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ABSENT MOTHERS, MONSTERS, AND MOURNING IN MARY SHELLEYS

FRANKENSTEIN AND VIRGINIA WOOLFS TO THE LIGHTHOUSE

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree

Master of Arts

by

Layla Earnest

May 6, 2011
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This Thesis Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the

Degree Master of Arts

by

Layla Earnest

has been accepted

by the

Graduate Faculty of English

Eastern New Mexico University

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Abstract

The nineteenth-century female writer had to contend with a male dominated profession that

defined female identity in opposition to masculine identity in order to maintain a patriarchal

illusion of a unified self. Especially potent is the absent mother trope. The death of the

mother and her absence she left behind often acted as a catalyst that helped the protagonist

gain a better, unified vision of self. Within literature and within the nineteenth and twentieth-

century understanding of identity formation and language acquisition, the mothers only

power is her silence and absence. In order to understand how the female writer was able to

appropriate masculine, patriarchal language and change literature, I analyze and discuss

Mary Shelleys Frankenstein and Virginia Woolfs To the Lighthouse using Julia Kristevas

concept of the semiotic and symbolic processes in language. When examined in this way,

Shelleys Frankenstein acts as a critique of the patriarchal unified self that male Romantic

literature often tried to illustrate through the use of the organic imagination. Woolfs To the

Lighthouse also recognizes patriarchys need for an, although more shattered and broken,

unified masculine self during the era of Modernism. In Frankenstein, Victor Frankensteins

mother dies a self-sacrificial death and forces Frankenstein to confront the semiotic (defined

as loss of boundaries and definition associated with the pre-symbolic stage and the mother-

child relationship before language acquisition). Through Mrs. Ramsays absence, Woolfs

characters confront the semiotic in To the Lighthouse. Because Frankenstein and the men in

To the Lighthouse live within a patriarchal society that divides the feminine into the

domestic, private sphere and the masculine into the economic, political, public sphere and

allows no fluidity or flexibility to gender identity, men repress and deny the semiotic process

in identity formation and language. As a result, the semiotic in Frankenstein becomes abject,

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and Frankenstein creates a monster. Abjection encompasses the threat that the semiotic space

poses to rigid and fixed definitions of self and language. Embroiled in a classic, epic battle,

Frankenstein and his monster attempt to deny and repress any semiotic or feminine notions.

To the Lighthouses male characters, particularly Mr. Ramsay, constantly deny the semiotic

aspect of language and, instead, constantly seek sympathy from Mrs. Ramsay in order fulfill

their own sense of fixity and stability. However, Woolfs To the Lighthouse suggests that by

exposing both the dangers and potential power of the absent mother, the female writer/artist,

from the daughters position, is able to recognize both the feminine/semiotic and

masculine/symbolic process in language. Lily, from the position of the daughter-artist finds

that the power in absence is its ability to create change.

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Acknowledgements

I want to thank the professors of the English department for helping me view

literature and the world from different and varying unique perspectives. Every ENMU

English class I took exposed me to interesting and provocative literature and helped me to

question and critique my former ideas about society, gender, and the individual.

Specifically, I would like to thank my thesis committee. Dr. Nina Bjornsson was an

immense help and an incredibly supportive chair. Our meetings and discussions helped me

better understand my own thinking and writing process and how to successfully and critically

engage in the literature I examined in this thesis. She helped me develop the female voice I

searched for in my thesis, and she helped me make sure that voice could be clearly heard.

Dr. Carol Erwin has also been an incredible support through the writing process of my thesis.

Whenever I felt stuck in textual chaos, she would help me reflect and remain calm and

organize my thoughts so that I could find my voice. Dr. Erwin played a pivotal role in

helping me develop self confidence in my own writing ability. I am also very indebted to Dr.

Linda Sumption for helping me through the whole thesis process. She has been very patient

and supportive and has always been able to ask seemingly simple questions that have helped

me expand past my own supposed limitations.

Lastly, I need to extend many thanks to my husband Rick and my three daughters;

Winter, Asia, and Devin. My husband, Rick, has been incredibly supportive and has always

attentively listened to my newly forming ideas. He asked me multiple questions and kept me

engaged in the critical thinking process. My daughters have been the inspiration beneath

many of the concepts, theories, and ideas I explore throughout this thesis. Without them, I

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would have never been able to write this thesis, and it is for my daughters I wrote about the

female writer and female voice.

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Table of Contents
Page

Abstract iii

Acknowledgements. v

Introduction. 1

Chapter

I. Mary Shelleys Frankenstein and the Abject. 5

II. Virginia Woolfs To the Lighthouse and Mourning

the Angel of the House... 31

Notes 64

Works Cited. 66

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Introduction

I bid my hideous progeny to go forth and prosper Mary Shelleys Preface to Frankenstein

For we think back through our mothers if we are women Virginia Woolf

And the phantom was a womanI called herThe Angel of the HouseAnd when I came to
write I encountered her with my very first wordsI turned upon her and caught her by the
throat. I did my best to kill herhad I not killed her she would have killed meShe was
always creeping back when I had thought I had dispatched her Virginia Woolf

Absent Mothers and the Paternal Literary Tradition

Absent mothers are central to both Mary Shelleys Frankenstein and Virginia

Woolfs To the Lighthouse. Several critics note that Frankenstein was very much influenced

by Shelleys influential mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after giving birth to

Mary Shelley. Other critics suggest that To the Lighthouse was an exploration of Woolfs

memories of childhood and her mother, Julia Stephens, who died when Woolf was only

thirteen years old. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubars The Madwoman in the Attic notes

that while female writers find it necessary to write through our mothers, they must also

kill the aesthetic ideal through which they themselves have been killed into art. And

similarly, all women writers must kill the angels necessary opposite and double, the

monster in the house, whose Medusa-face also kills female creativity (17). However,

Shelleys and Woolfs quotes attest to the complex and contradictory relationship the female

writer has to mother tropes that act as aesthetic ideals that precede them. Rather than killing

the monster, Shelley bids her Frankenstein monster to go forth and prosper. Similarly,

before she necessarily kills The Angel in the House in her novel To the Lighthouse, Woolf

contemplates and mourns her loss and attempts to identify new artistic representation through

her death.
2

Shelley and Woolf, as female writers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,

rely on idealized mother figures, because they wrote within the confines of patriarchal culture

that created a literary relationship of sonship that excluded the female writer by reducing

her to extreme stereotypes [angel, monster] (Gilbert and Gubar 7). They had to contend

with feminine representations that exclude them as writers, in order to appropriate and

subvert the paternal literary tradition. Shelley and Woolf follow a long, patriarchal tradition

of using the absent mother trope that has been a part of literature at least as far back as

Beowulf. The representation of the absent mother has continued throughout English and

American literary history in the canonical works of writers, such as Shakespeare, Austen, and

Disney films such as Bambi and Cinderella. Gilbert and Gubar have noted that the female

figure, including that of the mother, has often been killed in literature in order to provide an

idealized or demonized object by which to define masculinity. However, because of

Shelleys and Woolfs marginal position within patriarchy as female writers, and because of

their unique mother/daughter relationship, their use of the absent/dead mother acts as a

critique and rebellion against the paternal literary tradition.

Kristevas Semiotic and Symbolic Process in Language

Psychoanalytic theory posits that the mother, as the feminine principle, has

traditionally been the place of loss, the object that men and women must escape in order to

define themselves as separate entities, as speaking subjects, and as writers with voice.

However, Julia Kristeva continues to critique the contradictory relationship between the

absent mother and the female writer when she posits that language is a negotiation of a

childs relationship to their mother and father. She questions the Freudian and Lacanian

premise of psychoanalysis that placed the primary meaning making process of identity and
3

language within the realm of patriarchy or the father and calls attention to the semiotic

process in language. Semiotics in language acts as the music underlying the symbolic order

of language. Most psychoanalysts ignored the importance of the pre-Oedipal stage, yet

Kristeva argues that both the semiotic and symbolic (the mother and father) processes

working together are necessary for speaking subjects. However, within a patriarchal system,

the daughters relationship is closer to the semiotic process in language, and the daughters

ego boundaries are less stable than a sons (Black Sun). As a result, a female voice within

literature has the ability to subvert and resist the privileging of the masculine.

The Semiotic in Frankenstein and To the Lighthouse

In Frankenstein, Shelley begins by illustrating the dangers, the haunting, and the

impossibility of constructing identity through the loss of the idealized mother. The lost

object, Victors dead mother, constantly haunts the texts, and nearly all of male characters

motives and actions are a frantic attempt to subdue and silence the mother. While Shelley

questions and examines the potential dangers of seeking identity in idealized loss, she also

examines its potential through abjection. Not only is the idealized absent mother desired, she

is feared. While the search for the lost object is desirable, the possibility of finding it is

terrifying. The return of absent mother figure as a semiotic force creates the potential for loss

of the self, the loss of boundaries that separate the self from the other, and, in effect, death

of the self. As Kristeva explains in Powers of Horror, abjection is a reaction of disgust and

fear to the threatened breakdown and loss of distinction between the self and others.

Frankensteins monster acts as a representation of an incomplete, but possibly new

identity formed as a result of Victors mothers absence and subsequent return. As a result,

the monster becomes an abject object, and Victor suddenly begins to become fearful and
4

disgusted by his creation. Additionally, once the monster recognizes the absence of the

mother and the inability of the father to fulfill that loss and desire, he repeatedly kills any

surrogate mothers that attempt to replace Frankensteins mother. As a result, Victor not only

represses any notions of the mother, but he also represses any evidence of the monster. The

monster acts as a representation of a new identity that is created when the absent mother is

allowed to return when the mothers presence, not her absence (or her presence of

absence), becomes an integral part of new identity formation. As a result, it is not simply the

object loss that creates identity, but it is also its possible and haunting return that

continuously needs to be repressed. It is that repression that Shelley questions throughout her

text.

However, while Frankenstein explores the abjection of the absent mother, To the

Lighthouse explores both the resistance to and the desire to go back to the semiotic stage and

collapse the boundaries between the self and mother. Mrs. Ramsey, the mother, acts as the

unifying power within the novel, and Woolfs characters, whether female or male, are

mysteriously in love with her. However, Woolf also recognizes the impossibility of complete

fusion and reliance on loss. Rather than constantly seeking to fulfill that loss, Lily Briscoe,

the female protagonist of To the Lighthouse, seeks to question the possibility of

understanding and escaping the supposed destructive power of the absent mother by

recognizing her as something different than loss through the process of mourning. Woolf

questions absence and uses its haunting presence to attempt to transcend the patriarchal

obstacle that keeps women from creating art. However, Woolf does not merely kill the trope

of the mother. She examines her, points out her flaws, questions her purity, and attempts to

locate her presence and change the way she exhibits power.
Chapter I Mary Shelleys Frankenstein and the Abject

Mary Shelleys Frankenstein is a story about motherless children. Nearly every

character must come to terms with an absent mother. The novel begins with a series of

letters Walton writes to his sister, his only family connection, because they are orphans.

Frankensteins mother, Caroline, must take care of her father alone, because her mother dies

when she is a girl. Victor Frankensteins cousin, Elizabeth, is sent to the Frankenstein house

after the loss of her mother. Although his father is mentioned, Shelley fails to provide any

mention of Henry Clervals (Frankensteins friend) mother. Frankensteins monster is

famously motherless, left only in search of his father. The De Laceys mother is mysteriously

absent. While every other member of the immediate De Lacey family is accounted for

(father, daughter, son), the mother is never mentioned. Even Safie, the Arabic woman the De

Laceys seek to rescue from her demanding father mourns the loss of her mother at a young

age, and the Frankenstein family employs Justine as a servant to their household after she

loses her mother in death. The only mother to survive the Frankenstein text is, surprisingly,

Waltons sister, a character who is never explicitly part of the text and only acts as an absent

reader that hovers silently over the text.

Aside from Waltons sister, Mrs. Saville, Frankensteins mother is the only mother

who lives, at least for a short time, in the novel, and it is only her death that resides in the

text. The death and disappearance of every other mother is unaccounted for and lies beyond

the text. The multiple maternal disappearances and deaths in Frankenstein call into question

why Shelley felt compelled to erase nearly every mother from her text, and why a monster is

created in the wake of her death.


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Several literary critics of Frankenstein call attention to Shelleys own conflicted and

ambiguous relationship to maternity. In her famous analysis of Frankenstein as a female

Gothic novel, Ellen Moers suggests that Frankenstein is a birth myth, and one that was

lodged in the novelists imagination ...by the fact that she herself was a mother (Critical

Norton 216). She situates the terror of Frankenstein in its strength as a phantasmagoria of

the nursery, and focuses her critique on the death of Shelleys mother, Mary Wollstonecraft,

from puerperal fever shortly after Shelleys birth and Shelleys own experiences of

miscarriage, infant deaths, and motherhood. 1 As a result, many critics have read

Frankenstein as a way for Shelley to come to terms with absence of her own mother and her

own ambiguous feelings about her own motherhood. However, because a ghostly absent

mother constantly hovers over the text, the pivotal action in the novel begins after the only

present mother, Frankensteins mother, becomes absent, and the novel centers around a birth

without a mother, Shelleys use of an absent mother seems more deliberate.

As Susan Winnett points out in Coming Unstrung, while Shelley may be a female

writer, her main character, Frankenstein, is a male mother (508). Rather than using a

traditional Gothic female heroine, as her predecessor Ann Radcliffe does, among the multiple

absent mothers in Frankenstein, Shelley purposefully explores the notion of man as mother.

By creating an intense collapse of boundaries, Shelley critiques the patriarchal insistence on a

strictly divided gender dichotomy, calls into question the Romantic imagination that relies on

an unmovable, masculine I, and illustrates the disastrous effects caused when men isolate

and mistakenly attempt to create a utopian vision when they can face and ultimately deny

abjection in order to create an essential masculine whole within a patriarchal society. As the

child of a male mother, the infamous monster in Shelleys Frankenstein acts as the jettisoned
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object that continuously challenges his master. The monster undermines any of

Frankensteins assumptions about his own distinct self and, thereby, becomes a threat not

only to Frankenstein, but to patriarchy, the Romantic ego, language as a monologism that

relies solely on the symbolic, and hierarchical difference. However, in order to better

understand how Shelley is able to accomplish this, the way Romanticism responded to the

historical context in which Frankenstein was written needs to be understood.

Frankenstein and Western Imperialism

Shelleys Frankenstein 2 both begins and ends in a voyage to the icy waters of the

North Pole. Robert Walton, the English explorer who relates Victor Frankensteins tale to his

sister, Mrs. Saville, is determined to reach a utopian place that presents itself to [his]

imagination as the region of beauty and delightwhere the sun is for ever visible; its broad

disk just skirting over the horizon, and diffusing a perpetual splendoura land surpassing in

wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe (7). Of

course, he instead only finds Victor Frankenstein embroiled in a fatal struggle with the

monster he created while in search of his own utopian ideal and most imminent peril (150).

Walton encompasses both the spirit of the imperialist attitude held by Western Europe

during the Romantic period and the fears associated with rapid and shifting social change that

occur when facing the unknown. As Terry Eagleton asserts, the Romantic period is one of

revolution (16). Frankensteins hostile relationship with his monster illustrates the

consequences Western Europe was forced to face when the region began to reach the height

of its own imperialistic endeavors. Rather than finding an idyllic utopia, Western Europe

faced the declining power of the aristocracy and the rise of the capitalist marketplace, the
8

Industrial Revolution, the French and American Revolution, as well as, the complications of

colonization and the atrocities of the slave trade.

Nancy Armstrong explains that the split between the female domestic private sphere

and the public economic public sphere was an attempt to maintain old patriarchal traditions

of pre-Industrial England (129). By defining an essential split between genders, Western

Europe sought to return to a utopian place that would both uphold Western imperialistic

ideals and erase the upheaval and dissolution caused by its failure. Armstrong argues that

literature wasnecessarily antecedent to the way of life it represented (469). As a result,

literature remained a masculine endeavor and isolated the female writer outside of the public

literary tradition. Gilbert and Gubar argue that the male poet attempted to enclose her in

definitions of her person and her potential which, by reducing her to extreme stereotypes

(angel, monster) drastically conflict with her own sense of selfand her own identity as a

writer (48). Within this system, Shelley not only had to inject her own voice within a

masculine discourse, she had to fight against the patriarchal insistence that as a woman she

cannot write but must act as a muse. If a woman does write, she can only write through the

patriarchal voice. Following Armstrongs assertions, Devin Hodges agrees that any type of

female voice was restricted to hiding the contradiction between new and old forms of

patriarchy brought about by disruptive patriarchal capitalism (Hodges 155). However,

Shelley also manipulates the patriarchal voice in order to critique the female position within

it.

Romanticism and Patriarchy

In response to the disappointing and threatening shifting of patriarchy, nineteenth-

century literature sought to find the sublime and mystical in nature through what Coleridge
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called an organic imagination which was capable of unifying disparate and even

contradictory elements into a complex whole (qtd in Murfin 417). Eagleton notes that the

word imaginativehas a resonance of the descriptive term imaginary, meaning literally

untrue, but is also of course an evaluative term, meaning visionary or inventive (16). In

line with the imperialistic spirit, the Romantic imagination sought to create a new utopian

poetry in opposition to chaotic and unstable culture. Imagination allowed literary work

itself to be seen as a mysterious organic unity, in contrast to the fragmented individualism

of the capitalist marketplace: it is spontaneous rather than rationally calculated, creative

rather than mechanical (17).

In her psychoanalytic analysis of Frankenstein, Mary Poovey writes that Shelleys

aspects of the novel give a conventionally feminine twist to the argument that individuals

mature through imaginative projection, confrontation, and self-consciousness (125). Shelley

disrupts and challenges the masculine concept of the organic imagination throughout the

text in Frankenstein. Many of the lapses and ambiguity in Frankenstein that critics have

pointed out are also defiant breaks from the traditional, symbolic, patriarchal structure. Most

notably, the plots left with loose ends, the overly formal language within private settings, and

the seemingly irrelevant story lines and characters all act as an interrogation of the patriarchal

text the structure of written language. 3 The power of Frankenstein lies in its ambiguous

elements and in its refusal to answer and signify. The reader is left hanging. Why does Ernest

live? Why does Frankenstein hate his creation once it is made? Why does he misunderstand

the monster when he states that he will be there on his wedding night? Does the monster

really die? In fact, the 1818 version of the novel was published anonymously, forcing
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readers to remain undecided about the gender of the author until 1831 when Shelley reveals

that Frankenstein was written by a woman.

Frankenstein, Abjection, and Patriarchy

In order to better understand how Shelley is able to question the consequences

associated with Romantic imaginations insistence on an illusionary utopian ideology, it is

important to understand the Frankenstein text as a critique of abjection within a patriarchal

society. When viewing the dialectic nature of language between the semiotic and symbolic,

Julia Kristeva situates the abject within the semiotic, the pre-symbolic/pre-language space

associated with the mother. In masculine Romantic literature, the abject is found in the

disparate and contradictory elements the organic imagination seeks to unify. The abject is a

loss of signifying boundaries that separate the self from others.

The complete loss of signifying boundaries enacts a sort of unity the organic

imagination seeks. It is a desire for the return to the semiotic stage when the child has not yet

fully isolated him/herself as a self and whose identity is partly fused with the mothers

body. As a result, in literature, abjection threatens the seemingly, unmovable I that the

Romantic poets sought to exemplify and collapses both the feminine and masculine through

the fusion of the son and mother. In Powers of Horror, Kristeva writes that the abject as a

jettisoned objectis radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning

collapsesit lies outside, beyond the set, and does not seem to agree with a [superegos]

rules of the gameand yet, from its place of banishment, the abject does not to cease

challenging its master (2). Overall, Kristeva argues that a language is always a negotiation

between the boundary and the collapse of boundary. It seeps through language and

constantly threatens to question the subjects feeling of completeness, of distinction from the
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Other. The abject embodies both the fear of losing self-distinction and a desire for a loss of

self.

Understanding Frankenstein as a critique of the way the patriarchy reacts to and

revolts from the abject helps explain how Shelleys position as a woman in a male dominated

profession allows her voice to be heard and enacts what Kristeva calls a revolution in poetic

language. Understood from a semiotic perspective, Frankenstein is a critique of the Romantic

imagination because it exposes the patriarchal insistence to long for an impossible, past,

utopian state in which origin and identity is fixed.

The Absent Mother and Abjection

Shelley follows in the tradition of Romantic literary devices in order to challenge

them. Victor Frankensteins mother, Caroline Beaufort, fulfills all the expectations of the

revered nineteenth-century female representation. She embodies all the characteristics

Virginia Woolf and, later, Gilbert and Gubar call the Angel in the House. Above all, the

mysteriously motherless Caroline was self-sacrificing. She attended to her father with the

greatest tenderness until her father died in her arms, leaving her an orphan and a beggar,

until she committed herself to Victors father Alphonse Frankenstein (Shelley 18, 19). In

the tradition of Romantic poetry, Caroline then dies a sacrificial death. Against the urging of

her family members, Caroline enters Elizabeths (Victors cousin, adopted sister, and future

wife) chambers while she is still recovering from scarlet fever, long before the danger of

infection was past (24). Three days later she died calmly; and her countenance expressed

affection even in death (25). Through her death, Caroline immortalizes the Angel in the

House.
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While Shelley maintains the Romantic trope of the ideal domestic mother,

Frankenstein is, rather, a unique Gothic novel. Carolines countenance of expressed

affection takes on a new, powerful, and dangerous meaning, and the significance of

Frankensteins mother is also reinforced by the multiple dead mothers throughout the

Frankenstein text. Because nearly every character in the text is motherless, the reader is

reminded of Frankensteins absent mother every time they encounter another character. Her

death is not the catalyst that allows Victor to establish a better connection to nature or the

ability to be united within the organic imagination. Rather, her death is the catalyst that

drives Victor Frankenstein to create a monster.

Marie Mulvey-Roberts notes in The Corpse in the Corpus that the abject hovers on

the borders of the Frankenstein text in which the monster can be read as a spectre of the

maternal body as well as Frankensteins monstrous child (199). As a result, the death of

Frankensteins mother becomes the pivotal point in the text when Frankenstein confronts the

loss of the mother and the recognition of the semiotic in identity and language. However,

because Victor Frankenstein ultimately reads the semiotic as abjection, the text questions all

signifying boundaries. Frankensteins masculine identity and his own motives and desires are

confused. Frankensteins infantile desire collapses into sexual desire. Frankensteins

monstrous child becomes a fusion of multiple identities that encompass Frankensteins

fatherly and masculine identity and the mothers feminine identity.

Frankenstein as the Male Mother

Shelley explains in her preface to the 1831 Frankenstein text that she attempted to

explore horror and terror that would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken

thrilling horror one to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and
13

quicken the beatings of the heart (171). Shelley twists the traditional Gothic horror novel by

disrupting the traditional roles played out in the Gothic genre and forces her readers to face

abjection. Moers notes that rather than relying on a young woman who is simultaneously

persecuted victim and courageous heroine, Shelley brought a new sophistication to literary

terrorwithout a heroine, without even an important female victim (Norton Critical Edition

216). Instead, she argues that it is the central male characters reaction to his dead mother

that causes fear. While Frankenstein may have helped Shelley explore her own experiences

as a mother and daughter, her novel explores abjection because Shelley ultimately decides to

make the only possible, present, mother of Frankensteins monster a man.

She creates a male mother character who has never had to deal with a marginal

position in society that requires him to be both the persecuted victim and the courageous

heroine. Once he is placed in the mother role, the boundaries of his ego are constantly

threatened, thereby creating abjection, and Frankenstein eventually dies just like his mother.

Rather than just reading the Frankenstein text as a text about Shelleys own feminine fears

of being subsumed by the identity of the mother, Frankenstein can also be read as a critique

of the masculine fear of the abject within a patriarchal society (199). As a result, he lacks the

experience of being a mother and must face the semiotic and the loss of boundaries.

In Is There a Woman in This Text? Mary Jacobus argues that Frankenstein is an

implicit critique of [Romantic] ideology for its exclusive emphasis on oedipal politics, and

that it most accurately represents the condition of both men and women under the

predominantly oedipal forms of Byronic and Shelleyan Romanticism (99). Rather than

following the same patterns of Romanticism that suggest wholeness and unity, one that is

only shared by the Romantic male poet, Frankenstein forces the reader to recognize semiotic
14

forces breaking through language. Hodges writes that perhaps by adopting a male voice, the

woman writer is given the opportunity to intervene from within, to become an alien presence

that undermines the stability of the male voice (157). The alien voice in the novel seeps

through the multiple narrations, through Victor Frankensteins mothers death, through the

monster that Frankenstein feels compelled to create, and through nature itself.

Facing Abjection

Shortly after his mothers death, Victor is forced to leave a liferemarkably

secluded and domestic and enter into the public world of school. Rather than facing the loss

and longing for his mother after her death, Victor propels himself into the masculine public

sphere. Confined to the public sphere, Victor longs for the private, domestic space he was

part of as a child. However, his mothers death acts as a reminder that within patriarchal

society, the mother always acts as the lost site of the semiotic that is essential to his identity

as a man. However, because of Victors longing for his mother and his inability to cope with

her loss, he begins to face the abject. Because Victor is forbidden to confront the semiotic

space within patriarchy, the semiotic becomes abject. Within the public sphere, Victor

figures out that in scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder (29).

After developing an almost supernatural enthusiasm, Victor squarely faces the abject and

realizes that to examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death (30). He is

fixed on natural decay, and on bodies deprived of life, which, from being on the seat of

beauty and strength, had become food for the worm (30). Because of his intense desire for

the semiotic place his mother inhabits after her death, Frankenstein seeks her by facing

abjection.
15

Because the domestic, private sphere is forbidden to men, Frankensteins obsession

with the abject forces him to reach the edge of the border of science, identity, and language.

He paused examining and analyzing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the

change from life to death, and death to life, until from the midst of this darkness a sudden

light broke in upon me a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple (30). Victor

Frankenstein discovers the secret to creating an Other (the monster) by entering into a state

of jouissance 4 where the object of desire bursts with the shattered mirror where the ego

gives up his image in order to contemplate itself in the Other, having become alter ego, drops

so that I does not disappear in it but finds, in that sublime alienation, a forfeited existence

(Powers of Horror 9). By creating the monster with the limbs of dead bodies, and by facing

the abjection associated with the Other, Frankenstein attempts to create his own ideal image

in a place of forfeited existence.

Shelley continues to critique the masculine Romantic imagination when Frankenstein

decides to create a monster in his own ideal image. Frankenstein tells Walton that my

imagination was too exalted by my first success to permit me to doubt of my ability to give

life to an animal as complex and wonderful as man (31). Looking at Frankensteins decision

from a semiotic perspective, when facing the abject, Frankenstein mistakenly defines the pre-

symbolic as utopian reminiscent of the Romantic imagination. After resolving to build a

being of gigantic stature (symbolic of the superego), Frankenstein recalls that life and

death appeared to me ideal bounds 5, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of

light into our dark world (32). He believes that by attempting to structure and signify the

abject, he can reach lost territory and fulfill his utopian desire for perfect unification within

the semiotic place that his mother represents.


16

The Mother as Nature and the Creation of a Monster

Much like the imperialist attitude of Western Europe during the Romantic era towards

anything foreign, Frankensteins utopia could not be realized without attempting to conquer

what he could not define. In order to create life in his monster, Frankenstein resolved to

pursue Nature in her hiding spaces (32). For a second time, in an attempt to conquer and

subdue abjection, he returns to his old habits. He collected bones from charnel houses;

and disturbed with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame (32).

Because he cannot fulfill his desire for his mother, and because he cannot fulfill the

unification that originates between a mother and child before he/she enters into the symbolic

sphere of language, his desire turns to rage against Nature. In this way abjection begets

abjection. Still in extreme pain, he, in effect, resorts to a rape of Nature. Frankensteins

violation is not only an ill-fated attempt to fulfill his desire for complete loss of boundaries,

his violation also creates offspring that he is forced to bear.

Anne Mellor notes that when Victor Frankenstein identifies Nature as female he

participates in a gendered construction of the universe whose ramifications are everywhere

apparent in Frankenstein (274). Because nature is represented as a feminine force, the return

of the dead mother (as perfect femininity) manifests itself in nature. Fittingly, Shelley uses

the term Nature (with a capital N), to personify it as a motherly presence. However,

rather than recognizing the feminine force in Nature, Frankensteins eyes were insensible to

the charms of Nature during the summer months a most beautiful season when he was

engaged, heart and soul, in one pursuit (32). In response to Frankensteins violation, as the

birth of his creation neared, Nature revolts and Frankenstein is oppressed by a slow fever

(33). It is on a dreary night of November that Frankensteins monster was born. Again,
17

Shelley subverts and challenges more traditional Romantic tropes that of feminized Nature.

Throughout the text, Nature is referred to as feminine, and it is fitting that when Frankenstein

violates Nature, he is able to produce offspring. In this way, Nature not only becomes the

means by which Frankenstein can create life, it also becomes a representation of the dead

mothers return.

Several feminist critics have recognized the abject in the birth of the Frankensteins

monster. In particular, Homans notes that the novel is simultaneously about the death and

obviation of the mother and about a sons quest for a substitute object of desire (100). In his

attempt to find a substitute object of desire, Frankenstein attempts to create life as a mirror

image of the ego ideal. However, he is perplexed and horrified that although his limbs were

proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful, he is confronted by another form of

abjection:

His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his

hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but

these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes,

that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they

were set, his shriveled complexion, and straight black lips. (34).

Because he is a monster created in defiance of God, in violation of a feminized Nature, and

beyond the boundaries of science, from the multiple remains of dead bodies, Frankensteins

monster is the corpse, seen without God and outside of sciencedeath infecting life.

Abject (Kristeva 4). Although Frankenstein had hoped that by creating his monster, he

would fulfill the utopian ideal that mirrors his own ideal self, his ego, the monster, instead,

becomes a projection of abjection. The monster in Frankenstein is not abject in the same way
18

as is Frankensteins dead mother. Instead, he is abject in process. He is the splitting of

Frankensteins ego. Just as Frankenstein violated Nature in order to create the monster, the

monster becomes a violation of Frankenstein. He becomes what the self fears in the Other,

recognition of his own self in an undefined space.

The monster creates abjection because he disturbs identity, system, order (Power of

Horrors 4). Fred Botting writes that produced by positions that cannot contain them,

monsters activate an excessive force which continually poses a challenge to unity, singularity

and stability, a threat that demands repeated attempts to reconstitute boundaries from within

(436). The animation of Frankensteins monster instantly challenges Frankensteins sense of

distinct wholeness. A sense of masculine unity, of a distinct self separate from the Other is

essential in a patriarchal society, and the monsters presence disturbs any notion of unity.

Dissolution of Desire and the Ambiguous, Vengeful Monster

In her review of feminist analysis of Frankenstein, Diane Long Hoeveler identifies

Victors dream, shortly after creating his monster, as a key scene psychoanalytic critics note

as a moment of desire (51). Victor dreams that he sees Elizabeth walking down the street,

but his dream soon takes a strange turn:

Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on

her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to

change, and I thought I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a

shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds

of the flannel (Frankenstein 34).

Poovey suggests that this dream is a result of Frankensteins self-absorption and

symbolizes how he has murdered domestic tranquility (124). Through his dream,
19

Frankenstein recognizes his ambition for what it really is: a monstrous urge, alien and

threatening to all human intercourse (255). It is during his terrifying dream that

Frankenstein faces the sexual and infantile desire he feels for his dead mother, and it is also

an indication of the connection between the death of Frankensteins mother, the creation of

his monster, and the eventual murder of Elizabeth. As Poovey points out, the monster

completes and liberates Frankensteins egotism, but the monster also liberates the dead

mother (125). Because the monster is a projection of both Frankensteins ideal ego and the

dead mothers abject body, its revenge against Elizabeth is two-fold.

The monster realizes the fears that patriarchy has about female desire and power.

Mellor explains:

Frankensteins fear of sexuality is endemic to a patriarchal construction of

gender. Uninhibited female sexual experience threatens the very foundation of

patriarchal power: the establishment of patrilineal kinship networks together

with the transmission of both status and property by inheritance entailed upon

a male line (226).

Frankensteins repressed sexual desire is a symptom of patriarchal society and the monster

becomes a vehicle to repress that desire. However, by also recognizing the abject within the

monster, Shelley provides multiple motives for the monster to kill Elizabeth. Both

Frankenstein and the abject dead mother are vengeful because it was Elizabeths scarlet fever

that killed Caroline. Shelley also uses the only feminine power within the text to kill another

Angel in the House.

Botting notes that the excess marked by various forms of monstrosity can be

described loosely, and perhaps monstrously, as a force of difference between opposed poles
20

that questions the privileged status one pole attempts to sustain by disclosing its dependence

on its other (436). By creating a monster, both in the form of a character and a book,

Shelley interrogates and threatens the privileged status of the masculine within a patriarchal

society that insists on female silence. The actual female characters in Frankenstein appear

powerless and confined as objects within the home because during Shelleys time period,

most Romantic female characters were powerless and confined. Their only escape and only

means of power was through their literary death.

Although the monster threatens Frankensteins own patriarchal sense of self identity,

the monster also represents a possible but unformed new identity. As a literary device, the

monsters potential is strikingly powerful. The characteristics that make him abject loss of

boundaries, blurred distinction between self and Other, and his position as both death and life

potentially opens questions about and collapses boundaries between patriarchal social

constructions. He is made of multiple body parts, representative of individuals of possible

varying classes, races, and genders. As a result, several critics have asked why the monster

identifies himself with Frankenstein and ultimately as male.

The Male Monster

Because the monster is a projection of Frankensteins own ideal ego, Shelley

necessarily identifies the monster as male. However, the monster himself does not

immediately come to this conclusion. The monster does not give any indications of his

gender in his story before acquiring the art of language (77). He also seems to display

feminine characteristics. Mellor notes that an ethics of cooperation, mutual dependence,

and self-sacrifice is often thought of as feminine (231). After observing the devastating

effects of poverty on the De Laceys, the French family he observes from a distance, he
21

embodies an ethic of care by attempting to help and care for them. He states, I was

inquisitive to know why Felix appeared so miserable, and Agatha so sad. I thoughtthat it

might be in my power to restore happiness to these deserving people (77). His relationship

with Nature is likewise congenial and nurturing.

He begins to acquire language by listening to language lessons given to the Arabian

Safie in the De Lacey home. As a result, he is given a Western patriarchal lesson through

masculine texts such as Ruins of Empires, Paradise Lost, and Plutarchs Lives. While the

monster is a symbol of abjection and the collapse of boundaries, the monsters distinction in

total isolation, the patriarchal ego embedded, forces the monster to identify his gender as

masculine, and creates his aggressive and vengeful actions.

Even within the De Lacey family, the mother is mysteriously missing. Shelley gives

no indication about what happened to her. She is just mysteriously absent. As a result, when

the monster concludes that I heard of the differences of the sexeshow the father doated on

the smiles of the infanthow all the life and cares of the mother were wrapt up in the

precious charge he necessarily finds himself in search of only a father (81). The De Laceys

and even Safie are forced to live within the confines of a society that only recognizes the

father, while the life and cares of the mother are forced into a private, secluded place. It is

after this realization that the monster asks, Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come?

What was my destination? (86). As he begins to acquire language, the monster is propelled

into signification and into the symbolic world that necessarily begins to repress any notions

of the abject, of the dead mother, and of feminized Nature.

After listening to the De Lacey family reading Miltons Paradise Lost, the monster

realizes that like Adam, I was created apparently united by no link to any other being in
22

existencehe had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and

prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creatorbut I was wretched, helpless, and

alone (87). Because female is not an option of signification within a patriarchal society, it

is at this point that the monster begins to consider his gender as possibly male, in the form of

Satan: Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my conditionGod in pity

made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of

[Frankensteins] (88). Once the monster aligns himself as a man within patriarchal society,

Nature begins to turn on the monster. The monster relates that I saw, with surprise and

grief, the leaves decay and fall, and Nature again assume the barren and bleak appearance

(89).

The monster eventually seeks revenge against his father because the monster fears the

complete isolation that results from identification with an ideal ego that walls itself up and

allows no Other. In this way, Shelley critiques and challenges the notion of literary

paternity. Gilbert and Gubar write that the male writer is involved in a literary Oepidal

struggle, a man can only become a poet by somehow invalidating his poetic father (47). In

order for the monster to validate his own masculine self and complete his entrance into

signification, he has to seek revenge and murder his father. Gilbert and Gubar argue that the

male writer must contend with his fear that he is not his own creator and that the works of

his predecessors, existing before and beyond him, assume essential priority over his own

writings (46). Before he identifies himself as masculine, undefined and immersed in the

semiotic space, the monster had no feelings of revenge and no need to destroy his

predecessor. In similar fashion, because, as a woman, Shelley was writing within a paternal

literary history, she had no history or creator to fear. Rather, Shelleys concerns rested on a
23

lack of any predecessor. 6 This offered her no voice with which to define herself as a woman

writer. Instead, rather than attempting to invent a definable female voice or a new

representation of female, Shelley critiques paternal literary history by finding gaps and flaws

in its masculine representations of femininity and in this way conjures up the excess, the

abject, left behind in the presence of absence.

The Patriarchal Relationship to Feminized Nature

Within the gaps, feminized Nature continues to become abject as the monster begins

to seek revenge on his father in oedipal fashion. He notes that Nature decayed around me,

and the sun became heatless, rain and snow poured around me; mighty rivers were frozen;

the surface of earth was hard, and chill, and bare, and I found no shelter (94-95). In his

search for his father, the monster begins to encounter the same fate as Frankenstein. Like his

father, he repeatedly represses, but at the same defies the boundaries of Nature: The

mildness of my Nature had fled, and within me had turned to gall and bitterness(95).

Within the symbolic realm, he possessed a map of the country (95). Like an imperialist

spirit, he traverses and conquers the land; in defiance of cold Nature he ventures on. During

Frankensteins first encounter with the monster after the murder of William, he watches as

the monster hangs among the rocks of the nearby perpendicular ascent of Mont Saleve and

quickly reaches the summit (48). Poovey notes that while Shelleys understanding of

Nature coincides with those of Wordsworth, Wollstonecraft, and Percy Shelleywhere these

three trust the imagination to disarm the natural world of its meaninglessness by projecting

human content into it, Mary Shelleys anxiety about the imagination bleeds into the world it

invades (25). The monsters (and Frankensteins) attempts to subdue Nature prove unfruitful
24

and Nature continues to seep through the Frankenstein text as the return of Frankensteins

dead mother.

However, Natures relationship to the monster remains ambiguous and appears to

give the monster one more chance when in his rage and miserya circumstance happened

whenthe sun had recovered its warmth, and the earth began to look green (95). The

monster is allowed to rest, and he felt emotions of gentleness and pleasure, that had long

appeared dead revive within [him] when he saved a girl from drowning (95). However,

because of his complete isolation and own abjection encased within his own masculine ideal

ego, the monster continues to reject Nature. His unhappiness and loneliness not only results

from societys rejection of him. He chooses to allow his feelings of kindness and

gentleness to give place to hellish rage and gnashing of the teeth (96). Reactions of

societal rejection and disgust remind the monster of his own abjection. His own inner turmoil

about the fact that he carries with him both the abject and masculine refusal of that abjection

creates his most aggressive and monstrous actions; the murders of nearly anyone who acts as

a surrogate mother and Frankensteins family.

The monsters aggressive and vengeful acts of murder are both a result of the force

and power of both Frankenstein and Frankensteins dead mother. Because the monster is a

form of abjection it can break the rules and the structures that repress feelings of hatred. As a

result, he can fulfill Frankensteins secret desires to kill any notions of female desire and

feminine qualities anything that reminds him of his own repressed desire for his mother.

The most notable example is when the monster kills William, Frankensteins youngest

brother and Justine, his surrogate mother. After killing William in a fit of revenge against

Frankenstein, he sees a locket with a picture of Frankensteins mother. He states:


25

In spite of my malignity, it softened and attracted me. For a few moments I

gazed with delight on her dark eyes, fringed by deep lashes, and her lovely

lips; but presently my rage returned; I remembered that I was for ever

deprived of the delights that such beautiful creatures would bestow; and that

she whose resemblance I contemplated would in regarding me, have changed

that air of benignity to one expressive of disgust and affright (97).

The dead mothers return is a reminder to the monster that any notion of utopian ideal is

impossible. His own fractured and rotting body is a symbol of that impossibility. His reaction

to the locket is also a reminder of Frankensteins original desire for the mother and his

subsequent disgust at this desire, expressed in his dream. As a result, any notions or

representations of the mother are killed. It is through his previous study of patriarchy and

the sanguinary 7 laws of man that he learns how to kill Justine8, the surrogate mother to

William, while at the same time, exposing the injustice of paternal law. The manipulation of

patriarchal structures in order to kill stifled, masculine representations of the Angel of the

House, is an indication of Shelleys own manipulation of Romantic literary structures and of

an assumed symbolic understanding of language that denies the semiotic. However, the

picture in the locket of the mother and the monsters own inability to fulfill his desire for the

mother drives the monster to ask Frankenstein to create a female monster, a substitute for the

mother.

The Female Monster

Because Frankenstein understands his monsters need for a mother substitute,

Frankenstein considers creating a female monster. However, because they have assumed a

masculine identity within patriarchy, both Frankenstein and his monster must continuously
26

repress feminine identity, and the concept of a female monster is ultimately terrifying and

impossible. Frankenstein already fears the collapse of boundaries and the recognition of his

own ideal ego within the male monster. By creating a female monster, Frankenstein would

have to deal with the threat of a complete destruction of his own sense of an essential, stable,

masculine identity. The possibility of recognizing the male monsters flawed, masculine

identity within a female monster also means deconstructing the flawed relationship between

femininity and masculinity within patriarchal society even further than the male monsters

presence.

Frankenstein reacts to the possibility of a female creature in fear. He begins to think

that she might become ten thousand more times more malignant than her mate, and delight,

for its own sake, in murder and wretchednessshe might refuse to comply with the

compact made before her creation (Shelley 114). Mellor explains that Frankensteins female

creation forces him to deal with multiple fears that include a fear of independent female

will, of her possible sadistic desires, and her power to seize and even rape the male she

might choose (226). Frankenstein fears unbridled female sexuality, because he assumes it

will take on the same characteristics as masculine sexuality within patriarchal society. The

female monster becomes a terrifying, dark mirror that reflects Frankensteins own

patriarchal, monstrous qualities. Because Frankenstein still maintains a belief in a utopian

ideal, his creations become projections of his own self, and, in the case of the female

monster, his fears multiply because she could also become a projection of the male monster

Frankenstein has already created.

However, what makes the creation of the female most terrifying is her potential to

become a mother. Frankenstein realizes that one of the first results of those sympathies for
27

which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon

the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious

and full of terror (Shelley 114). Because a female monster has the ability to reproduce, she

can potentially destroy the underlying patriarchal assumptions masculine identity rests on

and create uncontrolled abjection. The female monsters offspring have the potential to

further collapse boundaries because they become projections of both monsters, not

Frankenstein. While Frankenstein fears recognizing his own ideal ego within an undefined

space, the possible repression and denial of his own masculine identity is even more

frightening. As a result, Frankenstein becomes what he fears in his female creation and

trembling with passion, [Frankenstein] tore to pieces the thing on which [he] was engaged

(115). Upon witnessing the destruction of his female companion, the monster begins an epic,

aggressive, vengeful relationship with his father, Frankenstein, by destroying any female

representations or relationships within Frankensteins family.

Frankensteins and His Monsters Hostile Relationship

The monsters revenge against Frankensteins family induces Victor Frankenstein to

engage in a hostile relationship with the monster. As a result, Frankensteins relationship to

Nature not only changes after the creation of the monster, but also through his aggressive and

hostile relationship with his son, the monster. Nature repeatedly becomes cold and hard

towards Frankenstein immediately after he resigns himself to violating it in order to appease

his own assumed ideal ego. On his trip back home after hearing of his youngest brothers

murder, Shelley has Frankenstein recall the Alps of Byrons Childe Harolds Pilgrimmage

and Percy Shelleys Mont Blanc. However, while at first the calm and heavenly scene

restored him as he approaches his native town, as in Byron and Percy Shelleys portrayal,
28

Nature becomes powerful. Instead of feeling awestruck, Frankenstein becomes fearful and

saddened as night also closed around and the dark mountains appeared a vast and dim

scene of evil reminding him that he was destined to become the most wretched of human

beings (47). It is on a vengeful stormy night and it is a flash of lightning that illuminated

the objectits gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to

humanity (48). Rather than finding a type of ideal or utopian, Nature illuminates

Frankensteins abject creation.

Before his vengeance against the monster takes full hold, Frankenstein has moments

of solace in Nature. As a feminized force, Nature acts as a nurturing, giving being,

particularly on bodies of water. Frankenstein recounts these moments:

Often, after the rest of the family had retired for the night, I took the boat, and

passed many hours upon the water. Sometimes, with my sails set, I was

carried by the wind, and sometimes after rowing into the middle of the lake, I

left the boat to pursue its own course, and gave way to my own miserable

reflections. I was often tempted, when all was at peace around me, and I the

only unique thing that wandered restless in a scene so beautiful and

heavenlyI was tempted to plunge into the silent lake, and the waters might

close over me and my calamities for ever (60).

Within the peaceful hold of semiotic (amniotic, even) Nature, Frankenstein again feels desire

for the mother and for the pre-symbolic defined by lack of boundaries he finds so irresistible

that he is almost willing to give up any notion of self in death. It is only his vengeful

relationship with the monster that drives him to continue trampling, climbing, and traversing

through and over the natural landscape.


29

As Frankensteins relationship with the monster grows more hostile and as they

become more and more of a double of each other, Frankenstein makes another attempt to

make an amends to Nature:

I knelt on the grass, and kissed the earth, and with quivering lips exclaimed,

By the sacred earth on which kneel, by the shades that wander near me, by

the deep and eternal grief that I feel, I swear; and by thee, O Night, and by the

spirits that preside over thee, I swear to pursue the daemon, who caused this

misery, until he or I perish in mortal conflict (140).

He attempts to finish his adjuration, but the furies possessed [him] as [he] concluded, and

rage choaked [his] utterance (141). In rage, he feverishly pursues the monster through the

winding of the Rhone, the blue Mediterranean, the Black Seaamidst the wilds of Tartary

and Russia, and northward where the snow thickenedthe rivers were covered with ice,

until he reaches the across the mountainous ices of the ocean (140-142). The further he

traverses through Nature, the closer he comes to the abjection of self. Frankenstein and the

monster both lose a kinder, gentler relationship to the semiotic and enter into a cold, harsh

relationship with abject Nature. The peaceful water in which Frankenstein found solace and

the warmth that soothed the monster, becomes ice. As a result, the creation of the monster

became the starting point of Frankensteins abjection of self. Kristeva notes that abjection

can constitute for someone whopresents himself with own body and ego as the precious

non-objects; they are no longer seen in their own right but forfeited, abject (5). The novel

ends when Victor finally becomes entirely abject and dies and, together with the monster,

disappears in a fog on an icecap. Despite their insistence on conquering and controlling it,

Nature becomes the absent mother returned, too strong to be subdued.


30

Conclusion

Although the female characters in Frankenstein seem to represent the traditional

Romantic ideal - self-sacrificing, confined to the homes, and objects through which the male

characters define themselves Shelley finds a feminine voice in the absence and gaps those

restricted female roles enact. By doing so, she provides an extensive critique on the

patriarchal Romantic imagination. From a feminist psychoanalytical perspective, Mellor

notes, less certain of her ego boundaries, the daughter has been more likely to engage in

moral thinking which gives priority to the good of the family and the community rather than

to the rights of the individual (231). While the Romantic imagination sought to find an

organic unity to combat the fragmented individualism of the capitalist marketplace,

Shelley calls to question how this is possible when the imagination is confined to a

patriarchal tradition. While Frankenstein has the ability to face the abject, he mistakenly

assumes that it will mirror his own ideal self. Instead, he is faced with his own unstable ego.
Chapter II Virginia Woolfs To the Lighthouse and Mourning the Angel

of the House

Like many Modernist writers, Woolf consciously set out to redefine the shape and

structure of literature. However, rather than writing a conventional Modernist text, Woolf set

out to redefine Modernism from a feminist perspective. Shortly before writing To the

Lighthouse, Woolf wrote in her diary, I will invent a new name for my books to supplant

novel. A newby Virginia Woolf. But what? Elegy? (Diaries 34). Rather than writing a

novel, Woolf was interested in creating something new from her own experiences as woman

and a daughter. Gillian Beers essay on Woolfs engagement with To the Lighthouse as an

elegy notes that in elegy there is a repetition of mourning and an allaying of mourning.

Elegy lets go of the past, formally transferring it into language, laying ghosts by confining

them to a text and giving them its freedom (40). Paradoxically, Woolf uses a type of textual

mourning to lay to rest the illusion of masculine wholeness that rests on the notion of the

Angel in the House, in order to reach a new symbolic order of not only masculine identity,

but the female place in it. Woolf does not simply kill the Angel in the House. Rather, she

dissects her. When we understand Mr. Ramsay as a symbol of literatures place in patriarchal

ideology, we can also see that Mrs. Ramsays place is not only an idealized version of

femininity and motherhood. Lily Briscoes perspective as the female artist/daughter

illustrates that Mrs. Ramsay is also an interpretation of the semiotic process in language that

necessarily needs to change in order to allow women and marginalized group (any group

identified as Other for the sake of Western masculine distinction, an essential component of

patriarchy) to be recognized as speaking subjects.


32

When Victor Frankensteins mother dies in Mary Shelleys novel, her death leads

Frankenstein on a journey that, in patriarchy, is an impossible longing for a past utopian state

in which origin and identity are fixed by denying the semiotic. However, rather than coming

to terms with his impossible longing, Frankenstein ends up creating an abject monster that

both encompasses and denies the semiotic. He attempts to re-negotiate the abject through a

ritual of an epic battle between father and son. As a result, Frankenstein, himself, becomes

abject and dies. When Mrs. Ramsay, the absent mother of To the Lighthouse, dies, Woolfs

central character, Lily Briscoe, also begins a journey, but her journey leads her to the

realization that a past, utopian state is impossible to reach. Instead, Lily Briscoe discovers

the possibility of a new voice for the female artist one that incorporates both the semiotic

and symbolic process in language. For Lily, the absent/dead mothers power does not lie in

its fixity of origin and identity. Instead, Lily finds a means of change by re-negotiating the

semiotic power that resides in the dead mothers absence through a ritual of mourning.

Nostalgia and Absent Mothers

In her analysis of representations of home and mother, Roberta Rubenstein writes that

nostalgia is the expression of yearning for an earlier time or place or a significant person in

ones past history, the memory and significance of which or whom contributes to the sense of

the self in the present moment (13). Throughout her writings, and, most notably in To the

Lighthouse, Woolf often yearns for the past in the form of her mother, Julia Stephen, who

died when Woolf was only thirteen years old. In her autobiographical writing,

Reminiscences, Woolf realizes when writing about her mother that written words of a

person who is deadtend most unfortunately to drape themselves in smooth folds annulling

all evidence of life (36). Rather than becoming a representation of Woolfs actual mother,
33

Mrs. Ramsay is a distant, vague representation of the mother. Woolf consistently refers to

her as Mrs. Ramsay, never giving the reader any indication of her first name, and, in this

way, illustrates the impossibility for the reader and the other characters to ever really know

Mrs. Ramsay. Several critics have noted that Mrs. Ramsay, the mother in To the Lighthouse,

is a representation of the fictitious and absent mother of Woolfs memories. In her biography

about Woolf, Hermione Lee writes that To the Lighthouse is not so much about Virginia

Woolfs parents as about what to do with them, how to think them through or think through

them (80). Rather than trying to capture an actual representation of her mother, Julia

Stephen, Woolf contemplates the nostalgic mother her memories have created in Julia

Stephens place.

Nostalgia, like utopia, relies on an idealized version of representation. It provides the

illusion of truth because it is based on the overwriting of past memories fixed on supposed

actual experiences from the past. As a result, as a novel that ponders the past and

restructures Woolfs memories of her mother and her childhood, Rubenstein maintains that

To the Lighthouse is a memoir (or construction) of the lost mother of childhood who is

associated with the image of an idyllic vanished landscape of paradise or wholeness (29).

The nostalgia in To the Lighthouse not only acts as an exploration of Woolfs personal

memories, but the novel is also a critique and exploration of an idyllic vanished landscape

of paradise or wholeness in Western European society and literature. Nostalgia, as a result,

still acts as an idealized notion of distinction, an attempt at idealized wholeness.

Nostalgia and Modernism

Because To the Lighthouse centers its focus on the nostalgic Mrs. Ramsay, it is also a

nostalgic exploration of the whole Ramsay family, their male visitors, and Lily Briscoe, a
34

female artist friend of the family. Woolfs novel critiques other male Modernist writers

because the mother of To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay, acts as the central site of nostalgia

and represents the idyllic vanished landscape of paradise or wholeness that the other

characters of the novel attempt to define and capture. Marianne Dekoven notes in her essay

on Modernism and gender that an unprecedented preoccupation with gender, both

thematically and formallyexpressed a male modernist fear of womens new power, and

resulted in the combination of misogyny and triumphal masculinism that many critics see as

central, defining features of modernist works by men (174). Modernist works by male

writers still struggle to define a unified, although distorted and more melancholic, perception

of man, or the father by defining masculinity against femininity, most, notably through the

mother. Like Shelleys Frankenstein, Woolfs To the Lighthouse critiques this position and

questions its validity. However, unlike Shelley, Woolf also seeks to redefine Modernisms

masculine representations of the mother, and appropriate the semiotic power underlying her

representation for the female writer.

Mrs. Ramsay lives through the first half of the novel, then creates a pivotal shift in the

plot, and haunts the last half of the novel. Carolyn Dever, in her analysis of the death of the

mother in Victorian fiction, argues that during Modernism, Woolf, returning to the trope of

maternal loss, interrogates [the mothers death in Victorian literature and Victorian narratives

of domesticity] limitations and exposes their potential (203). By manipulating the narrative

concept of time and place, Woolf is able to define a process of mourning that exposes the

dangerous aspects of literary representation of the absent (dead) mother while preserving her

potential power.
35

Nostalgia and the British National Identity

Rubenstein argues that the modernist Woolf wrote during a time period in which

collective loss the devastation of one world war and a second impending, the erosion of

cultural stability, and the loss of the certitudes of traditional narrative form itself

corroborated the experiences of profound loss(32). While the wars during the Modernist

period created collective loss through the actual deaths caused by war, Woolf also recognized

that the Modernist projection of an ideal, stable, imperialist Britain was no longer valid. No

longer able to define itself as a unified whole, Great Britain had to deal with a newly

fragmented and despondent notion of itself as a nation. The illusion of a strong,

monotheistic, imperialistic 9 unified self (both at an individual and collective level) was

shattered when the boundaries within it began to collapse and war with itself. Through her

description of Mr. Ramsay, the tragic modern father in To the Lighthouse, Woolf explains

that all his vanity, all his satisfaction in his own splendour, riding fell as thunderbolt, fierce

as a hawk at the head of his men, through the valley of death, had been shattered, destroyed

(34). Within literature, Modernist writers were no longer able to rest on the patriarchal

Romantic notion of a unified whole self. Instead they sought a melancholic and existential

unification by seeking an ideal self (again, both at an individual and collective level) within

fragmented, contradictory, and conflicting multiple perspectives. It is this patriarchal modern

notion of self and of the British national identity that Woolf critiques and questions

throughout her writing.

Woolf specifically critiques the patriarchal shifts in literature during her lifetime, by

invoking, through Mrs. Ramsay, a representation of the Victorian absent mother. As

Hermione Lee points out, Mrs. Ramsay as a representation of Woolfs mother Julia
36

Stephen, 10 seems to have fully endorsed the Victorian models for female behaviour, as

found in Dickens Bleak House, or in the argument of Ruskins Of Queens Gardens, or in

Tenneysons The Princess, or come to that in Coventry Patmores The Angel in the

House 11 (85). As a self-sacrificing mother, and as an object of idealized memories, Mrs.

Ramsay is remembered for her beauty and domesticity. As a result, like Julia Stephen, Mrs.

Ramsay resembles the romantic Pre-Raphaelite imageas virgin, young mother with child,

mater dolorosa, muse, beloveda political image, embodying the acceptable roles for a

beautiful middle-class woman in the nineteenth century (85). Woolf uses a representation of

both the memories of her mother and the patriarchal ideal mother image in order to examine

her strength and consequences for male and female writer/artist.

Mrs. Ramsey as the Victorian, Absent Mother

Before the threat of dissolution of unity during the Modernist period, Victorian

representations of the absent mother provided a basis for the masculine identity within

patriarchy to appear stable and unified. As Carolyn Dever points out in her analysis of the

death of the mother in Victorian literature, Rigidly idealized categories of identities the

Victorian ideal of maternity, for example depend precisely on the absence and the

ineffability of the original model (6). In order to maintain rigidly idealized gendered

identities, the self must be defined in opposition to an Other, beginning with the feminine, or

the mother. According to psychoanalysis, at its most basic and earliest stages, distinction,

self, wholeness, and signification are assumed through a play of difference based on gender

through the concepts of the mother and the father. In order for children to develop a sense of

self identity, they must separate from the mother and enter into the symbolic realm, what

Lacan calls the Law of the Father (13). Within patriarchal ideology, this opposition means
37

that masculine unity is marked by distinction, whereas, female wholeness and unity is

marked by the erasure of distinction. In nineteenth-century literature, femininity was most

potent when defined by its absence, because its erasure of distinction became essential to a

patriarchal and symbolic distinction of self.

Woolfs Modernism and the Semiotic

As an absent figure based on nostalgia and memory, Mrs. Ramsay is really never

allowed presence. Despite the insistence of the characters in To the Lighthouse, they can

never really pin down Mrs. Ramsays character and self. Despite the multiple attempts of

various characters to define Mrs. Ramsay, through the voice of an omnipotent but

questioning narrator, Woolf still questions Mrs. Ramseys presence. When viewing Mrs.

Ramseys sadness while stitching a stocking, Woolfs narrator asks, But was it nothing but

looks, people said? What was there behind it her beauty and splendor?or was there

nothing?... she never spoke. She was silent always (32). Mrs. Ramsey is always clouded by

nostalgia, something the novels characters and narrator seems to always be aware of and is

always frustrated by.

The frustration of Woolfs character and narrator are partly because Mrs. Ramsay, as

an Angel in the House, is a stubborn patriarchal representation. When Woolf famously

announced that in order to write, she had to kill the Angel of the House, she was also

referring to the feminine aspect in language and literature when it is entrapped in the confines

of a patriarchal structure. Julia Kristeva writes that the symbolic order functions in our

monotheistic West by means of a system of kinship that involves transmission of the name of

the father and a rigorous prohibition of incest, and a system of speech that involves an

increasingly logical, simple, positive, and scientific form of communication, that is stripped
38

of all stylistic, rhythmic and poetic ambiguities (About Chinese Women 151). In

response to a monotheistic system that defines western patriarchy, Kristeva finds an

unveiling of the semiotic, the underlying structure beneath language, through stylistic,

rhythmic and poetic ambiguities in Modernist literature. In his introduction to

Modernism, Michael Levenson describes the Modernist period as a time

when Gertrude Stein exploded stylistic propriety in order to release new

rhythms in language, when Picasso painted primitive masks over the faces of

his Demoiselles dAvignon, when Antonin Artuad howled No more

masterpieces, when Woolf conjured a sister to Shakespeare, when Joyce

trained himself to scorch the culture that nourished him, they all knew

themselves to be engaged in forms of creative violence (2).

While both men and women were in the process of exposing the semiotic process, and,

thereby, a dialectic nature, to language, Woolfs To the Lighthouse critiques and exposes the

semiotic power laying beneath the Angel in the House but also its literary and materialistic

consequences. As Gilbert and Gubar explain, women must kill the aesthetic ideal through

which they themselves have been killed into art and that begins with an understanding of

the nature and origin of those images (17). As a result, The Window section of To the

Lighthouse explores Mrs. Ramsays potential, and ultimately her failure as a patriarchal,

aesthetic ideal. The second section, Time Passes, necessarily kills that representation,

and the last section, The Lighthouse seeks the semiotic power (outside of gender binaries)

that lies underneath Mrs. Ramsays image in order to create new aesthetic representations

that allows the female voice to be heard.


39

Patriarchy and the Unstable Ideal Self

The men in To the Lighthouse appear to have a similar need from Mrs. Ramsay, and

they are only able to fulfill that need by demanding her sympathy. By understanding Mrs.

Ramsay as representation of the Victorian mother trope that encompasses repressed semiotic

forces that language relies on, the way the other characters react to and feel about Mrs.

Ramsay points to their relationship with the semiotic process in language. The men,

particularly Mr. Ramsay, need Mrs. Ramsay to remain a controlled patriarchal construction

in order to repress the indefinable semiotic and reaffirm their own essential, stable, illusion of

language and identity. Like Victor Frankenstein, they insistently hold on to an ideal self-

identity that is constantly threatened. However, because the historical events of the modern

period, most notably the First World War, shattered those illusions, it is through Mrs.

Ramsays sympathy and through her representation as a nostalgic trope that the men in To

the Lighthouse can maintain an illusion of a patriarchal ideal masculine self.

In The Window section of To the Lighthouse, Woolf explores the patriarchal

mother through Mrs. Ramsay. The masculine voice needed a female representation of women

as self-sacrificing, beautiful, but essentially dead and void of self, in order to define his own

gender in hierarchical opposition. However, the war and cultural shifts forced both European

men and women to question this dichotomy. Mrs. Ramsays insistent presence (and absence)

no longer guaranteed masculine distinction and a stable patriarchy. Woolf suggests through

the lens of Mr. Ramsay that he had ridden through the valley of death, been shattered and

shivered; and now, she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out

of the question, in effect, told lies (35). As a result, even Mrs. Ramsays self-sacrificing

absence is a threat a threat that Mr. Ramsay describes as a lie and what Mrs. Ramsay,
40

herself, feels as nothing but a sponge sopped full of human emotions (36). The nostalgic

view of the mother, clouded by Romantic and Victorian literature, and passed on, could no

longer maintain its illusion of essentialism.

Like Mr. Ramsay throughout To the Lighthouse, many male writers, like the fathers

before them, although conflicted and troubled by a fragmented and broken sense of self, still

attempt to maintain and support an inherently patriarchal ideology. Woolf describes Mr.

Ramsays insistence that his son will not be able to go to the lighthouse as correct because

what he said was true. It was always true. He was incapable of untruth; never tampered

with a fact; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any

mortal being, and he always maintained that life is difficult; facts uncompromising, and the

passage to that fabled land where our brightest hopes are extinguished, our frail barks

founder in darknessone that needs, above all courage, truth, and the power to endure (8).

Like Kristevas analysis of the symbolic within patriarchal society, Woolf maintains that

language within patriarchy is rigid, uncompromising, and increasingly stubborn.

However, Mr. Ramsay confronts moments of failure, and it is during these moments

of failure that he demands sympathy from Mrs. Ramsay. Indicative of the consequences of

the World War and British imperialist failures, Mr. Ramsay complains repeatedly, Some

one had blundered 12 (36). Despite his pessimistic view of the Western patriarchal project -

a project that can no longer provide an illusion of masculine wholeness and unity - Mr.

Ramsay maintains his belief in a rigid, linear form of language. Woolf highlights this

insistence when she explains Mr. Ramsays thought process: For if thought is like the

keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six

letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those
41

letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached

Q (37). Rachel Bowlbys Freudian/Lacanian analysis of To the Lighthouse describes Mr.

Ramsay as a resigned leader of an unsuccessful expedition and that expedition remains as

the structuring fantasy for the philosopher resigned to getting no further than halfway (65).

Always stuck midway in the process of signification, Mr. Ramsay assumption that language

and self is stable and accurate places Mrs. Ramsay in the position of validation for his failure

to ever reach Z, the letter scarcely visible to mortal eyes (65). Mrs. Ramsays sympathy

allows Mr. Ramsay hold on to his own sense of a stable self because Mrs. Ramsay remains in

his control. Her identity is fixed on uplifting and validating his identity.

Mrs. Ramsay recognizes that it was sympathy that he wanted, to be assured of his

genius, first of all, and then to be taken within the circle of life, warmed and soothed, to have

his senses restored to him, his barrenness made fertile, and all the rooms of the house made

full of life (41). In his attempt to feel secure within a patriarchal language system, he needs

Mrs. Ramsay to assure him of his unified self in opposition to her absent self. In one sense,

Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are able to work together to provide meaning, but it is only at the

expense of Mrs. Ramsays self in order to build upon the arid scimitar of the malethe

egotistical man (42). Mr. Ramsay represents the symbolic process in language that relies on

not only the repression, but the denial of the semiotic.

Woolfs narrator notes that every throb of the pulse seemedto enclose her and her

husband, and to give each other solace which two different notes, one high, one low, struck

together, seem to give each other as they combineyet, as the resonance diedMrs.

Ramsay felt not only exhausted in bodybut also there tinged her physical fatigue some

faintly disagreeable sensation with another origin (42). Although Mrs. Ramsay and Mr.
42

Ramsay appear to work within a harmonious relationship, it is always at the expense and

exhaustion of Mrs. Ramsay. As she begins to define the disagreeable sensation she feels,

Mrs. Ramsay begins to realize it is a loss of herself, dependent on the false illusion of the

unified, egotistical man. She disliked others knowing he relied on her because then people

said he depended on her, when they must know that of the two he was infinitely the more

important (43). Not only was she responsible for his ill-fated relationship with language,

she could not be honest and voice what she really wanted to say:

not being able to tell him the truth, being afraid, for instance, about the

greenhouse roof and the expense it would be, fifty pounds perhaps, to mend it;

and then about his books, to be afraid that he might guess, what she a little

suspected, that his last book was not quite his best bookand then to hide

small daily things, and the children seeing it, and the burden it laid on them

all this diminished the entire joy, the pure joy, of the two notes sounding

together, and let the sound die on her ear was now with a dismal flatness (43).

In her analysis of To the Lighthouse, Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak writes that the language of

marriage seems a refusal of good language, if a good language is that which brings about

communication (120). Put in positions of hierarchal opposition, Mrs. Ramsay is not allowed

a voice or any sense of self, and it is her silence that allows Mr. Ramsay to hold on to a false

sense of stability and a unified sense of self.

As a result, Spivak notes that it is not surprising that, when she is freenot only

language, but personality and selfhood were lost (121). Because she is unable to define

herself, she confronts and exposes an underlying semiotic force beneath her representation:

All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a
43

sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, invisible to others

(Woolf 65). Although the representation of Mrs. Ramsay throughout the first half of the

novel is of a mother sitting, knitting, and reading childrens books, beneath it is all dark, it is

all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is

what you see us by (Woolf 65). It is only beneath the exterior and outside patriarchal

definition of mother that Woolf is able to find freedom for Mrs. Ramsay. It is there that her

horizon seemed to her limitlessthis core of darkness could go anywhere, for no one saw it.

They could not stop itthere was freedom, there was peace (Woolf 65). Mrs. Ramsay as

an ideal Victorian mother trope, a defined, signified patriarchal symbol, represses and denies

new representations of women and the possibility of the female voice.

Mr. Ramsay, his sons, and the other male characters reliance on Mrs. Ramsay

highlights her literary construction within a patriarchal system. She acts as property, a

female representation made by men to be passed from literary father to literary son. Because

she is a commodity, her efforts to surround and protect force her realize that there was

scarcely a shell of herself left for her to know herself by; all was so lavished and spent (41).

Within a patriarchal literary structure, female representation, particularly in the form of a

mother, does not provide a space for the female to act as a vehicle to define female desires or

needs.

Lily Briscoe as the Symbolic Daughter and Mrs. Ramseys Underlying Power

Although Cam, one of Mrs. Ramsays biological daughters, often seems stifled by

and uninterested in Mrs. Ramsay, she develops a special bond with her mother. Through their

relationship as mother and daughter, Mrs. Ramsay and Cam were able to communicate

through the semiotic breaks in language. Margaret Homans critique of To the Lighthouse
44

suggest that they have a mother-daughter language existing outside the laws of

representation (281) Mrs. Ramsay understands and sympathizes with her daughter; she

invites Cam to leave when she is reading to James, because she knows that Cam loves the

sounds of words for themselves and would only be attracted by the word Flounder (281).

However, despite her unique with language and with Mrs. Ramsay, the first section, The

Window never seems to explore Cams perspective on Mrs. Ramsay.

Lily Briscoe accesses the memories and emotions that only a daughter would

remember and feel even though she is not Mrs. Ramsays biological daughter. Hermione

Lees biography of Woolf notes that the impossibility of translating her mother from the

past into the present is deep inside the story of Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsay in To the

Lighthouse (80). By positioning the artist rather than the biological daughter in the position

of daughter, Lee suggests this helps Woolf both read through our mothers and kill the

Angel in the House. Lily Briscoes unique position as the artist daughter illuminates

Mrs. Ramsays position as an impossible, nostalgic representation of a mother.

Although Mr. Ramsay establishes a relationship that relies on Mrs. Ramsays sense of

a unified masculine self, Lily Briscoe as a female artist must contemplate Mrs. Ramsay as a

female representation, differently than the other characters in the novel. In her

deconstructive analysis of Woolfs writing, Toril Moi writes that

To the Lighthouse illustrates the destructive nature of a metaphysical belief in

strong, immutably fixed gender identitieswhereas Lily Briscoe (an artist)

represents the subject who deconstructs this opposition, perceives its

pernicious influence and tries as far as is possible in a rigidly patriarchal order


45

to live as her own woman, without regard for the crippling definitions of

sexual identity to which society would have her conform (13).

As an artist, Lily Briscoe is torn by her desire to create within a world that proclaims

women cant paint, cant write (93). She understands that whatever her own occupation

may be, as a woman, she is expected to go to the help of the young man opposite so that he

may expose and relieve the thigh bones, the ribs, of his vanity, of his urgent desire to assert

himself (93). Between the desire to paint and write or to become the muse for men, Lily

ultimately chooses to paint and write. Sitting opposite of Mr. Tansley, she decides to

consider the possibility of not playing within the traditional gender roles. She asks, But

how would it beif neither of us did either of these things? (93). However, because Mrs.

Ramsey is a powerful commodity, Lily often loses to her power. With a glance, Mrs.

Ramsay has the power to cause Lily Briscoe to renounce the experiment what happens if

one is not nice to that young man there [Mr. Tansley] and be nice (94).

Despite the traditional Victorian mothers representation as a commodity, Woolfs

use of multiple perspectives from multiple characters of Mrs. Ramsay provide alternate

glimpses of understanding and ongoing processes of signification. Lilys unique perspective

highlights a part of Mrs. Ramsay that remains separate from her role as self-sacrificial

mother, a part of her power that resides beyond language and gender. It when she need not

think about anybody that she could be herself, by herself (65). Mrs. Ramsay is the object

that the other characters define themselves and their perspectives of life she is the page, the

blank slate where they define meaning.

While Mrs. Ramsays power has the ability to destroy Lily as an artist, Lily also

recognizes its ability to become a creative force. It is within her semiotic characteristics that
46

the representation of Mrs. Ramsay as a literary device holds promise for the female writer.

However, as long as it is fixed within the patriarchal symbol of the mother, Mrs. Ramsay, her

power is destructive for women and, ultimately for men too.

Several feminist critics have pointed out that To the Lighthouse is an analysis of

absence, death, and negation (Rubenstein, Beers, Moril). Especially central to her novel is

Woolfs analysis of the mother as absence, her necessary death, and finally the negation

between her absence and death. Mrs. Ramsays absence is multilayered, defined by multiple

perspectives, and acts as an echo of female representation. She is never solidly fixed on the

page, and Mrs. Ramsays identity is never solidly defined. Although Rubenstein argues that

the first half of To the Lighthouse is about Mrs. Ramsays presence while the last half is a

more critical exploration of the reverberations of her mothers absence, Woolfs

inability to ever solidly fix meaning about Mrs. Ramsay suggests that the whole book is an

exploration of different kinds of absence (27). Using Lilys perspective, Woolf is still

exploring the impossibility of presence for Mrs. Ramsay, but Woolf is also exposing the

potential of an underlying power in her absence.

Perhaps this is why Mrs. Ramsays most triumphant rebellion against Mr. Ramsay

and the patriarchal order of language is silence. Margaret Homans suggests that while it is

possible to read Mrs. Ramsays silence as a delusion of power, it is also possible to read the

inconsequential words, which bear so slight and tangential a relation to her thought as

powerful, because they resist representation and instead create a present relation (280). As

a result, her silence remains an ambiguous powerful force that Woolf must contend with in

order to define herself a woman writer (represented by Lily as a female artist). Woolf ends
47

the first section of To the Lighthouse, The Window with both Mrs. Ramsays silence and

inconsequential words:

He wanted something wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to

give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him. And that, no, she could

not doAs she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said

a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it.

And smiling she looked out the window and said (thinking to herself, Nothing

on earth can equal this happiness)

Yes, you were right. Its going to be wet tomorrow. You wont be

able to go. And she looked at him smiling. For she had triumphed again. She

had not said it: yet he knew (126).

Mrs. Ramsays presence in the first half of To the Lighthouse is only significant in its

silences and absences. By enveloping what she means in silence and laying it over with

words that supposedly concede power to Mr. Ramsay but actually subvert it, Mrs. Ramsay

exposes her own power.

Mrs. Ramsays Semiotic Forces

Lily, unlike the men in To the Lighthouse, begins to understand Mrs. Ramsays

silence as possible positive force. It is after Lily attempts to find, separate from language,

unityintimacy itself that she finds nothing (54). While the term nothing often

implies lack, Woolfs use of the term appears more meaningful. It is only after Lily

pronounces, Nothing happened. Nothing! Nothing! as she leant her head against Mrs.

Ramsays knee, that she is able to begin defining Mrs. Ramsay outside of the conventional

Victorian trope (54). While nothing implies a loss of boundaries, it also opens potential,
48

undefined space. As result, Lily begins to notice that for days there hung about her, as after

a dream some subtle change is felt in the person one has dreamt of, more vividly than

anything she said, the sound of murmuring and, as she sat in the wicker arm-chair in the

drawing-room window she wore, to Lilys eyes, and august shape; the shape of a dome (55).

While she cannot completely define it, Lily is able to begin to define Mrs. Ramsays absence

and silence.

In her analysis of female writing, Homans writes that Mrs. Ramsay is Woolfs

summary of nineteenth-century ideologies of motherhood, but the novel is more than a

simple rejection of the Victorian mother (279). Rather, the novel also embodies Woolfs

ambivalence about Victorian mothers (Homans 279). It is within semiotic moments that

Mrs. Ramsay often fears that Lily finds the potential to become an artist by think[ing] back

through our mothers (A Room of Ones Own 69). In the first section of the novel, Mrs.

Ramsay has moments when she recognizes and contemplates her semiotic forces, defined by

a loss of boundaries, openness to meaning, and a connection with something outside of

language. In the context of her sacrificial life with her children and husband,

other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself

slightly from the task actually at hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a

ghostly roll of the drum remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one

think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned

her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all

ephemeral as a rainbow this sound which had been obscured and concealed

under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her

look up with an impulse of terror (20).


49

Mrs. Ramsays awareness of her own mortality has the abject power to create terror, but

within the abject is the destruction of the existing island and its engulfment in the sea (20).

It is within her mortality, that Lily is able to destroy the existing, patriarchal representations

of women.

Mrs. Ramsays Death and Masculine Illusions

However, as long as Mrs. Ramsay remains the Angel of the House, to define

language beyond the scope of masculine symbolic representation is Mrs. Ramsays only

rebellious act. Woolf is more interested in providing space for the female artist. Even if the

representation of Mrs. Ramsay is denied the opportunity to speak, to signify her own

meaning, then Woolf seeks to identify ways for the representation of daughter, Lily Briscoe,

to speak and to signify. As Woolf asserted in Professions of Women, in order to write, she

must kill the Angel of the House. Mrs. Ramsay maintains an absence during the first

section of the novel; the masculine characters use that absence to create feminine opposition

that provides a patriarchal illusion of unified masculinity. Consequently, the middle section

of To the Lighthouse explores Mrs. Ramsays death as a literary device that begins to

deconstruct masculine illusions and creates an undefined, empty space.

Ellen Rosenmans analysis of Woolf as a feminist writer notes that the mothers

death offers the daughter the occasion for art: it leaves a void which must be filled, providing

the impetus to create (107). While Rosenman highlights the opportunity for Lily to use

absence as an impetus to create, Lily does more than fill a void. Understood from a semiotic

perspective, Lily is participating in the dialectic relationship between the semiotic and

symbolic aspects of language. Rather than simply opening up a void and exposing the

semiotic, Woolf explores in the last section of To the Lighthouse how the semiotic is altered
50

and re-negotiated when ordered through a different position (the daughters position) in a

patriarchal structure.

Mrs. Ramsays death has significant repercussions and echoes subsequent deaths of

future Angels of the House and opposing masculine figures. After her death, Mrs.

Ramsays daughter Prue dies from childbirth: Prue Ramsay died that summer in some

illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they

said, had promised so well (136). Despite Mrs. Ramsays belief in the strength of marriage

and the ideal mother role, her daughter dies when becoming a mother. Eventually, during the

First World War, Mrs. Ramsays son, Andrew dies in battle: A shell exploded. Twenty or

thirty men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully

was instantaneous (137). Mrs. Ramsays death is a violence that not only foreshadows the

death of future potential ideal mothers, but also of masculine identity that rests on a unified

definition that represses and denies semiotic forces. Within the modernist historical context,

the mothers death acts as a dissembling symbol of the conflicting and destructive force of

the shifting ideological structures that create new gender roles amidst war.

Mrs. Ramsays Death and Temporal Change

If the first section recognizes Mrs. Ramsays absence as a loss of selfhood and

feminine voice, the middle section recognizes the death of Mrs. Ramsay as a temporal

change. While The Window section of To the Lighthouse takes place over the course of

one day, Time Passes is the shortest section of the book, but takes place over the course of

ten years. Bowlby notes that each section represents a different form of temporality, and she

writes that the first and third focus, as often in Woolfs novels, on a single day and the

associative links which connect it, in the consciousness of the characters and along the
51

narrative line, to other times and places (69). Rather than understanding language and the

act of thought, writing, or reading as Mr. Ramsays logical proposition: If Q then is Q R,

To the Lighthouse presents alternate propositions. Throughout the whole novel, Woolf plays

with the notion of paternal linear time. Her critique and rejection of linear time suggests that

Woolf was seeking a proposition of maternal time 13 similar to the type that Kristeva defines

in her essay Womans Time.

Kristeva argues that female subjectivity would seem to provide a specific measure

that essentially retains repetition and eternity from among the multiple modalities of time

known through the history of civilization (191). Mrs. Ramsays death is bracketed within a

surrounding description of the house in Hebrides and the toll of nature. Time is described as:

Night after night, summer and winter, the torment of storms, the arrow-like

stillness of fine weather, held their court without interference. Listening (had

there been anyone to listen) from the upper rooms of the empty house only

gigantic chaos streaked with lightening could have been heard tumbling and

tossing (138).

Woolf focuses on the natural rhythms of weather and storms and presents time in a cyclical

fashion. In the repetition type of temporality, Kristeva recognizes cycles, gestation, the

eternal recurrence of a biological rhythm which conforms to that of nature (191). Suggestive

of the reproductive power of a mother and of nature, Mrs. Ramsay death is not an end to a

linear path.

Kristeva describes the second type of temporality as a monumental temporality,

without cleavage or escapeall-encompassing and infinite like imaginary space (191).


52

Bowlby notes that this type of temporality is most apparent in the image of the abandoned

house at Hebrides in the following passage:

So loveliness reigned and stillness, and together made the shape of loveliness

itself, a form from which life has parted; solitary like a pool in the evening, far

distant, seen from a train window, vanishing so quickly that the pool, pale in

the evening, is scarcely robbed of its solitude, though once seen (133).

Like the absence or void caused by the death of Mrs. Ramsay, the shape of loveliness

reminiscent of Mrs. Ramsays dome-like shape, remains in stillness and solitude. Set

apart from the nostalgic patriarchal representation of the female ideal, Woolf reformulates

Mrs. Ramsays underlying semiotic forces within a different type of understanding. Rather

than If Q then is Q R, she explores the notion that Spivak suggests, As Q is Q (41).

Time no longer follows the logical linear progression from A to B or Q to R, rather Woolf

explores the semiotic process in defining meaning through atemporality and undefined space.

Mrs. Ramsays Death and New Undefined Space

Rosenman argues that death deconstructs the maternal icon and in doing so removes

the lynch pins which secures the destructive relationship of male culture, mother, and

daughter so that new relationships can be formed (105). It is the semiotic forces beneath

Mrs. Ramsays representation that Woolf hopes to salvage in the wake of Mrs. Ramsays

death. Within the void left by Mrs. Ramsays death, Woolf posits a type of negative energy

very similar to Kristevas notion of a chora. Described as energy charges as well as

psychical marks a chora is arranged according to various constraints imposed on the

body (Revolution in Poetic Language 93). Within literary discourse, Woolfs attempt to

kill the Angel of the House through the death of Mrs. Ramsay theoretically opens up
53

undefined space. It is not necessarily just Mrs. Ramsays death that opens new space. It is

Woolfs ability in the novel to locate the excess, undefined power that remains. As a result,

Mrs. Ramsays death is bracketed off and described as the presence of absence: Mr.

Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs.

Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out,

remained empty (132). Before the reader confronts Mrs. Ramsays death, they confront an

empty, undefined space within Mr. Ramsays stretched out arms. He can no longer use the

representation of Mrs. Ramsay as the ideal mother to signify his own unified masculine self

and is left with only undefined space.

Semiotic Space and Nothingness

In her essay on negative space in To the Lighthouse, Rubenstein suggests that the

novel ultimately invites us to understand that nothing itself has a shape (Poetics of

Negation 40). It is this sense of nothing as something (even if intangible and indefinable)

that suggests the potential of Mrs. Ramsays death as a semiotic force necessary in the

formulation of the symbolic aspect of language and the potential for Lily Briscoe to signify

and create through that void. When nothing is understood as a semiotic presence, the

following passages take on new meaning:

Nothing it seemed could break that image [one of empty clothes, loveliness

and stillness], corrupt that innocence, or disturb the swaying mantle of silence

which, week by week, in the empty room, wove into itself the falling cries of

birds, ships hooting, the drone and hum of the fields, a dogs bark, a mans

shout, and folded them round the house in silence (133).


54

Nothing as a semiotic force, the chora 14 undisturbed, is exposed underneath the image of the

abandoned home and beyond the domestic and beneath the symbolic representations of the

falling cries of birds, ships hooting, the drone and hum of the fields, a dogs bark, and a

mans shout. Kristeva argues that neither a model nor copy, the chora precedes and

underlies figuration and thus specularization (Revolution in Poetic Language 95). As a

result, the chora envelopes all signification, and when the Ramsay family and Lily Briscoe

return, the sigh of all the seas breaking in measure round the isles soothed themnothing

broke their sleep, and Lily wakes from her sleep: Her eyes opened wide. Here she was

again, she thought, sitting bolt upright in bed. Awake (146). Unlike the Ramsays, Lily

recognizes the potential in nothingness, but before she can appropriate and re-negotiate

nothingness into symbolic language, Lily must go through a process of mourning.

The Journey to the Lighthouse

In the last section of To the Lighthouse, the lighthouse becomes a representation of

new meaning that must be reformulated in order to re-negotiate the semiotic meaninglessness

left behind from Mrs. Ramsays death. Mr. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe take two very different

paths. Mr. Ramsay maintains his logical proposition: If Q then is Q R. He continues to

seek sympathy from any woman he can, and decides that the only way to reach the

lighthouse is to take the linear voyage, symbolic of the patriarchal path to language. His

persistence in continuing down the same path is a result of his fear that he may have to face

his own self as an ambiguous, fragmented self rather than as a unified, masculine identity

maintained by essential differences from the mother or the female identity. Because Lily is

already engaged in an act traditionally forbidden to women (painting as a transformative

endeavor), she must understand her identity as multifaceted. The act of creation in art is a
55

predominately masculine characteristic that she must negotiate with supposed feminine

characteristics. As a result, she has already begun to recognize her identity as possibly

fragmented and ambiguous. This allows her to seek a voyage to the lighthouse through

maternal space by mourning the loss of the mother and by defining the shape left by her

death.

The Continued Need for Sympathy

Because Mr. Ramsay views the nothingness left as a result of Mrs. Ramsays death as

a lack, he maintains the same path he did when he was married to Mrs. Ramsay. While

waiting to take his children to the lighthouse without being conscious what it was, to

approach any woman, to force them, he did not care how, his need was so great, to give him

what he wanted: sympathy (154). What Mr. Ramsay lacks the most is not Mrs. Ramsay

herself, but Mrs. Ramsays ability to fulfill his own fear of a shattered sense of self.

Even after Mrs. Ramsays death, Lily must fight against the urge to take her place and

follow a linear voyage with Mr. Ramsay. As Lily attempts to resume her work on the

painting she began ten years earlier, Mr. Ramsay approaches her and all Lily wished was

that this enormous flood of grief, this insatiable hunger for sympathy, this demand that she

should surrender herself up to him entirely, and even so he had sorrows enough to keep her

supplied for ever, should leave her, should be divertedbefore it swept her down its flow

(155). Mr. Ramsays need for sympathy is powerful, but it is also confining and suffocating,

and Lily feels the need to escape his demands.

She thinks back to Mr. Ramsays books about subject and object and the nature of

reality and Andrews philosophical inquiry to think of a kitchen tablewhen youre not

there (26). While staring at the kitchen table in the room, she realizes that Mr. Ramsays
56

demand for sympathy is a result of his inability to change his relationship to language. Like

Woolfs use of language in her novels as a critique of the cold, rigid, and tense language of

patriarchal texts, Lily thinks:

The kitchen table was something visionary, austere; something bare, hard, not

ornamental. There was no colour to it; it was all edges and angles; it was

uncompromisingly plain. But Mr. Ramsay always kept his eyes fixed upon it,

never allowed himself to be distracted or deluded, until his face became worn

too and ascetic and partook of this unornamental beauty (159).

Even though Mr. Ramsay remains devoted to his rigid belief in a unified self and an

unquestionable reality, Lily remembers that he had doubts and questioned the tables truth. It

was during these times that he demanded sympathy. It was when he began to face the

semiotic process in meaning that he denies it by clouding it with sympathy from women.

We Perished, Each Alone or All Were Related

As Mr. Ramsay and his children sail towards the lighthouse, they listen to Macalister,

the sailor who steers the boat, tell the story of three sinking ships at sea. Symbolic of the

losses and failures of the First World War, of British imperialism, and of Mrs. Ramsays

death, Mr. Ramsay remains the leader of a failed expedition. Together, Macalister and Mr.

Ramsay chant, We perished, each alone (169). In their insistence on maintaining a

patriarchal masculine identity, Macalister and Mr. Ramsay begin to confront their own

abjection of self. Just as Victor Frankenstein chases his monster out to the icy sea only to

die, Mr. Ramsay continues the ill-fated patriarchal journey.

Lily, however, remains at the house and paints. Rather than taking a linear voyage,

Lilys voyage begins in the maternal space where she paints. Her voyage is not a bare, hard
57

journey. Instead, the narrator describes her journey as a negotiation between the semiotic

and symbolic:

and so pausing and so flickering, she attained a dancing rhythmical

movement, as if the pauses were one part of the rhythm and the strokes

another, and all were related; and, so, lightly and swiftly pausing, striking, she

scored her canvas with brown running nervous lines which had no sooner

settled there than they enclosed (she felt it looming out at her) a space (161-

162).

Lilys voyage does not lead to a sense of aloneness and death like Mr. Ramsays voyage.

Instead, her path from the semiotic forces left from the death of Mrs. Ramsay to symbolic

meaning is whereall were related and enclosed a space.

However, Cam, along with James, is not privileged to enter the space that Lily

confronts, because they are forced to take the linear voyage with their father. Even though

Cam, as Mrs. Ramsays daughter, was often exposed to the semiotic aspects of language, she

must contend with her fathers portrayal of language. Much like Lily, she too, finds it

difficult to battle against her fathers demands for sympathy, and eventually gives in to her

fathers demands. Despite her pact with James to resist her father, she begins to see her father

as the patriarchal hero and murmurs to herself her fathers words: We perished, each alone

(170). However, because her relationship to language is different, it calls into question

Cams resignation to a patriarchal understanding of language. She understands her fathers

language differently and understands the semiotic forces that lay underneath. Instead, like

Woolf as a female writer, she still has the potential to appropriate patriarchal language to

recognize a different way of understanding language.


58

Both Cam and Lily run into the danger of becoming absorbed into their own grief

through a melancholic state. However, Lily is at an advantage to escape that path because she

is an artist. She is left to continue her painting and appropriate the patriarchal representation

of the ideal mother for the female voice. However, she must deal with her grief and sadness

over Mrs. Ramsays death. Kristeva defines melancholy as the fear of aphanisis [fear of not

being able to satisfy both the mother and childs self] punctuated by sudden bursts of

energy that marks the loss of the maternal body, this immediate investment of sadism in the

symbolic (About Chinese Women 149). Lily is stuck between satisfying the absent Mrs.

Ramsay and defining who she is as an artist.

Melancholia and Mourning

As she paints, Lily calls for the void and absent Mrs. Ramsay. Like the Ramsays,

Lily is still in mourning over the loss of Mrs. Ramsay, and, as a result, must confront a

melancholic state. Lily repeatedly calls out for Mrs. Ramsay until she sawthe shape of a

woman, peaceful and silent, with downcast eyes. She sat ponderingHer eyes were bent

(180). There is always a danger involved with confronting the melancholic state because as

Kristeva notes, when melancholia is allowed to persist,

the depressive affect makes up for symbolic invalidation and interruption (the

depressives thats meaningless) and at the same time protects it against

proceeding to the suicidal act. That protection, however, is a flimsy one. The

depressive denial that destroys the meaning of the symbolic also destroys the

acts meaning and leads the subject to commit suicide without anguish of

disintegration, as a reuniting with archaic non-integration, as lethal as it is

jubilatory, oceanic (Black Sun 19) .


59

By killing the Angel of the House, Woolf, in several ways, destroys the meaning of

the symbolic within patriarchal ideology. However, through Lilys character, she must

overcome the danger of complete disintegration. In order to be heard as a female artist,

Lily must overcome the emptiness and oceanic qualities she finds in Mrs. Ramsays

absence and define her in new symbolic language. Lily thinks,

And then to want and not to have to want and want how that wrung the

heart, and wrung it again and again. Oh, Mrs. Ramsay! She called out silently,

to that essenceGhost, air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily

and safely at any time of the day or night, she had been thatSuddenly, the

empty drawing-room steps the whole wave and whisper of the garden

became like curves and arabeques flourishing round a centre of complete

emptiness (182).

By facing the semiotic space of emptiness, Lily is able to identify the power in Mrs.

Ramsays absence, but always at the risk of complete immersion. The danger presents itself

when Lily looks at her painting and realizes that she could not see it and she cries for Mrs.

Ramsay again.

When she looks out to the sea for Mr. Ramsay, she is able to regroup and again focus

on developing meaning in her painting. Although, Mr. Ramsay is following an ill-fated

journey, his journey is also a representation of the symbolic process in language. Woolf does

more than suggest a separate female language for the female artist. Instead, through Lilys

representation as a female artist, Woolf understands language as a multi-layered process that

involves both a maternal and paternal negotiation not possible in the confines of a strict

patriarchy.
60

The Relationship between Father and Son in Patriarchy

Despite Mr. Ramsays insistence on following a linear path to symbolic meaning, he

no longer can rely on a self-sacrificing mother. As a result, his relationship with James

begins to change its shape. Bowlby notes that throughout the first section of the novel and in

the beginning of the third section, the resentment James has for his father parallels Freuds

oedipal scenario, where the boy wants nothing less than to put out of the way the father who

asserts his rights to the mother (67). At the beginning of their voyage, James holds on to his

hatred for his father. Like his father, he imagines himself as the lawgiver, with the tablets of

eternal wisdom laid open on his knee and Cam imagines him creating a pact to resist him

[Mr. Ramsay]. Fight him. He said it so rightly; justly. For they must fight tyranny to the

death (172). However, as he continues his voyage with his father without reliance on Mrs.

Ramsays silent presence, James

had always kept this old symbol of taking a knife and striking his father to the

heart. Only now, as he grew older, and staring at his father in impotent rage, it

was not him, that old man reading, whom he wanted to kill, but it was the

thing that descended on him without his knowing it perhaps; that fierce

sudden black-winged harpy 15, with its talons and its beak all cold and hard,

that struck and struck at youThat he would kill, that he would strike to the

heart (187).

With the loss of his idealized mother figure, James begins to deconstruct his destructive

relationship with his father, and his father no longer becomes the focus of his aggression.

Instead, he defines the absence created in the void left after his mothers death as a harpy

that struck and struck at you, and, in vengeance, it is that absence that he would kill, that
61

he would strike to the heart. The space left by Mrs. Ramsays death becomes an abject

presence that James vows to destroy. As a result, James decides to track down any abject

tyranny, despotism, and, historically, like the generation that precedes him, James still

seeks and attempts to maintain a patriarchal structure that defines any undefined space as

threatening (187).

New Representation in Patriarchy

Like James, Lily first resolves her anger against patriarchy by becoming angry with

Mr. Ramsay: That man, she thought, her anger rising in her, never gave; that man took, but

as she thinks about it further, she realizes it is Mrs. Ramsay, the idyllic representation of

mother that really causes her anger (155). Lily realizes giving, giving, giving is all Mrs.

Ramsay had ever done, and really, she was angry at Mrs. Ramsay (155). However, rather

than reacting out of fear and creating an abject space, Lily begins to come to terms with the

emptiness left behind Mrs. Ramsays death. As she begins to paint again, movement in the

house, reminiscent of Mrs. Ramsays presence, had settled by some stroke of luck so as to

throw an odd-shaped triangular shadow over the step. It altered the composition of the

picture a little (204). Lily calls out to Mrs. Ramsay once more, and then, quietly, as if she

restrained, that too became a part of ordinary experience, was on level with the chair, with

the table, and when she sees Mrs. Ramsay sitting there, she looks out to the sea for Mr.

Ramsay, resolved to reach symbolic meaning. After, assuming that Mr. Ramsay has reached

the lighthouse, she believes He has landed, she said aloud, It is finished. (211). After

negotiating with Mrs. Ramsays semiotic shadow that throws an odd-shaped triangular

shadowthat altered the composition of her painting and Mr. Ramsays symbolic journey

of language, with a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line
62

there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying her brush in

extreme fatigue, I have had my vision (211). Through a negotiation between both the

semiotic and symbolic process in language, Lily is able to appropriate the suffocating, self-

sacrificing representation of the mother and represent her from the daughters perspective.

Rather than painting a feminine figure, Lily paints a line suggestive of a representation of a

semiotic power outside of gender dichotomies.

Woolf never completely resolves whether Mr. Ramsay reaches the lighthouse as he

had hoped. Instead, he sat and looked at the island and he might be thinking, We perished,

each alone, or he might be thinking, I have reached it. I have found it; but he said nothing

(210). Woolf leaves the ending ambiguous, because in one way, the gender roles have

reversed. It is Lily who speaks and whose voice is heard, while Mr. Ramsays voice remains

silent. Like Kristevas notion that both men and women have access to the semiotic and

symbolic process in language, once the patriarchal Angel of the House is killed, woman are

able to become speaking subjects with access and recognition to the symbolic aspect of

language, and the father is no longer resigned to a monotheistic, patriarchal, symbolic

process and they no longer need to deny the semiotic process in language. At the end of To

the Lighthouse, Lily recognizes the need to speak and Mr. Ramsey recognizes the need for

silence.

Conclusion

By using multiple perspectives, maternal time, and by killing the Angel of the

House, Woolf provides a different way of understanding text and language from a different

position within a patriarchal structure. The female speaking subject is able to be heard

although she looks at language from a marginal position, and is able to articulate the semiotic
63

process from a different vantage point than a male writer who assumes he has nothing to lose

and everything to gain by maintaining the existing patriarchal structure. Ultimately, by

deconstructing the symbolic representation of the ideal mother and by beginning the process

of deconstructing the nostalgic mother (representative of an idyllic past), Woolf is able to

expose the danger that lies, not only for women but also for men, within the existing

patriarchal structure. Left with a complex and ambiguous figure left in the wake of the

idyllic mothers death, women are able to be heard as speaking subjects, and men are able to

gain access to the semiotic process in language and begin to understand the power of silence.
64

Notes

1.
Puerperal fever was the result of the inability of the mothers body to expel the placenta shortly after

birth. Because of bad sanitation practices in the medical field, some argue that blood and disease from

dead bodies the doctors had come in contact with would enter the womb shortly after a baby was born,

killing the mother.


2.
The preface to the Norton Critical Edition of Frankenstein notes that until recently, the tradition has

been to use the third-edition text of 1831, which Mary Shelley revised carefully but from a later

perspective when she was considerably older and detached from the original conception. Scholarship

now strongly prefers the first edition (xii). For this reason, this essay will refer to the first 1818

edition of Frankenstein.
3.
For further reading on Shelleys breaks from traditional Romanticism see Knoepflmachers The

Endurance of Frankenstein, Gilbert and Gubars The Madwoman in the Attic, and Pooveys The

Proper Lady and the Woman Writer.


4.
Jouissance is a French word that no longer exists in the English language. As a result it is difficult to

translate. In his introduction to Kristevas Desire in Language, Leon S. Roudiez defines jouissance as

sexual, spiritual, physical, conceptualtotal joy or ecstasy.


5.
Norton Critical Edition of Frankenstein defines ideal bounds as imaginary boundaries (FN 32).
6.
Although, Shelleys mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a writer, Wollstonecraft also had to write

within a paternal literary history that lacked a distinct female writing heritage and, thereby, denied the

female voice.
7.
According to the Norton Critical Edition of Frankenstein, sanguinary means bloodthirsty (FN 97).
8.
Justines mother also dies early in her life. That is why she became a surrogate mother to William.
9.
The OED defines imperialism as seeking the extension of the British Empire by uniting the

different parts of the Empire having separate governments, as to secure that for certain purposesthey

should be practically a single state (OED). Imperialism much like the concept of the patriarchal self

seeks to create the illusion of unity in order to extend its own version of its self, which when looked at

psychoanalytically is impossible.
65

10.
Julia Stephen died when Virginia Woolf was thirteen years old, and Woolf writes that she had been

obsessed with the memory of her mother until she wrote To the Lighthouse (Diary 208).
11.
Woolf critiques Patmores poem, and uses it to describe the Angel in the House as a threatening,

ideal, patriarchal construction of the Victorian mother in Professions for Women.


12.
A line from Alfred Lord Tennysons poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, commemorating an ill-

fated charge by the British Light Calvary Brigade against Russian troops at Balaklava during the

Crimean War on October 25, 1854 (notes to To the Lighthouse 216).


13.
Kristeva argues that although the concept of maternal time is traditionally linked to female

subjectivity[its maternal aspects] should not make us forget that this repetition and this eternity are

found to be fundamental, if not the sole, conceptions of time in numerous civilizations and

experiences and it is not fundamentally incompatible with masculine values (192).


14.
In Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva defines chora as a non-expressive totality formed by

the drives and their stases in a motility that is as full of movement as it is regulated (93). Although she

theoretically defines chora, Kristeva notes that our discourse - all discourse moves with and against

the chora and although the chora can be designated and regulated, it can never be definitely posited

(94).
15.
According to the OED, the word harpy refers to a Greek and Roman mythological creature and

defines harpy as a fabulous monster, rapacious and filthy, having a woman's face and body and a

bird's wings and claws, and supposed to act as a minister of divine vengeance.
66

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