Sunday, September 26, 2010

To the Treatment of Character (To the Lighthouse)

Initially, I found it a bit disconcerting that Mark Hussey’s introduction to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is primarily concerned with the juxtapositions of the novel and Woolf’s biographical accounts.  However disconcerting this may have been for me at first, Hussey does justify his (and VW’s, in part) intentions:  “To the Lighthouse deals with the experience of time and the function of memory, drawing on Woolf’s own family history to model the recent history of her culture.  Through that narrative, Woolf criticizes the ideology of the late Victorian world in which she grew up and that seemed to many at the time to have been shattered by the First World War” (Hussey xxxv).  I suppose I would have rather had an introduction to the text that contained a more narrow focus, namely, that of the text itself stripped of an external accoutrement. 

And yet, Hussey’s introduction allows us to pull fragments from the auto(biographical) accounts of Woolf’s life we’ve read up to this point.  Have we not heard from Woolf herself of her father’s tyranny in some regards?  Do we not now know how beautiful Julia Stephens was, and how charitable her actions were?  Indeed, it is information such as this that we find in such writing as “A Sketch of the Past.”  If Woolf, as Hussey suggests, is drawing from her past in order to create, then the text itself of To the Lighthouse seems to answer (rather blaringly) her notions of fiction in “Modern Fiction” as well as the charges levied against her by Arnold Bennett, in which Bennett stated, “The foundation of good fiction is character-creating and nothing else,” charges she once also answered in her essay, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” by relaying that real characters are not the same as lifelike (Woolf VWR 200). 
This line of thinking poses the question:  If Woolf dredged the waters of her past in order to create her characters, then do these characters presented to us in To the Lighthouse suffer from the absence of realism/the mimesis of life outside the fictional text?

I think they do not suffer; and yet, there are moments in the novel in which I believe we catch a glimpse of a character operating exceedingly above what we would tend to render lifelike, or even real.

The most prominent of these moments occurs within Part I of Woolf’s novel, in what could be called chapter or section VII.  We have just wrapped up section VI, in which Mrs. Ramsay contemplates her husband’s nature, a contemplation that lends itself more to quiet complacency rather than a true (but internal) upheaval against his ways.  As we move into section VII, we find that their youngest child, James, hates his father (Woolf TTL 40).  While this may or may not be what goes against the grain of lifelike, especially considering that we’ve no knowledge of any transactions really occurring between father and son, what is alarming is the list of reasons for James’s hatred toward his father: 

“[James] hated [his father] for the exaltation and sublimity of his gestures; for the magnificence of his head; for his exactingness and egotism…but most of all he hated the twang and twitter of his father’s emotion which, vibrating around them, disturbed the perfect simplicity and good sense of his relations with his mother…Nothing would make Mr. Ramsay move on.  There he stood, demanding sympathy” (Woolf TTL 40).

Although Woolf sets James up as a character through the eyes of his mother, by her repeating the sentiment that James is sensitive (“(none of her children was as sensitive as he was), her son James”), it is still extremely difficult to grasp that a child, especially one young enough to still have his mother reading to him, could carry on a line of thought with such maturity (Woolf TTL 45).  For me, this passage troubles the concepts/ideas of character Woolf presents in her essays on writing, mainly in “Modern Fiction” and “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.”  As I continue reading the novel, it will be interesting for me to discover whether this particular passage still lends itself to the inconsistency it’s now presenting, or whether I will truly be able to understand that lifelike, concerning this passage, is not Woolf’s goal, but rather her goal is to showcase another character through a character, offering us the realism and honesty we can sometimes only receive through a child seemingly yet unmarred by social constraints. 

Hussey, Mark.  Introduction.  To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.  Orlando, FL:  Harcourt, Inc., 2005.  xxxv-lxviii.  Print.

Woolf, Virginia.  “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.”  The Virginia Woolf Reader.  Ed. Mitchell A. Leaska.  San Diego:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.  1984.  192-212.  Print. 

Woolf, Virginia.  “Modern Fiction.”  The Virginia Woolf Reader.  Ed. Mitchell A. Leaska.  San Diego:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.  1984.  283-291.  Print. 

Woolf, Virginia.  To the Lighthouse.  Ed. Mark Hussey.  Orlando, FL:  Harcourt, Inc., 2005.  Print. 

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