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JaneMaree Maher

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About the author

JaneMaree Maher has degrees in Law and Arts (Hons) (University of Melbourne 1991) and gained her PhD in 1999 (La Trobe University). She is currently Director of the Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Research at Monash University and Associate Dean Education in the Faculty of Arts. Her current research is focused on birthing, pregnancy, women, family life and work and new models of motherhood. She has recently published in these areas in Australian Feminist Studies and the Journal of the Sociology.

Publication details

Volume 18, May 2008

Travelling Time To The Lighthouse: Virginia Woolf and Melanie Klein

A lighthouse stands on the headland and acts as guide for those traversing the treacherous seas around it. It is a complex icon1, though, for it is the point toward which the sailor must not head – a direct journey to the Lighthouse would result in disaster on the rocks below. The duality of meaning and purpose of this central image acts as a useful frame for reading Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (TTL) (1976) in conjunction with Melnaie Klein’s A Study of Envy and Gratitude (EG), published in 1955. In my examination of TTL, the work of Klein provides a fruitful resource for reading the dynamics of Woolf’s novel, since both deal with this concept of movement toward and away from the maternal figure. The centrality of Klein's maternal figure is mirrored by the centrality of Mrs Ramsay. The first section of TTL, entitled ‘The Window’, shows the reader Mrs Ramsay in the centre of the window. She is, at once, our window into the text and that upon which we must look. Lily Briscoe's preoccupation with Mrs Ramsay only deepens this textual focus. This location of Mrs Ramsay as entry point for TTL inscribes Klein's theoretical reconception of the mother as the one who contains all the things in the world; as the first object relation with the world which structures all subsequent relations. My reading of TTL uses these Kleinian concepts as they occur within the interplays between textual figures, but also as they structure the movement of the text itself.

In this article, I briefly layout the Kleinian conceptions significant to my reading of TTL, arguing that Klein's particular focus on the role of the mother and time in forming subjectivity allow for a full appreciation of the importance of time and movement in Woolf’s text. The importance of 'time pass[ing]' in TTL is examined in light of Klein's significant contribution to the temporal dimensions of psychoanalytic thought. I conclude by suggesting that Mrs Ramsay offers a revitalised subjectivity for the maternal figure, which extends Klein's focus on the intersubjective aspects of the mother-child dyad.

Talking of Envy and Gratitude

There are three particular conceptions from EG that illuminate key themes and structures in TTL. The first is Klein's location of the mother at the centre of the infant's understanding of, and access to, the world (1991a: 210). For Klein, unlike other psychoanalytic theorists, this relation is not an unmediated one where the infant cannot differentiate its own needs from the maternal presence. Instead, this first relationship contains 'the fundamental elements of object relation', a sense of difference and distance (1991a: 210). This sense of distance allows for a reading of the maternal figure that is not subsumed beneath the infant's journey. The second concerns the splitting of the object into the good and the bad breast that Klein argues is used to defend the infant's psyche (1991a: 216). Lily Briscoe's variable responses to Mrs Ramsay, her shifts between love and loathing, clearly dramatise this process. The splitting of the breast into good and bad object entails a process of introjection and projection, where the good is taken in and the bad expelled onto the mother. This split results in feelings of hostility and anger toward the mother. Attacks, resulting from these feelings are followed by a desire to repair the damage done. The third important concept is the temporal element that Klein introduces to the infant's subjective journey. The Kleinian sense of time as comprising process and repetition allows for a complex understanding of the temporal displacements and the function of memories in TTL. Unlike the subject in most other psychoanalytic schema who passes through a static set of stages, the Kleinian subject passes backward and forward in time, sometimes able to live more successfully through earlier frustrations at a later time (1991a: 228). These notions from EG offer the reader a way of examining the text of TTL that does not depend on a notion of subjectivity constituted in loss or defeat.

In psychoanalytic readings of TTL, notions of subjectivity constituted in loss or defeat posit the final moments of TTL as the resolution of Lily Briscoe's oedipal dilemma. The particular configuration of this resolution varies: Minow-Pinkney (1987: 112; 116) argues that the final section articulates the need to reject the mother and the lack of maternal authority over the next generation; Margaret Homans (1986: 286) argues that it expresses Woolf’s scepticism about a total and encompassing maternal inheritance; and Jane Lilienfeld (1977: 360) echoes this in her argument that the hollow at the centre of Lily's final picture signifies her rejection of maternal bondage. André Viola (2000: 277) argues that Lily must move the maternal assaults of Mrs Ramsay. Shannon Forbes (2000) takes Cam as her key figure, but similarly suggests that Mrs Ramsay’s Angel of the House must be rejected by the modern woman. Each reading engages the infant relationship with the maternal and argues for a necessary rejection to enable forward movement. But Mary Jacobus suggests that the maternal role is more complex in TTL – ‘Mrs Ramsay is at once the lost object that casts a shadow and the source of light’ (1992: 104). Rachel Bowlby (1988) too suggests greater complexity, arguing that endpoints and linear journeys in Woolf’s fiction present more complex stories than arrival or defeat. Bowlby evokes the train line as the appropriate medium to understand the trajectory of Woolf’s fiction, but argues that the narrative line in TTL becomes a 'network or imbrication' (1988: 78), with journeys and meanings crossing each other, rather than proceeding in a straight line. I argue that the intersection of Klein's object relations and Woolf’s fluid voices and meanings in TTL offers the possibility of new dialogues between maternal and other subjectivities. Feminist psychoanalytic criticism has often been described as the daughter writing back to the mother – a formulation that underpins much Woolf criticism, but TTL offers a revitalised maternal subjectivity where mothers, as well as daughters, can speak.

As many readers have pointed out, the narrative style of TTL is polyvocal – a range of voices and differing points of view are heard. At times, shifts between narrative voices occur abruptly – and the reader is only clear in retrospect that a change in the narrating consciousness has occurred. Patricia Laurence (1991) identifies this quick flow as Woolf’s way of achieving 'saturation' or 'essence', both terms she draws from Woolf’s diaries. In her view, Woolf achieves characterization and communication through interplays of presence and absence, generating impressions from different viewpoints to form the whole. This is intensified by the 'portions of the text that cannot be positively designated as the consciousness of any single character' (Laurence 1991: 26). Rebecca Saunders cites the meditations on the house in 'Time Passes' as an example of this, where Mrs McNab's sighs form part of the discourse, yet other voices speak too – breaking in, bracketed, with what seems like news bulletins from the frontline, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. In Saunders' view, the stream of consciousness style associated with Woolf’s work becomes a stream of some 'broader and undifferentiated' consciousness that speaks in the movement of the text. Both Laurence and Saunders emphasize the provisionality and fluidity of identity in the texts, arguing that presence is always achieved through connections and collisions with others, and with absence. Thus, the 'I' is always only achieved in that moment of time, space and articulation. This reflects Klein's view of subjectivity as a number of possible positions, through which the subject moves backward and forward, at some times more fully self-identified than at others.2 The text can be read as a negotiation of the ego boundaries and development fundamental to Klein's work in object relations. But it simultaneously maps how two subjective journeys may be described at the same point in time.

Saunders illustrates this potential in the scene at dinner where William Bankes apparently affirms that '[Mrs Ramsay] was a wonderful woman. How did she manage these things in the country?' (1976: 109). The surrounding passages, however, as well as earlier meditations by Mrs Ramsay, make it clear that his state of mind is fleeting and this thought may well be what Mrs Ramsay hopes he thinks. This layering of narrative voices and perspectives is crucial in how Woolf maps individual subjectivities as always already in relation to others.

In TTL, the narrative suggests itself always as conversation – either with self, with another, or, in the unattributed passages, with an unidentified other. All kinds of knowing are constituted in dialogue with some other. In Cam's final monologue in the boat, she makes peace with her father – 'for she was safe, while he sat there' (1976: 207), but this occurs internally and the conversation is not actually between Cam and her father, since the maternal presence is critical to the exchange (Bowlby 1986: 68). This dialectical mode of narrative, which characterizes TTL suggests that all subjectivities are made or negotiated in relation with the other. This exemplifies Klein's insistence that the infant is always aware of another object, the point where she departed from Freud's insistence on the undifferentiated infant whose only sense is of self. For Klein, that other object is the mother. For TTL, it is also the mother embodied by Mrs Ramsay. The text presents Mrs Ramsay at the centre and the frame of the text, as suggested by the window in the opening section. All interactions travel thorough her: the children’s; the nascent romance of Minta and Paul Rayley; and Lily's relations with the house, the family and her own pictures. As they all variously look at Mrs Ramsay framed in the window with James, they experience 'her capacity to surround and protect’ (1976: 44). The boundless maternal of Mrs Ramsay is reflected in the number of biological children she has, and in the number she collects: Charles Tansley, Minta Doyle (whose mother feels Mrs Ramsay has taken her daughter) and, of course, Lily Briscoe. The maternal positioning of Mrs Ramsay is deepened in her exchange with William Bankes at dinner, which enacts the Kleinian paradigm of the good breast, as she chooses him 'a specially tender piece' from the 'soft mass' of the Boeuf en Daube (1976: 109). The dish – three days in preparation – provides a 'confusion' of scents, flavors and textures, further marking the generosity of the good maternal breast. Its nourishing quality echoes the provision of the first nourishment at the breast.3

In Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis, Elizabeth Abel locates Lily as the most significant indicator of Mrs Ramsay' s maternal role in the text (Abel 1989: 68; see also Homans 1986; Lilienfield 1977). The desire for 'the lost prenatal unity with the mother' (1991: 211), as Klein describes it, is fully dramatized in the passage, where Lily is

sitting on the floor with her arms around Mrs Ramsay 's knees, close as she could get (1976: 59),

and wondering,

Could loving, as people called it make she and Mrs Ramsay one? for it was not
knowledge but unity that she desired intimacy itself which is knowledge (1976: 60).

Lily's wish for unity is not granted she finds Mrs Ramsay sealed, – 'nothing happened' (1976: 60) – but this scene physically enacts an attempt at the Kleinian notion of introjection, where the good breast is taken into the self. As Koppen has argued, Woolf’s location of each in its ‘spatiotemporal relations to other bodies and objects’ (2001: 380) is crucial in her figuration of both memory and subjectivity. This moment is complicated by the memory of the earlier scene where James stood stiff between, not next to, his mother's knee, angered by his father’s presence. In considering these scenes together, it becomes clear that TTL is staging a collision of the Kleinian and Freudian moments and interrogating gendered identities in the process. The image of James standing between his mother's knees calls forth the Freudian paradigm of the male child as the substitute for the penis that the woman can never have. In this schema, the child would be Mrs Ramsay's consolation for acceding to femininity and the appropriate genital connection with the father. Mrs Ramsay's articulated desire that all women marry and support a man foregrounds this reading, but TTL pushes beyond this framing to critically examine masculinity, as well as femininity.

While it is possible to read these revelations of Mrs Ramsay as an inscription of the Freudian paradigm of fractured feminine identity, particularly since Lily is located outside the circle of the knees, while James, the putative substitute penis, stands within, the structure of the text mitigates against this. TTL offers a critical reading of masculinity in relationship to the maternal object. Mrs Ramsay begins the process of reflection on the importance of the Lighthouse. She asks rhetorically 'how would you like to be shut up for a whole month ... not be[ing] able to put your nose out of doors for fear of being swept into the sea?' (1976: 9). This ambivalent question invokes an embattled phallic masculinity, and the fragmented men who returned from the war.4 The scene where Mr Ramsay turns to Mrs Ramsay for comfort at his 'failure' (1976: 43), further marks masculinity as a fragile tower beaten by sea and weather, its foundations continually under threat. The text, in fact, prefigures and deflates any possible sense of triumph in the final arrival at the Lighthouse. The double meaning of arrival on the rocks at the Lighthouse that I suggested at the outset intimates that this arrival might be a shipwreck. The bodies floating in the bay – 'three men were drowned where we are now' (1976: 222) – indicate the folly of the journey. While it would seem that the failed academic of 'The Window' has been revitalized by the voyage to the Lighthouse, Mrs Ramsay has already visited and deflated this particular masculine promise. Seeking to assuage James' rage and disappointment at his father's insistence that they would not go to the Lighthouse, she chose a very particular instrument.

All she could do now was to admire the refrigerator and turn the pages of the Stores list in the hope that she might come upon something like a rake, or a mowing machine, which, with its prongs and its handles would need the greatest skill and care in cutting out. All these young men parodied her husband, she reflected; he said it would rain; they said it would be a positive tornado (1976: 19).

Mrs Ramsay, in the spirit of exaggeration which she identifies as a significant component of the exchanges between Mr Ramsay and his students, seeks out objects which parody the phallic symbolism of the Lighthouse. Instead of a unitary symbol and the promised treat of the Lighthouse, James is to be consoled by a many-pronged tool or a souped-up castration instrument in the shape of a motor mower. The straight-backed father, disabusing James of the notion that facts are open to interpretation – they are instead, 'uncompromising' (1976: 8) – is undermined, on his arrival at the Lighthouse by repetition, a key narrative technique of TTL. Thus, although Lily announces that '[he] has landed ... it is finished' (1976: 225), the text of TTL is not yet complete.

For the image of the Lighthouse also invokes Mrs Ramsay as the object of desire, and something surrounded by and constituted through fluid. The narrative movement of the text locates itself in that forward journey over the water to a desired object. Mrs Ramsay knows that 'she [becomes] the thing she looks' and the 'long steady stroke of the Lighthouse [is] her stroke' (1976: 70). In the text, Mrs Ramsay merges with objects (Minow-Pinkney 1987: 95), particularly the Lighthouse, thus compromising any singularity of form or meaning. The symbol of the Lighthouse, like the constitution of subject positions inscribed in the text, has at least two meanings.

The complex interactions of gender identity and maternal figuration are displayed here. Mrs Ramsay props up her husband in his masculinity, but she also wishes he would not go on his knees before her for 'sympathy' (1976: 45).The description of his demand reads like the Kleinian description of the infant viewing the mother's body as the container of the universe – the repository of faeces, the father's penis, even, in the combined parent figure, of the entire father. This dynamic is clearly inscribed in the following passage.

Mrs Ramsay ... braced herself, and seemed to raise herself with an effort, and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray ... as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating ... and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare (1976: 44)

Mr. Ramsay is sated by her outpouring; she doesn’t fail as Lily did earlier. He is 'filled with her words', and 'drops off satisfied ... looking at her with humble gratitude, restored, renewed' (1976: 44). This literary representation mirrors Klein's description of the introjection of the mother's breast as a good object. She claims envy must co-exist with

the capacity for complete gratification which is of vital importance to the infant's development. ... A full gratification at the breast means that the infant feels he has received from his loved object a unique gift, which he wants to keep. This is the basis of gratitude (1991a: 215)

This passage in Woolf's text may be read as a phallic enactment, the 'spray of life',5 where creativity and endeavour are symbolized by the masculine contribution to reproduction. But this moment is represented in conjunction with Klein's view of the desire for knowledge and subjectivity being first bound up in the maternal body, not as Freud asserted, in the father's oedipal and castrating intervention. This textual location of Mrs Ramsay echoes Klein's description in EG of 'the envied breast ... as the prototype of creativeness ... the source of life' (1991a: 219). Mr. Ramsay's anger at her – 'the extraordinary irrationality of her remark, the folly of women's minds enraged him' (1976: 37) – can be read as a moment of rejection which is intimately bound up with desire, as moments later, 'he stood by her in silence. Very humbly, at length, he said he would step over and ask the Coastguard if she liked' (1976: 37).

The desire to make reparation for the anger and rejection enacts Klein's description of the infant's wish to attack, then to repair the damaged object. The envy and competitiveness of Mr. Ramsay for Mrs Ramsay – he willing James to write his dissertation, while the child remains firmly bound to his mother (1976: 36) – is replaced by his recognition that 'the sight of [his wife and son] fortified him and satisfied him’ (1976: 38).This dynamic process is also explicit in Lily's later attempts to understand staying with the Ramsays, since one was

made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time (1976: 118).

It would seem that the Kleinian moment has been fully enacted. The next passage, however, is both interesting and instructive. It opens the question of the maternal role to a more specific examination and provides the platform for the more important intersections of the two texts I am considering.

He went.
Immediately, Mrs Ramsay seemed to fold herself together, one petal closed in another, and the whole fabric fell in exhaustion upon itself, so that she has only enough strength to move her finger ... while there throbbed through her ... the rapture of successful creation (1976: 44).

The importance of these complex, and conflictive, inscriptions of power, knowledge, time and subjectivity form the basis of my reading of TTL. They open a space that is absent in Klein's description of the maternal role, since they offer the subjectivity of the mother as an object for scrutiny. While the centrality of the maternal figure for the infant cannot be denied, Mrs Ramsay is not presented as the blank space for the enactment of the infant’s desires.

Knowledge of the Mother

The dialectical mode of narrative which produces fluid and complex subjectivities is also critical in the novel’s account of the production of knowledge. As Gillian Beer (1996) suggests, the separation of subject and object is a key concern of TTL, with Mr Ramsay espousing the desire for, and possibility of, objective knowledge while Mrs Ramsay sets up a critically different more subjective and fluid schema of knowledge and existence. When Mr, Ramsay agonizes over the unsatisfactory nature of his career, she is angered by his aggressive search for the truth that did not hesitate to 'rend the thin veils of civilization so wantonly, so brutally' (1976: 37). Her anger points us to her own capacity to know and understand;

she knew then – she knew without having learnt. Her simplicity fathomed what clever people falsified. Her singleness of mind made her drop plumb like a stone, alight exact as a bird, naturally, this swoop and fall of the spirit upon truth which delighted, eased, sustained (1976: 34).

There is a stark difference between the reductive understandings Mr Ramsay generates – parodied in his thwarted desire to determine each letter of the alphabet – and Mrs Ramsay's approach to knowledge, grounded in her ability to understand a particular thing in its context. Mr Ramsay cannot get past Q to R; his knowledge, in its finite stalled expression, is represented as sterile and inadequate, since R must represent self knowledge. In contrast, Mrs Ramsay is not stalled but certain knowledge is elusive: the truth that comforts is 'perhaps false' (1976: 34). Mrs Ramsay moves between Mr Ramsay's absolute certainty that the trip to the Lighthouse will be impossible and her vague hope that the weather might change and make the journey possible. When Charles Tansley comments adversely on the weather, she designates him 'an odious little man' (1976: 18), but she later acknowledges 'it's going to be wet tomorrow' (1976: 134). The uncertain value of these opposing truths is confirmed by James' later rejection of his mother's vague comfort for his father's knowledge (1976: 221).6 The epistemological frame Mrs Ramsay sets up exposes the limits of logic, reason and dogma, but does not propose a set alternative. Instead, Lily’s struggles with her picture around representation reveal on-going contests over meaning and certainty; as Beer suggests, Lily acts as a locus for ‘the philosophical and artistic problem … of where to draw the line’ (Beer 1996: 30) between subject and object.

Lily’s use of paint as a 'material practice' in the text (Abel 1989: 77; see also Homans, 1985 and Minow-Pinkney, 1987) illuminates this contest of contrasting epistemological models. All Mr Ramsay's acolytes and friends – even Carmichael, who achieves success with a volume of poetry after the war – use words as the medium of artistic and philosophical knowledge, while Lily, so closely associated with Mrs Ramsay, uses pictures. Lily’s empty steps and ‘blurred’ canvas in the final section of the text, and her placement of a line there, at the centre, emphasize language, and the role of maternal absence and presence in language (1976: 237). Abel reads the final section, Mr Ramsay's arrival at the Lighthouse and Lily's completion of her painting, as a moment of androgyny where the male line at the centre and Mrs Ramsay come together (1989: 82-3). Abel is suggesting some achievement of finality or closure, where gender is, at least, partially overcome. She suggests that both Cam and James accede to the rule of the father, giving up, at once, their resistance to him and any lingering allegiance to their maternal memories. On the boat with his father, James recognizes that 'they shared that knowledge ... we perished each alone' (1976: 220; 207). This putative triumph of the paternal frame is emblematized in Mr. Ramsay’s intent and aggressive reading on the boat (1976: 199). This fierce consumption echoes the baby at the breast, but the nourishment sought is no longer fluid or maternal. It is, instead, located firmly within the symbolic frame of language and knowledge, a frame that Mrs Ramsay stands against in the text.7 It is inscribed in Mr Ramsay's youthful posture when he reaches the Lighthouse, and '[springs] lightly like a young man, holding his parcel, on to the rock' (1976: 224). But the sea, over which they travel, must act as a basis for any interpretation of the closure of the text. It is both the way to the Lighthouse and that which finally obscures our view of the Lighthouse. The boat and, in the end, the Lighthouse become 'almost invisible' (1976: 236), and Lily, whose voice is the last to be heard in the novel, never actually sees them arrive.

The sea was more important now than the shore (1976: 217).

Lily's continuing commitment to the fluid medium of painting, communication without words, reiterates her commitment to a sea of maternal plenitude. But this resolution is not complete: the concluding moments of the novel call into question the value of that plenitude. Lily accepts that she can finish the picture, but that

it would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed (1976: 237).

Although Lily could perform the task of integration that Klein argues for through the mother, no one would see or value it. Indeed, the effort of this integration resulted, for Lily, in 'the laying down of her brush in extreme fatigue' and a sense that her visions were at an end. Mrs Ramsay was first seen in the frame of the window, – at the last, it seems that she has become that frame. The realm of the maternal apparently remains concealed.

Time and Memory

It is at this point, however, that Klein's notion of temporality becomes critical in the reading I am proposing. No ending can constitute closure in the Kleinian frame since the possibility of return is always implicit. The circularity in the text, found in a myriad of small images and ideas as well as in the overall structure, mirrors the analytic process of return and reconfiguration that Klein describes in the concluding passages of EG. It is memory in the text that carries and expresses this return. Lily's picture is completed as she ' [recalls]' something (1976: 225). Homans argues Lily’s art depends on memory (1985: 284). Cam remembers evenings in her father's study (1976: 207). James remembers his childhood hatred of his father (1976: 199ff). Mrs Ramsay returns in the memories of all of the characters. The pliability of time through memory is marked in the back and forward movement in that final journey to the Lighthouse.

Juliet Mitchell (1991) has argued that Klein's re-conception of time is among her most important contributions to psychoanalytic theory and one that placed her at odds with Freud and other analysts following him. 'Klein's model', she argues, 'is a two-way process from inner to outer and back again ... Present and past are one and time is spatial, not historical' (Mitchell, 1991:30; 29). In the Kleinian account, libidinal development and the move toward the genital, the capacity for reparation and relationships with whole objects, that is others, are both 'enhanced' and 'checked' in the interplay between progression and regression (Klein, 1991b: 223). Subjectivity is necessarily conceived of as a shifting unstable state, constantly in process and without any notional endpoint. The breast is the initial object of envy as it represents the first possibility of a return to pre-natal unity through a fluid medium. This configuration of a fluid subjectivity stands against the static subject of the symbolic. The re-membering of the breast is on-going for the subject.

TTL’s pliable use time and memory echo Klein’s formulation. The possibility of linear and certain knowledge (emblematised in Mr. Ramsay’s of A-Q frame) is undercut by the temporal dislocations of the text. The section of the novel entitled 'Time Passes' is announced and completed with the solitary burning candle of Augustus Carmichael (1976: 162). This image of the melting wax connotes the movement of time, but its re-inscription after 'Time Passes' marks the pliability and circularity of time. At one moment, time is a slow, unstoppable progression

Night after night, summer and winter, the torment of storms, the arrow-like stillness of fine weather, held their court without interference (1976: 152).

At the next, it is a cataclysmic and violent passage.

A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death mercifully was instantaneous (1976: 152).

The first representation here proposes time in relationship with the material structures of the house. Time and the material act in a mutual process of engagement and disintegration, where the delicacy of the balance between them means that ‘one feather' could have a decisive effect on the final outcome. In the second linked instance, the movement of time is catastrophic and there is no delicate balance – life is obliterated in a flash. In this conflictive inscription of time, Woolf is offering the same pliability of experience that Klein offers in EG. Envy of the breast drives the infant to seek to damage it; the goodness of that same breast urges the infant to acts of reparation. The meaningless and destructive time of the trenches is contrasted with the revitalizing time of Mrs McNab and Mrs Bast, which allows 'peace to come' (1976: 154).

In TTL, this fluidity of time underpins the novel’s progress. The characters remain, for a long time, at the point of embarkation. The trip to the Lighthouse requires several attempts for those in the boat like Cam and James, and those on the shore like Lily. Lily ‘resolves’ the problem of her picture several times. She first resolves the issue of the tree at dinner when she sees Charles Tansley caught in the centre of the window frame, but she reworks this in the final section of TTL, since the solution no longer satisfies her. Such returns are described by Klein as 'memories in feelings' – the return of certain iconic events with a different texture. The importance of these returns is announced in TTL from the beginning, where James is described as a member of

that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallize and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests (1976: 5).

In TTL, the journey to subjectivity is not a one way trip to the Lighthouse. The narrative of TTL rests on these points of return and remembrance. For Klein in the analytic process, these returns are determined by the relationship with the nurturing breast of the mother.

This emotional situation had to be worked through over and over until a more stable result was achieved …In the course of the analysis envy was diminished and feelings of gratitude became much more frequent and lasting (1976: 222).

In the resolutions offered in TTL, the figure of Mrs Ramsay is this point of return and memory. The final section of the text, 'The Lighthouse' deals with Mr. Ramsay's need to invoke Mrs Ramsay for his own comfort even when only Lily is available (1976: 167). Lily remembers moments on the beach with Mrs Ramsay and interprets and reinterprets her relation to and escape from the maternal figure. The children too re-evaluate their link to Mrs Ramsay and the maternal. In each of these instances, the character is comforted and able to go on. Mr. Ramsay is consoled by Lily's comment on his boots, Lily finishes her picture and James earns praise from his father. In this Kleinian analytic process, the characters achieve a greater level of integration than was previously available; in Klein' s terms, they are returning to earlier frustrations and renegotiating them more successfully this time (1991a: 228).

But I argue that the text goes further than the analytic process outlined by Klein. Klein's conception of memories in feelings can be linked to the distinctions between the brute facts of Mr. Ramsay's knowledge and Mrs Ramsay’s contextual and shifting truths. A memory in feeling cannot be a simple or concrete truth. Instead, like the compromised and porous feelings attributed to James in the passage above, the concept of memory and its meaning are set in play. In both the Klein and Woolf texts, time and memory are key sites of investigation. But Klein refers only to the patient's maternal memory, while TTL engages the maternal figure actively in the process. Lily's personal and intellectual journey, in 'The Lighthouse' section, could best be described as the remembering of Mrs Ramsay. Yet, when she calls 'Mrs Ramsay, Mrs Ramsay' (1976: 196) and there is no-one there, the reader becomes aware that memories of the maternal cannot be collapsed into mothers, who must be sought elsewhere.

In the figure of Mrs Ramsay, TTL reveals a complex and ambivalent maternal subjectivity. While there are many references to maternal plenitude using images of fluidity, like the sea and the stew, there are also clear suggestions that the sea of maternal plenitude is rather full of debris and sediment. Mrs Ramsay is a 'sponge sopped full of human emotions', metaphorically bespattered by a drench of dirty water from her husband (1976: 37). While she is 'fortification' for the other travellers in the text (Bowlby 1988: 68), she is more 'pessimistic' about the human race than Mr Ramsay; although he says the most melancholy things, he is 'happier, more hopeful on the whole' (1976: 66). Mrs Ramsay’s silence and dislike of putting things into words has a cost and must be read alongside her need for glasses and her inability to clearly see the objects floating in the sea from the beach (186). The reader can witness her exhaustion with Mr Ramsay's demands (1976: 44), see 'her hair grey, her cheek sunk' (1976: 10), and the loss of self when she is alone. Mrs Ramsay remembers that in the early days of her marital relationship, Mr Ramsay 'help[ed] her out of a boat' (1976: 108), but knows that this means she cannot easily 'be included among the sailors and adventurers' (1976: 111) of life.

Often she found herself sitting and looking, sitting and looking ... until she became the thing she looked at ... It will end, It will end, she said (1976: 70).

TTL explores the Kleinian concepts of relation with the maternal figure or frame, but it broadens them. The maternal figure, rather than simply responding to the infant's trajectory towards an articulation of self, has its own questions of articulation and silence. Woolf’s text speaks in the voice of the child and the mother in the pre-oedipal dyad, opening the questions of presence and absence for both. The inadequacy of Mrs Ramsay's knitted stocking – 'It’s too short, she said, ever so much too short' (1976: 33) – is emblematic of the failure of the maternal frame to knit together the world and itself.

Never did anybody look so sad ... in the darkness ... perhaps a tear formed; a tear fell, the waters swayed this way and that, received it, and were at rest (1976: 33).

Mrs Ramsay' s maternal sea is filled with the excess of failed hopes and possibilities; the unspoken internal realm represented as disappointment and despair. This image sits beside her silent 'triumph' at the end of 'The Window'.

The impossibility and emptiness of the maternal space is also signalled in Lily's description of production and creation. It was in that moment's flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child (1976: 23).

This passage is full of images of maternity and parturition, and the rupture of the prenatal bonding with the mother through the dark passage of birth. The play on the word ‘conception’ here, as both artistic and material, lends weight to Abel' s assertion that the relation between Lily and Mrs Ramsay occurs in the pre-oedipal realm. The demons echo the sadistic impulses that Klein describes, as the child attacks the mother in anger and frustration (1991a: 214). Lily's frustration signals to the difficulty of moving beyond the maternal dyad, but she does complete her picture. For Mrs Ramsay, at the other point of the dyad, her creative goodness as maternal breast, never actually enabled her to escape her role as

a private woman whose charity was half a sop to her own indignation, half a relief to her own curiosity, and become, what with her untrained mind she greatly admired, a social investigator (1976: 13).

She never actually becomes.


Psychoanalytic readings of TTL cite the maternal as the central point of negotiation in the text. This is true internally and externally, as many critics note Virginia Woolf’s description of TTL as her own 'working through' of her maternal relationship.8 In the intersection between Klein's text and Woolf’s, the realm of the maternal is revisited and reworked. While Klein's frame allows us to see the maternal at the centre of the infant’s subjective experience, Woolf’s exploration of Mrs Ramsay presents the maternal subject. In TTL, the mother is not only the container, but also a player whose narrative both contests and confirms that of the infant. If TTL is indeed Woolf's memoir of her mother, it is a complex and polyvocal memory that is being revealed, for this text offers the mother a space to speak herself.


1. This doubleness is also noted by Makiko Minow-Pinkney, who argues, in Virginia Woolf and the Problem of the Subject, that the Lighthouse is a second order symbol, one that invites reflection on its status as a symbol instead of simply standing in for something (1987: 84). Though Woolf repudiates the lighthouse as a symbol in her diary (Woolf, 1981), Gillian Beer suggests that TTL both uses and challenges symbols throughout (1996: 41).

2. See, for example, Klein's discussion in 'Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict' (1991: 82-3), where she argues the determination of early oedipal conflicts and tendencies not only impact on the child, but maintain their 'therapeutic importance' for adult clinical practice also. This model of subjectivity can be contrasted to the determinism of Lacan, for example.

3. Beth Schwartz argues that the description of Mrs Ramsay as an august dome makes reference to the uterus in its shape (1991: 738).

4. I am thinking here of the shattering of Andrew Ramsay and the carnage critics have read into the disintegration of 'Time Passes'. For an interesting discussion of these 'war fragmented bodies' and Woolf’s revival of sensation and feeling, see Wood, 1994.

5. I am reminded here of Jacques Lacan's insistence that the 'turgid' phallus is the image of 'the vital flow as it is transmitted in generation' (1985: 82).

6. Ellen Tremper argues that Mrs Ramsay's action are a sign of her failure to adequately 'comfort' James, likening Mrs Ramsay to the selfish fisherman's wife in the fairy tale (1991: 7-8).

7. Gayatri Spivak (1980: 312) discusses Mrs Ramsay's refusal of language, citing her refusal to offer Mr. Ramsay the reassurance he needs in language .

8. See, for example, Virginia Hyman's (1988) description of To the Lighthouse as a purging of the mother; Beth Rigel Daugherty's (1991) contention that Woolf mothers herself through the text of To the Lighthouse; and Jane Marcus' (1987) argument that the novel represents a lament and laying to rest of the maternal figure.


Abel, Elizabeth. (1989). Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis. Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Beer, Gillian. (1996). Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Bowlby, Rachel. (1988) Virginia Woolf: Feminist Destinations. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Daugherty, Beth Rigel. (1991). ‘ "There She Sat": The Power of the Feminist Imagination in To the Lighthouse’. Twentieth Century Literature 37(3):289-308, 1991

Forbes, Shannon. (2000). ‘ “When sometimes she imagined herself like her mother’: The contrasting responses of Cam and Mrs Ramsay to the role of the Angel in the House’, Studies in the Novel 32(4): 464-487.

Homans, Margaret. (1986). Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth Century Women's Writing. Chicago and London, Chicago University Press.

Hyman, Virginia. (1988). To the Lighthouse and beyond: Transformations in the Narratives of Virginia Woolf. , New York & Paris, Peter Lang.

Klein, Melanie. (1991a). 'A Study of Envy and Gratitude', in The Selected Melanie Klein. ed Juliet Mitchell(ed), Penguin Books, London [1986].

Klein, Melanie. (1991b). 'Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict', in The Selected Melanie Klein. ed Juliet Mitchell(ed), Penguin Books, London [1986].

Jacobus, Mary. (1992) ‘ “The Third Stroke”: Reading Woolf with Freud’, in Virginia Woolf. ed. Rachel Bowlby. London & New York, Longman.

Lacan, Jacques. (1985). 'The Meaning of the Phallus'. in Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the ecole freudienne, eds. Jacqueline .Rose & Juliet .Mitchell. New York & London, W.W.Norton.

Laurence, Patricia O. (1991). The Reading of Silence: Virginia Woolf in the English Tradition. Stanford, Stanford University Press.

Lilienfeld, Jane,(1977). ‘ "The Deceptiveness of Beauty": Mother Love and Mother Hate', in Twentieth Century Literature, 23:345-376, 1977.

Koppen, Randi. (2001). ‘Embodied Form: Art and Life in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse’, New Literary History 32: 375-389.

Marcus, Jane. (1987). Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy. Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press.

Mitchell, Juliet. (1991). 'Introduction', in The Selected Melanie Klein, ed. Juliet Mitchell. London, Penguin Books [1986].

Minow-Pinkney, Makiko. (1987). Virginia Woolf and the Problem of the Subject. Sussex, Harvester Press.

Saunders, Rebecca. (1993). 'Language, Subject, Self: Reading the Style of To the Lighthouse', Novel: A Forum on Fiction 26(2): 192-213.

Schwartz, Beth. (1991). 'Thinking Back Through Our Mothers: Virginia Woolf Reads Shakespeare', English Literary History 58(3):721-746.

Spivak, Gayatri. (1980). 'Unmaking and Making in To the Lighthouse'. in Women and Language in Literature and Society, eds. S. McConneIl-Ginet et al. New York, Praeger.

Tremper, Ellen. (1991). 'In Her Father's House: Virginia Woolf’s Literary Patrimony', Texas Studies in Language and Literature 34(1): 1-40.

Wood, Joanne. (1994). 'Lighthouse Bodies: The Neutral Monism of Virginia Woolf and Betrand Russell', English Literary History 55(3): 483-502.

Woolf, Virginia. (1976). To the Lighthouse, Penguin Modern Classics, Middlesex, [1927].

Woolf, Virginia. (1981). The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. Vol. III: 1925-30. 1978. Harmondsworth, Penguin.

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