"I'm in love with this all" (Thoughts about To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf)

2024-03-31

I have a terrible tendency to see myself in characters. I think that is the point of reading books. Yes, an entertaining story is nice to read once in a while but the books that leave a lasting impact on me, are ones that uncover something in me. They are the books that clarify my opinions, validates a feeling or two, questions the root of my nature, and somehow shines a light into the deep crevasses of my soul.

In "To the Lighthouse," Woolf turns the concentrated light beam of the lighthouse and rotates it around the Ramsay family and their summer tenants. They are all very distinct characters but there's something in them that manages to reflect some of that light back to me. I definitely relate to some more than others. For example, one character that I related to quite a bit was, my favourite character, Lily Briscoe.

Lily Briscoe is arguably one of the most important characters in the cast. It is said that she is an avatar for Woolf herself, or her sister, Vanessa Bell. She brings two major themes to the novel: what it means to create and the tradeoffs of the domestic married life as Briscoe spends the novel painting and contemplating the dynamics between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. Briscoe hardly ever enters Mr. Ramsay's consciousness as it seems that he is incapable of ever thinking of anyone other than himself. His wife, on the other hand, contemplates Briscoe's single status. SHe constantly hopes for Briscoe to get married to one of the other tenants, William Bankes.

Briscoe does not imagine she could ever get married. In fact, at point in the novel she thinks, "she need not marry, thank Heaven: she need not undergo that degradation." But most of all, she could never get married to William Bankes. Firstly, Bankes is in love with Mrs. Ramsay. More importantly, he says that women cannot paint. It seems that other characters constantly pin onto Briscoe that they think she ought to become: not a painter, but a wife.

Despite her misgivings towards the married life, especially considering her conclusions about the Ramsay's marriage, she actually doesn't find the other half of the domestic life appalling. At first she says that she herself is in love with Mrs. Ramsay, like many of the other men in the novel. But she immediately discards that thought and replaces it with, "I'm in love with this all!" She thinks this while painting Mrs. Ramsay with her son, James. They make a pretty picture together and it touches Briscoe on some level. Maybe it is the ease that Mrs. Ramsay seems to settle into her role of a wife. She is attentive and giving. She gives and gives and it is in her nature to give. Whereas for Briscoe, she doesn't want to give in. She resists giving in to Mr. Ramsay at every opportunity she gets. She wonders at how Mrs. Ramsay could so easily charm people. It seems that Mrs. Ramsay represents the perfect picture of femininity, an ideal that Briscoe falls short of. Maybe Briscoe is in love with Mrs. Ramsay after all, or at the very least, longs for her maternal qualities that help build a calm picture of domesticity.

It is very obvious that Mrs. Ramsay is a stand in for Woolf's own mother. There is a sense of admiration for this mother figure but also a sense of repulsion for what she takes from the men in her life, Mr. Ramsay being the most obvious offender. I think it is an all too common pattern between mother and child. It's a pattern I see in my own relationship with my mother. It's funny how my own observations of the marriage of my parents has led to the conclusion that I would prefer not to get married. But it's also the sense that I could never step into the stereotypical, almost expected, role of wife and mother. I'm not doubting my own maternal instincts (I like to think I'm a good cat-mom to my cat-son) but it's everything else that comes with it.

Mrs. Ramsay is a dutiful wife, she is a charming hostess, she is clever enough to soothe her children in unexpected ways, she can hold the concerns of everyone in her mind and she has the desire to fulfill those concerns. These are qualities that Briscoe realizes that she lacks. They are qualities that I realize that I also lack.

That being said, I'm not so bleak as Briscoe. In the 1910's, gender roles were much more stringent upon women. What it means to be "wife" has changed a bit since then (although it seems like the concept of a "trad wife" is undergoing a resurgence in popular culture). However, in the context of my own non-White culture, some of those expectations remain. In the way that Briscoe rebels under these expectations by simply remaining single and a painter, I hope to one day either rebel through my independence or to find a partner who will respects a balance between give and take.

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