It is she who leads Lily Briscoe to the sense of momentary completeness, the moment of vision which is the climax of the book; and Mrs. Ramsay’s presence is indeed an essential part of that vision. (In the first section she is merely a ‘triangular purple shape’ in Lily’s picture). The journey to the Lighthouse, James’s flash of triumph is the completion too of the first moment of the book, the triangular relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and James revealed in the opening page of the novel.”
A. MAJOR CHARACTERS
1. MRS. RAMSAY
Let us begin by quoting some very apt and illuminating lines from An Introduction To The English Novel by Arnold Kettle: “The subject of To The Lighthouse, if one may properly attempt to isolate it at all, is Mrs. Ramsay and the effect of her presence, her very being, on the life around her. That effect cannot be fully understood or fully conveyed within her own life but in the final Time section, when she is already dead she is still the main figure.
It must be crystal clear from the above passage that in To The Lighthouse Mrs. Ramsay is undoubtedly the central figure and the most important character. She dominates the novel not only during her life time but even after her death with no less importance.
A Unifying Force: Structural and Psychological Centre
In fact Mrs. Ramsay is the centre around which action and movement are built. She is definitely radiating through the entire novel and impregnating all the other characters—major or minor. From the very beginning of the novel she is structurally and psychologically a cohesive force and thus becomes the source of unity in it. It is none but Mrs. Ramsay who is seen to be holding together almost all the characters and the incidents of the novel.
In the very opening scene of the novel we find the focus on Mrs. Ramsay. Serving as a model for Lily Briscoe she sits at the window that links the lawn with the interior. People start coming and going, but Mrs. Ramsay’s part is like that of a milestone in the movement of various characters. Mr. Ramsay and Mr. Charles Tansley are first to come to Mrs. Ramsay. And Mrs. Ramsay’s impressions about them, as revealed in her stream of consciousness, fill out the scene for the readers. Then we find Mr. Bankes and Lily Briscoe also coming within her range of vision. So she is the centre around which all seem to be moving. In the novel a large variety of people with their own ideas and eccentricities are found. And very remarkably Mrs. Ramsay with her great tact, sympathy and understanding holds them together.
This unifying and cohesive force of Mrs. Ramsay is superbly revealed in the course of the dinner party towards the end of the first part of the novel. In this scene she very nicely performs the duty of connecting different individuals to each other. And for this she has also to engage herself with some of them. Lily and Charles Tansley are of opposite poles. But Mrs. Ramsay prevails on Lily to have some consideration for Tansley. Mrs. Ramsay intervenes and Tansley is brought out of his isolation. He gets the required attention to make him feel at ease. And then Mr. Carmichael is also brought out of himself by the beauty of that ‘yellow and purple dish of fruit’ placed on the middle of the table. Even Mr. Bankes, who thinks it to be a terrible waste of time to attend such dinners, feels elated after hearing from her that he has just relished a French recipe of her grandmother’s. ‘And the whole effort of the merging and flowing and creating rested on her.’
Her Personal Charms and Attractiveness
Mrs. Ramsay was, no doubt, advanced in age and the mother of the eight children, still she possessed great physical charm and attractiveness. There are frequent references and appreciation of her beauty in the novel and one of the great secrets of her personal appeal unmistakably lies in her physical charm. Her charm elicits high admiration not only from the male members of the circle of her friends but also from women who are equally fascinated by her. Mrs Woolf tells us how Mr. Bankes feels about her charm while telephoning to her. “He saw her at the end of the line, Greek blue eyed, straight……The graces assembling seemed to have joined hands in meadows of asphodel to compose that face.” And her husband says: “Indeed, she had the whole of the other sex under her protection.”
Her Charming and Graceful Manners
Sheer physical charm alone cannot account for so much of appeal and attractiveness. Beauty without grace and dignity cannot have so much influence on others. She has abundant feminine graces. She is polite and cultured in her manners and kind and considerate in her temperament. She is absolutely free from all egotism and is never in a mood to assert herself. Hence her graceful manners and kind disposition combined with her extraordinary physical charm cast a healthy spell on all who came in contact with her.
Symbol of the Female Principle
Mrs. Ramsay may also be taken as a symbol of the female principle in life. Probably that is why she has never been called by her first name in the novel as Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway. This symbolism seems to be evident when we have a peep into her mind in the dinner scene. Virginia Woolf tells us “Again she felt, as a fact without hostility, the sterility of men, for if she did not do it nobody would do it,…” She wants men and women to be united and become fruitful like herself. At the intellectual level she offers her protection and inspiration to both science and art—to Lily Briscoe the painter, to Bankes the botanist, to Carmichael the poet, to Tansley the scholar and above all to her husband the philosopher. Thus she seems to have the whole of the other sex under her protection. For all this, critics like James Hafley hold the view that Mrs. Ramsay has been treated as a symbol and has not been individualised by the novelist. But this seems to be stretching too far. In spite of this indefiniteness and symbolic traits Mrs. Ramsay is quite an individualised three-dimensional figure and is undoubtedly one of the great immortals of English literature.
Her Kind and Sympathetic Nature
The most outstanding trait of Mrs. Ramsay’s character is her compassion for the poor and the unfortunate, the great concern and consideration for the children and infinite sympathy for the unhappy and neglected souls. Her heart overflows with the milk of human sympathy and kindness. In the very first few chapters we find her very busy in knitting stockings for the sick son of the Lighthouse-keeper. She feels for them all as they are to live a dull and unhappy life in a lonely island. Not only this, we also find her going to the town to help the poor and the needy.
Then we find her having great affection and sympathetic consideration for the children. She knows the truth, yet not to dishearten her seven year old son she deviates from truth. But Mr. Ramsay shatters the hope of a young soul by bluntly telling him that they won’t be able to go to the Lighthouse the next day due to inclement weather. And this difference of attitude reveals the sharp contrast between the husband and the wife.
As regards the grown-ups she has all sympathy for Charles Tansley in spite of all his egotism and idiosyncracies. She knows that Tansley is poor. He had to struggle hard to take out an existence for himself. She is also a source of inspiration to Lily Briscoe. She is kind and sympathetic to Carmichael the poet whose life has been shattered by a shrewish wife. She tries her best to smoothen the widowed life of Mr. Bankes the botanist. Above all, in spite of great difference in temperament and in their attitude towards the problems of life Mrs. Ramsay is a constant source of inspiration to Mr. Ramsay, her husband. She knows that he is absolutely dependent on her for sympathy and understanding.
As a Match-maker
Even Mrs. Ramsay’s mania for matchmaking leans to virtue’s side. This reveals another aspect of her essentially feminine character. Out of her great sympathy for all she is keenly interested in establishing peace and harmony among people. She feels for the lonely life of a widower; she is concerned about the future of an old maid. That is why she wants Lily Briscoe to marry Mr. Bankes. She is not going to mind even if Lily marries Charles Tansley. Her joys knows no bound when she comes to know that Paul and Minta are engaged. It is a matter of pride for her for bringing them together. Of course she cannot be blamed if their marriage is a failure. In fact, essentially feminine as she is, she wants men and women to unite and become fruitful like herself.
Sense of Humour
Mrs. Ramsay possesses a good sense of humour too. When she covers ‘that horrid skull’ to the satisfaction of both Cam and James, it nicely reveals her sense of humour besides her sympathetic understanding. When we find her laughing quite in good humour when she thinks about Minta marrying a man with a gold watch in a wash-leather bag.
Dominates even after Death
We feel the imposing physical presence of Mrs. Ramsay only in the part first of the To The Lighthouse. After that she is no more in the land of the living. Even then she pervades the whole book. Her influence on other important characters—specially on Lily Briscoe —is really very great. It is only to fulfil one of Mrs. Ramsay’s cherished wishes that Mr. Ramsay undertakes the journey to the Lighthouse. And it is the vision of this departed soul that inspires Lily Briscoe to take up her brush again to complete her great picture. James Hafley is quite correct when he remarks that Mrs. Ramsay dead is more powerful than Mr. Ramsay living.
Mrs. Ramsay might have some little flaws in her character such as her susceptibility to flattery. It might be that she wanted to be praised or appreciated while helping others or doing some good deed. But with her extreme civility and goodness, with her irresistible charms and dominating personality hers is a unique character from the pen of a great artist. Hence E.M. Forster’s views that “she could seldom so portray a character that it was remembered afterwards on its own account, as Emma is remembered…” seems untenable to us. We may conclude by quoting the apt remarks of Joan Bennett: “Mrs Ramsay, Mrs. Daloway, Eleanor Pargiter, each of the main personalities in Between the Acts, and many others from her books, inhabit the mind of the reader and enlarge the capacity for sympathy. It is sympathy rather than judgement that she invokes, her personages are apprehended rather than comprehended.”
2. MR. RAMSAY
We have conflicting opinions about Mr. Ramsay from different critics. To some he is a despicable character, the villain of this great novel. And if we take too seriously the angry remarks of Lily Briscoe in the first chapter of the last part of the book we may also be misled to hold such views. This is how Lily judges him in an angry mood: “That man, she thought, her anger rising in her, never gave; that man took. She, on the other hand, would be forced to give. Mrs. Ramsay had given. Giving, giving she had died—and had left all this.” But if we analyse closely and go a bit deeper we are sure to find that his is a complex character with dark as well as brighter shades.
A Brilliant Intellectual
Mr. Ramsay is, first of all, an erudite scholar, an eminent intellectual. He is the head of the big Ramsay family with eight children—a middle aged man of sixty-two. Just at the age of twenty-five he had made a definite contribution to philosophy in one little book. So he has already established himself as one of the leading literary figures of his time. He has already a slumber of books to his credit. But at this advanced age he seems to be a spent-up force. And according to William Bankes, ‘Ramsay is one of those men who do their best work before they are forty.’ So the books that came after his first great one were more or less amplification and repetition. But still he is an authority on Locke, Hume and Berkeley and often gets invitations from Universities to talk on various topics of philosophy. Whatever may be the case he must be accepted as an outstanding thinker and philosopher of his time.
Sense of Failure
In spite of his great success in the realm of ‘literature and philosophy Mr. Ramsay is dogged by a sense of failure. He has a feeling that ‘he had not done the thing he might have done.’ This makes him sad, unhappy. But then he tries to rationalise. To him complete success means to the letter Z starting from A. But he is stuck at Q. But then there are very few men in a thousand million who could reach Z after all. It may be one in a generation. And he is not such a great genius. His consolation is that he has toiled honestly and made his contribution to the best of his ability. He still feels depressed, thinking that his fame may not last very long. But then the idea that the very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare cheers up his drooping mind to a great extent.
Insatiable Hunger for Sympathy
This sense of failure, this fear for transitoriness of name and fame in this world engenders in Mr. Ramsay an insatiable hunger for sympathy. This extreme craving for sympathy often makes his figure comic or pathetic and ludicrous. His demands for sympathy on Mrs. Ramsay is very great; he does not spare even Cam or Lily Briscoe. The way he begs for sympathy from Mrs. Ramsay in the first part of the novel and from Lily Briscoe in the last part makes him look really ludicrous and pathetic. Even Tansley’s great regard for him as one of the outstanding metaphysicians of his time cannot satisfy him. He wants to be wholly assured by his wife that his works will not be forgotten soon and he is needed all over the world. Mrs. Ramsay, no doubt, has great admiration for him and faith in his genius and sincerely offers him the sympathy and assurance that he needs so urgently. But his cringing nature and comic way would often put her in a very embarrassing situation.
A Stern Realist
In the very first chapter of the novel this stern aspect of his character is revealed to us when he very curtly tells James that the weather won’t be fine to enable them to make their visit to the Lighthouse the next day, thereby dashing all his hopes to the ground. Its effect is like that of a stone thrown into the middle of a pool starting ripples in different characters. Immediately we realise that he is a stern realist. He cherishes no illusion about life and wants to see that others, specially his children, never harbour any such illusion. His main intention is, no doubt, to see that his children understand the grim realities of life and face it without harbouring any false hopes. Hence he is absolutely ruthless in shattering such illusions. And when Mrs. Ramsay wants to raise some false hopes in the heart of his children regarding the weather, he is extremely upset and irritated and behaves quite rudely with her. It is not possible for him to tolerate anyone who flies in the face of facts. But in spite of all his good intentions the children, specially James, hate him terribly. And Mrs. Ramsay feels dazed and blinded finding him ‘pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings.’
His Egoism and Despotism
Egoism is undoubted by one of the dominant traits of his character. In the very first chapter we find that even young James strongly feels that his father has some secret conceit at his own accuracy of judgement. “What he said was true. It was always true.” And the despotic trait in his character is nothing but the outcome of his egoism and his secret conceit that he is always correct and never tampers with a fact to suit the pleasure and convenience of any body. So we find him commanding the children and playing the part of despot almost to the end of the novel. And this is what the children resent very much. To them he becomes a ruthless tyrant trampling on the sentiments and sensibilities of all.
Thus we find James harbouring very strong resentment and hatred against his father from the very childhood. Overwhelmed with extremes of emotion he often feels like taking a knife to stab him to death. Even at the end of the novel we find grown-up James to be a victim of such a passion while sailing on a boat towards the Lighthouse along with Cam and his father. And Cam strongly feels that his dominance, ‘his crass blindness and tyranny,’ poisoned her childhood. So he is the symbol of tyranny to them. To James—‘He is a sarcastic brute…..He is intolerably egotistical.’ So they made a compact to fight tyranny to the death. And if Cam fails James would wage the battle alone. Unfortunately the father and, the children could never understand each other.
In spite of all his weaknesses and eccentricities and comic ways of expecting sympathy from others we have also glimpses of brighter and humane aspects of his character. He is not totally bereft of affection and tenderness. If he speaks the truth bluntly, this is because he wants his children to know that life is not a bed of roses and facts are uncompromising and it needs, above all, courage, truth and the power to endure. And then he reveals the tender and humane aspect of his nature when he feels sad finding Mrs. Ramsay fully absorbed in her lonely thoughts. ‘It saddened him, and her remoteness pained him, and he felt, as he passed, that he could not protect her. He could do nothing to help her.” And this desire to protect also wins Cam back to him while sailing in their boat towards the Lighthouse. And on this very boat we find by praising James whole heartedly for steering them like a born sailor and his loving heart brings to an end the old enemity and deep-seated hatred between a father and a son. It also must be noted that Mr. Ramsay is going through this rite of sailing to the Lighthouse in memory of his departed wife.
There is no doubt that Mr. Ramsay is Mrs. Ramsay’s opposite and they represent two kinds of truth. Mr. Ramsay’s loyalty to factual truth, rather to an abstraction, makes him stern and ruthless. And his egocentricity makes an authentic foil to Ramsay’s gracious altruism. The picture of Leslie Stephen in Virginia Woolf’s Time article of 1932 is undobtedly recognizable as Mr. Ramsay. But still he can never be taken as a complex or the villain of the novel. With a superb intellect and a deep philosophical disposition his is a complex and fascinating personality boldly sketched with shades of black and white by one of the greatest and most original literary artists of the modern age.
3. LILY BRISCOE
Lily Briscoe is one of the three most important characters in this novel. She is a complex and in some respect unique figure. It may be noted at the very outset that our novel expresses her reflections on art through this important character. We have the first glimpse of her in the third chapter of the first part. She is standing on the edge of the lawn painting Mrs. Ramsay’s figure. And we gather our first impression from Mrs. Ramsay’s musings on her. “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 remembering her promise, she bent her head”. So when we first meet her Lily is a spinster and is not so beautiful woman. And although Mrs. Ramsay does not take her painting very seriously she is a devoted artist caring very little for the pains and pleasures of a family life.
Spirit of Independence
As an earnest votary of art Lily feels that marriage and family life are likely to come in way of her artistic activities. She knows that an unmarried woman is likely to miss some of the best things of life. Mrs. Ramsay very much wants them all to marry. And she considers her dear Lily to be a fool for her typical attitude. She often feels like giving way to such dreams and desire. But she is capable of overcoming such sentiments and “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;….” The artist in Lily prevailed over the woman in her. So when we meet Lily again in the summer-house after ten years, she is the same spinster who thanks her stars for not succumbing to the wishes of Mrs. Ramsay.
Lily and Love
Lily’s ideas and feelings regarding love seem to be rather conflicting. Watching Paul deeply in love with Minta and the consequent reactions on him, love seems to her to be the stupidest and the most barbaric of all human passions that turns a nice young man into a bully. But at the same time this love seems to her so beautiful, so exciting and she experiences the emotions, the vibrations of love. But it seems that the platonic sort of love has greater fascination for Lily Briscoe. Watching elderly William Bankes gazing at Mrs. Ramsay with profound admiration and strange rapture she feels this is ‘love that is distilled and filtered; love that never attempted to clutch its object, but, like the love which mathematicians bear their symbols or poets their phrases, was meant to be spread over the world and become part of the human gain.’ So, to her love is a mystery. It has a thousand shapes.
Lily is not incapable of admiring the other sex. What she cannot stand is the ordinary sex relationship between man and woman. She has profound love and admiration for William Bankes. This is how she has expressed her feelings about him. “I respect you (addressed him silently) in every atom, you are not vain,…you are finer than Mr. Ramsay; you are the finest human being that I know…..generous, pure-hearted, heroic man”. But she cannot allow her lofty feelings to degenerate into ordinary sex relationship.
Power to Visualise the Past and the People
Lily’s imagination is wonderfully visual and pictorial. Her imagination and her visions throw a flood of light on the Ramsays and other important characters of the novel. Lily thinks of Mr. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes and compares one with the other. And seen through her consciousness both the characters emerge as rounded, living, breathing realities. From Andrew’s suggestion the image of Mr. Ramsay appears to her mind as a scrubbed kitchen table lodged in the fork of a pear tree—some kind of surrealistic fantasy. When she goes in the lawn of the summer house memories crowd in upon her and vivid pictures from the past rise up from the very depth of her soul. And this helps us to reconstruct the past and enables us to know many of the characters in their true colours. From Lily’s stream of consciousness there appears a very clear image of Mrs. Ramsay with her beauty and brightness, her outstanding qualities and serious drawbacks. And finally in the third part we find that it is her vision rather a hallucination, of Mrs. Ramsay sitting before the window in the same old way, that enables Lily to complete her picture. She, more or less, lives in her memories and when she dips the brush into the blue paint, she cannot but dip into the past too. It may be noted that in this way Lily often comments on the personality of the Ramsays like a Greek chorus.
The Artist and her Obstacles
We have already noted that the great importance of Lily’s character lies in the fact that the novelist has tried to express her own reflections on art through this major character. Lily Briscoe is a devoted painter—a true artist. From the very beginning we find her experiencing a lot of difficulties while busy in painting Mrs. Ramsay with the child sitting at the window of her summer house. These are the genuine struggles of a creative artist. It is a tough job for her to give expression to her ideas and impressions on the canvas with the help of paint and brush. “It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child.” But to Lily a brush is the most dependable thing in a world of strife, ruin and chaos. She never wants to play at painting and is determined to surmount all odds to give aesthetic expression to her creative urge to her satisfaction.
So, from the very beginning of the first part we find Lily engaged in her work of art and facing the difficulties of aesthetic expression. Her ideas seem to be rather hazy in the beginning. When she is asked to explain some aspects of her picture by Mr. Bankes, Lily remembers that her problem is then how to connect the mass on the right hand with that on the left. The vacancy in the foreground may be broken by an object or by bringing the lines of the branch of the tree across. But she is afraid that if the proposed changes are carried out the unity of the whole may be broken. Even during that famous dinner party the same is haunting her and she then decides to put the tree further in the middle to avoid that awkward space.
Lily’s Moments of Vision and Fulfillment
We find Lily Briscoe at the same old summer house after a lapse of ten years. They have all come back. But Mrs. Ramsay is dead and so are Prue and Andrew. Lily’s picture of the mother and son is still incomplete. She is still to solve her problem. It seems baffling again and again. There seems to be a certain inadequacy. But her dedication to painting was supreme. She must go ahead with her creative activity although Mr. Ramsay becomes a source of embarrassment with his usual demand for sympathy. She again remembers her problem about a ground of a picture, that is to move the tree to the middle. She must finish the picture now.
All artists have their moments of vision and inspiration to undertake and complete a work of art. It seems Lily has had four separate moments of vision or inspiration over a period of several years to finish her picture. The first seems to occur before the action of the novel starts—the vision which had been seen by her once. When in the first part of the novel we find her working on a picture while on a visit to the summer house of the Ramsays. And at the party one evening she has her second moment of inspiration when, in a flash she decides to put the tree further in the middle to avoid the awkward space in the foreground. And the third happens in the very same old summer house after ten years when she finally makes up her mind to move the tree to the middle and finish the picture without further delay.
Her Fourth or Final Vision
Lily at last makes her first quick decisive stroke with a curious physical sensation. She attains a dancing rhythmical movement. The truth, the reality, which suddenly lays hands on her emerges stark at the back of appearance and commands her attention. She begins to lose consciousnes on outer things and her mind keeps throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names and sayings and memories. Memories of the past crowd in upon her once more. In her stream of consciousness appears the clear image of Mrs. Ramsay which is a great source of inspiration to her. She remembers how that great woman resolved everything into simplicity. ‘As she dipped into the blue paint, she dipped too into the past there’. But her problem of painting is still unresolved. She feels that there may be still something wrong with the design, “Phrases came. Visions came. Beautiful pictures. Beautiful phrases. But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything. Should she get that first and start afresh? She sadly realises that apparatus for painting or feeling is an inefficient machine it already breaks down at the critical moment. But an artist’s job is to force it on heroically.
Next she feels that her mood is coming back to her and that the problem may be solved after all. All the while Mrs. Ramsay’s image has been floating in the stream of her consciousness. Suddenly she has her hallucination. To her great dismay she finds Mrs. Ramsay sitting in the chair near the window, knitting her reddish brown stocking as before. She is overwhelmed with strong emotion And then her final inspiration comes when she is sure that the Ramsays must have reached the Lighthouse and she can offer her sympathy to Mr. Ramsay at last. This onset of the feelings of love and sympathy for Mr. Ramsay releases her creative powers. And in the grip of her inspiration she turns to her picture. “There it was her picture….She looked at the steps; they were empty: she looked at her canvas: it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”
We may conclude by quoting W.A. Davenport’s very apt and suggestive remarks, “The two creative figures. Lily, the painter, and Carmichael, the poet, sit on the lawn in silent communication between the house and the sea. Lily turns from one to the other sending her thought back to Mrs. Ramsay as she looks at the house and outwards to Mr. Ramsay as she follows the course of the boat. She thus forms a tenuous thread between past and present between husband and wife; by recreation of past experience and of the spirit of Mrs. Ramsay, and imaginative involvement with Mr. Ramsay’s symbolic voyage, she unites the two in her mind, and so achieves her sense of completeness, of having seen it all clear if only for a moment. The two actions, the arrival of the Light house and the last stroke of the brush, are also united; both are acts of completion and it is obvious that they are meant to happen together.”