To The Lighthouse—Outline Story

Part I: The Window
To The Lighthouse opens rather dramatically with a few cheering words regarding their visit to the Lighthouse from Mrs. Ramsay to James, her seven years old favourite child. She told him that they all would be going to the Lighthouse the next day if the weather was fine. The Ramsay family with their six guests was spending a summer in their own summer house on the Island of Skye.

Young James had looked forward to this wonderful expedition for years. But he was terribly upset when his father curtly announced there was hardly any possibility to make the trip as the weather would not be favourable at all. This enraged the highly excitable child. In fact all his eight children disliked him extremely for such cut and dry remarks. But it was not in the nature of Mr. Ramsay to hide the stern facts of life although it meant ridicule for his wife and disillusionment for their children. In spite of his good intentions the children resented it. But Mrs. Ramsay, an affectionate and a considerate mother, encouraged James by saying that she was expecting the weather to be fine. She was just knitting a pair of stockings for the sick child of the lighthouse keeper. And James was busy in cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of Army and Navy stores.
Unfortunately Mr. Tansley, a student of Mr. Ramsay, came next to dishearten the children by supporting Mr. Ramsay’s discouraging remarks regarding the weather. For this habit of saying disagreeable things he was also much disliked and looked down upon by the children. It was hard for Mrs. Ramsay also to put up with such harsh and tactless habits. Sadly enough Tansley was always there to take the line of Mr. Ramsay.
When all the children and their guests—Lily Briscoe, William Bankes, Augustus Charmichael, Paul Rayley, Minta Doyle—retired to their bedrooms, Mrs. Ramsay accompanied by Tansley went to the town on a dull errand. This flattered the poor young student much and he seemed to be mildly in love with elderly Mrs. Ramsay he felt much flattered to have the first chance in his life to walk with a beautiful woman by his side.
Back to their house Tansley once more irritated both Mrs. Ramsay and the children by remarking that there was no chance of going to the Lighthouse the next day.
Now it was Mrs. Ramsay’s turn to console poor James as the caustic remarks of Mr. Ramsay and Tansley regarding the weather had already dashed his spirits. The mother still maintained her optimistic view regarding the weather to cheer up young James’ drooping soul.
It was a pleasing sight for Mrs Ramsay to find Lily Briscoe standing on the edge of the town and painting, but Mr. Ramsay’s clumsy movements disturbed her. Soon Mr Bankes, the unhappy old widower and a botanist, came and stood by her. They had some sort of understanding between them, as Bankes appreciated Lily’s merits. So when Mr. Bankes suggested taking a stroll she agreed although she felt reluctant to leave her picture.
They strolled down to the place where they used to go every evening. They were happy and felt a common hilarity, excited by the moving waves. Looking at distant hills Mr. Bankes thought of Mr Ramsay and began to comment rather adversely on Mr. Ramsay and his affairs. And it was a wonder how the Ramsays could manage to feed eight children on philosophy and at the same time to entertain so many guests. It was rather sad that a man of his intellect could stoop so low. But Lily asked him to think of his work and of other great qualities of head and heart.
Mrs Ramsay was still busy in knitting the stockings meant for the lighthouse keeper’s son. An amusing idea that they should marry flashed on her mind at the sight of Lily and Bankes strolling together. Then she measured the stocking using James’ legs as the measuring block. Meanwhile Mrs. Ramsay had a look around the room and the dirty and dilapidated condition of the room and the fumitute saddened her heart. But it was not possible to mend matters.
In her sad and sober moments Mrs. Ramsay looked astonishingly beautiful. William Bankes greatly appreciated her beauty.
Mrs. Ramsay was still in a sad mood. Still she persisted in her optimism regarding the weather and the possibility of visiting the Lighthouse. The extreme irrationality of her remark irritated her husband much, as he felt that she was making the children hope for what was utterly impossible. But Mrs. Ramsay had the highest regard for her husband; so she kept quiet, although his lack of consideration for other people’s feelings cut her to the quick.
Mr. Ramsay also felt a bit repentant for his harsh manner and he relapsed into a retrospective mood. He realised that he had not yet achieved complete success. But the idea that only a very few in a million could achieve complete success and leave ever-lasting fame consoled his mind.
Mr. Ramsay was badly in need of sympathy and encouragement from his wife. So he came up to her and stood there demanding her sympathy. And James hated his father more for this. Mrs. Ramsay sat there quite reluctantly engrossed in her needle work. But ultimately she had to give in offering him the expected sympathy and assurance. At that very moment Mr. Carmichael shuffled past.
Mr. Carmichael moved on without making any response to Mrs. Ramsay’s query. He was a typical person. He seemed to have stained his beard yellow by taking opium. He was an unhappy soul. All this was due to his wife’s harsh and heartless treatment. He came to them every year as an escape. Mrs. Ramsay tried her best to brighten his gloomy existence but he was still cold and unresponsive.
Just for a bit of diversion Mrs. Ramsay began to read to James the story of the Fisherman and his wife. But then Mr. Ramsay came there and stopped by her. But soon he was absorbed in speculation. The question that was uppermost in his mind was whether the progress of civilization depended at all on great men like Shakespeare and others.
Mr. Ramsay was, undoubtedly, an erudite scholar, well-versed in the philosophy of Locke, Hume and Berkeley. But Lily and William Bankes disliked his timidity and some of his weaknesses. They felt that for this timidness he was venerable and laughable at the same time.
Mr. Ramsay turned away. Mr. Bankes watched him go and observed that it was a great pity that he could not behave a little more like other people. But Lily disliked him for his narrowness and his blindness. But just then she saw Bankes gazing at Mrs. Ramsay with an astonishing and mysterious rapture. To her this love of a man of sixty seemed to be distilled and filtered—love that never desired to make any attempt to clutch its object. Lily was an old maid and she sadly felt that she probably missed the best part of life.
Lily then thought of Mrs. Ramsay and tried to delve deep into her soul. But she realised that it was not humanly possible to enter the secret chambers of a human soul.
Lily, as an artist was having some difficulties while painting her picture. She was not satisfied with her work. She was much concerned with the unity of the whole. Finally she gave up and took the canvas lightly off the easel. But Mr. Bankes had already seen her picture and had shared with her something profoundly intimate.
Just then Cam dashed past them like a bullet. She stopped only when Mrs. Ramsay asked her to enquire if Minta and Paul Ravley had come back after their usual walk. Mrs. Ramsay was sure that they were going to marry each other. She would be much pleased if they did so.
Next her thoughts turned to her children. She did not want them to grow older. She told her husband that the loss of childhood was irreparable. But Mr. Ramsay could not accept this gloomy view of life. She continued reading aloud that story to James and it was finished very soon. After that she had to disappoint James once more by telling him that there was no hope of making the trip to the Lighthouse the next day.
Mrs. Ramsay was thinking that children never forgot such incidents. The children went to bed. When she was alone she became absorbed in deep thoughts about the miseries and misfortunes of life. Mr. Ramsay passed by and her remoteness pained him. Mrs. Ramsay also saw him and she felt that he wanted to speak to him. So she took her green shawl and went to him.
Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay went out for a stroll. They began to talk about their children and other affairs of their life. They never liked the idea that Prue should fall in love with and marry Charles Tansley. Mr. Ramsay told her that he was thinking of going off for a day’s walk alone. But she knew that it was not possible for him at that advanced age and so did not protest. Soon Mr. Ramsay was overwhelmed with emotion while walking up the path arm in arm. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it fervently.
All of a sudden they found Lily and William Bankes having their stroll together. She felt that they also should marry and this was quite an admirable idea to her.
Lily and Bankes were talking about their visits to different countries of the world luring their quiet walk. Mr. Bankes said this gave him an opportunity to have a look at the masterpieces of the great artists of the world. They turned and saw the elderly couple. Lily began to think about the pains and pleasures of the life of this couple. Mrs. Ramsay was anxious for Nancy and enquired if she had also gone for a stroll with Paul and Minta.
In fact Nancy and Andrews accompanied Paul and Minta when they went out for their stroll. They left the couple alone to indulge in their own games. But from behind a rock Nancy, to her great embarrassment, found them in each other’s arms. It meant that they were going to be married soon.
On their way back Minta was much upset to find that she had lost her only ornament, a brooch presented by her grandmother. Paul pacified Minta and decided to come back early next morning to resume the search. He also made up his mind to go to Edinburgh secretly to buy another brooch if he failed to find it out there. Finally, when they were back to the Ramsay household, all were getting ready for dinner. They were awfully late.
Prue informed her mother that Nancy had accompanied Paul and Minta for a stroll. Mrs. Ramsay felt that they might not take any final decision as Nancy was with them.
Meanwhile Mildred wanted to know if she should wait for dinner. Mrs. Ramsay replied firmly in the negative. When there were fifteen persons sitting down to dinner, any delay was out of the question. Next Mrs. Ramsay went through the usual ceremony of choosing her necklace for the dinner with the help of Rose.
Accompanied by her children she started moving towards the dining hall. Just then she caught sight of Paul and Minta coming back. She was excited as well as annoyed for their delay. But then the clanging of the bell announced that all should assemble in the dining hall.
Mrs. Ramsay took her place at the head of the table like a queen. In the beginning she felt somewhat gloomy and dejected thinking about her own self as well as about others. At the far end she found her husband sitting with a frowning look. She felt indifferent. But then she realised that nothing had so far merged and felt that on her rested the job of merging and creating. So she had to come to her own worldly self and started talking to others. She pitied Mrs. Bankes for his sad and lonely life and asked if he got his letters kept for him in the hall. Lily Briscoe had her own ideas about Mr Bankes. To Mrs. Ramsay’s query Mr Bankes replied that though letters hardly brought anything of importance to man yet all liked to have them. Mrs. Ramsay asked Tansley also if he was fond of writing letters. But to Tansley all such talks seemed absolutely useless and he decided to abstain from such talks.
Just to assert himself he once more told Mrs. Ramsay that there was very little chance of going to the Lighthouse the next day. To Lily he seemed to be the most unattractive person she had ever met. He often asserted that women could hardly achieve anything great in this world. Just to take a little bit of revenge she jocularly requested him to take her to the Lighthouse with him. He was offended and replied rather rudely that it would be too rough for her to go to the Lighthouse. But he was ashamed of his rude manners before Mrs. Ramsay, who was talking to William Bankes about some people he had never heard of. He felt that it would have been much better for him to be alone in his room working among his books.
While talking to Bankes, Mrs. Ramsay was breaking off from time to time asking the maid to do this or that. This was annoying to him. He also felt that it was not worthwhile to come to dinner. The only thing was that his refusal would have hurt the feelings of one of his oldest friends.
Tansley was much irritated once more as Mrs. Ramsay began to talk to Bankes in French which was Greek to him. Everything bored him badly. But still he wanted to assert himself. All were talking on various topics and nobody asked him his views. Only Lily Briscoe understood him. Just to ease the situation for him Lily asked him in a friendly way if he would like to take her to the Lighthouse. Mrs Ramsay also appealed to Lily to say something nice to him to soothe his strained nerves. So Lily’s friendly move relieved him of his egotism and he became quite communicative and took part in their discussions. But in the most of all such talks Lily began to think of her painting and made up her mind to resume her work earnestly next morning.
Mrs. Ramsay wanted that her husband should also take part in the discussions. But she found him in an angry mood, as Mr. Carmichael was wanting in table manners. But she was relieved there was no open outburst of his temper.
All the candles were lit and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer. Very soon Paul and Minta also entered the hall and took their reserved seats. Minta told all of them about her missing brooch with a ring of sadness. Minta looked very charming and attractive. And Mrs. Ramsay concluded that they were surely engaged. Surprisingly she felt jealous of Minta. Sadly Mrs. Ramsay realised that she was growing old.
Next the special dish—Beouf en Daube-was served. And all were vociferous in declaring that French dishes were far, far superior and cookery in England was an abomination. Mr. Bankes rebshed and praised it highly. He became lively and all his love, all his reverence for Mrs. Ramsay had returned. Mrs. Ramsay also felt elated at this. The idea that it was she who finally brought about the engagement between Paul and Minta made her extremely happy.
Mr Ramsay’s mind turned to Lily. She felt that nobody would care a bit for Lily with her Chinese eyes and puckered face. She thought that Bankes should marry Lily as he cared a lot for her. So she must see that they took long walks together so that they might come closer.
The guests were talking on various topics. Bankes was praising the Waverly novel and Tansley began to denounce them vehemently. Someone then asked how long such works were expected to last. Mrs. Ramsay was afraid that a question like that might disturb Mr. Ramsay’s mind, as he needed encouragement.
Next the children sitting in a row attracted Mrs. Ramsay’s attention. Looking affectionately at Prue she began to think that she should be much happier in life than Minta as she was her own child.
Dinner was almost over. Mrs. Ramsay suddenly felt that she liked Tansley in spite of all his drawbacks. Meanwhile her husband repeated some lines of poetry. Augustus Carmichael began to chant something and bowed to her. And then Mrs. Ramsay got up and left the room. The dinner was really over and became a thing of the past.
After the departure of Mrs. Ramsay from the hall some sort of disintegration set in. She went upstairs alone. It flattered her to feel that all would ever remember her and this eventful party. In the bedroom she found to her annoyance that the children were not yet asleep. There was a boar’s skull on the wall and Cam was unable to sleep because of it. James wanted it to be there. Mrs. Ramsay managed the situation tactfully by covering it with her shawl. But before going to sleep James once more asked if they were going to the Lighthouse the next day. She had to answer in the negative. Sadly she realised that James would never forget this in his life. While moving out she wished that Tansley might not bang his books on the floor above to disturb their sleep. She still felt annoyed with him because of what he had said about the visit to the Lighthouse to the children.
Mrs. Ramsay felt herself as happy as a girl of twenty. And when Paul took out his lovely gold watch out of a wash-leather case to tell her the time, once more she felt very proud thinking that it was she who brought their affair to a happy end. Finally she had to leave them and entered the other room where her husband sat reading.
Looking at her husband she felt that he did not like to be disturbed. He was absorbed in reading something very interesting—and it was nothing but one of old Scott’s books. She started knitting. But then she felt the need of a book. She picked up one and started reading. Their eyes met, but none was in a mood to talk to each other. Scott’s sane and forceful writing made him feel much relieved.
Soon Mrs. Ramsay became conscious of her husband looking at her. In spite of her ignorance and simplicity she seemed to him astonishingly beautiful. Mrs. Ramsay took the chance to tell him that Paul and Minta were engaged. Promptly came his reply that he had already guessed it.
Mr. Ramsay asked her if she was really going to finish the stocking that night. This pleased her and her answer was in the negative. But still he gazed at her and she felt that he very much wanted her to tell him that she loved him. But she could not bring herself to tell that she loved him. She just turned and looked at him and smiled. And Mr Ramsay realised that although she had not uttered a word she really loved him.
Part II Time Passes
This second part of To The Lighthouse covers a period of ten years. It is made up of ten sections.
Mr. Bankes, Andrew, Prue and Lily were talking to one another in the old summer house. Andrew came up from the beach and remarked that it was too dark to see. Prue asked Andrew to put out the lights in the hall. Only Mr. Carmichael continued to read Virgil and kept his candle burning.
A thin rain was drumming on the roof and immense darkness enveloped the whole house. It was past midnight when Mr. Carmichael put out his candle.
Night succeeded night and winter followed autumn. Stumbling across a passage, one dark morning Mr. Ramsay stretched his arms out; but they remained empty as Mrs. Ramsay had died suddenly the night before.
In the deserted summer house silence and loneliness prevailed. Only stray gusts of wind blustered in from time to time and stealthily moved from room to room. At last the silence was broken by Mrs. McNab who was directed to dust and clean the bedrooms.
Mrs. McNab was the caretaker of the house. She was an old, unhappy woman bent with age. She rolled from room to room and was bowed down with weariness while doing her tough job.
Spring came and it was followed by summer. During the course of three years Prue Ramsay was married. But unfortunately she died in child-birth. Andrew Ramsay was also killed in the battlefield in France. The First World War had already started. Meanwhile Mr. Carmichael brought out his first volume of poems and it had an unexpected success.
Night followed night. The seasons came and went with fine or foul weather. It was rumoured that the summer house would soon be sold out. It was really in a very shabby and dilapidated condition. Once the Ramsays were expected to come there, but they should not due to the war and other difficulties. Now everything was at sixes and sevens and the house with the garden was decaying slowly. Mrs. McNab worked very hard to save it from absolute rack and ruin, although she was too old to get it straight now. While dusting and cleaning old memories crowded in on her. Sadly she remembered Mrs. Ramsay, Prue and Andrew. All were dead and gone.
Still the house remained deserted. It became so dilapidated that the whole thing might crumble down at any moment. It was beyond the power of one old woman to prevent it from absolute ruin. So Mrs. McNab had to requisit the services of another old lady, Mrs. Bast. And then, very unexpectedly she got a letter from one of the Ramsay daughters that they were coming for the summer. So they got to work in right earnest with their broom and pail, mopping and scouring and stayed the corruption and rot. Things were set in order at last. And then, one evening in September Lily Briscoe arrived. Mr. Carmichael also came by the same train.
It seemed peace had come there once more. The house was also full again. Lily was tired due to the long journey and so went to sleep without any delay. Mr. Carmichael also fell asleep after reading a book for some time in candle light. The soft murmur of the sea soothed them in their sleep. And it was Lily Briscoe who opened her eyes first when the day was just breaking.
Part III: The Lighthouse
In part three, things are happening after a lapse of ten years.
Lily Briscoe and others came back to the summer house after so many years. Mr. Ramsay was no more. So rising early on the first morning she was in a contemplative mood with a sense of wonder and perplexity.
That very morning Mr. Ramsay, Cam and James were going to make their expedition to the Lighthouse. But still the children were not ready. And Mr. Ramsay was very much upset at this. Sitting alone at the breakfast table Lily felt herself to be a stranger there, as if the link that usually bound things together had been cut.
Suddenly Mr. Ramsay passed by and looked, straight at her. To avoid him Lily turned to her cup of coffee. He wanted to get sympathy from her. Came and went old Mr. Carmichael. Everything seemed to be strange and symbolic. Lily wanted to devote herself exclusively, to her picture. She pitched her easel and got to work. But she could not proceed due to the disturbing presence of Mr. Ramsay.
It seemed to Lily that Cam and James were prevailed on by Mr. Ramsay to go the Lighthouse. They consented reluctantly. James was sixteen and Cam seventeen. It pained her much to find the children coerced and subdued.
Lily tried her best to concentrate on her picture. But she could not, as all the while Mr. Ramsay was bearing down on her, demanding sympathy. Finally she could not but make up her mind to give him what she should.
Still Mr. Ramsay behaved and talked in a manner that showed that his need for sympathy was really great. But still Lily had no words of consolation. She could utter only a few words praising his beautiful boots.
Finally the party left for the Lighthouse. She watched the procession with Mr. Ramsay as the leader of the expedition. And then a genuine feeling of sympathy for the unhappy widower rose in her soul. But Mr. Ramsay had no need of it any more.
The party left, Lily felt as if one part of her was drawn out there. She also felt sad for Mr. Ramsay. She decided to paint. But then she realised that there was a lot of difference between planning and making the first mark with the brush. But soon she seemed greatly inspired and made her first decisive quick stroke and went on with her creative work with great zeal. All the while her mind kept throwing up from its depths scenes and names and sayings and memories and ideas.
There was silence; nothing stirred in the house. Lily remembered Mrs. Ramsay and thought of her great power of resolving everything into simplicity. But soon she walked to the end of the lawn driven by some curiosity. In the distance she could see the little boat sailing away into the wide sea.
There was hardly any breeze to make the sails bulge, so the boat made very little movement. Mr. Ramsay was impatient and asked Macalister’s boy to start rowing. The children were also unhappy as they were forced to come in spite of their reluctance. Silently they made up their mind to resist tyranny to death and wished the expedition to be a complete failure.
But, very soon the wind was up and the boat shot off. Mr. Ramsay felt relieved. Now James was to keep his eye all the time on the sail, otherwise the boat would slacken. Old Macalister began to tell them all about a shipwreck during a great storm there. Mr. Ramsay relished it. But the children remained quiet and sullen.
The speed of the fast moving boat seemed to hypnotize Cam. But James wanted to be relieved of his burden. Both of them had a sense of escape and exultation. Mr. Ramsay too felt excited. Suddenly he asked them to look towards the island. But every thing seemed vague and unreal to Cam. He tried in vain to show her the location of their house. He scolded her in a jocular manner. And then just to make her smile he thought of saying some simple easy thing. In fact Mr. Ramsay was demanding sympathy also from his daughter.
James was upset thinking that Cam would give way and he would have to wage a lonely battle against tyranny. But soon Cam remained quiet and stopped responding to her father, although she felt sympathy for him. James was relieved as he felt sure that Cam wouldn’t succumb to her feelings. She could never forget her father’s senseless tyranny and blind dominance over them all.
Standing on the edge of the lawn Lily Briscoe could still spot their boat far away on the sea. She was still heavy at heart as she had failed to offer sympathy to Mr. Ramsay when he needed it. It disturbed her mood to paint. She had always found Mr. Ramsay difficult and could never praise him to his face; as a result their relationship was void of any element of sex. She remembered Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay as she had seen them on the beach ten years ago.
Lily took up her brush again. But she experienced some difficulties. She began to ponder over the problems of her art. She felt that a picture should, no doubt, be bright and beautiful on the surface but its fabric must be as firm as a rock. As she painted, memories from the past crowded in on her. She remembered the Raleys-Paul and Minta. After the first years of married life things had gone really wrong with them. She visualized their sad, quarrelsome and unhappy life in a series of scenes. Lily remembered that Mrs. Ramsay had a sort of mania to see other people getting married. She even wanted her to marry Mr. Bankes. Now, dead as she was she would never know that the married life of Paul and Minta was a sad failure. She remembered she was once struck by the splendour and power of love emanating from Paul’s face when he was in love with Minta. But still she thanked her stars for being able to overcome such emotions and stick to her profession of an artist for good.
Once Mr. Bankes told her that Mrs. Ramsay was a paragon of beauty at the age of nineteen or twenty. Once more she remembered Mrs. Ramsay and tried to visualise her astonishing beauty. She wanted to ask Mr. Carmichael all sorts of questions about life, about death and specially about Mrs. Ramsay. But he was half-asleep. The memory of Mrs. Ramsay brought tears to her eyes. Looking at her picture she felt that everything would pass and vanish but not the genuine work of art.
In the boat Macalister’s boy cut a piece out of the side of a fish. He threw the mutilated body back into the sea as it was no more of any use to him.
Lily wanted to bring back Mrs. Ramsay from the land of the dead and continued to call her by name in vain. But the vision of Mrs. Ramsay with a wreath of white flowers on her forehead inspired her to paint Mrs. Ramsay on the canvas and helped her to solve some intricate problems related to her painting.
Once more her eyes turned towards the sea. The sight of a brown spot in the middle of the sea attracted her attention. She felt that Mrs. Ramsay must be sitting there in the boat with his children.
Cam thought that people on the shore could never feel the joys and thrills of such an expedition. But then suddenly the sails sagged and the boat came to a stop. There under the hot sky they all began to feel one another’s presence. And James felt that if his father spoke harshly and demanded anything unreasonable he would strike him to the heart with a knife. His fierce passion of childhood to stab and kill his father when he prevented them from making the journey to the Lighthouse was still alive in him.
From the boat James had a look at the Lighthouse. The stern and straight tower barred with black and white was quite visible. But he missed the charm of that silvery and misty looking tower of his childhood days. Suddenly a wind rose and the boat began to move and every one felt relieved.
Lily Briscoe continued to gaze at the sea. The sea was calm and spotless. Distance seemed to have some extraordinary power and all seemed to be swallowed up by the sea.
Cam had never a chance before to have a look at their island from the sea. Now she thought herself to be the heroine of an imaginary story of adventure. Her heart was full of the joy of living. All trifling affairs of life faded away into the past. In her present elated mood her father seemed to be a lovable and wise person although to James he was nothing but a sarcastic brute and an unbearable egotistical tyrant.
Lily Briscoe was still standing and looking at the distant sea. Her feelings for Mr Ramsay changed as his boat seemed to recede further and further. All was calm and quiet. On her stream of conciousness began to float many figures and things of the past. She thought of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their children, Mr. Carmichael and even of Mr. Tansley.
Lily gazed at the moving boat and thought that the party was likely to reach the Lighthouse by lunch time. But she felt perplexed as she could not achieve the required balance between the two opposite forces—Mrs. Ramsay and her picture. And that is why she could not pinpoint the problem she wanted to solve before proceeding with her painting. Standing before her easel she realised that for painting this human apparatus was an insufficient machine.
Lily continued to think of Mrs. Ramsay and her various merits and demerits, her married life and her complex relationship with her husband and above all of the multiplicity of her personality. She concluded that it required more than fifty pairs of eyes to understand a complex personality like that of Mrs. Ramsay.
All of a sudden she felt that somebody had come into the drawing room and was sitting in the chair where Mrs. Ramsay used to sit. She was in mood to paint. But after a while, to her great horror and excitement she found that it was none but Mrs. Ramsay herself quietly sitting in her chair and knitting. She could not but call Mrs. Ramsay quite loudly by her name. At such a moment Lily keenly wanted Mr. Ramsay to be close to her to share her strange and horrified feelings.
Mr. Ramsay had nearly finished the book he started reading after stepping into the boat. To James he seemed to be loneliness person. They were now very close to the Lighthouse that stood stark and straight on a bare rock. And to James life also seemed to be stark and straight like that Lighthouse.
Cam was rather tired of looking at the sea. But after having a look at their father both brother and sister vowed once more to fight tyranny to death. Mr. Ramsay could never understand their feelings. Suddenly Mr. Ramsay asked them quite loudly to have their lunch. He opened the parcel and shared out the sandwiches among them. Macalister praised James for doing his job of steering quite nicely. But this did not satisfy James as his father had never praised him.
To Cam sailing so fast by the rocks was really exciting. Macalister pointed out the place where a ship had sunk and three persons were drowned. They were sailing very close to the rock. And then quite unexpectedly Mr. Ramsay praised James very highly for steering them like a born sailor. This is what James had been waiting far all the while. James’ joy and happiness knew no bounds.
The rock was very close. Mr. Ramsay sprang on to the rock quite lightly like a young man. The children followed him gladly.
Lily Briscoe, still standing on the lawn, felt that Mr. Ramsay must have reached the Lighthouse. Her anxiety for them had told on her nerves. She was relieved. She had a feeling that she had finally given Mr. Ramsay whatever she wanted to give him when he left in the morning. Old Carmichael came there and he also agreed with her that they must have landed at the Lighthouse. Without speaking to each other both of them were thinking about the same thing all the while.
All of a sudden Lily seemed to be recalled by something. And quickly she returned to her canvas. She took up her brush and with a sudden intensity she drew a line in the centre. And whatever she wanted to do was done. She laid down her brush and felt that she had had her vision at last.


Introductory Remarks
We are rather a bit dramatically introduced to William Bankes in the fourth chapter of the first part of the novel. Lily is painting and she does not want to find her pictures looked at by any body. Of course Bankes is an exception. Someone is coming towards her and from the sound of the footsteps she knows it is Bankes. He comes and stands beside her.

Mr. Bankes is a boyhood friend of Mr. Ramsay and is one of their guests at their summer house in the Island of Skye. But instead of staying with them at their summer house he has taken his lodgings in the town. He is a botanist, a devoted scientist. He is a widower. He is very scrupulous and clean and smells of soap. He is old enough to be Lily’s father.
Lily and Bankes
Lily had very little feminine charm or glamour but it was Bankes who really appreciated her ordering habits, her good sense and other commendable qualities. So in his eyes Lily seemed much superior to Minta Doyle with all her class and allurement. They have many things in common. They understand each other quite well. They are accustomed to take strolls together, but they never talk about the common things of the work-a day world. They would rather talk about summer flowers and beautiful sights and sounds of nature and he would like to talk to her about perspective, about architecture. For his great qualities of head and heart Lily has highest respect and admiration for Mr. Bankes and his friendship is one of the greatest pleasures of her life. Indeed she loves him. But she likes to remain independent as an artist to devote herself completely to her creative activities. She also does not want her lofty feelings of love and admiration to degenerate into ordinary sex-relationship. Hence she renounces the pains and pleasures of a married life. And it is Lily’s sincere and silent eulogy that throws a flood of light on Mr. Bankes’ mind and character. This is how her intense feelings have been recorded: “I respect you (she addressed him silently) in every atom; you are not vain; you are entirely personal; you are finer than Mr. Ramsay; you are the finest human being that I know…..generous, pure-hearted, heroic man.” But while offering his silent eulogy Lily also remembers some of the eccentricities of this noble person. He has brought a valet all the way up to that distant place. He does not like dogs to jump and sit on the chair. And he would like to talk for hours about salt in vegetables and the iniquity of English cooks.
Mr. Bankes and Mrs. Ramsay
Although Mrs. Ramsay often feels bored to listen to Mr. Bankes’ dull talks about vegetables and English cooks, yet her sympatheic heart has a soft corner for this childless unhappy widower. She pities him and has specially invited him to dinner. But to Lily he comes to be the least pitiable. And out of sympathy and pity for this poor scientist Mrs. Ramsay strongly feels that Mr. Bankes must marry Lily as they have so many things in common. She must do something to bring them together. She considers him to be the kindest of men and with Mr. Ramsay she also takes him to be the first scientist of his time. Surprisingly this old boyhood friend of Mr. Ramsay has also some soft corner, some sort of sublime Platonic love for Mrs. Ramsay. “For him to gaze as Lily saw him gazing at Ramsay was a rapture, equivalent Lily felt, to the loves of dozens of young man.” To Lily it is love distilled and filtered, love that never attempts to clutch its object.
Mr. Bankes and Mr. Ramsay—Contrast
The great thing about Mr. Bankes is that unlike Mr. Ramsay he never holds a very high opinion about himself nor does he care if his work and achievements are going to last long or not. He is never worried about the future, as he knows that changes of taste in literature is but natural. And then Mr. Bankes never requires any undue sympathy or assurance from anybody in this world. Lily’s long interior monoloque in the third Chapter of the first part enables us to enter into the inner life of these two characters so that we may have a clear picture of the two different personalities. “You have greatness, she continued, but Mr. Ramsay has none of it. He is petty, selfish, vain, egotistical, he is spoilt, he is a tyrant, he wears Mrs. Ramsay to death; but he has what you (she addressed Mr. Bankes) have not; a fiery unworldliness; he knows nothing about trifles, he loves dogs and his children. He has eight, you have none.”
Mr. Bankes does very little in this novel, but still his part is not a very insignificant one. From his talks and discussions with Lily we are able to know a lot about the personality of the Ramsays, especially that of Mr. Ramsay, when he tells Lily, how their boyhood friendship ceased on a stretch of road in Westmoreland and what a great change came on him after his marriage, we have Mr. Ramsay seen clearly through the eyes of William Bankes. In fact we may say that Mr. Bankes combined with Lily forms a kind of Greek chorus to comment on the personality of the Ramsays.
We meet Mr. Augustus Carmichael the poet in the very first chapter of the book. He is basking in the sun with his yellow cat’s eyes ajar on the tennis lawn. And Mr. Ramsay stops by his side on her way to the town to ask him if he needs anything. With supreme indifference he murmurs his answer in the negative. Whatever may be the reason he shrinks from such sympathetic overtures from friends.
An Unhappy Old Man
We know something about the sadness of his life when Mr. Ramsay speaks about him to Charles Tansley who is accompanying her to the fishing village. Mr. Carmichael had an affair with a girl at Oxford. Their early marriage was a failure. Due to poverty he had to go India where he earned his livelihood by translating a little poetry and teaching the boys Persian or Hindustani. In fact his wife had ruined his life; he dropped things on his coats, he had the tiresomeness of an old man with nothing in the world to do and she turned him out of the room. So he is now addicted to opium. According to the children his beard is stained yellow with it. Mrs. Ramsay has infinite pity for him. With her sympathetic soul she can quite understand that this unhappy man comes to them every year for an escape.
Disinterested but Dignified
He has very little interest in worldly affairs and worldly attachments after his tragic experience regarding his own family life. Mrs. Ramsay tried her best to make his life comfortable and often goes out of the way to be friendly to him. Still he is indifferent. He shrinks from her, thereby hurting her feelings. Not only this, his indifference to her friendly overtures often makes her aware of the pettiness of some part of her, and of human relations. In spite of his being hurt he has some soft corner for young Andrew. He is more or less devoted to him. And when he dies in the battle-field he has been terribly upset for days together.
Although he had to face so many rude shocks and knocks of life, yet he seems to be always content and dignified. In the dinner party he maintains his dignity nicely. At the fag end of the party he asks for another plate of soup without caring for what others might feel. In fact it upsets Mr. Ramsay very much. But Mr. Carmichael is unaffected. Mrs. Ramsay cannot but hold him in high esteem for his composure and dignity.
Successful as a Poet
Mr. Carmichael brought out a volume of poems in a spring during the dark years of the First World War. It had an unexpected success and brought him name and fame. Lily had never read a line of his poetry. But still she seems to know how it went, though slowly and sonorously. “It was seasoned and mellow. It was about the desert and camel. It was about the palm tree and the sunset. It was extremely impersonal.” Even Mr. Ramsay has great regard for him as a poet. To him he was really a true poet People would say that his poetry was beautiful. But his growing fame brings very little change in his manner and temperament.
In the novel Mr. Carmichael is very little involved with his remoteness and aloofness. Still his function in the novel is of considerable importance. He is a poet and an artistic figure and so forms a parallel to Lily Briscoe. In the first chapter we find this remote and indifferent man often lying all day long on the lawn brooding presumably over his poetry. But still in the dinner scene his demand for another plate of soup and its reaction on Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay enables us to understand their typical difference of temperament and outlook on life. And till the end of the book he plays his silent and benign role quite impressively. Till the end Lily feels he understands her and can solve all her problems even if she may not express her difficulties verbally to him. To Lily till the end “he was an inscrutable old man, with the yellow stain on his, beard, and his poetry, and his puzzles, sailing serenely through a world which satisfied all his wants, so that she thought he had only to put down his hand where he lay on the lawn to up anything he wanted.” And in the final scene of the novel we find this inscrutable figure standing by the side of Lily on the edge of the same lawn like an old pagan God just after the Ramsays have reached their destination and just before Lily makes her final stroke on her canvas and has had her final vision.
We are introduced to Charles Tansley, this typically irritating and self centred pedant, in the very first chapter of the novel. Mr. Ramsay has already shattered the hopes of James by telling him that the weather won’t be favourable enough to enable them to make a trip to the Lighthouse the next day. And then comes this pedant disciple of Mr. Ramsay to crush all their zeal by telling them bluntly, rather idiotically, that the wind is blowing from the worst possible direction to make it impossible for them to land at the Lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay knows that he is in the habit of saying disagreeable things. But still she bitterly feels that ‘it was odious of him to rub this in, and make James still more disappointed.’ And the children—they all mocked him. They called him “The little atheist’. To them he was miserable specimen, all humps and hollows, “he could not play cricket, he poked; he shuffled. He was a sarcastic brute,” Andrew said. So with her great skill in characterisation Virginia Woolf has clearly revealed the main traits of this minor but important character in the very first chapter of this novel.
Mr. Ramsay and Tansley: A Contrast
We know that Mr. Ramsay never refrains from telling unpleasant truths. But that is because he is incapable of untruth; he is unable to alter a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure and convenience of any person, least of all his own children whom he wants to face the stern facts of life boldly and squarely. But Tansley is a confirmed egoist and suffers from perversity of temperament so much so that his power to assert himself and irritate and disappoint others can reach the point of destruction. “When they talked about something interesting then what they complained of about Charles Tansley was that until he had turned the whole thing round and made it somehow reflect himself and disparage them, put them all on edge somehow with his said way peeling the flesh and blood off everything, he was not satisfied.” Some stern traits in Mr. Ramsay’s character may make him dislikable to some extent even to his children. But he has outstanding moral and intellectual qualities to make him lovable and respectable. But Tansley with his factlessness, egoism and perverse temperament is totally an object of mockery and hatred. Unfortunately he often tries to parody Mr. Ramsay. In this way Tansley just forms a perfect foil to Mr. Ramsay. In some respects, he is a foil to Mrs. Ramsay too. Mrs. Ramsay with her sympathetic nature is ever ready to twist a fact to save others from disappointment. But Tansley will take pleasure in twisting things to satisfy his own ego.
The Dinner Party and Tansley’s Egoism
Some of the important traits of Tansley’s character is clearly revealed during the course of the dinner party. As an embodiment of egoism he keenly desires that all conversation is centred round him. While others talk about different things he thinks they are all talking rot .So long as he is unable to assert himself, everything seems to him silly, superficial, flimsy. As he feels most women look down upon him, he cannot but think: “Women made civilization impossible with all their charm’, all their silliness.” And when Lily tries to pull his leg his vanity is wounded. He behaves rudely with her. And when the same Lily gives him a chance to assert and impress himself he talks and talks purely about himself for long. The egoist relieves himself of his egotism. His talk now begin to bore others, but the poor fellow does not understand this. Observing him closely Mrs. Ramsay is correct in her understanding that Tansley wants to assert himself and so it will be always with him till he gets his professorship or married his wife.
His Miserable Past and his Perversity
It should be noted that Tansley’s perversity, his irritating egoism are very much due to his bitter struggle for existence and a miserable past. And when he gets the first chance of walking with a beautiful woman, Mrs. Ramsay and get some recognition and sympathy from her, he becomes emotional and tells her almost everything about his past life. We come to know that his father was a poor shopkeeper. He himself had paid his own way since he was thirteen. Often he could not have a great-coat in winter and he smoked the cheapest tobacco. And as a student he worked very hard—seven hours a day. So Mrs. Ramsay’s heart melts, although he seems to be an awful prig, an insufferable bore. She would see that her children do not mock at him.
With Mrs. Ramsay we also feel inclined to sympathise with this poor young man when we realise that his is mainly a case of social maladjustment. With her generous and sympathetic heart Mrs. Ramsay understood his problems and so took him under her protection. The following monologue that we have from Mrs. Ramsay when she leaves her children’s room after the dinner party reveals almost all the dark as well as brighter shades of Tansley’s character. “Yet he looked so desolate; yet she would feel relieved, when he went; yet she would see that he was better treated tomorrow: yet he was admirable with her husband; yet his manners, certainly wanted improving.”

Major Characters In To The Lighthouse

Introductory Remarks
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 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.”

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.”
Introductory Remarks
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.
Brighter Aspects
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.
Introductory Remarks
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.”

To The Lighthouse: Brief Critical Introduction

(i) Introduction
Virginia Woolf’s second novel Night and Day was published in 1919 and her famous essay on contemporary fiction, included in the Common Reader: First Series, was also written in the same year. In this essay she strongly expresses her dissatisfaction with the current form of the novel as represented by the novels of Bennett, Wells and Galsworthy. According to her in their novels ‘Life escapes’, because life is not like what they, specially Bennett, present in their famous novels. To her nothing else is worthwhile without life. The form of the novel which prevailed in the first quarter of this century seemed to her to obscure or even to falsify her experience. And Virginia Woolf has expressed her own ideas most forcefully in her inimitable poetic style in a passage in the same essay:

“Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being ‘Like this’. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind or an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if the writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work on his own feeling and not on convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style…..Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display…..?”And hence,’ to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit,’ we find Virginia Woolf setting herself to destroy the current form of the novel and then driven to invent one which would express her own vision of life.
(ii) Publication of the Novel
To The Lighthouse appeared in 1927. This is Virginia Woolf’s fifth novel and is considered to be one of her outstanding works. It is a highly admirable piece of workmanship and critics like F.R. Leavis consider it to be her best novel. It is also probably, the most popular and widely admired of her novels.
Three-fold Division
To The Lighthouse happens to be the only novel of Virginia Woolf which has a three-part structure or division: The Window, Time Passes and The Lighthouse. In the very beginning of the first part, The Window, we find Mrs. Ramsay planning for a trip to the Lighthouse near their island the next day. Her youngest child, James, is very much eager to take this trip. But Mr. Ramsay with his incapability of untruth and Tansley with his odious habit of saying disagreeable things dash the young child’s hope to the ground by telling him bluntly that the weather is not going to be fine enough to enable them to take the trip. And the journey is not made. And in this section we get, more or less, a full and varied view of the personalities and characters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay through the eyes of Lily Briscoe, William Bankes, young James and the guests assembled in that summer house in the Island of Skye in the Hebrides.
Time Passes, rather a short interlude, makes up part two. In this section we find memory beginning its task. This is very powerfully operative in the mind of old Mrs. McNab the charwoman. A period of ten years elapses. During this period the empty summer house begins to decay and the actors of the piece age and some of them, including Mrs. Ramsay, pass away from this world.
In the third section people come back to the summer house once again. The late Mrs. Ramsay is seen very mysteriously and powerfully through the eyes of Lily Briscoe. She seems to influence the lives of others mere powerfully even after her death. In the end we find Mr. Ramsay landing at the Lighthouse and Lily having her vision to complete her picture.
(iii) The Characters
Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay along with their eight children are in their summer house on the Island of Skye. They have also a few guests with them. Mrs. Ramsay with her sympathetic and intuitive nature and with her personal charms is the-central figure of the novel. Mr. Ramsay is a reputed philosopher and an erudite scholar. Among the guests William Bankes, an elderly person and a devoted scientist, is the boyhood friend of Mr. Ramsay. Lily Briscoe is a dedicated artist and Mrs. Ramsay wants her to marry Mr. Bankes. Paul Reyley and Minta Doype, an attractive pair, are in love with each other. Mt. Augustus Carmichael with his stained beard is a poet with an unhappy past. And then there is Charles Tansley, the scholarly student of Mr. Ramsay, with his egotism and social maladjustment. It may be noted that the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay greatly resemble those of Mrs. Woolf’s parents and she has put much of her own self in the character of Lily Briscoe. Hence the novel is also of great autobiographical significance.
(iv) Synopsis of To The Lighthouse
There is nothing much complex in the story of this novel. In fact the story is of very little significance. The Ramsays are spending their holidays in their summer house on the Island of Skye with a group of friends. The Lighthouse that shines out at night at a distance in the sea is the point, both material and symbolic, towards which all the lines of the novel converge. In the very opening chapter we find James Ramsay, the six year old child of the Ramsays, cutting pictures from an old catalogue. He is sitting at the feet of his mother who is seen knitting by the window. The sensitive soul of young James is excited as he is going to realise his dream of making his first trip to the Lighthouse the next day. His sympathetic mother encourages him by saying that they are sure to go if the weather is fine. But his hopes are dashed to the ground when first Mr. Ramsay and then his scholarly disciple Tansley tells him that the weather won’t be fine. And this sets the ball rolling creating extreme antagonism between the father and the son. The day moves on. Different characters are busy in their pastimes. Lily Briscoe paints and Carmichael dozes and dreams.
In the evening the clangour of the gong summons them all to assemble in the dining room to enjoy the special dishes prepared by Mrs. Ramsay for this great occasion. The dinner goes by slowly and dully. Dinner being over the children go to bed; the young people go off to the beach for a stroll. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay sit in their room and read. It is likely to be rainy the next day. So the trip to the Lighthouse is to be cancelled. The evening is empty and yet as full and almost as long as Clarissa Dalloway’s day in Mrs. Dallaway. Whereas the latter took its rhythms from the hours struck by Big Ben, here only the changing light in the garden marks the flow of time and the unchanging noise of the waves holds the evening motionless. A multiplicity of contacts is created by the characters through their physical closeness, but each also withdraws into his or her haunted solitude. Though they are living together yet each is an isolated soul.
With the advent of night everybody comes indoors and the lights go out; and that night, that few hours’ withdrawal, blends with the darkness, and the withdrawal of ten years’ absence that flow over the empty house in twenty-five pages in which marriage, births and deaths are inscribed in parenthesis. One night Mrs. Ramsay died quietly. Prue was married and died due to some illness connected with child-birth. And Andrew Ramsay was killed by an exploding shell in a battle-field in France. Time passed. Nobody came to the summer house that was gravitating towards decay and destruction. Only Mrs. McNab came there from time to time to look after the house. This is the second part which after the personal reign of duration, asserts the impersonal triumph of time.
Then the morning dawns after the successive nights merged into one and the guests start coming again to the old summer house. Mrs. Ramsay is no more, but still she dominates and greatly influences the lives of others; specially those of Mr. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe. Mr. Ramsay starts off for the Lighthouse with Cam and James. And Lily Briscoe sets up her easel where it must have stood ten years ago. And she realises her vision at the same moment as James realises his childhood dream by landing at the Lighthouse. In the intensity of this second moment duration (psychological time) has revived and triumphed over time (clock time), triumphed even over death, since Mrs. Ramsay—who has died in parenthesis, under the reign of time — haunts these pages with a presence that echoes the material permanence of the Lighthouse.
(v) The Lighthouse Symbol
David Daiches has justly remarked: ‘The framework of To The Lighthouse is simple but upon it Virginia Woolf weaves a delicate pattern of symbolic character and situations.” This is because she wants to convey inner reality or psychological truths. So we find that the sea, the window, the waves and even the characters or group of characters have been treated as symbols. And the most important symbol is the Lighthouse itself. Standing lonely in the midst of the sea, it is a symbol of the individual who is at once a unique being and as part of the flux of history. “To reach the Lighthouse is, in a sense, to make contact with a truth outside oneself, to surrender the uniqueness of one’s ego to an impersonal reality. That is why we find that when Mr. Ramsay and others finally reach the Lighthouse, personal grudges disappear, compassion and understanding emerge and egotism gives way to impersonality.”
(vi) The Stream of Consciousness
It must be noted that Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse like most of her other famous novels is not a conventional novel. In it we have a great departure from the nineteenth century tradition of the English novel. The novelist has designed her book to present life as she sees and understands it totally rejecting ‘The Arnold Bennett form.’ We may call it a stream of consciousness novel’ in many respects even though Prof. Arnold Kettle has his objections. Such novels have their essential subject matter as the consciousness of one or more characters. We find the depicted consciousness serving as a screen on which the material in these novels is presented. We are introduced into the interior life of a character by means of the interior monologue with very little intervention in the way of explanation or commentary on the part of the novelist. There is very little external action or violent deeds; instead there is the interior monologue and the fluid mental states. Thus in this novel we can view each of the important characters through his or her own thoughts and actions as well as through the consciousness of other characters. This may be called ‘the multiple point of view’ technique. This is no doubt ‘a stream of consciousness novel’ but with a difference. And an eminent critic has justly remarked; “There is a careful weaving together of characters’ consciousness, author’s comments, and one character’s view of another. “Hence To The Lighthouse is neither chaotic nor incoherent like most of the novels of this genre—it is more finely organised and more effective than anything else Virginia Woolf wrote.’
(vii) The Unity is Poetic
We have already noted that Virginia Woolf made a definite break with the traditional technique of the conventional novels. So a reader is not likely to find that continuity of the traditional novel, real or attempted, in novels of Virginia Woolf. This continuity is very much apparent in the novels which follow the traditional technique. This is because there is a gulf of difference between the two presentations of life. In the conventional novel the novelist makes his own role much more obvious. The scenes are set deliberately and the action is stage-managed. The author draws the threads together gradually from outside with an eye to a climax. This traditional method is dramatic and the unity is dramatic. But in Virginia Woolf’s novels—from Jacob’s Room to The Waves—we find that there is far less scene—setting and none of it is obvious. There is no deliberate Stage—managing, if it is there it is concealed. But still the unity is there and it is deliberately achieved—achieved in a new way. Virginia Woolf’s method is poetic and the unity is a poetic unity.
(viii) Characters as Types
The cast of characters may be identified as individuals but still they are discernible as types. Old Mr. Carmichael, Mr. Banks, the devoted scientist, Lily Briscoe, the dedicated artist—all are suggestive of types. The very name Lily, conferred on the devotee of art indicates the pure beauty, the flowering whiteness appropriate to weddings and funerals. And above all in Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay we find how artistically Mrs. Woolf wears intellect and intuition and then reveals that it is Mrs. Ramsay’s intuition that really controls the union.
(ix) Lyricism
Virginia Woolf’s lyricism has been revealed in a most enchanting manner in her To The Lighthouse. Her style has generally been recognised to be poetic prose. And this poetical character of her style is in evidence in the superb lyrical nature of the second part of this great novel entitled, “Time Passes.”
(x) Themes
To The Lighthouse displays a galaxy of fictional characters who are trying, with varying degrees of success, to establish relationship with people around them. Accepting this the novel may justly be called a study of the ways and means by which satisfactory human relationships might be established.
In fact as a complex work of art the novel suggests a number of themes and ideas. And different critics have interpreted them in different ways. Blackstone suggests that its dominant themes are firstly love, married life and family and secondly self-shedding and self-dramatisation. Norman Friedman feels that the novel studies the ‘subject and object and nature of reality’.
Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse is a unique work of art and there is nothing second hand about this novel. And the style in which it is written permits the novelist to convey with wonderful precision a certain intimate quality of felt life. Let us conclude by quoting some very apt and elucidating lines of an eminent critic like David Daiches: ‘To The Lighthouse is a work in which plot, locale and treatment are so carefully bound up with each other that the resulting whole is more finely organised and more effective than anything else Virginia Woolf wrote. The setting in an indefinite island off the north-west coast of Scotland enables her to indulge in her characteristic symbolic rarefications with maximum effect, for here form and content fit perfectly and inevitably. Middle class London is not, perhaps, the best scene for a tenuous meditative work of this kind, and Mrs. Dalloway might be said to suffer from a certain incompatibility between the content and the method of treatment. A misty island is more effective than a London dinner party as the setting for a novel of indirect philosophic suggestion, and as a result qualities of Virginia Woolf’s writing, which in her other works tend to appear, if not as faults at least as of doubtful appropriateness, are seen in this work to their fullest advantage. In To The Lighthouse Virginia Woolf found a subject that enabled her to do full justice to her technique.”

The Stream Of Consciousness Novel: Virginia Woolf’s Contribution

It is in the early part of the nineteenth century that ‘the stream of consciousness’ novel, a new literary genre, began to appear in the realm of English literature. It was William James who first used the phrase, ‘stream of consciousness’ in his Principles of Psychology in 1890 to denote the chaotic flow of impressions and sensations through the human consciousness. Then Freud’s writings began to appear in English translations shortly after 1910. The ideas of Bergson and William James also began to have their impact in England. According to William James, “Consciousness in an amalgam of all that we have experienced and continue to experience. Every thought is a part of the personal consciousness: every thought is also unique and ever-changing.

We seem to be selective in our thoughts, selectively attentive or inattentive focusing attention on certain objects and areas of experience, rejecting others, totally blocking others out. Experience is remoulding us every moment and our mental reaction on every given thing is really a result of our experience of the whole world up to the moment”. And this is also true not only of ideas but also of sensory perception as consciousness registers them.

Edwardians and Georgians
In fact the Edwardian writers saw people as simple, whole and definable, whereas the Georgians began to see them as complex, diverse and ineffable. The rise of this literary genre of ‘the stream of consciousness, novel in the early twenties is but a reaction of the increasing inwardness of life consequent upon the breakdown of accepted values with the turn of the century and the outbreak of the First World War accelerated this process. The Georgians realised that if they were to explore the new territories, they required new tools. The new perspective needed a new technique. Mrs. Dorothy M. Richardson was, no doubt, the pioneer in this field in England. But Virginia Woolf was the most important protagonist of this new literary genre. Of course this was not just confined to England. On the eve of the First World War, three novelists unknown to each other, began their epoch-making works destined to have enormous influence on the fiction of the century. In France, Marcel Proust published the first two volumes of his Remembrance of This Past. And then in 1914 James Joyce, an Irishman, began publishing in serial form A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And the third novelist was Miss Dorothy Richardson. So between 1913 and 1915 was born the new novel, the psychological novel or the novel of ‘the stream of consciousness’. And the great thing is that the three novelists turned fiction from the external to internal reality. All the three wrote from an acute need to pose inner problems and project their inner life before the world.
Other Influences
We may now assert that the modern psychological novel is ‘modern’ in a way that it reflects the deeper and more searching inwardness of our century. And, in fact, this turning inward was promoted by the writings of Bergson and Freud besides those of William James.
Bergson and Theory of Time
The novelists of this new school were greatly influenced by Bergson who held that we all are remoulded constantly by experience and our consciousness in a process of endless accretions as long as mind and senses are functioning. ‘The continuation of an infinite past in the living present’ is always there. Bergson divided time into “Linner time” or ‘Duree’; it may also be called psychological time. And the other is ‘Clock time’ or mechanical time. ‘Inner time’ is conceived as a flow, a continuous moving stream and hence the division into past, present and future as artificial and mechanical. In fact the past lives on in the present, in memory and its consequences, and hence it also shapes the future. Hence in the psychological novels there is a preoccupation with time. So in this type of novel we find the action moving backward and forward freely in time. There is no chronological forward movement which is a common feature of the traditional novel. There the movement is zig-zag, a sinuous movement from the past to the present, and from the present to the past. Thus we often find the novelists of this school making an hour seem like a week or a week like an hour. In this connection David Daiches’ comments are worth quoting “The stream of consciousness technique is a means of escape from tyranny of the time dimension. It is not only in distinct memories that the past impinges on the present, but also in much vaguer and more subtle ways, our mind floating off down some channel, superficially irrelevant but really having a definite starting-off place from the initial situation, so that in presenting the character’s reaction to events, the author will show us states of mind being modified by associations and recollections deriving from the present situation, but referring to a constantly shifting series of events in the past”. And we find Mrs. Woolf showing great skill in the manipulation of time in her Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse.
Human Consciousness: Its different Layers
The great psychologists like Freud, Adler and Jung probed deeper and deeper into the human consciousness. They studied it very carefully and conceived of it as nothing static or fixed. To them it was something in a state of flux, constantly changing and becoming different, in response to sensations and emotions received from outside. And then deeper probings and careful researches by them revealed that there were layers within layers in the human consciousness. Beneath the conscious, there is the sub-conscious, and then the unconscious. And the epoch-making revelation is that the past lives in the sub-conscious and the unconscious and is brought up to the conscious level through memory and recollection. And the ‘conscious’ is only a small part of the human psyche or soul. Hence human actions are bound to be determined more by the subconscious and the unconscious than by the conscious. Then Freud’s concepts like ‘mother-fixation’ or ‘father-fixation’ or ‘Oedipus complex’ have been freely exploited by the modern writers in their novels known as psycho-analytical novels. It may be noted that ‘the stream of consciousness’ novel carries the impression of all these theories and the result of careful researches.
More Interested in the Inner than in the Outer Life
The modern novelist of the new school is more interested in the inner than in the outer life of a character. And the aim of these writers is to render the soul or ‘psyche’ truthfully and realistically and hence they use the stream of consciousness technique. They know and so they want to show that the human psyche is not a simple entity functioning logically and rationally, in a predictable manner. Hence, in their novels, in place of external action and violent deeds, there is the interior monologue and there are the fluid mental states. The novelist creates a world of his own with its own laws. Hardly any climax or a turning point is to be found in the story. It is the penumbra of the mind which becomes important. Hence the modern novelists of this new school are spiritual, as opposed to the Edwardian novelists. Hence these type of novels have mainly as their essential subject-matter the consciousness of one or more characters. The depicted consciousness serves as a screen on which the material in these novels is presented. There is very little of external action. But in its place we get the interior monologue and the fluid mental states—existing simultaneously at a number of points in a person’s total experience.
Interior Monologue
The interior monologue is, in fact, an integral part of the novels of this new literary genre. This internal or interior monologue is the silent speech of a given character, designed to introduce us directly into the internal life of the character without the author’s intervention to explain or to comment. A well-known French novelist defined it as ‘the speech of a character in a scene, having for its object the direct introduction of the reader into the inner life of a character, without an intervention by way of explanation or commentary on the part of the author; like other monologues, it has theoretically no organisation in these respects: in the matter of content, it is an expression of the most intimate thoughts, those which lie nearest the unconscious, in its nature it is a speech which precedes logical organisation, reproducing the intimate thoughts just as they are born and just as they come; as for form, it employs direct sentences reduced to the syntaxical minimum, thus in general it fulfils the same requirement as we make today for poetry. Thus we may say that this is a new technical device that enables the reader to enter the inner life of a character straightaway and to watch the flow of sensations and impressions as they rise without any logical organisation.
Plot and Character
In the psychological novel there is hardly any plot or story. Both plot and character in the conventional sense have decayed in the novels of this new genre. There is no set description of characters as in the older novel; there is a shift from the externals to the inner self of various personages. And then there is no plot-construction in the sense of a logical arrangement of incidents and events, leading chronologically to a catastrophe or denouement. And according to Virginia Woolf herself, in the novel of subjectivity there is no plot, no character, no tragedy, no comedy, and no love-interest as in the traditional novel. That is why she abandoned the convention of story for the same reason that she abandoned the convention of character drawing; neither of them could be made to express life as she saw it. She ceased to draw characters in outline, she ceased to sum up men and women or to give her reader the illusion that they could be covered with a formula, or that their identity was constant or definable. As in her conception of human personality, so in her conception of human experience, continuity and fluidity is emphasized rather than boundary or definition. To the writers of this school a continuous action seems too unlike ordinary experience, with its freakish accidental interruptions, its overlapping of time and circumstance. According to them the sense of life is often best rendered by an abrupt passing from one series of events, one group of characters, one-centre of consciousness, to another. Hence they don’t particularly care about neatly finishing off a given action, following it through to the fall of the curtain. They also feel that the imagination is stimulated and rendered more active, is actually exhilarated, by broken bits of information, as the nerves are stimulated by the discontinuity of an electric current. Thus the technique of these writers conforms more closely to the actual thought process, which is made up of a flux of sensations and impressions than does a connected chain of logical reasoning. In addition, their purpose is to turn the reader into an author by removing themselves from the scene. It was for achieving a full measure of realism that the novelist left, the characters alone to put forth their mind. It was an attempt to document the whole world of the sense in a minute and to catch fugitive thoughts in their progress through the mind—catch them as Joyce did in Ulysses in their movement or flux. For the first time these writers were trying to find words that would convey elusive and evanescent thought. They were seeking to express, moreover, the images of the inner world of fantasy, fusing with sounds and smell, the world of perceptual experience. So it must be carefully noted that the stream of consciousness technique is a way of rendering the psyche or the soul of the characters, accurately and realistically. And to know a character really or truthfully, we must know what is happening inside his mind, we must plunge into his pre-speech level of consciousness, and see what sensations and impressions are floating there uncontrolled and unorganised.
Mrs. Woolf and the Stream of Consciousness Novel
Undoubtedly Dorothy Richardson is the English writer who is the pioneer in this field and who presents stream of consciousness writing at its purest. But among the stream of consciousness novelists in England, Virginia Woolf is the most important name. Mrs. Richardson’s work is in fact unbearably diffuse and an average reader finds her almost unbearable. In contrast with her Mrs. Woolf can tightly organise a novel. She realised that the tools and established conventions of the Edwardian novelists would mean sure ruin for the novelist of the new generation and hence she made continued experiments with the form of the novel. Her chief purpose was to record what lifes for living beings, and then to communicate the impression made by one individual upon another. She also aimed at revealing the human personality partly through its own self-consciousness and partly through the picture projected by it on other minds. But she knew that art implies selection and ordering of materials. Hence she did not follow her theory in every detail in her great novels like Mrs. Dalloway or To The Lighthouse. There is definitely some form or pattern and some inner unity in these novels. Most of the novelists of this hardly cared for a closed and compact plot. As a result the novel in their hand became very often incoherent and shapeless and made unbearable for most of the readers. That is why they find even great works like Ulysses unreadable, freakish and eccentric. But the credit of imparting form and discipline to the chaotic novel of this genre and making it acceptable to the average reader must go to Virginia Woolf whose contribution in this field is of far-reaching consequence. Of course the influence of Joyce and Bergson is considerable. But she is by no means a blind imitator of the great masters of the new technique or the psychologists who furnished the theoretical framework for the stream of consciousness novel. Her essential method is her own. That is why we find that the novelist is playing the role of a central intelligence in her outstanding novels and is constantly busy, organising the material and illuminating it by frequent comments. In fact Virginia Woolf was a great experimenter. She experimented with many methods and gave to ‘the stream of consciousness’ technique so many twists and turns and finally achieved her complete success in Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse. Unquestionably she was a professional, evolving a new form of fiction and creating a masterpiece in it. Thus, for all her brilliant achievements in this literary genre of the ‘stream of consciousness’ novel Virginia Woolf is the most important name among the novelists of the new school. And that is why Virginia Woolf belongs to literature and Miss Dorothy Richardson along with many other writers of this genre to the history of literature.

The Chief Characteristics of Virginia Woolf’s Art as a Novelist

We have already pointed out that Virginia Woolf was extremely dissatisfied with the current form of the novel as represented by the great Edwardians, Bennett, Wells or Galsworthy. The form of the novel that prevailed in the first quarter of this century seemed to her to obscure or even falsify her experience. She has very clearly and forcefully expressed her own views in her great essay, Modern Fiction.

To her ‘life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged;’ but it ‘is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.’ And task of the novelist, according to her, is ‘to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display….’ And then there were the prominent literary developments of the age, which were making it impossible for a sensitive writer to remain in a fixed and narrow groove. And Virginia Woolf had the courage to discard the orthodox linear narrative of the Edwardians after her first two novels and used instead a distinctive impressionistic technique, characterised by lyrical intensity and subtle penetration into the stream of consciousness. And gradually she established herself to be one of those great English novelists who gave a new direction, a new form and a new spiritual awareness to the English novel.

No Element of Story—Rendering of inner reality
As Virginia Woolf broke free from tradition, she had also to discard the current form of the novel. But then she was driven to invent her own technique which would express her own vision of life. And Mrs. Woolf had already expressed very strongly that if the novelist could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love-interest or catastrophe in the accepted style’. Hence in most of her novels there is hardly any element of story. Mrs. Woolf’s formula for the novel was not humanity in action but in a state of infinite perception. The novel in her hands is not just an entertainment, or propaganda, or the vehicle of some fixed ideas or theories, or a social document, but a voyage of exploration to find out how life is lived, and how it can be rendered as it is actually lived without distortion. Hence she concentrates her attention on the rendering of inner reality and gives subtle and penetrating inlets into the consciousness of her characters. She cares very little for narrating dramatic events.
The World of Outer Reality not Ignored
It is to be noted that because her main purpose as a novelist is to depict inner life of human beings, she has not ignored the world of outer reality, the warm and palpable life of nature. In fact, in her novels we find that the metaphysical interest is embodied in purely human and personal terms, that the bounding line of art remains unbroken, that the concrete images which are the very stuff of art are never sacrificed to abstraction, but are indeed more in evidence than in the work of such writers as Bennett and Wells. The essential subject matter of her novels is no doubt the consciousness of one or more characters, but the outer life of tree and stream, of bird and fish, of meadow and seashore crowds in upon her and lends her image after image, a great, sparkling and many-coloured world of sight and scent and sound and touch. Herein lies the magic and miracle of her work.
Emergence of an Art Form
In Virginia Woolf’s novels we find a rare artistic integrity and they display a well-developed sense of form. To communicate her experience she had to invent conventions as rigid or more rigid than the old ones that she discarded. And this she does in her best novels of the middle and the final period—Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, The Waves and Between the Acts. In each case a small group of people is selected, and through their closely interrelated experience the reader receives his total impression. We also find that in each case certain images, phrases and symbols bind the whole together. So there are certain resemblances between them in structure or style. Apart from these general resemblances each of these novels is a fresh attempt to solve the problems raised by the departure from traditional conventions. So it is observed that each of her novels grows out of the preceding one and we see the germ of her later works in their predecessors. Another significant point is that in Mrs. Woolf’s novels from Jacob’s Rooms to The Waves there is far less scene-setting and novel of it is obvious; deliberate stage managing disappears, in fact concealed; hence the method is poetic, the unity is a poetic unity. But the unity is there and is deliberately achieved.
Poetisation of the English Novel
One of the most outstanding achievements of Virginia Woolf is that she represents the poetisation and musicalisation of English novel. Among the English novelists she is foremost in lyrical technique. She sets out on a quest for a mediating form through which she could convey simultaneously picture of life and manners and a corresponding image of minds. She aimed at conveying inner life and this could be best done in a lyrical manner. Hence it is found that in order to enrich her language, she used vivid metaphors and symbols which are peculiar to poetry. Her language is the language of poetry, her prose style has the assonances, the refrains, the rhythms and the accents of poetry itself. Virginia Woolf’s lyrical narrative is based on a design on which various contents of consciousness are juxtaposed. The equilibrium between the lyrical and narrative art shows how Virginia Woolf brilliantly achieves the telescoping of the poet’s lyrical self and the novelist’s omniscient point of view. It is a case of unified sensibility, that is, a blending of the objective and the subjective, which is considered to be the best form of poetry particularly in modern poetry. Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse shows her lyricism in a superb manner and Time Passes’, the second part of this novel, has been described by the novelist herself as particularly representative of her lyric vein.
The Interior Monologue—Stream of Consciousness Technique
To the novelists of the new school human consciousness is a chaotic welter of sensations and impressions; it is fleeting, trivial and evanescent. And according to Virginia Woolf, the great task of the novelist should be ‘to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit’. His main business is just to reveal the sensations and impressions to bring us close to the quick of the mind. He should be more concerned with inner reality rather than outer. This is what is known as ‘the stream of consciousness technique’. And we are introduced into interior life of a character by means of interior monologue. There is very little intervention in the way of explanation or commentary on the part of the novelist. And this has been done by Virginia Woolf by a very skilful use of ‘the interior monologue’ or ‘the stream of consciousness’ technique. She has very successfully revealed the very spring of action, the hidden motives which impel men and women to act in a particular way. She has been able to take us directly into the minds of her characters and show the flow of ideas, sensations and impressions there. And thus Mrs. Woolf has been able to create a number of memorable, many-sided and rounded figures, such as Mrs. Ramsay or Mrs. Dalloway, which are among the immortals of literature.
The Distinctive Nature of Reality
It will be clearly evident to a discerning reader of Mrs. Woolf’s novels that the reality that she deals with has a distinctness about it. Jean Guiguet’s comments on this are worth noting “Her reality is not a factor to be specified in some question of the universe: it is the Sussex towns, the London streets, the waves breaking on the shore, the woman sitting opposite her in the train, memories flashing into the mind from nowhere, a beloved being’s return into nothingness; it is all that is not ourselves and yet is so closely mingled with ourselves that the two enigmas—reality and self—make only one. But the important thing is the nature or quality of this enigma. It does not merely puzzle the mind; it torments the whole being, even while defining it. To exist, for Virginia Woolf, meant experiencing that dizziness on the ridge between two abysses of the unknown, the self and the non- self.”
Artistic Sincerity and Integrity
Virginia Woolf had her own original vision of life and she has ever remained truthful to her vision. And this truthfulness and this artistic integrity is due to her perfect detachment from all personal prejudices and preconceived notions or from any personal end. Literary traditions and conventions, or social and political problems of the day—nothing could deter her from writing according to her vision, according to the ideal which exists in her mind with uncommon artistic sincerity and integrity. And then Mrs. Woolf was a ‘naturalist’ as well as a contemplative’. In the words of Bernard Blackstone, “She observes new facts, and old facts in a new way; but she also combines them, through the contemplative act, into new and strange patterns. The outer is not only related to, it is absorbed into the inner life. Mrs. Woolf believed in the power of the mind and so she makes her reader think.”
We have already discussed in detail Mrs. Woolf’s aestheticism. The significant thing about her is that there is nothing languid or academic about her aestheticism. She could find beauty ‘as much in a scrap of orange peel lying in the gutter as in the Venus de Milo’ She was a great lover of beauty and this love of beauty guides her in her selection and ordering of reality.
Woman’s Point of View; Feminisation of English Novel
It would have to be accepted that Virginia Woolf was a woman and naturally in her novels she gives us the woman’s point of view. That is why we find her relying more on intuition than on reason. We also find in her a woman’s dislike for the world of societies churches, banks and schools and the political, social and economic movements of the day have hardly any attraction for her. As a sheltered female of her age she had hardly any scope to have any knowledge of the sordid and brutal aspects of life. Thus we find that her picture of life does not include vice, sordidness or the abject brutality of our age. So it may be inferred that Mrs. Woolf thus represents the feminisation of the English novel.
Limitations of her Range
The limited range of Mrs. Woolf’s characterisation is clearly evident in her works. Her characters are definitely convincing in their own way, but they are drawn from a very limited range. They mainly belong to the upper middle class life and to a certain temperament too. She could paint only certain types of characters. They tend to think and feel alike to be the aesthetes of one set of sensations.
Being a woman of her times she avoids the theme of passionate love. She could not write of sex freely and frankly and so has avoided it altogether in her novels. But still she achieved greatness and artistic perfection by a clear recognition of these limitations, and by working within them.
Virginia Woolf’s greatest achievement is that in her novels the stream of consciousness technique finds a balance. She knew that art required a selection and ordering of material. Hence her work has a rare artistic integrity. In fact she wonderfully succeeded in imposing form and order on the chaos inherent in the novel of subjectivity or ‘the stream of consciousness’ novel. And it was Mrs. Woolf who was also one of the most forceful and original theorists of ‘the stream of consciousness’ novel, and be her exposition of aesthetics of this kind of novel, she did much to throw light on its technique, and to bring out its superiority to the conventional novel.


Virginia Woolf strongly felt that the great conven­tional writers like Bennett, Wells and Galsworthy with their well-constructed novels did not write like free men. It seemed they wrote like one who was compelled to write in a particular way by some powerful force outside them. In fact they were slaves to convention—the 18th century Fielding convention of the well-made novel with a closely knit plot, with well-marked characters and with a climax and denouement. As a result they would write artificially and unnaturally, sacrificing ‘the soul’, the content, at the altar of formal perfection. Mrs. Woolf has called these writers materialists, because ‘they are concerned not with the spirit, but with the body’. So these great writers seemed to her extremely disap­pointing.

Her Dissatisfaction
Mrs. Woolf’s dissatisfaction with the current form of the novel as represented by the novel of Arnold Bennett has been very clearly and strongly expressed in her essay, ‘Modern Fiction, included in the Common Reader First Series.
“Can it be that, owing to one of those little deviations which the human spirit seems to make from time to time, Mr. Bennett has come down with his magnificent apparatus for catching life just an inch or two on the wrong side? Life escapes; and perhaps without life nothing else is worth while…..Admitting the vagueness which afflicts all criticism of the novel, let us hazard the opinion that for us at this moment the form of fiction most in vogue more often misses than secures the thing we seek. Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing has moved off, or on, and refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments as we provide. Nevertheless we go on perseveringly, conscientiously, constructing our two and thirty chapters after a design, which, more and more ceases to resemble the vision of our mind.”
Emergence of a New Conception
While the great traditional novelists were still at the peak of their glory a new conception of the novel was emerging. The innovation of Henry James and Conrad had made their limitation clear. And the Georgians, the writers of the new school, wanted to probe beneath the surface of society and human character down to where they felt the truth was hidden. Thus the emergence of this new conception of the novel was really due to this desire to cast off what is mere an appearance and to find underneath the reality that has been hidden by a super-imposed husk. And meanwhile James Joyce had published his Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Ulysses, his epic novel, was also being serialised. After reading the former, and three instalments of the latter, Virginia Woolf was very much impressed by the originality of such a powerful writer who could render the very experience of living. Her comments on the early work of James Joyce will enable us to understand how her mind was working on the same line. This is what she says in her essay already referred to:
“Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small. Any one who has read The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man or, what promises to be a far more interesting work, Ulysses, now appearing in the Little Review, will have hazarded some theory of this nature. In contrast with those whom we have called materialists, Mr. Joyce is spiritual; he is concerned at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through this brain, and in order to preserve it he disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious, whether it be probability, or coherence or any other of those signposts which for generations have served to support the imagination of a reader when called upon to imagine what he can neither touch nor see. The scene in the cemetery, for instance, with its brilliancy, its sordidity, its incoherence, its sudden lightning flashes of significance, does undoubtedly come so close to the quick of the mind that, on a first reading, at any rate, it is difficult not to acclaim it a masterpiece. If we want life itself, here surely we have it.”
Mrs. Woolf’s own Views on Aesthetics
Virginia Woolf has not left with us any systematic treatise on theories about the form and substance of a good novel. But she expressed her views on this topic in a number of letters, articles and of some very notable critical essays, one of the most important of which is her essay on ‘Modern Fiction’ included in The Common Reader-I. And it is from this essay that we get to a great extent a coherent and systematic theory of fiction from her. In fact the form of the novel that prevailed in the first quarter of this century seemed to her to obscure or even to falsify her experience. But for every form that is defied, new forms or conventions arise. This is because the human mind is so constituted that it cannot deal with chaos, it sees only what is selected or arranged. That is why Virginia Woolf first set herself to destroy the current form of the novel and was then driven to invent one which would express her own vision of life. And Virginia has expressed with great insight and penetration her own thoughts and views in her inimitable poetic style in an oft quoted passage in this very famous essay:
“Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being ‘like this’. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance come not here but there; so that, if the writer were a free man, and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style… is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? We are not pleading merely for courage and sincerity, we are suggesting that the proper stuff of fiction is something other than custom would have us believe it.”
Stress on Flowing Stream of Consciousness
So for Virginia Woolf—‘there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style.’ And the great task of the novelist should be ‘to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit’ of man. Human consciousness is a chaotic welter of sensations and impressions. It is fleeting, trivial and evanescent, and the business of the novelist is just to convey these sensations and impressions to bring us close to the quick of the mind. So the purpose of the novelist should be the rendering of inner reality or psyche of his characters, the inner reality rather than the outer one. We may call it ‘the stream of consciousness technique.’ And the novels revealing such technique have as their essential subject-matter the consciousness of one or more characters. We find the depicted consciousness serving as a screen on which the material of these novels is presented. We are introduced into the interior life of a character by means of interior monologue with very little intervention in the way of explanation or commentary on the part of the novelist, who cares very little for the conventions of plot, comedy, tragedy, climax or catastrophe. But it must also be noted here that in her own practice she did not follow her own theory in every detail, as she knew that art requires a selection and ordering of material. That is why her novels have a form and pattern, but it is clearly different from that of the conventional novels.
Stuff of Fiction
Virginia Woolf has also her own clear view about the theme of the modern novel: “The proper stuff of fiction does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon no perception comes amiss.” In this respect she points out that James Joyce has shown great originality and boldness in disregarding convention, and by writing in his own way, according to his own vision of life, he has contributed to an increased understanding of the human soul by rendering both the trivial and the petty. She is clear in her opinion that ‘any method is right, every method is right that expresses what we wish to express.’
Mrs. Woolf aims at confronting the reader with the direct mental experience of the characters. This is a distinct departure from the conventional novels, unrolling themselves in majestic leisure, with the author constantly telling the story, omniscient to the extent of knowing everything about the characters. But Virginia Woolf is bent on effacing herself in her novels. And if the writer is removed from the scene, it means a significant shift in the narrative; it creates the need to use the memory of the characters in place of the reader’s in a relationship with the past. Thus it becomes clear that fiction for Mrs. Woolf is not a ‘criticism of life’ in any Arnoldian sense, but rather a recreation of the complexities of experience. Life is a most subtle and complicated succession of experience, hence fiction must be infinitely supple in order to catch the ‘tones’, the light and shade of experience. The art of the novelist is similar to that of the painter, and painting for Virginia Woolf did not mean the Dutch School, who were admired by George Eliot, but Roger Fry and the post-impressionists.