Symbolism in Virginia Woolf's 'To The Lighthouse'


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This presentation is on a few major symbols used in stream of consciousness novel 'To The Lighthouse' by Virginia Woolf.

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  • In this text'To the Lighthouse' ,the title is itself suggestive.The title'Lighthouse' itself symbolizes the deep wish of Virginia Woolf to reach at the destination.And,that destination for Virginia Woolf is to reach in the heart of the readers.And to reach her 'inner voice' till the heart and mind of the readers.In a way,The character of Mrs.Ramsay is the syblol of the so called ideal image of the women.Which,society want to see in the Virginia Woolf and Lily Briscoe is the inner and real voice of the writer Virginia Woolf.
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  • Thank you so much,sir.To share with us, such a very helpful presentation.This presentation is really helpful us in the parallel reading of the text and movie.
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Symbolism in Virginia Woolf's 'To The Lighthouse'

  1. 1. Symbolism in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse Compiled by Dilip Barad M.K. Bhavnagar University
  2. 2. What is Symbolism? • In the broadest sense a symbol is anything which signifies something; in this sense all words are symbols. • In discussing literature, however, the term "symbol" is applied only to a word or phrase that signifies an object or event which in its turn signifies something, or has a range of reference, beyond itself. Some symbols are "conventional" or "public": thus "the Cross,” "the Red, White, and Blue," and "the Good Shepherd" are terms that refer to symbolic objects of which the further significance is determinate within a particular culture. (M.H.Abram ‘A Glossary of Literary Terms)
  3. 3. What is Symbolism? • Poets, like all of us, use such conventional symbols; many poets, however, also use "private" or "personal symbols." • Often they do so by exploiting widely shared associations between an object or event or action and a particular concept; for example, the general association of a peacock with pride and of an eagle with heroic endeavor, or the rising sun with birth and the setting sun with death, or climbing with effort or progress and descent with surrender or failure. • Some poets, however, repeatedly use symbols whose significance they largely generate themselves, and these pose a more difficult problem in interpretation. (M.H.Abram ‘A Glossary of Literary Terms)
  4. 4. What is Symbolism? • . . . the artistic method of revealing ideas or truths through the use of symbols • Microsoft® Encarta® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. • Many novels have two layers of meaning. The first is in the literal plot, the second in a symbolic layer in which images and objects represent abstract ideas and feelings. Using symbols allows authors to express themselves indirectly on delicate or controversial matters. • Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
  5. 5. Modernist Literature and Symbolism • The Modern Period, in the decades after World War I, was a notable era of symbolism in literature. • Many of the major writers of the period exploit symbols which are in part drawn from religious and esoteric traditions and in part invented. • Some of the works of the age are symbolist in their settings, their agents, and their actions, as well as in the objects they refer to. • Instances of a persistently symbolic procedure occur in lyrics (Yeats' "Byzantium" poems, Dylan Thomas' series of sonnets Altarwise by Owl-light), in longer poems (Hart Crane's The Bridge, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Wallace Stevens' "The Comedian as the Letter C"), and in novels (James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury
  6. 6. Symbolism in ‘To The Lighthouse’ • Lighthouse: Titular Significance • Lily’s Painting • Ramsay’s Summer House • The Sea, the Storms, the rock, reefs and shallow water • The Boar’s Skull • Rose’s arrangement of the grapes and pears • Refrigerator • Fisherman & his Wife
  7. 7. Lighthouse It stands alone and tall in both light and darkness and it, along with its beacon, is a focal point which Symbolizes strength, guidance and safe harbor; it is Spiritual hermit guiding all those who are traveling by sea. Mrs. Caroline Ramsay stands as guiding star and harbours emotional safety to other family/guest members visiting Summer House. She is the spiritual bridge between other humans in the novel. Metaphorically, as the element of Water represents the emotions, the Lighthouse is a Symbol for the Spiritual Strength and Emotional Guidance which is available to us during the times we feel we are being helplessly tossed around in a sea of inner turmoil. Mrs. Ramsay stands strong like the lighthouse amidst emotionally shattered beings; viz., Michael Ramsay, James, Lily, Carmichael, etc.
  8. 8. Lily Briscoe’s Painting • Symbolizes woman’s struggle in patriarchal society. • Against gender convention: “Women can’t paint or write”. • Desire to express (repressed) critique of Mrs. Ramsay’s essence (as an ideal wife and mother) in the painting. • her vision depends on balance and synthesis: how to bring together disparate things in harmony; this mirrors Woolf’s writing creed – “ the novel is a both a critique and a tribute to the enduring power of Mrs. Ramsay.
  9. 9. Ramsay’s Summer House • Symbolizes collective consciousness of . . . • The physical condition of the house represents psychological condition of the characters. • During her dinner party, Mrs. Ramsay sees her house display her own inner notions of shabbiness and her inability to preserve beauty. • In the “Time Passes” section, the ravages of war and destruction and the passage of time are reflected in the condition of the house rather than in the emotional development or observable aging of the characters. • Even during the ‘expedition’, Mr. Ramsay, James and Cam gazes house from the boat rowing towards the lighthouse.
  10. 10. The Sea, the Storms, the rock, reefs and shallow water • Storms consist of both wind (air) and rain (water). And as air is the element representing the mind, and water is the element representing the emotions, storms symbolize agitated thoughts and emotions. Metaphorically, storms are our Inner Demons which torment both our mind and our Subconscious. * The rocks, reefs and shallow waters symbolize the final dangers and miseries which seem to accompany the end of any turbulent voyage. Just as the saying, "its always darkest before the dawn", things always seem the most dangerous and hopeless as we reach the end of an emotional turmoil. This is the point when we feel like tossing up our hands and giving up.
  11. 11. The Boar’s Skull • The presence of the skull acts as a disturbing reminder that death is always at hand, even (or perhaps especially) during life’s most blissful moments. It reminds of grave digging scene from ‘Hamlet’. • Symbolizes transient nature of art and life. • Mrs. Ramsay’s covering it with her shawl represents her desire to preserve life, or that of Mr. Ramsay & Lily to be immortal through work/art. • The presence of the skull acts as a disturbing reminder that death is always at hand, even (or perhaps especially) during life’s most blissful moments. • It symbolically presents Mrs. Ramsay’s understanding nature and enduring power to suffer for others – as she wraps it with her shawl
  12. 12. Rose’s arrangement of the grapes and pears • Rose arranges a fruit basket for her mother’s dinner party that serves to draw the partygoers out of their private suffering and unite them. • Although Augustus Carmichael and Mrs. Ramsay appreciate the arrangement differently—he rips a bloom from it; she refuses to disturb it—the pair is brought harmoniously, if briefly, together. • The basket testifies both to the “frozen” quality of beauty that Lily describes and to beauty’s seductive and soothing quality. • The absence of fruit basket in 3rd part, signifies the transitory nature of beauty, art and truth. • Symbolizes Mrs. R’s desire to make her daughters like her. . .
  13. 13. Refrigerator in Army and Navy Stores catalogue • On the one hand it is a tool for conserving food, and as such a symbol of preservation. Refrigerators slow down and stave off decay. • Against that, the refrigerator is also a symbol of change, of technology changing and presumably improving human culture. The refrigerator is an instrument of science, and it occupies the same sphere as the lighthouse. It could be viewed as a domestic lighthouse of sorts. •
  14. 14. Refrigerator in Army and Navy Stores catalogue • James is guided in his choice by Mrs. Ramsay. • and it should therefore be associated with her, and with her role as a preserver and shaper of culture • Mrs. Ramsay is repeatedly shown as someone who is training and shaping her children’s minds, and her approach to her daughters differs from her approach to her sons. She wants her daughters and the women around her to support and sustain men, while she wants the men to be a success in the public sphere
  15. 15. Refrigerator in the Catalogue: Army and Navy Stores • The catalogue in To the Lighthouse does not have a date, but it does have a name • War and consumption are linked in the same object • Consumerism: there may be a cricket cry of consumer criticism in making a catalogue the playground for James’s scissors. • V Woolf was very much aware of the importance of money and appreciated the delights of consumerism, she very rarely saw consumerism as a cause for concern. Money and the having of money in most of her writing—think of Mrs. Ramsay’ greenhouse concerns or of Virginia’s thoughts on the education of women—is a balm to be desired rather than a poison to be feared. •
  16. 16. Fisherman and his Wife • the parallel between the fisherman’s wife and Mrs. Ramsay. Both make unreasonable demands upon their husband. The wife keeps asking her husband to return to the sea and request more and more from the flounder–while, in opposition to Mr. Ramsay’s rejecting the possibility of a sea excursion, Mrs. Ramsay repeatedly and unreasonably insists on the possibility of fair weather. In her desire to protect James’s sensibilities, she opposes hopes and wishes against Mr. Ramsay’s “accuracy of judgment”
  17. 17. Fisherman and his Wife • V Woolf use of the fairytale seems to be ironic. She is subverting the misogyny of the fairytale. • Mrs. Ramsay is acting from empathy. She has much more in common with the empathetic and reasonable fisherman than with his wife. On the other hand, Mr. Ramsay and Charles Tansley, despite the truth of their assertions, are as uncompromising and as unreasonable (on a moral emotional level) as the fisherman’s wife. • Interpreted this way, the presence of the fairytale in the novel challenges the myth about the dangers of unopposed female will and desire. The real danger seems to be the male need for self-assertion and for insisting on literal truth.
  18. 18. Fisherman and his Wife • the casual cruelty shown towards the fish can easily be interpreted as a comment upon male violence– thoughtless male violence engendered by lack of empathy. Where the fisherman in the tale took pity on the flounder and released it, the boy cuts a square out of the mackerel’s side and throws the still living, mutilated body back into the sea. • The fairytale is subverted and instead of the dangers of female willfulness and desire we are faced with the dangers and horrors of male willfulness and desire.
  19. 19. Fisherman and his Wife • by having Mrs. Ramsay tell such a misogynistic tale Virginia is also indicting Mrs. Ramsay. By showing Mrs. Ramsay as transmitting and perpetuating harmful myths about female will and desire, Virginia is criticizing and attacking the way in which women are complicit in limiting their ability to fully realize themselves.
  20. 20. Reference • Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899, reprinted • 1958); Edmund Wilson, Axel's Castle (1936); C. M. Bowra, The Heritage of Symbolism • (1943); Kenneth Cornell, The Symbolist Movement (1951); Edward Engelberg, • ed., The Symbolist Poem (1967); and Anna Balakian, ed., The Symbolist • Movement in the Literature of European Languages (1982). For attempts to decode • William Blake's complex symbolism, see S. Foster Damon, A Blake Dictionary: • The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake (1965), and Northrop Frye, Fearful • Symmetry (1947). • W. B. Yeats, "The Symbolism of Poetry" (1900), in Essays and Introductions • (1961); H. Flanders Dunbar, Symbolism in Medieval Thought (1929); C. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (1936); Elder Olson, • "A Dialogue on Symbolism," in R. S. Crane, ed., Critics and Criticism (1952); • W. Y. Tindall, The Literary Symbol (1955); Harry Levin, "Symbolism and Fiction," • in Contexts of Criticism (1957); Isabel C. Hungerland, Poetic Discourse • (1958), chapter 5; Maurice Beebe, ed., Literary Symbolism (1960). • • •
  21. 21. Acknowledgement • For Images: – – – – Alan Stevenson: Biographical Sketch of the Late Robert Stevenson: Civil Engineer. W. Blackwood, 1861. – Collin Greg, Dir. ‘To The Lighthouse’ (movie). Hugh Stoddart, screenplay.