mrs Dalloway. Whether it was her best work or not, it certainly was one very close to her heart, an effort at exorcising the ghosts of her dead parents. This book, she said, had allowed her to explore and understand them and thereby lay them to rest.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography