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July 03, 2007

To the Lighthouse: VI

In Section IX of To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe, having hitherto only hovered on the scene as an object, assumes the subject's point of view. The scene is a mostly mute duet with Mr Bankes that flows directly from the preceding section. Both gaze across the lawn at Mrs Ramsay sitting in the window reading to James. Lily is sure that Mr Bankes is possessed by "rapture." She was about to answer his question - did she think Mr Ramsay to be a "a bit of a hypocrite"? - by saying something critical of Mrs Ramsay, but now, seeing his rapture, she understands that there is no point; Mr Bankes will not absorb criticism of Mrs Ramsay. She thinks of his glance as a "ray" that he is aiming at Mrs Ramsay, and presently she finds herself sending one of her own.

Lily's thoughts about her hostess have nothing of the romantic simplicity of her companion's. Everything in this section is shot through with the fraught issue of Lily's gender and sexuality. In her early thirties, Lily has set herself up as a painter, but she remains a virgin who does not appear to be eager to marry. If Lily seeks union with anyone, it is with Mrs Ramsay, and this not because Lily idolizes her (as Mr Bankes, in his rapt way, clearly does), but because she wants to be able to share Mrs Ramsay's impalpable wisdom. Lucy recalls an earlier encounter with the older woman.

Was it wisdom? Was it knowledge? Was it, once more, the deceptiveness of beauty, so that all one's perceptions, half way to truth, were tangled in a golden mesh? or did she lock up within her some secret which certainly Lily Briscoe believed people must have for the world to go on at all? Every one could not be as helter-skelter, hand to mouth as she was. But if they knew, could they tell one what they knew? Sitting on the floor with her arms round Mrs Ramsay's knees, close as she could get, smiling to think that Mrs Ramsay would never know the reason of that pressure, she imagined how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing secret inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public. What art was there, known to love or cunning, by which one pressed through into those secret chambers? What device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored? Could the body achieve, or the mind, subtly mingling in the intricate passages of the brain? Or the heart? Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs Ramsay one? for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had though, leaning her head on Mrs Ramsay's knee.

Nothing happened. Nothing! Nothing! as she leant her head against Mrs Ramsay's knee.

We might not think of it at first, but the collapse of striving in frustration, so typical of Lily, has nothing to do with Mr Bankes's serene rapture, in which desire (and, with it, the possibility of frustration) is evaporated by the intensity of feeling. Lily is troubled, vexed. Her life, while materially adequate, is a knotted problem. This is not the place to fix Lily's place on the line of feminist development, but we can say that she is somewhere between the freakishness (felt and perceived) of the earliest independents and the steadier standing of such women as the Stephen sisters (Virginia and Vanessa) themselves. Mrs Ramsay has told Lily that she believes that "an unmarried woman has missed the best of life." This is what Lily must put up with from a woman whom she admires.

Mr Bankes's simplicity and Lily's complexity meet and engage when Lily stops gazing at Mrs Ramsay and realizes that Mr Bankes has already done so. He is putting on his spectacles; he wants to look at her picture. She has shielded her picture from others' view until now; she sees that she must let someone see it, and Mr Bankes is "less alarming" than anyone else. Of course he does not grasp it. He sees blobs of color. But his kindliness encourages Lily to try to explain her picture to him. He tells her about the landscape of cherry trees that hangs in his drawing room. The souvenir of his honeymoon, it is undoubtedly a conventionally pretty picture. Beauty is too manifest to Mr Bankes to be mysterious. But beauty for Lily is the most elusive thing in the world.

Posted by pourover at July 3, 2007 09:07 PM

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I cringed a little at Mrs. Ramsay's comment that 'an unmarried woman has missed the best of life.' But what really caught my attention was the beginning of the succeeding paragraph:

Oh, but, Lily would say, there was her father; her home; even, had she dared to say it, her painting.

An unusual hierarchy of priorities to my modern sensibility, which would have made me list them in reverse order. Still, Lily is my favorite character, I expect because she's the only one to whom I feel any connection. Despite my generally favorable views on marriage, I cannot fathom how Mrs. Ramsay can honestly believe that living with an egoist (or should it be egotist?) like Mr. Ramsay and a houseful of unruly children could represent 'the best of life.'

Posted by: jkm [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 9, 2007 07:48 PM

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