The Odyssey, The Times and Howard's End in To the Lighthouse
Howards End, Sony Pictures Classics, 1992
by Andre Gerard
After Macbeth, Heart of Darkness. After Heart of Darkness, Howards End. Only connect. Just as the Marlow name provides a connection to Heart of Darkness, the Bast name links To the Lighthouse with Howards End. Old Mrs. Bast’s name builds a powerful bridge by way of poor Leonard Bast. Yes, Bast is also the name of the Egyptian goddess of cats, women and secrets, and To the Lighthouse is freighted with an important Pharaonic subtext; and, yes, bast also refers to Russian peasant shoes, shoes referred to in Anna Karenina, another major To the Lighthouse hypertext; yes, but no matter. Bast, like so much else in Woolf’s writing is deliberately over-determined and, whatever other meanings it may contain, it still connects strongly to Howards End.
Once looked for, the parallels between Howards End and To the Lighthouse are impressive. Mrs. Ramsay corresponds to Mrs. Wilcox, Lily to Margaret, the Ramsay home to Howards End, Charles Tansley to Leonard Bast, and Mrs Bast to Mrs. Avery. Start, for instance, with Mrs. Avery and Mrs. Bast: both are elderly village women, both are devoted to the memory of the dead lady of the house, both are engaged in cleaning and restoring the house after a long period of neglect, both rescue books and furniture, thereby saving the house from the sands of oblivion, and both salvage enough of the past to offer hope for the future. Fused with Mrs. McNab, Mrs. Bast is every bit as much the genius loci of the Ramsay home as Mrs. Avery is of Howards End.
As for the loci, both the Ramsay home and Howards End are emblematic as islands of threatened civilization. On the remote Isle of Skye, the Ramsay home stands as a center of art and culture. Victorian in aspect, it is Appleton House, Cliveden Court, Kingston Lacey, Knole and Penshurst in miniature. Howards End, meanwhile, threatened as it is by Edwardian urban sprawl, is a vestige of yeoman England, an unlikely survival which offers Margaret the hope that “our house is the future as well as the past.” Both houses barely survive the death of their mistresses, and the ravages of time and of modernity. In To the Lighthouse, modernity takes the guise of war and in Howards End it takes on the form of the Wilcox craze for motion and the creeping red rust of London. Ironically, both Howards End and the Ramsay home thrive and survive because of Imperialism. The Ramsay home would not be possible without the bones which “bleach and burn far away in Indian sands,” and it is with the help of the Imperial and West African Rubber Company that Howards End survives suburban encroachment as a “converted farm.”
Economics also connect Leonard Bast and Charles Tansley. “Charles Tansley losing his umbrella” ceases to be a gratuitous detail when read against the consequences attendant on Leonard’s losing his. Both Tansley and Bast come from poor backgrounds and suffer from poverty. While he may be a student, socioeconomically Charles Tansley, “parading his poverty, parading his principles,” smoking the cheapest tobacco and often forced to do without a greatcoat in winter, is not far removed from Leonard Bast who stands “at the extreme verge of gentility,” teetering on the edge of poverty’s abyss. In matters of chivalry, too, Tansley and Bast resemble each other. Where Leonard is “anxious to hand a lady downstairs, or to carry a lady’s programme for her,” Charles sets great store on being allowed to carry Mrs. Ramsay’s bag.
Economics and class insecurities aside, it is in the matter of books that Charles Tansley and Leonard Bast are most similar. Both try to use books to save themselves. By reading Ruskin, Leonard hopes to “push his head out of the grey waters and see the universe,” while Charles Tansley’s future depends on his dissertation. Not surprisingly, Leonard is always “itching to talk about books,” forever plunging into “a swamp of books,” whereas Charles Tansley is “always carrying a book about under his arm.” Both are, even if only glancingly, associated with Ibsen. Further, both are linked to falling books. Mrs. Ramsay lives in fear that Charles Tansley “would knock a pile of books over.” Thinking of Charles Tansley, she expects to “hear the crash of books on the floor above,” and she even imagines “Charles Tansley waking them with his books falling.” As for Leonard Bast, he pulls a bookcase over when he suffers his heart attack and “books fell over him in a shower.”
Similar as the Charles Tansley and Leonard Bast cases are, the strongest connection between Howards End and To the Lighthouse is to be found in comparing Lily’s relationship with Mrs. Ramsay to that of Margaret’s with Mrs. Wilcox. In both novels you have an intelligent, sensitive, strong young woman who forms a deep, almost mystical bond with an older nurturing woman who is emblematic of what seems best in England. In both novels, the older woman dies suddenly and the younger woman struggles to come to terms with the older woman’s legacy. Margaret and Mrs Wilcox, Lily and Mrs. Ramsay–both relationships carry great symbolic weight, even if the symbolism in To the Lighthouse is much subtler and more ambiguous than that in Howards End.
Finding signs of Howards End in To the Lighthouse is not surprising. Virginia Woolf and Edward Morgan Forster had a close if guarded relationship, the start of which can be dated back to around 1910, the year Forster published Howards End. Forster had befriended Thoby Stephen, Virginia’s brother, while at Cambridge several years earlier, and some scholars–Wilfred Stone and Andrew McNeillie among them–have even suggested that the Schlegel sisters in Howards End were “based to some degree on Vanessa and Virginia.” Forster himself maintained that the Schlegel sisters were based on the three sisters of his friend Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson. Giving the two Schlegel sisters an Oxbridge brother named Tibby when the two Stephen sisters had an Oxbridge brother named Thoby suggests a certain disingenuousness on Forster’s part, but even if the Stephen family played no conscious part in the creation of the Schlegels, Virginia would certainly have seen elements of herself, Vanessa and Thoby in Forster’s Helen, Margaret, and Tibby. Even Leonard Bast’s first name would have resonated, given that two years after Howards End was published Virginia Stephen married the “penniless Jew” Leonard Woolf. With such associations between her life and Forster’s novel, including Howards End in To the Lighthouse can be seen as an act of homage and of playful re-appropriation.
Before looking more closely at the Virginia’s relationship with Forster, I want to point out that Howards End is not the only Forster book referenced in To the Lighthouse. There is further Forster connection in the title of Virginia’s novel. Forster, too, had written a lighthouse book of sorts. In 1923 Virginia and Leonard published Forster’s Pharos and Pharillon. The book consisted largely of playfully descriptive sketches written by Forster when he was stationed in Alexandria with the Red Cross during WWI, and the title of the book came in part from “Pharos,” the pen name under which he had originally published some of the pieces in The Egyptian Mail and The Egyptian Gazette. As a mix of the historical, the exotic, the whimsical, the poetic, and the personal; as a curious Alexandrian pageant which opens with the ambiguities of Menelaus’ encounter with Proteus, passes through the howls of cotton-traders, and ends with the poetry of C. P. Cavafy; as an affirmation of culture written in a time of war, Pharos and Pharillon had much to offer Virginia. Take, for instance, Forster’s description of the famous Pharos or Lighthouse of Alexandria:
A lighthouse was a necessity. The coast of Egypt is, in its western section, both
flat and rocky, and ships needed a landmark to show them where Alexandria lay,
and a guide through the reefs that block her harbours. Pharos was the obvious
site, because it stood in front of the city ; and on Pharos the eastern promontory,
because it commanded the more important of the two harbours the Royal. But it is
not clear whether a divine madness also seized the builders, whether they
deliberately winged engineering with poetry, and tried to add a wonder to the world.
At all events they succeeded, and the arts combined with science to praise
their triumph. Just as the Parthenon had been identified with Athens, and St.
Peter’s was to be identified with Rome, so, to the imagination of contemporaries,
“The Pharos” became Alexandria and Alexandria the Pharos. Never, in the
history of architecture, has a secular building been thus worshipped and taken on
a spiritual life of its own. It beaconed to the imagination, not only to ships, and
long after its light was extinguished memories of it glowed in the minds of men.
As she worked on To the Lighthouse, this passage, along with much else in Pharos and Pharillon, must have glowed in Virginia’s mind, and subtly influenced her thoughts about science, art, commerce, culture, Homeric myth, and war. Despite her claim that “I meant nothing by The Lighthouse,” flashes of Pharos and Pharillon can be glimpsed in her lighthouse thoughts.
Forster’s books mattered greatly to Virginia, and at different times in her life he was both role model and rival. Though he was only three years older than her, he was a successful novelist long before she published her first novel in 1915. A Passage to India, his last novel, was published in 1924, only two years after Jacob’s Room and three years before To the Lighthouse. The relationship between the established novelist and the developing one was respectful yet complicated. An uneasy, snide aspect of that relationship is expressed in a May, 1926 letter to Vanessa in which Virginia describes a recent visit from Forster: “Morgan came to tea yesterday; but we argued about novel writing, which I will not fret your ears with–his mother is slowly dispatching him, I think–He is limp and damp and milder than the breath of a cow.” More positively, in a 1908 review of A Room With a View, Virginia admired “the cleverness, the sheer fun, and the occasional beauty of Forster’s writing.” Writing about Howards End in “The Novels of E. M. Forster” (1927), she praised the novel for “its immense technical accomplishment, and also its wisdom, and its beauty,” even while criticizing the novel’s lack of force. Again, in a 1930 letter to Ethel Smyth, she talked about Forster as the “novelist whose books once influenced mine, and are very good, though impeded, shrivelled and immature.”
Virginia, somewhat unfairly, felt that she and Forster had fundamentally different views of fiction. Reviewing Forster’s Aspects of the Novel shortly after publication in 1927, Virginia took exception to Forster’s unaesthetic attitude towards fiction, and to the way in which he treated fiction “as a parasite which draws her sustenance from life, and must, in gratitude, resemble life or perish.” In person, in their letters, and in their critical essays, Woolf and Forster repeatedly sparred with one another. Ann Henley, in ‘”But We Argued About Novel-Writing”: Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and the Art of Fiction’, suggests that in “Forster’s responses to Woolf’s comments, we find a defence of the novel as a perpetuator of traditional values and a transmitter of belief; while Woolf, in her reactions to Forster’s criticism, becomes increasingly the champion of an objective, self-sufficient, endlessly experimental art form.” Henley then goes on to show how Forster and Woolf disagreed profoundly over character and artistic vision. Woolf wanted to capture life, wanted to” reproduce luminous moments of human consciousness,” whereas Forster felt that ethics and aesthetics had to be linked and that characters had to serve a moral purpose. Working Howards End into To the Lighthouse was one way for Woolf to continue her argument with Forster.
Commenting on Howards End in “The Novels of E. M. Forster,” Virginia took issue with Forster’s lack of a single vision, with the way in which he subordinated his characters to his message and kept them “closely tethered and vigilantly overlooked lest they may take matters into their own hands and upset the theory.” She found fault in the novel for the way in which the “poet is twitched away by the satirist; the comedian is tapped on the shoulder by the moralist”. Forster’s failure lay in his lack of a unifying perspective, in his inability to reconcile his disparate gifts of “satire and sympathy; fantasy and fact; poetry and a prim moral sense.” Weaving Howards End into her own novel, allowed Virginia to endorse Forster’s moral vision while showing up his artistic vision. Mrs. Ramsay, Lily, Charles Tansley, and even Mrs. Bast, are richer and more complex and have greater independence than their Howards End counterparts of Mrs. Wilcox, Margaret, Leonard Bast and Mrs. Avery. Virginia’s characters are free agents and are not, with the possible exceptions of Mrs. Bast and Mrs. McNab, victims of a double vision. Virginia placed herself firmly in the camp of the artists, and unlike Forster did not also try to straddle the camp of “the preachers and the teachers.” By so doing, she achieved the single vision which allowed her “to connect the actual thing with the meaning of the thing and to carry the reader’s mind across the chasm which divides the two without spilling a single drop of its belief.”
To see Virginia in the camp of the artists is not to deny her writing a moral purpose. Quite the contrary. Virginia had an intensely moral view of art. The artists differ from the preachers and the teachers in method rather than in aim. The difference between the camp of the preachers and teachers, among whom Virginia numbered Tolstoy and Dickens, and the camp of the artist is that the artists prioritize aesthetics. Rather than hector, the artists reveal. Unlike the preachers and teachers, they are not didactic. They lose themselves “in the interest and beauty of things as they are,” and they set their characters free. Rather than bully, the artists illuminate. The artist meets the reader as an equal and trusts the reader to find the truths subtly woven into the patterns of the artist’s work. The cultural and moral force of Macbeth, Heart of Darkness, Howards End, and all the other literature built into To the Lighthouse leave Virginia free to “obey the laws of [her] own perspective” and to convey her own sense of reality. With the authority of Howards End behind her, Virginia does not have to have her characters talk about the origins of their money, about how without the Wilcoxes of this world there “would be no trains, no ships to carry us literary people about in.” Moral values can be endorsed without having her characters make moralizing remarks like Margaret’s “More and more do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it.”
For a fuller sense of what Howards End is doing in To the Lighthouse, perhaps it is best to step back briefly and to consider a couple of Virginia’s reflections on books and on reading. On August 12, 1928, in a letter to Saxon Sidney Turner, she wrote: “I am reading six books at once, the only way of reading; since, as you will agree, one book is only a single unaccompanied note, and to get the full sound, one needs ten others at the same time.” Again, in A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929, Virginia commented, “For books continue each other in spite of our habit of judging them separately.” Perhaps Howards End and all the other works woven so thoroughly into the fabric of To the Lighthouse–Anna of the Five Towns, Anna Karenina, Heart of Darkness, Headlong Hall, Macbeth, Middlemarch, The Odyssey, to name only some of the more obvious–can be considered as part of an ongoing conversation or symphony, each part apprehended separately, yet each contributing to the larger structure. Virginia was intensely aware of how books augment each other, and of the importance of reading books against each other. Kelly Anspaugh, in arguing that Virginia made extensive use of William Browne’s Circe and Ulysses masque in writing To the Lighthouse, is right to claim that: “Not only does Woolf’s text echo earlier texts, but, in addition, her many hypotexts speak to and echo each other.”
Perhaps the most interesting example of books continuing each other and speaking to and echoing each other is the way in which Heart of Darkness is referenced in both Howards End and To the Lighthouse. I’ve already claimed that the Lily / Mrs Ramsay relationship contains deliberate echoes of both the Marlow / Kurtz relationship and the Margaret / Mrs. Wilcox relationship. Syllogistic reasoning might suggest that the Margaret / Mrs. Wilcox relationship contains deliberate echoes of the Marlow / Kurtz relationship. However, if such an echo exists and is indeed intentional, Forster does not seem to exploit the relationship in any significant way. More likely, any similarity in the character relationships was, if not accidental, sub-conscious and inadvertent. At best, the doubling is a subtle acknowledgement of Heart of Darkness’s importance to Forster. Such subtlety hardly seems necessary, however, given how directly Howards End echoes some of the anti-Imperial, ant-colonial, anti-materialist themes of Heart of Darkness. Acknowledgement is much more likely in the map of Africa “looking like a whale marked out for blubber,” which Forster places on the office wall of Henry Wilcox’s Imperial and West African Rubber Company. The description brings to mind the large shining map on the wall of the Company in Marlow’s sepulchral city, and the earlier, related map of Africa with the river “resembling an immense snake uncoiled.” Whatever Forster’s intentions, Virginia would have noted the similarities to Conrad, and surely she thrilled at the thought of To the Lighthouse sparking new conversations between Heart of Darkness and Howards End.
Further clues to making sense of Howards End’s presence in To the Lighthouse may perhaps be found in two Virginia Woolf short stories written in 1920 and 1921. Both “The String Quartet” and “A Society” seem to owe a debt to Forster. “The String Quartet” is an impressionistic piece, a story which explores a piece of music, possibly by Mozart, in much the same way Helen in Howards End thinks about the Beethoven “5th.” In “A Society,” the group of women who meet to discuss ideas very much resemble the women in the “informal discussion club” with whom Helen and Margaret argue the redistribution of wealth. What both these stories have in common, beyond the Forsterian influence I claim for them, are strong references to World War I. In “The String Quartet” members of the audience are meeting again after a seven year gap and reference is made to “the Treaty,” presumably the Treaty of Versailles. “Still, the war made a break—”, says one of the gathering audience. In the Aristophanic “A Society,” the presence of war is even more overt, as the society’s investigation into what the world is like is disrupted by a “Declaration of War.”
Assuming that Virginia’s “A Society” and “The String Quartet” were, in part, at least, responses to Howards End, do the World War 1 references also owe their origins to Forster’s novel? One major problem for such a theory is that Howards End was published in 1910, a full four years before the war. All the same, World War I is everywhere in Howards End, and the goblin presence of Forster’s book in Virginia’s writing brings World War I with it as indirectly yet as strongly as does the Sorley name. By writing Howards End into To the Lighthouse, Virginia is inviting a re-reading of Howards End and, in a sense, creating a new Howards End. Howards End read in 1927 (or after) is a very different book from Howards End read in 1910. Read after World War I, Howards End seems a prophetic book, a Cassandra cry, pointing to causes, and warning of impending crisis.
“England and Germany are bound to fight” is not an isolated remark in Howards End. The entire book is animated with Anglo-German tension. “Germans of the dreadful sort” are pitted against “English of the dreadful sort,” as vulgar minds on both sides are “thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile, and that a million square miles are almost the same as heaven.” For the Wilcoxes and their kind, “Germany a commercial Power, Germany a naval Power, Germany with colonies here and a Forward Policy there, and legitimate aspirations in the other place” is a recurring goblin which brings war ever closer. Even the clergy men are of the opinion that if “Their Emperor wants war; well, let him have it”. Opposed to the idea that “Germany was appointed by God to govern the world” is the notion that “Great Britain had been appointed to the same post by the same authority.” Determined to stop the growth of German imperialism, the Wilcoxes overlook the origins of the Dutch Bible that Charles brought back from the Boer War. The general feeling is that “Unless we get firm in West Africa, Ger—untold complications may follow.” Permeating Howards End is the understanding that “the remark, ‘England and Germany are bound to fight,’ renders war a little more likely each time that it is made, and is therefore made the more readily by the gutter press of either nation.”
Forster was not prophetic; he was only stating the obvious. War fever was not limited to the gutter press. The Times, too, beat the war drum, and the Times-reading Mr. Wilcox, and the poor old Times reading fogies of To the Lighthouse, “hopelessly behind the times,’ were exposed to a steady diet of war talk, jingoism and propaganda. On March 2nd, 1909, for instance, the author of a lengthy and detailed comparison between the British, German, French and American naval programs stated that “just as we do not question the right of every Power to gauge its own responsibilities and the measure of naval strength necessary thereto, so we claim a similar right to fix our standard of strength in accordance with the requirements of national security, and without offence to the susceptibilities of any foreign Power.” A March 18th editorial, titled “The German Danger,” talked about “the “feverish haste” with which Germany is expanding her navy” and about how “this navy, controlled by the domineering ambition of the German chiefs, and by the aspirations and the increase of the German race, may imperil our national existence within less than a generation.” A March 24th letter to the editor, “Relative Strength in Dreadnoughts, 1909-1912” asserted that: “We know now that our example will have no effect on the reduction of armaments; Germany’s intentions are now perfectly clear, and the tendency of German ambitions has been well set forth.” Prophecy was not necessary to sense an impending war. In writing Howards End, all Forster had to do was to register the pulse of the Times.
Virginia, too, was acutely sensitive to that pulse. Scholars such as Karin Westman have called attention to how important The Times and other newspapers were to her. Her novels, essays, letters and diaries are full of references to The Times, usually critical, and she was very aware of how The Times shaped public opinion with regard to the War. In a February, 1916, letter to Margaret Lewellyn Davies she wrote: “I have been reading Carlyle’s Past and Present and wondering whether all his rant has made a scrap of difference practically. But Bertie according to Bo Trevelyan who lunched here, takes his lectures very seriously, and thinks he’s going to found new civilisations. I become steadily more feminist, owing to the Times, which I read at breakfast and wonder how this preposterous masculine fiction [the war] keeps going a day longer–without some vigorous young woman pulling us together and marching through it–Do you see any sense in it? I feel as if I were reading about some curious tribe in Central Africa.” The way in which this comment links Carlyle, Bertrand Russell (whose anti-war lectures were published as Principles of Social Reconstruction) The Times, and Conradian anthropological perspective illustrates both the density and intensity of Virginia’s thinking about the War. The Times did far more than help shape her feminism; it also contributed to her ferocious pacifism, the pacifism expressed so subtly in Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Between the Acts, and much more angrily and overtly in Three Guineas.
In the lead-up to WWI, of particular interest to Virginia would have been the numerous Times articles about the naval situation and about dreadnoughts. She was, after all, more familiar with dreadnoughts than most civilians in England. 1910 was not just the year Howards End was published, it was also the year she participated in an event which subsequently became known as the “Dreadnought Hoax.” The hoax involved Virginia and five young men impersonating the Emperor of Abyssinia and his entourage. Disguised with the help of blackface, turbans and robes, the six hoaxers were received with an honour guard and toured the flagship of the British Navy, HMS Dreadnought.
Built at a cost of £1,783,883 (remember the average annual wage in 1913 was £51), the HMS Dreadnought was a state-of-the-art 527 foot, 18,000 ton battleship, armed with ten turret mounted 45-calibre 12-inch guns which fired 850-pound shells at a muzzle velocity of 2,725 ft/s at targets up to a 17,990 yards away. The first battleship ever to be driven by steam turbines, she was capable of speeds in excess of 21 knots. Prior to her launch in 1906, by the king himself, Janes Fighting Ships said: “It is hardly too much to say that, given her speed, gun power, range, and the smashing effect of the concentrated force of heavy projectiles, the Dreadnought should easily be equal in battle-worthiness to any two, probably to three, of most of the ships now afloat.” This was the vessel toured and inspected by the group of hoaxers of which Virginia was a part. Not only was HMS Dreadnought seen as revolutionizing battleship technology, but in retrospect she was also seen as a major factor in the naval arms race which preceded WWI. She was such a potent symbol of British naval power that an entire class of battleships was named after her. The hoax was staggering in its audacity, and a similar hoax would be inconceivable today. Imagine pranksters tricking their way onto a steroid version of the HMS Bulwark and being treated with full military honours.
Virginia’s participation in the “Dreadnought Hoax” was not a deliberate political act. The hoax was conceived as a prank, and Virginia herself only joined because two other would-be participants pulled out at the last minute. Yet, while Virginia’s participation was not consciously thought out, the “Dreadnought Hoax” can be seen as growing out of some of the conditions which Forster so shrewdly noted and made use of in Howards End. The origins of the hoax go back to 1905 when Adrian Stephen (Virginia’s brother) and Horace de Vere Cole and three other friends, bored Cambridge undergraduates, dressed up as the Sultan of Zanzibar and his suite and fooled the Mayor of Cambridge into giving them a formal reception. Their original plan, much more ambitious, and correspondingly unrealistic, was to dress up as German officers, go to Germany, and trick a unit of German troops into creating an international incident by marching them into France. The plan, clearly, was inspired by stories and reports about the self-importance and bellicosity of the German army. As Adrian Stephen later wrote, “It had seemed to me ever since I was very young, just as I imagine it had seemed to Cole, that anyone who took up an attitude of authority over anyone else was necessarily also someone who offered a leg for everyone else to pull, and of all the institutions in the world that offered a leg for everyone’s pulling the most obvious was the German Army.” Virginia’s participation in the “Dreadnought Hoax” and her evolving political consciousness had similar origins. In To the Lighthouse, there is much of the young Virginia and the young Adrian in the way in which James and Cam try to resist the authority of the father on the sailboat.
Fiction shapes life and life shapes fiction. Imagine the 28 year old Virginia walking the decks of HMS Dreadnought. Imagine bringing that kind of experience to bear on life and on fiction. The impact the “Dreadnought Hoax” had on Virginia is hinted at in “A Society.” When the women organize themselves into a society to investigate what the world is like, one of them, Rose, goes off to the “Kings navy” and visits a man-of-war. The society is much amused when Rose comes back and reports “how she had dressed herself as an Æthiopian Prince and gone aboard one of His Majesty’s ships.” In the story, the incident serves to mock patriarchal notions of authority and of honour. Forsterian in its directness, much less oblique than To the Lighthouse, “A Society” openly attacks the empty, self-importance of male directed culture. Even as “the Treaty of Peace” is signed, one of the women, Castallia, expounds on the difficulty of altering or channelling such a culture: “For unless we provide them with some innocent occupation we shall get neither good people nor good books; we shall perish beneath the fruits of their unbridled activity; and not a human being will survive to know that there once was Shakespeare!” Macbeth, Heart of Darkness, Howards End, HMS Dreadnought and World War I, all lead to the same conclusion. A society which neglects culture for the pursuit of money and power will destroy itself. Only horror can come from false values and distorted vision.
“Books continue each other.” Of the many books continued in To the Lighthouse, the oldest I want to consider is Homer’s Odyssey, a book much less buried or camouflaged than Macbeth, Heart of Darkness or Howards End. Though Joseph Blottner’s influential “Mythic Patterns in To the Lighthouse” does little with The Odyssey, several critics have explored Homeric elements. For instance, Jean Elliott, in “The Protean Image,” offers an exhilarating and insightful read of Mr. Carmichael as a Proteus figure. In arguing that Mr. Carmichael has Proteus elements, Elliot draws both on Virgil’s fourth Georgic and the Menelaus passage in The Odyssey. She points out that Virginia owned four versions of The Odyssey, and through careful reading she considers Mrs. Ramsay and Lily as Menelaus figures in relation to Mr. Carmichael. Her reading is nuanced, balanced and thorough, even if she fails to mention that Proteus is associated with Pharos, the lighthouse island which Forster connected so closely to Menelaus and to Pharoah, Prouti and Proteus.
Another easily perceptible Homeric thread in To the Lighthouse is Circe, and in this case Kelly Anspaugh is an excellent guide. Her essay “Circe Resartus,” though less nuanced than Elliott’s, also engenders a new version of To the Lighthouse. If Elliott focuses on the Protean, Anspaugh focuses singly on the Circean. Indeed her focus is even narrower, as she is primarily concerned with Virginia’s engagement with a Brownian version of the Circean. In the course of relating To the Lighthouse and William Browne’s Circe and Ulysses masque, she argues that by means of “crafty inversion and textual transformation” of Homer’s Odyssey, Browne revised and rehabilitated Circe, thereby exposing “the traditional, patriarchal view of Woman as a lie.” While Anspaugh’s reading often seems forced and over-elaborated (not to mention anachronistic), she does an excellent job of considering both Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe as Circean figures.
Proteus and Circe, two good starting points with which to establish Homeric parallels. To these two points I can add still others, points which cumulatively have an impact, even if individually they could be dismissed as coincidental or trivial. “Old Badger without a tooth in his head,” for instance, has an Argos aspect. There is also a sailing voyage, an attempt to reach an island destination. Significantly it is a voyage which takes ten years to accomplish, and which, depending on interpretation, might be said to bring father and son together. James and Mr. Ramsay are strange versions of Odysseus and Telemachus, yet both To the Lighthouse and The Odyssey show mother-raised sons struggling for manhood and trying to define themselves in relation to their fathers.
Another parallel is Mrs. Ramsay as a Helen figure. Virginia signposts this parallel by having Mrs. Ramsay think about a book inscribed to her as, “The happier Helen of our days.” Brief and playful as the reference is, to give Mrs. Ramsay a Helen aspect is to remove her from her nurturing and life enhancing role. Read as Helen, she is the cause of war. Her Fisherman’s wife and Lady Macbeth guises are reinforced and amplified, and her responsibility for World War I must be investigated. At the same time, her degree of responsibility is subject to argument, and in this too she parallels Helen. In The Odyssey Homer shows us a domestic argument between Helen and Menelaus, an argument in which husband and wife spar over Helen’s loyalty to her husband and the degree to which she is responsible for the Trojan tragedy.
If Mrs. Ramsay is Helen, she is also Penelope to Mr. Ramsay’s Ulysses. While he is lost in his intellectual and daydreaming voyages, she patiently waits and administers their little kingdom. Surrounded by suitors—by “the little atheist,” Charles Tansley, who wants to hold her bag; by William Bankes, who glances at her with rapture; and even by the resisting Mr. Carmichael, who eventually bows in her direction and holds a door open for her—she protects herself by knitting away at the brown stocking. Mrs. Ramsay’s stocking is Penelope’s shroud for Laertes. Connect “Sorley’s little boy” to Charles Sorley (the young poet killed at Loos), and the stocking (“with its criss-cross of steel needles at the mouth of it”), too, is shroud-like. Both Penelope and Fate figure, Mrs. Ramsay knits the future into being; even if, typically, Virginia blurs and subverts her mythic parallels. Mrs. Ramsay is just as much Odysseus to Mr. Ramsay’s Penelope as she is Penelope to his Odysseus. The suitors—Tansley, Bankes and Carmichael have chased Mr. Ramsay to the Hebrides. Mrs. Ramsay is the wily one, the one who sets the lighthouse journey in motion.
And what were Virginia’s intentions. What does knowledge of The Odyssey’s presence add to To the Lighthouse? First of all the presence of The Odyssey destabilizes. It gives the reader one more text to juggle with, one more foil to reflect various aspects of the novel. It plays the same role as the Aegisthus Agammenon story does within The Odyssey. It opens everything up to suggestion. It subverts. It forces us to reinterpret both The Odyssey and To the Lighthouse. In what ways, for instance, is Mrs Ramsay simultaneously Penelope, Athena, and Odysseus? What is the role of those figures in Homer? What does Homer say about war?
Read in and against To the Lighthouse, The Odyssey becomes an examination of the causes and effects of war. The journey to Ithaca is no longer central. Telemachus’s attempts to learn about his father diminish in importance. Continued by Macbeth, Heart of Darkness, Howards End, and the repressed glimpses of WWI, The Odyssey becomes a trauma study. Attention is shifted to the sufferings of Penelope, Telemachus and Laertes, and to the savagery attendant on Ulysses’ return. Odysseus is a war veteran who brings the trauma of war back to the domestic front. The Trojan war lives on in the slaughter of the suitors, “the bread and the meats soaked in a swirl of bloody filth,” and the deadly, vengeful horror perpetrated on the serving women, “wailing convulsively, streaming live warm tears,” not to mention the ensuing civil war in which old Laertes and Telemachus become participants.
Similarly, when we read To the Lighthouse against The Odyssey, we see war as not inevitable but as the consequence of subtle cultural flaws. The heroic is a flaw. The Angel in the House is a flaw. Conventional marriage is a flaw. Inadequate communication is a flaw. Failure to hold the proper balance between realism and idealism is a flaw. Civilization is built on unstable, constantly shifting ground and, without perspective, World Wars are as inevitable as Trojan ones. Homer and the Greeks, as Virginia points out in “On Not Knowing Greek” (1925) also have much to teach us about how to come to terms with “the vast catastrophe of the European War.” They are “even more aware than we are of a ruthless fate,” and they can help us “to look directly and largely rather than minutely and aslant.”
Part 2 of a 3-part essay, the remainder forthcoming in January 2015. Read part 1.
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