Understanding Lily Understanding Virginia Woolf’s mind within the weaving prose of To the Lighthouse is an undertaking that forces the reader to step back and consider, and indeed, reconsider everything that has just been read, assuming of course, that everything within her evolving story is remembered and comprehended. Woolf is known to challenge her readers with her unstructured worldview as to how an individual appears as people perceive the world around them. She uses her novels for more than just telling stories, but her stories are not merely a method in which to ultimately tell a moral.
Both the story and the messages that can be taken from them are integrally important to Woolf’s literature. To the Lighthouse shares a similar message to Mrs. Dalloway, another one of Woolf’s better known works. Lily Briscoe reveals this particular message well when she muses that “fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with” (Woolf 198).
This is to say, Mrs. Ramsay could not be understood from fifty different perspectives, let alone one. For Woolf, labeling someone, or choosing to view a person from only one viewpoint is a narrow understanding of an individual and is a discredit to mankind.
This applies to how her books are perceived too, for it would seem that Woolf hated the idea of having her readers only come away with only one collective impression. Therefore, the moral of being sure to view an individual with many different viewpoints is only one part of To the Lighthouse, and assuming that it is the only viewpoint of this story would do injustice to Woolf’s intentions.
However, it is a central part to the development of Lily Briscoe, the frustrated artist staying with the Ramsays; trying to paint what she sees.
Woolf includes changing elements to all of her characters, but her major characters are especially diverse, a trait that ensures that no one viewpoint can be generalized about any of them. Lily plays a central part to the story, a part that is more obscure and hidden from the reader than the parts of other major characters, but a part that in the end is crucial to understanding the many viewpoints that built To the Lighthouse into the multifaceted piece of literature that makes it famous. Lily is not initially set up to be a character that the reader is meant to be drawn to.
Her introduction is an abrupt thought from the mind of Mrs. Ramsay: “with her little Chinese eyes and her puckered-up face, she would never marry; one could not take her painting very seriously; she was an independent little creature” (17). She is terrified of anyone seeing her painting, she keeps a large part of her senses and attention on making sure no one comes up behind her instead of focusing on finishing her painting. First impressions of Lily amount to an image of some paranoid little animal that thinks itself the prey of its own species; when she realizes that Mr.
Bankes had come around her and was now analyzing her painting, she “winced like a dog who sees a hand raised to strike it” (52). Another uncertainty raised against her is her character, which is continually examined throughout the story as being easily impressed upon. Charles Tansley is an individual for whom Lily harbors no love. Even so, his words “women can’t write, women can’t paint” appears many times throughout the story as a haunting reminder to Lily. It bothers her as if she almost believes it; and therefore, it may be that she keeps painting to spite Tansley’s nagging whispers.
She is also portrayed as unable to take a stand on her viewpoint of any individual. This ends up being a merit of hers when lined up with Woolf’s ideas on labeling someone, but it makes her appear as indecisive when first reading about her. Her struggle lies with Mr. Ramsay. “He is petty, selfish, vain, egotistical’ he is spoilt; he is a tyrant; he wears Mrs. Ramsay to death” (24). However, she holds a profound respect for the man, even if it is reliant on her early, but deep respect for Mrs. Ramsay (25). By the end of the story, her respect for Mr. Ramsay becomes more focused just before the gentler character of Mr.
Ramsay is revealed through his boat trip with James and Cam. However, first impressions of Lily before this change is revealed makes one view her cautiously, for people are often wary of individuals who are uncertain of themselves and hold contradicting views on issues that are seemingly obvious; for Mr. Ramsay is meant to hold no pity in the eye of the reader. As famous and reputable as he may be, he is petty, selfish, vain, and egotistical; Lily is not alone in that belief and by this point in the story, it seems as if the reader is meant to have that view along with many of the story’s characters.
That being said, she cannot seem to take one side or the other. Despite her early shortcomings of being a relatable character, Lily possesses compelling qualities and ideas, and shows herself to be the character that was made to embody the thought process and style of Woolf (Panken 142). Biographer Hermione Lee makes an observation about the connection between Woolf’s and Lily’s minds, writing about Woolf that, “In the last part, moving between Lily painting her picture on the lawn and Mr.
Ramsay with his two children in the boat, she wrestled, like Lily, with problems of balance” (Lee 471); implying that Woolf has issues with her writing and finding the right way to present and connect her work in the same way the Lily is struggling to connect the sections of her painting. It is Lily who first starts contemplating the way in which one views others. Other characters are used to build upon this, but it is through Lily that these ideas are given form.
If the reader has prior understanding of Woolf’s views on this idea, then the development of Lily throughout the story with her raising the issue of perception and the relativity of one’s views of an individual builds an appreciation for Lily. It gives her a sense of importance alongside other characters because of how she articulates this issue in her mind. For example, when trying to understand the ways of Mrs. Ramsay, Lily presents this analogy to the sanctity of individuality: “How then… did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were?
Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive… the hives, which were people” (Woolf 51). “Lily Briscoe indicates both that knowledge of the mind of another is a profound human wish — it feels as if to have that knowledge would be to be finally at home, in one’s own hive–and, at the same time, that this knowledge is unattainable” (Nussbaum 731). She is only raising the issue as a question here, but it is one example among several that shows Lily contemplating this idea, and it is one that develops with Lily.
Earlier she asks, “how did one judge people, think of them? ” (24), though the point may very well be that there was no way to judge people, no set way to think of them. In the case that the reader is familiar with Woolf’s position on this issue prior to reading To the Lighthouse, this is something that solidifies Lily as a central character and makes her a character to which the reader is more sympathetic, for the reader should be able to pick up on the similarities that Lily’s thoughts have to the messages of some of Woolf’s other works. Lily becomes a character that is more relatable for the reader at Mrs.
Ramsay’s dinner. While Tansley’s invasive words, “women can’t write, women can’t paint” will remain with Lily almost to the end of the story, she is actually able to confront her feelings with Tansley at the dinner, which lends to her credibility as a person. Despite finding him to be the “most uncharming human being she had ever met” (Woolf 86), Lily is able to pity Tansley, and therefore is able to show interest in talking with him. She actually appears to hold authority over an individual. Before, she was jumpy, fearing any individual who may happen upon her and see her painting and share in her intimacy.
Now she was influencing the mind of another. “It annoyed him that she should have made him speak like that…” said Tansley, “If only he could be alone in his room working, he thought, among his books. That was where he felt at his ease” (86, 87). Lily, by her influence, her appearance, or just the fact that she was a woman was able to bring someone outside their comfort zone. This lends to her confidence, or maybe determination, to finish her painting later in the story and it gives her depth and credibility to the reader.
An interesting thing to note about Lily’s relationship with Tansley is their similarity in personality. The best example happens late in the story as Lily is hoping to avoid the gaze of Mr. Ramsay: “As if any interruption would break the frail shape she was building on the table she turned her back to the window lest Mr. Ramsay should see her. She must escape somewhere, be alone somewhere” (147). Ten years earlier, Mr. Tansley had voiced the same desire… “To be alone. ” Though, this observation may be just a coincidence to these two characters. Solitude is sought after by several characters in this story.
Lily’s most profound development as a character that makes her a character to which the reader may desire to sympathize with comes in the final of the three sections of this story. Lily is almost shaken by the change she notices in herself towards Mr. Ramsay as “The Lighthouse” unfolds, and how her view of other characters changes profoundly. She no longer views Mrs. Ramsay so fondly. Where before she delighted at hugging Mrs. Ramsay around the knees and laughing, she was now somehow critical of how Mrs. Ramsay fit into stereotype femininity of marriage and supporting the ego of men.
Lily “would feel a little triumphant, telling Mrs. Ramsay that the marriage had not been a success” (Woolf 174). It would be a triumph, for Mrs. Ramsay was as keen to making marital matches as any of the mothers in most Jane Austen novels. To contrast, she finds herself greatly changed in her views of Mr. Ramsay. No longer is she scared of his approach. On the contrary, she likes his wonderful leather boots, and as he sails away across the bay, she wants him back with her (202). Yet, Lily achieves something that neither of these other characters achieved, that is, to be remembered.
Mrs. Ramsay sought to be remembered through her social interactions. While everyone she impacted is still alive, she will partially linger, but she will not last beyond that generation. Mr. Ramsay’s distress all throughout the story is caused by the anxiety of not being important, of his contribution to society being forgotten. Like other writers, he too will fade. Woolf seems to latch onto Lily with her painting. Even though her finished painting “would be hung in the attics” (208), she was content with what she had created. “I have had my vision” (209), she says.
Lily’s painting, her memory, will survive. This confidence doesn’t come to her until the very end of the story, but it leaves a strong impression upon the reader. Even the fact that Woolf choose to end the story with Lily instead of one of the other major characters leaves a good impression of her to the reader. Lily’s growth as a character is never steady. She starts out as a character that gathers no sympathy from the reader, and from there it is an up and down understanding of her as a character that, until the very end of the novel, is only a very slight upward gain of sympathy.
Yet, Lily holds an obvious position of importance as a character throughout the story that draws the reader to her. Among these reasons is how she is an outpouring of Woolf’s own creativity. To the Lighthouse is considered to be Woolf’s autobiographical work, mirroring her own life growing up. Lily, however, doesn’t represent any person of Woolf’s life. Instead she is an embodiment of Woolf’s intellectual thought. This comes through many times in the story with the idea of needing fifty eyes; one of the many messages that can be gleaned from one of the many ways to read To the Lighthouse.
One needs many perspectives to appreciate life to a greater depth of knowledge and understanding. Bibliography Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Harcourt Books. Orlando. 1955. Print. Nussbaum, Martha C. The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” New Literary History. 2006. http://www. jstor. org/ Web. Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. Chatto & Windus. London. 1996. Print. Panken, Shirley. Virginia Woolf and the “Lust of Creation:” A Psychoanalytic Exploration State University of New York Press, Albany. 1987. Print