If the ideal of manhood involves reaching destinations or conquering heights, and is a constant process of becoming, women by contrast are expected to impress by their qualities of being, by beauty rather than intellect, by serenity rather than achievement.
Introduction to “To The Lighthouse” by Julia Briggs
Well, I just finished reading “To The Lighthouse” by Virginia Wolf, and was inspired to read a bit about the author’s take on life and about her own struggle with finding an identity apart from the expectations of women in Victorian society. Writing the novel, was a way for Woolf to confront her own struggle with her identity as a woman. It was also semi-autobiographical, as her characters represented parts of herself and the key players in her life – particularly her mother.
It seems Virginia Woolf’s mother was very much like Mrs. Ramsey, who is the archetype of Mother and whose role is to support and nurture her husband, children, and all those who fall into her circle. It is not an exaggeration that the life of the Mother as an archetype is dedicated to creating an atmosphere that restores, heals, supports growth, and provides the basis for the happiness and fulfillment of others, whatever the cost to the self. This expectation that women are designed to easily and willingly accept and embrace this role prevailed in Victorian times, as it has and continues to throughout history. It was considered the natural state of a natural woman to eventually become a wife and a mother and to support men to accomplish their greatness and fulfill their life purpose. Like the Madonna, this archetype offers compassion and unconditional love to others.
One of the novel’s male protagonists, Charles Tansley, asserts,
“Women can’t write, women can’t paint.” He represents a prevailing mind-set that denies women’s capacity for achievement and self-realization outside of the role of mother.
And, Woolf’s mother, like Mrs. Ramsey, embodied these qualities of the Madonna, or of perfect motherhood, and earned the devotion of her children and husband. Yet, the author found herself longing to take a different path from her mother, an inner-directed journey much like Lily Briscoe’s path, the female character in the novel who chooses to be single and is devoted to her art. Lily is Mrs. Ramsey’s opposite. Like Woolf, Lily loves the iconic Mother archetype in the form of Mrs. Ramsey, and in Woolf’s case as represented by her own mother, while at the same time, both Woolf and her fictional character, find aspects of this ideal of selflessness and willingness to cater to the demands of the male ego abhorrent.
A modern woman often feels a similar pull of forces within her own psyche. Questions arise, “How do I juggle my career or my life’s passion with my desire to be a mother and a supportive partner to my husband?” Women may wonder if they can do justice to both worlds: can they follow their dreams to be artists, adventurers, writers, senators, and choose to marry?
As women, we are still questioning who we are apart from the expectations of others. We wonder if we can “have it all” – if we can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan, have our cake and eat it too. And, do we really want it all – is society now telling us we should achieve like the classic male archetypes of doers and shakers? Are we after all missing out by neglecting home and hearth?
Women in today’s world are aware they have choices and must consider the consequences of their decisions. They are seeking to understand their genuine wants and needs, and men too are continuing to re-evaluate their expectations and what it means to enter into a mutually supportive relationship as a unit of separate individuals with needs of their own. We are in the midst of evolution and exploration on our journeys toward self-realization.
Tag Archives: Virginia Woolf and women
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.