Disclaimer: This is an example of a student written essay.
Click here for sample essays written by our professional writers.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UKEssays.com.

Representation Of Consciousness In To The Lighthouse English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2033 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

Reference this

This paper examines the view that consciousness is a key theme in To the Lighthouse [1] and is used to explore the nature of reality both as it relates to the subjective world of individuals and the objective world that society agrees on. Further, that Mr and Mrs Ramsay appear to represent the two aspects, Mr Ramsay objective and Mrs Ramsay subjective and that Lily Briscoe’s character is used to resolve the question of how one person can make sense of these apparently conflicting internal and external views of reality. In a sense, the end of the book when Lily has her vision could be read as her solving Mr Ramsay’s life work into ‘subject and object and the nature of reality.’ (p.26)

Get Help With Your Essay

If you need assistance with writing your essay, our professional essay writing service is here to help!

Essay Writing Service

In many ways Woolf’s style is stream of consciousness; lots of thoughts presented without clear distinctions between them or who is having them. Sometimes we see the characters through their own eyes, sometimes one character is thinking about another one, and sometimes the author appears to be making her own comment on a character without being absolutely sure of her facts about them. We see how internal struggles impact outward actions and affect the way characters perceive each other.

Woolf uses her authorial voice in the way she frames and selects certain aspects of her characters that she would like us to see and not others. If a stream of consciousness technique had been used throughout however, this would not have been so obvious. As Ayers puts it:

“To the Lighthouse presents the consciousness of various characters in an idiom which sometimes is borrowed from the minds and voices of the characters, and at other times is cast in a narrative voice which is independent of the character(s) even while it narrates according to their thought and knowledge. This means there is still an authorial voice present” [3] 

She selectively dips in and out of her characters thoughts, into the mind of another character, and back again.

“…the lines separating narrator and author, and narrator and character, are, in most cases, very obscure. In some instances, therefore, it is vital to see, to ‘feel’, the various ways the author places the narrator, since the position the reader feels will often establish for him the narrator’s location in the setting; and this not only firmly identifies him but also clarifies his relationship to the action.” [4] 

All her characters speak in the same idiom, they can not really be differentiated by the words they use. They are not thinking off the top of their heads; their thoughts are articulated in a highly formulated prose. Mr Ramsay is characterised by the omniscient narrator in terms of rational facts and outward reality:

“What he said was true. It was always true. He was incapable of untruth; never tampered with a fact; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being, least of all his own children…” (p.4)

Later on in the first section the same argument about whether it will be fine enough to go to the Lighthouse tomorrow is continued, but this time we are taken into the consciousness of Mr Ramsay and see that his view of reality is, after all, coloured by passion. But it is a passion for the absolute as it affects his family. He wants their internal reality to match the external world:

“The extraordinary irrationality of her remark, the folly of women’s minds enraged him…and now she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out of the question, in effect, told lies.” (p.36)

More is revealed about how him, however, when we are shown Mrs Ramsay’s perceptions. Mrs Ramsay is depicted as the opposite of her husband, relying on her feelings and intuition to unite people [5] :

“To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilization so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency.” (p.37)

Three consciousnesses are used in this example to show that reality is not just what is ‘out there’ in the physical world, but that there is also an inner reality of feeling, which cannot be separated from external pressures. In each example above, the sense of reality shifts slightly, as does the reader’s perception of each character’s consciousness.

This sense of shifts in consciousness and reality is set up from the first page:

“…James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator as his mother spoke with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy…though he appeared the image of stark and uncompromising severity, with his high forehead and his fierce blue eyes…so that his mother, watching him…imagined him all red and ermine on the Bench or directing a stern and momentous enterprise in some crisis of public affairs.” (pp.3-4)

Find Out How UKEssays.com Can Help You!

Our academic experts are ready and waiting to assist with any writing project you may have. From simple essay plans, through to full dissertations, you can guarantee we have a service perfectly matched to your needs.

View our services

The omniscient narrator shows us James sitting on the floor, dips into his consciousness to tell us how he is feeling, goes back out again to describe what he looks like then goes into his mother’s imagination as she looks at him. Auerbach [6] calls this the ‘multipersonal representation of consciousness’ and Nussbaum [7] tells us ‘the reader is…constantly made aware of the richness of consciousness, and of the tremendous gap between what we are in and to ourselves, and the part of the self that enters the interpersonal world’. None of the characters are shown to the reader with absolute clarity, as seen through a photographer’s lens, but as perceived by human consciousness; glimpses caught and revelations made.

Woolf is trying to show life as it is lived. Not as a neatly packaged event with well understood motives and defined beginnings and endings, but as a series of perceptions and small moments of understanding which constantly shift over time according to the influence of those people around us.

Characters are shown trying to deal with the conflict between their own internal reality, their consciousness or state of being, and the external reality, the ‘real’ world with its expectations of how things are, as generated by society and the way nature is ‘real’ independent of any human force on it.

James thinks things that a six year old boy would not actually be thinking. Woolf takes James’ simple hate of his father thwarting him and uses ‘highly stylised and metaphorical’ language ‘comprised of grammatically precise sentences’ [8] to explain how he feels about his father disrupting his relationship with his mother.

“he hated him for the exaltation and sublimity of his gestures…but most of all he hated the twang and twitter of his father’s emotion which, vibrating round them, disturbed the perfect simplicity and good sense of his relations with his mother.” (p.42)

In this case, James’ consciousness is not hazy at all; it is sharp and focused, but the language used forces the reader to the conclusion that this perception is given to him by the narrator for her own purposes, to heighten the tension and create an atmosphere of instant hatred. That it does not accurately describe the words that a boy of James’ age would use does not necessarily mean that it is not truthful, that it does not accurately convey his feelings. That the voice of the narrator is mixed with James’ highlights the difficulty of reconciling an internal reality with an external codified and recognised one. This constant shifting in narrative voices also highlights the difficulties of ever knowing all of another person, which Love has presented as a problem:

“The difficulty with the Ramsays, in short, is this: People who seem to know one another do not truly know one another. They have a certain tense harmony and union, but even as they are united, they are discordant within themselves and with one another. Knowledge is unknowing; harmony contains disharmony” [9] 

But much of what Woolf seems to be saying with her characters is that they do not actually know themselves fully. Just as there is no one reality, no meaning of life, there is no one unwavering internal core of self knowledge and belief; it is constantly changing with external influences. Even when Lily Briscoe has her vision it is acknowledged as fleeting, as a small part of life:

“…she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.” (p.242)

Lily could be read as a combination of both Mr and Mrs Ramsay as she wants to get beyond her inner reality, typified by Mrs Ramsay and represent it through her art, in an outward way. This is what Mr Ramsay does, although he uses words rather than art and does not have to struggle in the same way that Lily does to give herself permission to paint. His internal struggle is more of the nature of knowing he is not quite the Great Man he would like to be, but he does know that it is his right to be one, whereas Lily feels that the mere act of painting and expecting to be taken seriously as an artist is something she has to fight for, she is aware of ‘her own inadequacy, her insignificance.’ (p.22)

Ayers sees To the Lighthouse as having a ‘pessimistic conclusion’ because Lily’s painting is destined to be ‘confined to a future attic’ [10] but it could also be interpreted as being positive on the individual scale as Lily does have her vision; she comes to an understanding of life and her place in it that does not depend on being shown in an art gallery of the (male) establishment. So there is more than a ‘[tentative suggestion of] the importance of art in transfiguring the moment’ [11] because that transfiguration takes place on an individual basis.

Lily has achieved her own personal unity in the face of opposing, controlling forces and expectations such as Mr Ramsay’s greatness and his demands for sympathy, George Tansley’s remembered ‘women can’t paint, can’t write’ (p.184) and Mrs Ramsay’s reverence for men and her role as the family’s emotional centre. In that moment she reconciled the internal and external, the subjective and objective. Woolf it seems is saying that it is only on this fleeting moment-to-moment basis that life can be understood but that these moments build on top of each other to provide fresh versions of reality, which can in turn be renegotiated and perceived.


Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have your work published on UKEssays.com then please: