© 2019 by M. Keith Booker

In her essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown,” Virginia Woolf presents one of her most famous arguments for the development of a new kind of art and literature in the modern age. Here, she declares that “in or about December, 1910, human character changed.” As a result of this character shift, she goes one, relations between ‘‘masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children’’ all understandably changed. Moreover, she notes, ‘‘when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature.’’ Much of her subsequent career can then be seen as her attempt to follow her own observation to its logical conclusion by trying to write new forms of literature that are appropriate to this newly changed world.

From this point of view, it might be significant that the action of To the Lighthouse, possibly Woolf’s most important novel, begins shortly before the date cited in her essay as the beginning of the modern age and then extends roughly ten years beyond it, thus encompassing the first decade of this new age. Of all of Woolf’s novels, To the Lighthouse has received the most—and the most positive—critical commentary. F. R. Leavis, a prominent critic not typically over-fond of Woolf’s writing, placed it alongside Ulysses and The Waste Land as the three finest expressions of the literary consciousness of their time. Partly based on Woolf’s own experience growing up in a late-Victorian family with a prominent patriarch, To the Lighthouse is both a profound philosophical exploration of the nature of time and memory and a detailed satirical takedown of the patriarchal values of late Victorian society, values that Woolf saw were alive and well even in the late 1920s. Woolf herself had sometimes criticized others for writing fiction in an autobiographical mode, and as she conceived of To the Lighthouse she wondered if it could even be called a novel, given its roots in her own life. Lucio Ruotolo, for example, discusses the way in which the book is, among other things, part of Woolf’s attempt to deal with the sense of a void left in her life by the premature death of her mother when Virginia was still a young teen. Yet, in a 2015 BBC poll of book critics outside the UK, To the Lighthouse was listed as the second greatest British novel of all time, surpassed only by George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

There are many reasons why To the Lighthouse is rated so highly, despite the fact that it is a novel almost devoid of any real plot. Indeed, its ability to function so effectively virtually without the support of any real action is one of the things that marks it as a modernist classic. But it is also a feminist classic, a classic example of philosophical fiction, and a classic example of the transformation of real-life experience into fiction[1]. To the Lighthouse is a carefully crafted and meticulously structured novel that introduces us to a number of different characters and to their attitudes about a variety of issues, ranging from art, to class, to gender. Meanwhile, as with much modernist fiction, World War I hovers in the background of the novel and has a major impact on the characters, even as very little is said directly about it.

“The Window”

To the Lighthouse is divided into three segments. The first segment, “The Window,” is set in September in about 1909 or 1910, on the Isle of Skye, the largest and northernmost of the major islands in the Inner Hebrides Group off the West Coast of Scotland. Here, the Ramsay family (which includes the parents and eight children) are hosting a number of guests on the island at their summer home, which is modeled on Talland House in St. Ives, Cornwall, which Woolf’s family regularly rented as a retreat during the first decade of Woolf’s life. In fact, Mrs. Ramsay has invited so many guests that the house can’t hold them, so that some of them have to take lodgings in town, spending their days at the Ramsay’s retreat. Much of this section is merely designed to introduce us to the characters, and it in fact might largely be described as a series of character sketches, though these sketches contain a great deal of loaded commentary about their contemporary society.

Mr. Ramsay, loosely based on Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, is a moderately well-known philosophy professor who has authored a number of academic works on his areas of expertise (though only the first of these appears to have been an important contribution).[2] Mrs. Ramsay, based on Woolf’s mother, is a long-suffering soul who struggles to hold things together and provide a peaceful environment in which Mr. Ramsay can do his oh-so-important work. Ramsay is a rather pompous and domineering figure, though he is also insecure and constantly in need of reassurance, especially from Mrs. Ramsay, who provides it in abundance. Ramsay is devoted to his work to the point of distraction, making him seem absent-minded and emotionally distant from his large family. Much of the “action” of this first segment, for example, deals with the hope of six-year-old James Ramsay that the family will be able to travel to a nearby island on the next day to visit a lighthouse.[3] The nurturing Mrs. Ramsay tries to be supportive and to assure James that the trip might well be possible, despite the threat of bad weather. Mr. Ramsay merely scoffs and coldly announces that he sees no chance that the weather will allow the trip. Ramsay is not one to mince his words to try to protect the feelings of others, even (or perhaps especially) his own children. He deals in truths and expects his pronouncements to be taken as such:

“What he said was true. It was always true. He was incapable of untruth; never tampered with a fact; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being, least of all his own children, who, sprung from his loins, should be aware from childhood that life is difficult; facts uncompromising; and the passage to that fabled land where our brightest hopes are extinguished, our frail barks founder in darkness (here Mr. Ramsay would straighten his back and narrow his little blue eyes upon the horizon), one that needs, above all, courage, truth, and the power to endure” (3–4).

As it happens, Ramsay is, in fact, correct, and the trip to the lighthouse does not come off—at least not until the third section of the novel, ten years later. Meanwhile, James’s violently Oedipal reaction to Ramsay’s pronouncement makes it clear that he has encountered such coldness from his distant father before and that he resents it immensely:

“Had there been an axe handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children’s breasts by his mere presence; standing, as now, lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one, grinning sarcastically, not only with the pleasure of disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife, who was ten thousand times better in every way than he was (James thought), but also with some secret conceit at his own accuracy of judgement” (3).

The Ramsay family dynamic is thus made clear in the first few pages of the book, as Mrs. Ramsay takes care of her husband and children and essentially shields them from one another. She clearly relishes the role; it is the one for which she has been prepared all her life as an upper-middle-class Victorian woman. Thus, when one of her guests, the poet Augustus Carmichael, resists her nurturing, she is disappointed and feels that he is probably hostile to her because of his bad experience with marriage. At the time of Part I of the book, Carmichael is a little-known poet, though his work gains popularity during the war. There is, of course, a touch of vanity in Mrs. Ramsay’s sense of rejection by him: she is accustomed to having men like her and trust her and proud that husband’s well-known acquaintances sometimes confide in her. She is also aware that men are aware of her great beauty:

“She bore about with her, she could not help knowing it, the torch of her beauty; she carried it erect into any room that she entered; and after all, veil it as she might, and shrink from the monotony of bearing that it imposed on her, her beauty was apparent. She had been admired. She had been loved. She had entered rooms where mourners sat. Tears had flown in her presence. Men, and women too, letting go to the multiplicity of things, had allowed themselves with her the relief of simplicity” (30).

Among other things, Mrs. Ramsay is fiercely protective of her guests and will not abide having anything negative said about them. This attitude even includes the rather unlikeable Charles Tansley, an aspiring academic who is a student and great admirer of Mr. Ramsay. Tansley is a man from a lower-class background—his father is a shopkeeper with ten children, and he is descended from fishermen and lighthouse keepers. Further, Tansley proudly claims to have been self-supporting since the age of thirteen, so he has been handed very few advantages that he did not himself earn. On the other hand, he is now a doctoral student at work on his dissertation and headed for an academic appointment, so he has already to some extent been divorced from his working-class roots. Tansley, in short, is essentially in a precariously “unclassed” position, not fully welcome in th upper classes, but no longer at home in the lower ones. Zwerdling notes some of Tansley’s anxieties over his class position:

“Born into poverty, ambitious, self-educated, determined to enter the leisured and affluent world of the Ramsays by force if necessary, he sees Mrs. Ramsay as a kind of deus ex machina who brings the balm of her own generous nature to heal the wounded creatures struggling below” (23).[4]

That he is treated rather harshly in the novel is indicative of a weakness that sometimes occurs in Woolf’s writing—lack of sympathy for those who have not had the advantages of her own privileged background. Mrs. Ramsay, though, takes it upon herself to befriend Tansley when it seems no one else will, especially her own children, who find him revolting and like to mockingly refer to him as “the atheist” (something that might actually help win Mrs. Ramsay’s sympathy because she has her own doubts about the existence of God). Among other things, Tansley clearly has special anxieties because of his class background, which is reflected in his attitude toward women, which can be quite hostile, but which is clearly related to his class anxieties as well. His complex attitudes are clearly shown in the dinner party scene late in “The Window.” Here, the middle-class men around the table attempt to espouse sympathy for the working class, but Tansley, given his background, is able to speak with more authority, even if the heated nature of his discourse violates the usually polite decorum of Edwardian dinner parties. But, as Simpson notes, the effectiveness of his political critique of the upper classes is undermined by his own clear desire to escape his working-class background and join those upper classes and by his “aspiration to belong to the masculinist educational establishment that keeps class and gender hierarchies in place.” Further, he entangles those two forms of hierarchy in that “his criticism of middle-class social conventions, which he disparages as feminine and sees as detrimental to male intellectual achievement, echo those of the other middle-class men around the table” (Simpson 115).

Tansley’s overall attitude toward women is most clearly seen in the moment in which he teases the aspiring painter Lily Briscoe by whispering to her as he works on a painting, “Women can’t paint, women can’t write.” For her part, Lily is quite sure he doesn’t really mean it, but the taunt follows her throughout the rest of the book. On the other hand, when Tansley and Mrs. Ramsay walk into town and back early in the book, he feels proud to be seen with such a woman, because (even at fifty years old and after eight children), she is still quite beautiful, which he thinks will reflect well on him. In this sense, his reaction to being seen with her is indicative of the way men have so often used women as decorations to shore up their own egos. One suspects, however, that Tansley’s pride in being seen with her also has to do with her more elevated class background, which, again, will disguise his own humble origins and make him appear to fit in with the Ramsays’ class.

However, as Kathryn Simpson notes, the portrayal of class in To the Lighthouse (and elsewhere in Woolf’s work) is actually quite complex, partly because Woolf herself was conscious of a certain class snobbery that she was never able fully to overcome—and with which she was never herself fully comfortable. Simpson argues that Woolf’s writings are often elitist, but also “reveal an acute understanding of the material and ideological forces impacting on all aspects of experience and opportunity, including the interconnectedness of selfhood and social class” (110). Moreover, Simpson argues that Woolf’s representation of class in To the Lighthouse must be read with a certain eye toward irony. For example, while the plan of Mrs. Ramsay to deliver a motley collection of “whatever she could find lying about” to the “poor fellows” working at the lighthouse (13) seems highly condescending, Simpson argues that Woolf is well aware of this fact and that she is here seeking to “turn a critical light on her own class, exposing to scrutiny its smug security and ruthlessness (113).

For her part, Mrs. Ramsay finds Tansley rather unlikeable, but she suffers his attitudes gladly, feeling that he is much in need of her support—and she loves being supportive. The virtual embodiment of the Victorian “Angel of the House,”[5] she not only feels that it is her duty to take care of her husband and children, but she feels instinctively protective toward males in general, especially young ones who are just beginning to make their way in the world, a world that, as Englishmen, they will be expected to dominate:

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! (5)

Mrs. Ramsay has fully internalized the Victorian notion that being a wife should be a woman’s highest aspiration and that marriage in itself is an absolute good. She reveres her husband, even as she recognizes his weaknesses and need for her support. Providing such support, for Mrs. Ramsay, is the best thing a woman can do. She cannot, for example, wait to see her beautiful eldest daughter Prue become a bride, and she is quite pleased to see romance bloom (with a little nudge from Mrs. Ramsay herself) between two of her guests, the good-hearted Paul Rayley, and the pretty, but scatter-brained Minta Doyle. Mrs. Ramsay also hopes to play matchmaker for Lily Briscoe, who serves as the focal point of the novel’s numerous ruminations on the nature of art and the creative process. Ramsay hopes to match Lily with the childless widower William Bankes, a botanist and family friend with whom Lily strikes up an immediate friendship, despite the fact that, at 60, he is old enough to be the father of the 33-year-old Lily.

At the same time, Mrs. Ramsay is perfectly well aware that her attitudes are a bit old-fashioned amid the sweeping changes that are afoot in the world. She understands that her daughters are a new generation and realizes that their lives might be very different from her own:

“Her daughters, Prue, Nancy, Rose—could sport with infidel ideas which they had brewed for themselves of a life different from hers; in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other; for there was in all their minds a mute questioning of deference and chivalry, of the Bank of England and the Indian Empire, of ringed fingers and lace, though to them all there was something in this of the essence of beauty, which called out the manliness in their girlish hearts, and made them, as they sat at table beneath their mother’s eyes, honour her strange severity, her extreme courtesy, like a queen’s raising from the mud to wash a beggar’s dirty foot” (5).

For her part, Lily is already on her way to being a very different sort of woman than her host, even though she admires Mrs. Ramsay greatly and sometimes wishes she could be like her. Lily is fond of Bankes and much impressed by his kindness and insight, and she is not entirely opposed to the idea of a match with him—or to becoming the center of a thriving family like Mrs. Ramsay. No doubt, were this a conventional Victorian novel, Lily and Bankes would have wed and their wedding would have been considered a positive outcome. But this is the early twentieth century, and Lily has something within her that strives to be more than a wife and mother. Like Woolf, Lily is, first and foremost, an artist and can ultimately find fulfillment only through her art. Meanwhile, Lily also recognizes that Mrs. Ramsay represents Bankes’ ideal of a woman, an ideal Lily cannot ever achieve.

Among other things, in a version of the key modernist theme of alienation, Lily seems to experience the possibility of a close relationship as an ultimate threat to her own selfhood. At one point, Lily leans her head against Mrs. Ramsay’s knee, hoping somehow to absorb “knowledge and wisdom” but feels that nothing happens: “How then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another about people, sealed as they were?” (37). Even Mrs. Ramsay, ideal wife, feels a gulf between herself and her husband, a sense that she can never be truly honest with him and still maintain her role. She thus feels that

“it was painful to be reminded of the inadequacy of human relationships, that the most perfect was flawed, and could not bear the examination which, loving her husband, with her instinct for truth, she turned upon it; when it was painful to feel herself convicted of unworthiness, and impeded in her proper function by these lies, these exaggerations” (29).

Lily, like Mrs. Ramsay, tries to be nice to Tansley (not an easy task in any case) but feels hopelessly alienated from him: “She would never know him. He would never know her. Human relations were all like that, she thought, and the worst (if it had not been for Mr. Bankes) were between men and women” (67). Ultimately, despite her fondness for Bankes, Lily experiences the possibility of love (and especially marriage) as more of a threat than a promise. Thus, rather than feel envious of Minta Doyle after her engagement to Paul Rayley, she is happy that she herself remains unattached. She “was thankful. For at any rate, she said to herself, catching sight of the salt cellar on the pattern, she need not marry, thank Heaven: she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution” (74). Later, Lily paints and muses on the marriage of Paul and Minta and imagines a fictional scenario in which the marriage has turned out rather badly, she thinks: “And this, Lily thought, taking the green paint on her brush, this making up scenes about them, is what we call ‘knowing’ people, ‘thinking’ of then, ‘being fond’ of them!” (129). No one ever really knows anyone: we just make up fictions about knowing them that stand in for knowledge.

For Lily, true knowledge can only come via the act of artistic creation. In the first section of the novel, Lily struggles uncertainly to find an approach that appropriately expresses her vision as an artist. She attempts to execute a painting that features Mrs. Ramsay, partly as an expression of her admiration, but simply cannot put her feelings on canvas. Some of this difficulty might arise from an unconscious realization that Mrs. Ramsay is not really a viable role model for her, but most of Lily’s difficulty in the initial part of the novel seems to be that she is attempting to find a mode of painting that goes beyond the conventional representational style of Victorian realist painting, a style that is not appropriate either to Lily’s personal sensibilities or to the modern world in which she lives. She has, however, yet to discover such a mode that works for her.

“Time Passes”

The haunting second section of To the Lighthouse, “Time Passes,” is the most experimental and unconventional of the three sections. It consists primarily of poetic meditations on the passing of time and of descriptions of objects (both natural and manmade), free of any human presence. The section has an almost postapocalyptic feel, as if it takes place after the near-extinction of the human race. The principal “character” is the Ramsay summer house, largely abandoned except for the occasional ministrations of the caretaker, Mrs. McNab. Mrs. McNab is, indeed, the actual working-class character of whom we see the most, and she is depicted as a positive force in many ways, though her depiction is also rife with working-class stereotypes. Thus, Simpson notes that she is paradoxically depicted as “inane and uncouth as well as a powerful, vital force” (116). Except for the brief opening segment of this section, the appearances of the characters we have come to know in “The Window” are confined to brief, coldly objective announcements within brackets. These announcements can be quite jarring. The third segment, for example, contains a poetic description of a stormy night (and a suggestion of how one night follows another in the course of a human life), then ends with this bracketed passage: “[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]” (95)

Early in segment 6, we find a poetic evocation of spring, including a bracketed passage announcing the marriage of Prue Ramsay, who makes a beautiful bride. But the promise of new life brought both by the coming of spring and by Prue’s marriage turns out to be false, much as in the beginning of The Waste Land. Spring becomes summer (though in a vague and metaphorical way that means years might have passed), and we are given the following bracketed announcement: “[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well]” (98). Soon afterward, amid suggestions of dark occurrences that disrupt the flow of nature, we get news of still more deaths, this time in World War I, which had haunted Woolf’s fiction since Jacob’s Room (1922): “[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous] (99).

A bracketed suggestion soon afterward that the war seems to have increased the market for Carmichael’s poetry (100) is surely not meant to lighten the effects of the deaths that have just been reported; instead, Carmichael’s good fortune makes these deaths seem even more horrifying by contrast, providing a sort of memento mori that reminds us all that we must die, but that the world will go on perfectly well without us. However, because of World War I, death was especially ever-present during the period covered by the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse—”but everyone had lost someone these years,” muses Mrs. McNab, while thinking about the deaths in the Ramsay family, then adding the more down-to-earth complaint that, during the war, “prices had gone up shamefully, and didn’t come down again neither” (101). Meanwhile, time continues to March onward, the war ends, and Mrs. McNab receives word that the family might again be returning to the house, so she brings in extra help to try to get the decaying dwelling back in shape for human habitation. The surviving members of the family return, with Carmichael and Lily Briscoe among them.

“The Lighthouse”

As the third section begins, many of the original characters return to the island house and complete some of the unfinished business of the first section. Mrs. Ramsay is, of course, not present, but her absence in a sense dominates this section. Meanwhile, Mr. Ramsay and two of his surviving children (including James) finally undertake the trip out to the lighthouse—with the bonus that James finally wins the approval of his stern father, who praises him for his skill in sailing their craft out to the lighthouse. Lily, meanwhile, finally finishes her painting, with Augustus Carmichael looking on. This completed painting is, in fact, the real culmination of the novel, as Lily finally hits on an abstract style that is congruent with her artistic vision, that he she able to produce the kind of painting that she feels truly represents the way she sees the world:

“Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was—her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision” (154).

Lily has, in short, become a modernist, successfully turning her back on realist painting in much the same way that Woolf had been forced to turn away from the tradition of realist fiction in order to achieve her vision as a writer.

Woolf’s own views on this topic are well-captured in her important essay “Modern Fiction,” written in 1919, shortly before her own turn to a more modernist mode of writing with Jacob’s Room. Here Woolf evokes a “new realism” that goes beyond the mimetic work of traditional realists such as Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy, who have failed in the task of producing a new fiction for the new age:

“Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy have excited so many hopes and disappointed them so persistently that our gratitude largely takes the form of thanking them for having shown us what they might have done but have not done” (208).

Their failure, she goes on, comes from the fact that they are “materialists” concerned with representing the physical aspects of reality rather than the more important spiritual ones:

“It is because they are concerned not with the spirit but with the body that they have disappointed us, and left us with the feeling that the sooner English fiction turns its back upon them, as politely as may be, and marches, if only into the desert, the better for its soul” (209).

These writers, she concludes  “write of unimportant things; … they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and transitory appear the true and the enduring” (210).

However, more innovative writers (she singles out James Joyce, even before Ulysses, as the most notable) portray more important aspects of reality, focusing especially on “the dark places of psychology” (215). Finally, in the essay’s most famous passage, she concludes that modern writers like Joyce capture the true essence of reality at a more profound level than can be achieved by ordinary mimetic realism, because

“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?” (212-3).

The portrayal of Lily in To the Lighthouse can be taken as a statement in favor of this “new realism” (i.e., modernism) as opposed to conventional realism—just as To the Lighthouse itself might be Woolf’s most successful execution of her own aesthetic advice. Meanwhile, Lily’s portrayal in To the Lighthouse also makes some fundamental statements about art in general that move beyond this realism-modernism opposition. Even after she develops an artistic technique that effectively expresses her vision, she realizes that her approach might not be a popular one. But she also concludes (in what might be taken as a rather elitist gesture) that this cannot be her concern. It matters not that the painting might well be put away in an attic or even destroyed. What matters, she concludes, is the act of artistic creation. One might compare here the artist Gulley Jimson (Alec Guiness), who labors with a whole team of artists to paint a gigantic mural on a wall of an abandoned church in the 1958 film adaptation of Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (1944), one of the key British “artist” novels. In the film (though the novel ends differently), just as the mural is completed, a demolition crew arrives to tear down the building. But Jimson himself hops aboard and drives the lead bulldozer himself, gleefully destroying his own creation. Like Lily, he has achieved his vision, so it doesn’t matter if it is torn down. It is the process, not the product, that is of paramount importance in art—though one could, of course, debate this conclusion.

The climax of To the Lighthouse thus delivers important messages about the nature of art in general and about the role of the female artist, who is here able to find fulfillment completely apart from the traditional Victorian resources of husband and family. At the same time, the novel has also delivered a number of important statements about class and gender in general, as I have indicated above. Perhaps the one issue of central importance to modern British literature (and to this volume in particular) is the relationship between Britain and its empire, which would seem here to be almost ignored—other than Mrs. Ramsay’s occasional reminders that British men need lots of feminine support because they bear the heavy task of ruling an empire. Indeed, as Seshagiri notes, “Of Woolf’s major novels, To the Lighthouse is the least explicitly “about” race or Empire” (95). After all, imperialism is often a key topic in Woolf’s writing and thinking. Characters in her novels often travel to India or other eastern locales. Her late volume of essays Three Guineas is extensively critical of British imperialism, for example, and her husband, Leonard Woolf, himself a former colonial administrator, became a strong opponent of empire (and advocate for socialism) in his own writing. Woolf herself, meanwhile, had extensive connections to India. Her paternal grandfather, Sir James Stephen (1789–1859) served for more than a decade as the British “under-secretary of state for the colonies” and was one of the architects of Victoria’s empire. Her mother, Julia Stephen (née Jackson), was born in Calcutta.

A closer look, however, shows that the fact of empire might be a more important presence in To the Lighthouse than is immediately obvious. For example, the very fact that To the Lighthouse features a privileged English family vacationing in Scotland already has colonial resonances, given the historical relationship between England and Scotland.[6] Second of all, the Ramsays’ home is filled with artifacts that carry resonances of empire, such as the family tea set discovered by Mrs. McNab in Section 2. After all, both tea and chinaware were originally imported from the Orient before they became staples of middle-class British life. Thus, as Urmila Seshagiri puts it, “Tea—imported, transplanted, and imposed as social ritual—signifies the hybrid, culturally divided quality of Englishness” (99).

Of course, To the Lighthouse does not specifically indicate the Asian origins of tea, just as it fails to acknowledge the existence of the workers in the colonies, whose labor is so important to making possible the luxurious lifestyle of the Ramsays. Seshagiri, though, sees very positive connotations in the fact that Lily Briscoe, emblem of a new form of British feminism, as well as a new form of British art, is explicitly associated with the Orient via her frequently-mentioned “Chinese eyes.” These eyes, of course, presumably help Lily to achieve an artistic vision that is outside the white British mainstream, which, by extension, is associated with conservative adherence to the realist tradition. Seshagiri grants that there is an Orientalist dimension to Woolf’s description of Lily. However, Seshagiri (like most critics) seems to associate the notion of Orientalism with the formulations of Edward Said—which involve an element of fascination with the East, but an even larger sense of Western superiority to, or even revulsion toward the East. For Seshagiri, though, Woolf’s association of Lily the artist with the Orient is an almost entirely positive one and can thus be taken as an example of the sort of Orientalism that Booker and Daraiseh refer to as “consumerist Orientalism,” in which the element of fascination is stronger than the element of revulsion, as opposed to what they refer to as Said’s “colonialist Orientalism.”

Seshagiri also provides an especially useful discussion of the ways in which Woolf’s depiction of Lily can be linked to the aesthetic theories of Woolf’s Bloomsbury associate Roger Fry would seem to be particularly relevant. In his 1920 essay collection Vision and Form, Fry argues that Western art is sometimes too intellectual and that non-Western, nonrepresentational art can sometimes be more powerful as a way of expressing certain feelings and impressions. Fry is particularly interested in “primitive” African art (which he praises, though in highly racist terms), but notes that the “civilized” art of China and Japan can sometimes capture some of the emotional power of primitive art.[7] That the portrayal of Lily might be Woolf’s way of endorsing Fry’s suggestions might be indicated in the way Lily is repeatedly described in the novel as having “Chinese eyes,” a description that also furthers her status as a sort of outsider among the other characters in the novel (even though there is certainly no indication that Lily is meant to be literally Chinese).[8] Moreover, by making Lily a practitioner of her own modernist aesthetic theories, Woolf distances her own work from the realist tradition by aligning it with nonwestern aesthetics. At the same time, by employing a consumerist form of Orientalism (which is still problematic in terms of its appropriation of Eastern motifs) Woolf subtly aligns herself against colonialism and with the colonized Other.


[1] Much critical attention has been devoted to the process through which Woolf converted her personal experiences into fiction in this novel. See Fernald for an overview of that process, which is beyond the scope of this essay.

[2] Ramsay also has clear predecessors in English literature. For example, Minow-Pinkney argues that Mr. Ramsay “condenses into a single figure two illustrious literary predecessors, Casaubon and Lydgate, from Middlemarch” (88).

[3] This lighthouse is the Godrevy Lighthouse, which Woolf’s brother Adrian was once sorely disappointed not to be able to visit.

[4] It might be useful to compare here Richard Hoggert’s discussion of English “scholarship boys”—working class boys who were able to acquire high-level educations through the competitive scholarship system put in place in England at the beginning of the twentieth century. Hoggert notes that such boys often led troubled lives in adulthood, partly due to their sense of being “emotionally uprooted from their class” and yet unable to win the genuine respect of cultivated middle-class people: “at one boundary the group includes psychotics; at the other, people leading apparently normal lives but never without an underlying sense of some unease” (225).

[5] The figure of the “Angel of the House,” is a key stereotype of the nurturing, domestic Victorian wife and mother. The term derives from Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem of the same title.

[6] See the discussion of Trainspotting in this volume for more on this historical relationship.

[7] Fry (whose biography Woolf would write in 1940) was an important influence on Woolf’s engagement with the arts, as was her sister, Vanessa Bell, an accomplished painter in her own right. On Woolf and the visual arts, especially in To the Lighthouse, see Bellamy. Much has, in fact, been written about this topic. See, for example, Humm, for a broad study that encompasses cinema and photography, as well as painting.

[8] There were, in fact, extensive interchanges between the Bloomsbury Group and Chinese artists. See Laurence.