Day 3To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Part I, Chapters 6-8
May 3, 2023 by Mona Simpson
In which we witness the elder Ramsays first on stage fight (which is, of course, over their ongoing disagreement about whether it will be “fine” and possible to go to the Lighthouse tomorrow) and their means of conflict resolution: she is silent.
“It was a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q.”
But of course, Mr. Ramsay wishes to reach R.
“…he heard people saying—he was a failure—that R was beyond him. He would never reach R… How many men in a thousand million, he asked himself, reach Z after all?... ‘One perhaps.’ One in a generation. Is he to be blamed then if he is not that one? Provided he has toiled honestly, given to the best of his power, and till he has no more left to give?”
Even if he had reached R or Z, how long would his fame last, he wonders “perhaps two thousand years.”
Mr. Ramsay’s pain at his own inadequacy is, I suspect, Woolf’s own and Lily Briscoe’s and every artists’.
But whereas, Mr. Casaubon worked in bad faith, Mr. Ramsay sees the heroism of still standing, still striving until one’s last breath, to reach R.
Which is why he’s ultimately likable.
One can never underestimate the power of repetition in this book. Refrain. Characters say the same lines again and again, to call us back into their present.
As in this chapter, Mr. Ramsay repeats that he is a failure. This is Mrs. Ramsay’s prompt for her great calling:
“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.”
A tall order, but one Mrs. Ramsay is up to.
He was a failure, he repeats a third time.
“Flashing her needles, glancing round about her, out of the window, into the room, at James himself, she assured him, beyond a shadow of a doubt, by her laugh, her poise, her competence, …that it was real; the house was full; the garden blowing.”
Mrs. Ramsay, I repeat, is this book’s Prospero, feeling “lavished and spent” afterwards, with the “rapture of successful creation.”
This is her moment of happiness, she feels them together like two different notes, one high, one low, struck together, but happiness is happiness and cannot last. She thinks about the greenhouse and the fifty pounds it will cost to mend it, and that her husband’s last book was (she gathers from William Banks) not “quite” his best…
Mr. Ramsay slips into speculation:
“suggested by an article in The Times about the number of Americans who visit Shakespeare’s house every year. If Shakespeare had never existed, he asked, would the world have differed much from what it is today? Does the progress of civilisation depend upon great men? Is the lot of the average human being better now than in the time of the Pharaohs? Is the lot of the average human being, however, he asked himself, the criteria by which we judge the measure of civilization? Possibly not. Possibly the greatest good requires the existence of a slave class. The liftman in the Tube is an eternal necessity. The thought was distasteful to him. He tossed his head. To avoid it, he would find some way of snubbing the predominance of the arts. He would argue that the world exists for the average human being; that the arts are merely a decoration imposed on the top of human life; they do not express it: Nor is Shakespeare necessary to it.”
Woolf let’s us eavesdrop on these essential and perennial ruminations of Mr. Ramsay while also situating him within a firm context: he’s basically happy.
Does Mr. Ramsay, like William Bankes, secretly suspect that if he hadn’t been blessed with this life, these children, he could have done the thing he might have done?
Reach R? Even S, T?