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Have you ever heard the term "Mary Sue"? It's an internet slang expression for a character in a story who seems like total wish fulfillment for the author – someone the author either 1) really identifies with, or 2) really wants to sleep with. A common marker of the Mary Sue is that she's really pretty. If she's physically flawed at all, it's a flaw that makes her even more appealing – like a single streak of silver hair in an otherwise flaming mane of beautiful red curls. Another sign that a character might be a self-insertion is that she's really good at everything: she'll be the most caring, most talented character of the lot. So if you run across a character in a fantasy novel who's too beautiful to be real, with almond-shaped violet eyes and a perfect, voluptuous-without-being-too-curvy figure, who turns out to be a half-elven daughter of Gandalf with magic beyond imagining and wisdom beyond her age – chances are, that's a Mary Sue.
And, in the best possible way, without all of those magic powers of the Faerie, Lily Briscoe is kind of Virginia Woolf's Mary Sue. She's the person who most closely mirrors Woolf's own preoccupations with gender and art (and she's also intriguing looking – for an analysis of the significance of Lily's "Chinese eyes," check out Patricia Laurence's book Lily Briscoe's Chinese Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism, and China).
Lily Briscoe is a woman artist, and while she captures what she sees around her in paints rather than in words, her project in the novel is, in many ways, similar to Virginia Woolf's project for To the Lighthouse.
Consider the middle section of the book, in which Woolf uses words to sketch the essence of ten years of time's passage for the Ramsay family by focusing on the slow decline of their house in the Isle of Skye. Woolf works obliquely (in other words, indirectly and in a wandering manner) to depict the decay of the Ramsay family without ever actually coming out and showing how the family has interacted over those ten years. And this is really similar to the painting strategy that Lily uses in To the Lighthouse:
It was Mrs Ramsay reading to James, [Lily] said. She knew [William Bankes]'s objection— that no one could tell it for a human shape. But she had made no attempt at likeness, she said. For what reason had she introduced them then? he asked. Why indeed?—except that if there, in that corner, it was bright, here, in this, she felt the need of darkness. Simple, obvious, commonplace, as it was, Mr Bankes was interested. Mother and child then—objects of universal veneration, and in this case the mother was famous for her beauty—might be reduced, he pondered, to a purple shadow without irreverence. (1.9.13)
Lily's painting of James and Mrs. Ramsay suggests Mrs. Ramsay's character with a few lines and a bit of purple shadowing: "she had made no attempt at likeness." Lily attempts to capture something truthful in her portrait without being too picky about making the painting actually look like Mrs. Ramsay. And in painting the essence of Mrs. Ramsay rather than her physical form, she's not trying to get only Mrs. Ramsay; she's also trying to represent something ineffable or inexpressible about "mother and child [...] objects of universal veneration" (by the way, veneration means admiration and respect).
This sounds a lot like Woolf's work to get the essence of the Ramsay family (and of her own family, and of family structures more generally; for more on this, see "In a Nutshell") by jotting down moments from two days separated by ten years. Woolf isn't going the realist route with this novel. Like Lily, Woolf uses the "simple, obvious, commonplace" to get at really profound issues between mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters.
Mrs. Ramsay can't stand for a woman of her acquaintance to stay unmarried. She's a total matchmaker, and Lily isn't immune. The guy Mrs. Ramsay thinks Lily should marry is William Bankes, an older widower of Mr. Ramsay's acquaintance who becomes one of the greatest friends of Lily Briscoe's life. What's really interesting about Lily's relationship with Mr. Bankes is the way that it models a totally non-sexual and mutually supportive relationship between a man and a woman – something that, as a woman artist in the 1920s, Lily seems cynical about.
This relationship stands in contrast to Mr. Ramsay's incredibly domineering, oppressive influence on Lily's painting (for more on this relationship, by the way, check out "What's Up With the Ending?"). Mr. Ramsay makes it impossible for Lily to paint as she chooses: "Let [Mr. Ramsay] be fifty feet away, let him not even speak to you, let him not even see you, he permeated, he prevailed, he imposed himself. He changed everything" (3.1.10). Mr. Ramsay's intellectual and social authority as the Head of the Ramsay Family gives him an arrogance that squeezes the life out of his social subordinates: his children, his wife, and even Lily Briscoe (check out our analysis of "The Lighthouse" in the "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more on this).
But where Mr. Ramsay stifles Lily's creativity, Mr. Bankes respects it – even if he doesn't entirely get what she's going for. Mr. Bankes's contrast with Mr. Ramsay underlined by his own internal monologue in Part One:
He was anxious for the sake of this friendship [with Lily Briscoe] and perhaps too in order to clear himself in his own mind from the imputation of having dried and shrunk – for Ramsay lived in a welter of children, whereas Bankes was childless and a widower – he was anxious that Lily Briscoe should not disparage Ramsay (a great man in his own way) yet should understand how things stood between them. (1.4.9)
What Mr. Bankes wants from Lily is the recognition that yes, he belongs to Mr. Ramsay's generation (they knew each other as boys), but they have each developed along different tracks. Mr. Ramsay has become a family man as well as a philosopher, but Mr. Bankes, who does not occupy the kind of traditional family structure Mr. Ramsay prizes (he's "childless and a widower"), can talk to Lily about her painting without becoming hostile, competitive, or patronizing. And this degree of free-thinking reassures Lily that her painting can be meaningful across gender lines:
She remembered how William Bankes had been shocked by her neglect (in her painting) of the significance of mother and son. Did she not admire their beauty? he said. But William, she remembered, had listened to her with his wise child's eyes when she explained how it was not irreverence [...] Thanks to his scientific mind he understood – a proof of disinterested intelligence which had pleased her and comforted her enormously. One could talk of painting then seriously to a man. (3.5.17)
Bankes cares about the "significance" of mother and son (both as real people, such as James and Mrs. Ramsay, but also as social categories). Still, he is capable of overcoming his own prejudices to admire Lily's work according to her own reasoning. They can have a conversation about painting that would be impossible between Lily and Mr. Ramsay, with the latter's real caveman views on women.
As far as cavemen go, though, Charles Tansley is pretty far up there. He's the one who comes right out and says, repeatedly, that women can't paint and can't write. The thing about Charles is that he's jockeying for position in a social world that he feels should be controlled by men – and specifically, by intellectual, philosophical men like Mr. Ramsay (and himself). He doesn't feel that he should be forced to compete with Lily Briscoe in conversation, and he gets all frustrated during the dinner party when she doesn't play along with him at first.
The thing that prevents Lily from being oppressed by Tansley is that she has her work to fall back on:
She had done the usual trick — been nice. [Lily] would never know [Charles Tansley]. He would never know her. Human relations were all like that, she thought, and the worst (if it had not been for Mr. Bankes) were between men and women [...] And she remembered that next morning she would move the tree further towards the middle, and her spirits rose so high at the thought of painting tomorrow that she laughed out loud at what Mr. Tansley was saying. Let him talk all night if he liked it. (1.17.28)
Lily is feeling embarrassed because she's "done the usual trick": Tansley's being a total jerk at this party, but even so, Lily falls back onto her social training as a woman of the 1920s and smoothes everything over. She submits to him socially so that he'll stop hating life, even though he's been a creep to Lily and everyone else around him. But then Lily recalls that she has something of her own to fall back on – that painting with a tree that she'll be moving further towards the middle. And even though she still has to deal with social hierarchy on a daily basis, it's a huge relief to Lily that she also has this private, emotionally meaningful place to speak her own mind.
So Lily doesn't care what Tansley is nattering on about at the dinner table: he has no power over her. Lily's work and Mr. Bankes are the two things that convince her that social relations between men and women aren't hopeless: there are decent men out there, and even when Lily happens not to be seated next to one of them at the dinner table, she's carved out an intellectual identity for herself that can protect her.
We've talked a little bit about Lily's difficult relationships with men, so it should come as no surprise that she doesn't want to get married. She seems to view marriage and personal creativity as incompatible. And she gives us plenty of evidence for this:
For at any rate, [Lily] said to herself [...] she need not marry, thank Heaven: she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution. She would move the tree rather more to the middle. (1.17.52)
Here's where Lily comes up against the character of Mrs. Ramsay, who has her own form of creativity. Mrs. Ramsay is a social artist: she puts together dinner parties and holds together her family. She adopts strays like Lily Briscoe and William Bankes, bringing them in to the sunny circle of the Ramsay family. But Mrs. Ramsay is limited by her inability to imagine an identity outside of traditional society (for more on this, check out the "Foils" section of "Character Roles"). Lily Briscoe doesn't have that restriction. She makes a place for herself to express her own private understanding of what's going on around her. This space is her canvas.
What's interesting about Lily's painting (besides the fact that it's nonrepresentational and abstract, kind of like To the Lighthouse) is that Lily knows that perhaps no one will ever see it. Her work gave her something to talk about with Mr. Bankes, but otherwise, it has no communicative function. Lily's basically resigned herself to the fact that her painting is going to wind up in someone's attic (3.13.3). But isn't art supposed to help you express yourself? How can it be meaningful if it's not public?
What Woolf is fighting against here is the notion that the only way that art is meaningful is if its creator is famous (read our Shmoop guide to Orlando to see how she handles this in another, more fantastical novel). During the time in which this novel is set, fame favors men. (If you want to get more on this theme of masculine-lineage-for-art, see Woolf's book-length essay A Room of One's Own.) After all, Mr. Ramsay is famous, and he uses his established reputation as an intellectual as another way of oppressing the people around him (think of all that out-of-context poetry he spouts, to the embarrassment of Mrs. Ramsay).
Lily, on the other hand, can muse on the same questions that face Mr. Ramsay – the meaning of life, etc. – without pushing anybody else down. What's more, painting helps her gain perspective. Lily's thoughts about life and the universe aren't in the abstract, logical terms that Mr. Ramsay uses. Lily paints the Ramsays and the Lighthouse in an attempt to make sense of her own lived experience. Lily finds significance in fleeting scenes of daily life around her, a project that certainly resembles, say, Woolf's own Mrs. Dalloway. Painting, for Lily, is a means for personal revelation.