Modernist Themes in Virginia Wood's Novel To the Lighthouse

The horrors of World War I changed the world society a lot. The war brought violence and senselessness of existing to the human life. Thus, people had to reassess their conception of the world. It resulted in the Modernist movement in literature and art. The first generation of the modernist authors felt betrayed by the war, they could no longer believe that the traditional society institutions are to help people understand the meaning of life. The key feelings that disturbed modernist authors were world discordance, its irrationality and hostility, anti-humanism of social life, loneliness and alienation. Thus, they start to interpret world in their own way, expressing their own feelings and insights on the paper. It inspired them to invent new approach to the traditional styles of poetry and prose. Modernists experimented with literary form and expression; they tried to find alternative perception of the world and a place one possesses in it. For them the main point was to reproduce individual vision of the world. They did not want to continue realistic techniques of the previous literature.

Virginia Woolf was one of the popular British modernists at that time. She was the author of Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and The Waves, the novels that had the distinctive characteristics of the modernist era. Her masterpiece To the Lighthouse is but one good example of it. This novel is interesting for its somewhat Victorian plot and a modernist fictional technique. It reveals many modernist themes, such as aesthetic values, time and death issues, class and gender, stream of consciousness, and literary impressionism. Nevertheless, this work will concentrate on the three of them: stream of consciousness, class and gender, and aesthetic values. These themes appear to be the most significant for the novel, To the lighthouse.

The first modernist theme to be considered is the stream of consciousness. Victorian literature was deprived of that theme. In Victorian literature writers were concentrated on the reproduction of the objective reality. Their writings had logical structure, consistent themes and linear plot development. They were very rational. However, Virginia Woolf was a writer of her time. She was affected by the psychology researches of Sigmund Freud and William James. The former showed the connection between the behavior and character patterns. The latter stated that the inner life of a person is a perpetual stream of one’s judgments, feelings, impressions and associations. Modernist authors, including Virginia Woolf, took that idea and developed it in their literature. The main point of their works is therefore representing a subjective reality based on impression of an individual. Particularly Woolf uses the stream-of consciousness theme all over her novel To the lighthouse. Its protagonists Mr. and Ms. Ramsey have a complex inner world. Together with the Ramsey family, other characters such as Lily Briscoe, Charles Tansley, Augustus Carmichael, Paul Raley and Minta Doyle think a lot about their life and their place in it. Characters’ dialogues in the novel are invariably accompanied with the parallel reflections.

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For the first-time reader, it appears frustrating to understand it, because words are alternated with the thoughts in chaotic way. The themes of the text are not arranged in a linear mode as well. It is because the stream of consciousness involves the mind of the character instead of the depiction of the outward events in the chronological order. These thoughts, inner desires or motivations are expressed to the audience. The other characters are meanwhile unaware of what is happening. It appears that after some practice it is possible to learn how to grab the main idea and follow the plot despite the chaotic writing.

The stream of consciousness is often opposed to simply the actions and spoken words of the novel characters. The most significant example is the description of the dinner at the Ramsey's house. This is a moment when nearly all the characters are gathered together at the table. There are Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey, Paul Raley, Minta Doyle, Lily Briscoe, William Bankes, Charles Tansley, and Augustus Carmichael there. Everybody is smiling and polite, but has thoughts of a different kind. Mrs. Ramsey thinks that her life is over. Thus, she is disappointed with her life, her husband and her home. Lily Briscoe is sympathizing with William Bankes, and she is thinking about her painting. Charles Tansley thinks that they talk about nothing and that he is wasting his time. William Bankes thinks that he is better than the rest and that he is different from other people. He is thinking that he is wasting his time as well. Mr. Tansley is bored. They are all pretending to listen but they all have a feeling that something is missing. While sitting at the table, they all are afraid to expose their mind (Woods, 1,18).

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Thus, thanks to this theme the readers can see the inner world of the characters and their judgments towards the events they participate in. It is noticeable that the society reflected in the novel To the lighthouse is a two-faced one. It is marked with the Victorian hypocrisy. The stream of consciousness reveals that hypocrisy, and forms the important distinctive theme of the modernist literature.

Another important theme of the novel is class and gender. As mentioned above, the characters of the novel are living according to the stereotypes of the Victorian age. These include the sense of duty and diligence, respectability — the mixture of morals and hypocrisy, and charity.

These also determine their social roles. The protagonists Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey also follow Victorian pattern of the lifestyle. They play the roles, which the society expects them to play. Mr. Ramsey works as the professor of philosophy at the university. He believes that his main duty is to provide sustenance for his family. Though in his opinion he is doing his job well, he needs the constant confirmations of it. He is not interested in what his wife thinks though, for he is sure that he knows what is better for both of them.

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His wife Mrs. Ramsey loves and respects her husband very much. She supports him in everything and tries to do everything for him not to feel a failure. Sometimes Mrs. Ramsey knows her beloved is wrong, but she respects him as much as to never tell him about it. Furthermore, she does not even allow herself to have such thoughts. The interesting fact is that Virginia Woolf depicted her own parents in the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey. It was what Vanessa Curtis had discovered after researching the Woolf's biography (Curtis 2003). Mrs. Ramsay is based on the author's mother, Julia Duckworth Stephen. Woolf’s mother always strived to fulfill the Victorian ideal. Thereafter, Mrs. Ramsey believes that the men are better and higher creatures comparing to women. They “can be valiant knights, negotiate treaties, rule India, and control finance” (Woods, 1,1). Mrs. Ramsey does not want to feel finer than her husband does. She does not want people to know that he depends on her for he is much more important in her eyes. Mrs. Ramsey has a strange severity of the rules, extreme courtesy, and she believes that people like her should help their class. Mrs. Ramsey is talking about marriage all the time. She insists that every woman in the novel should marry for the unmarried woman misses the best of life (Woods, 1,9). Meanwhile, Woolf reflects her own attitude towards mother in the characters of the three daughters – Prue, Nancy and Rose. They do not argue with her openly, but they have different philosophy of their life. They dream of a free life somewhere in Paris. Mother’s ideas can just “call out manliness in their hearts” (Woods, 1,1).

Woolf expresses her protest in inventing her own image of an emancipated woman (Svendsen 2010). Woolf added something new to the Victorian motives of novel writing. She modified the theme of class and gender in modernists’ manner. Firstly, she shows that none of the protagonists is satisfied with their life and role in society. It is obvious from such fragments. Mrs. Ramsey is bothered by the problem of inequity of the people. While standing by the window at the beginning of the novel, she reveals her real desire. When she visits people she is dreaming of becoming an investigator, elucidating the social problem (Woods, 1,1). It is her dream but she tells no one about it. She knows that it is impossible to become a female investigator in her society. Her husband is dissatisfied as well. He knows that his role is to sustain his family, but he thinks he is a failure. He is persuaded he has to protect his wife and children. He has all the necessary qualities for that— “endurance and justice, foresight, and devotion” (Woods, 1,6). Nevertheless, he remembers the times when he was not duty bound. As the story goes, Mr. Ramsey tells the readers what he was like before the marriage. He used to work ten hours at a stretch but he had time to walk alone with not a single soul around. He could worry things out alone. Now he does not allow himself to think about it. He is the father of eight children and there is nothing he can do abut it (Woods, 1,12).

Secondly, Virginia Woolf introduces the character of Lily Briscoe. This woman is the embodiment of feminism. She knows the expectations of society, she has heard of some behavior codex, but she does not intent to follow it. Though her surrounding insists that the purpose of every woman's life is to get married, she believes that her paintings are enough to make her happy. For Lily marriage is nothing but “degradation and dilution” (Woods, 1,17). Briscoe considers herself “exemption from the universal law and she likes to be alone” (1,9). Mrs. Ramsey represents the expectations of society. She has pity for Lily and her independence, and she thinks that the arts is something virginal and not a serious deal for a woman (1,1). The pressure of the surrounding is so strong that sometimes Lily has some doubts. For instance, while watching the ball playing of Ramsey’s children, Lily thinks about the value of marriage. For her, the Ramseys are the symbol of marriage and she wonders if she is doing the right thing (1,13). However, it is obvious in the end of the novel that she returns single and still feminist towards men.

The third important theme of the novel To the lighthouse is the aesthetic values. The novel characters admire the beauty of nature, arts and humans. Their impressions are based on the aesthetic value of their surrounding. People notice the beauty of nature and landscapes in the novel. It is understandable for the idea that nature has inherent aesthetic value is widely socially accepted. Mrs. Ramsey notices the beauty of nature in the novel more often than others do. She enjoys walking on the streets and talking to different people. Particularly she notices the beauty of nature while walking with the most boring person Mr. Tansley. When the two of them go to the bay, Mrs. Ramsey cannot help exclaiming, “Oh, how beautiful!” (Woods, 1,1). She is fascinated with the plateful of blue water, prideful lighthouse in the midst of it, the green sand dunes. Ramseys love that view. While she is admiring the beauty of nature, her companion Mr. Tansley is admiring her natural beauty. He considers her a very attractive woman. He looks at “the stars in her eyes, and veils and wind in her hair.” She is still a beautiful woman in her 50s and she carries her torch of beauty erect everywhere she goes (Woods, 1,8). Mr. Ramsey is a connoisseur as well. He is concerned to the beauty around him. When Mr. Ramsey stays alone, he can have sad thoughts. However, he is still able to enjoy the beauty of his wife, for instance. By doing so he does homage to the beauty of the world (Woods, 1,6).

The other character who feels the essence of beauty is Lily Briscoe, the artist. She has that ability as all artists have – to grasp the beauty in everything. She cannot explain it, but she loves everything that is seen to her eyes, the whole world. Not only has she valued the beauty but she also tries to depict it in her painting. She tries to paint the beautiful jacmanna within the novel. She tries to represent its color and form, but she lacks inspiration. She realizes that she cannot reproduce the sense of beauty. People recognize it with their heart instead of their eyes.

The author is fascinating at aesthetic values herself. She describes the seaside at the summertime in the second part of her novel. She describes “tokens of divine bounty” – the sunset on the sea, the pallor of dawn, and the moon rising. These are all components of “jocundity and serenity.” All this seaside view has to make people marvel how beauty outside mirrors beauty within (Woolf, 2,6). Aesthetic values of Virginia Woolf are clear and speak a lot about the author’s outlook. Virginia Woolf was a prominent modernist writer. She has changed the previous realistic descriptions into a new, concentrated on the feelings of an individual. Her books are now classical and represent modernists’ themes to the next generations.

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