To the Lighthouse: Modernism and Psychoanalysis

Modernist literature is influenced greatly by the emergence of psychoanalysis (Baldick 214). Woolf is of no exception. Maud Ellmann wrote that Woolf “speculates that the composition of the novel performed the function of a psychoanalysis.” (Woolf xix) Therefore, “To the Lighthouse” is a manifestation of psychological theories that prevailed during the early 20th century.

The central psychoanalytic theory that is woven into the novel is Freud’s Oedipus complex, which is defined as: “the complex of emotions aroused in a young child, typically around the age of four, by an unconscious sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex and a wish to exclude the parent of the same sex.” (Oxford University Press) Throughout the course of the novel, James Ramsay overtly suffers from the Oedipus complex as he both resents his father and develops a suppressed sexual desire for his mother. James is caught in the excruciating inner conflict between filial obedience and patricidal impulses towards his father: “Had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it.” (Woolf 4) The highly graphic image of James wishing to “[gash] a hole in his father’s breasts” (Woolf 4), together with diction related to weapons such as “axe”, “poker”, emphasizes the extent of James’ excessively obsessive resentment at his father’s presence. Although such feelings are socially immoral, his hatred of Mr. Ramsay is just a natural unconscious impulse of a vulnerable child going through a developmental phase.

Nurtured by his mother in his developmental years, James, with his sensitive naivety, is still not able to identify the nature of his affections for his mother. The main symbolism of the novel, the lighthouse perfectly captures James’ complex: it represents the idealistic harmonic bonding and security with his mother that James longs for. Therefore, to some extent, James’ unreasonable insistence to go the lighthouse signifies his yearning for his affection to be reciprocated. At the beginning of the novel, when said that he could go to the lighthouse in near future, James expresses “an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled […] the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed” (Woolf 3). In this scene, the poetically elevating diction– “heavenly bliss”, “fringed with joy”, “wonder”, “extraordinary joy” (Woolf 3) immediately establishes a sense of familial intimacy and satisfaction, antithetical to the negative emotion sprung in James when he sees his father. The lighthouse can also be the symbol for sexual desire for its phallic shape. Perhaps James is symbolically caught in the libido to prove himself as a man; thus, obscuring the nature of his affection towards his mother, that his love for her is more than just a pure, filial love. Although Woolf had not read Freud’s work while writing “To the Lighthouse” (Woolf xix), the theory is still important to the understanding of the multi-layered, ambivalent complexity of the novel. Moreover, Woolf’s dwelling deep into the darkest, innermost of human nature has defied the moral boundary of the 19th-century traditions, proving herself to be a modernist.


Works Cited:

Baldick. Chris. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. London: Vintage Classics London, 2004.

Oxford University Press. English Oxford Living Dictionary. 02 February 2016

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