Virginia Woolf (1882–1941)
Study Questions and Activities
To the Lighthouse
- Consider the viewpoint of the children in the book. Writing from a child’s perspective is a hallmark of modernism, and Woolf explores it frequently. How do the children’s voices differ from those of the adults? How do they see the world?
- Choose one of the houseguests—Charles Tansley, William Bankes, Augustus Carmichael, Minta Doyle, Paul Rayley, or Lily Briscoe—and discuss the character’s isolation. Does he or she eventually find an answer to it?
- Choose a symbol—the house, the lighthouse, the plant life, boats, the ocean, the boeuf en daube, etc.—and discuss what you think it means. What is its connection to a theme in the book?
- Consider the issue of class conflict, especially through the portrayal of Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast, the housekeepers. What do you think the book says about class relations?
- Look at the images associated with Mr. Ramsay, such as the alphabet. How do these help to characterize him?
- Look at the images associated with Mrs. Ramsay, such as asphodel flowers. How do these help to characterize her?
- Consider the impact of art on the book. You may wish to research modernist painters such as Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell, Gauguin, or Cezanne. You may also wish to compare these with earlier painters alluded to, such as Whistler and Sickert.
- Choose a passage of one or two pages to investigate closely (an example might be the last page, when Lily completes her painting). What kind of words does Woolf use? What are her sentences like? Does the point of view shift? Whose is it? Discuss the way this passage creates a theme.
Professions for Women
- Read Woolf’s 1931 essay, “Professions for Women.” Is Mrs. Ramsay an “Angel in the House” figure? How does her death relate? The popular Victorian image of the ideal wife/woman came to be “the Angel in the House”; she was expected to be devoted and submissive to her husband. The Angel was passive and powerless, meek, charming, graceful, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, pious, and above all—pure. The phrase “Angel in the House” comes from the title of an immensely popular poem by Coventry Patmore, in which he holds his angel-wife up as a model for all women. Believing that his wife Emily was the perfect Victorian wife, he wrote “The Angel in the House” about her (originally published in 1854, revised through 1862). Though it did not receive much attention when it was first published in 1854, it became increasingly popular through the rest of the 19th century and continued to be influential into the 20th century. For Virginia Woolf, the repressive ideal of women represented by the Angel in the House was still so potent that she wrote, in 1931, “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.”
The following excerpt will give you a sense of the ideal woman and the male-female relationship presented by Patmore’s poem:
Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.
How often flings for nought, and yokes
Her heart to an icicle or whim,
Whose each impatient word provokes
Another, not from her, but him;
While she, too gentle even to force
His penitence by kind replies,
Waits by, expecting his remorse,
With pardon in her pitying eyes;
And if he once, by shame oppress’d,
A comfortable word confers,
She leans and weeps against his breast,
And seems to think the sin was hers;
Or any eye to see her charms,
At any time, she’s still his wife,
Dearly devoted to his arms;
She loves with love that cannot tire;
And when, ah woe, she loves alone,
Through passionate duty love springs higher,
As grass grows taller round a stone.
Initially, this ideal primarily expressed the values of the middle classes. However, Queen Victoria’s devoting herself to her husband Prince Albert and to a domestic life encouraged the ideal to spread throughout 19th-century society.
VirginiaWoolf by George Charles Beresford (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:VirginiaWoolf.jpg) is in the Public Domain