Ephemeral to Eternal: Ramsay and Briscoe’s Art in To the Lighthouse

The string of time that runs through To the Lighthouse is tied together by moments and memories. Woolf examines the passage of time, slowing it down in The Window and then speeding it up in Time Passes.  At times she freezes a moment to delve into the minds of her characters to reveal their thoughts simultaneously, while at others she quickly glides over subjects revealing only stark facts.  When her character Lily Briscoe begins her second painting in The Lighthouse, her creative process reveals her connection to Mrs. Ramsay: that they are both artists in their own way.

The scene begins after Mr. Ramsay, Cam, and James have boarded a boat and have headed off to the lighthouse, leaving Lily to confront her “white” and “uncompromising” canvas (130).  From the onset, Lily is unsure about where to begin her painting, where to make the first “mark,” as she finds it difficult to “untie” the “knot in her mind” (130) and transpose her imagination to canvas (130).  She finally decides to take the risk and initiate her first brushstroke:  

With a curious physical sensation, as if she were urged forward and at the same time must hold herself back, she made her first quick decisive stroke.  The brush descended.  It flickered brown over the white canvas; it left a running mark.  A second time she did it⎯a third time.  And so pausing and so flickering, she attained a dancing rhythmical movement, as if the pauses were one part of the rhythm and the strokes another, and all were related; and so, lightly and swiftly pausing, striking, she scored her canvas with brown running nervous lines. (130-131)

We are able to see the physical manifestations of Lily’s internal struggle as she is “urged forward” and “held back” simultaneously.  When Lily is able to escape the grasp of this “curious physical sensation” she makes a “quick” and “decisive” stroke as the brush “descends.”  Lily’s brush does not gently stroke or gracefully dab the paint onto the canvas, but rather the paint is “flickered.”  The unsteady line of this “flickered” paint again illustrates Lily’s struggle to capture something as ephemeral as memory. Lily’s “dancing rhythmical movement” can be seen as a “flickering” candle undulating under the force of a fluctuating wind.  Her process of “pausing” and “flickering” gives the sense that something is there, and then not, and then there, and then not, as she attempts to join her memory of Mrs. Ramsay with the scene before her, creating something that is “related.” 

As Lily continues to paint, her brushstrokes become more sporadic as she continues to expel form from her memory.  As she moves her brush “hither” and “thither,” “precariously dipping among the blues and umbers” (131) she begins to lose “consciousness” of “outer things” as her mind “throws up” “memories” and “ideas”(132).  This brings Lily to ruminate on a memory involving herself, Mrs. Ramsay, Charles Tansley, and the beach.  She articulates that the most enduring quality of the scene was that it was a “moment of friendship and liking,” a feeling that stayed in her mind like “a work of art” (133) (Lily is, in fact, also creating a physical “work of art” that is inspired by a “moment”).  She goes on to ponder the meaning of life and decides that there is no “great revelation” (133) to this question, but rather there are “little daily miracles”, “illuminations”, and “matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” (133).  In this scene, Lily’s “illumination” is that Mrs. Ramsay’s genius was her ability to make “of the moment something permanent,” to transform an everyday moment into a fond, lasting memory like “a work of art” (133).

Lily’s revelation about Mrs. Ramsay in this scene brings to light their connection:  they both seek to turn fleeting moments into something permanent.  Mrs. Ramsay seeks permanence through connecting the other characters in the story to each other and creating memories among them.  An example of this occurs after Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner party, when she reflects that her guests will always remember this night  “this moon”,  “this wind” and how “it flattered her… to think how, wound about in their hearts, however long they lived she would be woven… that community of feeling with other people which emotion gives” (92).  A memory, however, due to its ephemeral nature is hard to hold onto as we see when Mrs. Ramsay stands on the threshold of the dining room and watches the scene “vanishing” (90).  Lily, however, is able to bring greater permanence to memory and emotion as she translates the transient into form.  She is able to delve into the recesses of her mind, her unconscious, and produce a painting that captures a moment in “brown running nervous lines” (131).

In the end, both women have created a form of “art”. Mrs. Ramsay’s art takes the form of social interaction as her natural ability to bring people together creates memories from moments; Lily’s art takes the form of painting, as her vision and imagination creates visible forms from moments.  Woolf herself is also an artist as she has created a form of art through this novel; she is able to revisit a nostalgic time in her life through writing as she captures and preserves moments regarding her parents and their family beach house which are the “most important of all [her] memories” (xii).  If art is the capacity to capture a moment from life and make it permanent, than all three women can be viewed as artists.


Featured Image Credit: Hilma af Klint, Group IV, No. 7, Adulthood, 1907

Works Cited: Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Ed. David Bradshaw. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print. 

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