Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Clearly the character of Mr. Ramsay is based on Virginia Woolf’s own father and in the third part of To the Lighthouse especially, the portrait of Mr. Ramsay is based on Leslie Stephen after his wife has died. This brings up the question of whether Virginia herself identifies with the character of the artist Lily Briscoe – had she too, been eclipsed by her father’s self-indulgent grief to the extent that it hindered her artistic ability? After all, Lily cannot focus on painting, while Mr. Ramsay storms up and down the patio, blaming Mrs. Ramsay for her husband’s behavior – she had been the self-surrendering wife and now that she was dead, there was nobody left to quietly give Mr. Ramsay some sympathy.

This question of sympathy is a very curious one in Woolf’s works. At least, it was one of the primary themes in her short story “The New Dress”. In it, both the main character as well that of Mrs. Holman constantly focus on some sort of sympathy from the people around them. The main character of Mabel Waring obsesses over her new dress that she supposedly loved in the privacy of the dressing room and her seamstress. Now, that she has stepped out in it and into Mrs. Dalloway’s party, the dress has become the central point of her “frock self-consciousness”, but the question is whether this self-consciousness is actually true. On the one hand, she could simply be unsure of how she looks among other people, whom she sees as better dressed. On the other, she says things such as, “It’s so old-fashioned” in reference to her dress (and not the picture), which could essentially be considered pity-fishing. When Charles, for example, does not fulfill her expectations in regards to offering her sympathy, she regards him as “malice itself”, simply because he says, “Mabel’s got a new dress” as opposed to “you’re looking charming to-night!” At the same time, there is Mrs. Holman, whose family is always ill with something. She is very similar to Mabel in that she fishes for sympathy as well, which, in turn, makes Mabel dislike her, even though they are doing the same exact thing, just in slightly different ways – Mabel criticizes her own dress, so that someone will tell her she is wrong, that she looks beautiful, while Mrs. Holman preys upon the sympathy of others offered due to her family’s constant poor health. Woolf essentially compares this greed for sympathy and assurance to a form of currency – she describes Mrs. Holman “taking” the sympathy offered and looking at it as if it was a halfpenny, when it should have been a pound. Woolf even finishes one paragraph, “Ah, it was tragic, this greed, this clamour of human beings, like a row of cormorants, barking and flapping their wings for sympathy — it was tragic, could one have felt it and not merely pretended to feel it!” indicating that she saw this clamoring for sympathy among various people, most notable example of whom would probably be her own father. After all, she writes in To the Lighthouse, “this was one of those moments when an enormous need urged him, without being conscious what it was, to approach any woman, to force them, he did not care how, his need was so great, to give him what he wanted: sympathy” (154).

Thus, Woolf presents this greed, this clamoring for sympathy, as something that transcends gender; in the story, it is the two women, while in the novel it is a man. However, in To the Lighthouse, Woolf makes another, further claim that, as Lily Briscoe thinks, “and it was all Mrs. Ramsay’s fault. She was dead” (153), and as we also have discussed in previous classes, the blame for Mr. Ramsay’s behavior is partly upon Mrs. Ramsay for allowing him to be this way, extremely childish, except that after her death she was not there anymore to give her husband all he wanted (his arms were left empty) and so he begins clamoring for sympathy from other people.

The fact that Lily eventually realizes her point of view, her last brilliant stroke of paint that finishes the painting, exacting her own, subjective, distinct vision and the fact that the novel ends on this note may signify Woolf’s own overcoming of her father’s ways as well as the pressures of society as a whole and exacting her own vision through the act of writing. 

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