Evolution of the Modern Woman in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse examines the role of women or more specifically, the evolution of the modern woman. The two main female characters in the novel, Mrs Ramsay and Lily Briscoe, both represent different views on life and follow different paths on their search for meaning. Lily Briscoe transcends the traditional female gender roles embodied by Mrs Ramsay; by coming into her own as an independent and modern woman, she symbolises the advent of modernism and rejection of traditional Victorian values.
The traditional female gender roles of passivity and submission are first reinforced by Mrs Ramsay's attitude and behaviour towards her husband and the guests at her house. Mrs Ramsay is not a helpless woman but she is not independent in the way that Lily Briscoe is. While she is perfectly capable of being the boss of trivial and "womanly" things such as dinner, the higher level decisions are always made by her husband. For example, in the beginning of the novel, Mrs Ramsay tells her son, James, that, weather permitting, they would go to the lighthouse the next day. Mr Ramsay insists that, "it won't be fine" (9). They do not go to the lighthouse. Mrs Ramsay submits to her husband's decision.
Mrs Ramsay has the ability to "arrange people", both literally at the dinner table, and figuratively, as she plays match maker with her guests. However, her actions are either domestic and/or maternal.
But what have I done with my life? thought Mrs Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table . . . 'William, sit by me,' she said. 'Lily,' she said, wearily, 'over there.' . . . she [had] only this - an infinitely long table and plates and knives. At the far end, was her husband, sitting down, all in a heap, frowning. What at? She did not know. She did not mind. (78)
She never goes beyond the mould of the traditional upper class Victorian woman: the caretaker, mother, and the provider of moral and emotional guidance. She is unconcerned about her husband as he is "all in a heap, frowning". She does not mind not knowing his inner thoughts, as it is not necessary or even appropriate for her to know them. Mrs Ramsay is a maternal figure and her children, both actual and figurative(her guests) , are always under her protection, but never under her direct control. Her protective instinct is heightened towards men; this is the only way she can exert a form of control over them without crossing the traditional gender boundaries.
Indeed, she had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance, finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential. . .. (11)
Mrs Ramsay is not passive in the traditional sense, however, she is not...