Journal of Modern Literature 24.2 (2000/2001) 271-289
Fluidity versus Muscularity: Lily's Dilemma in Woolf's To the Lighthouse
University of Nice
At the beginning of To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay's daughters are presented as sporting with "infidel ideas . . . for there was in all their minds a mute questioning of deference and chivalry," and, somewhat puzzlingly, they are also credited with "manliness in their girlish hearts" (pp. 10-11). 1 From the outset, therefore, a tension is signalled in the girls, in spite of the very strong pressure to conform coming from their mother, "addressing herself particularly to her daughters" (p. 9). As a matter of fact, of the three daughters named, two of them, Nancy and Rose, are so to speak non-existent in the novel, and the third, Prue, occasionally mentioned, dies from too complete an obedience to her mother's wishes. The only girls who later get extensive treatment--Cam and Lily--are not present in this scene. Cam, in view of her young age, belongs to the nursery, whereas Lily has no biological links with the family. 2 Yet, being practically an orphan, with a mother never alluded to and a shadowy father off Brompton Road, Lily does function as an adopted, but marginalized, daughter. On her first appearance in part I, she stands painting "on the edge of the lawn," while Mrs. Ramsay reflects that what Lily may think simply "did not matter" and, moreover, that "one could not take her painting very seriously" (p. 21). In like fashion, neither Julia nor Leslie Stephen must have gauged the degree of "infidelity" which the young Virginia already harbored deep inside herself. She was merely said to be "incalculable, eccentric." 3 In the kind of society outlined in the book, the odds are against a potentially infidel daughter such as Lily. Her fight against patriarchy and its ministering figure of the "Angel in the House" will be [End Page 271] long and full of pitfalls, all the more so as, with the death of the mother, it has to be fought against her image, in many ways a more elusive, more pernicious adversary than a living being. 4
Lily has long been regarded as a secondary character, since, for decades, most critics seemed to limit their reading to part I of the novel and to Mrs. Ramsay's belittling comments. 5 In the novel as a whole, however, if one considers the sheer bulk of text allotted to each character, Lily is statistically more present than Mrs. Ramsay. 6 Gender-oriented criticism has recently restored the balance in her favor, but often with diverging conclusions, 7 so that it now seems appropriate to assess the new perspectives, taking as their main theoretical support analyses by Melanie Klein and by Julia Kristeva. 8 At the same time, as To the Lighthouse is a kind of Künstlerroman, it is fairly easy to follow Lily's progression and setbacks from the morning of her return to the island in part III.
On that morning, Lily is bewildered by the "chaotic" atmosphere that reigns in the house (p. 160). The repetition of the word chaos (p. 162, twice; p. 164) indicates that the house remains in the aftermath of the "gigantic chaos [that] could have been heard tumbling and tossing" in part II, "as the winds and waves disported themselves like the amorphous bulks of leviathans . . . in brute confusion and wanton lust" (p. 147). Chaos, originally, refers to an undifferentiated mass. The Greek word "khaos" denotes an abyss and is related to "chasm," while the Hebrew tohu wa-bohu of Genesis evokes the primordial stage before creation. Specialists of Semitic languages, furthermore, make the connection between tohu wa-bohu, the Hebrew tehom (the darkness of primeval waters), and Tiamat, the horrific female monster of the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish. 9 In the Biblical epic, Yahweh is praised for having vanquished "leviathan . . . the dragon that is in the sea" (Isaiah 27: 1). 10 In all mythologies, dragons and sea-monsters are associated with the feminine...