Reminiscent of the early 19th century romantic poets and their unease with the increasingly rational and superficial world, Virginia Woolf wrote of the superficiality of certain modern writers, in particular, about the absence of an inner life for their characters. In her essay, Modern Fiction, published in April 1925 in a volume entitled The Common Reader: First Series, she lamented their materialistic approach to characterization. “They are concerned not with the spirit,” she wrote, “but with the body” (147). In other words, their characters live but how? More importantly, just what do they live for? For without knowing the how and why, Woolf asserts that “life escapes, and perhaps without life nothing else is worthwhile” (149). So what then is life? Perhaps her novel, To TheLighthouse, illuminates an answer?
Life is terrifyingly simple on the surface. Underneath, it’s terrifyingly complex. A woman, a Mrs. Ramsay, exhausted from being a wife and mother (indeed, it is killing her), sits in a garden by the sea. Mrs. Ramsay surely has a first name, but I cannot recall it. She is referred to as Mrs. Ramsay throughout, the ultimate generic Mrs., the ultimate generic Angel of the House. Her domestic responsibilities are vast. She has eight children, household help to supervise, guests, and a husband who, when he speaks at all, most frequently says “no.” Intelligent, yet her range of external experiences is attenuated. She is unremittingly self-deferential to her husband, a somewhat mean-spirited, imperious man. Alas, there are men like him, so annoying in their blasé manners, their inability to communicate, their frustrating neediness. Ah, but there are women like her, and to her I turn. I will examine Mrs. Ramsay’s psychological impulses, meanderings and associations that are triggered by the external stimuli of her simply sitting in a garden. In short, I will describe Woolf’s vision of Mrs. Ramsay’s mind in Section XI, To the Lighthouse: The Window, pages 95-100.
COME INTO THE GARDEN, MRS. RAMSAY It is early evening. The light is fading. All is quiet except for the sound of the sea. She is knitting. A lighthouse pulses its three-stroke beam. At times she stops knitting, distracted by the intermitting pulse of the beam. Her husband enters, smiling about some philosophical joke he has told himself: Hume stuck in the mud. But outwardly he is miffed because his wife appears so stern for she too is mired...she, in a deep reverie. He realizes he cannot help her and that, astoundingly, her remoteness irritates him. So consistently does he get things wrong, particularly thoughts or actions that spring from his emotional depths, such as they are. Impulses from there—the inner depths are always “dark” with Woolf—seem to terrify Mr. Ramsay. Not Mrs. Ramsay though, she revels in them for they are her last resort, her only hope. He observes her, does not speak though he longs to. But she, intuitive, sensitive creature, she calls out to him, physically goes to him for SHE knew what HE wanted! That’s the physicality, the material sense of their life together, so simple, so ordinary, so unexciting if left at that, so terrifying if unexamined. But there is far more to it, and Woolf explores the depths from which Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts arise. For in Mrs. Ramsay’s impulse to call to her husband rests the essence of her life, the exquisite and idiosyncratic alchemy of feminine intuition, along with the terrifying notion that the very act of being a woman, a wife, a mother, enervates, and far worse, may even kill.
INTERMEZZO But first it is important to establish Woolf’s particular narrative strategy, essentially, the story that explicates the psychology of Mrs. Ramsay. One traverses to the inner state of characters through narrative, setting the people in motion, keeping them restive, in short, they act in conformance to the dictates of the overriding story-line. For without a narrative, the inner state of characters is about as interesting as reading a medical chart or a product specification sheet. Life is far more than the physicality of maneuvering to and fro in railway cars and hotel dining rooms, the getting from A to Z. Is life so buttoned up and tidy? No, Woolf says, life is not tidy at all. Getting from lunch to dinner is easy compared to getting into peoples’ minds. Although Mr. Ramsay, the husband, seems so perpetually out to lunch and ham-handed that at times I despair of him entirely. But I also realize Woolf was frying other and larger fish. Walking, sitting, chewing, that will do quite well enough. But absent any vision of the characters’ minds, physical description alone is trivial and does not inform with importance, and thus does not hold the reader’s interest. A character’s life is interesting only if the inner consciousness is described along with external affect. So what then is life? A narrative, yes, but more.
A WOMB OF ONE’S OWN Woolf offers in Modern Fiction that “life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end” (150). Sometimes a character’s halo obtrudes and even melds with another’s. One person’s perception can be someone else’s misperception. Often characters narrate their own stories via indirect discourse; discourses sometimes even intersect. Sparks may fly, or not, but nevertheless the consequences of each individual’s perception shapes character and triggers action, or inaction. For the truth inherent in life resides in one’s perception of the surrounding world. In Woolf’s words, how the “ordinary mind on an ordinary day” receives and interprets the bombardment of “a myriad of impressions.” Precisely that, she says, is the “task of the novelist” (149-150). Precisely how characters interpret the sensate imagery of the world, how these interpretations, at bottom cued by an enormous, intricate bramble of psychology and physiology, well then, that’s life, and that’s worth writing and reading about. Woolf says that it’s in the “dark places of psychology” that interest lies, observing how people deal with the fall of what she calls the “incessant shower of innumerable atoms” upon their minds (150). And now, it’s to Mrs. Ramsay’s “dark places” we shall go. (All quotations will be from To the Lighthouse, pages 95-100.)
GETTING THERE Evening. Her children are abed. Mrs. Ramsay tidies up some of her son’s cutout pictures. She knits, sitting upright. Sometimes she pauses, her needles, her weaponry, poised, suspended too. Her life has calmed, “sank down for a moment,” now her thoughts bubble up. During such periods of quiescence, she feels that “the range of experience seemed limitless.” She can’t mean the physical for she goes nowhere, not even later in the novel when she so longed to go to the beach with Minta and Paul and Lily. Something—her sense of responsibility?—something, kept her stuck in the house.
The sense of infinity that comes to Mrs. Ramsay during repose is the opening of her psychological possibilities. Simply put, her mind’s eye, blind in her external world by the blur of life, steadies. In serenity, the immeasurable sweep of its beam is vast. But she must gather herself beforehand as she literally gathers together the remnants of her external day. Notice the pattern and variation of her mental associations that carry her from the childlike level of magazine cutouts to her “unfathomably deep” consciousness. It only takes twenty-three lines to plunge to the unfathomable, so efficiently does Woolf maneuver her pen.
SNIPPETS The cutouts initiate the connection that “children never forget,” whether it’s the cancelled trip to the lighthouse or something else a parent said or did to them. There seems to be an implication that parental insensitivity always verges on the traumatic. Therein resides the reason for Mrs. Ramsay’s eternal vigilance. For in her responsibility, she too is a lighthouse and, in her steadfastness, lonely as well. So, she has eight children and a husband who mostly says no. Why didn’t she ever say no to him? So fatiguing all this is; she is literally fading before us. She notes that it “was a relief when they went to bed” for then all is silent and she is alone. And all the while she knits and her thoughts sink lower. Her mind is a maelstrom of reverie. Finally, she arrives at that “wedge-shaped core of darkness,” her deepest inner state. Now she is “free for the strangest adventures.”
Note how Woolf juxtaposes the heaviest of thoughts, those regarding responsibility, against the cutout pictures of Mrs. Ramsay’s child. It’s as if Mrs. Ramsay needs to arrange things that way—simple against complex, shallow against deep—in order to provide another kind of wedge between what will go away—her children—and what will remain—her sense of duty. Mrs. Ramsay needs such a wedge in order to maintain her grasp on reality: holding fast to “a little odd or end,” as she calls it.
Woolf reconfigures this wedge, this “core of darkness” into a fully portable “wedge of darkness,” Mrs. Ramsay’s adventurous inner reality, the place where “she could be herself, by herself” cutting out a pattern for her life any whimsically way she wanted. Such is her plunge. And she associates thoughts as she plummets, enumerating her full range of duties. She sinks beyond parenthood, responsibility, fatigue, self-absorption, all the way to spontaneity and freedom. Of course, all this is invisible to others. They—in particular Mr. Ramsay—only see her on the surface. The ‘real’ Mrs. Ramsay lies at unfathomable depths. Down there, her resources are unlimited. Down there, she can draw on the vast infinitude of her mind. When she comes up for air, she is merely affirming her existence by other people’s standards of reality. Up above, she is dying from the rigidities of her responsible life, imposed by both herself and others. But in her depths, her true emotional terrain, she is indeed infinite, the horizon of her inner life limitless, like the sea that surrounds her, and them all.
TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING...IS AGOOD THING But then guilt sets in, “the thick leather curtain” of a confessional in a church, another dark space. But her guilt, her trepidation, is but for an instant. She rallies, remembering that “this core of darkness” is both boundless and invisible. Down below she is free, and best of all, stable, that is, not herself. For as herself, up above, she never rests. The ironic paradox is profound. Is she more real in the ‘real’ world, or down below, in her imagined, thoughtful world? She can rest in her “wedge of darkness.” Her fleeting surge of guilt has shifted to exaltation for she is now looking out to meet the “long steady stroke of the lighthouse.” Just as quickly comes the light, a light beam, the lighthouse itself. For yes, it is the lighthouse that makes the light come to her. And can there be any doubt that there is a sexual longing here? Her vaginal “wedge of darkness” penetrated by “the long steady stroke” of the lighthouse. She, still so passive, sits, knits, observes. She “could not help attaching” herself. She will possess this ray of light, this hope, this lighthouse. Of all the things she saw, “the long steady stroke, was her stroke.” It moved her, her memory “would lift up on it.” Such sexual longings Woolf ascribes for Mrs. Ramsay, “it will end, it will end,” then “it will come, it will come.” The lighthouse, this phallus, will come. What will come? Will she, there, in her most intimate and feminine “wedge of darkness?” A voice, hers, invokes the Lord. She is annoyed, trapped by some force into saying something meaningless. What has God to do with my rapture, she asks? Why am I cut off from ecstasy? Now she moves farther into herself. Another lighthouse stroke and “it seemed to her like her own eyes meeting her own eyes.” She meets herself at every turn and pulse.
Her only true joy, a rapturous joy, is when alone, deep in thought, and now these thoughts turn overtly masturbatory. She too is a cutout, attenuated from sexual fulfillment. She has the surface trappings, eight children, but no deeper gratification. She lives a lie. So she sets herself about “purifying out of existence that lie, any lie.” She, herself, is the one true thing in her life. She is responsible for her own happiness, even her ecstasy. She even thinks herself beautiful, something everyone else has long noted. (Did Mr. Ramsay ever tell her?) And with aesthetic self-validation, her imagination explodes in the purity of a romantic impulse, one worthy of Wordsworth. For she indeed looks into the life of things, seeking some unification of herself with her cut-out, hectic world. Woolf writes:
It was odd, she thought, how if one were alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams,flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself (97-98).
And now she sees herself as she wished to be, emerging from the depths of the “lake of one’s being,” her core of darkness, embarking into the luminous life she longs to live, as “a bride to meet her lover.” At last she has remembered herself. Before, her life was so uncertain, cluttered, her experiences a series of cutouts without context. Significantly, and with utmost irony, Mrs. Ramsay knits throughout her unwoven life. But now in her deeper consciousness, she is unified by the spirit of things, not just the things. She is transformed, as was Wordsworth when he wrote in The Preludes:
To every natural form, rock, fruit, or flower, Even the loose stones that cover the highway, I gave a moral life: I saw them feel, Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all That I beheld respired with inward meaning (240).
For Mrs. Ramsay, the long steady light and her long steady knitting needles respired with inward meaning and her soul quickened. But she was rankled still by her earlier invocation to the Lord, particularly given the treachery of the world and the transience of happiness. Another pulse of guilt and suddenly she is no longer alone.
THE INTRUDER Enter Mr. Ramsay. He is pained by her remoteness. She is pained by his remoteness. He cannot protect her. From what? Herself? The future? From him? Probably yes to all, and more worthy of mention. But he too is passive. He stands staring into a hedge. He’s all on the surface, at least regarding Mrs. Ramsay. She is in both dimensions, on the surface and alone in her deep, dark place, being showered with atoms. She is reluctant to have her solitude disturbed. She struggles to regain her surface consciousness again by trying to focus on “some little odd or end, some sound, some sight.” But then it happens again, as it always had happened, for “she saw the light again,” and it stroked her, giving her intense, exquisite happiness. She and her mind and the waves rolled and swelled and “ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind,” as the beam had earlier “bent across their bed, stroking the floor.”There is consummation here. “It is enough!” she felt, “It is enough!” Sadly, it would have to be.
For still her husband could not speak. Even in her beauty, her ecstasy, he could do nothing to help her. Internally she was filled with “pure delight.” He saw her beauty, yes, but also saw sadness instead of joy. Ah, the finely considered distance of the man, lamenting that the woman “was aloof from him now in her beauty, in her sadness.” Him, the philosopher, the deep thinker, spending so much time stuck in the bog of his own thoughts that he was oblivious to her inner emotional state. But she—and here’s the magic, her intuitive alchemy—she speaks, for she knows his mood, his state of mind. She senses, as she always has, that “he wished, she knew, to protect her.” And in her knowing this, she protects herself, for awhile. For tragically, she has not learned much from her ecstatic moment or two. Rather she reverts to her old wifely, womanly ways, the slow ways that will kill her.