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May 03, 2007

To the Lighthouse: III

Modernism is noted for its enigma, its unwillingness to explain things. The reader is obliged to struggle a bit to imagine what something means. In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf does not overdo her elusiveness, but one senses how comfortable it is for her, how, perhaps, even she need not know what something means.

In Section IV, Lily Briscoe is painting Mrs Ramsay's portrait when she hears footsteps behind her. She divines that it is William Bankes, an old friend of Mr Ramsay's. A former friend, perhaps.

Looking at the far sand hills, William Banks thought of Ramsay: thought of a road in Westmorland, thought of Ramsay striding along a road by himself hung round with that solitude which seemed to be his natural air. But this was suddenly interrupted, William Bankes remembered (and this must refer to some actual incident), by a head, straddling her wings out in protection of a covey of little chicks, upon which Ramsay, stopping, pointed his stick and said "Pretty - pretty," an odd illumination in to his heart, Bankes had thought it, which showed his simplicity, his sympathy with humble things; but it seemed to him as if their friendship had ceased, there, on that stretch of road. After that, Ramsay had married. After that, what with one thing and another, the pulp had gone out of their friendship.

It is an odd illumination indeed. One somehow feels that taking Mr Ramsay's comment on the hen sheltering her chicks as a perhaps unconscious realization that he must marry and shed his bachelor ways is extremely heavy- handed, the banging of a pots and pans. And one has a difficult time believing in Mr Ramsay's "sympathy with humble things." Condescension would be more like it. What is Woolf getting at here? It's hard to imagine a less significant remark than "Pretty - pretty." One can't imagine Virginia Woolf making use of the adjective even in her everyday speech, although, of course, she must have done.

Then there is the ambiguity of tense. "but it seemed to him" - when? Surely not right there in the road. Later, retrospectively, Bankes must have decided that Ramsay's ejaculation had announced the end of their friendship, such as it was.

We can tease out explanations, but Woolf does not seem to encourage the undertaking. "Figuring things out" may be a bit vulgar. This isn't to say that she's a mystifying writer, not at all. But she works very hard to capture the mysteries that people experience and to present them as such, inviolate. The reader must shoulder a certain courage, and overcome the need to have everything spelled out. Spelling out may be what Trollope does, in immensely satisfying ways, but Woolf and her friends had come to believe that exhaustive explanations were false, mendacious even. It did not correspond to their idea of consciousness. At the same time, she was too "aesthetic" a writer to do what Trollope would have done, and simply announce her ignorance.

In short, we are not to interpret this novel. We are to take it straight, photographically, and resist cleverness. A tall order, reading the work of such a clever woman!

Posted by pourover at May 3, 2007 10:23 PM

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So that's what it was, RJK! Perhaps I read into "pretty - pretty" more as the beginning of the end of Mr. Ramsay's career than as the end of his friendship with Bankes.

But what might one derive from the everlasting image of the pear tree?

"Naturally, if one's days were passed in this seeing of angular essences, this reducing of lovely evenings, with all their flamingo clouds and blue and silver to a white deal four-legged table (and it was a mark of the finest minds to do so), naturally one could not be judged like an ordinary person."

And again---

"Standing now, apparently transfixed, by the pear tree, impressions poured in upon her of those two men, and to follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one's pencil, and the voice was her own voice saying without prompting undeniable, everlasting, contradictory things, so that even the fissures and humps on the bark of the pear tree were irrevocably fixed there for eternity."

Its repetitive description - as Lily and William opined on the life and times of their idol and friend, respectively - bring newness, ironically, to a character who in the first few pages of my electronically-acquired copy was "grinning sarcastically, ...with the pleasure of disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife..."

Indeed it's hard to know what to make of this Mr. Ramsay, the reader's judgement of whom should be "withheld" until the author allows us so.

Posted by: Migs at May 11, 2007 08:57 AM

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