Methods of Expression and the Limitations of Speech in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

May 5, 2022 by Essay Writer

“For there are moments where one can neither think nor feel. And if one can neither think nor feel, she thought, where is one?” (Woolf, 193-4)In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf illustrates a division between her male and female characters. The males commonly represent left-brained, factual, calculating, predictable approaches to thinking, while the female characters exemplify the opposite‹the right-brained, creative, spontaneous, and emotional forms of expression. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay best demonstrate the opposing sides divided by a barrier existing between the sexes that snubs any real communication. While Mr. Ramsay is comfortable in the structured constraints of language and the framework it provides, Mrs. Ramsay is more adept to the artistic, emotional ways of perception‹she feels rather than articulates. Woolf portrays the female as the representation of the semiotic‹a constantly flowing chain of signifiers that occurs with the use of language and never settles upon a single, fixed “meaning.” The relatively secure meanings of “ordinary” language are harassed and disrupted by this flow of signification, which presses the linguistic sign to its extreme limit…The semiotic is fluid and plural, a kind of pleasurable creative excess over precise meaning, and it takes sadistic delight in destroying or negating such signs…the ideologies of modern male-dominated class society rely on such fixed signs for their power.” (Eagleton, 163)The female character seems to have some understanding that approaches this “meaning,” through flashes of artistic inspiration, yet has trouble expressing this feeling in words. The male character, on the other hand, is portrayed by Woolf to be a master of language, yet despite his talent in verbal articulation, often speaks devoid of meaning. Rather than balance each other with their differences, because of opposite approaches to expression, male and female characters have difficulty experiencing communication and understanding. The division between male and female, as represented by Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, first appears when discussing a possible trip to the lighthouse the following day. Mr. Ramsay, who thinks on a purely linear and systematical level, recognizes the warning signs of an approaching storm and knows from these signs that going to the lighthouse is out of the question. “ŒNo going to the lighthouse, James,’ he said, as he stood by the window…Odious little man, thought Mrs. Ramsay, why go on saying that?” (Woolf, 14-5) To Mrs. Ramsay, the presence of wind and clouds are not necessarily indicators of an oncoming storm. She cares more for her son’s feelings than meteorological factors.When attacked by her husband in the name of his uncompromising Reason or Logos, Mrs. Ramsay defends herself in the name of Œpeople’s feelings’. At this moment she is aligned with the values of art against philosophy. (Minow-Pinkney, 86)She is open to the possibility of a change in weather‹apparent signifiers do not necessitate one true meaning or conclusion. “It is possible to read the polarity of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay as an opposition between literal meaning and metaphoricity.” (Minow-Pinkney, 85) This is unthinkable to Mr. Ramsay, who sees events as cause and effect‹there is no room for the possibility of alternatives in his way of thinking.The rigorous propositional discourse of the philosopher is contrasted with the symbolic language of art. Boasting of Œhis own accuracy of judgement,’ Ramsay refuses to tamper with facts, never altering Œa disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being.’ (13) Mrs. Ramsay, on the other hand, as an artist whose raw materials are emotions, distorts and exaggerates as necessary according to the human context of her discourse…Enraged by the Œextraordinary irrationality’ of his wife, Ramsay regards her remark to James as a mere story of some Œfabled land’; she Œin effect told lies’.” (Minow-Pinkney, 86)Mrs. Ramsay serves as a portrayal of the semiotic. Wind and rain do not necessarily indicate “storm,” but unravel a chain of signifiers that may end in “storm,” and may not. Contrary to Mr. Ramsay’s outlook, there is no one true meaning that follows the presence of signifiers. “With her mind she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice,” Mrs. Ramsay considers. (Woolf, 64)Unlike the seemingly chaotic outlook of Mrs. Ramsay, Woolf portrays male to be hiding behind an orderly screen of language‹linear, precise, but often meaningless. Mrs. Ramsey notices the superficiality of Tansley, despite his obvious attempts to appear the scholar.He wanted to assert himself, and so it would always be with him till he got his Professorship or married his wife, and so not need to be always saying, “I‹I‹I.” For that was what his criticism of poor Sir Walter, or perhaps it was Jane Austin, amounted to. “I‹I‹I.” He was thinking of himself and the impression he was making as she could tell by the sound of his voice, and his emphasis and his uneasiness. (Woolf, 106)Mr. Ramsay’s thoughts during the dinner were also indicative of the Woolfian male outlook. When the conversation turned to books and fame, his expression changed as he considered his own books, and whether he’d be remembered for them. Mr. Ramsay’s inability to handle emotion results in an outward display which Mrs. Ramsay worries the guests will notice. “Why could he never conceal his feelings? Mrs. Ramsay wondered.” (Woolf, 96) While Mrs. Ramsay is accustomed to experiencing and dealing with emotion, Mr. Ramsay acts in a way that he soon regrets, causing him even more anxiety, as he even begins to suspect that the children are laughing at him.He was always worrying about himself…He would always be worrying about his own books‹will they be read, are they good, why aren’t they better, what do people think of me? Not liking to think of him so, and wondering if they had guessed at dinner why he suddenly became irritable when they talked about fame and books lasting, wondering if the children were laughing at that. (Woolf, 118)Overwhelming emotion represents a break from the predictable, fixed methodological manner that Mr. Ramsay employs. It was a separation from the “male, metaphysical world symbolized by abstract truths, sharp divisions and fixed essences.” (Eagleton, 164) Even Mr. Ramsay acknowledges his inability to express emotion while considering the pleasures of his life. “It was a disguise,” he reveals. “It was the refuge of a man afraid to own his own feelings, who could not say, This is what I like‹this is what I am.” (Woolf, 45)The barrier dividing male and female revolves around the differences in their approach to language. The male character uses language to fit with his linear, rigid mindset. Mr. Ramsay demonstrates a linear way of thinking when considering his alphabet-based scale of success. The average person starts at “A,” and progresses sequentially by letter, most never having the ability to approach the end. “[Mr. Ramsay] had, or might have had, the power to repeat every letter from A to Z accurately in order.” (Woolf, 34-5) He sees but one methodological procedure to follow. His work in philosophy parallels his way of thinking. This is evidenced by Mr. Ramsay’s attempt at getting to a final answer‹ manipulating language in order to form a solution to a puzzle that in all probability cannot be solved. Woolf portrays Mr. Ramsay as a hard working philosopher who cares a great deal about his success in writing, yet his field of work seems to be out of touch with the events of everyday life. Lily compares his work to “a meditation on ‘a scrubbed kitchen table’: ‘this seeing of angular essences, this reducing of lovely evenings, with all their flamingo clouds and blue and silver to a white deal four-legged table’.” (Minow-Pinkney, 94) While to Lily, the colorful imagery around her is a natural and important part of the world, Mr. Ramsay sees only words and the linear process of finding answers. Lily comments, “She would never know him. He would never know her. Human relations were all like that, she thought, and the worst…was between men and women. Inevitably these were extremely insincere, she thought.” (Woolf, 92)In contrast, the female characters are a representation of the semiotic. They see that in language, as in life,One signifier implies another, and than another, and so on ad infinitum…Along this metonymic chain of signifiers, meanings, or signifieds, will be produced, but no object or person can ever be fully “present” in this chain. (Eagleton, 145)This is why at times in the novel the female has trouble expressing herself using a male-dominated language. In the novel, society is dominated by a structural, linear, masculine way of thinking. “The feminine…signifies a force within society which opposes it,” writes Eagleton. (165) The female characters are forced to struggle with methods of expression, as, to them, speech is too vague to fully express ideas.Women are represented within male-governed society, fixed by sign, image, meaning, yet because they are also the ‘negative’ of that social order there is always something in them which is left over, superfluous, unrepresentable, which refuses to be figured there. (Eagleton, 165)Woolf depicts women as a representation of the semiotic. Female characters realize the futility of attempting to use language in order to convey a single, definite image. No word is precise enough to transmit an idea in its entirety from one person to another. “Meaning is always in some sense an approximation, a near-miss, a part-failure, mixing non-sense and non-communication into sense and dialogue. We can never articulate the truth in some Œpure,’ unmediated way.” (Eagleton 146-7) Language can only serve as a likeness of the real, but can never fully reveal what was originally intended. Eagleton writes,This potentially endless movement from one signifier to another is what Lacan means by desire. All desire springs from a lack, which it strives continually to fill…To enter language, then, is to become a prey to desire…To enter language is to be severed from what Lacan calls the “real,” that unaccessible realm which is always beyond the reach of signification, always outside the symbolic order. (Eagleton, 145)In an artistic mode, where a person is more likely to perceive flashes of Lacan’s “real,” rather than a progression of speech that attempts to add up to a whole idea, communication is difficult, if not impossible.Mrs. Ramsay subconsciously realizes her inability to verbally communicate her love for her husband. “He found talking so much easier than she did. He could say things‹she never could…It was only that she never could say what she felt,” she thinks. (Woolf, 123) Perhaps Lily best expresses language’s incapacity to mean exactly what is intended. She thinks,One could say nothing to nobody. The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low…For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? (Woolf, 178)She recalls her past, which she describes as “more vivid.” This may be because she sees the past as a time where it was possible to freely express emotion through art, rather than being forced to undergo an endless stream of the trivialities of speech. She remembers, Mercifully one need not say, very briskly, crossing the lawn to greet old Mrs. Beckwith…”Oh, good-morning, Mrs. Beckwith! What a lovely day…”and all the rest of the usual chatter. One need not speak at all. (Woolf, 192)Although language is unavoidable, by her reference to the “usual chatter,” Lily reveals her feeling that it is often without meaning. The male-oriented approach to language is difficult for the female, artistic-minded person, such as Lily, to use effectively.However, the female attempt at expression is not completely suppressed in the novel. While finding it difficult to receive and communicate ideas with the limiting usage of words, Woolf’s female characters seem to have an understanding that transcends the use of speech. As Minow-Pinkney writes,Mrs. Ramsay has her own mode of access to truth, as when she sits alone knitting: “Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always some exclamation of triumph over life when things come together in this peace, this rest, this eternity.’ Ramsay reduces, but his wife synthesizes as experiences “come together” in her moments of vision.” (Minow-Pinkney, 94)Mrs. Ramsay finds it impossible to tell her husband that she loves him, because she considers this feeling to be something beyond what the mere verbal expression of ideas can convey. By the end of the scene, she knows that Mr. Ramsay understands nonetheless, despite her lack of words. “And she looked at him smiling. For she had triumphed again. She had not said it: yet he knew.” (Woolf, 124)This flash of understanding between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay was one of the few instances where true communication was reached between male and female characters. Woolf’s portrayal of the feminine artistic outlook, which views speech as a chain of signifiers that can never fully indicate an idea, is in conflict with the masculine point of view, grounded in linearity and speech. Because of these differences in approaches to expression, such cases of understanding are difficult to achieve. However, as shown in the moment of connection between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, communication is possible. Though there may be no end to the endless chain of signification that necessarily follows from the use of language, the underlying emotion behind the words does exist, and can be understood once the constraints of speech are cast aside.Works CitedEagleton, Terry. Literary Theory. Great Britain: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1996.Minow-Pinkney, Makiko. Virginia Woolf and the Problem of the Subject. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987.Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1927.

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