The Critique of Marriage in Virginia Woolf’s "To the Lighthouse"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017
16 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. The Discourse of Marriage in the Victorian Era

3. The Critique of Marriage in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse
3.1. The Marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay
3.2. Lily Briscoe’s Position on Marriage

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

The novel To the Lighthouse was first published in 1927 and centres on a Victorian family, the Ramsay’s, and their stays in their summer house in Scotland between 1910 and 1920. It focuses on the main characters’ thoughts about life, family and societal conventions rather than on an eventful action.

The author of the novel, Virginia Woolf, was an English writer who was born and raised in Victorian England. Even though she was exposed to a Victorian upbringing, her work of art is said to reflect her opposition to Victorian values and society (Tariq 63). This does apply to Woolf’s portrayal of the female characters and their roles as mothers, daughters and wives in the novel. But instead of just drawing the picture of suppressed Victorian women, Woolf uses her female characters to show that the role of women in society is about to change (63). Virginia Woolf is considered as one of the outstanding modernist writers of the twentieth century. The term modernism can be defined as a movement from 1890 to 1930, which refers to a group of artists and writers who shared a set of common characteristics in their work (Childs 2). These works are “aesthetically radical, contain striking technical innovation […] [and] tend towards ironic modes” (2). Modernist writers sought to break with the dominant realist style of writing in Victorian England, which “attempt[ed] to depict life in an entirely objective manner, without idealization of glamour, and without didactic or moral ends” (Benét 1). In contrast, modernism is “associated with attempts to render human subjectivity in ways more real than realism: to represent […] meaning and the individual’s relation to society” (Childs 3). In To the Lighthouse Woolf uses a modernist style of writing, which is characterised by interior monologues, recurrent motifs and fragmented time (Binét 162). Especially the interior monologues in the novel are meaningful for identifying the characters’ attitude towards societal conventions and to what extent they agree to it.

This term paper will deal with the discourse of marriage in To the Lighthouse and how it is criticised in the novel. A theoretical outline of the construct of marriage in the Victorian era will be presented in order to show how wives in particular were restricted by dominant gender roles of the Victorian era. In order to indicate that the ideology of Victorian marriage is refuted in the novel, the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay will be analysed in detail. Furthermore, the character Lily Briscoe will be illustrated as an antagonist of Victorian marriage ideology since she consciously decides against marriage.

2. The Discourse of Marriage in the Victorian Era

The Victorian era, which lasted from 1837 until 1901, was a period in which gender stereotyping was at its height (Knoepflmacher 94) and consequently social conventions emphasised the separation of spheres between the sexes and rigid sexual division of labour (Jalland 7). On the one side there was the public sphere of business, politics and professional life, which was defined as the male sphere (Gorham 4). On the other side there was the sphere of women: the private sphere of love, emotions, moral and domesticity (4). Both spheres were understood as exclusive and separate domains (4). The private sphere of women was seen as a “place of renewal for men, after their rigorous activities in the harsh, competitive public sphere” (4). The separation of spheres assigned to both, women and men, a distinct set of gender roles which also had a serious impact on how the Victorian ideology of marriage was constructed.

In Victorian England women were supposed to be feminine, whereby the word ‘feminine’ does not refer to biological determination but to the social construction of what was marked as feminine at that point in time (Sussmann 8). The Victorians thought of a feminine woman as being innocent, pure, gentle, self-sacrificing, free of any trace of anger and hostility, more emotional than men but submissive to them, more capable of self-renunciation and possessing no ambitious strivings (Gorham 4f.). A popular expression for an idealised woman was “The Angel in the House” based on the same named poem by Coventry Patmore (4). The choice of the word ‘angel’ expresses further important values of Victorian women: morality and chastity. Women had to serve as moral role models in order to be pure and fulfil their role within the family and society (Langland 382). Another ideal was the ‘majestic childishness’ which means that women were supposed to remain childlike even in maturity in order to remove them from the public sphere and restrict them to the private domain (Gorham 6). The expression ‘majestic childishness’ is an oxymoron: childishness is usually not considered to be majestic but it gives a positive connotation to the term and therefore encourages childish behaviour.

As much as Victorian women were expected to act in a feminine way, men were supposed to be masculine (Sussmann 9). Masculinity was defined as having control, power and “the possession of an innate, distinctively male energy […] that could be expressed in a variety of ways” (10). Men were considered to be wiser, stronger and to know more about the world in general (Perkin 30). This is also evident in John Ruskin’s description of male and female gender roles:

The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation and invention; his energy for adventure, for war, and for conquest, wherever war is just, wherever conquest is necessary. But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle and the intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision. She sees the qualities of things, their claims, and their places. Her great function is Praise; […] she is protected from all danger and temptation. (Ward 8)

While men were associated with intelligence, power and action, women were with sympathy, care and morality. Or as Thomas Gisborne phrased it: “it is for men to plumb the inexhaustible depths of philosophy; their wives in return exercise a sympathising sensibility” (7).

The predominant gender roles and the concepts of ‘separate spheres’ and the ‘angel in the house’ were important societal constructs in order to achieve a “glorification of marriage” in Victorian England (Perkin 7). Marriage was particularly advertised as a requirement for female respectability (Murdoch 75) and therefore the majority of women in felt pressured to marry (82) and acknowledged marriage as an “institution of immense social convenience” (Perkin 30). Consequently marriage was the most important aim in life for most Victorian women and being single was a state to be avoided by all means (3). Women regarded marriage as their “inevitable role in life and welcomed it as an emotionally satisfying and indeed emancipating experience” because they left the parental home and hoped for the possibility of more freedom (3). Although married women were indeed released from a childlike status, they were still subjected to the domination of men (1). By marriage, a woman went from the protection of her father to that of her husband “under whose wing, protection and cover she performs everything” (1f.). So even after marriage women were not independent at all but were considered as in need of male protection and guidance.

Women did not only perceive marriage as a chance for societal respectability and more independence but also for maintaining their social status so that they could enjoy a life of comfort and leisure (60). But in reality married women did not have much time for leisure because they were responsible for the domestic management (Humble 224). And since the emphasis on the importance of the home was a key element in Victorian culture (220), wives were responsible for ‘making’ that home by pouring moral, spiritual, emotional and physical energy into it (221). The quality of home-making is described as follows:

Wherever a true wife comes […] home is always round her. The stars only may be over her head; the glowworm in the night-cold grass may be the only fire at her foot; but home is yet wherever she is; and for a noble woman it stretches far round her, better than ceiled with cedar, or painted with vermilion, shedding its quiet light so far, for those who else were homeless. (Gorham 7)

It is significant that the quote refers to a true wife because it suggests that not every wife is able to make a real home; only a true wife is. The description of a true wife represents her as almost spiritual being who has an important role within the family. But the home was not only a place of familial comfort; it also functioned as an “emblem of social status (Humble 227). So although the home was attributed to the women’s domain, it was not possible to maintain the distinction between public and private sphere because the making and management of the home was important for public recognition and worldly success (223). Therefore the emphasis on domestic settings and household purchases grew since they were signs of respectability, success and status (Murdoch 91).

The cult of domesticity and making a home led to Victorian wives having to assume a particular role as the ‘angel in the house’ with many obligations: maintaining domestic harmony, being a helpmate to her husband (Ward 6f.), managing the household, caring for the children, paying social calls and re-making the home (Humble 220). Besides those obligations, Victorian wives were also expected to engage in domestic crafts such as needlework (231). It was associated with the family’s comfort and represented a crucial part of re-making the home: “[Needlework] brings daily blessings to every home, […] for in a household every stich is one for comfort to some person or other and without its ever watchful care home would be a scene of discomfort indeed” (231). Although needlework functioned as a solid sign of familial affection in Victorian England, feminist historians of the 1960s argued that “women’s crafts [were] a shameful index of their oppression [and that] useless repetitive activity [was] designed to keep them busy and out of trouble” (233).

Due to those numerous duties a Victorian wife had to fulfil, early feminist Mona Caid defined marriage as an “iron cage, wherein women are held in bondage suffering moral starvation” (Ward 5). But most women in the Victorian era decided to make the best of their marriages by being purposeful to others and perform their duty (Perkin 238). Since marriage was not only understood as a contract but also as a sacrament in Victorian culture, women also had a duty to God and not only to their husband and children (238). Although most Victorian women hoped for emotional satisfaction, freedom and a secure life full of leisure from marriage, their reality consisted of self-discipline and self-restraint (237). Prescriptive literature told women to accept an inferior role in marriage, to put their husbands’ interests first and to sacrifice themselves to those concerns (250). Most Victorian wives accepted those recommendations and consequently marriage ‘until death do us part’ (291). They tried to make the best of their marriage or worked out survival techniques to endure their submissive role (291). One form of “modus vivendi” was to escape into a fantasy world of reading in order to “indulge longings and feelings which contradicted socially accepted behaviour” (270).

Although the majority of Victorian women consciously decided to marry and start a family, there was an increasing number of single women in the late Victorian period from 1885 to 1918 (Ehnenn 17). The “increasing economic and sexual independence invoked cultural anxieties about women who lived, worked and had relationships outside the patriarchal norm” (17). For this reason single women were urged to live with relatives and expected to do more household duties (Murdoch 88). The cultural convention still was that women should marry sooner or later and if they did not, they were considered as being odd (Ward 5).

3. The Critique of Marriage in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

3.1. The Marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay

The novel To the Lighthouse is set in the Post-Victorian era but regarding the gender landscape presented in the novel, little has changed from the Victorian culture (Mcintire 80). Predominant gender roles are particularly clear in the discourse of marriage in the novel. Although there are characters who consciously decide not to marry, it is apparent that marriage “as a cultural imperative” still was the social norm (84). In To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf criticises the institution of marriage by representing its failures, deficiencies and its impact on the characters.

In the centre of To the Lighthouse is the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. The opening scene of the novel does already reveal a lot about their personalities and about the distribution of roles in their marriage. The mother of the family, Mrs. Ramsay, is spending time with her youngest son James who wants to know if they can visit the lighthouse on the next day. While Mrs. Ramsay reassures James by saying “Yes, of course, if it’s fine to-morrow” (Woolf 7), the father destroys his hope by claiming “But […] it won’t be fine” (8). Comparing both sentences shows that Mrs. Ramsay does not want to disappoint her son or make him feel sad whereas her husband Mr. Ramsay is not sympathetic at all but so arrogant that he even claims to know how the weather will be like. The scene is significant of the Victorian claim that “if [a] man is the head of humanity, [a] woman is its heart” (Ward 7): Mrs. Ramsay acts according to her emotions while her husband acts according to his mind. His father’s “Victorian strictness and love for the truth” (Gjurgjan 5) awakens a rage in James so that he even imagines to kill him: “Had there been an exe handy, or any weapon that would have gashed in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it” (Woolf 8). James’ drastic reaction to his father’s words suggest that a situation like this has already happened many times before and that he cannot deal with Mr. Ramsay’s uncompromising behaviour. In his thoughts James describes his father as “standing […] lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one, grinning sarcastically, not only with pleasure of disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife” (8). He compares his father with a knife which implies that he is dangerous and can hurt others. Furthermore James is convinced that his father takes pleasure in destroying his illusions and mocking at his wife so that Mr. Ramsay is almost depicted as sadistic. Whereas Mr. Ramsay is portrayed as a strict, uncompromising father, his wife is presented as “a mother who is protective, but who succumbs (not out of fear but out of love) his authority” (Gjurgjan 6). Mrs. Ramsay tries to bridge the tension between James and his father by saying “But it may be fine – I expect it will be fine” (Woolf 8) which expresses that she is caring and a comforter for her children (Limanta 57). She wants to create harmony in the family and thereby performs her duties as a Victorian wife.

Mr. Ramsay’s tyrannical behaviour is also apparent in another scene when the trip to the lighthouse is under discussion once again. Mrs. Ramsay dares to ask how he knows that there is no chance that they can go to the lighthouse the next day and at that question her husband loses his poise:

The extraordinary irrationality of her remark, the folly of women’s minds enraged him. […] she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out of the question, in effect, told lies. He stamped his foot on the stone step. ‘Damn you,’ he said. (Woolf 37)

This quote does not only illustrate Mr. Ramsay’s aggressive behaviour but also his chauvinist attitude. He thinks that his wife’s remark is irrational and that women in general are intellectually inferior because of their “folly minds”. The fact that he insults Mrs. Ramsay shows that he does not have respect for her and that he cannot control his outrage. Instead of speaking up to her husband, Mrs. Ramsay decides not to reply although the “lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, […] was to her so horrible” (Woolf 37). She maintains her culturally prescribed submissive role and therefore has to absorb his outrage “like a sponge” (Limanta 57). Although Mrs. Ramsay has to endure the tyrannical behaviour of her husband, she directly after his outburst claims that “there was nobody whom she reverenced as she reverenced him” (Woolf 37). It shows that “she is a willing victim in the sado-masochistic dance of their marriage contract” (Mcintire 86). In contrast to her husband, she has a lot of respect and recognition for him. And that is exactly what he demands from her. On the one hand Mr. Ramsay is the authoritarian, tyrannical patriarch but on the other hand he constantly needs reassurance, sympathy and praise from his wife: “It was sympathy he wanted, to be assured of his genius, […] to have his senses restored to him, his barrenness made fertile, and all the rooms of the house made full of life” (Woolf 43). Although his demands seem to be unattainable Mrs. Ramsay is generally able to satisfy them. Mr. Ramsay is “emotionally needy” and his wife has to meet his needs in order to compensate his own insecurities (Mcintire 85). She is constantly under the pressure of her husband’s demands to create life and at one point in the novel she almost capitulates:


Excerpt out of 16 pages


The Critique of Marriage in Virginia Woolf’s "To the Lighthouse"
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Philologie)
Virginia Woolf
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, Marriage, Mrs. Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay, Lily Briscoe
Quote paper
Katharina Zeiger (Author), 2017, The Critique of Marriage in Virginia Woolf’s "To the Lighthouse", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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