In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the key symbol of the scrubbed kitchen table in relation to Mr. Ramsay’s work takes on a new significance over time, as evidenced by Lily’s early observations and her reflections ten years later. Initially, upon being told that Mr. Ramsay’s work concerned “subject and object and the nature of reality”, Lily fails to comprehend the meaning of these words. As a dreamer and an artist, the solid concept of subject and object means little to her, and she needs a visual image to assist her view of Mr.
Ramsay’s lifelong work; at Andrew’s suggestion, she envisions “a phantom kitchen table, one of those scrubbed board tables, grained and knotted, whose virtue seems to have been laid bare by years of muscular integrity”. This raw image serves as an astute reflection of Mr. Ramsay’s character as a whole; his alleged virtue and integrity leads him to bluster about, condemning those souls who possess a different opinion than he does.
This crude trait, akin to the harsh grain of a wooden table, leads to several different encounters that alienate him from the remaining members of his family, such as his argument with Mrs. Ramsay over the topic of scholarships, for he “thought her foolish” for saying that she would still be proud of her son even if he didn’t receive a scholarship.
Furthermore, Lily’s image of the scrubbed kitchen table sheds light on what she believes to be Mr.
Ramsay’s most pitiful and scorned quality: his constant desire for sympathy and assurance as he lays bare his soul so that women may heap praise on him. Lily’s reflections on Mr. Ramsay’s work in the first part of the novel therefore mirror her caustic view on the man as a whole, casting him as a self-righteous, pompous individual with dependent tendencies. Ten years after this incident, Lily’s reflections on the symbolic kitchen table represent a softened outlook on the weathered Mr. Ramsay. No longer harsh and knotted, the table is merely “bare, hard, not ornamental…uncompromisingly plain”.
Over time, she has come to view Mr. Ramsay in terms of his facial features, which “became worn too and ascetic and partook of this unornamented beauty which so deeply impressed her. She accepts his work as a form of art unique to him, albeit one that she finds incomprehensible yet impressively beautiful in its realism. As such, she sees Mr. Ramsay in a different light, altering his character into a more pleasant form that has simply become worn down and complacent with age. Subsequently, this helps portray Lily as a benevolent character capable of change, an artist who manages to overlook her initial prejudices to search for the aesthetics in Mr. Ramsay’s work, so vastly different from her own art, thereby depicting the fluid, all-encompassing nature of art.