Chaotic Remembrance

As we close our time of exploring the particular experiences of a momentous and traumatic period in time—that is, the events surrounding WWI—I was captivated by the potential implications of the many moments scattered throughout To the Lighthouse which seem to be reflections upon the potential power and/or powerlessness of the human capacity for remembrance.  Of course, the subject of To the Lighthouse is the fragmentation of a family and, by their association, a small community, but through this family Virginia Woolf simultaneously provides us with a poignant commentary on the repercussions of World War I.

I noticed last week Mrs. Ramsay’s intense desire to preserve moments in time, even in the face of persistent change.  This was most apparent when, upon leaving the dinner, she turns in the doorway and, “With her foot on the threshold she waited a moment longer in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked” (111), as if to capture the impression forever in her memory.  As we found in these next sections of the novel, however, her attempt is grimly futile, for we are told almost in a literal, bracketed “aside”, that Mrs. Ramsay “died rather suddenly the night before” (128), and further that Andrew Ramsay had died fighting in the war in France, and Prue, the beautiful daughter for whom Mrs. Ramsay was dreaming so beautifully at the dinner party, “died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth" (132).  In result, Ramsay family does not visit the Isle of Skye for ten years, and time and decay begin to encroach on the memories of what has passed there. 

Very soon we must confront the apparent futility of human striving and remembrance when the narrator asks: “What power could now prevent the fertility, the insensibility of nature?” and declares that “Mrs. McNab’s dream of a lady, of a child, of a plate of milk soup?  It had wavered over the walls like a spot of sunlight and vanished” (138).  This would seem to imply, or even declare, that we have no power whatsoever over the decay and death necessitated by the passage of time.  And yet, Mrs. McNab does return, and does somehow slow “the corruption and the rot;” rescuing the house, as well as its collective memory, “from the pool of Time that was fast closing over them now a basin now a cupboard” (139). 

In fact, reminiscing upon one’s (perhaps long buried) memories plays a significant role in the final sections of To The Lighthouse.  Mrs. McNab continues to bask in her remembrances, thinking that “They lived well in those days.  They had everything they wanted (glibly, jovially, with the tea hot in her, she unwound her ball of memories, sitting in the wicker arm-chair by the nursery fender” (140), such actions that Woolf refers to as “wantoning on with her memories” (140).  The children, however, are still haunted by what has come before, and as Cam and James wind their way to the Lighthouse at last, James recalls the events we earlier saw of his childhood: “’It will rain,’ he remembered his father saying.  ‘You won’t be able to go to the Lighthouse’” (186).  Lily likewise sorts through the past as she paints on the lawn, and “she seemed to be sitting beside Mrs. Ramsay on the beach” (171).  And to Mr. Carmichael she is almost compelled to ask: “‘D’you remember?’…thinking again of Mrs. Ramsey on the beach” (171).

Lily, however, in contrast with James dwelling in his frustration, works through her memories in order to complete her painting, for she “was not inventing; she was only trying to smooth out something she had been given years ago folded up; something she had seen” (199).  Indeed, this painting is apparently not significant for how it looks, but for what it shows about the process of Lily’s having painted it, and thus, perhaps, this same process reflects the anxieties present throughout the novel. 

A neat conclusion to the remembered experiences of the Ramsay’s &co. is not provided by Woolf, but in attempting to work out what the potential lives of these people may be, I was repeatedly reminded of another bracketed aside:

“[Macalister’s boy took one of the fish and cut a square out of its side to bait his hook with.  The mutilated body (it was alive still) was thrown back into the sea.]” (180)

In this description I cannot help but find a reflection upon the broken Ramsay family, reduced in number by three, and also those who have been left behind after the fragmentation caused by WWI.  They are a family and a people emotionally damaged, even physically mutilated, and yet left alive.  They have had no say in what has happened, their hopes have been betrayed, and far too much has been stolen away.  Even still, they are alive, and so they must decide, each one, how it is that one may live.  To do so must surely feel strange and stilted--ten years have passed for the Ramsay family, after all--or even unnatural after such turmoil.  But perhaps it is the movement shown through the remembrance of tragedy that is most heartening, for it is, like Lily’s painting finished in a brief moment of clarity, an “attempt at something” (208).

Conclusions, Feminism, and Martyrs

One thing which struck me while finishing To the Lighthouse was the relatively unconventional ending. I remember one conversation which I had with Lily about the trope of feminist figures either commiting suicide or dying by the end of narratives. Lily mentioned that she was sick of feminist figures suffereing premature deaths largely because it seemed to signify the inability of femenists to exist in society. I wonder if this Lily's continued life, and completed painting, signify a divergence from that tradition and if that divergence might be due to its post-Edwardian setting? 

It stikes me that Lily not only becomes increasingly prominent in the narrative and the perspective of the novel, but that this happens, mostly, after the death of Mrs. Ramsay. Perhaps Woolf is attempting to make some sort of a statement about the need for a new kind of female figure, one who finds her strength and agency not within the private sphere, but withing herself. I read Mr. Ramsay as seeming to hit on Lily a little bit when they reunited at the house, and so Lily's continued resistence to marriage is in a sense saying that the Ramsay family needs to remain broken and largely disfunctional. Perhaps this was not Woolf's intention, but I cannot help but feel that she is consciously trying to defy conventional expectations for gender relations and closure by having Lily remain at a distance from the family.

Art, Time, and Distance in To The Lighthouse

A major theme in To the Lighthouse is the misunderstanding between people. Characters think and speak past each other, reading intention and feelings into others' actions and comments. All the while, they keep most of their own thoughts and opinions protected. This tendency is explored most explicitly through Lily, whose role as a detached artist gives her the opportunity to ruminate over these human tendencies. In one instance late in the novel, Lily considers her own judgment of Mr. Tansley. Woolf writes, "Half one's notions of other people were, after all, grotesque. They served private purposes of one's own" (Woolf 197). Lily understands that she has retained negative opinions of Tansley that are useful to her, but are inherently false.

Instead of maintaining her own bias, she must consider things she has heard from other people. She must learn to "look at him through [Mrs. Ramsay's] eyes" (197). To understand Mrs. Ramsay, however, "fifty pairs of eyes" (198) were not enough. And that is the same for anyone. It is only through time and distance that Lily is able to make sense of other people in her life. Years after Mrs. Ramsay's death, she is able to view her in a more complex way rather than through only admiration. In the first and third sections of the novel, Lily attempts to capture truth within her painting, and she needs the time and distance in order to complete her vision. Her feeling of success concludes the story, thereby demonstrating the unique ability of art to capture the complexity of human experience.

Time Passes and The Lighthouse

While To the Lighthouse is a re-read for me, I have always been confused as to what the lighthouse may represent. It is a symbol of desire in the first section of the book. It is the thing that James Ramsay desperately wants to experience/visit and the tension between Mrs. Ramsay and her husband is built around denying James the visit. It is also something far off and separate from the family, but able to affect them. Mrs. Ramsay times her speech with it at times, and characters focus on it at times. It's not just something that exists for James. It is something that is a real and influential presence in this family's life.

Then, in the "Time Passes" section, darkness arrives at the house after Mrs. Ramsay dies. Mr. Ramsay is lost to wandering and the family falls apart. Mrs. McNab stays as an old woman and caretaker. While night gives way to day, only the lighthouse can pierce the darkness of the night. 

 During "The Lighthouse," we bounce between Lily as detached artistic commentator (read: symbol for authorial voice) and Mr. Ramsay, James, and Cam going to the lighthouse. The family is angst ridden in the journey to the lighthouse, but once they are close to it (and especially after the land), wounds are healed. Not necessarily all of them, but enough of them. And the book is capped by Lily finishing her painting of the Ramsay family.

Seeing this, and taking our fractured family into account, the lighthouse would seem to symbolize intimacy or interconnectedness. It is what connects the family. It is what connects Mrs. Ramsay to Mr. Ramsay and James in "The Window." Also in that section, Charles agrees with Mr. Ramsay about James' not being able to go so that he can maybe score some points with Mr. Ramsay and forge a better connection. Lily is finished with the painting when they reach the lighthouse because she couldn't paint a completed picture of the family until they were a family. The lighthouse's connecting them accomplishes that.

This reading of the lighthouse plays well with the popular reading of the Ramsay generations from our class discussion. If the Ramsay elders are the older generation and the children are the "Lost" generation, then "Time Passes" is about World War I arriving and devastating what these generations believed to be reality. The lighthouse, or connectedness, is the only thing to break the darkness because the only way these generations can bridge the destruction is to reunite despite the overwhelming damage. The boat ride is the Lost generation trying to connect with the previous, and they manage to after accepting each other's faults. Lily, the passive authorial voice, interrupts the trips with her own commentary on where they must be or the imagined fates of other Ramsay children to illustrate that even authorial voice is groping in the dark when it comes to showing these real, meaningful connections between such a ravaged people. 

"Time Passes" and Spacial Temporality

Last week in class we kept coming back to the way impressionistic paintings capture a moment in time and space, but also try and mimic the movement of the scene. While reading "Time Passes," I kept coming back to this melding of the temporal and spacial, as I was struck by how Woolf furthers said melding which she started in "The Window." This section functions as almost an inverse of the other two, compressing time rather than prolonging it. "Time Passes" felt like watching time-lapsed footage of the cottage being reclaimed by nature while the Ramsays and Lily Brescoe were away dealing with the war. I also think this section is a wonderful encapsulation of the unceasing continuation of the natural world Brittain was wrestling with. Woolf further emphasizes this forward march of time by having traumatic moments of the war burst through, but quickly get swept away by the progression of the world around them. It almost creates the feeling that the Ramsays and Lily exist in a temporality entirely apart from the one being described to the reader by Woolf, due to Woolf's use of brackets, parentheticals and future tense between Chapters 1 and 10, making their distance a product of the war.

To the Lighthouse Part II: The ghost of Mrs. Ramsey

To round out this novel and the semester, I wanted to leave some quick thoughts on the ghosts of World War I that still follow us today. Much of the last two sections To the Lighthouse are written from the perspective of Lily Briscoe, and although Mrs. Ramsey is rarely mentioned in “Time Passes” (with the exception of “Mrs. Ramsey having died rather suddenly” (128)), Lily is reminded of her quite often in “The Lighthouse” section. Mrs. Ramsey’s death is never explained, but I think it could be interpreted as a casualty of the war. As we begin “Time Passes” and are introduced to the “profusion of darkness” (126) left behind in the empty house, we are reminded of broken families who faced the same situation after the war. Before the conflict, families sought comfort and saw a promise for the future in these young men — sons, grandsons, fathers, cousins and nephews — men they admired and viewed as the glue that held a family together. I think it’s safe to say Mrs. Ramsey played this role among the group of characters we find in the first section of To the Lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsey is the inspiration and persona that joins everyone together and helps them thrive or at least survive life. Once the war begins and we begin to learn the aftermath in the second section, readers are shut out of the details from Mrs. Ramsey’s death. All we know is that she died, and for families who lost men in World War I, they were probably left with the same burning questions — how, why and was the death worth the price she (Mrs. Ramsey) and those soldiers paid?

By section three, Lily is trying to experience a breakthrough with her painting, but she returns again and again to thoughts and memories of Mrs. Ramsey. She cries out for her and wonders what the dead woman would think of their situation and how they are trying to move on after the war. In a scene where Lily is reminded of Mrs. Ramsey’s matter-of-fact and direct personality, she is lost in thought about the woman when “(A noise drew her attention to the drawing room window — the squeak of a hinge. The light breeze was toying with the window)” (195). When I read this, it seemed very clear to me that Mrs. Ramsey’s presence not only existed in the minds and memories of those who knew her but also as a ghost who continued to linger in the home. The slight noise and breeze that blew against the window symbolizes that though she is gone, her memory is strong and affects Lily in a very personal way. Mrs. Ramsey becomes a ghost to Lily that sometimes she appreciates and other times she wants to forget. I’m sure this struggle was common among families who wanted desperately to reunite with their soldier but at the same time wished to leave him in the past with the remnants of a terrible war.

Mrs. Ramsay's Watch

After reading “The Window,” part one of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I found myself particularly drawn to Mrs. Ramsay’s description of commencing the dinner service. Within this description, Mrs. Ramsay examines the “sterility of men,” through the metaphorical vehicle of a stalled watch: “Again she felt, as a fact without hostility, the sterility of men, for if she did not do it nobody would do it, and so, giving herself the little shake that one gives a watch that has stopped, the old familiar pulse began beating, as the watch begins ticking – one, two, three, one, two, three. And so on and so on, she repeated, listening to it, sheltering and fostering the still feeble pulse as one might guard a weak flame with a newspaper” (83). The passage establishes male impotence, and presents Mrs. Ramsay as the sole character that may restart, reinvigorate it. However, it is the feminine that must shake itself, who must first be reinvigorated with violent energy to find a state of normalcy. Thus erotic imagery is employed, instituted by the fleshy, vital human “pulse,” suggesting Mrs. Ramsay’s own sexual responsibility in the task of revitalization. It is this onus of responsibility that seems to continually separate her from visions of the window, light, and the Lighthouse, in which she finds joy and perhaps an escape. There is also an interesting way in which Woolf writes a rhythm or musicality into the passage. By way of alliteration, there is a feigned heartbeat created in “began beating” and “begins ticking,” as well as a certain euphony of rhyme that is mirrored later in “sheltering and fostering,” in the –ing ending. Mrs. Ramsay also alludes to the waltz in her triple time of “one, two, three” of the watches reinvigorated ticks. The passage, which begins as a description of the dinner service, has now come to signify a delightful medley of images: a dinner table full of guests, a stopped watch which has been shaken back to life, and a woman imprisoned by the need or desire to fix male impotence, who must use all her sexual prowess to fix this catastrophe, while also waltzing to pretty music, perhaps alone, as if in a child’s jewelry box. The performativity which Mrs. Ramsay seems to suggest is necessary to her role, and certainly seems to be, has trapped her in this unending waltz of regeneration, of having eight children and yet still Charles is described as sterile, of a problem that she cannot solve. It is a lovely passage, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the novel.

Communication in To the Lighthouse

In Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, something that strikes me is the lack of real communication between characters. The narrative style brings us into the thoughts of various characters with noticeably different opinions and understandings. Often, these thoughts are at odds with one other. Yet, these conflicts are rarely communicated with other characters. There is a complete lack of transparency and a major focus on interiority. The way that the perspective shifts between characters can be jarring, since the reader has to keep up with whose thoughts we are entering at a particular moment. These choices also lend themselves to comparing the idea of a "collective unconscious" to individual experience. Clearly, Woolf places emphasis on subjective experience and the difficulty in communicating thoughts of a deeply personal nature. Reading the novel with WWI in mind lends to it a compelling dimension, suggesting the disjointed relationships resulting from WWI. Like so many other works we have read this semester, including poetry, this novel invokes an inability to explain trauma during the war.

Woolf, Narrative, and Perspective

What struck me most about To the Lighthouse was obviously the odd narrative style, specifically, the manner in which the narrative seems to switch perspectives in different ways. There are clearly times in which Wolfe uses chapter demarkations to represent the same event through multiple perspectives. The most obvious example of this is Chapter XV which seems to be entirely dedicated to Prue answering a question. However, Wolfe's narrative also seems to switch focus within chapters too. At times it seems similar to free, indirect discourse; yet the use of paratheticals really trips me up. The parentheticals occur mostly when the character which the narrative is focused seems to imagine another character's thoughts. However, the origin of these parentheticals is not at all clear. If this is intended as a stream of consciousness, then it is odd that it would be represented in paratheses which presumably are absent from a charachter's train of thought. This leads me to wonder whether these words in the parenthesis are intended to be the charachter's thoughts, the narrator's thoughts, or the the thoughts of the charachter being imagined? All of these potential solutions are problematized by specific instances within the text, and it is the lack of consistency that really tripped me up.

World War I as Subtext in Woolf's To The Light House

When I first read To the Lighthouse last summer, I did not read World War I into it at all.  In fact, I thought of this novel as a sort of eulogy for traditional marriage as we see with Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and their horde of children.  While I think that reading is still justified, with the context of this course I began to read WWI as a pervasive subtext to the novel.  Mrs. Ramsay's insistence on creating marriages is less an overbearing, motherly figure, but instead someone who wishes to see the world repopulated following a war that decimated the younger population like none other before it.  Mr. Ramsay has similar feelings that his children "must be filled with life." (37)  This insistence on "must" is important because it is declarative and insinuates that any other option would not be acceptable.  Mr. Ramsay, according to Mrs. Ramsay, sees the world differently and appears deeply appreciative of the life that surrounds him, but some part of him still cannot actually see the beauty of things (flowers, landscapes, his own daughter's beauty are just a few examples).  This also accounts perhaps for the general feeling of boredom that everyone feels.  As if something big is always just about to happen, and the endless waiting for whatever that event might be is exhausting.  It accounts for Charles Tansley's nihilism, that the Ramsey children misidentify as atheism.  The War might even account for some part of Augustsus Carmichael's opium abuse.  In many ways, To the Lighthouse can then be read as a portrait of how domestic lives attempt to account for trauma and how the mundaneness of it all comes up lacking in the wake of an event as devastating as the War.