By Charlotte Holmes
In an exam in an undergraduate course on the modern novel at LSU, my professor gave us an essay question: Which is more profound, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent or Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse?
I wasn’t completely sure what he meant by “profound,” but I knew that To the Lighthouse—the first Woolf novel I’d read—was my favorite of the two, so I wrote in its defense. Lord knows what I said—this was thirty-three years ago—but it must have met with the professor’s approval, because I made an A on the exam. When he gave back our blue books, though, he remarked that every one of us had argued for Woolf’s book. “You’re all wrong, of course,” he said. “Conrad’s book is more profound, because it encompasses the lives of both men and women.”
And if she puts them all in a spell, then they are the beguiled, who believe she will always be there to sort things out, to smooth over the rough patches, to salve the wounds.
I believe that in this beguiling lies Woolf’s true sympathy for the men in the novel. Mr. Ramsay, after his wife’s parenthetical death, is devastated beyond measure. Who among us, leaving our loved ones behind, would want to see them in such a wretched state?
About Lily Briscoe visiting the summer house after Mrs. Ramsay is gone, we’re told, “the war had drawn the sting of her femininity. Poor devils, one thought, poor devils of both sexes.” Lily ponders “what a power was in the human soul!” What Lily understands is that Mrs. Ramsay extended herself for others, constantly, but in doing so wove a strong web of dependence.
“She was frightening,” Lily thinks, because she was so successful. She was the hub around which the entire universe spun.
Far from being evil or unlikable characters, both Ramsays are drawn fairly with Woolf’s discerning pen—faulty, human characters who have their moments of grace and their moments of vanity, their weaknesses and strengths.
When I’m having difficulty writing a character, it’s often Virginia Woolf I go back to, not only for the illustrations of complexity that are made possible in her novels and stories, but for her own complexity that emerges in the journals and letters. One of the century’s greatest writers, and celebrated in her lifetime, she often thought of herself as a “failure,” unable to achieve what she aimed for in both her art and life.