Role of Women in To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf is an outstanding and unique novelist who portrays the inner self of the human mind rather than the happenings in the external life. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse deals with the conflict between the feminine and masculine values which is universal in nature. The women in the fiction represent both extremes of femininity. There are two women characters Mrs. Ramsay a stereotypical emotional woman who fits well into the framework of a patriarchal definition of womanhood and Lily Briscoe, the representative of the new age woman imbibing the principles of modernity. Both these women have a different perspective towards life and are involved in an intense search for a meaning for their life. This essay focuses on the multifaceted roles played by these two women and their impact on the individuals and the society as a whole.
Mrs. Ramsay is the protagonist of the fiction and much akin to all other women she is involved in fulfilling the needs of her husband, rearing her children, playing the role of a perfect host ad involves n gossips and rumors. She is emotional by nature and is utterly passive and submissive to her husband. On the other hand she is also independent to a certain level when it comes to rearing her children and arranging for a banquet. Her degree of independence ends at this level and it is the sole prerogative of Mr. Ramsay when it comes to the higher level decisions. She is a typical Victorian woman who is contended to be a docile and submissive wife, a caring and an affectionate mother and a perfect host for her guests.
The Victorian woman accomplishes her mission when she realizes that her existence has rendered a completion to a man rather than realizing her individual existence. Often Mrs. Ramsay is contended that she is in a better position because Mr. Ramsay looks up to her for consolation and motivation and needs constant encouragement from his wife that he has chosen the right path in his life. Though Mrs. Ramsay is confused about her position in this patriarchal society she consoles herself when she becomes conscious of the fact that she is in an improved position than her philosopher husband Mr. Ramsay. She is caught between the traditional Victorian womanhood and the ideologies of modern woman. Charles Tansley, an ardent follower of Mr. Ramsay is criticized by the children and while Mrs. Ramsay admonishes her children for their rude behavior, she doesn’t fail to ponder on the thoughts of protecting men and the respect and honor she has earned from the men folk. “Woe betides the girl . . . who did not feel the worth of it, and all that it implied, to the marrow of her bones!” (56) The transition from a traditional role to a modern role is usually not smooth but Mrs. Ramsay dons the role so elegantly that she is admired and venerated by her daughters for her strength and beauty. In particular, her eldest daughter Prue watches her mother, with pride, descending from the staircase and feels “what an extraordinary stroke of fortune it was for her (Prue), to have her (Mrs. Ramsay)” (79). But Prue dies a premature death during childbirth when she attempted to follow her mother as her role model. Though there is no reference to her educational background, the mother of eight children has been successfully learning the values of human relationships better than her highly educated husband. She has been submissive, understanding wife and a caring mother and thereby continuously toiled hard to make her married life to not only survive but also to be successful.
Lily Briscoe, a painter and a family friend of Ramsays, is the androgynous artist who has a perfect blend of male and female qualities and to a certain extent she is the personification of Woolf herself. She is a non-conformist who strives hard to establish herself as an artist which is predominantly occupied by men. She doesn’t wish to lead a normal married life like Mrs. Ramsay and her attempt to play the role of a matchmaker for Briscoe proves futile. She is a new age woman who longs to bridge the gap between the masculine and feminine attributes in terms of professional and personal life. Therefore she has chosen to be a painter and prove the world that she can lead a normal life without entering into the institution of marriage. Woolf has used Lily Briscoe to represent the beliefs and thoughts that Woolf has tried to establish throughout her life. The revisit of Lily Briscoe to complete the unfinished portrait of Mrs. Ramsay even after her death reinforces the fact that Briscoe has continued to be a staunch believer of her principles to remain single and to continue her career as an artist.
Woolf emphasizes the dominance of the patriarchal society woman in a subtle but strong way through the character of Mrs. Ramsay. She is educated and liberated and does enjoy the freedom. But she has certain restrictions and the constraint she encounters is largely due to the dominance of the patriarchal society. Mrs. Ramsay has the power to control and man trivial issues but not in serious issues. This creates a gap between the stereotypical woman like Mrs. Ramsay and the new age woman Lily Briscoe. She doesn’t yield to the pressures of the patriarchal society to become another compliant wife and a caring mother. The life of Mrs. Ramsay undergoes radical changes when some misfortune occurs in the family. But Lily Briscoe is least affected by the period of transition and relentlessly come to complete the portrait. Thus Woolf in her fiction To the Lighthouse has demonstrated her thoughts, ideas and beliefs about the pressures and struggles that women come across in life and the ways and means through which a woman can establish her position both at home and in the society.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Ed. David Bradshaw. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.