TOWARDS THE TRANSCENDENCE OF TRADITIONAL GENDER POLARIZATION: LILY BRISCOE’S QUEST FOR AUTONOMY AND NEW FEMALE IDENTITY IN TO THE LIGHTHOUSE
(fragments of my thesis)
3.1 To the Lighthouse – modern presence haunted by Victorian past.
To the Lighthouse was published in 1927 but the plot of the novel is set in the decade 1910 – 1920, a time when, as Woolf famously wrote in one of her essays, “human character changed” (qtd. in Dick, 58). Together with Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse has been seen by the critics as the center of Woolf’s work and the heart of her contribution to the stream-of-consciousness technique and modernist fiction. The novel is divided into three main parts: “The Window”, “Time Passes”, and “To the Lighthouse”. The first part is concerned with the events of one evening and night in mid-September of about 1910, and the third part with the events of one morning ten years later. As Randall Stevenson suggests, a ten-year-gap which is not passed over in silence but is made the leading theme of the central transitional passage called “Time Passes”, provides the story with the sense of “the crack in history, the disjuncture of present from the past” (22). Thus, apart from being one of the modernist features of the novel, the unexpected disconnectedness of its parts and disjuncture of time, helps to indicate the sense of impermanence and more importantly the sense of gradual departure from Victorian norms, conventions and values. In his book Virginia Woolf and the Real World, Alex Zwerdling interestingly notes that a specific fictional structure of To the Lighthouse, allows Woolf to “contrast settled order of the traditional nuclear family with the freer but more chaotic relationships of the modern life…and to emphasize the tenuous connection between old and new” (192-193).
Having been written by a woman whose literary career coincided with women’s uphill struggle for a degree of equality and personal freedom, To the Lighthouse records the sense of juncture of old and newly formulating assumptions about gender. It is important to note, however, that at a time when Woolf was writing, the modern distinction between sex and gender (biological given vs. cultural construct) was hardly thought of. Woolf pioneered one of feminism’s most essential convictions – that gender is a social construct rather than an absolute manifestation of instinct. The fact that she herself believed that some characteristics are linked to biological sex does not invalidate her analysis of the cultural conditioning that produces a strictly binary society. In To the Lighthouse Woolf exposes the iniquities and negative effects of the prevailing bipolar opposition of femininity and masculinity. What is particularly significant is that through disclosure and critique of polarized codes of femininity and masculinity, which survived far into the twentieth century as the legacy of the Victorian separate spheres ideology, To the Lighthouse relates "a new woman’s" dissatisfaction with and rejection of conventional norms of womanhood. The independent, ‘new’ woman in question is the modernist painter Lily Briscoe, seen by the critics as Woolf’s semi-autobiographical heroine. Lily is the major thinker and dominant observer in To the Lighthouse, who reflects on the relationship between two archetypal signifiers – patriarchal male - Mr Ramsay and his wife – the quintessential “angel in the house” - Mrs Ramsay. According to Toril Moi, Mr and Mrs Ramsay represent the old gender stereotypes, while Lily represents the deconstruction of this opposition between masculinity and femininity, and the attempt of "the new women" to construct a new female identity (qtd. in Reid, 93). Lily’s evasion of the role of ‘angelic’ woman, which her surrogate mother Mrs Ramsay, expects her to embrace, arises from her reluctance to fit herself into confining patterns of femininity based on traditional stereotypes. In view of this, Toril Moi suggests, To the Lighthouse is a feminist novel, because it poses a question of what it means to be a woman (as opposed to being womanly or feminine) and looks for a new idea and a new image of how a woman might be (qtd. in Reid, 93). Moreover, through the character of Lily Briscoe, the novel dismantles many myths, particularly those which assumed that every woman should always find fulfilment in marriage and motherhood.
3.1.1 “Women can’t read, women can’t paint”. The legacy of Victorian gender
polarization in the post-Victorian world in To the Lighthouse.
It is undeniable that by 1900 many women had managed to cast off the shackles of Victorian definitions of feminine domesticity and to carve out some area of autonomy as well as some place in the public life for themselves. The “new women” who broke the fetters of “the angel in the house” stereotype of womanhood, created new image of woman with mind and wish of her own. But it was to be many years before women abandoning the values of orthodox femininity embraced by their grandmothers and mothers, could free themselves of the legacy of old order values and Victorian gender stereotypes. Three decades into the new century, Virginia Woolf still found it necessary to kill the phantom of the “angel in the house” who tormented her, drained her of self-confidence in her work as a professional woman writer, and filled her with doubts about her sexual identity, as she wrote in her essay “Professions for Women” (2045 – 2049). The selfless angel who sabotages Woolf’s confidence and self-esteem, casts her shadow on Lily Briscoe, an independent painter, who is torn between old and newly emerging ideas about femininity.
In order to obtain insightful understanding of Lily’s quest for autonomy and self-identity, it is important to examine the fixed sex-gender system which operates in the novel. Lily, who is the same age as Woolf was when writing the novel and like Woolf herself is a self-doubting modernist artist, represents the new type of woman whose goals and life choices collide with the dominant and deeply entrenched female role models and stereotypes. Lily manages to avoid subordination to the fetters of femininity but this evasion becomes the source of her frustration, inner conflicts and apprehensions about her female sexuality. Her struggle for selfhood and fulfilment as an autonomous artist is often undermined by the fact that she lives in a male-defined world and among people who strongly uphold patriarchal values and old gender stereotypes.
The legacy of Victorian feminine-masculine polarization is clearly visible in the way the novel delineates two entirely separate worlds of the male and female characters and exposes highly formalized gender structures of late Victorian society. Four adult male characters in To the Lighthouse – Charles Tansley, William Banks, Augustus Carmichael and Mr Ramsay, embody typically masculine values of assertiveness, objectivity, neutrality and ambition, and display varying degrees of ability as poets, scientists and scholars. They quest for scientific knowledge and scholarly insight, and act for their self-realization and self-interests. They are presented as emotionally detached and isolated, self-absorbed and high-achievement people. As Bernard Blackstone remarks, the adult male characters in the novel, envisage marriage and family life as threats to their freedom and professional careers, since they “enjoy a vigorous intellectual life of their own, and they want to preserve it inviolate” (31).
Because men were encouraged to develop their interests and knowledge, to combine social expectations with their self-centered ambitions, and to obtain self-fulfilment through commitment to worldly achievement, it was the public and not private part of their life that was central to their sense of self. For women, however, work was analogous to labour for and commitment to the needs of others. Because self–development and self–realization was in direct conflict with the passivity, subordination, selflessness and self-abnegation inherent in the feminine ideal, women have been socialized and indoctrinated to define their self exclusively through domestic and filial relationships and their capacity for ameliorating lives of others. Mrs Ramsay – who is archetypal mother and the epitome of feminine altruism, is incapable of conceiving of herself outside of others since her recognition and identification of self is inextricably interwoven with supplying love, comfort and reassurance to those entrusted to her care (Waugh, 102 – 111). She is the quintessence of ideal values traditionally associated with femininity – love, sympathy, nurturance, submissiveness and beauty. Moreover, she is always colluding to maintain the unchallenged confidence and superiority of men, particularly of her scholarly husband: “she did not like for a second to feel finer than her husband” (62), “there was no one she reverenced more. She was not good enough to tie his shoe strings, she felt” (51). Mrs Ramsay contemplates with awe “this admirable fabric of the masculine intelligence” when she listens to “male” conversation about cubes and square roots or the character of Napoleon – territory of “masculine” knowledge which is totally alien to her. She does not resent being excluded from the world of facts and knowledge however, since she perceives intellectuality as an inherently masculine attribute.
The husband-wife, male-female polarity is a theme developed through the novel, and is reflected in the contrasting qualities possessed by both. According to Rachel Bowlby, To the Lighthouse represents the dangers of prevailing stereotypes of both genders, but she stresses the fact that the construction of femininity is more pernicious and repressive for women’s progress to identity, for the female is defined, by women as by men, both as that which is idealized, socialized for roles and images laid down by the “the angel in the house” ideal and as that which is inferiorized, otherized and marginalized for not being masculine (73-4). Male characters in To the Lighthouse tend to espouse simplistic and exclusionary definition of woman as intrinsically irrational and intellectually defective and to cast women in the position of other. For example, Mr Ramsay is enraged at “the extraordinary irrationality… The folly of women’s minds” (50) and thinks that “the vagueness of [women’s] minds is hopeless” (246). He is oblivious to the fact, that women were confined to this state of intellectual irrationality and vagueness, as well as lack of ideals through the deprivation of education contrived by men. Mr Ramsay’s protégée Charles Tansley, who is a young and aspiring academic, embraces similar discriminatory and essentialist sentiments on women, he thinks that “Women made civilisation impossible with all their ‘charm’ all their silliness” (129). He goes as far as to insist that “women can’t paint, women can’t write” (75) – that is, cannot engage in the artistic and intellectual production reserved for men.
Patricia Waugh perceptively observes that To the Lighthouse presents negative effects of a social system which produces such binary opposition of masculine and feminine and the coercive power of culture in making people act out a sharply delineated gender roles. She notes, that such polarization “promises only the ironic collapse of communication: misunderstanding, frustrated desire, and pathological incompleteness” (107 – 108).
3.2. Lily Briscoe - a “new woman” striving for autonomy, self-realization and
“Where to begin…One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and
irrevocable decisions. All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves
shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs,
and foaming crests. Still the risk must be made; the mark made” (231).
It can be suggested that the questioning, doubtful and hesitating thoughts that swirl in Lily’s mind when she starts to paint, are reflective of her dilemmas not only as a pioneer artist but also a pioneer woman. On the one hand she is exploring the frontiers of abstract painting opened up by the modernist movement, on the other she is hazarding to be self-directed “new woman”. Lily can be said to represent a new type of woman – “the new woman”, since she refuses to fit into the culturally sanctioned pattern of ‘angelic’ femininity so perfectly embodied in her surrogate mother - Mrs Ramsay. She chooses independent life and fulfilment of her creative aspirations over matrimony and domesticity. Like many daring and self-searching Englishwomen in the period of transition, Lily questions desirability of traditional marriage which involved the atrophy of woman’s freedom, intellectual abilities and personal identity. In refusing to conform to prevailing prescriptions which dictated that woman can achieve self-fulfilment through self-denial and attain completeness only through marriage and motherhood, she gives precedence to selfhood and independent existence. It is this emphasis on independent and ‘authentic’ self that makes her truly new.
Lily represents the attempt of “the new women” to deconstruct traditional ideas and images of ‘natural’ femininity in order to construct a new female identity, independent of male-imposed essentialist definitions. Because traditionally, women’s identities have consisted strictly in relation to man – as someone’s daughter, wife and mother, women who have lived alone have been deemed anomalous, incomplete and redundant (Hamilton, 3-6). Those women who consciously chose professional career and independent life over “marital bliss” challenged the prevailing stereotype of the spinster – the pitiful and defective creature who failed in the marriage market. Rejecting marriage seemed much more promising possibility for some nonconformist women, who did not recognize spinsterhood as unhappy and disgraceful state and a form of social death but on the contrary, found it the preferred route to freedom and equality with men. As Jane Marcus observes in her book Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy, the artists and reformers in Woolf’s works are women without men. The creative woman can achieve personal and artistic autonomy only through refusing wifehood and motherhood (76).
Along with many other actual and fictional “new women”, Lily is in the act of confronting the tradition of separate gendered spheres and interpreting its meaning in individual life. The problems she wrestles with – how to embrace new form of autonomy, maintain one’s separate identity and resist a powerful model of ideal femininity – one culturally endorsed and more importantly one so exquisitely and compellingly embodied in her surrogate mother – Mrs Ramsay – remains central to her own struggle to overcome her frustration with the artistic block and to realize her creative vision as a painter. It is important to note that Lily’s painting, which is one of the thematic motifs in the novel, serves as a metaphorical expression of her inner struggle against odds to disassociate herself from Victorian images of ‘natural’ womanhood in order to maintain her courage to paint and to live after her own nature and according her own life choices.
3.2.1 Lily’s refusal to marry as a rejection of traditional femininity.
In To the Lighthouse, a whole section is devoted to Lily Briscoe’s emotional process of meditation or negotiation between her inner desires and the outer pressures of traditional femininity, between her inner subjectivity and external reality, as she attempts to define her identity and to validate her existence as an autonomous individual and a female artist. Lily recognizes that she needs to disassociate herself from the conventional dictates of femininity in order to come into her own as a modern woman and to achieve self-fulfilment as an autonomous, creative individual. She feels that the narrow marital destiny traditionally offered to women by society, poses too great a threat to her personal autonomy and individuality, and thus she begs for a dispensation from “the universal law” of marriage: “gathering a desperate courage she would urge her own exemption from the universal law; plead for it, she liked to be alone; she liked to be herself, she was not made for that…” (77). It is important to note, that despite the existence of exceptionally strong feminist movement in England before the First World War, to a considerable extent, rigid division of gender roles and binary opposition of masculinity and femininity – core of women’s oppression - had been perpetuated through marriage – the institution invariably predicated upon conservative patriarchal ideologies and traditional gender principles, distinctions and expectations. In view of this, it is understandable why many self-searching and nonconformist women of Virginia Woolf’s generation questioned desirability of marriage and often found spinsterhood the only avenue of escape from the influence of patriarchal domination, sharply delineated sex roles and the common, male-imposed pattern of femininity which married life would have them reproduce.
Lily Briscoe’s rejection of the institution of marriage, which she links to the overwhelming fear of “dilution”, as well as to her dedication to painting, indicates her recognition of and resistance to the loss of autonomy and selfhood involved in the acceptance of traditional feminine roles and duties. Her decision to remain single can be interpreted, as an act of defiance against conscriptions of ideal femininity, as well as against patriarchal ideology, for marriage had been the fundamental institution of patriarchy, which defined and often confined women as well. Lily is terrified of sinking into the coercive, standardized ideal because she realizes that her personality and individual, private needs would be engulfed and incorporated in the needs and identities of others (husband, children), that her identity would be stifled and “diluted” in married life: “She need not marry, thank Heaven: she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution” (154). As Jane De Gay comments in Virginia Woolf's Novels and the Literary Past: “For Lily, marriage – and the wider manmade culture it sustains and represents – threatens her with a loss of self, for to get married would be to accept a role which would confer an alien identity on her” (123). Even in the face of Mrs. Ramsay’s attempts to persuade her that the woman who does not marry fails to fulfil her femininity and “misses the best of her life” (77), Lily stands her ground in her bid for independence and her own kind of life.
Lily, who is “an independent little creature” as Mrs Ramsay calls her, is both psychologically and intellectually unsuited to find fulfilment and contentment in the common role of the selfless and subordinate household angel. She is a reflective, self-aware and nonconformist woman who feels no vocation to wifehood and domesticity: “she liked to be alone, she liked to be herself, she was not made for that…”(77). Mrs Ramsay recognizes that there is something of a novelty and individuality about Lily’s character, but however attractive it may appear, it contains something likely to displease men or discourage potential suitors: “There was in Lily a thread of something; a flare of something; something of her own which Mrs Ramsay liked very much indeed, but no man would, she feared” (157).
Lily resents the fact that what the world expects of her as a woman is to surrender her sense of self and her individuality as a human being, and to cultivate false characteristics and so-called ‘womanly’ attributes which are most alluring and pleasing to men. Lily, unlike Minta Doyle, who plays out her female part willingly, almost instinctually - makes herself charming to men, flatters Mr Ramsay’s vanity and bolsters his ego by making herself “more ignorant than she was because he liked telling her she was a fool”, feels bitter about the insincerity through which men and women relate in their everyday relationships: “Human relations were all like that she thought, and the worst were between men and women. Inevitably these were extremely insincere she thought” (139). This insincerity, which Lily views as the basis of marriage and an inevitable part of male-female relations, makes her grateful that she “need not marry…she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution” (154). She feels relieved that she had “only escaped by the teeth of her skin” (258) Mrs Ramsay’s scheme to make her marry William Banks, and the mere thought that she would “need never marry anybody…” fills her with “enormous exultation”(258). Lily courageously obliterates marriage from her aspirations and life plans, for she does not want to insert herself into artificiality of the gender system that requires of woman to assimilate the ideal of female character with its virtues of self-denial, submissiveness and dependence, which she feels to be entirely inconsistent with her own. She resists the idea of moulding herself into the man-pleasing, charming and soothing ideal of woman which involves and fosters falsehood. In other words, her refusal to accept marriage, stems from her unwillingness to risk the loss of autonomy and authenticity she senses in such relationship.
It is worth mentioning that Lily’s refusal to conform to “the universal law” that requires of every woman to marry and to enact the role of selfless angel, also results from her recognition of Mrs Ramsay’s total loss of autonomy and self within marriage. Mrs Ramsay – Lily’s surrogate mother – is the embodiment of celebrated Victorian femininity: a mother of eight children, a perfectly supportive wife and an admirable homemaker. Throughout the novel Woolf portrays her as the direct ancestress of Coventry Patmore's "angel in the house" - maternal and selfless woman radiating warmth, affection and kindness – the emotional centre of the household. At the same time, however, it is through the character of Mrs Ramsay, that Woolf subverts the myth of the perfectly fulfilled angel - woman. The glowing portrait of Mrs Ramsay as a selfless woman happily enshrined in domesticity is clouded by occasional yet profoundly insightful language that creates an equally important image of Mrs Ramsay as a domestic martyr, a woman with no room and story of her own, a woman whose self-sacrificial altruism leaves her drained of all energy and brings her on the verge of self-destruction: “there was scarcely a shell of herself left for her to know herself by, all was lavished and spent” (60). Though Mrs Ramsay fulfils her ‘feminine mission’ with great commitment, pride and a sense of enjoyment, there are moments of doubt when she feels frustrated with the role she is expected to play unremittingly and ungrudgingly simply by virtue of her sex: “They came to her, naturally, since she was a woman, all day long with this and that, the children were growing up, she often felt that she was nothing but a sponge full of human emotions” (51). Mrs Ramsay’s lifelong altruism and self-annihilating service to others, inordinately depletes her and literally wears to death, as Lily reflects with unconcealed irritation: “Mrs Ramsay had given. Giving, giving, giving she had died – and had left all this. Really she was angry with Mrs Ramsay” (220). Notwithstanding the fact that Lily admires Mrs Ramsay immensely for her relentless devotion to her family’s well-being, she herself objects to self-surrender and the total sacrifice of autonomy which Mrs Ramsay’s role involves (Transue, 78).
Mrs Ramsay’s situation clearly exhibits the perils of embracing traditional female role of "the angel in the house". Since this role is so all-encompassing and undivided, it forbids any synthesis with woman’s self-orientated desires or self-directed activity: “One could not imagine Mrs Ramsay standing painting, lying reading, a whole morning on the lawn. It was unthinkable” (287). Lily’s personal resolution to devote herself to art rather than to the traditional female profession – wifehood and motherhood - arises from her recognition of the ultimate impossibility for a woman to combine her creative activity with the extraordinary pressures of family life and traditional female obligations within marriage (Zwerdling, 192). As Alex Zwerdling perceptibly notes, this sense of irreconcilable contradictions between vocation and gender, between work and domestic rituals which bothers Lily Briscoe and other women artists of Woolf’s fiction cannot be relegated into the past, for it was carried forward far into the twentieth century (192).
In view of what has been already said, it can be noted that Lily’s departure from the traditional scripts of femininity is one of preconditions for achieving personal and creative autonomy by her. Since subscribing to the traditional "angel" role precludes any possibility of attaining selfhood and artistic identity, Lily has no alternative but to wholly renounce socially approved female identity of wife, mother and homemaker. In doing so, she envisions and takes a first crucial step towards creating a hopeful future in which a modern woman may assert her independence, pursue her individual, unique cause, and surmount those who attempt to coerce her into what she perceives as the outdated "angel" role.
3.2.2 Freeing from the Angel’s power: Lily’s struggle against “terrific odds” to fulfil her artistic aspirations.
In her work entitled Dead Angels: Are We Killing the Mother in the House?, Ruth Saxton makes an astute and thought-provoking observation on the deeprootedness of the traditional feminine ideal - the “selfless angel”- in women’s psyche: “Even if we choose neither to identify with her nor to be perceived as her opposite, she persists symbolically for us as an ideal” (137). As Virginia Woolf insists in her essay “Professions for Women”, any attempt made by a woman to exorcise the angelic spectre – the deep-rooted ideal of “utterly unselfish” femininity - from her mind, poses an insurmountable difficulty because: “It is far harder to kill a phantom rather than a reality” (2046).
The observations on the persistence of the phantom of female perfection made by Woolf and Saxton, are useful for deeper understanding of Lily Briscoe’s inner conflicts and inhibitions about her vocation. During her quest for personal autonomy and an authentic self, Lily defies traditional gender roles prescribed for women and rejects self-limiting identification with "the angel in the house". Yet, the ideal of ‘true’ womanhood which she has refused to embrace cannot easily be exorcised from her mind - it still confronts her from inside and outside obstructing her road to autonomy and artistic fulfilment. Despite the fact, that Lily rebels against traditionally understood femininity, recognizes its debilitating influence and struggles to transcend its constrictions, she experiences great difficulty in extricating herself from the phantom of female perfection – internalized images of ‘true’ feminine fulfilment and the notions of what it means to be a ‘natural’, ‘real’ woman. However hard she struggles to escape identification with “the angel in the house”, “the angel” stubbornly persists as an ideal in her consciousness, corrodes her self-perception and undermines her self-esteem. The awareness of her own deficiency towards this ideal generates identity crisis and a feeling of personal inadequacy. In consequence, the inhibiting emotional states degrade Lily’s imagination, impede her self-expression and block her ability to paint:
“It was in the moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her on the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down passage for a child. Such she often felt herself – struggling against terrific odds to maintain he courage; to say: “But this is what I see; this is what I see, “ and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck it from her. And it was then too, in that chill and windy way, as she began to paint, that there forced themselves upon her other things, her own inadequacy, her insignificance (…) (32).
Lily feels entrapped in a mesh of uncertainties, inadequacies and anxieties when she contrasts her life with that of Mrs Ramsay, an “angelic” heroine of marriage, motherhood and domesticity, whom she deems a natural, fulfilled woman. Weighed and assessed against Mrs Ramsay, Lily sees herself as a diminished, ineffectual being, she perceives her life and her art as being so much smaller and less significant by comparison, what she has in her life seems to her: “so little, so virginal, against the other” (77). She compares Mrs Ramsay’s “abundance” with her own “poverty of spirit” (152) and comes to question her own femininity and to doubt her identity as an artist.
In Woman of Letters, Phyllis Rose argues, that Mrs Ramsay who represents the model of angelic femininity so compellingly and powerfully, induces in Lily fear as well as a sense of guilt about not being properly feminine. It is the fear and guilt, Rose explains, that a woman who does not behave as a selfless angel: asserts herself, refuses to concentrate on others and ventures to take interest in herself, is regarded as selfish, unwomanly and despicable (153 – 73). Because both self-containment and self-assertion are implicit in artistic production, Lily’s strained relationship to her painting is understandable. It is exactly the moment she begins to paint that a feeling of “her own inadequacy, her insignificance” (32) imposes itself on her consciousness. Phyllis Rose points out that “at the very moment of creation, at the moment of greatest self-assertion, the psychological recoil is also greatest and Lily is most tempted to give up her effort and, in her own words “to fling at Mrs Ramsay’s knee” (166). To continue this line of thought, one may suggest that at the moment of heightened creativity, Lily starts to experience aroused tension and anxiety. Having reaffirmed distance or separation from Mrs Ramsay, she feels cut off from her ties to the domestic life and the world of female fulfilment which Mrs Ramsay represents. This state of disconnectedness from her surrogate mother generates a deep sense of alienation and consequently a particularly strong temptation to relinquish her struggle to paint and to “fling herself at Mrs Ramsay’s knee and to say to her (…) “I’m in love with all this all, waving her hand at the hedge, at the house, at the children” (32). At the moment of such personal disorientation and identity confusion, when she is overwhelmed by the fear of being independent, separate or alone, Lily feels internal pressure to withdraw herself from her artistic space - a new area of personal autonomy she has managed to carve out for herself, to retreat from this lonely, unchartered territory and to succumb to her longing for safe dependence on and unity with Mrs Ramsay and her world. While being trapped in a longing for togetherness or engulfment with the mother angel, she cannot paint, she is blocked. Patricia Waugh makes an astute observation on Lily’s emotional vacillation by saying: “She is fighting for her identity, drawn by profound desire for identification with Mrs Ramsay as archetypal mother, and simultaneously fighting against that urge to dissolve herself in the other woman which would annihilate her struggle for selfhood”(102). Lily finds herself in a state of psychological quandary: if she asserts herself, acts on her initiative and pursues her desire for independence and individual self-expression, she will have to withstand the experience of being unfeminine, “left out”, separate and alone. She will have to confront both the masculine exclusionary censure, epitomized in the novel by Charles Tansley’s misogynist voice reiterating that “women can’t write, women can’t paint” and the feminine censure symbolized by Mrs Ramsay’s unswerving assertion that “they all must marry”, “an unmarried woman has missed the best of her life” (77) and by her “simple certainty” that in refusing to do what all women must do, “her dear Lily, her little Brisk, was a fool” (78). On the other hand, if she retreats from challenge, gives up her struggle for independence and capitulates to socially accepted female role and definition, there is a strong possibility of her gradual transforming into the shape of what Mrs Ramsay had been all her life – a receptacle for other people's emotions and a mere “shell of herself”.
Lily feels deeply divided about her own worth when she comes to realize that what she wants for herself as an individual is in direct conflict with what the others expect from her as a woman: “For what happened to her, especially staying with the Ramsays, was to be made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel, was one, that’s what I feel was the other, and then they fought together in her mind, as now” (154). As Sally Bret has shown Lily’s psychological conflict affects her art and transcribes itself into her painting: “Lily must after finding herself, express that self and its experiences in art…(But) feelings of inadequacy are extended to her art; the conflict between the Ramsay’s way of life and Lily’s hoped-for life becomes the conflict between the painting as she sees it and the painting as it is” (qtd. in Transue, 82).
Lily is acutely aware that the exercise of her artistic skill is incompatible with traditionally understood femininity. Since she chooses to be a painter rather than wife, mother and angelic comforter she must endure Charles Tansley’s patronizing assertion that “Women can’t write, women can’t paint”. Even though Lily denies such discriminatory, patriarchal declaration, Tansley’s words embed themselves in her consciousness and corrode her self-confidence: “she heard some voice saying she couldn’t paint, saying she couldn’t create, as if she were caught up in one of those habitual currents in which after a certain time experience forms in the mind, so that one repeats the words without being aware any longer who originally spoke them” (233). Lily consciously rejects this ‘masculine’ message but it creates a feeling of impotence and a sense of pessimism in her unconscious nevertheless: “Women can’t write, women can’t paint(…). Why did her whole being bow, like corn under a wind, and erect itself again from this abasement with a great and rather painful effort?” (130). Whenever the echo of the internalized voice of male scorn reverberates in her mind, doubts emerge, pessimism surfaces: “She looked at the canvas, lightly scored with running lines. It would be hung in the servants’ bedrooms. It would be rolled up and stuffed under the sofa. What was the good of doing it then, and she heard some voice saying she couldn’t paint, she couldn’t create” (233). It is generally maintained that in order to enjoy her femal aesthetic creativity and to gain true autonomy, Lily must conquer the destructive voice within her that reiterates that she cannot creat, but what is particularly important to distance herself emotionally
from Mrs Ramsay – the motherly, all-giving “angel in the house”, who can only block Lily in her quest for individual identity and fulfilment of her artistic potential. As has been pointed out, the tension and emotional oscillations resulting from Lily’s resistance to Mrs Ramsay and the model of ideal femininity she supplies, stifle her individual and artistic growth. Mrs Ramsay’s ‘angelic’ power is disturbing to the lonely woman artist, for it undermines her self-confidence, threatens her autonomy and her tenuous self-esteem. Yet, as Suzette Henke perceptibly observes, Lily is strong enough to eschew society’s prescriptions about desirable femininity and to withstand myriad pressures Mrs Ramsay discreetly imposes on her: “Despite feelings of timidity in the face of Mrs Ramsay’s gospel of marital bliss and her insistent proselytizing, Lily courageously marshals all her psychological resources in a timorous defense of spinsterhood – her art; her needy father, her own marginality, and finally, herself” (25). In doing so, Lily demonstrates that she is capable of actualizing her potential as an independent, self-directed individual. Most important, however, by the end of the novel, after passage of ten years that include the Great War, the death of Mrs Ramsay and the decline of the Ramsay family, Lily finally triumphs over the fears that had hindered her for so long from using her creative potential freely and had kept her oscillating between self-assertion and self-denial, dependency and independence, between individual desires and social demands of femininity. As many critics have pointed out, Lily’s coming-of-age results from her separation from Mrs Ramsay, whose death has been regarded by many critics as a precondition for Lily to paint. As Pamela Transue notes “Only after the mother-figure has died can true purgation occur and freedom be grasped. For Lily, this new liberation is symbolized in the successful completion of her painting” (82). Indeed, it can be observed that Lily is enabled to gain the new understanding of herself and of her surrogate mother, only when the mother is no longer a physical presence but just a memory, a psychological presence. Only then is Lily able to formulate a different, more critical perspective on Mrs Ramsay and her values and to envision a better future for a new generation of women: “Mrs Ramsay has faded and gone, she thought. We can over-ride her wishes, improve away her limited, old-fashioned ideas” (230). Jane Marcus observes that Lily’s reconciliation with the actual loss of her mother, allows her resolve dilemmas for herself, and most importantly, to accept her singleness, her need to paint: “Lily comes to cherish in herself powers different from those that motivate Mrs Ramsay (…) “and to accept her validity as a single woman” (164 - 165). Lily breaks free from Mrs Ramsay’s ideas about femininity and manages to have her own “vision”, as she says it, rather than chafing under the limitations of the only presentable vision which her surrogate mother could see for her: marriage. In going her own way, Lily attains a space in which she may realize her creative aspirations, develop her own ideas and enjoy her unique and personal way of looking at life. Although Lily’s consciousness is still occasionally haunted by the internalized masculine voice reminding her sneeringly that women’s mind is not for invention and creation, she is no longer intimidated by it. In opting for an independent life of very active involvement in painting, Lily not only breaks free from socially dictated, one-dimensional mode of female fulfilment but also suggests an alternative mode of female self-realization. Thus freed, she is able to translate her new-found “vision” onto the canvas, to complete her painting and to experience a sense of true artistic achievement.
3.2.2 Deconstructing gender polarization – Lily’s androgyny.
As described in the earlier part of this chapter, To the Lighthouse illustrates the insidious nature of a deeply ingrained belief in ordained and fixed gender identities. It is Lily Briscoe – a keen observer standing “on the edge of the lawn painting” (29), who is able to look beyond the limited perspective of Mr and Mrs Ramsay. This distance and separateness from others allow Lily to notice the pernicious influence of the binary opposition of masculinity and femininity and to “recognize its falsifying metaphysical nature” (Moi, 13). As Toril Moi notes in Sexual/Textual Politics, Lily represents the subject who “deconstructs” the dichotomy between man and woman - as represented by Mr and Mrs Ramsay - and “tries as far as it is possible in a still rigidly patriarchal order to live as her own woman, without regard for the crippling definitions of sexual identity to which society would have her conform” (13). According to Moi, it is in this context that Woolf’s crucial concept of androgyny should be situated (13). It is important to note here, that the most famous of Woolf’s statements about androgyny can be found in her classic essay: A Room of One’s Own. In her polemic on androgyny, Woolf argues that human mind contains both male and female elements and that both "require to be united in order to get complete satisfaction and happiness”. Thus, mind contains both sexes, although “in the man’s brain, the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain, the woman predominates over the man”. Woolf then adds that, "It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly" (102, 108), especially in order to be creative. This marriage of man and woman in a single mind is illustrated by Lily as she completes her painting in part III.
Lily Briscoe can be viewed as an androgynous character, in the sense that she has rejected social expectations of woman, that is wifehood and motherhood, for the sake of engaging herself in painting - the artistic occupation traditionally held by men. Lily reaches beyond the boundary between masculinity and femininity, because she chooses her own role and vocation and thus, tries to establish some kind of professional identity for herself. It can be noted that, by subscribing herself to the non-traditional female role (woman painter), Lily gains access to the symbolic order: the “masculine” realm of creation, self-realization and non-familial achievement. Moreover, being a modernist woman painter she is empowered to interpret and define reality on her own, to express herself in art and thus to assume creative and self-creative authority ordinarily reserved for men. Lily deconstructs the oppressive gender dichotomies which bind women to selflessness, passivity and self-resignation and men to individuality, self-assertion and achievement, in the sense that she disentangles herself from societal expectations about ‘natural’ femininity inherent in “the angel in the house” stereotype, for the sake of marshalling her own creative resources: “first in the interest of self-expression and self-creation; second for the sake of art, self-agency and authentic selfhood” (Henke, 26). As Suzette Henke notes, artistic creativity provides Lily with a necessary space for self-development and self-realization: “Like the symbolic tree in the middle of her painting, her art provides the virginal spinster with a spiritual and emotional ground for the blossoming of her talent and personality” (26).
In opting for lifelong spinsterhood and fulfilment outside the domestic sphere, Lily takes a crucial step towards detaching herself from the fixed matrix of female identity and towards establishing some other kind of identity than that already prescribed for her on the basis of sex. Lily manages to use her abilities to her own creative purpose and in doing so she gradually wins independence which is, partly, the independence of a professional woman: “She remembered all of a sudden as if she had a treasure, that she had her work. In a flash she saw he picture…” (128). It is due to her sense of professional commitment and her determination to pursue her own unique, artistic cause, that she is able to retain her subjective autonomy and to establish independence from Mrs Ramsay’s attempts to coerce her into the ‘angel role’. As Suzette Henke points out, Lily’s personal commitment to non-familial achievement and alternative lifestyle enables her to disentangle herself, at least partially and provisionally, from the oppressive ideal of femininity (24 – 26). Indeed, it can be observed that Lily’s voluntary singleness and her artistic work provide her not only with necessary space for autonomy, self-actualization and self-expression but also with a refuge from sex-stereotyped domestic responsibilities and social expectations inherent in the ‘angel in the house’ ideal. Her refusal to abide by traditional dictums for female behaviour (other-oriented, service-oriented and man-pleasing) and roles (wife, mother, homemaker) situates her outside the paradigm of ‘natural’ femininity and puts her on the margins of patriarchal household, which as William R. Handley explains “cannot assimilate an independent, working woman” (23). Critics, in general, assess Lily’s marginality as a necessary condition for her ‘self-preservation’ and self-growth, claiming that in having been made or in choosing to be marginal, Lily is enabled take refuge from or insulate herself against the pressures on women to live up to the ideal of domestic femininity. Suzette Henke, for instance, points out that like many other twentieth-century fictional spinsters, Lily Briscoe “hangs on the edge of social configurations that would, if she let them engulf her” (24). In view of what has been already said, it can be concluded that Lily’s marginality is a contributing factor to her androgyny. In living a single and marginal life of a painter, Lily is empowered to internalize attributes traditionally associated with masculinity – distance, autonomy, objectivity, self-agency, professional commitment and self-expression.
Lily Briscoe is Woolf’s vision of the androgynous artist, who personifies fusion of male and female qualities and who performs deconstruction of the deeply-entrenched Victorian gender identities and traditional masculine/feminine dichotomies. She unifies in herself the aforementioned ‘masculine’ traits with the qualities traditionally assigned to femininity: intuitiveness, sensitivity and timidity. In her study of fictional female artists entitled Studio of One’s Own, Roberta White notes that “[Lily] is one of the great protagonists of modernist writing because her “globed” consciousness contains so much – vision and reality, sensibility and wisdom – and because her efforts to paint bring coherence and order to her world” (106). White’s idea of “globed consciousness”, undeniably echoes Virginia Woolf’s concept of androgynous mind, in which masculine and feminine elements must fuse and cooperate to foster wholeness and creativity.
In attempting to assert her own personality and individual needs, in striving for autonomy and fulfilment of her creative aspirations, Lily transcends the code of ‘true’ womanhood which requires of woman to seek no other route to self-fulfilment than through good done by her selfless devotion to others. It should be also noted that Lily deconstructs the ideology of separate spheres that involves identification of women with domesticity and maternity and men with work and achievement, since she attains wholeness and separate identity primarily through the evolution of her work. In advancing beyond the model of ‘natural’ femininity provided by Mrs Ramsay and venturing into the field of art, Lily manages to inscribe herself into the symbolic order and to transcend the demarcation between male and female experience. As Jane Lilinfeld remarks: “In Lily's moving beyond Mrs Ramsay's mode of behaviour we see a major transition in women's use of the power of selfhood, as the centre of power shifts away from the narrow scope of the home to the outer world of work and self-actualisation” (164).
3.2 Space for liberty at the price of alienation and uncertainty: the costs of rejecting constraints of ideal femininity.
Through the character of Lily Briscoe, Virginia Woolf shows how important it is for a woman who seeks a new way for herself and who desires to be free and self-fulfiling, to establish a self-affirming identity, independent of cultural norms of female perfection. At the same time, however, in emphasising Lily’s isolation and insecurity, Woolf indicates the emotional price a woman must pay for venturing to experience self-fulfilment outside the prescribed realm of domesticity and motherhood. Lily Briscoe pays a high price for choosing autonomy and artistic vocation: the strong possibility that she and her work will be misunderstood, ignored and derided as eccentric with the corresponding psychological costs of fragmentation, tentativeness and self-doubt. In spite of her victories over “the angel in the house” and her victorious escape from the constraints of the traditional female role and its false expectations into the world of creative activity, Lily remains self-effacing and reserved, unsure of her creative potential and the value of her artistic production. In his book Virginia Woolf and the Real World, Alex Zwerdling notes that what curbs Lily’s enjoyment of her independence and diminishes her satisfaction of being a painter, is the fact that “so much of her energy goes into justifying her choice of vocation” (204). Indeed, even as Lily stands before her canvas, she often finds it hard to attain a peaceful state of mind, uninterrupted by the recurrent sense of inadequacy and self - doubt. She continues to question the meaning of her work: "Why then did she do it?...It would be hung in the servants bedrooms. It would be rolled up and stuffed under a sofa. What was the good of doing it then, and she heard some voice saying she couldn't paint, she couldn't create?" (233). Lily falls into a painful dilemma as she imagines that her work will never circulate in art galleries and markets outside of the house, that it will fade into obscurity and invisibility. One may argue that the problem of Lily's "Cinderella complex" that is her self-effacement and self-constraint, unconscious fear of exposure and strategy of self-disqualification results from the internalization of the patriarchal sex-role definitions that depict personal ambition, individual pride and the desire to be successful in the public sphere as unfeminine. This partly explains why Lily's attitude towards her works of art is marked by so much ambivalence, reserve and contradiction: on the one hand she feels deeply distressed and discouraged when envisaging her unframed works being neglected in the attics, on the other, she appears to be totally indifferent or even reluctant to the idea of having her paintings displayed. As Roberta White observes in Studio of One's Own, Lily's timidity and self-effacement as a painter "reflects the historical fact that in nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was more difficult for women to be accepted as painters or composers than as writers "because traditions and conventions of novel writing were "less firmly established than those of the fine arts" (14).
The atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety that frequently pervades the creative process intensifies the emotional strain involved in Lily's committing herself to painting. She must put a great deal of effort in conquering the multiple inhibitions – both outwardly administered and inwardly contrived – against a woman who hazards to find her own personal, distinctive style and aspires to participate in the cultural sphere of life. Lily's vulnerability to negative feelings and moods - anxiety, deep-seated doubts about her competence and pessimism about the fate of her paintings is undeniably induced by her recognition that in being a painter she is doing something society does not fundamentally approve. She is discouraged by her awareness of the indifferent and cynical attitude of her companions towards her whole enterprise, especially Tansley's exclusionary judgement that "women can't write, women can't paint" (75), and Mrs Ramsay's patronising certainty that "one could not take her [Lily's] painting seriously" (32), and that in giving herself over to painting rather than to natural woman's duties "her dear Lily, her little Brisk, was a fool" (78).
In her penetrating study of women artists in nineteenth and twentieth-century novels in English, entitled A Studio of One's Own, Roberta White remarks that the feelings of alienation and loneliness and the sense of being misunderstood are particularly sad features of Lily's situation: "she has no one (except the reader) with whom to share her fears and her achievements, no sister artist, no salon, no Bloomsbury group" (101). Indeed, throughout the novel Lily is given no support, encouragement or constructive advice in her artistic undertaking - her struggle for self-realization is carried on completely alone. Even when she is looking at her nearly finished painting, she does not experience a feeling of contentment or pride but is troubled by a sense of isolation - she still feels herself to be walking "a narrow plank, perfectly alone, over the sea" (256). According to Roberta White this metaphor of a lonely woman precariously balancing on a narrow plank above deep water represents "the idea of the woman artist in the early twentieth century as someone suspended in space, like a tightrope walker without props" and emphasizes "danger, exposure and solitariness of Lily's undertaking" (101).
It worth noting that, to a considerable extent, the precariousness of Lily's task and liminality of her situation as an artist, stems from the pervasive patriarchal gender arrangements, that deny or ignore the existence as well as validity of creative and intellectual potential in women, and consequently make it so difficult for a woman to see and to be seen as an artist. Lily's validity as an artist goes unrecognized because of her sex, and her active ambitions are regarded by the Ramsays as both the cause and the effect of her "skimpy, wispy" femininity (221) and shrivelled "puckered" lack of desirable feminine traits. Entangled in a world that views female roles through the prism of the selfless, comforting and sweet angel in the house, Lily - an independently thinking, aspiring painter who refuses to charm, flirt and look for a husband, is doomed to be proclaimed a deficient, unnatural woman and therefore negligible and marginal: "With her little Chinese eyes and puckered-up face, she would never marry; one could not take her painting very seriously" (29). In Women Artists and Writers Bridget Elliott and Jo-Ann Wallace, have given clear and concise account of the underlying source of Lily's existential angst and her marginality, by noting that "Lily is clearly positioned outside two economies: the sexual (represented here by marriage) and the economic (represented by professionalism)" and that "Lily's vocation is unrecognized and her social, like her professional identity, is constituted by lack" (75). These statements illustrate the degree to which Lily's situation is precarious and unclear and her sense of identity is hung in suspension. Her social identity is constituted by lack, because as an unmarried, childless woman she does not fulfil her 'normal' destiny and natural ' function in life, and thus she is economically and socially useless. In addition, the complete absence of any references to the "apparatus of professional associations, exhibition, and connoisseurship" as well as the few direct references to the probable fate of Lily's paintings "And it would never be seen, never be hung even (...). It would be hung in the attics, she thought, it would be destroyed" (305 - 306) imply that her professional status likewise her social status is marginal and redundant (Elliott, Wallace, 75).
It important to note, that Lily's rejection of traditional model of femininity is not without weight, for it has a considerable bearing on her self and her ability to attain wholeness. Even though she succeeds in creating an alternative definition of femininity, beyond patriarchal terms, and manages to transcend the male-female polarity represented by characters such as Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, she still happens to judge herself by the standards of femininity she tries consciously to reject: "(...) all except myself, thought Lily girding at herself, bitterly, who am not a woman, but a peevish, ill-tempered, dried-up old maid, presumably" (151). It can be noted that both Lily's sense of self-worth as well as her basic concept of herself is undermined by society's unsparing assumption that an independent, unmarried and nonsubservient woman like herself is "not a woman" but rather a desiccated and useless subspecies, an "old maid" (151). It can be observed that the moment Lily begins to look at herself through the lens society holds up to her, she suffers from a sense of being inadequate and deficient and experiences a feeling of estrangement from her authentic self.
In setting her need for autonomy and self-realization in direct opposition to social pressures on women to get married and be someone's "angel in the house", Lily Briscoe positions herself on an uncertain and lonely ground. The most salient sign of her unstable situation is its lack of clarity about exactly where she belongs and how she should reconcile her two conflicting identities of woman and artist. Even though she manages to break convention and define her own identity in the androgynous space obtained through her art, she cannot easily dismiss socially induced feeling that her "new" identity is marginal, inadequate and lacking. Because such "different" or alternative model of female identity is neither recognized nor accepted by society, it tends to be alienated, fragile and assailable, and in consequence it is particularly vulnerable to both involuntary and voluntary isolation. Lily experiences the feeling of involuntary, outwardly administered isolation, because in refusing to perform her "feminine" part in the world, she is left out of the patriarchal household system that cannot assimilate independent, ambitious woman. However, it is equally important to note that, to some extent Lily's alienation is also a voluntary and self-imposed state. As Suzette Henke remarks "she hangs on the edge of social configurations, that would if she let them, engulf her" (24). Lily deliberately withdraws from the others and "hangs on the edge", because detachment and isolation is the only available form of protection of her autonomy and her authentic self against the entrapping net of social coercions, arrangements and expectations. She manages to win and maintain space of her own but it is achieved at the price of self-isolation. She must draw boundaries and negotiate safe distances from the others, in order to avoid inner tensions, self-doubts and further fragmentation of her already tenuous and troubled identity.