The Correspondence of Existentialism and Feminism in Virginia Woolf’s To the Light House
Updated: Jun 13, 2022
In her book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir describes a woman’s relationship to creativity: “when she does not find love, she may find poetry…the young girl throws herself into things with ardor, because she is not yet deprived of her transcendence; and the fact that she accomplishes nothing, that she is nothing, will make her impulses only the more passionate. Empty and unlimited, she seeks from within her nothingness to attain all.”
She suggests the idea that, from a societal standpoint, a woman does not have the depth to create and, no matter the passion one feels for her art, she must eventually adhere to this belief. By doing so, de Beauvoir establishes the framework for the female Künstlerroman.
The Künstlerroman can be defined as a piece of literature that depicts the becoming of an artist; however, as indicated by de Beauvoir, the experience of artistry can be a different and arguably more complicated for a woman. There tend to be more hurdles and obligations one needs to maneuver around to become an artist as a woman—this concept is further and thoroughly discussed in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and is also heavily utilized as a theme in her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse.
With this novel, Woolf implements the existentialist philosophy as a vehicle to illustrate the female Künstlerroman and to qualify traditionalism with the “new woman”—a term coined by historians to describe womanhood in a new wave of 1920s feminism. Woolf then enhances this argument through her symbols, characterization of Mrs. Ramsay, and the relationship created with the characters Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe.
In order to analyze To the Lighthouse, it is important to understand the social climate that produced it—both from a literary and historical context. First, in the 1920’s a new era of feminism was on the rise, one that related mostly to a woman’s place in the workforce, having the right to vote, and legal issues.
Additionally, in the 1920s the term “the new woman” began to appear in media; this term was mainly attached to politics and having a voice in matters of the state but it can also be applied to the development of women in the workforce and the general attitude surrounding and placement of gender in first-world society.
“The new woman” was one that had opinions and had the option to go to school and further herself in life; she pushed against the mentality that women were not intellectual equals to men, and she had a purpose beyond responsibility to faith, family, and the household. Woolf implements the new woman in her works but also compares her to the more traditional woman.
In To the Lighthouse this is accomplished mostly through the dichotomy presented with Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe. Furthermore, another context that can alter the interpretation of the novel is literary era that Woolf is a part of.
Modernism was an era of literature which began in around 1915 and had a very sort of radical view on literature than the eras that came before.
Many modernist writers aimed to change the way narrative was presented through experimental point-of-view and prioritizing events in narrative that wouldn’t normally be prioritized. This theme characterizes the writing of Woolf’s time period and permeates her writing.
Ultimately, it is the historical placement of this novel which allows for the feminist and existential philosophy—which is weaved in To the Lighthouse—to respond to each other in the way that they do.
In Woolf’s novel, the modernist elements enforce an existentialist attitude which then enhances the feminist argument of the piece.
Existentialism is an approach to existence that puts emphasis on the individual for determining a moral code and purpose, and encourages the idea that each person is responsible for their development and acts of will. Essentially, existentialism implies that there are no inherent rules to anything in life and meaning is solely determined by an individual. This philosophy is at the absolute forefront of To the Lighthouse.
To begin, Woolf’s choice when it comes to point-of-view already exudes the disorder or lawlessness that exists within her writing. She writes in third person omniscient with no transition into another characters thoughts or separation of details. It is all very stream of consciousness. The audience receives one detail after the other with a multitude of voices. Though this radical form of writing already portrays the existentialist ideology with its lack of regard for established novel formatting thus far, Woolf takes the implementation of philosophy a step further.
In the novel, though the changes in voice are sporadic and with no pattern, a number of characters receive equal screen time, so-to-speak. Woolf allows the audience to spend a great deal of time with a number of the characters and each of them have their own complex conflict. There is an emphasis on individual character experience and, in comparison, what weaves them together—the lighthouse—pales slightly.
For example, with Mrs. Ramsay, there are many internal monologues regarding purpose and experience; she states, “so boasting of her capacity to surround and protect, there was scarcely a shell of herself left for her to know herself by; all was so lavished and spent” (Woolf 38). At her core, this character is formed around the turmoil of having no self-identity but this is all happening under the conflict of going the lighthouse.
However, despite the title of the novel and the initial conflict, Woolf manages to give characters their own storyline and emphasize it—there is never a monologue about the lighthouse—and this is true for a majority of the characters in the book; James, Lily, and Mr. Ramsay, among others, each have some sort of individual battle. And to enhance this focus, the author prioritizes individual conflict by giving each character enough word count to both contemplate and develop their turmoil.
Along with the example given with Mrs. Ramsay, the audience is also given information about Lily and her painting, Mr. Ramsay and his work, and James and his mother. And though the lighthouse is the conflict that strings all of these characters together, it is really their individual plots that propel the narrative forward. By having this focus on each character and their singular conflict through long internal monologue, Woolf imitates the existentialist ideology: ones individual person and desires should be a primary motivation and center of that individual’s life. And from the existentialist mindset she begins to include the feminist theology of her novel.
Since the individual is prioritized and each character is given an impartial voice, she implies a certain equality between her male and female characters; with giving them each a complex internal conflict, including the female characters, Woolf pays homage to the independent ideologies of “the new woman” and pushes against the belief, mentioned previously, that woman do not share the same mental capacity as men.
Having portrayed an image of basic feminism—basic feminism being the simple view that men and women are equal—with her story structure, Woolf then develops her definition through symbols and characterization. From the beginning of the novel, there is an instant dichotomy presented with the characters of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe; they are the traditional woman and “the new woman.”
Mrs. Ramsay has much dedication to her family and homely activities and shares the values of conservative society. Within her indirect discourse, she makes many references to her religious faith and implies that she thinks men are mentally superior because they control the world. She states: “Indeed, she had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valor, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance” (Woolf 6). With Mrs. Ramsay, the audience is presented with a very familiar character, a woman who represents how gender has always been viewed. However, this image is juxtaposed with the character of Lily Briscoe who represents the other side—the new woman.
Lily is everything that Mrs. Ramsay isn’t. She is very dedicated to her work as an artist and has no plans to get married and become the traditional woman. And, despite Mrs. Ramsay’s efforts to find her a husband, she pushes all romantic relationships aside. These two individuals function as foil characters to depict the conflict happening historically with gender. But, although they seem like opposites, Woolf also connects them through the elements of the Kunstlerroman.
Despite Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe representing two different types of woman, Woolf manages to portray them both as artist, thus implying that neither option—the traditional woman or the new woman—is better than the other and, more importantly, that both of these women have equally complex and purposeful lives. She incorporates not only the “new woman” into her definition of feminism, but the traditional as well.
First, Woolf illustrates both characters to be artists—Lily a literal painter and Mrs. Ramsay a social artist of sorts—and she gives them parallel event causality. To begin, in the section of To the Lighthouse titled “The Window” both Mrs. Ramsay and Lily introduce their project or their art, to reference the kunstlerroman; it becomes evident that Mrs. Ramsay is working on a perfect dinner party and Lily has been painting a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay and her son James. However, this is only the basis of their similarities.
One of the more interesting resemblances that Woolf draws between these two characters is there almost ethereal or “exotic” physical appearances. Mrs. Ramsay is describes multiples times by several people to be astonishingly beautiful, and many of the characters have an odd, magnetic attraction to her.
One scene in which Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Tansley were interaction showcases this emotion. With his indirect discourse, Mr. Tansley describes: “Under the influence of that extraordinary emotion which had been growing all the walk…he had wanted to take her bag…she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen…what nonsense was he thinking? She was fifty at least” (Woolf 13). This description is then paired with Lily Briscoe’s who, though not described as often, is also portrayed to be beautiful but with “little Chinese eyes.” Both of these women are portrayed to be more unique.
This association with distinct and art aligns with the views of many theorists of what an artist should be; William Wordsworth, for example, who in his book Lyrical Ballads characterizes artistry as a profession for a select few who are unique in their ability to manage being an artist.
Furthering the connection of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily, Woolf establishes their inner turmoil regarding their art. As explained by de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, a woman can have different and arguably greater conflict when producing and developing their art. They receive more criticism for being a woman and can sometimes have the inner feud of obligation to the traditional or progressive image of womanhood. This turmoil and struggle with the justification of their art can be viewed as a piece of the Kunstllerroman framework.
In To the Lighthouse, both characters imagine what it is like to be on the other side of this dichotomy. When Minta becomes engaged, Lily begins to doubt her selected purpose in life due to the romanticizing of marriage and family by both the other characters and society. She philosophizes about the placement of love by expressing, “if you asked nine people out of ten what they would say they wanted nothing but this—love…there is nothing more tedious, puerile, and inhumane than this; yet is also so beautiful and necessary” (Woolf 103).
Love in society is characterized as a necessity for a female and Lily recognizes this, and, when she is confronted with the idea that to pursue her work is to give up love, she has a moment in which she experiences hesitation regarding her art. This is even furthered by the apparent judgement she receives from Charles Tansley who holds the traditional believe that women do not hold the intellectual capacity to write or become an artist of any sort.
On the other side, Mrs. Ramsay, though traditional in her role within society, undergoes the same development and conflicts of an artist such as Lily Briscoe. As Lily spends a large majority of her time, perfecting a painting, Mrs. Ramsay makes family and social matters her life’s purpose, and, specifically, spends a majority of the novel preparing for a dinner—making the soup and maneuvering people.
She takes on the role of match-maker, people-pleaser, host, mother. Mrs. Ramsay is an artist of people-matters and, like Lily, experiences a complex turmoil and growth with her art. Though she loves her children and loves the act of helping people, she has moments where she wonders if perhaps she has missed out on life by not have pursued anything intellectually. She states: “But what have I done with my life…at the far end was her husband…she could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion or affection for him. She had a sense of being past everything, through everything, out of everything” (Woolf 83). Here, Mrs. Ramsay doubts about whether she has made any contribution to the world or if she even really liked her life. However, Woolf establishes this monologue as simply just artistic turmoil by incorporating several other scenes—being enamored with the idea of finding another couple to pair off, interacting with her husband, soothing the doubts of Mr. Bankes—where it becomes obvious to the reader that Mrs. Ramsay did, in fact, enjoy being a traditional woman.
Woolf portrays Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe to be opposite ends of the societal dichotomy that is womanhood but, simultaneously, connects them as artists. She suggest the idea that neither the traditional woman nor the new woman is better or more difficult or the correct option. Woolf argues that, like men, a woman should exist for herself. She should be able to assign her own purpose like a man does. Womanhood is not an obligation or shoes to fill, but rather an individual experience.
Woolf reinforces this idea through the relationship she establishes with Lily and Mrs. Ramsay. Even though they are opposites and have values that the other doesn’t necessarily agree with, the characters have a great amount of respect for each other. Lily thinks Mrs. Ramsay is very admirable in her dedication to family and her painting is of Mrs. Ramsay and James. In response, Mrs. Ramsay believes that Lily is interesting and, through allowing Lily to paint her, approves of her art. Woolf shows that a woman should simply exist the way she wants too without suffering from the criticism of other woman or of society.
Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, implements both the literary and social climate of her time. She adheres to modernist elements and makes a statement regarding the conversation happening about gender. Through her point-of-view and stylistic choices, she creates an existentialist atmosphere that shrouds her entire novel. This ideology of having no inherent rules or structure creates a starting point for her feminist argument. Woolf utilizes the framework of the kunstlerroman in order to establish the dichotomy and similarities of the new and traditional woman. Ultimately, Woolf argues that the process of creating meaning in life is often a different and perhaps more difficult experience for women due to the obligations and expectations placed on her by society, men, and other women.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. (1927). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing. 1981.
De Beauvoir, Simone. “The Second Sex” (1949).
The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Edited by Vincent B. Leitch, vol. 2, W.W Norton and Company, 2010, pp. 1261-1271.