Throughout Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, Lily’s painting remains ultimately as a reference point for both time and everything that is going on around her. It becomes something that she struggles with, trying to interpret her feelings through the process of making art, where she is always unsure about what she is depicting; yet this struggle becomes precisely what defines her character. The painting becomes a culminating focus point for the novel, a centerpiece that ties everything else together.
Through this, Woolf brings her story back around to where it began despite all that has changed, allowing her to convey how some things will always remain constant.
The evolution of Lily’s painting mirrors events as they unfold in the novel. As put by Edward Mendelson in his critical essay The Things That Matter, Lily, “more realistic and more subtle than her hostess, perceives that unity is always in conflict with individuality” (214). Trying to find a sense of individuality for herself within the Ramsey household, this conflict Lily is faced with translates itself into the experience of painting.
She is caught between the sense of unity in the household and her own struggle to find individuality as she tries to paint, as in one instance, where, “it was a question, as she remembered, how to connect this mass on the right hand with that on the left. She might do it by bringing the line of the branch across so; or break the vacancy in the foreground by an object (James perhaps) so.
But the danger was that by doing that the unity of the whole might be broken” (Woolf, 56). Lily’s process of painting is one in which she becomes consumed by trying to create an accurate portrayal of experiencing conflict within the Ramsey household. Lily’s struggle with this precarious balance in the household becomes evident as she questions the placement of a branch in her painting, which she worries might upset the unity of the painting. This struggle to create and maintain unity reflects Lily’s own desire to find a sense of individuality. The painting becomes an accurate representation of how Woolf has carefully crafted unity to exist in an incredible balance with individuality within the Ramsey household.
In the first scene where the reader gets to see the painting, Lily is working on a portrait of Mrs. Ramsey as she sit in front of the window in the house. This reflects how, in the first section, the prominence of Mrs. Ramsey is what serves to hold the household together. In one instance from the first section, Mrs. Ramsey was, “formidable to behold, and it was only in silence, looking up from their plates, after she had spoken … like a queen raising from the mud to wash a beggar’s dirty foot, when she admonished them so very severely about that wretched atheist who had chased them or, speaking accurately, been invited to stay with them in the island of Skye” (Woolf, 10). Mrs. Ramsey is firmly established as the figure of authority in the household, “like a queen” as put by Woolf. The prowess and power of Mrs. Ramsey culminates towards the end of the first section with her brilliantly orchestrated dinner party, which she is certainly proud of.
However, the novel makes an abrupt transition with the second section, where Mrs. Ramsey suddenly dies, leaving the reader wondering what the purpose of the novel will become, with any notions of Mrs. Ramsey serving this purpose having been dispatched by Woolf. This leaves a hole that Lily’s painting swoops in to fill, where it becomes something constantly present is spite of all that has transpired. Woolf leaves the painting so as to harbor a more intimate understanding and reflection upon events through Lily that, in relation to the change in time, becomes the focus of the novel.
Lily’s painting also provides her a way of dealing with the death of Mrs. Ramsey. Towards the beginning of the third section, Lily stands thinking in despair, “letting her right hand fall at her side, it would be simpler then to have it over. Surely, she could imitate from recollection the glow, the rhapsody, of self-surrender, she had seen on so many women’s face (on Mrs. Ramsey’s for instance) when on some occasion like this they blazed up she could remember the look on Mrs. Ramsey’s face into a rapture of sympathy, of delight in the reward they had, which, though the reason of it escaped her, evidently conferred on them the most supreme bliss of which human nature was capable”(Woolf, 154). By saying the “delight in the reward they had” as Lily’s vivid memory of the expression on Mrs. Ramsey’s face, she revives past scenes of the lively household that are absent in the second section. The image of Lily dropping her hand to her side is conjured by Woolf to symbolize this sense of closure for Lily on not only Mrs. Ramsey, but on the past sense of community that everyone had enjoyed at the house.
With Lily’s return to the house in the third section, and the trip James, Cam, and Mr. Ramsey make to the lighthouse, the novel makes a “full-circle” completion of its plot that culminates in the final scene with Lily’s painting. At the end of the novel, Lily, “turned her canvas. There it was – her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter?”(Woolf, 211). Woolf ends the story with this question of what matters in the end? After all that has changed over the course of her novel, Lily remains as the main character who has not only lived through everything, but has recorded a depiction of it on her canvas. Despite how she thinks her painting will probably just end up being forgotten or destroyed, the process of making the piece serves not only to be what defines her character, but one of the underlying messages Woolf offers in the novel. In the face of even drastic change, the purpose of life is defined by one’s ability to create, even if just for them, a timeless attainment.