To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Harvest (1927). 252 pp.
I wrote a paper on this book for class comparing Mrs. Ramsay to Emma Woodhouse. It makes sense just to put the paper on the post. As a book, I really enjoyed it. It was a bit slow, and I didn’t know what was going on the entire time, but I left the book and I left class after we discussed the book feeling good. It has so much to offer the literary community, if for no other reason than simply the complexity of the characters.
Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen both can be considered feminist writers because of what they write and because of the audience they’re writing to. Austen’s main character is an unmarried woman who holds emotional and social power in her house. Woolf also writes a woman of power within a family. Both of these women hold together those close to them. Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf are very different writers. The control that Austen gives her women is more subtle and undercut within the home. They are still quite domestic. That being said, the fact that both the writers as well as both of the protagonists are women is the driving factor in their personalities. While their situations are very different, Mrs. Ramsay and Emma Woodhouse are similar both in the way they view others and in the way they view themselves.
Mrs. Ramsay and Emma are both “fixers.” That is, they both find personal comfort in solving the problems of those around them. Emma, in particular, attempts to “fix” Harriet by matching her up with Mr. Elton. She completely ignores Harriet’s increasing feelings for Mr. Martin because Emma does not see Mr. Martin at a suitable level of society. It appears that she doesn’t see Harriet at a suitable level of society, either; she intends Harriet to marry above her position in order to climb the social ladder. In this way, Emma seeks to “fix” Harriet doubly with one match-up: marrying her to the right man would not only see that Harriet is cared for but also raise her in the social circle.
Emma’s motives for Harriet’s marrying Mr. Elton are not just for Harriet’s benefit. E. Margaret Moore, author of “Emma and Miss Bates: Early Experiences of Separation and the Theme of Dependency in Jane Austen’s Novels,” suggests that although Emma does not see herself as emotionally dependent on other people, her surrounding herself with people that are dependent suggests otherwise. Moore states that Emma illustrates “emotional dependency to the extent that they are capable of love” (578).
Emma tries hard to match Harriet with a suitable man for two reasons. The first is that she does not want Harriet to end up a poor unmarried woman. Aside from the fact that in that day both unmarried women and poverty were both looked down upon, Austen creates Miss Bates to offer an image of what would happen to Harriet if she did not marry up: Miss Bates is both unmarried and poor. The second reason is that by helping Harriet, Emma deflects anxiety about the fact that she is unmarried herself.
It is not only romantically but also socially that Emma asserts herself by helping others. Her father relies on her for company, especially after Miss Taylor, Emma’s governess, marries Mr. Weston and moves out of the house. Also, Emma feels that she is benefiting Miss Bates simply by spending time with her and offering her charity.
Mrs. Ramsay’s situation is very different from Emma Woodhouse’s. She is married, she has a family, and she spends her entire life attending to the needs of her friends and family. Every conscious thought she has is for her husband or children.
On the surface, the obvious similarity between Emma and Mrs. Ramsay is their desire to match up those around them. And, for both of them, their desire to see their loved ones paired off is greater than their ability to pair their loved ones off. Emma tries unsuccessfully with Harriet and Mr. Elton, and Mrs. Ramsay tries with Paul and Minta. She also dreams of Lily Briscoe and William Bankes pairing up. It seems at first that her idea of Paul and Minta together would be unsuccessful. In fact, Mrs Ramsay only knows them as a successful match. However, in “The Lighthouse,” the reader learns that Paul was keeping a mistress.
However, their match-making hobby is not the only similarity between Emma and Mrs. Ramsay. If Emma surrounds herself with people that need her, then Mrs. Ramsay does ten-fold. But, like Emma, Mrs. Ramsay’s reasons for emotionally providing for her family and friends is more psychological than simply humanitarian values. Her identity is completely wrapped up in her family and friends. She is nothing without them around.
Woolf demonstrates Mrs. Ramsay’s desire to help with people and creates an obsession out of it. At the end of “The Window,” during the dinner party, William Bankes mentions to Mrs. Ramsay how well the Mannings were doing. Mrs. Ramsay, who also knows the Mannings, is a little taken aback that they’re succeeding in life even without Mrs. Ramsay involved. For the first time, Mrs Ramsay is faced with the reality that she isn’t necessarily needed in a person’s life.
Emma Woodhouse and Mrs. Ramsay both highlight behaviors that everyone–specifically ever woman–deals with to some extent. But while we all seek to create harmony, both Woolf and Austen would argue that we seek to benefit the lives of those around us just as much for our own selves as for others. Through Emma and Mrs. Ramsay we get an intimate picture of our own unconscious, largely because we’re made so aware of it when we see it in them.
Moore, E. Margaret. “Emma and Miss Bates: Early Experiences of Separation and Theme of Dependency in Jane Austen’s Novels.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 9.4. Housten: Rice University. 1969.