“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow’, said Mrs. Ramsay. ‘But you’ll have to be up with the lark’, she added.”
This is how in a dramatic way the novel opens. Mrs. Ramsay talking to her six year old child, James, to inspire his young heart with hope and joy by assuring him that the expected expedition to the Lighthouse is bound to take place the next day.
“But”, said his father, stopping in front of the drawing-room window, ‘it won’t be fine”.
And this is how Mr. Ramsay, who is incapable of untruth, dashes all the hopes of this young and sensitive child to the ground. But still Mrs. Ramsay persists that the weather may be fine; she expects it to be fine.
Thus in the very opening chapter of the book it becomes crystal clear to us that Mrs. Ramsay stands in sharp contrast with her husband. Mr. Ramsay ‘with some secret conceit at his own accuracy of judgment can never tamper with a fact, can never think of altering a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure and convenience of any mortal being. So with his caustic saying he does not hesitate to shatter young James’ dreams. But Mrs. Ramsay with her profound sympathy and understanding for children remonstrates with her husband and would still suggest that it may be fine the next day. Though she feels that the trip may be cancelled, Mr. Ramsay and Tansley may be correct in their assessment, yet she would never like to dishearten the young child or hurt his feelings in any way. Mr. Ramsay is extremely annoyed; the irrationality of her remark enrages him. His rude and rough behaviour shakes her to the extreme. “To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to vend the thin veils of civilization so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed, and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jugged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said.”
Two Kinds of Truth
In fact To The Lighthouse expresses two kinds of truth and Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay represent two different approaches to reality; James Halley has very nicely elucidated this point. According to him, “To The Lighthouse is really the story of a contest between two kinds of truth—Mr. Ramsay’s and Mrs. Ramsay’s. For him truth is factual truth; for her truth is the movement towards truth: since truth is always being made, and never is made, the struggle for truth is the truth itself. The form of this novel at once expresses and verifies Mrs. Ramsay’s truth. According to Bergson, certainty can follow only from factual extension of knowledge resulting in scientific order; such is the order which Mr. Ramsay seeks. Mr. Ramsay specializes knowledge.
“If thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into as many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters, one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say the letter ‘Q’. He reached ‘Q’. . . .But after ‘Q’ What comes next? After ‘Q’ there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. ‘Z’ is only reached once by one man in a generation. Still, if he could reach ‘R’ it would be something.”
“Here is a logical, scientific procedure toward truth.”
“Mrs. Ramsay, on the other hand, knows by intuition rather than by analysis, and is, therefore, able to know reality—mobility, qualitative rather than quantitative diversity, time instead of space, movement itself and not merely the path of movement in space.”
So far Mrs. Ramsay feeling for others, consideration and sympathy are the eternal truths—truths that never perish like the scientific and matter-of-fact truth sought by Mr. Ramsay.
Certainty of Intuition
It must be noted that Mrs. Ramsay’s apparent illogicality is, in fact, the certainty of intuition. For Mr. Ramsay her truth is a false truth, but without it he cannot survive. “She knew then—she knew without having learnt. Her simplicity fathomed what clever people falsified. Her singleness of mind made her drop plumb like a stone, alight exact as a bird, gave her, naturally, this swoop and fall of the spirit upon truth which delighted, eased, sustained—falsely perhaps”. May be falsely because her perception is yet to be proved correct. She has been seen only through a window and the reader has seen her concept of truth only through the window of her own room. And then she has identified her truth with the Lighthouse. She strongly feels that “there is a coherence in things, a stability: something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripples of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby... Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that remains for ever after.” So we find that whereas Mr. Ramsay’s ‘Z’ glimmers red in the distance’ the something that Mrs. Ramsay feels to be stable shines like a ruby. We find that her way of meeting it is different from her husband’s way —hers being really an end, and his a means. This is confirmed by her feelings when she needs not think about anybody, when she can be herself, by herself. “Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always same exclamation of triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity; and pausing there she looked out to meet that stroke of the Lighthouse, the long steady stroke, the last of the three, which was her stroke....”
Ironically enough we find the phrase—”someone had blundered”—repeated seven times in the first part of this novel. One of them must be wrong; and the remainder of the novel clearly reveals to us that it is none but Mr. Ramsay who ‘had blundered’.
Attitude toward the Sea and the Land
Let us see how Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay think and feel about the sea and about the land. Mr. Ramsay identifies himself with the land and thinks the sea to be a destroyer. But Mrs. Ramsay like Lily Briscoe believes that life is the sea and not land. And hence Mrs. Ramsay “felt….that community of feeling with other people which emotion gives as if the walls of partition had become so still that practically (the feeling was one of relief and happiness) it was all one stream, and chairs, tables, maps were hers, were theirs, it did not matter whose, and (they) would carry it on when she was dead.” But Mr. Ramsay thinks of the dark of human ignorance, how we know nothing and the sea eats away the ground we stand on.’ Hence Mr. Ramsay is afraid that people will forget him, that all his work will be the victim of time’s despotic claim. But Mrs. Ramsay does not draw a line around her individuality, and so does not fear time.
Need of Assurance and Sympathy
In spite of all his intellectual superiority and his secret conceit at his own accuracy of judgment, Mr. Ramsay is very badly in need of sympathy and assurance from his wife. James Hafley’s comments on this point is quite illuminating: Mrs. Ramsay’s truth is one that must tramp upon her husband’s however; but his truth—factual truth —is so short lived that she can distort or deny it without compunction. He himself realises its frigidity; in a generation, he thinks, he will be forgot; even Shakespeare will some day to be forgot. It is for this reason that his wife is so essential to him; although he ‘exaggerated her ignorance, her simplicity, for he liked to think that she was not cleaver, not book—learned at all’, he nevertheless wanted to be assured of his genius, first of all, and then to be taken within the circle of life, warmed and soothed, to have his sense restored to him, his barrenness made fertile and all the rooms made full of life.... He must be assured that he too lived in the heart of life,...”Therefore, he must from time to time leave off his metaphysical and return to his wife, to ‘life itself’ for sympathy.”
“Time Passes”: Testing of Mrs. Ramsay’s Truth
The outstanding critics have hailed the second part of this novel, “Time Passes,”as a masterpiece of description. According to a very eminent critic: it would be hard to find anything in twentieth century English prose to surpass (this part).” But “Time Passes” must not be taken simply as a sublime piece of impressionistic writing. In fact it is actually the testing of Mrs. Ramsay’s vision by Mr. Ramsay’s facts, and the apparent triumph of those facts. In it we get the description of the effects of ten year’s time upon the little deserted house in a lofty poetic prose. Every thing is slowly gravitating towards death and decay, The books become mouldy, weeds have usurped the garden and mice have invaded the rooms. Even Mrs. Ramsay’s truth, symbolised by the shawl she had wrapped around a frightening skull in the children’s room, cannot but fall a victim to ‘the facts’ and the awful skull emerges as if to mock at Mrs. Ramsay’s illusions. It seems there is no eternity, no permanence; only dust, decay and death stare us in the face. And to accentuate all this Mrs. Ramsay herself dies during this ten years’ interval. Andrew James is also killed in the war and Pine dies of childbirth. All these seem to proclaim that Mr. Ramsay is correct confirming his pessimism and proving Mrs. Ramsay’s optimism illustory.
Ultimate Triumph of Mrs. Ramsay’s Illusions
“But there was a force working; something not highly conscious; something that leered, something that lurched…..They came with their brooms and pails at last, they got to work. All of sudden would Mrs. McNab see that the house was ready, one of the young ladies wrote…..“ So after days of cleaning and scrubbing and scything some rusty, laborious birth seems to take place and the birth brings the house back to what it was and we find the Ramsays. Lily Briscoe and Mr. Carmichael back to the old summer house after a lapse of ten years. The long night is over.
Thus in the last part of the novel it is clearly revealed to us-that in the long run it is Mrs. Ramsay who is right and not Mr. Ramsay. She dominates the novel even after her death. And her ‘lies’ are proved to be the truth that can refute Mr. Ramsay’s facts. Time passes but true time can never pass. It is the apparition of Mrs. Ramsay at the same window that enables Lily Briscoe to complete her picture. And at the very same moment Mr. Ramsay lands at the Lighthouse with James and Cam at the successful end of their expedition undertaken in the memory of his departed wife. So Mrs. Ramsay’s illusions are proved to be the reality in the long run.
Undoubtedly, with her personal charms, with her kindness and compassion, with her affection for children and with her intuition and illusions, Mrs. Ramsay as the central character of the novel stands head and shoulder above all others including Mr. Ramsay and dominates the novel even after his death. Even then we may not be little the personality of Mr. Ramsay. With all his eccentricities and passion for facts and conceit for his own accuracy of judgment, Mr. Ramsay is definitely an eminent intellectual of his time. With his habit of self-dramatisation and play-acting he is neither a comic figure nor the villain of the piece. And when we close the book we are convinced that in spite of all his gloom and desperation, his despotic attitude towards his children he is, without any doubt, a kind-hearted gentleman, a loving husband and a truly affectionate father.