Virginia Woolf discarded both the first person and the third person narration in her novel because she found the method of narration known as multiple inner points of view as the best means to project her theme in the novel. Therefore, the mental processes of the characters seem to be presented without any interference from the author. The external world is depicted through its reflection in the observing consciousness.
The effect of this narrative mode is to force the reader to-construct the world of the novel for himself and to apply his own judgments to that world. While the omniscient narrator at one end of the scale of narration guides the reader carefully through the fictional world and the values by which that world is to be assessed, the multiple inner viewpoint of novel provides no certain or reliable ‘truths’ and forces the reader to become the novelist’s active partner in creating the novel’s fictional world. Another effect of this narrative mode is to concentrate the reader’s attention on how characters experience events rather than on what is experienced.
Use of the Stream of Consciousness Technique
The story, or plot, of To The Lighthouse is extremely simple. In the first part, ‘The Window’, we are introduced to the main characters and the central issue: whether or not the planned expedition to the lighthouse will take place. The second part, ‘Time Passes’, covers a passage of ten years and reveals the deaths of several members of the Ramsay family. The final section, ‘The Lighthouse’, recounts how the expedition to the lighthouse, which was planned ten years earlier, is finally accomplished.
It is obvious from this bald description of the novel’s plot that the reader’s main interest in To The Lighthouse is not of the ‘what happened next?’ The emphasis of this novel falls on how its events are experienced by those who participate, and the narration is carried out through the multiple point of view method, in which the reader has access to the mental processes of the various characters. This narrative mode provides a rich and complex perspective on the events and world of the novel. To make a simple example: Mrs. Ramsay is variously presented as a tyrant, a heroine, uncompromising, pathetic, and lovable, depending on the angle of vision of the observing consciousness. Which impression is the right one? The answer is all, and none. Mrs. Ramsay is, in the world of this novel, all of these.
Virginia Woolf’s particular use of the multiple point of view technique in To The Lighthouse poses certain problems, however, for the reader. The uniformity of language and style in the novel makes it difficult to distinguish individual points of view. The language of the consciousness of the six-year-old James, for example, is remarkably similar in vocabulary and style to that of his eminent philosopher father. Sometimes Mrs. Woolf uses phrases or images which, through repetition, become associated with the consciousness of a particular character. Lily Briscoe’s perception of Ramsay’s intellect and its associations with the kitchen table, and Ramsay’s image of human knowledge as an alphabet, are examples of such a use of imagery. In addition to the difficulties of distinguishing one point of view from another, an additional problem is raised in the discrimination of these points of view from the voice of the omniscient narrator, which is frequently intermingled with the other voices. The material presented by the omniscient narrator can often be identified by its indefiniteness in time and space, its tendency to generalise about people and life, and its extended perspective. The omniscient narrator’s voice also presents ‘stage directions’ such as ‘he said’, ‘she thought’, and so on. There are also certain characteristics both of style and tone which identify the omniscient narrator in To The Lighthouse. The reader will notice in the observation of the omniscient narrator a tone of hesitancy, of diffidence, which may lead him to question the omniscience of the narrator. The three parts of the novel are dominated by separate voices which provide a certain tone and attitude to those parts. The first part, ‘The Window’, is largely presented through the consciousness of Mrs. Ramsay as she sits by the window knitting, and later as she presides over the dinner party. The middle section of the novel, ‘Time Passes’, depends on the voice of the omniscient narrator. The third and final section, ‘The Lighthouse’, is presented largely through the alternate consciousnesses of Lily and those on board the boat.
One effect of Virginia Woolf’s choice of this multiple point of view narrative mode is immediately obvious when we examine the characters and characterisation of To The Lighthouse. Not only are these characters observed in action, or reflected in the consciousness of themselves and others, but their very perspective on external reality serves to define them. It is impossible, therefore, to make any clear-cut distinction between the characters in this novel and its narrative mode. Virginia Woolf’s method of creating the characters in To The Lighthouse is, in a sense, a cumulative one. Our knowledge of the characters depends on the accumulated impressions of them we receive, both from their own reflections and observations and from the responses they elicit from the other characters.
The Characters as a Vehicle of Virginia Woolf’s Ideas
The reader is obliged to recreate for himself the characters of this novel. The opening section of the novel gives us a clear impression of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. The two, as they are presented here, provide a study in contrasts; Mrs. Ramsay is portrayed in images of softness and fertility — the fountain, the flowering fruit tree —while Mr. Ramsay is symbolised by the arid scimitar, the beak of brass. The husband-wife, male-female polarity of this opening section is a theme developed through the novel, and is reflected in the contrasting qualities of intellect possessed by both. Mrs. Ramsay is portrayed as possessing instinctive, intuitive intelligence, while her husband’s intellect is of the rational and orderly variety symbolised by his perception of human knowledge as a series of letters of the alphabet. To over-emphasise the symmetry of these characteristics is, however, to do an injustice to the complexity and suggestiveness of the novel’s characterisation. These symbolic intimations of characters are part of a larger scheme of characterisation which provides a psychologically realistic series of portraits. A fine example of the powerful juxtaposition of symbolic and realistic portraiture can be found in the description of Mrs. Ramsay as she sits with her husband after the dinner party. There is psychological realism in the description of her puzzling over her husband’s desire for fame, and in the description of a mind drifting through association rather than logic from one idea to another.
As Mrs, Ramsay’s is the dominating point of view in the early sections of the novel, the reader may easily be persuaded to take her side. She appears to represent feminity, maternity and sympathy, and we feel some aversion from the uncompromisingly severe truthfulness of Ramsay and Charles Tansley. Our sympathy is increased when we look through her eyes at her reflection in the mirror and see a fading beauty who is a model of unselfishness. This early limited version of her character and that of her husband is soon modified by her complex reflections about Charles Tansley, who arouses in her a mixture of maternal desire to please and protect and an equally strong feeling of repugnance based on his awkwardness. Her attitude towards the young student reveals social condescension and snobbery. When her husband corrects her forecast of the weather, she responds with strong anger to what she feels is a blindness to the feelings of others, and a sense of martyrdom and moral superiority. She dwells on their financial insecurity and her suspicion that his most recent book is not as successful as earlier ones. Another guest, Mr Carmichael, makes her feel uncomfortable because he makes no demands on her; her characteristic response is to feel pity for him. Yet she is aware of the ambiguity of her emotional response, however much she may try to evade personal responsibility.
She wishes to keep her youngest son and daughter in a state of perpetual childhood, and she admits to herself that she prefers ‘boobies’ to intelligent young men, for she can control children and boobies. This manipulative element in her character is alien to her perception of herself, and she is puzzled that Minta’s mother should have accused her of alienating her daughter’s affections. Mrs Ramsay defends herself from this accusation by direct reference to her appearance, to her fading beauty and to the shabbiness of her clothes, all of which are made to reflect her internal self-sacrifice as a kind of theatrical costume signifying goodness and thereby absolving her of hostile criticism. Mrs Ramsay instinctively identifies herself with Lily the artist and with Carmichael the poet. Like them, she is a creator but her medium is human beings and her form, human relationships. The novel makes it clear that she is only partially successful in her art; the radiance of her dinner party may draw people together momentarily, but it is inevitably destroyed by time. Paul and Minta may have their courtship of intense happiness under her guidance, but time destroys their marriage. Mrs Ramsay’s attempts to shield her children from the force; of mutability are defeated and she too is destroyed by her familiar antagonist, death.
The complexity of Mrs. Ramsay’s character is revealed through her consciousness of reality and the language and images she uses to describe it. It is created also through her reflection in the eyes of the other characters. The three male guests-Tansley, Bankes and Carmichael show varying responses to her. Carmichael is emotionally self-sufficient and is aware of the degree of manipulation involved in Mrs. Ramsay’s self-sacrifice. Bankes, Ramsay’s longtime friend and colleague, responds to her mystery and beauty, but is also partially conscious of her destructive powers. Tansley also responds to her beauty but is even more attracted by her pity for him. The young couple, Paul and Minta, are completely under her spell and obey her wish that they should marry. The Ramsay children respond with love and with varying degrees of admiration, ranging from James who adores her unquestiongly, to Jasper who reflects that ‘being his mother she lived away in another division of the world’.
Lily Briscoe’s perception of Mrs. Ramsay and how she responds is more complex than any of the other characters. She is fully aware of her friend’s ability to dominate through love and pity, but she also recognises her worth. Of all the characters in the novel, Lily is the one who fully grasps the ambiguities of her hostess’ character and comes to love the whole Mrs. Ramsay. It is Lily who has the final vision of Mrs. Ramsay, and it is Lily who makes that vision permanent through her art. Mr. Ramsay is, in many respects, the direct antithesis of his wife. He loves her very deeply, but can still be infuriated by her disrespect for factual truth. His worship of truth matters more to him than the feelings of his friends and family. His intellectual integrity gives him a quality of aloofness, but this is deceptive for he loves and needs his family more than his seemingly emotional but inwardly withdrawn wife. Unlike Mrs. Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay gives little thought to his effect on others; he stalks around the garden reciting poetry aloud, contemptuous of the responses of his family and guests. He makes overt demands on the sympathies and emotions around him. These traits are quite different from his wife’s acute self-consciousness and her covert manipulation of others. Like the character of Mrs. Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay’s is portrayed through his own consciousness and through the eyes of those who see him. An apparently contradictory web of images surrounds him: he is hard and arid like a scimitar, cruel as a beak of brass that gorges upon his wife’s energy and fertility. Yet he is also an intrepid explorer the sailor who travels where lesser mortals do not care. He is a loving, protective paterfamilias who responds with warmth to the sight of a mother hen and her chickens, and who can be overwhelmed by admiration for his wife. The other characters, especially Bankes and Lily, flesh out the details of his portrait. Bankes remembers Ramsay as a young bachelor and, in accordance with Bankes’s own emotional aridity, regrets the domestic and emotional aspects of Ramsay’s life which he feels, have weakened his potential and destroyed their friendship. Yet Bankes envies his friend and sees him in a powerful image that combines elements of Ramsay’s intellectual integrity and domestic affection as the father with the child on his shoulder, looking at a picture of in eruption, Lily is, once more, the most astute and balanced of the observers, noticing his single-minded fidelity to the truth as well as his egotistical pursuit of sympathy and admiration, while acknowledging his tenderness and courage. In Virginia Woolf’s portrayal of Mrs. Ramsay following the dinner party we noted a balance between symbolism and realism in the very language and style of the novel. This equilibrium is apparent also in the depiction of the Ramsays as a couple. Their portrait is drawn in a manner which makes them credible in terms of psychological realism but they exist also as powerful, generalised symbols.