In the foreword of the Harcourt Brace edition of To The Lighthouse Eudora Welty prepares the reader for Virginia Woolf’s technique, a narrative in which “the interior of its characters’ lives is where we experience everything” (viii). In addition to this mapping of the interior world, Woolf also explores the influence this inner life has on the reality of each character. On the first page of the novel, as young James Ramsey carefully cuts photographs from a catalogue, his inner reality “endowed the picture of a refrigerator…with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy” (3).
Of course, the twenty-first century reader finds this exploration of the internal world somewhat commonplace. As grandchildren of Freud, we tend to see the inner monologue as a staple, an often cliché storytelling device. But how did Woolf’s contemporaries read this work? How did readers weaned on the realism of Dickens experience the private thoughts of Mrs. Ramsey? More to the point, how did someone whose culture was not steeped in Freudianism process her ideas about the self the world sees and that realization that “beneath it all is dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomable deep” (62).
Freud’s ideas about the unconscious were originally scoffed at by the Victorians. No one wanted to believe that the metaphorical image of the iceberg was an accurate representation of human consciousness. How could so much of who were are and what we do be controlled by an area of our mind beyond our awareness and out of our control? It is important to keep these objections in mind as we read To The Lighthouse and to struggle to realize how post-Freudian we truly are.
For instance, when Mr. Ramsey is described as “a man afraid of his own feelings, who could not say, this is what I like—this is what I am” (45), our minds begin to hum with the language of psychoanalysis. We reflexively diagnose poor Mr. Ramsey with words like repression, and those of us who have spent some time on the couch may even start to ponder his childhood. What, we ask, made Mr. Ramsey this way? For we realize, as often unconscious disciples of Freud, that childhood largely shapes who we are as adults. We quietly concur with Mrs. Ramsey’s chant of “children don’t forget, children don’t forget” (63). We secretly applaud the concern she takes with how she shapes her children’s lives, and nod approvingly when she acknowledges how “it was so important what one said, and what one did” (62) in the presence of the ever forming child’s mind. Indeed, readers with less than stellar childhood memories may find themselves secretly longing for a mother like Mrs. Ramsey. The children of divorce among us may stand awestruck at Mr. Ramsey and his staggering responsibility when his internal mid-life crisis leads him to ponder what his life could have been.
It sometimes seemed to him that in a little house out there, alone—he broke off, sighing. He had no right. The father of eight children—he reminded himself. And he would have been a beast and a cur to wish a single thing altered (69).
Perhaps the amazement, almost quaint adoration, a child of a fractured family feels for Mr. Ramsey at this point in the narrative tells us more about our state of mind than that of Woolf’s. Or perhaps we are too busy diagnosing his repressed desires and the emasculating effect family life has had on his character. Whatever we decide about the characters’ neuroses, if we pay close attention to our inner voices, it is Dr. Freud’s whisper we hear.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981