« April 2007 | Main | July 2007 »

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 04:23 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 10, 2007

To the Lighthouse: IV

Sections V - VII seem to form something of a unit. In the first, Mrs Ramsay, while trying to measure the stocking against James's leg (is it long enough? no), reflects on the shabby condition of the house; and then the novel, as it were, reflects on her. I am not always sure to whom the personal pronouns refer, and one passage, dispensing with such pronouns altogether, has me stumped.

Never did anybody look so sad. Bitter and black, half-way down, in the darkness, in the shaft which ran from the sunlight to the depths, perhaps a tear formed; the waters swayed this way and that, received it, and were at rest. Never did anybody look so sad.

Who is looking sad? Is it the Swiss kitchenmaid, whose father is dying in the mountains? Is it James, to whom Mrs Ramsay has more immediately been severe? Is it Mrs Ramsay herself? That makes the most sense, grammatically, because the next paragraph begins,

But was it nothing but looks, people said? What was there behind it - her beauty and splendour?

The connection seems off, though. Mrs Ramsay is not one to look so sad. I believe that she is thinking about the maid.

And what was the blunder? I should definitely like some help on this point. "Someone had blundered" comes, of course, from Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," but there appears to have been an actual blunder, some small wound to Mr Ramsay's amour-propre. Section VI is almost swamped by the man's neediness and cruelty, and in Section VII his wife is overwhelmed by the exhaustion of trying to reconcile his behavior with her "reverencing" of him. The first hint of Mrs Ramsay's illness is dropped ("afterwards, not at the time, she always felt this") as part of a quiet tirade about the tyranny of Victorian marriage.

Not that, as she read aloud the story of the Fisherman's Wife, she knew precisely what it came from; nor did she let herself put into words her dissatisfaction when she realized, at the turn of the page when she stopped and heard dully, ominously, a wave fall, how it came from this: she did not like, even for a second, to feel finer than her husband; and further, could not bear not being entirely sure, when she spoke to him, of the truth of what she said. Universities and people wanting him, lectures and books and their being of the highest importance - all that she did not doubt for a moment; but it was their relation, and his coming to her like that, openly, so that any one could see, that discomposed her; for then people said he depended on her, when they must know that of the two he was infinitely the more important, and what she gave the world, in comparison with what he gave, negligible. But then again, it was the other thing too - not being able to tell him the truth, for instance, about the greenhouse roof, and the expense it would be, fifty pounds, perhaps, to mend it, and then about his books, to be afraid that he might guess, what she a little suspected, that his last book was not quite his best book (she had gathered that from William Bankes); and then to hide small daily things, and the children seeing it, and the burden it laid on them - all this diminished the entire joy, the pure joy, of the two notes sounding together, and let the sound die on her ear now with a dismal flatness.

Mrs Ramsay's loving, good-hearted hypocrisy must match her husband's craving for an impossible satisfaction: that of being looked up to by the woman who is cradling you in her arms when you're suffering. This masculine yearning is hardly peculiar to Woolf's world, but there is a feeling that one ought somehow to have outgrown such juvenility. That is what is so wearying.

Posted by pourover at 03:36 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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 10:23 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack