A Beacon of True Femaleness: A Sociological Analysis of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

By Maggie Sheridan

In her theoretical work Women and Writing, Virginia Woolf begins a discussion of literary gender dynamics with an article entitled “Women and Fiction.”  “The title of this article,” she writes, “can be read in two ways: it may allude to women and the fiction that they write, or to women and the fiction that is written about them.  The ambiguity is intentional, for in dealing with women as writers, as much elasticity as possible is desirable; it is necessary to leave oneself room to deal with other things besides their work” (Woolf 43).  This idea of leaving room for oneself is a theme running throughout much of Woolf’s writing, calling for a meditative re-evaluation of that which people perceive to be unquestionably true.  From a sociological perspective, this subjective meditation on objective experience allows for the possibility of greater social change in the face of normalized adversity and resistance.  With regard to one of Woolf’s most famous novels, To the Lighthouse, the lighthouse itself acts as the force behind a social reassessment of men’s and women’s everyday experiences.  As is shown by Lily Briscoe’s progressive understanding of what it means to be feminine, the “lighthouse” is neither the culmination of a journey nor the resolution of a nagging tension; rather, it is the embodiment of powerful, unadulterated vulnerability, allowing for a (feminine) multiplicious perspective of self and others.

The time in which To the Lighthouse is situated provides an informative, yet dichotomized perspective of Victorian/Early 20th century life, expectations, and ideals.  However, in order to fully appreciate the pervasive ideologies (especially with respect to gender roles) of this particular time in history, one must first arrive at a solid understanding of the several avenues by which masculinity and femininity are constructed.  Sociologically speaking, the terms “man” and “woman” are not, by any means, equivalent to the terms “male” and “female.”  In order to determine whether an individual is male or female, one must inquire as to his/her sex, a term used for classification based on human biology.  This biological sex, as interpreted by scientists and sociologists alike, depends on said individual’s chromosomes and is expressed via reproductive organs and hormones.  Gender, on the other hand, especially if analyzed ignorantly or insufficiently, tends to function as the crux of inequality between the sexes.  Again, from a sociological perspective, gender encompasses social actors’ constructed expressions (and exaggerations) of male and female differences.

The idea of men and women as social “actors” who construct their own experiences through human agency suggests the need for an examination of the social construction of gender, a sociological phenomenon pervasively flourishing throughout several of Woolf’s novels.  Ultimately, the social construction of gender refers to the process of transforming males and females – who are vastly more similar than different in biological terms – into two groups that differ noticeably in appearance (or rather, how they are perceived by society).  As is the case with many normative social constructions, people adhere to or rebel against said institutions or ideologies in response to a system of rewards and punishments.  In To the Lighthouse, the character of Charles Tansley acts as a representation of the omnipresent ideologies allowing for the subjugation of women in all aspects of life, from domesticity to academic scholarship. The justification of such beliefs and behaviors lies with the socially destructive force of gender differentiation, social processes by which biological differences become exaggerated, sometimes even to the point of sexism.   This gender differentiation gains momentum from the establishment of sex differentiation, which functions as part of a sex-gender hierarchy, usually composed of individuals intent on preserving male privilege.

The social experiences of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse are the perfect embodiment of another sociological phenomenon: the ideology of separate spheres.  Used by some sociologists to explain the low labor force participation of women at the turn of the 20th century, the ideology of separate spheres is most notably associated with the lifestyles of the English upper-middle class.  Due to its highly influential nature on the gendered experiences of men and women, it is most well-known (and analyzed) for its separation of family life from paid work.  It is on the basis of this ideology that many women during Woolf’s time internalized a lifestyle of pedestrian domesticity in the form of wifely/motherly servitude.  As sociologist Harriet Martineau suggests, the institution of marriage, at least for women, became a prime domain for the internalization of socio-cultural ideals of hegemonic femininity.  Men, however, who were considered to be “naturally” suited to the world of scholastic advancement, politics, and economic affairs, were ultimately relegated to a more revered public sphere (meant to act as the diametrical opposite of the domestic sphere).  Comically ironic, though, is Woolf’s own perception of masculine intellectual ability.  In a discussion of women, rationality, and intellectualism, Woolf asserts that “women have every reason to hope [and perhaps believe] that the intellect of the male sex is steadily diminishing,” advising, however, that vocalization of such a fact is probably not the best idea (Woolf 56).

The lives of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay undoubtedly portray the aforementioned ideology of separate spheres: both characters perform their social roles as men and women on the basis of exaggerated and gendered stereotypes.  With regard to her involvement in the match-making of others, as well as her adherence to feminine ideals of passivity, virtuousness, acquiescence, and nurturance, Mrs. Ramsay works to reinforce the same ideology relegating her to an existence situated primarily within the domestic sphere of society.  Mr. Ramsay, with his incessant obsession over reaching Q, embodies the hegemonic masculine ideals of a gender more concerned with philosophical pursuits and intellectual queries.  This philosophical obsession arises out of men’s socialization against involvement in the domestic sphere, where participation in activities like cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing supposedly results in emasculation.  This lack of association with the home not only makes men more powerful in the economic sphere, but also contributes to the subjugation of women in all aspects of their lives; they become the economic dependents of men.  Mr. Ramsay, with his fixation on intellectual superiority becomes a very incomplete individual, one whose stern demeanor and harsh judgment work more toward his own isolation and inevitable eradication from the realm of philosophy.

Although many believe the ideology of separate spheres to act only as a force restricting men and women to solidified arenas in society, sociologists view it also as a justification of men’s and women’s dichotomized social behaviors.  Because Victorian ideals of masculinity had instilled in men a need to be emotionally vapid and economically victorious, women were thus associated with the social responsibility of providing emotional support to whomever “asked” for it.  Mr. Ramsay, in an attempt to distract himself from his empty and inevitably meaningless endeavor to reach Q, often turns to Mrs. Ramsay for emotional support; however, this “support” usually manifests itself in the form of her submission to his time-sensitive emotional demands and expectations.  Mrs. Ramsay, who is as conditioned to meet her husband’s emotional needs as she is to perform her own social role as a subservient female, usually submits to her husband’s pathetically overbearing need for reassurance.  This demotion to the emotional coddling of others permeates of all facets of Mrs. Ramsay’s identity, making her one (seemingly) remarkable refusal to submit a moment of great profundity.

Following the dinner party in “The Window,” Mrs. Ramsay retires to the parlor where she proceeds to knit while Mr. Ramsay reads.  In lieu of his philosophical dilemmas and personal struggle with intellectual ambition, Mr. Ramsay looks to Mrs. Ramsay for support and admiration.  After a few exchanges of dialogue interrupt the simplicity of merely sitting in silence together, Mrs. Ramsay realizes she is being beckoned for emotional support.  Mr. Ramsay “wanted something – wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him.  And that, no, she could not do” (Woolf 123).        Although Mrs. Ramsay’s refusal to say “I love you” may seem, at first glance, a triumph in the face of masculine dominance and expectation, Mr. Ramsay does in fact get his wish, just not in the way he hoped to receive it.  Sensing her husband’s unwavering need for martial reassurance and emotional security, Mrs. Ramsay asserts, “Yes, you [are] right.  It’s going to be wet tomorrow.  You won’t be able to go,” succumbing to her husband’s previous assertion earlier that day that weather would not permit a forthcoming trip to the lighthouse.  Seemingly irrelevant, this acquiesce to Mr. Ramsay’s former declaration actually functions as Mrs. Ramsay’s way of telling Mr. Ramsay she loves him, showing how a woman’s love (and duty as an obedient wife) is overwhelmingly wrapped up in her ability to reinforce her husband’s masculinity (with respect to authority).

Regardless of its implicit or explicit nature, women’s submission to the desires and societal expectations of men fluctuates on both men’s and women’s interpretations of their prescribed and dichotomized social roles.  In her discussion of women’s writing, Woolf acknowledges the presence of a woman in feminine discourse, the presence of “someone resenting the treatment of her sex and pleading for its rights” (Woolf 47).  However, she also recognizes the structures embedded in society working to diminish women’s influence in the realm of literature.  She undoubtedly believes that women writers are “impeded by the extreme conventionality of the opposite sex,” (Woolf 62), making novels like To the Lighthouse absolutely necessary in the progression toward recognition of what Helene Cixous refers to as l’ecriture feminine, or “woman writing.”

As Cixous encourages women to write with their bodies, Woolf encourages them to persevere, for she recognizes that “it will be a long time still … before a woman can sit down to write a book without finding a [masculine] phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against” (Woolf 62).  In the creation of Charles Tansley, Woolf makes literally and figuratively clear the inescapable masculine influence on literature (and art), as well as the consequences of said influence on those who wish to enter and excel in the world of discourse, especially fiction.  With regard to men’s dominance in this specific sphere, Woolf states, “Men are the arbiters of [this] convention, as they have established an order of values in life, so too, since fiction is largely based on life, these values prevail [here] also to a very great extent” (Woolf 49).

Although Charles Tansley unarguably exists as a patriarchal hindrance to the societal advancement of women, he is not alone in his sexist beliefs regarding the capabilities of the female sex.  Tansley, as portrayed in To the Lighthouse, represents more than just an immediate subjective opinion of women’s worth; he is the embodiment of masculine-privileging ideologies like that of the aforementioned separate spheres.  However, Lily Briscoe, who can easily be seen as a constructed epitome of the “New Woman,” works to combat Tansley’s ignorant presuppositions concerning what is or is not appropriate for the female sex.   As Mrs. Ramsay must succumb to her husband’s “devouring demands for sympathy,” so, too, must Lily endure (not accept) Tansley’s need “to think [women] … inferior,” insinuating how women are doubly oppressed (Apter 89).

Despite the expected feelings of animosity incurred between the sexes, a theme of interdependence between the needs of men and capabilities of women still makes itself prevalent in Woolf’s interpretation of gendered relations.  In the final section of the novel entitled “The Lighthouse,” Mr. Ramsay is enveloped in a grieving process that manifests itself in the form of an insatiable need for admiration and acceptance.  Since this overwhelming grief is in response to the loss of his wife, Mr. Ramsay turns to the only other “source” of emotional comfort available – Lily.  During the course of their emotional “tug-of-war” Mr. Ramsay is incapable of comprehending Lily’s obliviousness to his need for attention.  Lily, on the other hand, is too busy wishing his “insatiable hunger for sympathy, this demand that she should surrender herself up to him entirely” would vaporize right along with his tears of emotional turmoil that threaten to drown her independence (Woolf 151).  Ultimately, Lily is ineffective in her attempt to “replace” Mrs. Ramsay, a “shortcoming” made obvious by her decision to praise Mr. Ramsay’s boots as opposed to his superior intellect.

Made evident in “battles of the sexes” like the one above, To the Lighthouse suggests that femininity is not something that must either be totally accepted or completely repudiated.   In this particular novel, Woolf approaches it as a social phenomenon capable of touching all lives, a phenomenon in need of assessment with respect to its strengths and limitations. From a postmodernist feminist perspective, Woolf’s endeavor to explore femininity is ultimately successful in that it views the gendered experiences of men and women from multiple perspectives.

The idea of multiple perspectives echoes back to Woolf’s novel Orlando, in which a man spontaneously wakes one day as a woman and proceeds to live life as such.   Near the novel’s end, the narrator postulates the advantages, disadvantages, and consequences pertaining to life as one sex over another, resulting in the conclusion that conflict and misunderstanding are most likely to ensue (as in the case of Charles Tansley and Lily Briscoe) when an individual’s immediate perspective is influenced by the perception of narrow-minded others.  As Woolf suggests through her creation of a doubly-sexed (and gendered) person, it is only when people embrace their two selves (or multiplicious identity) that they will finally see in “every human being … a vacillation from one sex to the other,” a vision ultimately culminating in a movement away from “I” toward a recognition of “we-ness” in each and every self (Woolf 189).

When it comes to the actual “lighthouse” and that which it is meant to represent, a multiplicitous understanding of identity and how people perceive one another via gendered interaction is critical.  Although the lighthouse is often equated with the phallic pervasiveness of masculine influence in society, this particular analysis renders it more closely related to feminine, as opposed to masculine, experience.  The female characters of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe are both, though in different ways, comparable to the nature of an actual lighthouse.  As the emotional security blanket for people in her life, Mrs. Ramsay fulfills her societal obligations by “burning bright” with empathy and compassion and “beckoning” people home to a safe haven of emotional security and durability.  Lily, on the other hand, just as metaphorically analyzable, “brightens” and “dims” her “light” (with respect to certain social situations), which can be interpreted as the uninhibited acceptance of societal gender expectations, in an attempt to evade the social critique/criticism capable of rendering her less feminine when compared to an idealized beacon of femininity: Mrs. Ramsay.

This of idea of “true” femininity, to which Mrs. Ramsay and Lily both succumb but interpret in different ways, functions on an unending capacity for empathy alongside a personal ability to use emotion in the acquisition of clarity.  Near the culmination of her portrait, Lily is simultaneously overwhelmed with thoughts of Mrs. Ramsay and the meaning of life.  One idea she incessantly contemplates is “the subtlety of [Mrs. Ramsay’s] observation, the patience she has in watching others, waiting for them to reveal themselves to her, [which] is certainly at odds with her husband’s decisiveness and quick assembling of facts,” illustrating just how effectively solitude can aid in the development of an emotional connection with others (Apter 84).  Although this silent perception comes easily to Mrs. Ramsay who has had many years to perfect her technique (being married to Mr. Ramsay), Lily is not as immediately successful in her endeavor to create emotional solidarity in the relationships she has with others.

In her journey to discover what it means to be truly feminine, Lily constantly vacillates between personal reflection and social comparison.  Following an intense contemplation of how Mrs. Ramsay could have possibly chosen Mr. Ramsay for a husband, “Lily [is] glad … to rest in silence, uncommunicative; to rest in the extreme obscurity of human relationships” (Woolf 171).  Ultimately, it seems as though Lily adopts the idea that “the information necessary to the understanding of a person is not actually hidden in the sense of being behind or inside something; but the information must be noted carefully and then assembled with an intelligence that involves imagination” (Apter 90).  This imaginative approach toward an emotionally vulnerable connection with others ultimately manifests itself in the creation of Lily’s portrait, through which she asserts (both literally and figuratively) that “so much depends… on distance” (Woolf 191).

Only when given the opportunity to reflect on Mrs. Ramsay’s adherence to social expectations of femininity is Lily able to fully grasp the extent to which Mrs. Ramsay’s identity flourished on the emotional well-being of others.  Furthermore, she recognizes in Mrs. Ramsay an ability to be “sensitive to other people as perceivers; she knows their perceptions are bound up with [certain] feelings and interests, that the ‘public’ world takes on a different form for each” (Apter 83).  This idea of perception and the need for a “room of one’s own” to fully comprehend the nature of others, grows out of an appreciation for space away from societal obligation or judgment.  Lily’s art, like her portrait of Mrs. Ramsay, is the embodiment of celebratory freedom – control over an aspect of one’s own life that no other can take away or distort.  In a sense, it is her art, this captured essence of “real life,” that enables Lily to free herself from the confines of excessive internal rebellion to societal expectation.  Just as her painting is susceptible to “hang[ing] in … attics,” so, too, is Lily susceptible to the harsh realities of life that flourish under the veil of gender segregation (Woolf 208).  However, despite the callous nature of such a life, Lily is finally able to come to the realization that who she is as a woman is not determined by how she runs from gendered societal constraint, but rather how she responds to it (through love, compassion, etc).

Lily’s finished portrait of Mrs. Ramsay, which demonstrates her new-found understanding of societal obligation, follows an especially important breakthrough, one in which she is finally able to see Mr. Ramsay as a “personality … eccentric and comprehensible as any other human being,” an individual who, “mellowed by his wife’s death, [embodies] … a more accessible humanity” (Dowling 155).  The painting, or rather, Lily’s final brushstroke, exhibits the completion of a vulnerable and subjective endeavor to recognize a “balance of past and present, male and female” (Dowling 156).  Now acting as a lighthouse, Lily illuminates and summons the experiences of others (by responding to them emotionally and intentionally) while also standing firm against the degrading and restrictive pressures of societal obligation to gendered social roles.

Although some critics are quick to inadequately view the lighthouse as a purely masculine symbol, there are definitely aspects of To the Lighthouse which suggest the need for an equivalent feminine interpretation of this widely debated icon.  For example, consider the following question: how are women ever to reach the lighthouse when they cannot even leave the shore?  In an attempt to answer this question, it is necessary to assess the lighthouse as an experience or identity-laden representation of femininity as opposed to a literal landmark or destination.  Just as the lights of an actual lighthouse are meant to bring people to safety, so, too, are the emotional capacities of women expected to serve as safe havens for those experiencing emotional turmoil or distress.  The character of Mrs. Ramsay, despite her usual interpretation as a “shadow to the light of patriarchy,” also acts as a “potential source of counter-illumination,” aiding in the development of a more equally gendered assessment of what the lighthouse truly represents (Goldman 174).  Although Woolf asserts that “women … serve all … centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size,” she recognizes that ideology plays a large part in the reinforcement and proliferation of such an occurrence (Woolf 35).

As discussed with regard to separate spheres, ideology acts as a pervasive and inescapable force functioning in society, usually at the expense of disadvantaged groups that lack power, prestige, and influence.  From a Marxian perspective, Mrs. Ramsay (like other women) feels compelled to soak up the emotional floods of her male counterparts simply because she internalizes their expectations of what is appropriate for her gender.  Through false consciousness, she limits herself strictly to a realm of feminine authority, one in which subjective emotional vulnerability functions as a strength instead of a weakness.  Although Woolf has her own ideas regarding the development of ideology and how it gains momentum in society, a Marxian interpretation of Mrs. Ramsay’s “gender performance” is directly related to the idea that “great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do.  They are driven by instincts which are not within their control” (Woolf 38).  For example, although Mrs. Ramsay considers her refusal to say “I love you” a triumph, this “success” is really nothing more than a display of her “ability to conform and protect a far less profound consciousness, and her willingness to … limit herself does not make her submission more acceptable” (Apter 95).

However, in a more contemporary analysis of the measures taken by women to console men, Sayaka Okumura asserts that women’s emotional capacities are overwhelmingly wrapped up in their domestic abilities; the two are practically inseparable.  As the process of knitting takes time, precision, and care, so, too, does the process of recognizing another’s desire for emotional fulfillment.  With regard to the character of Mrs. Ramsay, the actual “flashing of her needles [while knitting] approaches that of a lighthouse; her ‘flash’ becomes … an active power to lead others rather than a passive contribution to others” (Okumura 170).  As To the Lighthouse suggests, the aforementioned desire to know and help others is specifically tied to an inescapable ideal of femininity that best manifests itself in the socio-cultural and historically accurate emotional awareness of Mrs. Ramsay.

Since the character of Lily Briscoe rarely ever submits herself to the inescapable masculine counterparts of her social existence, many critics accuse her of losing womanhood to a daring re-evaluation of unconscious subservience.  However, acting as a lighthouse, Lily is able to assess societal gender conventions through moments of intense clarity followed by subdued reflections on the meaning of life.  This solitary reflection on social experience is derived from Lily’s own observations of Mrs. Ramsay and the ways in which she (more effectively than some theorists venture to think) submits to the emotional demands of others without suggesting or condoning the inferiority of her sex.  Although Lily first interprets a submission to the emotional well-being of others as a restrictive experience, her meditation on the ways in which Mrs. Ramsay holds the people in her life together ultimately leads to a different, more developed perspective.

As postcolonial and postmodern interpretations of feminism suggest, Lily is more able to accept the societal demands of those around her once she embraces her position as an “other.”  Through her experience as the subordinated sex in a world of patriarchal dominance, Lily becomes capable of viewing her oppression from the standpoint of one who knows its disparaging effects and thus, understands the explicit need for its eradication.  An embrace of her emotional capabilities (even though they do not appear to be fully realized in the novel) allows Lily the power necessary to encourage and demand a smaller and smaller gap between men and women on the continuum of equality.

Although not surprising, Lily’s recognition of gender differences permeates the entirety of To the Lighthouse; it is not merely a revelation bringing about the novel’s close.  At Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner party, Lily is disturbed by Charles Tansley’s assertion that “Women can’t write, women can’t paint – what did that matter coming from him, since clearly it was not true to him but for some reason helpful to him, and that was why he said it? Why did her whole being bow, like a corn under a wind, and erect itself again from this abasement only with a great and rather painful effort?” (Woolf 87).  Her strict examination of his comment echoes back to a Marxist interpretation of power dynamics: those who have do everything in their power to retain that which is deemed most valuable.  Although Lily bows and “accepts” Tansley’s disparaging remark, her true embodiment of femaleness lies in the fact that she accepts it on the basis of much needed criticism and analysis.  Mrs. Ramsay, who subjugates herself to the ignorant presuppositions of men without question, limits her feminine experience to one built around a theme of normative acceptance.  Lily Briscoe, on the other hand, through unsurpassable profundity, develops a perspective of society and self that allows her to navigate avenues of gender experience via a multiplicious understanding of gender relations.

As a feminine interpretation of the lighthouse makes itself necessary, so, too, does an understanding of gender dynamics from the perspectives of men and women, oppressor and oppressed.  It has been easy, as the discourse shows, for theorists to assume the lighthouse a masculine symbol representing that which women will never reach.  This analysis, however, denies women a relationship to the lighthouse, a symbol which, after careful research and thorough analysis, is more than capable of illuminating both feminine discourse and experience.  Ultimately, the journey to the lighthouse near the end of this particular novel can be seen as Woolf’s own opinion concerning the need for feminine autonomy in a world dominated by masculine ideals, values, and expectations.

With regard to Cam and Mr. Ramsay in particular, their arrival at the lighthouse is incomplete in that it presents them with that which they have had all along – the emotional reassurance of women.  Women, however, in their relationship to the lighthouse, represent a myriad of emotions and perspectives capable of functioning on all levels of human interaction.  True femininity, as expressed in To the Lighthouse, is neither a dismissal of societal obligation nor a subjection of oneself to the disparaging demands of others; rather, it is the acceptance of a perspective allowing for a multiplicious (doubly-gendered) appreciation of both men’s and women’s experiences.

Works Cited

Apter, T.E. Virginia Woolf: A Study of her Novels. New York: New York UP, 1979.

Dowling, David. Bloomsbury Aesthetics and the Novels of Forster and Woolf. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1985.

Goldman, Jane. The Feminine Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism and the Politics of the Visual. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Okumura, Sayaka. “Women Knitting: Domestic Activity, Writing, and Distance in Virginia Woolf’s Fiction.” English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature 89.2 (Apr. 2008): 166-181. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. [Library name], [City], [State abbreviation]. 3 May 2009 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2008580580&site=ehost-live>.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin Books, 1945.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. London: Harcourt, Inc., 1928.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. London: Harcourt, Inc., 1927.

Woolf , Virginia. Women and Writing. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1904.

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