Shelf of Shakespeare plays handbound by Virginia Woolf in her bedroom at Monk's House, Rodmell, Sussex
Shelf of Shakespeare plays handbound by Virginia Woolf in her bedroom at Monk’s House, Rodmell, Sussex. Photographed by Ian Alexander, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The complex narrative structure of the 1927 novel To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf is characterized by a myriad of focalizations. The novel’s plot is focalized through its protagonist, Mrs. Ramsay, as well as other characters in the novel, such as Mr. Ramsay, Lily Briscoe, Mr. Carmichael, and Mr. Bankes. These different focalizations confront the reader with the characters’ differing perceptions of the other characters and the events they observe, describe, and comment on. In a literary analysis these different focalizations can be used to address philosophical questions about knowability, subjectivity, and desire. Ernst Van Alphen, through an analysis of three theoretical epistemes by the philosopher Hubert Damisch, identifies “three fundamental domains of culture: knowability, subjectivity, and desire” (18). In this essay, these fundamental domains of knowability, subjectivity, and desire are explored by a close reading of the scene of Mrs. Ramsay reading a fairy tale to her son James in the novel To the Lighthouse. This analysis shall demonstrate that the novel’s different focalizations illustrate how subjectivity (the ‘self’) is unknowable whereas desire (in the sense of the Platonic eros) has the potential to be or become knowable.

A semiotic analysis of subjectivity and the style of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse by Rebecca Saunders provides insight into the knowability of the ‘self.’ Saunders observes that “there exist […] portions of text that cannot be positively designated as the consciousness of any single character,” passages which Saunders terms ‘unnamed consciousness’ (195) Moreover, the novel features a ‘covert narrator,’ “a narratized, stylized, literary representation of consciousness” (196, emphasis in original).  Saunders draws attention to the fact that in many passages the voice is the covert narrator’s, but the consciousness the covert narrator describes is that of one of the novel’s character (Saunders 196). Therefore, a distinction should be made between ‘voice’ and ‘point of view’ (196). Saunders observes that “[t]he self […] is both absent and pervasively present; it is Being that is no one and cannot be named, a potentially omnipotent but radically unknowable signifier” (Saunders 207). To the Lighthouse’s style, Saunders concludes, “insists that this thing we call the ‘self,’ in its complex and collusive relations to language, gender, community, and being, is a subject to be thought about at length and in detail” (211). In the essay ‘On not knowing Greek,’ which Woolf published in 1925, the year she began working on To the Lighthouse, she “stresses the inevitable otherness of Greek literature and the inability of any reader to ever claim to ‘know’ Greek” (38). According to Virginia Woolf, then, subjectivity or the ‘self,’ like Greek literature, is an otherness that is unknowable.      

Exploring the relationship in literary texts between subjectivity and performativity, Christina Ljunberg argues that the subjectivity of a novel’s characters is “an instance of a performativity established, maintained, and transformed position vis- à-vis one another” (87). She notes that “most human experience and action evolve between the self and others” (91). This idea resonates in Woolf’s depiction of the character of Mrs. Ramsey in the novel To the Lighthouse. The manner in which Mrs. Ramsay perceives herself and is perceived by others, and vice versa, is inter-connected.  This inter-connectedness can be illustrated by the scene in which different characters watch Mrs. Ramsay read a fairy tale to her son James. When Mr. Ramsey interrupts his wife from reading the fairy tale, James likens his mother to “a rosy-flowered fruit tree laid with leaves and dancing boughs into which the beak of brass, the arid scimitar of his father, the egotistical man, plunged and smote, demanding sympathy” (Woolf 44). From Lily’s perspective, however, the Ramseys are “part of that unreal but penetrating and exciting universe which is the world seen through the eyes of love” (Woolf 53). Lily then describes Mr. Bankes gazing at Mrs. Ramsay reading to her son James: “It was love, she thought, […] love that never attempted to clutch its object; but, like the love which mathematicians bear their symbols, or poets their phrases, was meant to be spread over the world and become part of the human again” (Woolf 53-54). The ‘covert narrator’ then takes over: “So it was indeed. The world by all means should have shared it, could Mr. Bankes have said why that woman pleased him so; why the sight of her reading a fairy tale to her boy had upon him precisely the same effect as the solution of a scientific problem. […] Such a rapture – for by what other name could one call it? – made Lily Briscoe forget entirely what she had been about to say” (Woolf 54).  Mrs. Ramsey herself experiences the scene, particularly the interruption by her husband, quite differently. For her it marked a “moment when it was painful to be reminded of the inadequacy of human relationships” (Woolf 45). These different focalizations of the same scene all provide a different interpretation of reality as perceived by the different characters. To some it represents the ideal of maternal love and marital bliss, whereas to others it represents a painful moment of realization of life’s, and people’s, imperfections. This renders this particular scene a fitting example of Woolf’s view that reality is both highly subjective and individual. From this it can only be concluded that an objective reality, like the ‘self,’ is unknowable.

Claudia Olk explores “the dimensions of aesthetic vision as they are presented in both Woolf’s literary aesthetics and her fiction” (3). She describes Woolf’s aesthetic vision as “a narrative strategy in which the text engages with perceptual processes” (Olk 3), combining “the conception of holistic unity, ‘the whole,’ with that of form, ‘the pattern,’ […] and as an integration of the ideal transcendence into the aesthetic immanence of the text, ‘the thing itself’” (Olk 37). Desire in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is indeed described visually and mostly expressed by characters objectifying Mrs. Ramsay. Her son James likening his mother to a fruit tree is but one example of this. Furthermore, this desire is to be read Platonically: “In the character of Mrs. Ramsay who epitomizes this kind of animating, life-giving love, Woolf creates a parallel to the notion of eros, as it appears in Plato’s Symposion” (Olk 51). Mr. Carmichael, watching Mrs. Ramsay reading to her son James, describes how Mrs. Ramsay “bore about her, […] the torch of her beauty,” which she carried “erect into any room she entered” (Woolf 47). Olk notes that “like the lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay attracts projections, views, and affections of other characters who, in seeing her, become aware of their own shortcomings” (44). The lighthouse structures both the novel as well as Lily’s painting: “the threefold structure of To the Lighthouse is formally reflected in the two parts of the painting and its central line” (46). Lily Briscoe describes Mr. Bankes’ and her own gaze as a beam of light, again evoking a comparison with the lighthouse: “Looking along [Mr. Bankes’] beam she added to it her different ray, thinking that [Mrs. Ramsay] was unquestionably the loveliest of people […]; but also, different too from the perfect shape which one saw there. But why different and how different?” (Woolf 55). Like the abstract forms in Lily Briscoe’s painting, both the lighthouse and Mrs. Ramsay are omnipresent semiotic and literary symbols, displaying a high level of inter-relatedness with the other characters in the novel.

Later that evening, Lily is watching Mrs. Ramsey again and “as she sat in the wicker arm-chair in the drawing room window she wore, to Lily’s eyes, an august shape; the shape of a dome” (Woolf 58). Lily works her visions into the painting she is working on and depicts Mrs. Ramsay reading to her son James as a purple triangle-shaped form (Woolf 58). Lily had problems finishing the picture, struggling to find a way to “connect this mass on the right hand with that on the left. She might do it by bringing the line of the branch across so; or break the vacancy in the foreground by an object (James perhaps) so. But the danger was that by doing that the unity of the whole might be broken” (Woolf 60).  This ‘unity of the whole,’ Olk argues, should be read as “the Platonic conception of form as unity” (37). In Olk’s view, “[t]he insight into the impossibility of mimetic representation in art is linked to Lily’s insight into the Neoplatonist analogy between the world of sense perceptions and the intelligible world” (49). According to Olk, “Lily is in love with her idea of Mrs. Ramsay, and her desire causes Mrs. Ramsay’s return as an image, an abstract form of ‘perfect goodness’” (53). Only at the very end of the novel, ten years after Mrs. Ramsay has died, Lily at last manages to finish her painting: “With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the center. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision” (Woolf 235). Analyzing the scene of Mrs. Ramsay being interrupted by her husband while reading a fairy tale to her son James, Antonella Ciobanu argues that “the three Ramsays’ relationship transfigures […] Christianity’s premier kyriarchal family, Mary, Jesus, and God the Father” (158). The triangle shape can thus be interpreted as an abstract representation of a variation on the Holy Trinity, but also of “the Madonna with Child” (Ciobanu 157), the ultimate symbol of maternal love.  In Lily’s artistic vision, desire takes the shape of the unknowable: an abstract purple triangle or an august shape of a dome. Ciobanu asserts, however, that “Lily’s triangular shape, rather than define triangle, dissolves entities to a pre-Symbolic, i.e. semiotic, condition of indistinctness – the very opposite of philosophy’s knower/known hierarchy” (160, emphasis in original). Therefore, it must be concluded that Lily’s triangle shape is an abstract representation of the Platonic ‘unity of form’ and that by Lily managing to finish her painting containing this ‘purity of form,’ Platonic desire, or eros, in Woolf’s view, is both knowable and possible to attain.

As the preceding analysis demonstrates, the aesthetics and narrative structure of Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse provides insight into Woolf’s view on the three fundamental domains of culture: knowability, subjectivity, and desire. Woolf’s philosophy, rooted in Platonist and Neoplatonist philosophy that sees the ideal form as a ‘unity of the whole,’ considers subjectivity (the ‘self’) as ultimately and utterly unknowable, whereas desire (in the Platonic sense of eros and the ‘unity of the whole’) is considered to be potentially knowable.


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Ciobanu, Estella Antoaneta. “Food for Thought: Of Tables, Art and Women in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.” American, British and Canadian Studies, 2017, no. 29, pp.147-168.

Ljungberg, Christina. “Subjectivity as Performance in Literary Texts.” Redefining Literary Semiotics edited by Harri Veivo, Christina Ljungberg and Jørgen Dines Johansen, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009, pp. 86-108.

Olk, Claudia. Virginia Woolf and the Aesthetics of Vision. Walter de Gruyter, 2014.

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