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Mr. Ramsay, the Modern Man

Mr. Ramsay, the Modern Man



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Published by Christopher Brown
Mr. Ramsay is torn between his philosophical ambition and his familial instinct, which is the predicament of the modern man and exemplary of the dichotomy between unhappy meaningfulness and happy forgetability. Genes or Memes, what'll it be? If you pick both, you're only human.
Mr. Ramsay is torn between his philosophical ambition and his familial instinct, which is the predicament of the modern man and exemplary of the dichotomy between unhappy meaningfulness and happy forgetability. Genes or Memes, what'll it be? If you pick both, you're only human.

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Published by: Christopher Brown on Dec 11, 2008
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Christopher Brown – 20c Lit, 11Paper 2, 11/07
Mr. Ramsay, the Modern Man
“His arms, though stretched out, remained empty”; this is Mr.Ramsay’s predicament in
To the Lighthouse
(128). Perhaps the mostsplitting event of the novel, Mrs. Ramsay’s death affects Mr. Ramsaymore than anyone else. It leaves him dazed, lost—as if part of himself has died—or as if he has lost an important means of life-support. ForLily Briscoe, the Ramsay children, and Mr. Carmichael, the event is sad,but not tragic. For Mr. Ramsay, however, the loss is grievous.Mr. Ramsay is a man of modernity, and as such, he lives a littleapart from reality. His choice of profession, however, is one in whichhis intellectual activities and highest hopes are especially incongruouswith organic, social life. In contrast, Mrs. Ramsay serves as his link tothe world and earthy happiness, things only accessible to him whileshe lives. When she dies, Mr. Ramsay is lost in the ephemerality of hisethereal syllogisms. He seems genuinely a man unsuited to familialroles, which raises the question of why he married at all.Near the end of the boat ride to the lighthouse, James thinks thatMr. Ramsay looks “as if had become physically what was always at theback of both of their minds–that loneliness which was for both of themthe truth about things” (202-3). Mr. Ramsay’s silent book-reading in theboat seems peacefully resigned, as if he is in his natural state. Perhapsthis loneliness
at the back of his mind the whole time, but Mrs.Ramsay kept it quarantined safely in a corner while she lived, throughher constant efforts. It was certainly because of her that Mr. Ramsaybecame a father as well as a philosopher.William Bankes recalls a segment of memory, or imagination, of Mr. Ramsay before he married. He pictures Mr. Ramsay walking alone,“by himself hung round with that solitude which seemed to be his nat-ural air” (20). Then Mr. Ramsay sees a hen with her chicks huddled un-der her, at which he pauses and merely utters, “‘Pretty-pretty,’ [with]an odd illumination in…his heart” (21). Soon after this incident, Mr.Ramsay married, and his friendship with Bankes faded. The marriageappears as an animal lapse of judgment—a life-altering chink in the im-pervious outlandishness of his philosophizing.Mr. Ramsay, father of eight, is naturally a modern pedant. He isthe epitome of the modern man—conceited and caught up in himself.He seems dissatisfied with normal life, perhaps because the workingsin the Ramsay family are melodramatic and generally inconsequential.Mr. Ramsay’s highest passions do not translate to the living world—theworld that the rest of the family lives in, and over which Mrs. Ramsaypresides.In an essay that queries, “Where Does Q Leave Mr. Ramsay?,”Sandra Donaldson presents Mr. Ramsay as a man caught up in logicalsyllogisms, too distracted by the symbols to experience reality. She in-terprets Mr. Ramsay’s ruminations on Q, R and Z thus: “Symbolic logic
Brown 2employs the smallest unit of written language, the letter, whose dis-creteness distracts Mr. Ramsay in his search for meaning in his life andwork” (Donaldson 329). The problem is not with the logic; instead, “oneof Mr. Ramsay's main troubles is that, as a man, he is only too mortal”(332). He is self-professedly not one of those savants who scoff at thelinearity of the alphabet of philosophy, and are instantly at each letterequally. He is limited by his mortality and stuck interminably at the let-ter Q.In this predicament of mortality and humanity, Mr. Ramsay iscaught unhappily between the two extremes of familial fatherhood andphilosophical ingenuity. Donaldson points out one a passage whereinMr. Ramsay is quite open and revelatory; he recounts at length hisphilosophical potency, but ends with his lamenting complaint, “But thefather of eight children has no choice,” which is his rationalization fornot being a genius (Woolf 44). It is as if his fatherhood was an unfortu-nate accident, which is true only because he holds so tightly to hisphilosophical aspirations.Donaldson, finally, contrasts Mr. Ramsay’s philosophizing withLily’s painting, both of which are works in progress. But the differenceis that Lily is hardly as dedicated to her painting as Mr. Ramsay is to hiswork; or rather, she is much less obsessive about it. Lily is able to es-cape happily into the life of the family, and this is what makes her thesavant, in her own field, with a proficiency to which Mr. Ramsay canonly aspire. At the dinner, Lily sits thoughtfully vindicating WilliamBankes of his pitiableness. Then, as if inspired by this banality, sud-denly, “
In a flash
she saw her picture and thought, Yes, I shall put thetree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space. That’s what I shall do” (Woolf 84, emphasis added by Donaldson). Lilyhas made the jump to Z. Similarly, Lily’s description of Mr. Ramsay’sphilosophical work is perfectly simplistic. On asking Andrew to describehis father’s work, he tells her to think of a kitchen table without seeingone in the real world. This is only too easy for her: “she always sawclearly before her a large kitchen table” (23). Lily cannot even compre-hend the gap that plagues Mr. Ramsay.Mr. Ramsay, meanwhile, is stuck painfully at Q. Part of Mr. Ram-say’s problem is that he is lamentably unaware of social formalities.When he first appears in “The Window,” he is sadistically insisting, tohis youngest son, that they will not be able to go to the lighthouse thenext day. Regardless of how accurate his predications of foul weatherare, his negativity estranges his son. When for the second time hestates his ruling, he tries to “soften his voice,” “in deference to Mrs.Ramsay,” but the result is “awkward”; his attempt to sound genial is afailure, because the content of the words is intrinsically disagreeable to James (14). Mr. Ramsay is tactless, and we see the consequence in James’ murderous intentions, which instantly form at his father’s first“it won’t be fine” (4). This is one of Mr. Ramsay’s flaws: “He was incap-
Brown 3able of untruth…never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasureor convenience of any mortal being” (4). He lives in a world of logicand a sort of stoicism
everything seems crystalline.During the boat ride, James reflects why he disdains his fatherso. Since his youth, he has treasured his murderous inclinations towardhis father, but he actually wishes to kill, not Mr. Ramsay, but the “thingthat descended on him…that fierce sudden black-winged harpy, withits talons and its beak all hard and cold, that struck and struck at you”(184). He imagines what Mr. Ramsay could do to be a better person;“he might be pressing a sovereign into some frozen old woman’s handin the street…he might be shouting out…he might be waving his armsin the air with excitement” (184). But this behavior does not befit Mr.Ramsay; it is simply outside his nature.At the end of the day in “The Window,” the last we see of Mrs.Ramsay alive, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are alone together. She yearns forher husband’s endorsement of the newly anticipated marriage of Pauland Minta, which would reflect on their own marriage. On the otherhand, he “wanted something–wanted the thing she always found it sodifficult to give him”; he wants his wife’s approval of his own life (123).He wants her to say she loves him, but she strangely finds this difficult.She easily reads his facial expression that says, “You are more beauti-ful than ever” (123). Perhaps, she recognizes the seriousness of his in-tellectual efforts, and feels a spoken “I love you” would be insufficient.But returning his look, she conveys to him that she loves him in such away that “He could not deny it” (124). Their conversation resembles in some way the manner in whichVirginia Woolf presents her characters—like “a company of gnats…inan invisible elastic net”—as a vague conglomeration that feeds on itsambiguity in order to appear more complex than an opaque sack could(25). Woolf’s style of presenting characters in a nonlinear series of snapshots seeks to create fuller characters than she ever could by pre-cise description. Likewise, the vagueness of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’sprivate conversation seeks to surmount the limitedness of the spokenword. And it works; they read the expression of the other with moregravity than words could convey. But perhaps because the effect is sointernal, it is more subject to the decay of time. As soon as Mrs. Ram-say is no longer constantly present to provide such assurance, Mr.Ramsay flounders. The wordless gesture appeals to Mr. Ramsay’s intu-itive side, what little there is of it, but eludes the grasp of his strongerand more preferred logical side.After Mrs. Ramsay’s death, Mr. Ramsay becomes extraordinarilyneedy, because he does not have, any longer, the constant reassur-ance and affirmation that she provided. Instead, like a little child, hegrasps unsuccessfully for substitutes from among those he is around.He falls into ecstasy when Lily praises his boots, exaggerating themeaningfulness of her simple compliment to inflate the flattery. He

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