I’m slowly moving my way through Virginia Woolf’s novel, “To The Lighthouse,” and am happy to say I’m fascinated by Woolf’s ability to penetrate the inner lives of her characters. In particular, Mrs. Ramsey, a key figure in the novel, represents the archetype of “Mother.” She is a fertile and compassionate care taker, whose mission is to nurture others. Even as she struggles with her desire to be whole unto herself, she is pulled over and over again into the fray of life – to her duties to her husband, to the tasks of childcare, and to her habit of fixing the lives of everyone who becomes part of her inner circle. Here is a passage that takes us into Mrs. Ramsey’s mind when she experiences a respite from doing and busyness,
“For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.”
As someone who has meditated for most of my life, I recognize the need for deep silence and non-doing. I also remember the pull I felt as a young mother myself when I wanted my time and my space but my child needed me. It was not always an effortless flow from self-absorption to self-sacrifice.
And then, as she continues describing to herself what I see as a kind of meditation,
“Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always some exclamation of triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity;…”
And yes, I understand that shift from being in a hurry to relaxing into a state of effortless and rest.
Lily Briscoe achieves transcendence through art
So, the beautiful Mrs. Ramsey, mother of eight and wife to an insecure husband she feels obliged to adore, is a sharp contrast to Woolf’s character, Lily Briscoe, an artist and single woman. Lily refuses to assume the role that Victorian society assigns to women – it is women who are designed by providence to support the male dominated social structures by staying in their proper places, places that do not threaten men. The women of her time are expected to offer men assurance that their efforts produce products of worth and value, while woman are not expected to do the same and reassurance is not reciprocated.
Yet Lily paints without caring about the product. She is creative because the act of self-expression brings her immense joy and a sense of transcendence that she cannot find elsewhere. As a woman who has both raised a child and been married and is also one who must also be free to express my creativity and does not want to be involved in any career that involves the full time nurturing of others, I relate a bit more to Lily Briscoe than to Mrs. Ramsey. And like Lily, I adore Mrs. Ramsey – she is after all, the Madonna – an archetype that inspires awe and respect.
Both women are creative – Mrs. Ramsey has created eight children who are the recipients of a nurturing and attentive quality that I can only call love. Her creative acts include a kind of subtle orchestration of the people and events in her life that is designed to ensure that life itself continues to flourish in all the conventional ways. Her archetype is the force that ensures stability and continuity. Yet, once the play stops around her, she realizes the toll her role takes. Lily admires Mrs. Ramsey without envy – so far in my reading, she is firm in her sense of self and clear about the value of the path she follows.
I cannot wait to see how things unfold as I get more and more into heads and the hearts of these fascinating women, women we can all relate to as we see in them bits and pieces of ourselves.