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Jun 1, 2012

Marriages in To the Lighthouse

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a 
good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

The opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice epitomizes the traditional depiction of marriage that is prevalent throughout Romantic and Victorian era literature; a depiction that Virginia Woolf re-evaluates in To the Lighthouse through a modern presentation of marriage. In its traditional literary use, marriage serves a distinct purpose. A young woman must become married in order to ensure stability for her future, and a man must become married to fulfill his societal role. In the words of Jane Austen, the necessity of marriage is “universally acknowledged,” remaining unquestioned throughout the Romantic and Victorian periods of English literature. In this traditional use, marriage was the definitive goal of the text. The novel circulated around the will-they-or-wont-they atmosphere that young love can produce until the final chapters of the novel tied all the remaining questions of the story into one neatly-pressed knot of matrimony.

This is not the marriage that Virginia Woolf presents in To the Lighthouse. Marriage in Woolf’s text is anti-climactic, filled with the day-to-day duties of paying bills, attending to company and raising children. In this text, Woolf takes a step away from the conventional theme of marriage and explores what it means for a man and a woman to become husband and wife. Woolf’s use of marriage opens a discussion about being married that was not previously an aspect of the marriage illusion, thereby producing questions regarding certain representations of marriage without actually criticizing matrimony herself. Marriage acts as a unifying thread throughout Woolf’s text, connecting incongruous moments with structural unity and clarity. Chapter thirteen of “The Window,” the first volume of To the Lighthouse, particularly assesses the structural meaning of marriage. The depiction of marriage set forth in this chapter warrants further exploration into the representation of marriage that Woolf uses throughout her narrative.

Chapter thirteen of To the Lighthouse takes place out-doors, in the yard of the country home kept by the Ramsay’s in the Hebrides. Mr. Ramsay is a professor and a philosopher. His wife, Mrs. Ramsay, is the mother of eight children and though she is not a young woman, she is beautiful. The Ramsay’s vacation at this home in the Hebrides for the summer, accompanied by a number of characters peripherally associated with the family, including William Bankes, who is an old friend of Mr. Ramsay’s; and Lily Briscoe, a young unmarried woman. Together William Bankes and Lily Briscoe open this chapter as they walk together, crossing the lawn. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are also together on the lawn, chaperoning two of their eight children as they play catch.

Lily Briscoe sat at her easel on the Ramsay’s lawn working on a picture of Mrs. Ramsay and her youngest son James when Mr. Ramsay disrupted her. As chapter thirteen opens, Mr. Ramsay has since joined his wife on the other side of the lawn, but William Bankes, who had approached Lily Briscoe prior Mr. Ramsay’s disturbance to observe her painting, remains by her side. Seeing Lily and William walking together across the lawn, Mrs. Ramsay decided that the two should be married, professing to herself at the conclusion of chapter twelve that a marriage between the couple would be “an admirable idea,” and that “they must marry.”

With this matrimonial slant, Lily Briscoe and William Bankes begin chapter thirteen at center stage, walking with one another across the lawn:

He had been to Amsterdam, Mr. Bankes was saying as he strolled across the lawn with Lily Briscoe. He had seen the Rembrandts. He had been to Madrid. Unfortunately, it was Good Friday and the Prado was shut. He had been to Rome. Had Miss Briscoe never been to Rome? Oh, she should — It would be a wonderful experience for her — the Sistine Chapel; Michael Angelo; and Padua, with its Giottos. His wife had been in bad health for many years, so that their sight-seeing had been on a modest scale.

William and Lily’s discussion of art reveals an interesting dynamic in the relationship between the two friends. William’s experience and education makes him the authority on the subject of art within the context of this conversation, yet Lily is the artist. The shared perceptions of the two reveal a difference in the value of art. William is a connoisseur of paintings; he travels to see the highly regarded works that profound artists have left behind. His intention with art is to study the work of the great artists before him, and to read the poetry, theory and prose of others who have also traveled to view those pieces. William is a passive observer, focusing on art only to further his own understanding. He seeks out paintings that are known to be great for the sake of their popularity, rather than searching for the greatness in art itself. In contrast, Lily is a painter. She has not traveled and studied the great artists in the fashion that William has, but is content with her limited expertise.

Lily’s societal place makes it understandable that she may lack opportunity to travel abroad and view the great paintings in the way William Bankes and his late wife did, but Lily is content with what she has not seen. While William’s interest in art stems from educational endeavors, Lily appreciates art for the enjoyment that she finds in painting. Lily reply’s to William’s statement regarding art as they continue walking across the lawn:

She had been to Brussels; she had been to Paris but only for a flying visit to see an aunt who was ill. She had been to Dresden; there were masses of pictures she had not seen; however, Lily Briscoe reflected, perhaps it was better not to see pictures: they only made one hopelessly discontented with one’s own work.

Lily knows that there is a lot of art in the world that “she had not seen,” but unlike William who excused himself for the pieces that he had missed, Lily was content with the gaps in her education and the limitations that they imposed. William Bankes explains to Lily that though he had been to Madrid, “it was Good Friday and the Prado was shut.” William clarifies this, as though he cannot boast as must as he would like due to the external limitations he was subject to.

William is not engaging in a conversation about particular pieces as he discusses art. He lists the places that he has been, noting masterpieces as if they were notches on his belt without offering any internal perspective as to his appreciation of the artists work. Lily’s relationship with art is a more personal one. Lily paused and reflected—turning her attention inward instead of venturing to compile her own list of art exhibitions. Rather than fixate on her lack of exposure, Lily conjectured that “perhaps it was better not to see pictures: they only made one hopelessly discontented with one’s own work.” Lily does not look at art to understand the philosophical essays or poems that have cited their significance. Instead, she views art for art’s-sake. She is interested in the internal beauty that a work of art can hold, and that beauty can be found in pieces of art that are prestigious, as well as her own paintings.

When Lily viewed the great paintings, she applied their artistry to her own work. Her reply to William was a consideration on the inevitable discouragement that viewing work better than your own can produce. William Bankes disagrees with Lily’s reflection, arguing that “one could carry that point of view too far.” William takes this moment to re-assert the hierarchical structure that differentiates Lily’s work from that of the artistic masters. To Lily’s claim of using the masterpieces to judge one’s own work, William retorts that “we can’t all be Titian’s and we can’t all be Darwin’s,” and goes further to compliment Lily’s place in the artistic hierarchy by pondering if “you could have your Darwin and your Titian if it weren’t for humble people like ourselves.” William implies here that Lily’s work is not expected to be considered in the same light of the great artists, but instead she fills her place in the lower ranks, and that those lower ranks serve their own purpose. The disappointment that Lily feels when looking at her own work confirms the greatness of the prized masterpieces. William concludes his thought on the subject a moment later when he comments that “perhaps what he was saying did not apply to pictures.” Perhaps his insights were only applicable to the academic world he understood; to the subject of botany which he studied himself, or that of philosophy that his friend Mr. Ramsay studied. Perhaps the world that William Bankes understood did not apply to the artistic endeavors of Lily Briscoe.

Lily’s thoughts turn from her own personal endeavors as an artist to her role as a friend and female companion to William Bankes as their conversation draws to an end:

Lily would have liked to pay him a compliment; you’re not humble, Mr. Bankes, she would have liked to have said. But he did not want compliments (most men do, she thought), and she was a little ashamed of her impulse and said nothing while he remarked that perhaps what he was saying did not apply to pictures. Anyhow, said Lily, tossing off her little insincerity, she would always go on painting, because it interested her. Yes, said Mr. Bankes, he was sure she would, and, as they reached the end of the lawn he was asking her whether she had difficulty in finding subjects in London when they turned and saw the Ramsays.

Lily feels the desire to compliment William, but it is unclear where this desire stems from. When William Bankes refers to himself as a “humble” person, he is not referring to his lack of artistic talent as he is to Lily Briscoe, but instead to his own humble work as a Botanist. She wants to tell William Banks that “he is not humble;” a comment that would have re-affirmed his authority after he had categorized his own work as being on a level with her own. Lily holds back this compliment as she realizes that he “did not want compliments,” and then reflects—though “most men do,” indicating a peculiarity about William Bankes that catches her a bit off guard.

The meaning of Lily’s sentence “he did not want compliments” can be read differently depending upon the meaning assigned to the word “want.” It could be argued that his sentence is providing insight as to Lily’s perception of William’s pride, or lack of insecurities on his part. It is unclear whether William is not deprived of compliments because he is accustomed to having them so often, leaving Lily free of the necessity of making one; or if instead this sentence, “he did not want compliments” indicates a lack of desire by William to be complimented. In either situation, it can be understood from this line that William Bankes does not rely on the compliments of others to feel secure. He is comfortable in himself without the reminding affirmations of a female companion.

Unlike William, Lily is insecure in this moment. Lily’s desire to offer William a compliment leaves her feeling ashamed and silent. However, Lily is able to pass her insecurities by re-stating her own interest in painting. No, she does not work for prestige, or for the pleasure of others, but instead explains to William that “she would always go on painting, because it interested her.” Her own interest in her art defies any insecurity that she holds towards herself or concerning her painting. William Bankes agrees with Lily’s statement that she would always continue to paint, and begins to ask her further questions regarding her painting when the conversation is broken.

William and Lily reach the end of the lawn, and as they do they see Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, who are still standing together as two of their children play catch. The last perspective offered from Mrs. Ramsay was at the conclusion of chapter twelve, when she viewed William and Lily walking together across the lawn and decided “they must marry.” Now, as our attention returns to Mrs. Ramsay, the subject shifts to marriage once again:

So that is marriage, Lily thought, a man and a woman looking at a girl throwing a ball. That is what Mrs. Ramsay tried to tell me the other night, she thought. For Mrs. Ramsay was wearing a green shawl, and they were standing close together watching Prue and Jasper throwing catches. And suddenly the meaning which, for no reason at all, as perhaps they are stepping out of the Tube or ringing a doorbell, descends on people, making them symbolical, making them representative, came upon them, and made them in the dusk standing, looking, the symbols of marriage, husband and wife.

Seeing Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay together, Lily understands not just the institution of marriage, but what it means to actually be married. At this moment for Lily, marriage does not refer to a lifelong commitment or wedding bells, but instead to the shared experiences of the everyday, mundane reality. Mrs. and Mr. Ramsay play catch with their child together in the same way that the two would step off of the two-penny Tube together in London. Their movements are in cohesion with one another.

The minute details that comprise this moment share in the symbolical attraction the Ramsay’s exhibit. Mrs. Ramsay wears a green shawl, and that shawl is thereafter an identifiable aspect of who Mrs. Ramsay is. The green shawl adds to the completeness of the symbolical image of the two. For a moment, how the couple is standing, what they are wearing and their slightest movements are all compiled into a unison image that provides Lily with an understanding of what it means to be married—to share one’s life with another person so intimately. Marriage is not just love, it is made up of smaller mundane details that Lily captures here as the Ramsay’s become a singular image in the dusk light.

Mrs. and Mr. Ramsay become themselves again, a man and a woman throwing a ball with their children, and as the chapter comes to a close the individual is all that is left of the once symbolical perception of marriage:

Then, after an instant, the symbolical outline which transcended the real figures sank down again, and they became, as they met them, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay watching the children throwing catches. But still for a moment, though Mrs. Ramsay greeted them with her usual smile (oh, she’s thinking we’re going to get married, Lily thought)…

The “symbolical outline” that “transcended” Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay “sank down again,” lasting only an instant, and with that, the focus of matrimony shifts again. Lily see’s in Mrs. Ramsay’s smile what the reader already knows to be true, “she’s thinking we’re going to get married.” If the symbolic nature of marriage is a man and a woman standing on the lawn, then this could translate to Lily and William as they walked together, but it does not. Lily and William never get married, despite the wishes of Mrs. Ramsay. Lily understands that the appearance of her and William walking together matches that of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay on the lawn. They are paired with one another, and perhaps they too can be pictured stepping “out of the Tube or ringing a doorbell” as Lily pictured Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay doing together, but the image of matrimony produced here does not indicate marriage. The personal perceptions of marriage that Lily and Mrs. Ramsay have are not applicable to the shared, public reality.

The shift in attention from the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay to the friendship and hoped engagement of Lily and William dismantles the illusion of marriage that Lily perceived as they first reached the end of the lawn. The four adults now stand together with the children as they continue to play with the ball:

… for one moment, there was a sense of things having been blown apart, of space, of irresponsibility as the ball soared high, and they followed it and lost it and saw the one star and the draped branches. In the failing light they all looked sharp-edged and ethereal and divided by great distances. Then, darting backwards over the vast space (for it seemed as if solidity had vanished altogether), Prue ran full tilt into them and caught the ball brilliantly high up in her left hand, and her mother said, “Haven’t they come back yet?” whereupon the spell was broken.

As the ball is thrust into the air there is a “sense of things having been blown apart” that makes Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay into a representation of matrimony. Removed from their individual selves, they are able to display what it means to be husband and wife, but as the ball falls back towards the Earth so does that perception.

Together, Mrs. Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay, William Bankes and Lily Briscoe watch the ball as it soars. This compilation of incongruous characters are together to make up a dinner party, a marriage, or a family, but each person is independent of the rest. Each individual has their own inner perspectives that they project onto the others around them. Each is trapped by their own internal montage of images and ideas that create a private reality. As the ball soars through the air there is a feeling of time stopping, and as it returns to earth so do the thoughts and perceptions of the four adults standing together:

Mr. Ramsay felt free now to laugh out loud at the thought that Hume had stuck in a bog and an old woman rescued him on condition he said the Lord’s Prayer, and chuckling to himself he strolled off to his study. Mrs. Ramsay, bringing Prue back into throwing catches again, from which she had escaped, asked, “Did Nancy go with them?”

As the ball returns to Earth, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are no longer a unified front of matrimony. Instead, each is a separate entity that has distinct thought patterns. Prue caught the ball, preventing any sort of crash of reality, and with this catch the “spell was broken.” Mr. Ramsay is no longer the symbolical husband, and is now free to “laugh out loud” at his son becoming “stuck in a bog” and having to say the Lord’s prayer to be set free. With this independent thought he left the scene, and Mrs. Ramsay’s focus returns to her children as she reassembles the game of catch and asks the whereabouts of her daughter Nancy. The shared reality that the home in the Hebrides holds is restored.

The symbolic nature of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in this chapter exemplifies the depiction of marriage presented by Woolf throughout the entire novel. Marriage is not romanticized, but instead is shown realistically as a culmination of two individuals joining into a unitary institution, but all the while remaining separate. For a fleeting moment, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are standing together on the lawn, but as the moment slips away so does their unison. Lily perceives Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay as symbolic, taking them on the lawn to be the quintessence of husband and wife, but even in that moment each are influenced by external pressures and events that are foreign to the other. Mrs. Ramsay is connected to her husband through concerns for their children and home. Prior to their symbolic placement on the lawn where they played catch with the children, Mrs. Ramsay took her husband’s arm and fretted over how to tell him about the greenhouse bill, “It’ll cost fifty pounds” she repeats in her head, without wanting to break the moment.

Small moments and stressors like the greenhouse bill comprise the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in the way that small details comprise an entire lifetime. To the outsider, the husband and wife appear as a solitary unit, but that unit is made up of private thoughts, idealizations and opinions that are not shared between the couple. This collection of private perceptions builds a public representation of marriage. The relationship between husband and wife in To the Lighthouse, particularly that of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, shows the distinctness of character within each counterpart as they are unified to become a third entity—the married couple.

1 comment:

  1. Thoroughly insightful. Especially the portion where Lily Briscoe's view of art is contrasted with that of William Bankes


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