Hoy High Lighthouse, Graemsay, Orkney Islands (in northern Scotland)
Photo taken by Richard Harvey
She looked up over her knitting and met the third stroke and it seemed to her like her own eyes meeting her own eyes, searching as she alone could search into her mind and her heart, purifying out of existence that lie, any lie. She praised herself in praising the light, without vanity, for she was stern, she was searching, she was beautiful like that light. It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself. There rose, and she looked and looked with her needles suspended, there curled up off the floor of the mind, rose from the lake of one’s being, a mist, a bride to meet her lover.” (p. 63-64)
I can’t escape the idea that the lighthouse represents Mrs. Ramsay. Not literally, of course, but in terms of beauty. Purpose. Meaning for those who are searching for a guide, a beacon of light to help them through the dense fogs in life.
In the beginning of the book, James, her tender-hearted son of six, wants nothing more but to go to the lighthouse. His mother says yes, while his father is adamant that the weather will not permit it. More than what these words mean is the significance behind them: Mrs. Ramsay is soft and beautiful and loving; Mr. Ramsay is seen as a tyrant. He slams doors, he focuses on his books, he whirls plates out of windows if he is displeased that an earwig has landed upon his meal.
Virginia paints for us a picture in words, just as scrunched-face Lily paints one with her brushes. She laments the worth of her painting; do the shadows and light balance one another? Do the images connect? and we wonder the same about the family. Each member brings his or her own personality to create the whole, and each distinct characteristic is needed. For instance, Mrs. Ramsay sees her husband’s work as a scrubbed table:
Whenever she ”thought of his work” she always saw clearly before her a large kitchen table. It was Andrew’s doing. She asked him what his father’s books were about. “Subject and object and the nature of reality,” Andrew had said. And when she said Heavens, she had no notion what that meant. “Think of a kitchen table then,” he told her, “when you’re not there.” (p. 23)
Whereas he sees woman’s minds as foolish:
There wasn’t the slightest possible chance that they could go to the Lighthouse tomorrow, Mr. Ramsay snapped out irascibly.
How did he know? she asked. The wind often changed.
The extraordinary irrationality of her remark, the folly of woman’s minds minds enraged him. He had ridden through the valley of death, been shattered and shivered; and now, she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out of the questions, in effect, told lies. He stamped his foot on the stone step. “Damn you,” he said, But what had she said? simply that it might be fine tomorrow. So it might.” (p. 31-32)
Despite their differences, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay love each other. They forgive each other their faults.
Then, suddenly, Mrs. Ramsay is gone. There is no one left to bring the group together; the summer house is neglected, the books grow mushrooms and spiders, James longs for a reassuring word which he doesn’t receive from his father until the very last pages. Her absence is felt keenly, as Virginia must have felt when her own mother died.
It seems to me that Virginia Woolf is mourning the loss of her mother through the loss of Mrs. Ramsay. We know that her mother was beautiful. That she led a family of eight children just as Mrs. Ramsay does. We know that her sudden death caused Virginia to suffer tremendously, as the death of Mrs. Ramsay causes those who knew her to mourn deeply. And these are the very things that happen in To The Lighthouse.
For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express the emptiness there? (She was looking at the drawing-room steps; they looked extraordinarily empty.) It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind. The physical sensations that went with the bare look of the steps had become suddenly extremely unpleasant. To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have-to want and want-how that wrung the heart , and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs. Ramsay! she called out silently…(p. 178)
Thank you, Emily, for leading us To The Lighthouse. I’m already looking forward to the next Woolf in Winter read, Orlando, hosted by Frances on February 12. The last read for Woolf in Winter is The Waves, hosted by Claire, on February 26. Hope to see you there!