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Ramsay, the Modern Man “His arms, though stretched out, remained empty”; this is Mr. Ramsay’s predicament in To the Lighthouse (128). Perhaps the most splitting event of the novel, Mrs. Ramsay’s death affects Mr. Ramsay more 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. For Lily 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 little apart from reality. His choice of profession, however, is one in which his intellectual activities and highest hopes are especially incongruous with organic, social life. In contrast, Mrs. Ramsay serves as his link to the world and earthy happiness, things only accessible to him while she lives. When she dies, Mr. Ramsay is lost in the ephemerality of his ethereal syllogisms. He seems genuinely a man unsuited to familial roles, which raises the question of why he married at all. Near the end of the boat ride to the lighthouse, James thinks that Mr. Ramsay looks “as if had become physically what was always at the back of both of their minds–that loneliness which was for both of them the truth about things” (202-3). Mr. Ramsay’s silent book-reading in the boat seems peacefully resigned, as if he is in his natural state. Perhaps this loneliness was at the back of his mind the whole time, but Mrs. Ramsay kept it quarantined safely in a corner while she lived, through her constant efforts. It was certainly because of her that Mr. Ramsay became 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 natural air” (20). Then Mr. Ramsay sees a hen with her chicks huddled under 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 marriage appears as an animal lapse of judgment—a life-altering chink in the impervious outlandishness of his philosophizing. Mr. Ramsay, father of eight, is naturally a modern pedant. He is the epitome of the modern man—conceited and caught up in himself. He seems dissatisfied with normal life, perhaps because the workings in the Ramsay family are melodramatic and generally inconsequential. Mr. Ramsay’s highest passions do not translate to the living world—the world that the rest of the family lives in, and over which Mrs. Ramsay presides. In an essay that queries, “Where Does Q Leave Mr. Ramsay?,” Sandra Donaldson presents Mr. Ramsay as a man caught up in logical syllogisms, too distracted by the symbols to experience reality. She interprets Mr. Ramsay’s ruminations on Q, R and Z thus: “Symbolic logic
Brown 2 employs the smallest unit of written language, the letter, whose discreteness distracts Mr. Ramsay in his search for meaning in his life and work” (Donaldson 329). The problem is not with the logic; instead, “one of 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 the linearity of the alphabet of philosophy, and are instantly at each letter equally. He is limited by his mortality and stuck interminably at the letter Q. In this predicament of mortality and humanity, Mr. Ramsay is caught unhappily between the two extremes of familial fatherhood and philosophical ingenuity. Donaldson points out one a passage wherein Mr. Ramsay is quite open and revelatory; he recounts at length his philosophical potency, but ends with his lamenting complaint, “But the father of eight children has no choice,” which is his rationalization for not being a genius (Woolf 44). It is as if his fatherhood was an unfortunate accident, which is true only because he holds so tightly to his philosophical aspirations. Donaldson, finally, contrasts Mr. Ramsay’s philosophizing with Lily’s painting, both of which are works in progress. But the difference is that Lily is hardly as dedicated to her painting as Mr. Ramsay is to his work; or rather, she is much less obsessive about it. Lily is able to escape happily into the life of the family, and this is what makes her the savant, in her own field, with a proficiency to which Mr. Ramsay can only aspire. At the dinner, Lily sits thoughtfully vindicating William Bankes of his pitiableness. Then, as if inspired by this banality, suddenly, “In a flash she saw her picture and thought, Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space. That’s what I shall do” (Woolf 84, emphasis added by Donaldson). Lily has made the jump to Z. Similarly, Lily’s description of Mr. Ramsay’s philosophical work is perfectly simplistic. On asking Andrew to describe his father’s work, he tells her to think of a kitchen table without seeing one in the real world. This is only too easy for her: “she always saw clearly before her a large kitchen table” (23). Lily cannot even comprehend the gap that plagues Mr. Ramsay. Mr. Ramsay, meanwhile, is stuck painfully at Q. Part of Mr. Ramsay’s problem is that he is lamentably unaware of social formalities. When he first appears in “The Window,” he is sadistically insisting, to his youngest son, that they will not be able to go to the lighthouse the next day. Regardless of how accurate his predications of foul weather are, his negativity estranges his son. When for the second time he states his ruling, he tries to “soften his voice,” “in deference to Mrs. Ramsay,” but the result is “awkward”; his attempt to sound genial is a failure, 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 3 able of untruth…never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being” (4). He lives in a world of logic and a sort of stoicism—wherein everything seems crystalline. During the boat ride, James reflects why he disdains his father so. Since his youth, he has treasured his murderous inclinations toward his father, but he actually wishes to kill, not Mr. Ramsay, but the “thing that descended on him…that fierce sudden black-winged harpy, with its 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 hand in the street…he might be shouting out…he might be waving his arms in 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 for her husband’s endorsement of the newly anticipated marriage of Paul and Minta, which would reflect on their own marriage. On the other hand, he “wanted something–wanted the thing she always found it so difficult 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 beautiful than ever” (123). Perhaps, she recognizes the seriousness of his intellectual 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 a way that “He could not deny it” (124). Their conversation resembles in some way the manner in which Virginia Woolf presents her characters—like “a company of gnats…in an invisible elastic net”—as a vague conglomeration that feeds on its ambiguity 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 precise description. Likewise, the vagueness of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s private conversation seeks to surmount the limitedness of the spoken word. And it works; they read the expression of the other with more gravity than words could convey. But perhaps because the effect is so internal, it is more subject to the decay of time. As soon as Mrs. Ramsay is no longer constantly present to provide such assurance, Mr. Ramsay flounders. The wordless gesture appeals to Mr. Ramsay’s intuitive side, what little there is of it, but eludes the grasp of his stronger and more preferred logical side. After Mrs. Ramsay’s death, Mr. Ramsay becomes extraordinarily needy, because he does not have, any longer, the constant reassurance and affirmation that she provided. Instead, like a little child, he grasps unsuccessfully for substitutes from among those he is around. He falls into ecstasy when Lily praises his boots, exaggerating the meaningfulness of her simple compliment to inflate the flattery. He
Brown 4 seeks approbation from his children, as well, by reenacting the trip to the lighthouse, perhaps because he feels responsible for the failure of the venture years ago. Yet, despite Lily’s good intentions, she is no wife-replacement. Without the constancy of Mrs. Ramsay, he is just a pitiable old man. Despite his deplorable character flaws, Mr. Ramsay serves wonderfully as a catalyst for other characters. It is in engaging Mr. Ramsay, trying to pacify him, that lets Lily complete her painting. She feels estranged, until she can step halfway into Mrs. Ramsay’s role in the household. After he departs on the boat trip, she follows the boat concernedly until it disappears. Then she wonders, “Where was that boat now? And Mr. Ramsay? She wanted him” (202). At the very end, at the relief of being assured that Mr. Ramsay has arrived at the Lighthouse, she turns back to her painting, and with a single line, finishes it. More directly, Mr. Ramsay enables Mrs. Ramsay to become the familial dynamo that she delights in being. She passionately obsesses over the drama of engagements and the happiness of her children, as well as the satisfaction of a man whose thoughts she knows lay beyond her comprehension. Mr. Ramsay is an invaluable complement to the much fuller Mrs. Ramsay. In the end, Mr. Ramsay is still a chronically unhappy man, unsatisfied with his philosophical career. But the work is not about Mr. Ramsay—his part is secondary; it is instead that the females of To the Lighthouse need needy males in order for them to play their parts with such perfection. Works Cited Donaldson, Sandra M. “Where Does Q Leave Mr. Ramsay?” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 11.2 (Autumn 1992): 329-336. JSTOR. Blakley Library. University of Dallas, Irving, TX. 28 October 2008. Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1927.
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