Feminism in 'To the Lighthouse' By Virginia Woolf

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In 1927 when To the Lighthouse was published, feminist literature was not universally accepted by the public. Virginia Woolf is known for her feminist views and her interest in writing novels about the inner lives of women. However, it is not safe to assume that To the Lighthouse incorporates these same values. A proper definition of feminism is necessary in order to determine whether or not the novel falls under the feminist category. The Stanford Journals defines feminism as “both an intellectual commitment and a political movement that seeks justice for women and the end of sexism in all forms.” Woolf’s novel uses stream of consciousness in order to outline the inequality between men and women within a marriage and so this definition pertains to the novel. It is also worthwhile to consider the characteristics of a feminist novel, which aims to examine topics such as marriage, identity and empowerment. Woolf’s novel venters around the Ramsay family on their holiday in Scotland, focusing intimately on the thoughts of Mrs. Ramsay and her friend Lily Briscoe. While Mrs. Ramsay prides herself on sharing traditional marriage values, Lily rejects the social expectation that women must marry in order to achieve a sense of validation. Woolf offers a glimpse into the inner lives of two women on opposing sides of feminism when examining the marriage roles, the question of identity and the empowerment of women within the novel. It becomes evident that the symbolic ending advocates for feminism and Woolf does this by contrasting the characters of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe.

Mrs. Ramsay’s first appearance in the novel is significant as it portrays her as a loving mother and a loyal wife. This is an important distinction as it emphasizes her feminine role within the family. The novel begins with Mrs. Ramsay assuring her young son James that he will be able to travel to the lighthouse the next day. Mr. Ramsay is quick to interject and contradict her which upsets their son. James feels that his mother is “ten thousand times better in every way” (Woolf, 8) than his father, who he claims feels pleasure from “disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife” (8). This distinction is significant as it emphasizes the fact that Mr. Ramsay considers himself superior to his wife. Charles Tansley furthers this disappointment when he adds that the wind will make it impossible to arrive at the lighthouse safely. Mrs. Ramsay feels “it was odious of him to rub this in, and make James more disappointed; but at the same time, she would not let them laugh at him” (9). Although she feels that his comment was “disagreeable,” (9), she tolerates their behaviour because of her dedication to being the perfect feminine figure. It becomes evident that Mrs. Ramsay does not only feel a sense of loyalty to her husband, but to all men in general. She expands on this in the following passage:

“Indeed, she had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential; which an old woman could take from a young man without loss of dignity, and woe betide the girl—pray Heaven it was none of her daughters!—who did not feel the worth of it, and all that it implied, to the marrow of her bones” (10).

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Mrs. Ramsay is acknowledging that she feels obligated to look after men because of the many responsibilities that they carry. Women are not yet able to carry these responsibilities and so it is her job to do what she can to make the men’s lives easier. Society deems it a woman’s job to ensure that a “house is made full of life” (43), and that the men are “warmed and soothed” and their “barrenness made fertile” (43). This is precisely what Mrs. Ramsay means when she further defines marriage as the determiner of her own self-worth. She cannot comprehend how some women do not find validation in looking after their husbands, and she hopes that her daughters won’t share this same outlook. She encourages those around her to marry and genuinely believes that “an unmarried woman has missed the best of life” (56). She is so committed to her domestic role that even her internal thoughts are influenced by her husband. In one passage, she kisses her husband’s hair and thinks to herself “he will never be so happy again, but stopped herself, remembering how it angered her husband that she should say that” (43). Her entire life is devoted to caring for Mr. Ramsay and this shows her inability to maintain a sense of individuality within her marriage. While she plays the role of mother and wife in perfect accordance with society's standards, she has had to sacrifice part of herself in order to devote all of her time and energy into her family. Mrs. Ramsay feels empowered in her marriage because she knows that she holds the power over her husband’s happiness. Her empowerment comes from feeling needed by men and is the reason that she feels so content. Mrs. Ramsay represents hegemonic femininity and although she finds value in her way of living, she lacks true feminine empowerment and isn’t able to assert herself in her marriage.

Unlike Mrs. Ramsay, Lily Briscoe is the epitome of the feminist voice; she opposes the idea of marriage in favor of pursuing her passion for art. Mrs. Ramsay describes her as “an independent little creature” (20). While she respects and admires Mrs. Ramsay and her commitment to marriage, “she liked to be alone; she liked to be herself; she was not made for that” (56). Lily begins painting a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay in the hopes of capturing her artistic vision, but she is tortured with self-doubt. Lily feels that every idea she has for her painting is “infinitely bad” (54) and she cannot stop thinking about Charles Tansley’s words of criticism. She hears his words “whispering in her ear, ‘women can’t paint, women can’t write…’” (54). His voice echoes in her head, preventing her from fulfilling her creative vision. This demonstrates the limitations that men and society have placed on women who choose to live independently. Her inability to complete her portrait represents the struggle that women endure when attempting to liberate themselves from such an oppressive society. Lily’s insecurities are as much a result of her own mind as it is the influence of Mrs. Ramsay. Lily knows herself and she realizes that she “need not marry, thank Heaven: she need not undergo that degradation” (111). Lily doesn’t wish to sacrifice herself just to be degraded by marital obligations which makes Mrs. Ramsay thing her a “fool” (1.9.9). While dining with the Ramsay’s, Lily chooses to ignore the social expectation that women must jump to a man’s side when they are feeling uncomfortable;

“There is a code of behaviour she knew, whose seventh article (it may be) says that on occasions of this sort, it behoves the woman, whatever her own occupation may be, to go to the help of the young man opposite so that he may expose and relieve the thigh bones, the ribs, of his vanity, of his urgent desire to assert himself…” (99).
Lily is recognizing that there is a social pressure on her to relieve Charles Tansley of his discomfort, but yet she adds “how would it be, she thought, if neither of us did either of these things?” (99). In saying this she is challenging the traditional roles of women within society and therefore asserting herself as a representative of the women who do not wish to be compliant to men. Charles urgent desire to assert himself is true of all men; Mr. Ramsay often looks to his wife for encouragement during moments of discontentment. Lily refuses to degrade herself for the benefit of men. With this being said, Lily does admire Mrs. Ramsay and the life that she lives, claiming: “‘I’m in love with this all,’ waving her hand at the hedge, at the house, at the children” (24). She cannot believe that she feels this way about a marriage, and feels herself to be “a peevish, ill-tempered. dried up old maid” (165) in comparison. It’s evident that Lily loves the Ramsay’s but because of her desire to remain independent and paint something profound, she cuts herself off from the idea of marriage. Lily’s negative opinions on marriage change at the end of the novel when she finally realizes her artistic vision asserts her individuality and sense of empowerment.

The characters of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe are imperative to the feminist aspect of the novel as they both experience symbolic events. The deaths of Mrs. Ramsay and her daughter Prue are of vital importance as they symbolize the end of traditional marriage values. The portrayal of Mrs. Ramsay throughout the entire first section of the novel works to paint her as a symbol of hegemonic femininity. She often takes pride in thinking about her daughter Prue’s future marriage, which is what makes her daughter’s death so symbolic. Prue dies in childbirth shortly after getting married; a death that could’ve been prevented had she not have wed. Similarly, Mrs. Ramsay encouraged the failed marriage of Paul and Minta. The characters most associated with traditional marital roles end up miserable or dead. This makes it evident that Woolf is writing more than just a comment on marriage; she’s advocating for the liberation of women. Lily’s liberation comes at the end of the novel when she is finally able to realize her vision. This occurs after she accepts that she will marry Mr. Ramsay (217). She finally accepts the part of her that wants to marry, which allows her to have what Mrs. Ramsay had while also maintaining her independence. Mrs. Ramsay wasn’t able to assert her individuality while in her marriage, but once Lily accepts herself she recaptures her vision from ten years earlier, no longer hearing the echoing words of Charles Tansley. The liberation of Lily is symbolic for the new wave of feminism in which women wish to assert their individuality. Both women represent the two sides of feminism and by incorporating these symbolic events, Woolf is not only contrasting the two opposing views but also making a comment on the struggles that women face when attempting to free themselves from an oppressive society.

By examining the characters of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe it becomes evident that Woolf aims to advocate for the liberation of women; Mrs. Ramsay’s death symbolizes the end of traditional marriage values while Lily’s liberation demonstrates the importance of asserting one’s individuality. Lily spends much of the novel plagued with doubts about her artistic abilities and her way of living but she ends up fulfilling her vision. Unlike Mrs. Ramsay, Lily has lived her life independently and it isn’t until she finally accepts the idea of marriage and the part of herself that feels connected to Mrs. Ramsay that she is able to finally recapture her vision. It is through Mrs. Ramsay’s symbolic death and Lily’s liberation that Woolf rejects hegemonic femininity in favor of the feminist voice. Woolf’s incorporation of stream of consciousness illuminates the women’s thoughts about marriage, identity and empowerment proving that To the Lighthouse is in fact a comment on feminism.

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