Teaching & Articles

Wiggle Room

By: Melinda Sheffler, 30 March 2003

"How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt, or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached, after all?" (To The Lighthouse 24).

When two people meet, from word one, assumptions are being created and characters are being assessed. This assessment is necessary for communication and understanding between individuals to exist. For example, if I have some understanding of who a person is, then I can contribute more to a discussion on that person's problems or make a better connection with them. To The Lighthouse is Virginia Woolf's effort to determine how individuals define the characters of other people. However, through use of multiple streams of consciousness, Woolf shows that human presumptions about character are inevitably wrong because we can never see the whole person. The character that creates the largest variety of views about himself is Mr. Ramsey. He is viewed by his child (James) with hate, his student (Charles Tansley) with abject adoration, and Lily with distaste and wonder.

James is Mrs. Ramsey's youngest boy, not even old enough to be in school; he dotes on his mother. For James, Mr. Ramsey is a mom thief. The fact that Mrs. Ramsey often puts her husband's needs first, thus taking attention away from James, makes James hate his father. When his mother is measuring James leg to make a stocking for the lighthouse boy, Mr. Ramsey enters the room and she must stop working with James and attend to him. James is irritated that this private moment with his mother, however simple, is interrupted. In this way, Woolf illustrates how small children often characterize people in purely egotistical ways: does this person benefit me? Is this person taking attention away from me? Will this person help me get attention?

The child's view is simplistic, as well as materialistic. We are told Mr. Ramsey needs bolstering from his wife after being flustered by an accidental meeting with Lily and Mr. Banks. He is not maliciously taking his wifes attention away from James. Mr. Ramsey is blissfully unaware of the intimacy level existing in the room before his entrance (30-65).

Charles Tansley has "almighty professor" syndrome. He firmly believes Mr. Ramsey's word is as much a law as gravity is a force. In his present state he is more likely to leave the atmosphere than he is to leave Mr. Ramsey's sphere of influence. We are shown the influence through Tansley's repetition of Mr. Ramsey's words that there will be no trip to the lighthouse because the weather will not be clement (14). The teacher has said it, so the student repeats the proclamation (much to Mrs. Ramseys dismay) even though the "no lighthouse" statement is merely an educated guess about the weather.

The relationship with Tansley shows how circumstances, such as a student/teacher situation, can alter our perception of who a person truly is. Mr. Ramsey, although very accomplished, is not the greatest mind of his time. Mr. Ramsey acknowledges that he cannot get past "Q" in the alphabet of greatness (33-35), and Mr. Banks mentions that his days of great work are past and now his writing is all repetition of previous greatness. Tansley has been misled by his place as a student to believe something of Mr. Ramsey that is not real, or true.

Lily seems to have a better grasp of Mr. Ramsey than the other two characters. She tells Mr. Banks that Ramsey is a spoilt tyrant, but that he "has what you have not; a fiery unworldliness; he knows nothing about trifles" (24). No direct explanation of why she has a better view is given, but it may be guessed that it is because she is a woman.

The two major women in this novel have a better mental grasp on the personalities around them than the males. Mrs. Ramsey, an older woman, understands people to the fullest degree of anyone else in the novel. Lily at least sees the good along with the bad aspects of Ramsey's consciousness. However, even Lily used debatable terms. What constitutes a spoiled nature? At what point does a strong personality become tyrannical? Lily clearly sees something that the male others have not seen, and that in itself is hopeful.

So, we have several people in To The Lighthouse, and they are all thinking about everyone else, trying to figure out who they are so a mental and personal connection can be made. Ultimately, especially in the case of Mr. Ramsey, everyone fails. The males of the story fail, mostly because of their relative position to Mr. Ramsey in their culture. The females come closer to success. Lily and Mrs. Ramsey comprehend people best, but Mrs. Ramsey's death brings an end to her presence as a positive force in the house. Perhaps V. Woolf is saying that while we must try to make connections with the people around us, we cannot expect our interpretations of their actions to be one hundred percent accurate. As readers and human beings, we must be open-minded and allow individual characters a little "wiggle room."

This article was originally written for a graduate course at Kansas State University.