Names, Texts and WWI in To the Lighthouse



by Andre Gerard

Now, of course, is the time to correct these extremes of opinion by consulting, as the critics advise, the masterpieces of the past. We feel ourselves indeed driven to them, impelled not by calm judgment but by some imperious need to anchor our instability upon their security.

How It Strikes a Contemporary”, The Times Literary Supplement, April 25th, 1923

“The Horror! The Horror!” I want to make To the Lighthouse new again. By gentle degrees, by looking at names and intertextual references to Macbeth, Heart of Darkness, Howards End and The Odyssey, I want to share the fun and exhilaration to be found in repeated rereading. At the same time, fun and exhilaration do not preclude deeper, more painful considerations. Ultimately, what I want to do is to think about To the Lighthouse as an antiwar novel, and to make the case that it is one of the greatest books ever written about the causes and consequences of war. World War I, in particular, and all wars, in general, permeate every line of the book. Behind domestic activities and the pastoral pleasures of a family summer holiday broods the constant horror of war, a horror so numbing it can only be approached indirectly and by suggestion.

With indirection as the keynote, I’ll begin this exploration by looking at names. My own starting point was slightly different, insofar as I was led to reread To the Lighthouse by the whimsical yet plausible notion that in the figure of Charles Tansley, Virginia wrote Edmund Gosse into her novel. Pursuing this idea, I started to look closely at the names in To the Lighthouse, and quickly realized that many of the names in the novel had historical connections. Indeed, some of the names had multiple connections. William Bankes, for instance, connects to the Egyptologist William Bankes of Kingston Lacy, to the botanist Joseph Banks, and, as I shall later try to demonstrate, to Macbeth’s Banquo. Charles Tansley connects to Arthur Tansley, one of the founders of ecology. Mr. Ramsay connects to Ramses the Great, to the gifted young Cambridge mathematician Frank Ramsey, and to William Ramsay, 1904 Nobel laureate in chemistry. Lily Briscoe connects to marine artist Arthur Briscoe, and also to Lily Bristow, Victorian mountaineer. Paul Rayley connects to John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh, also a Nobel laureate. Mr. Carmichael quite possibly connects to Marie Carmichael Stopes, paleobotanist, author, contraception campaigner, and lighthouse owner; and “Sorley’s little boy” connects to the Scottish born, Cambridge philosopher William Ritchie Sorley and to his son, Charles Hamilton Sorley.

The Sorley name, in turn, is linked to war. Charles Hamilton Sorley was a young poet killed at the Battle of Loos on October 1913. His poems, published posthumously in 1916, were championed by Robert Graves. Though the two young men never met, Graves, too, had fought at Loos, and in Good-bye to All That (1929), he describes removing the bodies:

After the first day or two the bodies swelled and stank. I vomited more
than once while superintending the carrying. The ones that we could not
get in from the German wire continued to swell until the wall of the
stomach collapsed, either naturally or punctured by a bullet; a disgusting
smell would float across. The colour of the dead faces changed from
white to yellow-grey, to red, to purple, to green, to black, to slimy…

Sorley became one of the Loos bodies, and the above description shows how much artistic self-control, restraint, and indirection Graves was later to show when he came to write “Sorley’s Weather” (February, 1917. Published 1918). There is no hint of war or loss in this bright little gem of a poem where the speaker prefers “the rain-blown hill” to “Shelley, on the sill.”

When outside the icy rain
Comes leaping helter-skelter,
Shall I tie my restive brain
Snugly under shelter?

Shall I make a gentle song
Here in my firelit study,
When outside the winds blow strong
And the lanes are muddy?

With old wine and drowsy meats
Am I to fill my belly?
Shall I glutton here with Keats?
Shall I drink with Shelley?

Tobacco’s pleasant, firelight’s good:
Poetry makes both better.
Clay is wet and so is mud,
Winter rains are wetter.

Yet rest there, Shelley, on the sill,
For though the winds come frorley
I’m away to the rain-blown hill
And the ghost of Sorley.                                              

Virginia Woolf showed similar restraint. Like Graves, five of whose books Hogarth Press published in the early 1920’s she buries the senselessness and horror of war in the use of a near anonymous name. All the same, there can be little doubt that “Sorley’s little boy” is a simple, indirect tribute to Charles Hamilton Sorley. In “These are the Plans,” a 1919 Athenaeum review of the 4th edition of Sorley’s Marlborough and Other Poems, Virginia had praised Sorley’s ability to think for himself and she wondered what his plans for the future would have been had he not been killed at the age of twenty. She also must have known that Sorley’s father was William Ritchie Sorley, holder of the Knightsbridge chair of moral philosophy at Cambridge, and author of the influential A History of English Philosophy (1920), a book in which he devoted almost a full page to a discussion of Leslie Stephen (Virginia’s father), praising his work for the “presentation of the social content of morality in the individual mind as well as in the community.” What better name for Virginia’s lighthouse keeper and his son than the name of Sorley!

To see William Ritchie Sorley behind Sorley the lighthouse keeper and to see Charles Hamilton Sorley behind Sorley’s little boy is to deepen semes of Cambridge, philosophy, of generations, of family pressure and of cultural transmission. To see Charles Sorley behind Sorley’s little boy is to deepen, intensify and complicate the emotional response to the wastefulness of Andrew Ramsay’s death. The Sorley name digs out a beautiful cave of character through which the horror of reality invades the horror of the fiction bounded by the square brackets in To the Lighthouse: “[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.]” To see Charles Sorley behind Sorley’s little boy even transmutes Mrs. Ramsay’s domestic activity of knitting stockings for the poor into the domestic activism of women knitting stockings for the soldiers in WWI. Such seeing adds new depths to the vagina dentata image of “the heather-mixture stocking, with its criss-cross of steel needles at the mouth of it.” Above all, to see Sorleys behind Sorleys is to marvel at the lightness, confidence and complexity with which Virginia Woolf attached fiction to life.

Before moving on to intertextual references, I want to explore names and war a little further. In To the Lighthouse there are repeated references to The Times and to the reading of The Times. Virginia was an assiduous and careful reader of The Times, and it is The Times which allows me to connect Mr. Ramsay and Paul Rayley first to William Ramsay and Lord Rayleigh, and then to the war. In a relatively brief (267 word) December 12, 1904, item titled “The Nobel Prizes” The Times announced:

The Nobel prize for physics has been awarded to Lord Rayleigh, Professor
of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institute. The Chemistry prize is
conferred upon Sir William Ramsay, Professor of Chemistry at University

Given that Rayley is a homonym of Rayleigh, the conjunction of Rayleigh and Ramsay argues for their being the antecedents of Mr. Ramsay and Paul Rayley. The argument is strengthened by remembering how Paul Rayley repeats “Lights, lights, lights,” in a dazed way, and by linking that detail to Lord Rayleigh’s work on “Rayleigh scattering” and explaining why the sky is blue.

As for connecting Rayleigh (Rayley) and Ramsay to war, twelve years after the Nobel announcement, The Times for July 24th, 1916, published an 881 word obituary for Sir William Ramsay, an obituary which mentioned his connection to Lord Rayleigh. Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, the obituary started by looking at Sir William’s last year as it related to the war:

We regret to announce that the distinguished chemist Sir William Ramsay
died yesterday at his residence at Hazlemere, High Wycombe, after an
illness which began to show itself last autumn. Earlier in the year he
contributed a number of letters to The Times on cotton and other subjects
connected with the war.

It was announced last December that the Austrian Society of
Engineers and Architects had expunged the name of Sir William Ramsay
from the list of corresponding members. The discussion was heated, one
fourth of those present voting against the motion on the grounds that the
action should be postponed. Last April, the Lokalanzeiger stated that the
Chemical Society had discussed whether Sir W. Ramsay should be struck
off the list of hon. members. It was decided to postpone the action until
after the war when he would be called upon to defend his criticism of the
politics, economics and science of Germany.

The following year, on June 18th, 1917, much of page 3 of The Times is given over to a large display advertisement for the Ramsay Memorial Fund. The advertisement talks about the fund’s aim to raise one hundred thousand pounds for research fellowships and the construction of a Ramsay Memorial Laboratory of Engineering Chemistry to be established in connection with University College, London. The Rt. Hon. Lord Rayleigh, O.M., F.R.S., is named as chairman of the fund’s General Committee and, with a donation of one hundred pounds, is also named as one of the preliminary subscribers. The size of the fund is justified, in part, by the statement that “the war has shown the supreme importance of Chemistry in its varied applications to the continued existence of the nation while the war lasts, as well as to its survival in the industrial struggle which must follow the war.” To read The Times from 1914 to 1918 is to understand how deeply war impacted every aspect of civilian life. Small wonder that war and the causes and consequences of war permeate so much of Virginia’s writing.

Names are not the only way of glimpsing war in To the Lighthouse. Intertextuality provides another way, and one way to move from names to intertextuality in To the Lighthouse is by means of another name. Consider a Bankes to Banquo declension. Preposterous and tendentious as connecting the two names might initially seem, there is a good deal of evidence linking To the Lighthouse with Macbeth. My first glimpse, faint and dark, of Macbeth in Virginia’s novel came about as a result of considering how Virginia used intertextuality in To the Lighthouse. Weeks of thinking about how Virginia used Grimm, Elliot, Cowper, Scott, Elton, Peacock, Tennyson, and Shakespeare to deepen characterization, and to develop themes, somehow sensitized my eye and my brain to other ways of seeing and thinking. To use critical jargon, the surface of Virginia’s text was destabilized, and one morning the line “Together they had seen a thing they had not been meant to see” caught my eye and my mind and, connecting it to “You have known what you should not,” I felt an urge to see Bankes and Lily as Doctor and Waiting Gentlewoman. The urge was mild, however, and I did not initially pursue it.

The urge must have festered, though, because some weeks later I succumbed to the notion that Mrs. Ramsay is kindred to Lady Macbeth. Admittedly, Mr. Ramsay soliloquizing is what Bankes and Lily were not meant to see, not Mrs. Ramsay. The connection between Mrs. Ramsay and Lady Macbeth seems tenuous at best. Mr. Ramsay is the one occupying the Lady Macbeth position in relation to Lily and William. With Macbeth in mind, I read and reread the preceding lines in the novel, reread and found: “suddenly a loud cry, as of a sleep-walker, half roused.” Surely, Virginia’s indistinct “sleep-walker” connected to Shakespeare’s sleep-walking Lady Macbeth. Surely, this was the ghost of Macbeth rising in To the Lighthouse, unless, of course, my eyes weremade the fooles o’ th’other Sences.” The sleep-walker was also myself. I felt myself “a sleep-walker, half roused.” My mind spun with possibilities and implications.

I kept reading and rereading the passage which precedes Lily and Bankes seeing “a thing they had not been meant to see.” Was I doing the same? No, I was seeing something I had been meant to see. But what was it I was seeing? So much was now changed. Mrs. Ramsay’s reaction to the “sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds,” the tension which gripped her, “her impulse of terror,” all now linked to Duncan’s murder and the sound of the owl. Mrs. Ramsay, “cool, amused, and even faintly malicious,” Mrs. Ramsay willing to offer Charles Tansley up as a sacrifice to her husband, Mrs Ramsay with a picture of a pocket knife with six blades on her knee, Mrs. Ramsay in all these aspects was sister to Lady Macbeth. Further parallels rose up. Mrs. Ramsay discomposed by her husband’s “coming to her like that, openly, so that any one could see,” echoed Lady Macbeth’s anxiety that Macbeth’s face is “a book where men / May read strange matters.” Yes, and further, Mrs. Ramsay’s mental remonstrations at the dinner—“But why show it so plainly,” and “Everybody could see”—made her sister to Lady Macbeth at the banquet, vainly trying to excuse Macbeth’s behaviour on seeing Banquo’s ghost.

Banquo’s ghost! The name of Banquo introduced another sequence of parallels. The similarity in names, for one thing. If I was right in my Macbeth conjectures, then Virginia’s naming of William Bankes went far beyond referencing Sir Joseph Banks or William Bankes of Kingston Lacy. For Virginia, “There was good sport at his making,” and the bank sound in Bankes would have summoned Banquo while the William would have shouted Shakespeare. Consider William Bankes as Banquo. Bankes and Ramsay were friends, yet now the friendship has petered out, and Mr. Bankes sees “the body of his friendship lying with the red on its lips laid up in peat.” The friendship died and was buried when the two men, alone—not on a heath, but on a road in Westmoreland—met the hen with her “covey of little chicks.” Hard, now, to read that passage without thinking of MacDuff’s anguished cry, “all my pretty chickens and their dam / At one fell swoop.” Macbeth sends protean ripples out in all directions.

Further evidence for seeing Banquo elementing aspects of Bankes lies in Mr Ramsay’s children. In thinking about them, Mr. Bankes lays special weight on their number—“Eight children! To feed eight children on philosophy!”—and then the text tells us that “[h]e called them privately after the Kings and Queens of England.” The children are Mr. Ramsay’s, yet Mr. Bankes is the one to connect them to the Kings and Queens of England. With the connection comes the connection to Banquo’s descendants in Macbeth, “the show of eight Kings.” The thought that Mr. Bankes is not “sure which was which, or in what order they came in” relates to the naming of James. In Macbeth, the eighth and last king in the order brings with him associations of King James—reason enough for Virginia to give the same name to the Ramsay’s youngest child, just as Macbeth, “the Scottish play,” might have given her reason enough to use Scotland and the Isle of Skye as the setting of her novel.

Lady Macbeth with the Daggers, Henry Fuseli, 1812

As I kept “dowsing for connections” (thank you, Adam Gopnik) between play and novel, three further possibilities seeped into my mind, two tenuous and slight, the third more demonstrable and suggestive. The first is the parallel which exists between the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay and Lady Macbeth. Both die abruptly, both die mysteriously, and both die offstage. The second connection lies in the colour of the sea. Subtle alchemy is at work, and with occasional help from the “Tale of the Fisherman and His Wife,” the sea changes colour again and again, a veritable rainbow, now blue, now black, now gold, now green, now grey, now purple, now red, now white, now yellow. The shade shifts are always realistic and plausible, relatively unobtrusive, so no alarm bells, beyond those of war, go off in the “Time Passes” segment when the narrative tells us about the “purplish stain upon the bland surface of the sea as if something had boiled and bled, invisibly, beneath,” or later when Lily, thinking about Paul Rayley and passion, notes that “[the] whole sea for miles round ran red and gold.” Think Macbeth, however, and the “boiled and bled” and the “ran red” conjure up “[t]he multitudinous Seas incarnadine.” The parallel deaths and the parallel colours thicken the Shakespearean broth.

The third connection is the way in which “The Tale of the Fisherman and his Wife” bridges Macbeth and To the Lighthouse. Macbeth with vacillating husband and overambitious wife adds another level of meaning to Virginia’s inclusion of the “Tale.” Both fishwife and Lady Macbeth bend weak husbands to their grasping will and push them to act against their better selves. In fairytale and play, overreaching and desire for more, more and always more, culminate in chaos and retribution. With her sensitivity to patterning and story, Virginia would have seen the parallels. And even had she not, the notes to her edition of Grimm make a direct comparison between play and tale. The words in “The Tale of the Fisherman and his Wife” which are quoted in To the Lighthouse come from Grimm’s Household Tales With the Author’s Notes, translated by Margaret Hunt, and included in the notes is the following statement: “The feature of the wife inciting her husband to seek high dignities is ancient in itself, from Eve and, the Etruscan Tanaquil (Livy, 1. 47), down to Lady Macbeth.” Virginia wouldn’t have needed the note, yet on reading it she must certainly have nodded in agreement.

Fun as it is to find flashes of Macbeth in To the Lighthouse, the real fun lies in thinking why they might be there. Some reasons are obvious. Partly, Macbeth amplifies the implications of “The Tale of the Fisherman and His Wife.” Awareness of Macbeth, be it conscious or unconscious, brings with it Lady Macbeth and thereby causes a reappraisal of Mrs. Ramsay. Cam and James are not the only ones who are “demons of wickedness, angels of delight.” Mrs. Ramsay’s domestic behaviour, so positive seeming, has a darker side. Within her lies “The horror! The horror!” of the false or perverted ideal. War will follow from her actions as surely as it does from Lady Macbeth’s. Macbeth brings with it the knowledge that “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Indeed, Mrs. Bast and Mrs. McNab, mumbling, hobbling, lurching, and leering, “with broom and pail, mopping, scouring,” are transmogrified Macbeth witches, three become two, who work for good instead of evil. Through their efforts the house is restored so that “the voice of the beauty of the world came murmuring, too softly to hear exactly what it said—but what mattered if the meaning were plain? entreating the sleepers.” “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” In reading Macbeth, equilibrium in the equation often flows from fair to foul; in To the Lighthouse, where the equilibrium constant is affected by the lives of the obscure—one armed poster hanger, servant girl, Tube liftman, cleaning ladies—foul to fair deserves deeper consideration.

Macbeth is certainly not necessary to any reading of To the Lighthouse. Indeed, as far as I can tell, no one before me has ever written about the Macbeth echoes in the novel. Assiduous Googling and diligent ferreting in journals turns up no sign of anyone preceding me. In the notes to the Wordsworth edition of To the Lighthouse, Nicola Bradbury does no more than to point out how the phrase “by some pricking in his toes” echoes “by the pricking in my thumbs” in Macbeth. A paper by Mathew Brinton Tildesley, “Knocking on the Lighthouse Gate: Further Connections Between Thomas De Quincey and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse”, only looks at how De Quincy’s critical piece might offer insights into Virginia’s creative process. The focus is on De Quincey’s influence and no direct connections are ever made between To the Lighthouse and Macbeth. Anyhow, as said, conscious awareness of Macbeth is not necessary in reading To the Lighthouse. Themes of fair and foul, of siren dangers, of false ideals and goals, of war and dissolution, and of flux and stasis can be deciphered without Shakespeare. To see Macbeth in To the Lighthouse, however, destabilizes Virginia’s text and sets it free. It coats the catgut with butterfly bloom, raises the rainbow over the granite, sets the butterfly’s wings waving on the cathedral arches, and shakes the fabric loose over the iron girders. More than that, Macbeth in To the Lighthouse brings all of Shakespeare with him. Think, for instance, of possible Hamlet, Lear or Tempest elements in “The Lighthouse section.

The more I thought about Macbeth in To the Lighthouse, the more connections I saw. Take Mrs. Ramsay’s thought that “if she had said half what he had said, she would have blown her brains out by now.” The thought is a variant of Lady Macbeth talking about dashing her baby’s brains out, “had I so sworne as you have done to this”. Unqualified or uncontextualized, Mrs. Ramsay’s thought is a shocking one. Even allowing for her tendency to exaggerate and for the curious way in which her thought picks up on the earlier narrative speculation about some other earlier lover who might have “blown his brains out”, the thought seems out of character. Measured against Lady Macbeth’s comment, though, the masculine violence of the thought makes sense. The equation between Mrs. Ramsay and Lady Macbeth is strengthened.

Seeing that possible connection got me hunting for more buried treasure, and quickly enough I glimpsed more. Look at the beginning of chapter 10 in “Time Passes,” and ask yourself why the sleepers “dreamt holily, dreamt wisely”. Lady Macbeth’s “What thou would’st highly, That would’st thou holily: would’st not play false” and Lennox’s remark about the murder of the sleeping guards, “Was not that Nobly done? Aye, and wisely too”, play a part in the sleepers’ dreams. The sleepers themselves are reversed versions of the sleepers in Macbeth’s castle. Whereas the Macbeth sleepers wake to discover murder and move towards a world of war, the Lighthouse sleepers are sleeping their way out of a world of war. In the reviving Ramsay house, Macbeth’s “Still it cry’d, Sleepe no more to all the House” has become “Never to break its sleep any more, to lull it rather more deeply to rest, and whatever the dreamers dreamt holily, dreamt wisely, to confirm”.

I really couldn’t be making all of this up, could I? And there was more. One morning while walking along Vancouver’s aptly named English Beach, it struck me that Mrs. Ramsay’s anxiety about the young people coming back from the beach also has a counterpart in Macbeth. In both play and novel you have a feast at which concern is expressed about the tardiness of expected guests. The fact that Macbeth’s concern is simulated doesn’t diminish the parallel. Indeed, there is another element which increases it: the emphasis on “A light, a light”, when the returning Banquo is murdered, finds its counterpart in Paul Rayley repeating “Lights, lights, lights,” as he returns to the house “in a dazed way.” Even if not murdered, Rayley is a Banquo or a Fleance figure, not to mention a Rayleigh figure.

All these parallels left me in a dazed way. What to make of them? Were all of them deliberate? My sense is that many of them are, and that Virginia’s control is astounding in its subliminal subtlety and in the variety of uses she makes of the Macbeth story. One of the interesting things about these Macbeth parallels is how casual and playful Virginia is with them. One moment Mrs. Ramsay inhabits the role of Lady Macbeth and the next moment we see her as Macbeth. One moment Macbeth is used to comment on character, and the next moment the hidden presence of the play provides comments on greed and war. Everything is suggestion, suggestion, suggestion. Her methods are as allusive and associative as those of Shakespeare.

Over time another idea came to me: if Mrs. Ramsay is Macbeth to Paul Rayley’s Banquo, then the marriage which she urges him into can be read as a form of murder. In “Knocking on the Lighthouse Gate: Further Connections between Thomas De Quincey and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse”, Tildesley theorizes about a “murder-marriage connection” in To the Lighthouse, a connection supposedly suggested by Virginia’s response to De Quincey’s “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth”. As part of his evidence, Tildesley looks at the marriage pressure which Mrs. Ramsay exerts on Lily Briscoe and William Bankes. He draws attention to how Mrs. Ramsay, commenting on William’s decision to stay for dinner, says “I have triumphed tonight”, and he also pointed out how Lily interprets Mrs. Ramsay’s accompanying smile as expressing a belief that Lily will marry William. Tildesley then goes on to argue, plausibly, I think, that Lily “expresses her horror of the married state in terms which echo De Quincey’s on murder: ‘She need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution’.” Lily has escaped Paul’s fate.

Tildesley’s hypothesis is strengthened if Lily and Paul are seen as versions of Banquo or Fleance. Seen as Banquo, Rayley does undergo the degradation and symbolic murder of marriage. Seen as Fleance, Paul narrowly escapes Mrs. Ramsay’s marriage plot. For the sake of their children, Paul and Minta refashion their relationship by creating an alliance within the failed framework of the traditional marriage which Mrs. Ramsay’s “limited, old-fashioned ideas” had pushed them into. Our last glimpse of the Rayleys is provided by the unmarried Lily indulging in a fantasy in which “She would feel a little triumphant, telling Mrs. Ramsay that the marriage had not been a success.” Mrs. Ramsay’s plans have been subverted. More than that, Lily has escaped marriage altogether. She, too, is, however fleetingly, a Fleance figure.

But to go back to Tildesley. If justified, the connection he makes between De Quincey’s “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” and To the Lighthouse is in itself proof that Macbeth was on Virginia’s mind when she wrote To the Lighthouse. And Tildesley’s arguments, buttressed as they are by John Ferguson’s previous findings in “A Sea Change: Thomas de Quincey and Mr. Carmichael in To the Lighthouse”, do seem plausible. Not only that, the arguments can be substantially added to. In looking at how the De Quincey essay offers “new and intriguing insights into Woolf’s novel and creative process,” Tildesley completely overlooks the “Time Passes” section. This is a most puzzling omission, since the whole “Time Passes” section can so easily be read as a De Quincey “syncope,” a moment when “the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested–laid asleep–tranced–racked into a dread armistice.” This last phrase seems almost prophetic, almost as if De Quincey had read and were describing “Time Passes.” Through her novel, retroactively Virginia makes him seem prophetic. By thinking about Macbeth, and by thinking about “the complete suspension and pause in ordinary human concerns,” and “that moment when the suspension ceases, and the goings-on of human life are suddenly resumed,” De Quincey helped Virginia find tools to realize her vision and to simultaneously put his theories into practice. To recognize De Quincey and Macbeth in To the Lighthouse is to see “proofs of design and self-supporting arrangement where the careless eye had seen nothing but accident.”

Equate the “Time Passes” section and the “knocking at the gate” scene, and WWI looms large in To the Lighthouse. We are faced with a novel which pivots upon war, one in which we can look for both the causes and the consequences of war. In Macbeth, the knock is preceded by the relentless movement towards Duncan’s murder, is preceded by the misguided logic and actions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In To the Lighthouse, the “Time Passes” section is preceded by the Ramsay family sharing their summer home with their guests. In Charles Tansley and Mr. Ramsay and William Bankes, we see masculine neediness and immaturity. In Mrs. Ramsay we see heroic efforts to create a blissful isle, whatever the cost. Mrs. Ramsay is an enabler and supporter of masculine fictions, doing all she can to protect her loved ones from unpleasant realities and, in the process of so doing, training her children to continue the cycle of evasion and distortion. She has the whole of the male sex under her protection; “for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike.” Her daughters must be taught to feel and act like her, while James and the boys must be prepared for a momentous future, “red and ermine on the Bench or directing a stern and momentous enterprise in some crisis of public affairs.” The “Tale of the Fisherman and His Wife” has much to say about the Ramsay household. Appeasement and vaulting ambition underlie and undermine the foundations of their society.

Thoughts of De Quincey and the apparent equivalence of the “Time Passes” section and the “knocking at the gate” scene invite dramatic reappraisal of To the Lighthouse. All three sections of the novel have to be rethought of as positioned before or after or during the knock. How bloody, how murderous is “The Window” passage? Certainly, the darker elements of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s behaviour are made more visible, and the question of crime and guilt is raised. Signs of the “murderous mind” must be looked for. Further, is “Time Passes” to be read as both murder and knock? How far is passing time annihilated, and what of that annihilation is owing to De Quincey and to his idea that “time must be annihilated”? Virginia uses the word “annihilation” three times in the subsequent “Lighthouse” section, yet, as Jim Stewart points out in “Woolf and Andrew Marvell”, her use of the word also seems to owe a lot to Andrew Marvell and to Sir Thomas Browne. What is the weight of the word “annihilation” as it is used in the “Lighthouse” section? Is the “Lighthouse” section to be read in a De Quincian sense as “the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world”? If so, what kind of a world is it, and how closely should it be linked to the post-murder world of Macbeth? Other than Lily’s recollection of Charles Tansley “speaking during the war,” and the thought that “war had drawn the sting of her femininity,” there is no overt reference to war in the last section of To the Lighthouse. “Life has changed completely,” yet there is nothing comparable to the horror attendant on the slaughter of Lady MacDuff and her little ones. Even if we now have a small community of survivors, a community “drawn on by some stress of common feeling which made it, faltering and flagging as it was, a little company bound together and strangely impressive,” the consequences of war remain as camouflaged and indirect as the causes.

Camouflage and indirection, too, are keynotes to Virginia’s use of Conrad and Heart of Darkness. Writing about Conrad and his work in 1918, Virginia wrote:

To possess a fuller account of the processes which have produced some notable
books we should be willing to offer their distinguished authors liberal terms in the
shape of our gratitude, or, if it suited them better, promise to forgo a chapter
here, a volume there, in return for the gift of a few pages of spiritual
autobiography. It is no impiety. We are not asking that the creator should
dismember his own creatures. We ask only to be allowed to look more closely into
the creative process…

In Virginia’s own creative process, Joseph Conrad loomed large. When, upon Conrad’s death in August of 1924, her lengthy elegiac leader for the Times Literary Supplement was published, it was her seventh piece on him since 1917. Her appreciation of him was further marked by her republishing the leader as the penultimate essay in the Common Reader (1925). Among the things she admired in him were the power of his prose and his ability to reconcile his opposites and to simplify the complex. “Conrad,” she wrote in one of her essays, “is not one and simple; no, he is many and complex.” Elsewhere she praised his “moments of vision,” saying, “These visions are the best things in his books.” She saw him as “a writer who becomes aware that the world which he writes about has changed its aspect,” and as a writer who had “the gift of seeing in flashes.”

Though Virginia had suspiciously little to say about Heart of Darkness, it, of all of Conrad’s books, is the one which seems to have had the biggest impact on her. Some of this impact has been commented upon. Numerous critics—Patricia Crouch, Shirley Neumann, Rosemary Pitt, and Mark Wollaeger among them—have, for instance, looked at parallels between Heart of Darkness and The Voyage Out. Most, if not all, of these critics have focused on thematic and plot parallels; yet a convincing case could also be made that Heart of Darkness had a profound influence on Virginia’s narrative method, particularly on her use of symbols and of suggestive repetition to deepen the meaning of her stories. If ever there was a spinner of yarns who enveloped her tales with hazes or halos of meaning, it is Virginia. Perhaps Virginia avoided public comment about Heart of Darkness precisely because Conrad’s methods meant so much to her.

Connecting To the Lighthouse to Heart of Darkness is relatively easy. The Mannings, after all, are building a new billiard room. All you have to do is to know that billiard balls were made of ivory and to notice that the Mannings live at Marlow, and that Mrs. Ramsay, “feeling very cold,” once went on the Thames with the Mannings. Put ivory, Marlow, and Thames together, and you have Heart of Darkness. The equation is an easy one, particularly for Virginia. She was well aware of how economics and consumption connected to the atrocities of the Congo. For one thing, Virginia, as has been shown by Michèle Barrett, did extensive research for Leonard Woolf’s Empire and Commerce in Africa (1920), a powerful condemnation of the state as a “super-joint-stock-company,” as well as a lucid dissection of the cynical relationship between imperialism and finance. For another, she quite likely would have read “How Billiard Balls are Made” and “How We Get Our Ivory: The Elephant and the Slave Trade,” 1889 Pall Mall Gazette articles which detailed how the knife handle, piano key, comb, and billiard ball industries were responsible for the slaughter of up to 65,000 elephants annually. These fascinating articles linked the pursuit of ivory to the exploitation of Africa and to the “horrors” of the slave trade.

Reading Virginia constantly involves exposing your mind to “a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel.” A further impression involves Mrs. Ramsay knitting. As she knits, “all the fine gravings came drawn with steel instruments about her lips and forehead.” Never mind the self-referential writerly elements of this description, nor the way in which “gravings” summons up the grave. Of interest is how Mrs. Ramsay’s knitting aspect connects her to the Fates and with them to Madame Defarge, and eventually to Conrad’s two women feverishly knitting black wool in the sepulchral city. Behind Mrs. Ramsay lurks “The horror! The horror!”

Consider. Mrs. Ramsay’s support of Mr. Ramsay (her support of all men, really), and her endorsement of marriage, and her seeing James “all red and ermine on the Bench or directing a stern and momentous enterprise,” make her complicit in the coming war. She directs “the horror of family life,” which Nancy tries to flee. She uses “the heat of love, its horror, its cruelty,” to spring the trap of marriage. One way of reading Heart of Darkness is to see the Intended as “The horror! The horror!” Kurtz places her in the position of angel in the house and commits his atrocities for her sake. When the Intended pushes Marlow into giving her Kurtz’s last word to live by, Marlow tells her, “The last word he pronounced was–your name.” The Intended and “The horror” are equivalent. See Heart of Darkness in To the Lighthouse, and Mrs. Ramsay shares in that equivalence.

Mrs. Ramsay is more than the Intended. She is also Kurtz. Like Kurtz her actions spring from ideals which are initially noble. Like Kurtz her ideals are severely warped. Like Kurtz she has a vision which leads to “The horror! The horror!” Like Kurtz she has her followers and disciples. Tansley, perhaps, is the young man in motley. Tansley, like Lily, is also a compound of Marlow and Kurtz. Lily and Tansley are accolytes to Mrs. Ramsay and in danger of being overwhelmed by the power of her myth, of losing perspective, of losing true self and sanity. Mrs. Ramsay’s power not only threatens Tansley and Lily’s identities, it threatens to seduce and corrupt them. Her power tempts them to pursue a power not their own. Think of how Tansley preaching and memories of Mrs. Ramsay surface in Lily’s mind, as she idly plays God to the ants

Lily, most certainly, has a Marlow aspect. Just as Marlow remains loyal to Kurtz, so Lily remains loyal to Mrs. Ramsay. Marlow’s statement that Kurtz “had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot” could easily be made by Lily about Mrs. Ramsay. When Lily feels Mr. Ramsay’s unspoken emotional pressure, when she feels that she “[a] woman, she had provoked this horror; a woman, she should have known how to deal with it”, she is in a position which parallels Marlow’s position in relation to Kurtz or even Kurtz’s position in relation to the Intended. Further, just as Marlow, after Kurtz’s death, in the sepulchral city is haunted by the vision of Kurtz, “a vision of him on the stretcher, opening his mouth voraciously, as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind,” so, too, after Mrs. Ramsay’s death, Lily is haunted by the vision of Mrs. Ramsay, and “in the country or in London, the vision would come to her.”

Horror blossoms in strange ways. Heart of Darkness reconfigures To the Lighthouse. To the Lighthouse also reconfigures Heart of Darkness. Macbeth, too, figures in the reconfigurations. “Oh horror, horror, horror!” cries MacDuff. After MacDuff comes the dying Kurtz who ‘cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision,—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—”‘The horror! The horror!”’ And beyond MacDuff and Kurtz sits Mrs. Ramsay, or at least the ghost of Mrs. Ramsay as seen by Lily:

“Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!” she cried, feeling the old horror come back — to
want and want and not to have. Could she inflict that still? And then, quietly, as if
she refrained, that too became part of ordinary experience, was on a level with
the chair, with the table. Mrs. Ramsay — it was part of her perfect goodness —
sat there quite simply, in the chair, flicked her needles to and fro, knitted her
reddish-brown stocking, cast her shadow on the step. There she sat.

This passage brilliantly acknowledges, replicates and extends the ambiguities contained in Conrad’s passage about the Intended. The “old horror” is both “to want and want and not to have” and Mrs. Ramsay. The language allows for the possibility of seeing Mrs Ramsay as “the old horror,” and Mrs. Ramsay is as much the “horror” as the Intended ever was. Even if the steps are empty, free of shadow, at the end of the novel, for Virginia the vision of Kurtz floated behind Mrs. Ramsay in Lily’s concluding thought.

Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her
canvas. There it was — her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines
running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics,
she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself,
taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at
her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a
second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she
thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.

Though Lily’s vision is artistic, not political, the word “vision” is disturbingly ironic when read with Heart of Darkness in mind. Visions can lead to horror. For all that the post-war world in which Lily paints is a changed and different world, old mistakes may still be repeated, or new ones made.

Recognizing the mistakes is the difficulty. While war is not a feature of Heart of Darkness—excepting, perhaps, the French man-of-war “firing into a continent”— Heart of Darkness is used by Virginia to warn against the causes of war. Remember the Manning’s billiard room. Billiard rooms require billiard balls and billiard balls require ivory. Ivory leads to the atrocities of the Congo. “The horror” is brought about by voracity and a lack of restraint. The idealism inherent in Kurtz’s report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs is subverted and perverted by greed and rapacity. As Marlow points out, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”The chain gang, the dying slaves, the skulls on posts, all areproducts of a “flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.”

The Victorian ideals which the Ramsays embody are similarly tarnished and stained. The Ramsay household is sustained, in part at least, by the fruits of imperialism. To the Lighthouse is full of imperial references, references such as Mrs. Ramsay’s Cashemere shawl, Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts about the men “who negotiated treaties, ruled India,” Mrs. Ramsay’s opal necklace from India, Mrs. Ramsay “motionless for a moment against a picture of Queen Victoria wearing the blue ribbon of the garter,” the girls’ at dinner questioning “of the Bank of England and the Indian Empire,” Mr. Carmichael, “going to India,” “friends in Eastern places,” and the bones which “bleach and burn far away in Indian sands.” While there is no direct anti-imperial rhetoric, there is a clear sense that the Ramsay life style is as dependent on Imperial spoils as it is on the one armed poster hanger, the Swiss girl with the dying father, “the liftman in the Tube,” Mrs. McNab, and lame old Mr. Kennedy. Mrs. Ramsay and the Intended alike are sustained by the spoils of Imperialism and the fruits of exploitation.

Virginia was acutely aware of the moral risks attendant on consumerism. It is no accident that To the Lighthouse starts with James cutting pictures out of an Army and Navy catalogue. Underlying the ecological and imperial implications of the “new billiard room” is the question of consumption. The billiard room connects to the Ramsay greenhouse and to Mrs. Ramsay’s worries about maintaining it. £50 to repair what was primarily a status symbol (remembering that the Ramsay’s would have had little benefit from it outside the summer) is a staggering sum, if you consider that according to Arthur Bowley’s 1920 pamphlet The Change in the Distribution of the National Income 1880-1913, the average annual earnings for all wage-earners (excluding shop assistants) was estimated at fifty-one pounds in 1913. No wonder Mrs. Ramsay is worried about the cost. Billiard room and greenhouse are items of conspicuous consumption, luxury items purchased at a considerable cost. The billiard room and the greenhouse also connect to the “Tale of the Fisherman and his Wife.” The whole story hinges on the wife’s discontent with what she has and on her need to always have more, more, and more. Her fate is “to want and want and not to have.”

Part 1 of a 3-part essay, the remainder forthcoming in January 2015. Part 2.

About the Author:

Andre Gerard is the founder of Patremoir Press and the editor of Fathers: a Literary Anthology.