Lily Briscoe may say or do little in the course of the novel, but still her role in To The Lighthouse is really very significant. The truth of this view is greatly justified when we realise that through her the novelist has tried to express her own views on the problems of artistic creation and artistic sensibility. In fact, through her personality, Virginia Woolf is diving deep into the complex process of artistic creation. Lily is out and out an artist and her life’s mission is painting. So great is her devotion to art that she prefers to remain single discarding the joys and pleasures of a family life. A true artist, as she is, believes that a brush is the only ally in this life full of fret and hurry and rough and tumble of our daily existence.
Lily’s Painful Experiences as An Artist
We have already mentioned that great importance of Lily’s character in To The Lighthouse lies in the fact that the novelist has tried to express her own reflections on art through the various experiences of this major character. Lily is a devoted painter—a true artist. From the very beginning of the book it is clearly revealed that she is acutely aware of the frustration of trying to translate moments of intensity into worthwhile art, to capture in her painting the thing itself before it has been made anything, In the very first part we find her experiencing a lot of difficulties while busy in painting Mrs. Ramsay sitting with the child at the window of her summer-house, It was a tough job for her to give expression to her ideas and impressions on the canvas with the help of paint and brush, “It was in that moments flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child”. But still she never wants to play at painting and is determined to surmount all odds to give aesthetic expression to her creative urge to her supreme satisfaction. She is no doubt a painter, but her comments on the impossibility of recording the most evanescent of moments are sometimes expressed in terms that seem more appropriate to the man of letters. Art requires complete concentration and concentration comes when the artist has purged herself or himself from the various contradictory pulls in her or his mind. Lily knows that art requires a placidity of mind when the artist can put her or his heart and soul into the work. And this is precisely the state of mind that Lily Briscoe is not able to achieve until late in the novel.
Four Separate Moments of Vision and Fulfilment
All artists have their moments of vision and inspiration to undertake and complete a work of art. An artist has also to surmount tremendous odds and difficulties before giving shape to his or her dreams. And it takes four separate moments of inspiration over a period of many years for Lily to finish her picture.
The first seems to have occurred before the action of the novel starts and is remembered as ‘that vision which she had seen clearly once and now must grope for among hedges and houses and mothers and children—her picture’. While visiting the Ramsays during the first part of the book she is working on a view of their house, and at dinner in the evening she has had her second inspiration : ‘In a flash she saw her picture, and thought, yes I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space’. The full significance of this moment is not revealed until much later, when we also learn that it had flashed upon her that she would move the tree to the middle, and never need marry anybody. But before Lily can carry out her intention everyone leaves the Ramsays’ summer house. Then Mrs. Ramsay died and Lily loses track of her picture, and ten years roll away.
Lily’s Third Vision
After a lapse of ten years Mr. Ramsay quite unexpectedly comes back to their old summer house and invites the guests to visit the place once again. Lily is also there again. When she confronts the same scene she had been painting, Lily has her third moment of vision or inspiration when she recalls the previous one “Suddenly she remembered, when she sat there last ten years ago there had been a little sprig or leaf pattern on the table cloth, which she had looked at a moment of revelation…..She would paint that picture now”. After some initial difficulty she carries on with her creative activity all the morning and by the moment Mr. Ramsay lands at the Lighthouse her new painting is almost complete.
Lily is then seen to pause a bit while she seems to share with Mr. Carmichael the same thoughts about Mr. Ramsay and what he has done, when, ‘quickly, as it she were recalled by something over there, she turns to her canvas and takes up her brush. There it was—her picture’. She then looks at the steps of the house where she had earlier felt she could see an image of Mrs. Ramsay but ‘they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there in the centre. It was done, it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision’. And with these words, which end the novel, it appears that Lily’s dreams of capturing her fleeting inspiration and making of the moment something permanent are at last realised.
Need of Complete Concentration
Lily’s delay and difficulties in realising her vision shows that she is really going through the pangs of creation. Art requires complete concentration, and concentration comes when the artist has purged herself or himself from the various contradictory pulls in her or his mind. In fact art requires a placidity of mind when the artist can put her or his heart and soul into the work. This is precisely the state of mind that Lily Briscoe is not able to achieve until late in the novel. She was not getting her picture right at all. She could not bring on the canvas what she vaguely thought and wanted to paint. In a way she was not very sure what she wanted to make of her picture. She was getting a whole host of hazy notions which she was unable to grasp and tame on her canvas. There was the problem of filling in one empty space on the canvas. She was afraid that if she carried out the proposed changes, the unity of the work might be destroyed.
Seclusion and Isolation
This also must have to be accepted that an artist has to work amidst people, amidst the ordinary commerce of life, however much one might yearn for seclusion, one has to live the life around. And a pertinent question to ask here is whether art created in isolation from the squalor and dirt of life, its joys and its sorrows, its pains and its failures, and the hopes and the aspirations of the people around—can such an art in isolation from these things be a truly authentic art? Is art the solitary contemplation of the artist or is it a reflection of life? The idea that art is purely the solitary contemplation of the artist is absolutely erroneous. Such an art is bound to be pale and weak, subjective and eccentric. The life-blood of art is provided by the life actually led by the people and the artist must reflect the progressive urges of his times. Such an artist will be less likely to face frustrations and heart-breaks, which a painter like Lily has often to experience.
To Identify with People around and Sympathise
A true artist should be motivated not only by the genuine creative urges but by a cause greater than himself or herself. In the later part of the novel Lily Briscoe gathers up all her energies and makes up her mind to complete the picture. But it is only after she is able to sympathise with Mr. Ramsay after he has left for the lighthouse that the deadlock in Lily Briscoe’s painting is broken. Onset of the feelings of love and sympathy releases her creative parts. With a curious physical ‘sensation, she makes her first decisive stroke. The brush descends on the canvas a second time and then a third. Pausing and flickering, she attains a rhythmical movement, as if the pauses were one part of the movement and strokes another. And all were related. So appeared the lines on the canvas that enclosed the nasty vacant spot. Thus we also get an idea of the artist at work as Lily paints. She loses consciousness of the world around being completely lost in her picture. And as she lost consciousness of everything around, her mind kept throwing up from its depth scenes, names, sayings, memories, and ideas like a fountain.
Lily Briscoe is by no means the main character in To The Lighthouse, but she has more moments of vision than any other figure in this novel. She is acutely aware of the frustration of trying to translate moments of intensity into worthwhile art, to capture in her painting ‘the thing itself before it has been made anything’. Art, whether it be poetry or painting, brings forth the life-blood of the artist. And it is hardly possible to know from the finished product the travails and tribulations, the frustrations and hardships that the artist has gone through in his attempt to bring the work to fruition. And finally it may be stated with assertion that Virginia Woolf has endeavoured to express through Lily Briscoe her views on the problems of creative activity, artistic sensibility and the relationship that exists between art and life.