Study Guide

Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse

By Virginia Woolf

Mr. Ramsay

When we are first introduced to Mr. Ramsay, he comes off as a bit of a jerk. To paraphrase, he says stuff like: "No Lighthouse for you tomorrow, James!" "Life is hard!" and "Suck it up!" But, once we get inside his brain, we realize that Mr. Ramsay simply suffers from an acute sense of his own mortality and insignificance. See, Mr. Ramsay is kind of a big deal – at least among the metaphysical philosophers crowd. Because he’s such a big deal, he’s constantly thinking about his achievements: how long are they going to last? How long will his work be valued? He reflects dismally that the stone he kicks with his boot will outlast Shakespeare. And seriously, how can he compete with Shakespeare? No wonder the man’s so crabby.

In Part Three, it becomes clear just how much Mr. Ramsay depended on Mrs. Ramsay. Not only did she give him infinite amounts of sympathy, she also watched over him like a hawk to smooth out any emotional complications in his life. Think of the scene in Part Three where Mr. Ramsay silently begs Lily to give him sympathy. That situation never would have happened if Mrs. Ramsay was alive. Mr. Ramsay gets into these grumpy moods where he’s mean, domineering, and tyrannical, but Mrs. Ramsay acted as a mediating force, almost always ready to give him what he wanted.

The last interesting tidbit of Mr. Ramsay’s character that we wanted to point out is the struggle between intellectual achievements vs. domesticity. Mr. Bankes is the first to point us in this direction, when he muses:

"While he walked up the drive […] he weighed Ramsay’s case, commiserated him, envied him, as if he had seen him divest himself of all those glories of isolation and austerity which crowned him in youth to cumber himself definitely with fluttering wings and clucking domesticities. They gave him something – William Bankes acknowledged that […]."

All those beautifully lines boil down to the idea that eight kids and a wife are great and all, but they come at a price. What’s this price, you ask? It becomes pretty clear later when we find out that Mr. Ramsay would have written better books if he hadn’t gotten married (he was clearly doing other things… with Mrs. Ramsay… if you get our drift…) and when he holds off on the deep thinking to admire his beautiful wife and kid in the window. So when lesser entities tell you that Mr. Ramsay embodies the rational mind or something else like that, take it with a grain of salt, and remember all these passages where Mr. Ramsay is obviously drawn to the not-so-rational.