Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is a fictional model of Woolf’s ideologies regarding women in marriage and in society. When Woolf publicly announced to female writers that before they can write they need to “kill the angel in the house,” she wasn’t kidding, for this is exactly what she does in this wonderful work of literature that examines women’s roles under the umbrella of patriarchal rule.
Within the opening pages of To the Lighthouse, we are confronted with the tensions that exist for Woolf as well as her main character, Mrs. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay is the angel of the house, the one who dies, conveniently, in the second part of the book. Through this gentle and norm-abiding character, we are quickly acquainted with the type of woman that withstood the limitations of her domestic and private sphere of existence, and the kind of woman that Virginia Woolf resisted in her work and in life.
Mrs. Ramsay, who is not known by any other name in the book, is married, has eight kids, and spends her days catering to the needs of her family and friends. A woman’s job during the Victorian era was to care for others, harmonize everyone around her, partner men and women in marriage, and protect and nurture the egos of the men in her presence. Mrs. Ramsay’s days are overwhelmed with these tasks, and this is her singular purpose as a woman. She is the romanticized version of delicate femininity, a product of the Victorian era, and the ideal woman, wife, and mother that women continue to fight against in the present.
To go along with the tide of these normalizing traditions, we also come across an array of male characters, each portrayed as educated, refined, philosophical, intellectual, demanding, and in need of constant ego boosting. We get to know Mr. Ramsay within the first few pages as he crushes his son’s illusions of going to the lighthouse, a sarcastic grin plastered on his face because he is able to refute his wife and make her seem silly and show his power to his son. Charles Tansley, a friend staying with them on their vacation abroad, is the same way, cushioning his insecurities on the defects and weaknesses of those around him. It is he who covets the affections of Mrs. Ramsay, because she feeds his ego, as is her job, but rebukes the efforts of Virginia Woolf’s independent female character, Lily Briscoe, who endeavors to be an artist. “Women can neither paint nor write,” he admonishes with his all-knowing superiority, and it is the struggle against such limiting and degrading beliefs that both Woolf and Lily Briscoe spend their lives resisting.
Lily Briscoe is Virginia Woolf’s independent heroine, the kind of woman all women should aspire to becoming. The novel ends with her as she finally finishes the portrait that she had begun at the beginning of the novel, but had yet to finish. Despite Mrs. Ramsay’s attempts to normalize her, Lily remains unmarried, choosing independence, autonomy, and her art over men, marriage, and children. The vision she achieves is with her art, but also with her life, her self. She is the feminist, the empowered woman aware of men’s imposed subjugation and superiority over women, and she refuses to adhere to the rules that reins women’s lives, even going as far as resisting showing empathy for Mr. Ramsay’s widowed state. She refuses to sacrifice herself, her art, or her life by assuming the ideal and feminine version of womanhood. In the end, she is selfish, looking out only for herself and her needs, and this individuality allows her the clarity she needs to achieve her objectives as an artist – to finish her project.
This is interesting when you apply it to art and women in today’s culture, whether it is painting or writing. Virginia Woolf advocates women choosing art and the autonomy that allows for freedom of expression in art over marriage and motherhood, which in this novel confuses and curtails the artist. One has to wonder what Woolf would make of all the stay-at-home moms who have used nap times and carpool breaks and weekends to write and paint and create and blog – finding their voices as artists in spite of marriage and motherhood and familial obligations. It is a struggle, and yet, evidence shows that women are using the conveniences of the internet and e-book and self-publishing venues as a means of getting their voices out there. It seems that today women do not have to “kill the angel of the house” to create, and their voices are far from angelic.