Upon starting To the Lighthouse, I once again realized how different this novel is from Mrs. Dalloway. I guess that one has become a bit of a marker to me, since it was the first Woolf novel I have ever read and I’ve read it so many times. This novel actually reminds me more of Jacob’s Room stylistically, although the narrator is not actually present in the story as in Woolf’s earlier novel. Still, it’s reminiscent of it in the way it follows different characters, despite the centrality of Mrs. Ramsay. I suppose the setting of the beginning helps this connection – the influence of St. Ives, Cornwall, the lighthouse.
In this particular novel, Woolf once again busies herself with the problem of perception it seems, although this time it is also more intertwined with the “woman question” and also art. Particularly important seems the struggle of Lily Briscoe, as Woolf writes, “such she often felt herself – struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: ‘But this is what I see; this is what I see,’ and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her” (23). Through Lily, these three notions – of perception, of femininity, of art – are explored by Woolf. She is not a traditional woman in that she occupies herself seriously with art, which, in turn, isn’t taken seriously by anyone else. Even Mr. Bankes questions her on her portrait of Mrs. Ramsay, in which he believes she reduced a woman of great beauty to a purple shadow. But it is, she insists internally, what she sees – she is not after mimicking reality, but capturing her own vision. Thus, the problem of perception appears – is there such a thing as the “right” vision? Is Lily’s perception and portrait wrong because it does not suit Mr. Bankes aesthetic values and perhaps the values of the Victorian era? A couple of pages later, Lily herself wonders about the notion of liking or disliking people and what that really means – does it mean anything? Once again, we are back to the question of whether we can ever know another person or do they remain – like Mrs. Ramsay – as only our impressions upon the canvases of our lives? Is it important for Lily to realize her vision in capturing Mrs. Ramsay’s portrait or is it more important for her to capture the essence of Mrs. Ramsay and is that even possible?
The character of Mrs. Ramsay is another question – that of femininity. This is a woman, I presume, somewhat modeled after Woolf’s own mother – very much admired and very much beautiful. But Woolf questions what is behind that outward beauty. Mrs. Ramsay says she never has time to read books, despite the fact that she had received so many from various poets inspired by her beauty. She is a bit of an “angel of the house” – always subordinate to her husband, always pleasant, always saying “yes” to her children, but minding if Mr. Ramsay says “no”. Her thinking is eclipsed within the marriage scheme – she keeps mentioning Lily’s facial features that might make it harder for her to marry. Thus, even she does not take Lily’s art seriously. This brings about the question of patriarchy, so deeply ingrained in Victorian women, that they fail to see the advantages of supporting each other in other aspects and only focus on what they know, what they have been taught to be their role in society, into which Lily does not necessarily fit right in the traditional sense.