Texts often explore the ways characters are in conflict with themselves, others or society. Discuss this idea with close reference to Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Texts often explore different forms of conflict – within a character or between characters, between a character and society – in order to raise important ideological questions about a particular society. Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel To The Lighthouse, published in 1927, represents the inner conflict of one of its central characters, Mrs Ramsay, and external conflict with the female artist Lily Briscoe, to critique traditional ideas about feminine roles and identity.
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The conclusion of the novel, however, represents the conflict between the patriarch, Mr Ramsay, and Lily, in order to move beyond gender difference and affirm what Woolf herself called ‘ the androgynous vision’ as the basis for understanding others and for creating art. The novel’s class politics, however, are less admirable. It presents the conflict between the working-class character Charles Tansley and the privileged upper-middle class, not as an issue of social justice but of class resentment and potential violence.
The representation of these various conflicts in the novel, through the use of characterisation, metaphors, narrative point of view and symbolism, thus endorses a progressive gender ideology, while it ultimately perpetuates a system of class inequality. To The Lighthouse, written in the Edwardian period, reflects the significant shifts in politics of the time, as sections of society that had been largely excluded from wielding power in the past, such as women and the working class, became increasingly politicised.
The novel must be read in the context of this period of social change, a change evident in the Suffragette movement and the violent overthrow of the Russian monarchy in 1917. It questions the traditional belief that a woman’s role in marriage was to tend to her husband’s emotional needs and that marriage was the source of her happiness and fulfilment. It also reflects the precariousness of the existing class structure and the deep-seated resentment of the working class towards the existence of privilege.
In this context of social change and disrupted notions of a woman’s role as foremost mother and wife, conflict between the characters of Mrs Ramsay and Lily Briscoe represents the opposing ideologies of the 1920s. Throughout the text, the representation of gender, through characterisation and particularly symbolism contradict and balance each other. Woolf supports Lily’s values, as she is characterised as a level-headed, dependant female who rejects the pressure to marry: “ Thank Heaven.
I need not undergo that degradation. ” The multi-perspective narrative point of view reveals Lily’s conscious resolution to resist to society’s expectations of the time, and remain unmarried. This social conflict in her decision to not conform is matched with conflict with Mrs Ramsay’s values, as a traditional mother figure who believes “ an unmarried woman has missed the best in life. ”
Mostly, Mrs Ramsey is firm in her values and beliefs that “ people must marry, people must have children,” as she is constantly devoted to matching Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley, and even imagines Lily to marry William Bankes. Yet expressed through her inner monologue, a sad inner conflict about these values and ‘ truths’ of the necessity of marriage are revealed.
There are moments when she is aware and lucid about her predicament – “[b]ut what have I done with my life?” – but for the most part, her internal conflict it is merely her nagging subconscious of indistinct doubt. She acknowledges these “ sinister” moments of ambivalence, yet does not resolve them: “ she was driven on, too quickly, she knew, almost as if it were an escape for her too…” This shifting narrative point of view and her stream of consciousness reveal her own shifting and contingent values about marriage and a woman’s purpose. Mrs Ramsay avoids addressing such uncertainties, and thus her inner conflict remains unresolved.
However, the conflict between Lily and Mrs Ramsay results in Lily’s values endorsed by Woolf, as she finishes her painting and succeeds: “ Yes…I have had my vision. ” Lily comes to see that the combination of the masculine and feminine ways of viewing the world is one in which she feels fulfilled. This view is celebrated by the text, as Lily is the only female character to achieve her vision: “ it is not knowledge but unity she desired”, and achieve happiness.
As a character who faces internal, social and external conflict, resists social pressures and does not conform, she is rewarded, and her values and androgynous vision are endorsed. Mrs Ramsay is also in conflict with Mr Ramsay; she is constructed to reveal an unspoken dissatisfaction, at times anger, with the traditional role of the wife, as the emotional support to the patriarchal husband. At times she appears to accept, indeed to embrace, this role: “…confident, upright, she created drawing-room and kitchen, set them all aglow; bade him take his ease there, go in and out, enjoy himself.”
Here her thoughts express her desire to create for her husband a domestic space which not only tends to his physical needs but, as the imagery “ set them all aglow” suggests, provides him with a kind of luminous atmosphere, a sort of haven from the world of work. In this sense, Mrs Ramsay represents “ the Angel in the House”, a feminine Victorian ideal of domesticity and wifehood. However, she is also at times deeply resentful, even contemptuous, of her husband’s endless desire for sympathy and reassurance.
In a startling train of thought in which she is aware of her own power, she rejects the traditional role of the supporter of her husband: she thinks of herself as “ a rain of energy, a column of spray…and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare. ” The knife imagery and sexual metaphors are used here to assert Mrs Ramsay’s sense of her superiority to her husband, while the alliteration of “ beak, brass, barren and bare” expresses a sense of contempt for his emotional neediness.
Her refusal to offer him sympathy is made explicit immediately after this description: “ He wanted sympathy. He was a failure, he said. Mrs. Ramsay flashed her needles. ” While Mrs Ramsay acknowledges her husband’s need, her action of “ flashing her needles” shows both her refusal to be the traditional wife and her powerful rejection of her supposed inferiority. The first section of the novel ends with Mrs Ramsay’s ultimate refusal to satisfy her husband’s needs. This refusal is given particular weight because it is the last time she appears in the novel.
While her final words concede to her husband’s superior knowledge – “ Yes, you were right. It’s going to be wet to-morrow” – her refusal to tell him that she loves him is seen by him as a victory: “ For she had triumphed again. ” The metaphor of battle represents marriage as a contestation of needs and desires. While it is traditionally the wife’s role to surrender or to sacrifice her needs to those of her husband, Mrs Ramsay’s “ triumph” can be read as a momentary victory in her ongoing conflict with herself over her role as wife.
While the representation of Mrs Ramsay’s inner conflict questions traditional gender roles, the representation of the conflict between the working-class character Charles Tansley and the upper-middle class Ramsays and their guests perpetuates the existing social hierarchy. Charles Tansley is initially constructed as a nasty, unpleasant man through Mrs Ramsay’s and Lily’s thoughts. Although he is mocked, Mrs Ramsey prevents the reader from sympathising with him as he is still characterised as an “ odious little man,” and Lily repeats his sexist comment, “ women can’t write, women can’t paint.”
Described in terms of his clumsy actions and unsatisfactory physical abilities, “[h]e couldn’t play cricket; he poked; he shuffled,” rather than his intellect, he represents the “ disagreeable” working class from the outset of the novel. Following this, in the dinner party scene in section one, Tansley is shown as intensely resentful of the apparent indifference of this class to his worth as an individual.
His thoughts are described in terms of metaphors which suggest his violent desire to destroy the existing class hierarchy: “ Mr Tansley raised a hammer: swung it high in the air” uses a metaphor which recalls the hammer and sickle of the Communist flag, in which the hammer represented the workers and alludes to the Russian Revolution of 1917. A later metaphor of gunpowder reinforces his violent desire to destroy the class system: “ He could almost pity these mild cultivated people, who would be blown sky high…one of these days by the gunpowder that was in him.”
The problem with this representation of Tansley’s conflict with the privileged upper-middle class is that Woolf represents it as an issue of individual resentment, rather than an issue of social justice. Tansley is the self-made man who had “ worked his way up entirely himself” and is angry that no one recognises or acknowledges his worth. His claim that “ one of these days every single person would know it” reinforces his individual anger rather than exposing the injustice of a system which extends privilege through birth rather than through hard work or merit.
While the conflicts within and between characters remain largely and deliberately unresolved, in an attempt to create a sense of life’s complexity, the novel does end by resolving an important conflict between the patriarch, Mr Ramsay, and the female artist, Lily Briscoe. The third section of the novel replays the conflict between a man’s desire for sympathy and a woman’s refusal to extend it, but in this case Lily the artist chooses to give the grieving Mr Ramsay what he desires – an acknowledgement of his suffering.
Initially Lily, like Mrs Ramsay, is deeply resentful of what she sees as Mr Ramsay’s egotistical desire for consolation at the death of his wife: “ he permeated, he prevailed, he imposed himself…demanding – something she felt she could not give him… the man, she thought, her anger rising in her, never gave; that man took. ” The sharpness of Lily’s tone reflects her anger, an anger which is reinforced by her belief that Mr Ramsay’s emotional neediness was the cause of his wife’s death: “ Mrs Ramsay had given. Giving, giving, giving, she had died.”
And then however, Lily does extend sympathy to Mr Ramsay, in a way that suggests not capitulation or self-sacrifice, that as an act of generosity towards a suffering person: “ thinking of her callousness…she felt her eyes swell and tingle with tears…he seemed to her a figure of infinite pathos…there was no helping Mr Ramsay on the journey he was going. ” The shift from the word ‘ man’ in Lily’s earlier response to him to the phrase “ a figure of infinite pathos” suggests that she has stopped thinking about him as a needy male and now sees him as a person.
She is represented as understanding the need to feel for others in their isolation and despair. Most importantly, it is Lily’s resolution of her conflict with Mr Ramsay – her movement beyond gender – which allows her to complete her painting. This movement beyond gender is known in Woolf’s studies as the androgynous vision, through which the artist paints or writes not from a sense of maleness or femaleness but from the perspective of both masculine and feminine elements. The resolution of the conflict for the female artist is thus used to express a central idea of modernist literature – that the only source of permanence and unity in life is art.
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To The Lighthouse thus explores many different ways that characters are in conflict, whether it is internal or external, between characters or between a character and society. This conflict serves to explore and raise questions about specific ideological differences in 1920s England, and while it does perpetuate a system of class inequality, it also endorses a progressive gender ideology and critiques traditional ideas about feminine roles and identity, perpetuating the ‘ androgynous vision’.