To the Lighthouse: Modernism and Allusions

1/ Inter-textuality

The central image of Mrs. Ramsay reading to James “The Fisherman and his Wife” and its eternalized sublimation into the subject of Lily’s painting imply that the tale is significant to the understanding of the novel. Through this tale, Woolf criticizes the patriarchal system of the Victorian England.

“The Fisherman and his Wife” is misogynistic in its nature as it antagonizes the fisherman’s Wife as dominantly greedy. In the tale, the chaotic sea and the allegorical tempest symbolize Providential wrath: “the sky was pitch black, and it thundered and lightened, and the sea came in with black waves as high as church towers and mountains.” (Woolf 56) The allegorical tempest, or the tale itself, can be seen as a commination to the notion of patriarchy being subverted by matriarchy.

The tale’s misogynistic moral finds resonance in Tansley’s derogatory remark: “women can’t write, women can’t paint…” (Woolf 45) Throughout the novel, this remark is repeated in Lily’s narrative five times, emotionally hurts Lily to the point that whenever she catches the sight of Mr. Ramsay or Tansley, she has to hide her painting from them. The act of Lily’s hiding the painting signifies intellectual repression of women as creativity is a representation for intellectual empowerment; therefore, when Tansley denies her abilities to write and paint, which are creative and intellectual activities, he is denying women’s empowerment.

However, considering the novel’s radical theme of women’s empowerment, a theme that frequents not only in Woolf’s literature but also in modernist literature, in its challenging the conventional patriarchy, Woolf is, in fact, attacking the misogynistic moral of the tale. The idea that “Women can’t write, women can’t paint” (Woolf 45) is sardonically ironic considering that the novel itself was written by a female writer. Woolf’s keeping her name, unlike many of her predecessors (i.e. George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte) who wrote under male pen names so that their works can be taken seriously, defies women’s stereotypes.

At the very end of the novel, Lily finally experiences a catharsis: “I have had my vision.” (Woolf 198). This sense of epiphany forcefully affirms her consummation of a creative process and puts a definite end to her incessant inner struggle. Here, the concluding line is no longer the voice of Lily, but it interchangeably is that of Woolf herself, as the novel itself is, after all, the fruition of her own creative process. Woolf chooses to end the novel with this personal yet powerful utterance to challenge the prevalent patriarchy set by the society and to assertively subvert the moral of such a popular tale, thus, expresses her modernist view on the establishment.

Most of the male characters in “To the Lighthouse” hold professions that require immense intellectual and academic prowess: for instance, both Mr. Ramsay and Charles Tansley are metaphysical philosophers, Carmichael a poet, and yet they are trapped in the feudal patriarchy full of prejudices against women. However, Woolf does not only criticize men for their “intellectual” egoism, but she also accuses women for their submissive compliance. Mrs. Ramsay, a traditional housewife, when reading the tale to her son, “in exquisite abandonment to exhaustion … realized, at the turn of the page … she did not like, even for a second, to feel finer than her husband” (Woolf 36). The allegorical depiction of matriarchy in the tale puts Mrs. Ramsay in physical unease and great distress. However, rather than criticizing them for their submission, Woolf is actually empathizing for them.

Penetrating deeper into the relationship between “The Fisherman and his Wife” and “To the Lighthouse”, characteristically, we can see that the roles of the husband and the wife have been reversed. The fisherman’s Wife is portrayed as authoritative, and yet, she is still dependent on her submissive husband as he is ultimately the one that realizes her wishes. To some extent, Mr. Ramsay is a parallel of the fisherman’s Wife. No matter how “tyrannical” Mr. Ramsay is, in the end, he still yearns for sympathy from his wife to ensure him of his “splendid” stature. His self-esteem relies on her empathy: “the beak of brass, the arid scimitar of the male, which smote mercilessly, demanding sympathy” (Woolf 35). Here, the striking juxtaposition of the masculine metaphor (brought about by the plosive alliteration of “beak of brass” and the phallic “arid scimitar of the male”), together with the bathetic, rather childlike demand for sympathy casts a negative light on Mr. Ramsay’s characterization. Furthermore, the metaphor “scimitar” has an ancient resonance to it, suggestive of regression rather progression, ironically contrasting with Mr. Ramsay’s linear attempt to reach the letter Z, an enduring process symbolic of Mr. Ramsay’s yearning for his own accomplishment and recognition. Thus, this has nullified his lifelong endeavor as futile. Through this, Woolf indicts the hypocrisy of the establishment: intellectualistic in nature yet still trapped in the confinement of dogmatic sexism.

The criticism against patriarchy is extended through the inter-textuality of “The Charge of Light Brigade”. Throughout “The Window”, Mr. Ramsay is repetitively seen reciting the verses from Lord Tennyson’s narrative poem – “The Charge of the Light Brigade” to the point where the verse: “Someone has blundered” (Woolf 16) becomes the poetic refrain of the whole novel.

On the contrary to his valiant ejaculation: “Boldly we rode and well” (Woolf 16) or his violent shouting and waving hands, he clumsily “almost [knocks Lily]’s easel over” (Woolf 16). In fact, whenever Mr. Ramsay recites the verses from the poem, he always exhibits virile yet childlike mannerisms as though Woolf wants to emphasize his masculinity in a disapprovingly grotesque way.

Although Mr. Ramsay takes pride on his superior intellectuality by reciting poetry, to the female characters in the novel, his words are more or less an absurd ejaculation, underlining his detachment from them. Lily describes it as “a loud cry, as of a sleep-walker, half roused, something about Stormed at with shot and shell sung out with the utmost intensity in her ear” (Woolf 15). Mrs. Ramsay utters that these words “held meaningless in her mind for a long stretch of time”: “ ‘Someone had blundered’ […] that something had happened, someone had blundered. But she could not for the life of her think what” (Woolf 28). According to Eavan Boland, the poem “reveals the gendered and injured distances between them.” (Woolf xii) As the nature of modernism is to be ambiguous, Woolf deciding to let Mr. Ramsay ejaculate these words himself could suggest that their own marriage is a “blunder”, questioning the happiness of traditional marriage.

The fact that Mr. Ramsay chooses to declaim other people’s words instead of his own has self-undermined his own accomplishment, an obsession that engrosses his mind most of the time. Indeed, Mr. Ramsay is caught in the cyclical frustration that he finds difficulty getting out of: “He had made a definite contribution to philosophy in one little book when he was only five and twenty; what came after was more or less amplification, repetition.” (Woolf 22) Thus, he is caught in this tautological entrapment.

Moreover, by choosing to recite a 19th-century poem, Mr. Ramsay is also enmeshed in a reverberation from the past, reversing his lifelong obsession to make progress. Tennyson wrote the poem to honor the soldiers’ patriotism during the Crimean War, a recurrent theme of the 19th-century literature. The thematic idea of the poem is about moving forward, as the central image of the poem is the soldiers marching; however, instead of to their glorious victory, they are marching to their own annihilation. Therefore, it can be said that the poem is about futility, reflecting Mr. Ramsay’s own failure.

Indeed, Mr. Ramsay’s endeavor is inevitably futile for its repetitive and regressive nature. This is emphasized through James’ condemnation of his father – “the fatal sterility of the male” (Woolf 34). The metaphor is antithetical to that of Mrs. Ramsay: “a delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life.” (Woolf 34) Unscholarly as she is, Mrs. Ramsay still possesses a mythic power to unite.

2/ Passing references

However, Mrs. Ramsay’s effort to “unite and abolish separation” is ultimately proven futile as well since none of the marriages in this novel has a happy outcome: even her own marriage ends tragically with her untimely death.

The passing reference of “Middlemarch” by George Eliot  in the conversation between Mr. Ramsay and Minta hints at marital dissonance, the main theme of “To the Lighthouse”. “Middlemarch” questions the happiness of traditional marriage. The unfulfilled marriage of Rev. Edward Casaubon and Dorothea Brooke bears a resemblance to that of Mr. Ramsay and Mrs. Ramsay in that both husbands suffer from the persistent struggle between intellectual quest and marriage.

Likewise, the mention of “Anna Karenina” (Woolf 100) plays a significant role in understanding “To the Lighthouse”. “Anna Karenina” is a story about adultery. This foreshadows the extra-marital affair that cripples the marriage of Paul and Minta apart, despite Mrs. Ramsay’s desperate effort to unite them since the beginning.

Thus, it can be seen that Woolf has incorporated many effective literary allusions, both in the forms of passing references and inter-textuality in order to criticize the traditional Victorian values of patriarchy, of patriotism, and of traditional marriage.


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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