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The modernist way of thinking in literature brought about new ways of understanding and writing about people. Unlike the 19th century, where neo-classical influences still prevailed at times, writers of the 20th century focus on an individual’s personal experience, feelings, what he is going through and how this affects him.
The new way of looking at people (prompted by the advancements in psychoanalysis among others) makes the modern man a complete man – all the things, however small, that define him are taken into consideration – and an important stress in laid on subjectivity as unique and only way of perceiving the world and appropriating it to himself. In her 1924 essay Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, Virginia Woolf wrote that On or about December 1910, human character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg.
The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910. However, perhaps it was only the humans’ change, but also, the way that was written about humans and their life, be it ordinary, outside, and more importantly, their inner life. Such is the case with Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, the two main characters of Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse. The two are a couple in their fifties, married, and have eight children. They form a beautiful, and to some extent typical family.
However, there is a lot that contributes to their division. Mrs. Ramsay is a beautiful woman, aged fifty, who has made an art out of being a woman, more specifically a mother. She is arguably the true protagonist of the book, as her being permeates the existence of the ones around her. She is the one who sets everything into motion – be it dinner parties, marriages, helping the ones around her, she is the one who never disappoints, and never seems to fail. She defines her existence through her being a mother and a wife: Oh, but she never wanted James to grow a day older! r Cam either.
These two she would have liked to keep for ever just as they were, demons of wickedness, angels of delight, never to see them grow up into long-legged monsters. Nothing made up for the loss. She loves her children, and would do anything to protect them and their childhood. This is the reason why she tells James, her youngest, that they will be able to go to the Lighthouse the following day, and why she resents her husband so much for stating the contrary obvious and crushing little James’ hopes.
Although she is no longer a young woman, Mrs. Ramsay is full of vitality and energy. She is the central figure, around which the action revolves and who, at the same time, sets the action in motion. Her intentions are good: knitting socks for the Lighthouse keeper’s tuberculosis-ridden son, tries to be nice to Charles Tansley, Mr. Ramsay’s student with working class origins whom her children mock, to Augustus Carmichael whose old age and opium addiction are sources of others’ looking down on him.
Constantly being surrounded by people has led her to become the gracious hostess and caring mother she is, but also to defining (and also seeing herself) in that position for ever. Having been a mother to small children a big part of her life (the Ramsays have eight children), and still being one, she wishes to keep her children at this age forever, supposedly for their well-being, but perhaps this comes due to a need to protect and go on the same routine she has known, as it is hard for her to think about herself outside these terms.
One of the instances in which this is evident is the moment when she can follow her regular string of thoughts for as long as she hears some kind of familiar noises in the background. She is not used to being by herself, and not surrounded by people. However, in some truly honest moments, she does not hide behind different masks (seen as roles she takes, mother, wife, host, friend), and acknowledges her own existence as something deeply personal and private: She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband.
What one can also recognize are remnants of Victorian morals and models, in both her and her husband. She is the central, matriarchal figure, who takes care of her family, a dutiful wife while managing the household (one of her recurring thoughts is that the bill for the greenhouse will be fifty pound, and tries to be a matchmaker for Minta and Paul, but also for Lily Briscoe and Mr. Bankes, while being beautiful and admired, as Victorian women were expected to be. She has always maintained and upheld a steadfast belief in traditional gender roles – men being strong and hiding weaknesses (for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance), and women being the ones bringing the family together, and this makes her resent Mr. Ramsay for his confession to her that he feels like a failure.
She cannot bear the thought of her husband being a lesser man than who she thinks and wants him to be, a man better than her: She did not like, even for a second, to feel finer than her husband; and further, could not bear not being entirely sure, when she spoke to him, of the truth of what she said (…) but it was their relation, and his coming to her like that, openly, so that any one could see, that discomposed her; for then people said he depended on her, when they must know that of the two he was infinitely the more important, and what she gave the world, in comparison with what he gave, negligible.
It is interesting to see the way she influences and sometimes dominates the lives of those around her; her husband is restless after her death and while they are still a couple feels he is a disappointment to her and himself. Prue, her daughter, admires her greatly: what a chance it was for Minta and Paul and Lily to see her, and feeling what an extraordinary stroke of fortune it was for her, to have her. Mrs. Ramsay admires Lily Briscoe for her independence (she was an independent little creature, and Mrs. Ramsay liked her for it), her peculiar charm and her flare of something, that reminds her of herself.
In turn, the young painter feels compelled by Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty and personality, that attracts and fascinates Lily, and which she finds impossible to transpose in the painting she is working on. It is only through Mrs. Ramsay, even after her death, that Lily finds her clarity and her vision. Mr. Ramsay is Mrs. Ramsay’s husband and one of the protagonists of the novel. He is a man in his fifties, a father and a metaphysics philosophy teacher.
He defines himself through his work and, like an artist, is concerned with whether his work will be remembered, worth remembering, and how long it will survive after he is gone. This is one of the things that constantly drive him. Just like his wife, being raised in the spirit of traditional values and gender stereotypes, in relationships with his children he is tough, insensitive and has the mentality that he must always be authoritarian and must always do things the right way.
He is a rationalist, and feels he must stick to sound principles even when it comes to letting his six-year old son James hope that the weather will be fine so as to go to the Lighthouse the following day: But it won’t be fine. While Mrs. Ramsay tries to smooth out what had been harsh before, he has no problem with being harsh as long as it means sticking to the cold truth: What he said was true. It was always true. He was incapable of untruth; never tampered with a fact; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being, least of all of his own children. …).
His duty, his fatherly duty is to make sure his children are prepared for their grown-up life from the beginning, although he is unaware of the fact that his presence stifles them: his own children, who, sprung from his loins, should be aware from childhood that life is difficult. Through the eyes of Lily Briscoe, he is not good enough for Mrs. Ramsay, while through the eyes of his son James, who wants to take his place in a typical Oedipus’ complex, he is too harsh and cold, but he is also admired for his intelligence.
Had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children’s breasts by his mere presence. These do not mean that he and Mrs. Ramsay do not complement and complete each other. As it is observed in the first chapter of the novel, He found talking much easier than she did, but she felt herself very beautiful. He is the talkative one, the intellectual one, but it is her presence that attracts people. Moreover, both of them are dutiful persons.
If Mrs. Ramsay thinks her duty is with her family and trying to keep everyone happy and being a gracious host, Mr. Ramsay sees his duty in his work, his duty is to leave something valuable behind. The Ramsays are polar opposites, and can embody the Jungian archetypes of animus and anima. Among others, he has a constant need for approval and for people to tell him that his work is important and valuable. These (new to the time) ideas are what torment him so much as to make him confess to his wife that he feels like a failure, in hope of reassurance and sought-for comforting.
However, this situation is new to what both of them have known about the way each other is supposed to be or feel, or the way they should handle it. This explains the distance that is created between them upon hearing each other’s take on the situation. Their inability to show true empathy can be a result of their Victorian ideas about their spouse and marriage and their own role there being put to the test. Victorian society would not have permitted for men to show weakness, not to mention confessing it to their own wives, their obvious inferior, and for women to think that they can even for a moment be better than their husbands.
At the turn of a century and an age, they as individuals are confronted with new ideas, new sides of themselves they do not know how to reconcile with the other, traditional ideas everyone including themselves had taken as unmovable. This difficulty is seen in the stream of thoughts of both of them, but also has, as visible result, a cut/breach in communication between them, which leads to a possible estrangement/alienation from the other.
What they fail to see is that the 20th century society and way of life gave way to a better way of communicating, they way one felt was important, and no one was supposed to play a previously defined part, and that this is the way things should be. This is seen in how they react to Mr. Ramsay’s moment of complete honesty – Mrs. Ramsay cannot bear the thought of him telling her this and of actually having to be the better one, while Mr. Ramsay cannot get the comfort and reassurance he needs. Indeed, as Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay, human character did change at the beginning of the 20th century.
People, both women and men, became more aware of themselves, and most importantly, became aware of their inner life and the attention it deserved. But this could not have been possible without the insight modernist writers offered through their books. What they tried to do, using the stream of consciousness technique, is depict the way human minds work, the messy, not completely coherent ways that this happens, the way in which we perceive a moment and how intense we live it and how much happens within us during that moment as opposed to the measured moment (the irst pages of the first chapter, when the same moment is presented through the eyes and inner thoughts of three characters).
What they achieved, however, was to show that human beings are different (as Lily Briscoe says, fifty eyes are not enough to get round one person), and that everyone tries to find meaning in fleeting moments, albeit differently, and that society was wrong in fitting them into stereotypes. And this too helped change the remnants of the Victorian society and turn people of the age into modern souls.