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The Gender Issues in Virginia Woolfs To the Lighthouse

Veronika Spiegelov

Theories of Literature: Gender and Power

Dr. Lee Ann Montanaro


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In my paper, I have decided to discuss Virginia Woolf and her book To the Lighthouse
which is considered Woolfs "most complex and extended fictional exploration of the
historically constructed nature of masculinity and femininity" (Marcus 43). Whether it is the
depiction of Mr and Mrs Ramsay marriage or the development of Lily Briscoes character, it
is obvious that Virginia Woolf was very much aware and involved in the controversial
discussion concerning the gender issues at her time. "Virginia Woolf grew up with the
suffrage feminism of the early years of the twentieth century, and the struggles and debates of
this period influenced all her writing" (Marcus 41).
From the first pages of the book it is apparent that the relationship between Mr and
Mrs Ramsay is based on the traditional gender stereotypes. Mr Ramsay is portrayed as a
pragmatic, rationally thinking, career-focused intellectual, sometimes being quite dominant
and oppressive in his role of a husband as well as a father. He takes pleasure in "disillusioning
his son and casting ridicule upon his wife,.."(Woolf 8). On the other hand, there is Mrs
Ramsay-the emotional, compassionate, loving, caring and last but not least beautiful part of
the equation. She is greatly admired by her husband (and not only by him) for her beauty, not
so much for her intellect. "And he wondered what she was reading, and exaggerated her
ignorance, her simplicity, for he liked to think that she was not clever, not book-learned at all"
(Woolf 163). She represents "the role of mother-goddess" which offers a woman power,
admiration, and in many cases even worship" (Pearson 40).
There are times when the irrationality and naivety of Mrs Ramsay, or in general the
"folly of womens minds" (Woolf 45) make her husband and other male characters angry.
"Women made civilization impossible with all their charm, all their silliness" (Woolf 116). It
is predominately shown in the dispute Mr and Mrs Ramsay have over going to the lighthouse
the next day. Even though it is sometimes hard for Mrs Ramsay to endure and understand her

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husbands temporal brutality towards her and the "lack of consideration for other peoples
feelings" (Woolf 45), in the end, she loves him even more for that.
In fact, throughout the whole book we can see Mrs Ramsays unconditional devotion
towards her husband. Generally, her action reflect her belief in the complete submission of a
wife to her husbands work and intellectual in compliance with the Victorian ideology of
"womens limited potentiaI" which results in the seemingly natural inferiority of a wife to her
husband (Lilienfeld 151). She is constantly undermining her own importance and sometimes
even seems to take pleasure in being reproved by her husband (Woolf 165). She supports him
at all times, is in charge of running the whole household, and is expected to create a warm and
homely atmosphere for everyone to dwell in. She manages to fulfil her duties, however, often
at the expense of her own energy and well-being. "Woolf implies that Mrs Ramsay virtually
wears herself out by continually giving to her husband, to eight children, and to assorted
visitor" (Pearlor & Pope 213-214). Altogether she had very little time to "..be herself, by
herself" (Woolf 85).
There is also an apparent need of the male characters to constantly assert themselves in
their superior position, especially when they feel threatened by the females - for example,
when Charles Tansley insists on carrying Mrs Ramsays bag (Woolf 17). They keep
downgrading the women around them in an attempt to make them appear more trivial and
superficial than they actually are. Mrs Ramsay "is not as stupid as her husband needs to think
her in order to buttress his own self-worth,.." (Lilienfeld 152). In fact, it is one of the things
that make Lily Briscoe thankful for not ever having to marry and thus become victim to the
same degradation. She refuses to humiliate herself in the way Minta does it to Mr Ramsay at
the famousdinner scene "..and (she/Minta) made herself out even more ignorant than she was,
because he liked telling her she was a fool" (Woolf 133). Here is represented "Woolfs

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realisation that the stupider the wife appears to the husband, the more desirable she becomes"
(Lilienfeld 152).
In the book, the character of Mrs Ramsay acts as a great ambassador of marriage. "An
unmarried woman has missed the best of life" (Woolf 68). She is known for trying to
intervene in other peoples life, trying to manipulate everybody into getting married. The fact
is, that as a "circumscribed Victorian woman", she cannot really make a significant impact on
the world without leaving her "image in the lives of others" (Lilienfeld 158). Sometimes she
is almost too eager to persuade others about marriage being the best life-choice, as if she was
trying to convince herself at the same time. "..she was driven on, too quickly she knew, almost
as if it were an escape for her too, to say that people must marry,.." (Woolf 82). It is
disputable, to what extent she was actually happy in her married life (despite the obvious love
she had for her husband). Nevertheless, she declares, that "..she would never for a single
second regret her decision.."(Woolf 11).
From Mrs Ramsays thoughts and behaviour we can see that she is looking for ways of
self-realisation and self-actualisation outside of the domestic sphere she is imprisoned in. Mrs
Ramsay devotes some of her time to charity, visiting people in need. She longs to be "..an
investigator elucidating the social problem" (Woolf 15). But it is impossible for her while
spending almost all her time taking care of the household and her children. "The very love
the mother feels for the child ties her down to a web of duties and responsibilities. Even if she
doubts the necessity of her sacrifice, she would rather deny herself than run the risk of hurting
her children" (Pearson & Pope 44). Furthermore, Woolf compares the difference between the
occasional pessimistic tendencies of Mr and Mrs Ramsay. Mrs Ramsay believes that overall
her husband is happier than her because he can always fall back on his work (Woolf 81). She
on the other hand only has her kids. As a result, she wishes they never had to grow up (a wish
that makes Mr Ramsay very angry).

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The stereotype of women in distress being saved by chivalrous men is shown through
the story of Mintas lost brooch. Paul, Mintas fiance, comforts her and plans a 'dangerous'
expedition to the beach at daybreak to look for it. Mr Ramsay uses the situation yet again to
point out the silliness of women. "How could she be such a goose, he asked, as to scramble
about the rocks in jewels" (Woolf 133).
The continuous women emancipation is best expressed through the character of Lily
Briscoe. Lily undergoes a great transformation throughout the story. Woolf brilliantly depicts
Lilys struggle trying to find peace in terms of her against-the-flow ideas about being and
independent artist, rejecting marriage and other existing gender stereotypes. She is constantly
being undermined by people around her, especially by Charles Tansley, doubting her ability to
become a real artist "Women cant pain, women cant write" (Woolf 67) and also by Mrs
Ramsay herself. On one hand, Mrs Ramsay values Lilys independence (Woolf 25), however,
she considers her a fool and takes pity on her for her life-style choice while trying to
manipulate her into marrying William Bankes. She feels like she is condemned to be a failure
both as a woman and as an artist. (Pearlor & Pope 212) Lily is under immense amount of
pressure which makes it difficult for her to stand her ground. She know she has her home, her
father, and her work painting. In fact, she keeps referring and coming back to it to reassure
herself of her convictions. "But all this seemed so little, so virginal, against the other" (Woolf
Ultimately, Lily is able to come to terms with her convictions and decisions. Towards
the end of the book, she is finally able to oppose the conservative mind-set of the society
impersonated in Mrs Ramsay (although already dead). She is able to stand up to the
traditional, limited, old-fashioned ideas about marriage being the only way for a woman to
achieve happiness. Lilys victory is represented through her ability to finally finish her
painting. In her case "the centre of power shifts away from the narrow scope of the home to

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the outer world of work and self-actualisation" (Liliensfeld 164). She finds "a prolife,
nurturing relationship to both herself and the world without any direct association with
biological motherhood" (Pearlor & Pope 212). She also mentions the failure of Paul and
Mintas marriage which, however, did not lead to their unhappiness. "They are happy like
that; I am happy like this" (Woolf 236).
In conclusion, according to Lilienfeld there are more possibilities of interpreting and
understanding the female characters in the book- specifically Lily Briscoe and Mrs Ramsay.
While it is possible to view Mrs Ramsay as a representation of the ideal of womanhood and
wifehood (based on the non-feminist, conservative, and stereotypical point of view) and Lily
Briscoe as a "failure to be womanly" (165) enough, knowing Virginia Woolfs objections to
"traditional views of sex roles", it is more probable she would want us to read the story as the
ultimate celebration of Lily and even Mintas ability to "break free of Mrs Ramsays
impositions of her own role restraints on their lives" (163). Throughout the book, Woolf
declares that being a devoted wife is not the only passage to happiness and that there are in
fact more ways of living a fulfilling life. That women can be accomplished artists in the same
way they are devoted wifes and as mothers. That being restricted to the domestic sphere does
not have to be satisfying enough for women that their self-realisation outside of marriage is
just as important. The book is a demonstration of the continuous redefining of the idea of
femininity and womanhood. Lily does not need to be perceived as a failure anymore, "for
being womanly no longer means being defined by ones relations to men or to ones
reproductive system" (Lilienfeld 165).

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Works Cited

Carol Pearson, Katherine Pope. The Female Hero in American and British Literature. New
York: R. R. Bowker Company, 1981. Print.
Jane Lilienfeld. "Where the Spear Plants Grew: The Ramsays Marriage in to the
Lighthouse." New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf. Ed. Jane Marcus. London: The
Macmillan Press LTD, 1981. 148. Print.
Laura Marcus. Virginia Woolf. Ed. Isobel Armstrong. Second ed. Devon: Northcote House
Publishers Ltd, 2004. Print.
Virginia Woolf. To the Lighthouse. New York: Oxford University Press inc., 1999. Print.