Conventional Gender Roles in Viginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse"

Essay, 2009

14 Seiten



1. Introduction: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

2. Important gender roles in To the Lighthouse and their influence
2.1 Mrs. Ramsay: Mother and wife
2.2 Mr. Ramsay: prominent metaphilosopher

3. Traditional gender roles in Virginia Woolf’s life

4. Lily Briscoe and her own female identity

5. Conclusion: Virginia Woolf in comparison to Lily Briscoe

Works Cited

1. Introduction:Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse was published in 1927. Considering the period of its composition, it is not surprising that it was written in the literary genre of modernism. Woolf uses an anonymous narrator, who describes the characters subjectively in the third person. As there is a constant switch from the thoughts and feelings of one character to another, it is possible to see the real meaningless of life, an existential angst that each of the protagonists tries to overcome. Woolf deliberately uses characters that are quite similar to real people from her own childhood during the first World War, when England had an fairly stratified class system marked by extreme social differentiation, especially for men and women. The novel’s setting mirrors her life, as well: the story takes place both before and after the Great War.

I will begin my analysis by describing all the gender roles in To the Lighthouse and attempt to show how they influence each character. I will place particular emphasis on Mr. and Mrs Ramsay, as well as Lily Briscoe, in order to demonstrate their way of life and their problems. I will then examine Virginia Woolf’s own family and era, for they constitute an archetype of a family living under the class system characteristic of the time. At this point, I will also demonstrate how Virginia Woolf’s parents served as models for the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. Furthermore, I will focus on Lily Briscoe and illustrate how she tries to adopt some of the Ramsay’s positive traits and gradually discovers her own female identity. To conclude, I will compare Virginia Woolf with Lily Briscoe to show that they are quite alike, and that her family resembles the Ramsays significantly. “To the Lighthouse,” as Bowlby writes, “represents a darker insight into the woman’s `structurally untenable position` within male-dominated society, subtly undermining any complacently `androgynous` ideal unity” (8).

2. Important gender roles in To the Lighthouse

2.1 Mrs. Ramsay

Each character in To the Lighthouse has own individual gender roles. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are the most prominent characters to do so: Mrs. Ramsay, for instance, is the mother of eight children, as well as a loving woman of striking appearance. We eventually discover, in my opinion, that this beautiful exterior does not mirror her true inner feelings and concerns. As a woman of the older generation, Mrs. Ramsay’s world and point of view are build on tradition. Her family is the most important thing for her, and she pities those who do not have a family and must live on their own. Consequently, she tries to arrange marriages between her children and the guests who stay with them in their summer house. In her opinion, it is the most important thing for a woman to marry, because otherwise she will certainly be unhappy: “they all must marry [...] there could be no disputing this [...] an unmarried woman has missed the best of life.” (Woolf, To the Lighthouse 43).

We discover that Mrs. Ramsay holds family to be important not only because of tradition, but also because she has no desire to deal with the new form of life called modernism. According to her, modernism would harm or even destroy the scheme and harmony she tries to establish. When her family and a couple of guests gather together peacefully around a table: these are the moments that arouse the most happiness in her. To my mind, the reason for this is that thus Mrs. Ramsay is satisfied that, in this act of fellowship, she creates something that modernism and the changing times cannot take away from her. In the following passage she conveys one of these sensations:

[...] all of which rising in this profound stillness [...] seemed now for no special reason to stay there like a smoke, like a fume rising upwards, holding them safe together. Nothing needed to be said; nothing could be said. There it was, all round them. It partook, she felt, [...]; as she had already felt about something different once before that afternoon; there is coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out [...] in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that remains for ever after. This would remain. (Woolf, To the Lighthouse 85)

Mrs. Ramsay’s main ambition is to protect her youngest son James, her husband, and especially her male guests. She encourages her son’s hope for going to the lighthouse, despite the view of her husband and Charles Tansley, who want the child to think realistically. Their opinions sometimes destroy Mrs. Ramsay’s aim to protect her children; nevertheless, she shelters both her husband and all the other men, who normally do not deserve her generosity. She thinks that men need constant support and sympathy, and that they particularly need to be reassured by women:

Indeed she had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable, something trustful. Childlike, reverential. (Woolf, To the Lighthouse 9)

Mrs. Ramsay sticks to her belief that men are very important in people’s lives, especially for women. Therefore she “pitied men always as if they lacked something - women never, as if they had something” (Woolf, To the Lighthouse 70). Although Mrs. Ramsay is convinced that women should marry and be under their husbands standing, she knows also that women wield a female power (Lily Briscoe is the only one who utilizes this female power, as I will describe presently). I gather she is aware that not everyone will cope with this conventional life, but she does not allow herself to be entrapped within traditional gender roles. Despite her sense of duty in marriage, I believe there a moments where Mrs. Ramsay longs to escape her mother or wife role, to free herself from all those difficult emotions: “she often felt she was nothing but a sponge sopped full of human emotions.” (Woolf, To the Lighthouse 29)

Finally, Mrs. Ramsay is a woman who has an almost abnormal need to help other people, even though they do not want it themselves. Her motive for doing so is her desire to be thought of as a woman of high society, a woman who is able to supply everybody’s need:

For her own self-satisfaction was it that she wished so instinctively to help, to give, that people might say of her, `O Mrs Ramsay! Dear Mrs Ramsay [...] Mrs Ramsay, of course!` and need her and send for her and admire her? (Woolf, To the Lighthouse 37)

Supported by her external appearance of happiness and beauty, as I stated previously, she also wants other people to regard her as a totally happy and satisfied woman. She wants a lot of woman to want to be like her, to step into her shoes. But her outer beauty diverges greatly from her inner life, which is sometimes fraught with sadness and a lack of fulfilment.

2.2 Mr. Ramsay

Mr. Ramsay is a man of the older generation, and he never diverges from his stereotypical gender role. In his estimation, the most important thing for a man is to work hard and become someone very important. He is a prominent metaphysical philosopher, and he knows that he is respected by others, but this is not enough. He wants to be the best, so that he will be admired and remembered by future generations. He compares a man’s career with the alphabet: those on the lowest echelon are marked by the letter A, the worst; and a man who has achieved the letter Z has reached the pinnacle of success. Mr. Ramsay judges himself to have “reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q. [...] Still, if he could reach R it would be something. Here at least was Q” (Woolf, To the Lighthouse 30/31). It seems that Mr. Ramsay is not able to free himself from stress and pressure. He is constantly pondering about how to be more and more successful, and he often fears that his work lacks worth and meaning. “In that flash of darkness he heard people saying - he was a failure - that R was beyond him. He would never reach R. On to R, once more R- “ (Woolf, To the Lighthouse 31).

Although Mr. Ramsay serves, in many respects, as Mrs. Ramsay’s opposite, the fear of failure is one of the features that both of them possess. Obviously, Mr. Ramsay is very ambitious regarding his work, as he ought to be for a man of his age. To my mind, however, sometimes he would like to free himself from this professional burden. On the one hand, he is willing to set the world on fire; on the other, he would like to be accepted and adored by people for the things he has already achieved. But he cannot allow himself to reveal these feelings, for he is a man with huge commitments. Of the two, it is Mrs. Ramsay who occasionally worries about her husband’s true inner feelings. In her eyes, Mr. Ramsay and other men seem to lack the capacity of perceiving the beauty in nature and the world right before their eyes. “Did he notice the flowers? No. Did he notice the view? No. Did he even notice his own daughter’s beauty, or whether there was pudding on his plate or roast beef? He would sit at table with them like a person in a dream” (Woolf, To the Lighthouse 59).

From the beginning of the novel, Mr. Ramsay is represented as a sort of tyrant. He provokes fear and anger, especially in his children but sometimes also in Mrs. Ramsay: “He stamped his foot on the stone step. ‘Damn you,’ he said. But what had she said?” (Woolf, To the Lighthouse 29). By acting so strictly and disrespectfully, he tries to hide his constant fear of insignificance. With this front of anger, no one is ever able to see that a man of his sort is capable of showing a softer side. He probably uses this anger to show his power, as he is the important man and everyone should accommodate himself to him. It is not that he does not love his children or want to protect them; it is simply that he wants other people to see him as the powerful man in his family. Therefore, he never actually praises his children until the very end of the novel. “What he said was true, it was always true. He was incapable of untruth” (Woolf, To the Lighthouse 8). This rational side seems to be predominant in his words and actions towards his family.

The focus of Woolf’s writing was originally on her father, who in many respects is the embodiment of Mr. Ramsay. For this reason, I will now address Virginia Woolf’s own family dynamic.

3. Traditional Gender Roles in Virginia Woolf’s Life

Virginia Woolf was born in London in 1882 as the third child of Leslie and Julia Stephen. In light of her childhood and parts of her life, it is obvious that she was born into a family that lived according to traditional values.

Woolf describes her parents in an overwhelmingly positive light: “[b]eautiful often, even to our eyes, were their gestures, their glances of pure and unutterable delight in each other.” (Liukkonen).


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Conventional Gender Roles in Viginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse"
Universität Regensburg
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Virginia Woof, To the Lighthouse, Gender Roles
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Agnieszka Siedlik (Autor), 2009, Conventional Gender Roles in Viginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse", München, GRIN Verlag,


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