Paradigms of Gender Roles in Stream of Consciousness and Grief
Written in response to not only the death of her parents, but also the impending death of the Victorian Era with the looming Modern era, the death of a generation in World War I, and the death of Western patriarchal gender roles; simply ascribing Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse as a eulogy to the death of her parents would be the greatest understatement of the century. Following of course Woolf’s own understated treatment of death and time in the text. The elasticity present in the narrative is dependent on how the artist is able to transform death and incorporate it into the creative process, whether that be Woolf’s own writing of the text or Lily Briscoe’s painting. Rather than focusing on external events, such as war, death, and time, Woolf brings forth a stream of consciousness in the reader through the intrusion of emotion as she employs both direct and indirect speech. By placing the eye of the reader similarly to that of the beam of the lighthouse, subjective experience and perception brings rise to the workings of the inner state of the mind and how it is affected by gender relations.
Woolf is able to radically reconceptualize language, in turn bringing rise to the notion of perspective and its dependence on impressions and experience of the mind. Similarly to Lily Briscoe’s struggle in the text to show the multifaceted nature of life and family in the style of her art, Woolf gives light to the struggle in painting as she stresses to the audience the process in which empty space is filled. In conventional writing the empty space is primarily filled with language, Woolf rather embraces the empty space and presents a distorted reality through feelings and by not imposing direct meaning to language or her characters. Woolf completely eliminates plot, as the text focuses primarily on the characters allowing for an uninterrupted analysis on the relations between the characters. Similar to the work of the poet, and arguably the painter as well, Woolf tasks herself with making the seemingly ordinary role of the character significant. Hidden in the symbolism throughout the text, Mr. Ramsay’s and James’ estranged relationship coming full circle at the lighthouse and the line drawn down the painting, the audience inadvertently gets the sense of how poetic the events have become. Rather than limiting Woolf’s To The Lighthouse to the constraints of the elegy, as the text has proven to encompass multiple forms of narrative, it is necessary to evaluate the text in terms of ethnography. Similar to the role Lily Briscoe plays in observing the dynamics of the Ramsay family and portraying them through her art, To The Lighthouse represents for Woolf the observation on gender roles especially in terms of grief.
By encompassing a stream of consciousness in To The Lighthouse, Woolf is able to present differing perspectives and an elasticity of time, shedding light on gender roles and its relation to each character. Rather than explicitly stating how each woman is regulated in terms of her gender, Woolf is rather able to show this regulation through the perspective and treatment of the opposite gender in the text. Woolf urges the reader to act as an active participant in the formulation of the characters as the evaluation is
“acquired in the reader’s recognition of form, and in the apprehension of the meaning of loss in its relationship to presence – in the understanding of the role that memory plays in constructing necessary fictions of our lives” (Smyth 10-11).
Woolf purposefully creates distance in the text between what is spoken by the characters and what is additionally thought through others reception of them, this distance further engaged by the nonlinear plot engaged throughout the text. The double-voiced narrative allows for the emergence of both a dominant and suppressed narrative, that can directly be applied to gender relations between not only the character but the innerworkings of each gender and their response. It is also seen in her representation of each gender regulated by the implicit time constraints of their age. By including three men, Mr. Ramsay, Mr. Tansley, and James, as separate representations of the mechanisms of masculine society Woolf is able to construct a nonlinear implied loss of the young male who at first does conform to masculine rhetoric employed by the other male figures, but rather is shown to possess the Oedipal complex. Mrs. Ramsay is able to inform the reader, through her consciousness of the innerworkings of the man and her self-knowledge of her son, of the “strife, divisions, difference of opinion, prejudices twisted into the very fiber of being, oh, that they should begin so early, Mrs. Ramsay deplored” (Woolf 12). Through the perspective of Mrs. Ramsay, it is made clear to the reader the innerworkings of societal gender roles and its effects on how those individuals who’ve become entrapped by them inevitably perceive and subjectify the women who raised them. As Woolf outlines the loss of a character to societal hegemony, she similarly portrays a separate loss of the woman to their own domesticity. She provides a tragic fate for what lies ahead for women who align themselves with the patriarchal structure, these characters include Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Minta. Elaborated shortly in the short chapter of “Time Passes,” Woolf uses the structure of a decaying house and parentheses to establish the inevitable and seemingly inescapable misfortune of women who conform to their gender roles. Each subjective experience is provided in the three different women as they performed their own feminine roles, and without the human presence of emotions the reader is able to transform the death to one of the material world during “Time Passes”. The impending destruction of the house signifies the closing in of Victorian values, dying along with the women that encompassed them. Mrs. Ramsay the seemingly staunch supporter of wifely servitude dies unexpectedly, Prue after marrying dies in childbirth, and Minta’s marriage cut short by the interference of another woman. Woolf leaves a scathing review on what encompassed Victorian gender roles, as each woman that complied is eventually punished by nature. While showing the pervading effects of hegemonic structures in the two genders through the narrative of multiple perspectives, she simultaneously examines the relationship each person has with the constraints of gender and how this relationship is then perceived through multiple perceptions.
Similarly to Woolf’s own struggle with the societal pressures to conform to a capitalistic society that keeps women subservient, Lily Briscoe’s own struggle with her status as an artist is transformed to an examination of the compliance and resistance to these imposed roles. Through her decade long struggle of properly portraying Mrs. Ramsay in the portrait, Lily Briscoe is finally able to prove women can in fact paint just as Woolf proved women could write through her reconceptualization of the novel. Woolf is able to lay to rest the Victorian patriarchal stereotypes, and its connection to her parents and her own status as not only a woman but as an artist. Through each characters own struggle with the effects of Victorian gender roles, Woolf is able to provide multiple perspectives of how each character develops in relation to these conventional roles. Through the killing of the angel of the house, Mrs. Ramsay, it inevitably leaves the characters devastated but most importantly liberates the characters to effectively create a new order. Mrs. Ramsay represents a layered femininity, that both reaffirms hegemonic masculinity through her active participation and encouragement of other women to also partake, but through her own consciousness the reader is able to also see how she is resistant to traditional femininity. Unbeknownst to the characters in To The Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay feels “she had the whole of the other sex under her protection…for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable,” (Woolf 6). As the characters in the text are now allowed the same stream of consciousness the reader is presented, Lily and Mrs. Ramsay’s own daughters are quick to form judgment on her allegiance to hegemonic masculinity. Through the process of the character’s attempt of gaining awareness on the innerworkings of individuals, it is impossible as shown through the reduction of Mrs. Ramsay as only the angel of the house when only relying on the perspective of those surrounding her; it is only until her own stream of consciousness that the reader is able to see the dichotomy of gender in her resistance. This misconception of an individual’s character is due to “by virtue of the insufficiency of simple perception” but once this perception is transformed into consciousness, “a mysterious and unfathomable realm of psychic patterns, solitary moments of being that Woolf identified with the real essence of human character” (Darvey 134). Woolf then is able to create multiplicity of the self, where the reader is able to differentiate between how the character presents themselves and how they are presented by others. This moment of realization the reader experiences is similar to that of Lily Briscoe’s self-knowledge upon completion of the painting. By adding distance, whether that distance be Lily’s own ‘oriental gaze’ on Victorian values, distance of ten years, distance form linear time and emotions, or Woolf’s own distance from an era to provide scrutinization, Lily and the reader are able to recognize the dynamics of self and the outside world. This is establish through “the represented self – as it develops in relation to other characters, other selves, and character as it exists in isolation when it may exhibit signs of the elusive essence of self” (Sandberg 171). This essence of self is further established through the gender relations show, as human behavior is deeply affected by the cultural context it embodies.
With the examination of human behavior and emotions in relation to the cultural context of hegemonic masculinity, it is also necessary to apply this study to the role of gender in terms of grief. Woolf elaborates on this issue as she presents to the audience “whether the mind and body are discrete categories or are mutually implicating is a vexed question in the early modern period” (Catty 15). Woolf lends to conventional categorization of the gender roles in the text, through the effect of displaying other’s consciousness. Frustration is seen in male characters when presented with feminine thought, reducing the role of the male to the realms of the mind and woman’s to the reduction of the body. While this frustration is made clear when women interject in the consciousness of male thought, it is also revealed in the role of protector Mrs. Ramsay encapsulates. Mrs. Ramsay’s relation to the men in the book relied on her ability to soothe and protect them from not only the outside world, but also from themselves and who they are destined to become. The only source of Mrs. Ramsay’s empowerment is paradoxically a patriarchal tool to enforce weakness in her relation to men. By reestablishing happiness in various males, such as Mr. Tansley who states “it flattered him; snubbed as he had been… she made him feel better pleased with himself than he had done yet” (Woolf 10-11). By acting as mediator for males and their shortcomings, not only does she continue to propagate the structure that has kept her complicit to the male, she simultaneously presents this relationship to track the feminization of feelings and males inability to properly express them without the female mediator. The nonlinear plot and deviation from the constraints of time become necessary, establishing the effect of the male inability to cope with stress and grief once Mrs. Ramsay, or the traditional Victorian subordinate female is removed from the process. As the loss of Mrs. Ramsay signals the emergence of the modern woman, her thoughts and actions continue to pervade the characters as Mr. Ramsay is unable to suppress his grief on a willing woman. Mr. Ramsay feels “without being conscious… to approach any woman, to force them, he did not care how, his need was so great, to give him what he wanted: sympathy” (Woolf 151). Rather than giving into “this insatiable hunger for sympathy” Mr. Ramsay demands of Lily, she rather refers to this demand as a “surrender [of] herself up to him entirely” (Woolf 151). With Mr. Ramsay’s inability to suppress his grief and garner sympathy in the wake of the death of the Victorian woman, similarly he is unable to fully amend relations with his son James without the mediation of Mrs. Ramsay. Through the multiplicity of viewpoints and removal of time, Woolf is able to present the detrimental effects of Victorian patriarchal society on both men and women, especially apparent in times of loss.
To The Lighthouse reaches its end through the emergence of self-realization, seen in James’ symbolic journey to the lighthouse and Lily’s completion and reaffirmation of being an artist. While gender roles are a constant cultural context to the text, they are remarkably reaffirmed and further revealed through differing perspectives of characters. By presenting the narrative as a stream of consciousness from differing perspectives and characters, Woolf is able to reproduce the tensions between men and women that can be seen across each generation. By stimulating an active audience, Woolf is able to transform the reading as dependent on ethnography similar to Lily’s own role in reproducing the Ramsay family. The reader is then able to assess the critique Woolf imbeds, including the chauvinistic comments made primarily by Mr. Ramsay and Mr. Tansley while also showing not only a heavy reliance but inability to properly function without the inferior female mediator. Similarly woman’s own active participation and resistance to Victorian patriarchal society is only made apparent through differing perceptions stemming from the critique of characters own judgment on their own sex. While To The Lighthouse has been repeatedly deduced to an elegy for Woolf’s parents among other literal and figurative deaths, and rightfully so as the final putting to bed of the cultural context that entrapped Woolf’s own perception as an artist with the imposed constraints, the gender study within the text is equally pertinent to the elegiac narrative. By dismissing a single gendered narrator in To The Lighthouse, and producing a stream of consciousness in both female and male characters Woolf is able to create the overall androgynous narrator. It is through self-realization Woolf is able to radically reconceptualize the novel to create her most challenging piece, also reflected in Lily’s own completion of the painting. Woolf’s To The Lighthouse finally puts to bed the thought that ‘women can’t paint, women can’t write’ and the prejudice that was inhibited in the Victorian society now nearing its end.
Catty, Jocelyn. Writing Rape, Writing Women in Early Modern England: Unbridled Speech. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Darvay, Daniel. The Gothic Sublime in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Genre 1 June 2011; 44 (2): 129–156.
Sandberg, Eric. Virginia Woolf: Experiments in Character. Cambria Press, 2014.
Smythe, K. Figuring Grief: Gallant, Munro, and the Poetics of Elegy. McGill-Queens University Press, 2014.
Woolf, Virginia. To The Lighthouse. Harcourt Inc., 1927.