Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Unity and Division in To the Lighthouse

Division as Unity in The Lighthouse

As Mark Hussey notes in his introduction to To the Lighthouse, Woolf insisted that she "meant nothing by The Lighthouse” (lx). I must admit I had a difficult time accepting that it meant nothing in particular. Woolf's explanation that she uses the figure of the lighthouse as "a central line down the middle of the book to hold the design together" (lx) makes it even more difficult for me not to ascribe meaning to the lighthouse, since it is this kind of line that Lily Briscoe finally uses to unify and complete her painting. As Hussey also points out, "most readers of To the Lighthouse have understood, Lily Briscoe's efforts to create a painting while staying with the Ramsays are analogous to Virginia Woolf's own efforts to create a novel" (xli). Perhaps Woolf would have wished for her readers to avoid limiting the lighthouse's symbolism by assuming it represents only one thing. I would argue that the lighthouse means different things from different vantage points. At a distance, the lighthouse seems to represent a unity and autonomy effected through the division of space. The lighthouse as a dividing line sits in juxtaposition to marriage, which is supposed to create unity, but in fact, in its unification of social space, creates the opposite, voiding autonomy and mental unity alike. In this respect To the Lighthouse and A Room of One's Own seem to have a great deal in common. Up close, however, the lighthouse dominates space instead of dividing it. Seemingly large and monolithic at close range, the lighthouse is rendered completely impotent; within the unified space of the small island upon which the lighthouse stands, it is impossible to see the light the lighthouse projects so that the lighthouse loses its significance.
It seems significant that Mrs. Ramsay gains a sense of peace and of autonomy from the lighthouse, not by going to it, as her husband later does, but by having the painter's perspective of it, by observing it at a distance without being able to characterize it completely. It is in the division, the in-between space the lighthouse casts through its beam, that Mrs. Ramsay has real freedom: "Not as oneself did one find rest ever, in her experience. . .but as a wedge of darkness. . . pausing there she looked out to meet that stroke of the Lighthouse, the long steady stroke. . .which was her stroke" (66). Thus separate from herself, perhaps the created self she must act within her marriage, Mrs. Ramsay achieves mental unity or clarity: "She. . .met the third stroke and it seemed to her like her own eyes meeting her own eyes, searching as she alone could search into her mind and heart, purifying out of existence that lie, any lie" (66).
This allowing division to achieve unity is impossible for Mr. Ramsay, who mistakenly sees closeness as the path to unification with his wife. Always needing her, always breaking down the dividers in actual space, Mr. Ramsay increases the mental disjunction between them. After Mrs. Ramsay has died, Mr. Ramsay's journey to the lighthouse itself shows his inability to appreciate the division of space; he does not even bother to look up from his book until they are so close to the lighthouse that its significance is altered. Lily, on the other hand, is, from a distance, able to finally realize what Mrs. Ramsay had realized but was unable, because of her marriage, to act upon. In death, Mrs. Ramsay seems to have acquired distance. Indeed, it is through her contemplation of Mrs. Ramsay at a distance interposed by death that Lily is able to enact the division of space that bring unity in life. Before Mrs. Ramsay's death, Lily believed that "bringing in the line of the branch across so. . ." might cause "the unity of the whole" to be "broken" (57); afterwards, she is able to see that one single solitary line helps the whole of her painting to hang together. Significantly, it is after realizing that distance in human relationships helps those relationships to prosper that she is able to complete her painting.

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