Virginia Woolf: to the Lighthouse Essay
In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse the immense complexities that define one’s identity and self worth are presented. In world of rigid social structure, the conventional expectations of society construe and distort independent identity. Mr. Ramsey, Mrs. Ramsey, and Lily Briscoe each experience these external pressures that shape their values in different ways. Mr. Ramsey focuses on the acceptance of his philosophical work by others while Mrs. Ramsey embraces the gender role society has given her. On the other hand, Lily rejects conventionality all together and struggles with her need for acceptance.
Through the stream of consciousness of the characters, Woolf depicts the underlying internal debate each face as they try to understand themselves. As a dedicated philosopher, Mr. Ramsey puts all his value on the permanence and greatness of his works. His need for intellectual success is metaphorically described as a journey between A to Z to a point where he is finally content with his contribution to and the lasting effect of his works on society. Mr. Ramsey shows the extent of his dependence on opinion of others often by constantly doubting himself. The smallest things trigger his biggest insecurities.
For example, during the dinner conversation where the guests fail to mentions his works causing him much anxiety. In attempts to hide his vulnerability, Mr. Ramsey becomes controlling to those around him. His vengeance for the dinner conversation is seen clearly when he gets irrationally angry with Carmichael for consuming an extra bowl of soup. Mr. Ramsey tries to compensate for his dependence on others for self worth through his tyrant actions.
Since his identity is based solely on the perception of others, Mr. Ramsey constantly needs external validation. Although Mrs. Ramsey mocks her husband’s absurd anger towards the consumption of an extra bowl of soup, she understands that it is really about his insecurities and takes it upon herself to praise him enough to build up his confidence. Woolf shows that the source of Mr. Ramsey’s oppressiveness is rooted in his dependence on others to find self worth thus contributing the misery of the entire Ramsey family. Like Mr. Ramsey, Mrs. Ramsey relies heavily on the opinions of others to shape her identity. She perfects the role that she is expected to fulfill as a mother and wife.
Her strong conviction women who do not marry miss out on the “the best of life” underscore the worth she places on tradition gender roles. She further epitomizes her role by the special care and treatment she gives to the men in her life. Her initial interactions with Mr. Tansley fully illustrate the profound effect she has on people. In a matter of an afternoon, Tansley becomes smitten with Mrs. Ramsey. As he walks with her, his entire demeanor changes and he notices the violets and yearns to carry her bag.
Tansley becomes giddy and full of life by just spending a few hours with Mrs. Ramsey. Mrs. Ramsey’s internal dialogue revels that she is very much self-aware of the motives behind her actions. When she is upset by Carmichael’s rejection for help, she begins to see her and the downfall of dependence on others. She acknowledges that her actions are fueled by her need for admiration from others and that this dependence is not only petty but also flawed. It is evident through out the text that she is losing her true self to the identity she has created within the constraints of social structure.
Woolf’s serene and metaphoric description of Mrs. Ramsey folding up herself one petal at a time indicates that she is concealing many of her true feelings and in essence puts aside herself to fulfill her obligations to others. Mrs. Ramsey describes her thoughts as part of the “core of darkness” as they starkly contrast the traditional and conventional family life she has essentially dedicated herself too. Alone, in her “core of darkness”, Mrs. Ramsey feels the emptiness in herself since all her efforts and focus has been on others for so long. The daydream traveling around the world exposes her deep desires to find herself independently the family she has given so much to.
Lily Briscoe further describes Mrs. Ramsey’s identity by paint her as an abstract figure. The brief description of a simple purple triangle that represents both Mrs. Ramsey and James indicates her identity is al-together lost in her role as a mother and wife. The other figures and people in the painting are not described in this same abstract way. Thus this symbolizes the extreme dependence Mrs. Ramsey has on others. Marriage to Lily is a “dilution” of one’s identity. She sees it as something that would compromise her creativity and character. Thus, Lily’s journey differs from Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey because she never places much value on tradition. However, throughout the novel Lily struggles to escape the judgment from the Ramsey’s and Tansley. Lily’s inability to accept the social pressures from those closest to her hindered her from fully understanding her experiences and self worth.
Lily comes to terms with her identity after the death of Mrs. Ramsey. Lily is once again faced with the same pressures from Mr. Ramsey when he approaches her for reassurance, sympathy, and even marriage. Although, she is strong throughout their conversation but feels the same guilt about not fulfilling her social obligations after Mr. Ramsey leaves. After the boat departs she is fully able to reflecting on her self and come finally able to come to terms with the death of Mrs. Ramsey and the different . The distance and time from Mrs. Ramsey’s death, allows Lily to perceive her self-identity, independent of external pressures. By finishing her painting, Lily is able to express and perceive her experiences from perspective that gives her insight to herself. This is where is finally is able to attain the identity that has been sought after by everyone. Time has helped her see clearly.
The painting matches her vision because she no longer is torn between her identity in society and herself. Woolf uses Lily’s tough but independent journey to underscore the importance of finding value in oneself without any dependence on the opinions and traditions of society. Both of the Ramsey’s were unable to support themselves without the acceptance and admiration of other. It is only when Lily too fully lets go of the burden she feels that she is able to finish the painting and say “I have had my vision” Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. Print.