Bankes, who once enjoyed an intimate relationship with Mr. Ramsay, now feels somewhat removed from him. He cannot understand why Mr. Ramsay needs so much attention and praise. Bankes criticizes this facet of Ramsay’s personality, but Lily reminds him of the importance of Mr. Ramsay’s work. Lily has never quite grasped the content of Mr. Ramsay’s philosophy, although Andrew, the Ramsays’ oldest son, once helpfully likened his father’s work on “the nature of reality” to thinking about a kitchen table when one is not there. Lily finds Mr. Ramsay at once otherworldly and ridiculous. When Mr. Ramsay realizes that Lily and Bankes have been watching him, he is embarrassed to have been caught acting out the poem so theatrically, but he stifles his embarrassment and pretends to be unruffled.
Virginia Woolf read the work of Sigmund Freud, whose revolutionary model of human psychology explored the unconscious mind and raised questions regarding internal versus external realities. Woolf opens To the Lighthouse by dramatizing one of Freud’s more popular theories, the Oedipal conflict. Freud turned to the ancient Greek story of Oedipus, who inadvertently kills his father and marries his mother, to structure his thoughts on both family dynamics and male sexual development. According to Freud, young boys tend to demand and monopolize their mothers’ love at the risk of incurring the jealousy and wrath of their fathers. Between young James Ramsay and his parents, we see a similar triangle formed: James adores his mother as completely as he resents his father. Woolf’s gesture to Freud testifies to the radical nature of her project. As much a visionary as Freud, Woolf set out to write a novel that mapped the psychological unconscious. Instead of chronicling the many things characters say and do to one another, she concentrated on the innumerable things that exist beneath the surface of speech and action.
Achieving this goal required the development of an innovative method of writing that came to be known as stream of consciousness, which charts the interior thoughts, perceptions, and feelings of one or more characters. Although interior monologue is another term often used to refer to this technique, an important difference exists between the two. While both stream of consciousness and interior monologue describe a character’s interior life, the latter does so by using the character’s grammar and syntax. In other words, the character’s thoughts are transcribed directly, without an authorial voice acting as mediator. Woolf does not make use of interior monologue; throughout To the Lighthouse, she maintains a voice distinct and distant from those of her characters. The pattern of young James’s mind, for instance, is described in the same lush language as that of his mother and father. It is more apt to say, then, that the novel is about the stream of human consciousness—the complex connection between feelings and memories—rather than a literary representation of it.
Through these forays into each character’s mind, Woolf explores the different ways in which individuals search for and create meaning in their own experience. She strives to express how individuals order their perceptions into a coherent understanding of life. This endeavor becomes particularly important in a world in which life no longer has any inherent meaning. Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in 1859 in The Origin of Species, challenged the then universal belief that human life was divinely inspired and, as such, intrinsically significant. Each of the three main characters has a different approach to establishing the worth of his or her life. Mr. -Ramsay represents an intellectual approach; as a metaphysical phil-osopher, he relies on his work to secure his reputation. Mrs. -Ramsay, devoted to family, friends, and the sanctity of social order, relies on her emotions rather than her mind to lend lasting meaning to her experiences. Lily, hoping to capture and preserve the truth of a single instant on canvas, uses her art.