Study Guide

To the Lighthouse Gender

By Virginia Woolf


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; which an old woman could take from a young man without loss of dignity, and woe betide the girl—pray Heaven it was none of her daughters!—who did not feel the worth of it, and all that it implied, to the marrow of her bones! (1.1.7)

Mrs. Ramsay believes that men deserve her protection – first, because they rule the world, and second, for their attitude towards women (as experienced by herself in particular.)

She was now formidable to behold, and it was only in silence, looking up from their plates, after she had spoken so severely about Charles Tansley, that her daughters, Prue, Nancy, Rose—could sport with infidel ideas which they had brewed for themselves of a life different from hers; in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other; for there was in all their minds a mute questioning of deference and chivalry, of the Bank of England and the Indian Empire, of ringed fingers and lace, though to them all there was something in this of the essence of beauty, which called out the manliness in their girlish hearts, and made them, as they sat at table beneath their mother’s eyes, honour her strange severity, her extreme courtesy, like a queen’s raising from the mud to wash a beggar’s dirty foot, when she admonished them so very severely about that wretched atheist who had chased them—or, speaking accurately, been invited to stay with them—in the Isle of Skye. (1.1.9)

Although they respect and honor their mother’s way of life, Mrs. Ramsay’s daughters imagine different lives for themselves. They don’t tell their mother about their dreams of an alternate lifestyle.

How did he know? She asked. The wind often changed.

The extraordinary irrationality of her remark, the folly of women’s minds enraged him. 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. He stamped his foot on the stone step. "Damn you," he said. But what had she said? Simply that it might be fine tomorrow. So it might. (1.6.11)

For Mr. Ramsay, his wife’s faith that the weather might still be fine tomorrow reflects the inferiority of the female mind.

Mrs. Ramsay, who had been sitting loosely, folding her son in her arm, braced herself, and, half turning, seemed to raise herself with an effort, and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating (quietly though she sat, taking up her stocking again), and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare. He wanted sympathy. He was a failure, he said. Mrs. Ramsay flashed her needles. Mr. Ramsay repeated, never taking his eyes from her face, that he was a failure. She blew the words back at him. "Charles Tansley..." she said. But he must have more than that. It was sympathy 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—the drawing-room; behind the drawing-room the kitchen; above the kitchen the bedrooms; and beyond them the nurseries; they must be furnished, they must be filled with life. (1.7.2)

Women are fertile and men are barren, which is the real reason that men need women – women are warm and flattering, capable of restoring a man’s senses.

She took shelter from the reverence which covered all women; she felt herself praised. (1.9.6)

Cross-reference this sentence with the quotes at 1.1.7 and at 1.1.9, and remember that the "she" here is Lily Briscoe. What does this say about Lily as opposed to Mrs. Ramsay’s daughters?

Looking along the level of Mr. Bankes’s glance at her, she thought that no woman could worship another woman in the way he worshipped; they could only seek shelter under the shade which Mr. Bankes extended over them both. (1.9.8)

Lily Briscoe believes that Mr. Bankes’s feelings for Mrs. Ramsay are capable of being felt only from a man, for a woman, and that his feelings encompass not just Mrs. Ramsay, but all women.

It was the same as the bulls all over again—she had no control over her emotions, Andrew thought. Women hadn’t. The wretched Paul had to pacify her. The men (Andrew and Paul at once became manly, and different from usual) took counsel briefly and decided that they would plant Rayley’s stick where they had sat and come back at low tide again. (1.14.8)

According to Andrew, women are incapable of controlling their emotions. Andrew and Paul step up to the bat, so to speak, and assert their masculinity to deal with the problem of finding Minta’s brooch.

"Do you write many letters, Mr. Tansley?" asked Mrs. Ramsay, pitying him too, Lily supposed; for that was true of Mrs. Ramsay—she pitied men always as if they lacked something—women never, as if they had something. He wrote to his mother; otherwise he did not suppose he wrote one letter a month, said Mr. Tansley, shortly. (1.17.8)

According to Lily, Mrs. Ramsay pities men but never women because women are complete whereas men are lacking in something.

For he was not going to talk the sort of rot these condescended to by these silly women. He had been reading in his room, and now he came down and it all seemed to him silly, superficial, flimsy. Why did they dress? He had come down in his ordinary clothes. He had not got any dress clothes. "One never gets anything worth having by post"—that was the sort of thing they were always saying. They made men say that sort of thing. Yes, it was pretty well true, he thought. They never got anything worth having from one year’s end to another. They did nothing but talk, talk, talk, eat, eat, eat. It was the women’s fault. Women made civilisation impossible with all their "charm," all their silliness. (1.17.9)

Mr. Tansley is ill at ease at the dinner table, and blames "women" for it. He seems to think that the presence of women demands he get dressed for dinner, conversing on light topics, and bear their silliness, etc.

He was really, Lily Briscoe thought, in spite of his eyes, but then look at his nose, look at his hands, the most uncharming human being she had ever met. Then why did she mind what he said? Women can’t write, women can’t paint—what did that matter coming from him, since clearly it was not true to him but for some reason helpful to him, and that was why he said it? (1.17.11)

Although Lily recognizes that Mr. Tansley does not believe his own comments regarding female ability, it still affects her. His comment continues to motivate her ten years lager.

There is a code of behaviour, she knew, whose seventh article (it may be) says that on occasions of this sort it behoves the woman, whatever her own occupation might be, 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; as indeed it is their duty, she reflected, in her old maidenly fairness, to help us, suppose the Tube were to burst into flames. Then, she thought, I should certainly expect Mr. Tansley to get me out. But how would it be, she thought, if neither of us did either of these things? So she sat there smiling. (1.17.23)

Social convention dictates that a woman at a dinner party must flatter and give social aid to a struggling young man, just as convention dictates that men must help women if the subway catches on fire.

And then, and then—this was one of those moments when an enormous need urged him, 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.

Was anybody looking after her? he said. Had she everything she wanted?

"Oh, thanks, everything," said Lily Briscoe nervously. No; she could not do it. She ought to have floated off instantly upon some wave of sympathetic expansion: the pressure on her was tremendous. But she remained stuck. (3.2.1 – 3.2.3)

Mr. Ramsay occasionally feels a great need to receive sympathy from the nearest woman immediately. Lily refuses to act like a typical (or conventional) woman by withholding her sympathy.

The Lighthouse! The Lighthouse! What’s that got to do with it? he thought impatiently. Instantly, with the force of some primeval gust (for really he could not restrain himself any longer), there issued from him such a groan that any other woman in the whole world would have done something, said something—all except myself, thought Lily, girding at herself bitterly, who am not a woman, but a peevish, ill-tempered, dried-up old maid, presumably. (3.2.3)

Lily recognizes that she is flouting established gender norms by not sympathizing with Mr. Ramsay, and mocks herself for therefore not being a woman.

Ah, could that bulk only be wafted alongside of them, Lily wished; had she only pitched her easel a yard or two closer to him; a man, any man, would staunch this effusion, would stop these lamentations. A woman, she had provoked this horror; a woman, she should have known how to deal with it. It was immensely to her discredit, sexually, to stand there dumb. (3.2.6)

Mr. Ramsay would not seek sympathy in front of a man. He seeks sympathy from Lily solely because she is a woman, and although Lily recognizes this, she cannot move herself to act the role that her gender demands.

Yet she did not know. And seeing her gazing, with her vague, now rather frightened, eyes fixed where no house was Mr. Ramsay forgot his dream; how he walked up and down between the urns on the terrace; how the arms were stretched out to him. He thought, women are always like that; the vagueness of their minds is hopeless; it was a thing he had never been able to understand; but so it was. It had been so with her—his wife. They could not keep anything clearly fixed in their minds. But he had been wrong to be angry with her; moreover, did he not rather like this vagueness in women? It was part of their extraordinary charm. I will make her smile at me, he thought. She looks frightened. (3.4.11)

Mr. Ramsay does not respect the capabilities of the female mind.

She’ll give way, James thought, as he watched a look come upon her face, a look he remembered. They look down he thought, at their knitting or something. Then suddenly they look up. There was a flash of blue, he remembered, and then somebody sitting with him laughed, surrendered, and he was very angry. It must have been his mother, he thought, sitting on a low chair, with his father standing over her. (3.4.13)

When James sees Cam’s expression, he is reminded of his mother’s expression ten years ago when Mr. Ramsay demanded sympathy and Mrs. Ramsay gave way. It’s a female expression.

Lily stepped back to get her canvas—so—into perspective. It was an odd road to be walking, this further, until at last one seemed to be on a narrow plank, perfectly alone, over the sea. And as she dipped into the blue paint, she dipped too into the past there. Now Mrs. Ramsay got up, she remembered. It was time to go back to the house—time for luncheon. And they all walked up from the beach together, she walking behind with William Bankes, and there was Minta in front of them with a hole in her stocking. How that little round hole of pink heel seemed to flaunt itself before them! How William Bankes deplored it, without, so far as she could remember, saying anything about it! It meant to him the annihilation of womanhood, and dirt and disorder, and servants leaving and beds not made at mid-day—all the things he most abhorred. He had a way of shuddering and spreading his fingers out as if to cover an unsightly object which he did now—holding his hand in front of him. And Minta walked on ahead, and presumably Paul met her and she went off with Paul in the garden. (3.5.8)

For William Bankes, womanhood is equated to cleanliness, civilization, and stockings without holes. This is quite a contrast to Mr. Ramsay, who might also add something derogatory about lack of intelligence to the mix.