Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
This seminar paper will be dealing with Virginia Woolf and her perception towards artists, art, the process of its creation. These topics are omnipresent in all her works, both fictional and non-fictional, and these paper will try to present those viewpoints through her novel To the Lighthouse and its central figure Lily Briscoe.
In order to do this, it is important to first present the historical context, political and social circumstances during which Virginia Woolf has created her works, as well as some elements of her personal life. The first half of twentieth century was defined by the catastrophic consequences of the First World War which after its ending forcedpeople to put things into perspective, and that resulted in changing the perception of reality and the values in life. It was obvious that the change was needed and the transformation started in almost all spheres of life affecting also art in general where the Modernist movement started, questioning the concept of “real” or realism in life, the gender roles in art, the artist’s personal views, perceptions and the state of mind in creating an art piece. Virginia Woolf was determined to “fe-form” the novel in a way, rejecting the realistic style of writing, and constantly experimenting with forms of literary expression trying to put innovative touch to her works. Her focus was predominantly on gender roles, unfair perception and representation of women as artists, but also female characters in literary works. Novels up to that time were usually centred upon male characters presenting male dominance towards women in all spheres of life – domestic and social. Woolf presents women figures as centre roles of a novels, opposing their domestic roles as daughters, wives and mothers with their ambitions and desires towards finding their voice, creativity, as well building up their self-worth and realising that it does not come from men approval or disapproval.
This paper will try to put those elements in perception with previously mentioned novel, as well as connect Modernism literature with changes happening in art, especially Post-Impressionism movement in works of Paul Cézanne.
Virginia Woolf lived and wrote during time that was marked by the end of the Victorian age and seen as era of major changes happening in society and political map of England. The nineteenth century was the time of political and economic prosperity for British Empire, however twentieth century, especially after First and Second World War, brought many issues that caused a significant decline of its political dominance.
The way of life changed considerably comparing these two centuries. In the Victorian era, everything dependent on the social class and gender that one belonged to, so the quality of life and possibilities were different for people belonging to the aristocracy, compared to those from the middle class or working class, as well as for those living on rural or town and city area (Mitchell 15-18). The Victorian society was strictly patriarchal, creating a new social order of repressed women where they were perceived as beautiful creatures, so called “the Angel in the House” and were severely abused with enforced marriage and obligation to procreate. Marriage was a form of a contract in which a woman gave full ownership of herself and her body to her husband which often resulted in sexual violence, verbal abuse and economic poverty. It was expected from a woman to be submissive to her husband, and to lead a family life, which included taking care of her family and the household, and that manifested in women always putting needs of others before their own. This act of self-sacrifice restrained women from chasing any career or personal goals, that were considered as men’s territories and domains (263-266). What is more, it was believed that is in woman’s nature the fact they are not capable of such things: “Women are subordinate to a regime of ideas. Values and practices (patriarchy) in which their position is demarcated and authorised by “nature” as different from and less than males in terms of rational powers, moral character, physical strength” (Botting 11).
Things changed in the late nineteenth century with creation of the concept of the New Woman, which opposed those traditional conventions proving that women are capable of more than just take care of the household and her family. This led to the feminist movement in first half of twentieth century where women started to fight for their education, work opportunities and political rights demanding the right to vote (Whitworth 50-51). Virginia Woolf was an advocate of women’s rights using her literary works as a platform to speak out about educational and work restrictions women suffer. In one of her most influential essays A Room of One’s Own she stresses the importance of women having access to professions and the right for basic conditions which would allow them to reach their full intellectual potential: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (Woolf 4). In the essay she uses a metaphor of Shakespeare’s fictional sister Judith, claiming that if Shakespeare had a sister with the same potential, she “would certainly have gone crazed, or ended her days in some lonely cottage” (48), to stress the fact that women do not have the same opportunities for reaching the freedom of art creation and fulfilling their potential as such.
The Modernist movement started in the first half of the twentieth century, to be more precise in years between the end of the First World War and the 1940s and some of its main characteristics are strong break with tradition and history including the actions against established religious, political and social perceptions and institutions because they are the cause of alienation, loss and despair in human life. They emphasize on the celebration of individuality and inner strength, as well as the sub-consciousness and the fact that human life is unordered (Sanders 484-487). Modernists were influenced by some substantial psychological and philosophical theories created by Sigmund Freud and Henri Bergson, as well as visual arts (Carter 350). Roger Fry, painter and art critic, organized and art exhibition in 1910 called Manet and the Post-Impressionists which exhibited paintings by Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and many others. The style of paintings was different from painter to painter, but what they all had in common was departure from Impressionism, using symbolism, vivid colours, simplified forms that were often product of artist’s deep personal thoughts and memories (Berkowitz).
As mentioned in previous chapter, Roger Fry had a significant influence on Modernist art, by coining the term Post-Impressionism which at first referred only to painters, but the ideas and its principles soon affected writers as well. Some of its defining characteristics are symbolism which was used to present the artist’s subconscious mind, combining form and meaning into one, negation of realistic representation and the importance of conveying feelings. Paul Cézanne said himself that “a work of art which did not begin in emotion is not a work of art”.
These elements can be seen in Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, where she uses symbols and symbolic representation avoiding speaking directly to the reader, but instead leaving the representation of meaning behind certain elements to reader to interpret. The lighthouse is the first and the most important symbol that Woolf uses to represent the wastage of time. The tower is used as reminder to characters that they have a specific amount of time to achieve certain goals in life. But it can also be seen as a representation of people who only after reaching their goal actually discover that this is something they did not actually want. In the novel, that is James who only after coming to the lighthouse realized that the image he sees is not the expected one. Waves are also important symbol of time that constantly moves forward and brings changes, but they are also destructive elements as Mr. Ramsay says that the sea “eats away the ground we stand on” (44) and a reminder how fragile and limited human life is. Window could also be seen as a representation of contrast between day and night, but past and present as well. The window is the name of the first chapter where almost the whole narrative is happening around the window – characters are sitting next to it observing the passing of the day, Mrs. Ramsay sits there to read to James while Lily is trying to paint them.
Lily Briscoe herself is a symbol of Post-Impressionist artist. Her aim is not to paint accurate, realistic canvases, but instead she presents the scene as combination of shapes, masses, lines, vivid colours, having lights and shadows in mind, and most importantly keeping all of the elements in unity. She painted a plain purple triangle as a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay and her son James, as well as some other elements like the house, the wall, the tree, but her aim is not to show their physical characteristics but her own vision of Mrs. Ramsay that goes beyond of just the superficial appearance. By analysing her style, it is obvious that by using colour and shapes as dominant elements in her painting she is close to the Cézanne’s artistic style – “The jacmanna was bright violet; the wall staring white. … Then beneath the colour there was the shape. She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked” (To the Lighthouse 16). She also constantly questions her perspective trying to present it as faithfully as she can, which corresponds to Post-Impressionistic way of thinking and approaching art.
Virginia Woolf as an advocate for women’s rights in finding their own voice in artistic creation states that it is important for writers to distance themselves from gender restrictions. In that way the principle of impersonality, freedom from any external influence, can be achieved. Furthermore, she claims that great obstacle in women’s artistic creation are men whose hostility and negation of ability of adequate artistic creation often leaves women in anger and frustration and feeling helpless, and the ability to supress those emotions is not easy – ‘She will write in a rage where she should write calmly … She will write of herself where she should write of her characters.’ (A Room of One’s Own 59).
This problem is presented through the character of Lily Briscoe. The disturbing presence of Mr. Ramsay prevent her from establishing herself as an artist, and we can see that at the beginning of the novel when she tries to paint but is distracted by him. The same thing happens years later, in the same place – his presence excludes her ability to paint: ‘Every time he approached … ruin approached, chaos approached.’ (To the Lighthouse 137). But when she physically distances herself from him, she seems to be fine, which, however cannot be said for disturbing effect of Charles Tansley who said that ‘women can’t write, women can’t paint’ (44) and Lily even physically distanced from him cannot escape those words that haunt her making her doubt her abilities even more. Unlike Lily, Mrs. Ramsay firmly believes that the only role woman has is that of wife and mother, which also negatively affects Lilly’s self-belief as she sees Mrs. Ramsay as a fascinating woman. But at the end of the novel Lily won in the struggle of eliminating unnecessary distractions and found herself, realising her worth as both a woman and an artist which culminated in letting her subconscious mind take over her in creation of her artistic masterpieces:
‘And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance and whether Mr Carmichael was there or not, her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues’ (238).
In her essay A Room’s of One’s Own Woolf also talks about the fact that there is no history behind women’s creation of art and that all values, concepts and themes up to that point were created and are governed by men, so it is a big challenge in front of them to ignore those boundaries and restrictions behind “write this, think that” (64). Because of that women are obliged to find their own devices to express themselves, and to do that they should not let any gender, social, political or racial restriction come on their way and dictate the way they write and create art (75-80).
As a female writer in early twentieth century Virginia Woolf is a crucial figure not just for introducing a new way of writing but because she had the courage to use her voice in favour of all women who in that time were silenced by Victorian image of a woman, doubting their abilities that they can pursue a career and most importantly, that they have a voice and the right to use it. In her works Woolf reflects all elements of Post-Impressionism by rejecting traditional approaches, and favouring innovation and experimentation as well as emphasizing on personal vision and creating unity by using symbols and giving the audience the active role of interpreting them. She also introduces the reader with artists who struggle to find their artistic voice because they are restrained by society and boundaries preventing them from reaching their full potential. This is the character of Lily Briscoe, but by the end of the novel, Woolf enables her to silence all those voices telling her that she is not capable of creating the art of value because of her gender as she finally finds her own voice, style end her true self.