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July 16, 2007

To the Lighthouse: VII

The following sections (X-XII) form a unit around Mrs Ramsay. First she is with James, then she is alone; finally, she is with her husband. Marriage is a central issue, sometimes buried, sometimes flighty. She has allowed a young houseguest, Minta Doyle, to go on a long walk with a young man; they had better marry, thinks Mrs Ramsay, if only to save her own reputation for probity. What if Minta refuses the young man?

If nothing happened, she would have to speak seriously to Minta. For she could go trapesing about all over the country...

While she is thinking Minta, she is reading the story of the Fisherman's Wife to James - a well-chosen parallel to Mrs Ramsay's misgivings about herself. The fisherman's wife, of course, is perpetually discontented; she wants to be lord of the universe. Mrs Ramsay has been accused of "wishing to dominate, wishing to interfere, making people do what she wished." Something that Minta's mother (whom she thinks of as "the Owl") said the Mrs Ramsay reminded her of this, and thinking about the Owl reminds her of it now. The feckless slip of her thought is beautifully captured.

No one could accuse her of taking pains to impress. She was often ashamed of her own shabbiness. Nor was she domineering, nor was she more tyrannical. It was more true about hospitals and the diary. About things like these she did feel passionately, and would, if she had had the chance, have liked to take people by the scruff of their necks and make them see. No hospital on the whole island. It was a disgrace. Milk delivered at your door in London positively brown with dirt. It should be made illegal. A model dairy and a hospital up here - those two things she would have liked to do, herself. But how? With all these children? When they were older, then perhaps she would have time; when they were all at school.

Oh, but she never wanted James to grow a day older. Cam either. These two she would have liked to keep for ever just as they were, demons of wickedness, angels of delight, never to see them grow up into long-legged monsters.

Children are the aspect of marriage that makes Mrs Ramsay wonder if her husband wouldn't have been happier, and more successful, had he not married her. She remembers an argument; he called her gloomy for wishing that the children wouldn't have to grow up. But she was only being realistic - life brought on horrors. She thinks of a woman on the island who is dying of cancer. And she remembers that the repair of the greenhouse roof will cost fifty pounds, a matter that she is so certain will irritate or infuriate Mr Ramsay that she can't bring herself to tell him. She wonders if she has pushed Minta into thoughts of marriage - and the repair of the greenhouse roof pops up again. Marriage, children, expenses, and the sheer clutter of life: Mrs Ramsay thinks that her husband would be happier without these distractions even as she considers him to be undistracted by them.

James is carried off for the night, and Mrs Ramsay is left alone with her knitting - and with the strokes of the Lighthouse. She is exultant and dismayed by turns, as her thoughts press on.

It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt and irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself. There rose, and she looked and looked with her needles suspended, there curled up off the floor of the mind, rose from the lake of one's being, a mist, a bride to meet her lover.

But this elation is cut at once by her irritation at having found herself thinking "We are in the hands of the Lord." "How could any Lord have made this world?" Almost imperceptibly, the point of view shifts to Mr Ramsay, who is watching his wife from the garden. He is disappointed with himself for being unpleasant about the Lighthouse. "He could do nothing to help her." Indeed, Mrs Ramsay helps herself, concentrating on the strokes of light, which turn the sea into "waves of pure lemon." This thought makes her radiant, and her radiance fills her husband with the feeling that he must not interrupt her. But before he can turn away, she sees him and calls out to him, and joins him in the garden. "For he wished, she knew, to protect her."

That's not quite right, of course. In the ensuing passage, we're treated to the subtle incongruities between what wife and husband think the other thinks. Woolf wants to show us the stream of mistaken ideas that so often lubricate marital familiarity. Mr Ramsay talks of spending day walking, with just a crust of bread in his pocket; Mrs Ramsay knows that this is nonsense, for he is much too old for that. The density of thought is rendered for us in sentences that switch back and forth between two trains of thought without notice.

She took his arm. His beauty was so great, she said, beginning to speak of Kennedy the gardener, at once he was so awfully handsome, that she couldn't dismiss him.

A complexity which reaches a dizzying height toward the end of the section:

....and she must stop for a moment to see whether those were fresh molehills on the bank, then, she thought, stooping down to look, a great mind like his must be different in every way from ours. All the great men she had ever known, she thought, deciding that a rabbit must have got in, were like that, and it was good for young men (though the atmosphere of lecture-rooms was stuffy and depressing to her beyond endurance almost) simply to hear him, simply to look at him. But without shooting rabbits, how was one to keep them down?

The Ramsays come up behind Lily Briscoe and William Bankes. Mrs Dalloway decides at once that "They must marry!" Woolf has already mocked this train of thought in connection with Minta's getting married: "she was driven on, too quickly she knew, almost as if it were an escape for her too, to say that people must marry; people must have children."

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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.

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