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May 24, 2007

To the Lighthouse: V

Section VIII of To the Lighthouse is about the pathos and perplexity of Virginia Woolf's grown men. First, there is Augustus Carmichael, who, much to her annoyance, doesn't "trust" Mrs Ramsay. He "shrinks" away from her. Mrs Ramsay traces this back to a moment of female solidarity claimed by Mrs Carmichael at the Carmichael's home in St John's Wood. (One gathers that Mrs Ramsay's presence at this scene was reluctant at best.) As a result, she thinks, Mr Carmichael doesn't trust her not to humiliate him in the way that his wife humiliates him. All of this is speculation; we don't know what Mr Carmichael actually thinks or how he feels. Reflecting on her unhappiness with Mr Carmichael, Mrs Ramsay sees the vanity of her need to be needed - and admired.

Was it not secretly this that she wanted, and therefore when Mr Carmichael shrank away from her, as he did at this moment, making off to some corner where he did acrostics endlessly, she did not feel merely snubbed back in her instinct, but made aware of the pettiness of some part of her, and of human relations, how flawed they are, how despicable, how self-seeking, at their best.)

Meanwhile, she is reading the story of the Fisherman's Wife to James. She is distracted for a moment by the approach of her husband, but he does not stop; he walks on, out to a point "which the sea is slowly eating away," taking the novel's consciousness with him for the first time. The note of disappointment already sounded by Mr Bankes is deepened. Mr Ramsay "deprecates" what he calls his happiness. Mr Ramsay is circumstantially happy: beautiful wife, healthy children, mild renown; but he is obliged by disappointment to dismiss the circumstances as "nonsense,"

because, in effect, he had not done the thing he might have done. It was a disguise; it was the refuge of a man afraid to own his own feelings, who could not say, This is what I like - this is what I am...

Mr Ramsay's failure to realize his potential, together with his unwillingness to acknowledge it, has made him into a kind of monster, as sustained untruths do.

The shift of consciousness in the middle of the section, from Mrs Ramsay to her husband, strikes me as something different from a change in point of view. Mr and Mrs Ramsay are not really "viewing" anything; rather, they're looking inward - and even that's too strong; they're just being. Woolf renders consciousness with carefully calculated drama: there is always a crisis, however minor. Mrs Ramsay feels the sting of her vanity, and her husband wriggles yet again out of admitting his limitations. But while these crises hold our attention, it is the palpability of consciousness that accounts for the book's beauty.

Posted by pourover at May 24, 2007 04:23 PM

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I really don't know what to make of this section of the book. Mrs. Ramsay is certainly conscious (of her own vanity, of the sensitivities of James, of her discontent with her husband) but Mr. Ramsay seems to me to be not so much conscious as oblivious. I am probably mis-interpreting here (it certainly wouldn't be the first time), but I couldn't help but wonder if the references to Mr. Ramsay's 'deprecating' his happiness weren't actually the inner musings of Lily Briscoe, who seems to have developed a pretty spot-on assessment of Mr. Ramsay (Lily's opinion, after all, concludes this section of the novel). Mr. Ramsay, it seems to me, is far too egocentric to even consider the notion that his wife and family are worth deprecating--they are merely the background noise of his existence and, essentially meaningless (perhaps I am too harsh?).

Posted by: jkm [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 29, 2007 09:12 PM

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