In To The Lighthouse we find that Mrs. Ramsay opens the novel and Lily Briscoe closes it, as the stuff of life may be converted, through a particular medium, to a work of art. So, if life and art are viewed as polar opposites in To The Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe may be regarded as their respective exponents. And in our first view of Mrs. Ramsay she is already the subject of Lily’s painting. The main reason for Mrs. Ramsay becoming the chief character of the novel is that as personification or as abstraction, life is longer than art. Probably, that is why Part I, in which life dominates, is almost twice the length of Part III, in which art is the focal centre.
Art Needs Life to Nourish It
It cannot be disputed that art can be nourished only in life. But whereas art needs life to nourish it, life is often unaware of the power of art to give it permanence. Thus, although Lily the painter is in love with Mrs. Ramsay and, we may add, with all her family and their diverse doings, she cannot take Lily’s painting seriously. Thus, too, Mrs. Ramsay’s quite literal short-sightedness is played against Lily’s ‘vision’. To Lily it seems ironic that Mrs. Ramsay presided with immutable calm over destinies which she completely failed to understand; Mrs. Woolf wants to suggest that life may be its own worst enemy, even as the artist may rebel against art’s strict exigencies. Although it is only momentary, Mrs. Ramsay ‘felt alone in the presence of her old antagonist, life’. And Lily is ‘drawn out of gossip, out of living, out of community with people into the presence of the formidable ancient enemy of her....this form....roused one to perpetual combat.’
Mrs. Ramsay and Lily
It may be noted that the two women are not monolythic symbols, but reveal vivid personalities behind their major meaning. Hence it is not ‘artistic’ Lily but ‘living’ Mrs. Ramsay, who is endowed with rare beauty. But both women have a slightly exotic quality—Lily her Chinese eyes, and Mrs. Ramsay, a Hellenic face. And both women dress soberly in grey. Inspite of her easy, direct spontaneity, we never become familiar enough with Mrs. Ramsay to learn her first name. On the other hand, Mrs. Ramsay calls Lily by her Christian name, suggesting the pure virgin which by Part III, when she is forty four becomes a skimpy old maid holding a paintbrush’. These humanizing details root the character to a literal ground, so that they never become figures of allegory, but rather magnetic poles for particular lines of force.
Mrs. Ramsay Dominates Part I Completely
In Part I we find that Mrs. Ramsay who is at the heart of all the busy, indiscriminate activities of her large family and her too numerous summer guests. With her masterfulness, her positiveness, something matter-of-fact in her enables her to manage superbly other people’s lives, from trivial to important aspect. On the other hand, Lily can barely manage to manipulate her paint brushes, and shrinks from anything strange on her canvas. And then by Part III Lily has become aware of a fundamental difference between herself and Mrs. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay might fall occasionally into meditation but she ‘disliked anything that reminded her that she had been seen sitting thinking.’ But both in Lily the painter and Mr. Carmichael the poet there was some notion about the ineffectiveness of action, the supremacy of thought.
Efforts to Render Her Actions Effective
We find Mrs. Ramsay bending all efforts to render her actions effective. The most important of them is her endeavour to supply emotional sustenance for her husband and children and it is found that when she dies they are left in a chaotic confusion. This is clearly revealed in the opening of Part III. This is how Lily felt after coming back to that old summer-house after so many years:
“She had come last night when it was all mysterious, dark. Now she was awake…..There was this expedition—they were going to the Lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay, Cam, and James. They should have gone already-they had to catch the tide or something. And Cam was not ready and, James was not ready and Nancy had forgotten to order the sandwiches and Mr. Ramsay had lost his temper and banged out of the room”. Mrs. Ramsay is a very ardent match-maker and she also feel protective towards the whole male sex. She is also eager to help the poor and the sick. And then she is found striving earnestly for the unity and integrity of social scenes such as her dinner party. Lily Briscoe also acknowledges Mrs. Ramsay’s manipulation of life. But, ironically, Mrs. Ramsay is seen ‘making’ while Lily merely ‘tried’. But unfortunately Mrs. Ramsay’s efforts are doomed from the start; life cannot stand still; time must pass. It is only in another sphere can moments be given permanence. And the notable difference between the two is that Mrs. Ramsay has the rare beauty of ordering a scene so that it is, ‘like a work of art’, but it is Lily who creates a concrete work of art.
Lily and Her Art
From our first view of Lily in the first part of the novel, ‘standing on the edge of the lawn painting’ to the significant final view, ‘Yes, she thought laying down, her brush in extreme fatigue. I have had my vision’-the insistence is upon her art. From the very beginning, inspite of all her doubts and diffidence, she is found painting with stubborn intergrity to her vision, in the bright colours which Mr. Paunceforte’s pastels have rendered unfashionable. It is the resolution to move her tree to the centre of the canvas that sustains her through the dinner party, protects her against Charles Tansley’s pronouncement that women cannot paint or write. And by Part III we find that Lily’s paint brush has become for her ‘the one dependable thing in a world of strife, ruin, chaos’ and she seems more sure of her technique: the lines are nervous, but her brush-strokes are decisive. It is she who imagines the artistic creeds of Carmichael “how ‘you’ and ‘I’ and ‘she’ pass, and vanish; nothing stays all changes; but not words not paint”. Yet even then, even to the final brush-stroke that brings the novel to a close, she continues to be haunted by the problematical and shifting relationship of art and life.
Part III: Art and Life
This relation of art to life has been most beautifully treated in Part III of the novel. The structure of this section is based upon the shuttling back and forth between Lily on the island and those in the boat watching the island, who in turn get further away. This is accompanied by the corresponding movement of those in the boat getting closer to the Lighthouse and Lily, getting closer to the solution of her aesthetic problem. And the determining factor of each is love (the art of life), which might perhaps be defined as order or the achievement of form in human relations through the surrender of personality. Lily finishes her painting as she feels that sympathy for Mr. Ramsay which she had previously refused to give. James and Cam give up their long-standing antagonism towards their father. Mr. Ramsay himself, at the same time, attains a resolution of his own tensions and worries. Hence ‘the two actions, the arrival at the lighthouse and the last stroke of the push are also united; both are acts of completion and it is obvious that they are meant to happen together.’