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Mrs. Ramsay emerges from the novel’s opening pages not
only as a woman of great kindness and tolerance but also as a protector. Indeed,
her primary goal is to preserve her youngest son James’s sense of
hope and wonder surrounding the lighthouse. Though she realizes
(as James himself does) that Mr. Ramsay is correct in declaring
that foul weather will ruin the next day’s voyage, she persists
in assuring James that the trip is a possibility. She does so not
to raise expectations that will inevitably be dashed, but rather
because she realizes that the beauties and pleasures of this world
are ephemeral and should be preserved, protected, and cultivated
as much as possible. So deep is this commitment that she behaves
similarly to each of her guests, even those who do not deserve or
appreciate her kindness. Before heading into town, for example,
she insists on asking Augustus Carmichael, whom she senses does
not like her, if she can bring him anything to make his stay more
comfortable. Similarly, she tolerates the insufferable behavior
of Charles Tansley, whose bitter attitude and awkward manners threaten
to undo the delicate work she has done toward making a pleasant
and inviting home.
As Lily Briscoe notes in the novel’s final section, Mrs.
Ramsay feels the need to play this role primarily in the company
of men. Indeed, Mrs. Ramsay feels obliged to protect the entire
opposite sex. According to her, men shoulder the burden of ruling
countries and managing economies. Their important work, she believes,
leaves them vulnerable and in need of constant reassurance, a service
that women can and should provide. Although this dynamic fits squarely into
traditional gender boundaries, it is important to note the strength
that Mrs. Ramsay feels. At several points, she is aware of her own
power, and her posture is far from that of a submissive woman. At
the same time, interjections of domesticated anxiety, such as her
refrain of “the bill for the greenhouse would be fifty pounds,”
undercut this power.
Ultimately, as is evident from her meeting with Mr. Ramsay
at the close of “The Window,” Mrs. Ramsay never compromises herself. Here,
she is able—masterfully—to satisfy her husband’s desire for her
to tell him she loves him without saying the words she finds so difficult
to say. This scene displays Mrs. Ramsay’s ability to bring together
disparate things into a whole. In a world marked by the ravages
of time and war, in which everything must and will fall apart, there
is perhaps no greater gift than a sense of unity, even if it is
only temporary. Lily and other characters find themselves grasping
for this unity after Mrs. Ramsay’s death.
Ace your assignments with our guide to To the Lighthouse!