Mrs. Ramsay, one of the finest creations of Virginia Woolf, is without the least shade of doubt the central figure around which action and movement in To The Lighthouse is 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, structurally or psychologically, she is the cohesive force and the source of unity in it. In fact the first part of the novel is completely dominated by the towering personality of this great lady. It is none but Mrs. Ramsay who holds together almost all the divergent characters and the various incidents of the novel. All the characters of the novel have gathered at the summer house of the Ramsays in the Isle of Skye. All have their own inhibitions and idiosyncracies and hence are incapable of establishing a rapport with one another. So she has to provide a cohesive force to bring the scattered stones together and to carve out a unified structure.
Mrs. Ramsay: the Opening Scene
In the very opening scene of the novel the focus is in on Mrs. Ramsay. She serves as the model for Lily Briscoe as is found sitting at the window that links the lawn with the interior. People come and people may go, but Mrs. Ramsay’s part is like that of a milestone in movement of various characters. Mr. Ramsay and 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 Mr. Bankes and Lily Briscoe come within the range of her vision. So Mrs. Ramsay becomes the centre around which all seem to be moving. A large variety of people with all their ideas and idiosynoracies take part in this novel. And the most remarkable thing is that Mrs. Ramsay with her great tact, sympathy and understanding holds them all together.
The Dinner Party: Mrs. Ramsay’s Unifying Force
Mrs. Ramsay’s great role as a unifying and cohesive force is superbly revealed to us at the dinner party that forms the climax of the first movement of To The Lighthouse. In this sense she performs very creditably her duty of connecting the different individuals. And for this she has also to engage herself with some of them. Lily and Charles Tansley are at opposite poles. Her look falls on Tansley and she strongly feels : “Nothing seemed to have merged. 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, for if she did not do it nobody would do it,…” Hence we find Mrs. Ramsay, simply by a look, compelling Lily to be considerate to Tansley. Thus she tactfully intervenes and Tansley is brought out of his isolation. He gets the required attention to make him feel at ease. Next 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 old Mr. Bankes, who thinks it to be a terrible waste of time to attend such dinners, feels elated and reconciled after hearing from her that he has just relished a French recipe of her grandmother’s. Thus it is clearly revealed to us that ‘the whole effort of the merging and flowing and creating rested on her’.
Mrs. Ramsay’s Warmth and Compassion
An emblem of Mrs. Ramsay’s compassion or power to heal is the ‘nurse carrying a light across a dark room’ assuring a cross or fractious child; the light here stands for what Mrs. Ramsay has it in her power to give to others. A similar kind of emblem is used by Mrs. Ramsay herself in her reflection on her own beauty and ability to succeed with people: ‘She bore about with her, she could not help knowing it, the torch of her beauty’. The ‘light’ here is that quality to attract people which people respond to, and through which they find access to her compassion. The warmth and brightness of Mrs. Ramsay’s ‘light’ creates the ‘circle of ‘life’ into which she can take her husband and make him secure. It fills the house too as she created drawing-room and kitchen, set them all aglow’. It is responsible too for the almost golden world of the Ramsay children, or of the childhood which she fosters and cherishes. So she creates a sun-filled world, though it has its shadows. And in her world she wants men and women to be united and become fruitful like herself. She offers her protection to all. 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 some critics suggest that Mrs. Ramsay may rather be taken as a symbol of the female principle in life.
Two Kinds of Truth and Mrs. Ramsay
James Hafley has rightly remarked: “To The Lighthouse is really the story of a contest between two kinds of truth—Mr. Ramsay’s and Mrs. Ramsay’s. For him truth is factual truth; for her truth is the movement towards truth; since truth is always being made, and never is made, the struggle for truth is the truth itself. The form of this novel at once expresses and verifies Mrs. Ramsay’s truth. According to Bergson, certainty can follow only from factual extension of knowledge resulting in scientific order, such is the order which Mr. Ramsay sees.” So it is evident that Mr. Ramsay’s is a logical scientific procedure toward truth. “Mrs. Ramsay, on the other hand, knows by intuition rather than analysis and is, therefore, able to know reality-mobility, qualitative rather than quantitative diversity, time instead of space, movement itself and not merely the path of movement in space.” This shows that Mrs. Ramsay knows that feeling for others consideration and sympathy, are the eternal truths which never perish like the scientific and matter of fact truth which her husband seeks. That is why we find that ultimately Mr. Ramsay’s truth—factual truth—is short-lived and Mrs. Ramsay’s truth, which is the movement towards truth, prevails in the long run, in fact the second and final movement of To The Lighthouse clearly establishes that it is none but Mr. Ramsay ‘had blundered’ and Mrs. Ramsay’s intuition inspite of its apparent illogicality has triumphed.
“Time Passes”: Testing of Mrs. Ramsay’s Truth
“Time Passes,” the second part of the novel, has been hailed as a masterpiece of description, probably unsurpassed in twentieth century English prose. But, in fact it is actually the testing of Mrs. Ramsay’s vision by Mr. Ramsay’s facts, and the apparent triumph of those facts, During the ten years’ time everything seems to be slowly gravitating towards inevitable doom and destruction. “But there was a force working; something not highly conscious; something that leered, something that lurched…..They come with their brooms and pails at last, they get to work.” And slowly some rusty laborious birth seems to take place. And the birth brings the house back to what it was and we find the Ramsays, Lily Briscoe and Mr. Carmichael back to the old summer-house after a lapse of ten years. The long night is over. And though she is no more in the land of the living, it reveals the ultimate triumph of Mrs. Ramsay’s illusions.
Dominates even after Death
The dominating personality and the imposing physical presence of Mrs. Ramsay is felt by us only in the first part of To The Lighthouse. In the second part all of a sudden we find: “Mr. Ramsay stumbling along a passage stretched his arms out one dark morning, but, Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, he stretched his arms out, they remained empty.” Even then she pervades the whole book. Her influence on the important characters, specially on Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsay, is really very significant. In the final movement of the novel Mrs. Ramsay is constantly presented through Lily Briscoe’s consciousness, and her full significance as a uniting force is clearly revealed. It is the apparition of this great lady, at the same window in the same summer-house, that enables Lily Briscoe to complete her picture after a lapse of ten years. And at the very same moment Mr. Ramsay, who under-took the journey to the lighthouse with Cam and James to fulfil one of Mrs. Ramsay’s cherished wishes, lands at his destination. This shows how Mrs. Ramsay dead is more powerful than Mr. Ramsay living.
So in the last part of the novel it is clearly revealed to us that it is Mrs. Ramsay who is right and not Mr. Ramsay. And her ‘lies’ are proved to be the truth that can refute Mr. Ramsay’s ‘facts’. Mrs. Ramsay’s feeling for others, consideration and sympathy are the eternal truths — truths that never perish like the scientific and matter-of-fact truth sought by Mr. Ramsay. .