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Victoria Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” novel is basically a feminist novel which focuses on the female character in the society. The author has used many techniques and styles to bring out her feminist connotation. In her work she challenged the treatment and representation of women in the society. The use of the two main female characters in the novel Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe enabled her to analyze the role of women in the society. To The Lighthouse is a fascinating novel which effectively develops the question of sexuality and role of women in the family. Mrs. Ramsay is described as a wife-mother figure or an angel of the house for her eminent care for others and someone who seeks to harmonizes everyone. On the other hand, Lily represents the ideal woman with a self-absorbed esteem and who is out to exploit her professional skills and talents. The aim of this paper will be to analyze the conflicting social discourse during the Victorian period. In addition, the paper will examine the various roles of women in a family.
According to the novel, the patriarchy nature of family ends up silencing and repressing women in the society. Woolf is therefore vividly opposed to the feminine characteristics set by patriarchy system such as sweetness, modesty and subservience. She efficiently did this by depicting these qualities as a direct contrast to Mr. Ramsay and his masculine rationality and lucidity. Mrs. Ramsay represents an angel of the house figure living in the Victorian era, and opposed to feminist values such as chaos and fragmentation. She is represented as a world figure that is always willing to sacrifice her identity and interests for the sake of others. Her constant love and care for others was depicted by how she showed sympathy to her husband and the depressing feeling she got when she examined Lily perform her feminist role.
On the other hand Lily is much sensitive on the role of women and their treatment in the society. She feels so much pressurized by Mrs. Ramsay’s continued bolstering of the male ego. She feels so much drained by the constant Tansley’s deprecation of her work. His neither constant belief that women can’t write nor paint underestimates women potential and power. This portrays male chauvinism and their domination in the society. They felt that women could not do anything right and neither could they work on their own. But Lily, continuously fought against this notion by not relenting in her painting career which eventually transformed many including Mrs. Ramsey. The creation of Lily enables Woolf to analyze different kind of women, their experiences, constraints and possibilities.
However, looking at Mrs. Ramsey’s character, women are selfless creatures who always depend on men support and protection. They play a submissive role of taking care of others. On one side the lady is seen trying to marry off and maintaining her good image of an angel, while on the other hand she feels weary and regretful. Woolf uses phrases like, “But what have I done with my life? Thought Mrs. Ramsey, taking her place at the head of the table, and looking at all the plates making white circles on it…. Only this….an infinitely long table and plates and knives…” (Woolf 125). She is so much repressed into seeing her life as an endless table of plates and cutlery. Nonetheless, her moods respond differently depending on her interactions with people. For instant, she continued to have a popularized gender expectation on William and Lily, which according to her should marry. This is seen in “…William and Lily should marry” (Woolf 42). This description enables us to view Mrs. Ramsey as a wife and mother to everyone. Her believe to care, harmonize and marry people off is also depicted in her character. Mrs. Ramsey also feels that women are protected by men and thus nurturing their ego.
On the contrast, Lily breaks the many conventional gender roles by her outstanding character. She represents an independent, educated and talented female who is determined to exploit her skills and competence to build her career. She is a career woman who is not confined domestically an act which depresses Mrs. Ramsey. For this reasons, the two characters have at times disagreed as they try to curtail each other’s independence.
According to Woolf there is absence of women pursuing higher education, a sign of how women are generally repressed in the society. The author uses educated male figures who constantly admire their academic achievements in the novel. Phrases like, “Her husband, however, is one of the clever people, a distinguished philosopher with an acute intellect that was incapable of untruth; never tampered with a fact” (Woolf 13).
The gender difference is also represented by the heroic tyrant of Mr. Ramsey. In the novel he is compared with sharp objects such as knives and axe which his son want to use to harm him. This is shown by the term (Woolf 10), “Had there been an axe handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have killed him, there and then James would have seized it.” Mr. Ramsey is described as an assertive, opinionated individual with a philosophical prowess.
In her book, Woolf argued that the domestic prioritization of women has repressed and prevented them from participating in other daily activities such as education, work and travel. There is a linkage between the private and public realm oppression as noted in the novel. According to Woolf, women are gender constructed beings restricted by both the culture and traditions which hinders progress. This is as portrayed by the idealized version of a woman shown by Mrs. Ramsey. Her inner thoughts however show us that she is trying to constantly fight with the Victorian female ideal. Although she is described as a perfect mother figure, she has greater aspirations to her daughters. She wishes her daughters to have a different life which appreciates personal growth and aspire to realize great achievements in future. To The Lighthouse 14 states that, “Her daughters, Pure, Nancy, Rose-could sport with infidel ideas which they had brewed for themselves of a life different from hers; in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other; for there was in all their minds a mute questioning of deference and chivalry, of the Bank of England and the Indian Empire, of ringed fingers and lace… which called out the manliness in their girlish hearts.”
On the other hand Lily outwardly portrays Mrs. Ramsey in her painting, Madonna with child. In her painting, Lily portrays a loss of personality through her painting. The painting also challenged the conventional treatment of women in the society. Woolf uses the cultural and societal demands to show the expected gender behavior of people in the society. The novel’s cover page and title is symbolic in nature. The Lighthouse represents Mrs. Ramsey’s gender role of protection and guidance. The waves on the other hand symbolize the constant duties and responsibilities of women in the society.
Finally, as the novel ends, Lily’s painting changed the perception of Mrs. Ramsey who finally saw the need of being committed to what interests her, regardless of others. And towards the end, Mrs. Ramsey assumes her feminist role which she always opposed in the past. She finally decided not to show any sympathy to Mr. Ramsey and instead, she opted to focus much on her painting. The ending result was depicted by the phrase, “She must escape somewhere, be alone somewhere. Suddenly she remembered when she had sat there last ten years ago there had been a little sprig or leaf pattern on the tablecloth, which she had looked at in a moment of revelation….She would paint that picture now” (Woolf 216). And, “The painting orders life and unifies, it shows how everything is related to each other: …. All were related” (Woolf 232).
In conclusion as women shed their old self to embrace the ideal figure of a woman, men suffer loss of care, concern and sympathy in their relationship. The attention usually shifts to their interest in life and they tend to spend more time doing what they love. That is why Mr. Ramsey eventually suffered the same after the transformation of his wife. The novel also portrays male chauvinism which eventually faced an eminent challenge from the females. Tansley’s continued efforts to undermine Lily did not deter her from exploiting her painting skills. The tug of war between these two cultural values heightened as more women seek their economic dominance in the society. And at the end Mrs. Ramsey who was representing the Victorian era eventually transformed into a modern woman by assuming her active role in the society.