| IN A BRUSH STROKE ©
As elusive as breath on a window pane, here, then gone as the wind blows, so Lily's vision was always at least one brush stroke away. The resounding theme that pulls the two covers of the book, To The Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf, together, the one central theme that makes sense, is Lily's struggle with her ongoing search for identity.
At one point, she thought she had found it, but her discovery, like the salt shaker on the tablecloth, leaped from her grasp. This elusive thing, this salt shaker on the tablecloth, slipped in and out of her stream-of-consciousness. Each time she poised her paint brush, it took flight, then landed to perch in a different shadow.
Her mind was drawn back, continually, to the moment she was seeing Mrs. Ramsay and James seated on the steps. Through a kaleidoscope, she was pulled from changing pattern to changing pattern, shaded areas to unseen shapes. Each inkling, that might have brought her closer, seemed only to sprout wings and fly away before the thing was close enough to recognize. As she moved the salt shaker, she tempted and teased the possibilities, one by one. Always, her thoughts came, full circle, back to Mrs. Ramsay and James, and the shadow they cast upon the steps.
What is the meaning of Lily's vision and how does it relate to the final stroke of her paint brush? Figuring out Mrs. Ramsay is at the very center of her vision. It also seems to be a central issue of the book.
Mrs. Ramsay is loving and beautiful. She delights Lily, who idolizes her, as did all who knew her. Her concern for others was shown openly as she visited those in need and knitted socks. She wrapped herself in a nurturing role, doting over the affairs of others, giving orders and arranging this and that, always to perfection.
Mrs. Ramsay frames herself, looking out the window. The eye is the window of the soul. She stands before her audience, the reader, opening her soul. What would we see, looking in through the window? Her beauty is a flash of light. She symbolizes with the third flash. Through her window, she gazes until she becomes the thing she studies. She is the lighthouse— the prominent figure arranging order in everyone's life. Her beauty is the light that inspires Lily's painting. The lighthouse brings about Mrs.Ramsay's prophetic look into her own future when she says, "This peace, this rest, this eternity" (Woolf. P. 69). Was she was thinking of her own future?
Besides idolizing her, Lily is also jealous. She tries to live in her image, but can never live up to the warmth and love for life that Mrs. Ramsay has.
Mrs. Ramsay thinks of herself as, "a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others" (Woolf. P. 69). This is seen again in Lily's last and successful attempt to finish her painting when she sees the shadow on the steps. Also, closely related, is the symbolism of the waves.
Lily is drawn again and again to the waves, to the rhythm of the waves until it holds sway over the movements of her pain brush. This is reflected in the lines she painted on the canvas. From a rhythm, to lines, to shadows.
In the sudden intensity of her vision, Lily draws her line and the
form emerges. One would be very much surprised indeed if the relation
of masses, lights and shadows in the picture did not portray the rising
and falling of the waves, which echoes throughout the novel. . .
(Latham P. 80)
This same rhythm chants its way through her memory, always tied to the sea. She went to the sea every night only to be filled with a continuous sense of ebbing and swelling, a rhythm, a pattern— she must bring an order to the thoughts that tumble like geometric designs with each wave. She is trying to create order through the medium of paint. As a painter, she sees shapes. . . the ones that emerge from beneath the surface. She sees Mrs. Ramsay as a triangular purple shape, that, "wedged-shaped core of darkness," already presented.
In a quiet time, a breath takes refuge and then explodes into brilliant thought. Lily could not paint the picture of Mrs. Ramsay sitting there, until she saw the shadow on the steps where Mrs. Ramsay had sat. The smile of realization that only flickered and then flew away, now, caught the shadow and held it. She saw that purple shape that Mrs. Ramsay had called herself. At last she understood. She had so concentrated on, "getting it right," that she overlooked one very important thing. That is, the world continues on. Only through art can a moment, a feeling, be captured. Thus, she sees Mrs. Ramsay not unlike herself. Now she can feel a part of her, a kinship with her. She now knows that Mrs. Ramsay's identity was expressed in relationships and hers in art. She saw the shadow and understood Mrs. Ramsay's words, "Life stands still here" (Woolf. P. 183).
Simon, Irene. "The Sea in To The Lighthouse." Critics on Virginia Woolf. Ed.
Jacqueline E. M. Latham. Coral Gables, Florida. University of Miami Press. 1970.
Woolf, Virginia. To The Lighthouse. NY. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers. 1954.