1. WILLIAM BANKES
We are rather a bit dramatically introduced to William Bankes in the fourth chapter of the first part of the novel. Lily is painting and she does not want to find her pictures looked at by any body. Of course Bankes is an exception. Someone is coming towards her and from the sound of the footsteps she knows it is Bankes. He comes and stands beside her.
Mr. Bankes is a boyhood friend of Mr. Ramsay and is one of their guests at their summer house in the Island of Skye. But instead of staying with them at their summer house he has taken his lodgings in the town. He is a botanist, a devoted scientist. He is a widower. He is very scrupulous and clean and smells of soap. He is old enough to be Lily’s father.
Lily and Bankes
Lily had very little feminine charm or glamour but it was Bankes who really appreciated her ordering habits, her good sense and other commendable qualities. So in his eyes Lily seemed much superior to Minta Doyle with all her class and allurement. They have many things in common. They understand each other quite well. They are accustomed to take strolls together, but they never talk about the common things of the work-a day world. They would rather talk about summer flowers and beautiful sights and sounds of nature and he would like to talk to her about perspective, about architecture. For his great qualities of head and heart Lily has highest respect and admiration for Mr. Bankes and his friendship is one of the greatest pleasures of her life. Indeed she loves him. But she likes to remain independent as an artist to devote herself completely to her creative activities. She also does not want her lofty feelings of love and admiration to degenerate into ordinary sex-relationship. Hence she renounces the pains and pleasures of a married life. And it is Lily’s sincere and silent eulogy that throws a flood of light on Mr. Bankes’ mind and character. This is how her intense feelings have been recorded: “I respect you (she addressed him silently) in every atom; you are not vain; you are entirely personal; you are finer than Mr. Ramsay; you are the finest human being that I know…..generous, pure-hearted, heroic man.” But while offering his silent eulogy Lily also remembers some of the eccentricities of this noble person. He has brought a valet all the way up to that distant place. He does not like dogs to jump and sit on the chair. And he would like to talk for hours about salt in vegetables and the iniquity of English cooks.
Mr. Bankes and Mrs. Ramsay
Although Mrs. Ramsay often feels bored to listen to Mr. Bankes’ dull talks about vegetables and English cooks, yet her sympatheic heart has a soft corner for this childless unhappy widower. She pities him and has specially invited him to dinner. But to Lily he comes to be the least pitiable. And out of sympathy and pity for this poor scientist Mrs. Ramsay strongly feels that Mr. Bankes must marry Lily as they have so many things in common. She must do something to bring them together. She considers him to be the kindest of men and with Mr. Ramsay she also takes him to be the first scientist of his time. Surprisingly this old boyhood friend of Mr. Ramsay has also some soft corner, some sort of sublime Platonic love for Mrs. Ramsay. “For him to gaze as Lily saw him gazing at Ramsay was a rapture, equivalent Lily felt, to the loves of dozens of young man.” To Lily it is love distilled and filtered, love that never attempts to clutch its object.
Mr. Bankes and Mr. Ramsay—Contrast
The great thing about Mr. Bankes is that unlike Mr. Ramsay he never holds a very high opinion about himself nor does he care if his work and achievements are going to last long or not. He is never worried about the future, as he knows that changes of taste in literature is but natural. And then Mr. Bankes never requires any undue sympathy or assurance from anybody in this world. Lily’s long interior monoloque in the third Chapter of the first part enables us to enter into the inner life of these two characters so that we may have a clear picture of the two different personalities. “You have greatness, she continued, but Mr. Ramsay has none of it. He is petty, selfish, vain, egotistical, he is spoilt, he is a tyrant, he wears Mrs. Ramsay to death; but he has what you (she addressed Mr. Bankes) have not; a fiery unworldliness; he knows nothing about trifles, he loves dogs and his children. He has eight, you have none.”
Mr. Bankes does very little in this novel, but still his part is not a very insignificant one. From his talks and discussions with Lily we are able to know a lot about the personality of the Ramsays, especially that of Mr. Ramsay, when he tells Lily, how their boyhood friendship ceased on a stretch of road in Westmoreland and what a great change came on him after his marriage, we have Mr. Ramsay seen clearly through the eyes of William Bankes. In fact we may say that Mr. Bankes combined with Lily forms a kind of Greek chorus to comment on the personality of the Ramsays.
2. AUGUSTUS CARMICHAEL
We meet Mr. Augustus Carmichael the poet in the very first chapter of the book. He is basking in the sun with his yellow cat’s eyes ajar on the tennis lawn. And Mr. Ramsay stops by his side on her way to the town to ask him if he needs anything. With supreme indifference he murmurs his answer in the negative. Whatever may be the reason he shrinks from such sympathetic overtures from friends.
An Unhappy Old Man
We know something about the sadness of his life when Mr. Ramsay speaks about him to Charles Tansley who is accompanying her to the fishing village. Mr. Carmichael had an affair with a girl at Oxford. Their early marriage was a failure. Due to poverty he had to go India where he earned his livelihood by translating a little poetry and teaching the boys Persian or Hindustani. In fact his wife had ruined his life; he dropped things on his coats, he had the tiresomeness of an old man with nothing in the world to do and she turned him out of the room. So he is now addicted to opium. According to the children his beard is stained yellow with it. Mrs. Ramsay has infinite pity for him. With her sympathetic soul she can quite understand that this unhappy man comes to them every year for an escape.
Disinterested but Dignified
He has very little interest in worldly affairs and worldly attachments after his tragic experience regarding his own family life. Mrs. Ramsay tried her best to make his life comfortable and often goes out of the way to be friendly to him. Still he is indifferent. He shrinks from her, thereby hurting her feelings. Not only this, his indifference to her friendly overtures often makes her aware of the pettiness of some part of her, and of human relations. In spite of his being hurt he has some soft corner for young Andrew. He is more or less devoted to him. And when he dies in the battle-field he has been terribly upset for days together.
Although he had to face so many rude shocks and knocks of life, yet he seems to be always content and dignified. In the dinner party he maintains his dignity nicely. At the fag end of the party he asks for another plate of soup without caring for what others might feel. In fact it upsets Mr. Ramsay very much. But Mr. Carmichael is unaffected. Mrs. Ramsay cannot but hold him in high esteem for his composure and dignity.
Successful as a Poet
Mr. Carmichael brought out a volume of poems in a spring during the dark years of the First World War. It had an unexpected success and brought him name and fame. Lily had never read a line of his poetry. But still she seems to know how it went, though slowly and sonorously. “It was seasoned and mellow. It was about the desert and camel. It was about the palm tree and the sunset. It was extremely impersonal.” Even Mr. Ramsay has great regard for him as a poet. To him he was really a true poet People would say that his poetry was beautiful. But his growing fame brings very little change in his manner and temperament.
In the novel Mr. Carmichael is very little involved with his remoteness and aloofness. Still his function in the novel is of considerable importance. He is a poet and an artistic figure and so forms a parallel to Lily Briscoe. In the first chapter we find this remote and indifferent man often lying all day long on the lawn brooding presumably over his poetry. But still in the dinner scene his demand for another plate of soup and its reaction on Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay enables us to understand their typical difference of temperament and outlook on life. And till the end of the book he plays his silent and benign role quite impressively. Till the end Lily feels he understands her and can solve all her problems even if she may not express her difficulties verbally to him. To Lily till the end “he was an inscrutable old man, with the yellow stain on his, beard, and his poetry, and his puzzles, sailing serenely through a world which satisfied all his wants, so that she thought he had only to put down his hand where he lay on the lawn to up anything he wanted.” And in the final scene of the novel we find this inscrutable figure standing by the side of Lily on the edge of the same lawn like an old pagan God just after the Ramsays have reached their destination and just before Lily makes her final stroke on her canvas and has had her final vision.
3. CHARLES TANSLEY
We are introduced to Charles Tansley, this typically irritating and self centred pedant, in the very first chapter of the novel. Mr. Ramsay has already shattered the hopes of James by telling him that the weather won’t be favourable enough to enable them to make a trip to the Lighthouse the next day. And then comes this pedant disciple of Mr. Ramsay to crush all their zeal by telling them bluntly, rather idiotically, that the wind is blowing from the worst possible direction to make it impossible for them to land at the Lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay knows that he is in the habit of saying disagreeable things. But still she bitterly feels that ‘it was odious of him to rub this in, and make James still more disappointed.’ And the children—they all mocked him. They called him “The little atheist’. To them he was miserable specimen, all humps and hollows, “he could not play cricket, he poked; he shuffled. He was a sarcastic brute,” Andrew said. So with her great skill in characterisation Virginia Woolf has clearly revealed the main traits of this minor but important character in the very first chapter of this novel.
Mr. Ramsay and Tansley: A Contrast
We know that Mr. Ramsay never refrains from telling unpleasant truths. But that is because he is incapable of untruth; he is unable to alter a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure and convenience of any person, least of all his own children whom he wants to face the stern facts of life boldly and squarely. But Tansley is a confirmed egoist and suffers from perversity of temperament so much so that his power to assert himself and irritate and disappoint others can reach the point of destruction. “When they talked about something interesting then what they complained of about Charles Tansley was that until he had turned the whole thing round and made it somehow reflect himself and disparage them, put them all on edge somehow with his said way peeling the flesh and blood off everything, he was not satisfied.” Some stern traits in Mr. Ramsay’s character may make him dislikable to some extent even to his children. But he has outstanding moral and intellectual qualities to make him lovable and respectable. But Tansley with his factlessness, egoism and perverse temperament is totally an object of mockery and hatred. Unfortunately he often tries to parody Mr. Ramsay. In this way Tansley just forms a perfect foil to Mr. Ramsay. In some respects, he is a foil to Mrs. Ramsay too. Mrs. Ramsay with her sympathetic nature is ever ready to twist a fact to save others from disappointment. But Tansley will take pleasure in twisting things to satisfy his own ego.
The Dinner Party and Tansley’s Egoism
Some of the important traits of Tansley’s character is clearly revealed during the course of the dinner party. As an embodiment of egoism he keenly desires that all conversation is centred round him. While others talk about different things he thinks they are all talking rot .So long as he is unable to assert himself, everything seems to him silly, superficial, flimsy. As he feels most women look down upon him, he cannot but think: “Women made civilization impossible with all their charm’, all their silliness.” And when Lily tries to pull his leg his vanity is wounded. He behaves rudely with her. And when the same Lily gives him a chance to assert and impress himself he talks and talks purely about himself for long. The egoist relieves himself of his egotism. His talk now begin to bore others, but the poor fellow does not understand this. Observing him closely Mrs. Ramsay is correct in her understanding that Tansley wants to assert himself and so it will be always with him till he gets his professorship or married his wife.
His Miserable Past and his Perversity
It should be noted that Tansley’s perversity, his irritating egoism are very much due to his bitter struggle for existence and a miserable past. And when he gets the first chance of walking with a beautiful woman, Mrs. Ramsay and get some recognition and sympathy from her, he becomes emotional and tells her almost everything about his past life. We come to know that his father was a poor shopkeeper. He himself had paid his own way since he was thirteen. Often he could not have a great-coat in winter and he smoked the cheapest tobacco. And as a student he worked very hard—seven hours a day. So Mrs. Ramsay’s heart melts, although he seems to be an awful prig, an insufferable bore. She would see that her children do not mock at him.
With Mrs. Ramsay we also feel inclined to sympathise with this poor young man when we realise that his is mainly a case of social maladjustment. With her generous and sympathetic heart Mrs. Ramsay understood his problems and so took him under her protection. The following monologue that we have from Mrs. Ramsay when she leaves her children’s room after the dinner party reveals almost all the dark as well as brighter shades of Tansley’s character. “Yet he looked so desolate; yet she would feel relieved, when he went; yet she would see that he was better treated tomorrow: yet he was admirable with her husband; yet his manners, certainly wanted improving.”