Prof. Özlem Uzundemir
ELL 512
The Interplay between the center and the periphery in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse
In Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse there are repetition of three words, namely “Middle”, “hedges” and “edges”. Tracing the use of these words throughout the novel manifests how Mrs. Ramsay as a central figure in the novel and in Lily Briscoe’s first work of art moves away from her unifying dominant position/ role in the first part of the novel to be replaced, after her death, with a line in Lily’s painting in the third part. Moreover, the cause of Lily’s retaining her position on the edge of the lawn when painting, shifts from an inner struggle related essentially to Mrs. Ramsay’s restrictive power, in The Window, to her insistence on her ability to assert herself as a woman artist and attain her final vision. Substituting the center of the picture with a mere line indicates that the significations of the words “middle”, “hedges” and “edges” are flexible and susceptible to change. By referring to metaphoric and literal centers and peripheries, this paper will explore the changing as well as the constant positions of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe respectively.
Keywords: Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse, Decentralization, Lily Briscoe, Art
Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse is replete with the repetition of three important words; “middle”, “hedge” and “edge” which imply centers as well as peripheries. In the novel, there are two supposed centers that are metaphorically similar, echo one another and all the events of the novel revolve around them: the first one is the actual lighthouse that becomes the center of attention as the novel begins with a request to go to the lighthouse, turns into a struggle between Mrs. Ramsay and her son, James, on the one hand and Mr. Ramsay on the other hand and ends by landing on it, it is also a central point in that it is a tall tower that stands still on the highest part of land surrounded by the sea and the second one is Mrs. Ramsay, the central figure who unifies all the characters of the novel as she brings them together in her summer house on the Isle of Skye which is again surrounded by water. On the contrary, the painter Lily Briscoe’s constant position on the edge of the lawn represents her struggle to refuse the dominance of Mrs. Ramsay as a controlling central power, and to assert herself as a woman artist. This paper will explore how the center and boundaries are blurred by the shift in Mrs. Ramsay’s literal and metaphorical central position with respect to Lily’s changing perception and depiction of the figures in her painting.
Mrs. Ramsay is likened to the “shape of the dome ” (Lighthouse 37) that governs her family and her friends as well, thinking that it is her duty to create harmony and balance among the people around her. Her internal monologues reveal her tendency to penetrate into the minds of the other characters and analyze their personality in order to satisfy their needs and make them comfortable under her domain. As an ideal mother figure, she protects – metaphorically hedges ? her children with love to the extent that she wonders “why must they grow up and lose it happiness all?”(Lighthouse 43). She does not want them to face the difficulties of life, tries hard to safeguard them and solve their problems. For instance, she covers the painting depicting the “horrid skull” (Lighthouse 82) in the children’s room with her shawl so that they can sleep in tranquility. She also provides her husband with sympathy and emotional support whenever he needs relief, but at the same time, she keeps him under her control in the way she dominates her children, making him unable to cross “the edge of the lawn” (Lighthouse 32) as long as she is alive.
Mrs. Ramsay’s endeavor to bring together her family, as well as her friends and acquaintances in her house, is manifested in the first part of the novel during her preparation for the dinner party. She arranges everything with care so that everyone would be satisfied. As the narrator unfolds, “the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her” (Lighthouse 60); she concocts a French dish for the party, arranges the places where each one has to sit and observes every single reaction in order to control the situation and to make the evening “particularly nice” (Lighthouse 58). Martin Gliserman in his article asserts that “it is an important event for Mrs. Ramsay because she acts as a center of social cohesion as well as of emotional and nutritional giving” (59). She likes to combine everybody around her table and hedges them with care. Being aware of her beauty, she tries to be the center of attraction during the dinner party, and imposes her angelic presence among them when she descends the stairs “like some queen who, finding her people gathered in the hall, looks down upon them” (Lighthouse 59). She is aware of her influence on them as a mother and as a beautiful hostess.
Mrs. Ramsay seeks to control her guests as she does with her family, she wants the bachelor friends to marry and “have children” (Lighthouse 44) and that is why she insists that Lily should marry William Bankes and Minta Doyle should marry Paul Rayley. If the marriages will be successful and the couples will have an everlasting happiness, she will feel joy because they will remember her role in bringing them together and they will be grateful for her. As Gliserman confirms, “Mrs. Ramsay opens herself to others and takes them in; she is a center of great attraction—others desire to feed from her and merge with her” (63). Embracing all those people around her, Mrs. Ramsay illuminates their lives with love and care, she guides them, according to her worldview into happiness and stability, just as the lighthouse illuminates the sea for the ships and guides them into the right direction.
The frequent use of “middle”, “hedge” and “edge” in the novel may be read as an implicit struggle for power, between the center and peripheries. Mrs. Ramsay who is supposed to be the center of power, attraction and balance in the first part of the novel may face a radical shift in her position as Lily manipulates the way she arrange the figures in her painting. I will focus on the process of decentralization in Lily’s work that helps her to achieve her abstract vision.. The first instance is when she stands “on the edge of the lawn painting” (Lighthouse 12). She tries to be physically in a distance while painting because she wants to meditate on the whole view and to attain a better composition of the figures in front of her. Rather than depicting what she physically sees, she concentrates on how to catch the impression of things, lights, and shadows on the shapes and tries to reflect an abstract view on the canvas. She emphasizes her unique ability to perceive things, saying “but this is what I see; this is what I see'” (Lighthouse 14), meaning her perception is different from the others. Lily constructs the image in her mind, mingles the bright colors in front of her with symbols or shapes that represent figures and objects, but when she decides to transfer her vision onto the canvas, she loses her inspiration and everything vanishes. The narrator states:
It was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. (Lighthouse 14)
This scene explains how Lily, as an artist, feels when she tries to convey what she sees in her mind not in her eyes. As soon as she wants to depict her vision on the canvas, she is possessed by oppressive forces, namely the “demons” that curb her creativity. Karen Kaivola in her article points out, “as a painter and as a woman uninterested in marriage ? an unconventional figure of progress and change ? Lily seeks to affirm what she sees, against the weight of cultural traditions and gender ideologies that restrict independence of mind: she struggles to find the language, verbal as well as visual, to express what she knows” (208). This quote suggests that Lily, who opposes traditional gender roles performed by Mrs.Ramsay strives to transfer her perceptions into her work not in a traditional realistic manner but in abstract style. One of these confining social forces is Mr. Tansley, who declares his vexing ideas about women that “women can’t paint, women can’t write . . .” (Lighthouse 35). The other force is Mr. Ramsay as he considers women fool (Lighthouse 23) and the most influential pressure is embodied by Mrs. Ramsey’s psychological impact on her . Struggling against these “demons” leads her to the “verge” of crying which parallels her position on “the edge of the lawn” (Lighthouse 12). Yet, she neither cries nor crosses the edge as she thinks that she is fascinated by the whole surrounding. “Waving her hand at the hedge, at the house, at the children” (Lighthouse 14), Lily feels herself confined to Mrs. Ramsay’s idealistic world, however, unable to transfer it abstractly onto her painting.
Since Lily is aware of Mrs. Ramsay’s view about her art that “One could not take her painting very seriously” (Lighthouse 13), she thinks that her work will be hung in the attics of the house but not in a central place. This feeling of “inadequacy” (Lighthouse 14) puts a pressure on Lily so much so that she does not allow anyone to approach her painting except Mr. Bankes, who seems interested in her artwork as he demands an explanation for the abstract figures on the canvas. On one hand, the “triangular purple shape” (Lighthouse 38) on the canvas which is a modification of “the shape of a dome” (Lighthouse 37) is connected with the narrator’s description of Mrs. Ramsay as a “wedge of darkness” (Lighthouse 45). All of these geometric figures have centers or/ and angles as well as “edges”, and to assume that Mrs. Ramsay would be at the center in the painting as she is in reality, places both Lily and the lighthouse on the edges. This problem concerning centrality and marginalization could be discussed in relation to Jacques Derrida’s theory which suggests,
The function of this center was not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure ? but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the play of the structure. By orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the center of a structure permits the play of its elements inside the total form. (109)
Derrida’s claim about the function of the center emphasizes Mrs. Ramsay’s dominant role both at home and in Lily’s painting; as a central character, she does not only protect, organize and connect her family and acquaintances, but she also creates a kind of balance among them, she keeps her position in the center and their positions within her domain, and as a central angle of the head of the triangular structure in the picture, she keeps the unity among the other figures and prevents any shift from the edges towards the center. On the other hand, depicting “Mrs. Ramsay reading to James” as a “purple shadow without irreverence” (Lighthouse 38) may suggest a foreshadowing for her death, along with describing her “gliding like a ghost among the chairs and tables” (Lighthouse 63). This sliding from her central position at the head of the table towards its edges indicates a further shift in power and at the end of the novel either Lily or the lighthouse or nothing will be at the center as it will be revealed later in this paper.
In spite of all these possible interpretations, Lily is unable to explain how she will use these abstract figures in her painting. The narrator claims:
She could not show him what she wished to make of it, could not see it even herself, without a brush in her hand. She took up once more her old painting position with the dim eyes and the absent-minded manner, subduing all her impressions as a woman to something much more general; becoming once more under the power of that vision which she had seen clearly once and must now grope for among hedges . . . her picture”. (Lighthouse 39)
Lily is unsure of her vision again, she feels that her identity as a woman disturbs her ability to have a clear perception concerning the abstract figures in her painting, so she has to transcend her womanhood to be able to search “among hedges” for her lost vision. Being aware that the hedge is an obstacle that hinders her ability to accomplish her vision, Lily tries to find a solution that may help her configure the masses on both sides of her painting. She finally resolves the problem only in her mind by thinking of moving “the line of the branch across” (Lighthouse 39) or putting James there, but she does not want to break “the unity of the whole,” (Lighthouse 39) which may represent Mrs. Ramsay as she is described earlier as the unifying central figure. Derrida explains the power of the center as “that the center, which is by definition unique, constituted that very thing within a structure which while governing the structure, escape structurality” (109). Because of the fact that Mrs. Ramsay constitutes the center which polarizes all the other people around it, as long as she exists, Lily cannot actually put a tree to substitute her position in the middle of the painting.
Lily’s mental preoccupation with her painting, even when she is not on the edge of the garden, but inside the house makes her keep thinking about a solution to fill the empty place in the center of the painting. While sitting on one of the sides of the table during the dinner party, she keeps on thinking about her work. Comparing herself with Mr. Bankes, who “is not in the least pitiable” (Lighthouse 61), as he has a job unlike herself who is unemployed, Lily acquires self-confidence and, in a mental reaction, decides to “put the tree further in the middle” (Lighthouse 61). In this way, she makes a shift in the controlling power because putting the tree in the center, glides both Mrs. Ramsay and the lighthouse to the edges of the triangle. Lily shows determination when she “took up the salt cellar and put it down again on a flower in the pattern in the table-cloth” (Lighthouse 61) as a physical reaction. Yet, this decision does not come to light during Mrs. Ramsay’s existence.
Judging people on a scale of “centers” and “edges”, Lily observes Mr. Tansley’s attempt to centralize his position as he “lays down his spoon precisely in the middle of his plate” and “sits opposite to her with his back to the window precisely in the middle of view” (Lighthouse 61-62). She feels that he tries to assert himself in this power struggle and as a result, she reflects her objection to his probable dominance by planning to move “the tree to the middle” (Lighthouse 62). In her article concerning the textual cryogenics in To The Lighthouse, Kate McLoughlin claims, “to move the tree further towards the center is to increase its significance within the picture and consequently to diminish the significance of the other units” (957).filling the empty place on the canvas with a tree enables Lily to manipulate the positions of the center and edges in the picture to create a balance among them. Although she does not want to be involved in this struggle, she wishes to reduce the pressure of those who want to be in the center to influence her ability to paint.
When it comes to the final chapter, ten years have passed since Lily left the summer house of the Ramsays and after all these years she is again “at her old place at the breakfast table, but alone” (Lighthouse 109). She experiences a new feeling of change after the death of Mrs. Ramsay: “The link that usually bound things together had been cut, and they floated up here, down there, off, anyhow” (Lighthouse 110). The magnetic flux that used to connect everybody within one sphere has vanished by the absence of its central power, Mrs. Ramsay. Although Lily sits in the same place that she used to sit in, she feels alienated because of the loss of the center, “the house, the place, the morning, all seemed strangers to her. She had no attachment here, she felt, no relations with it” (Lighthouse 109-110). Due to the fact that Mrs. Ramsay’s death creates a sense of emptiness in the house and a deep emotional blankness in Lily as “She had looked round for someone who was not there,” (Lighthouse 111) she feels a necessity to change her perceptions about life and the way she evaluates people. And as Derrida points out, “it was necessary to begin thinking that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the fixed locus but a function” (110). Realizing that Mrs. Ramsay’s dominant effect has vanished by her death, Lily decides to start painting with a new vision which reflects her new awareness of herself. Jane Lilienfeld clarifies how Lily frees herself from Mrs. Ramsay’s influence saying,
Lily has resolved many dilemmas for herself. She accepts her singleness, her need to paint. She accepts and acknowledges her hostility to Mrs. Ramsay’s beliefs and machinations. Recognizing her love for Mrs. Ramsay, Lily moves beyond it to a love and respect for herself dependent on and integrated with her mature assessment of Mrs. Ramsay. (346-347)
She feels more confident and positive as she says, “whatever did happen, a step outside,” (Lighthouse 110) as if the hedge has lost its confining quality and no power remains to keep her inside the limits.
Filled with hope for “it was a beautiful still day” (Lighthouse 110), Lily remembers her old painting which “had been knocking about in her mind all these years” (Lighthouse 110). She has never forgotten that painting, and how she decided to solve the problem of the empty space in the center of the canvas by moving “the tree to the middle” (Lighthouse 110). However, the painting has not been finished because she has not attained the required balance among her abstract figures.
After all these years, she places her easel again “on the edge of the lawn” (Woolf 1994: 111) precisely where it was the last time she was painting. Although she feels herself released from the restraints of the past which hinders her creativity, she does not cross the edge, she feels the necessity to preserve her position for two reasons: the first is that with the absence of the center, Mrs. Ramsay, the edge has lost its restrictive power and becomes ineffective as any other point in the surroundings, the second reason is that she wants to assert her point of view about life and the ability of women to be more than a housewife and a mother.
As she begins to paint, she recalls the previous figures in the old painting, she remembers “the wall; the hedge; the tree” (Lighthouse 111). There is no mention of Mrs. Ramsay or James, she neglects the central figure of her previous painting and repeats to herself many times that “Mrs. Ramsay was dead” (Lighthouse 112). According to Lilienfeld, “Lily at first tries to rouse herself by blaming her hesitation at painting on Mrs. Ramsay’s disappearance. But soon she realizes that only her own impotence and emptiness, not her loneliness, are aroused by the corresponding emptiness of the world without Mrs. Ramsay” (363). When she realizes that she does not miss Mrs. Ramsay as a person but as a central unifying figure in her painting, Lily obliterates her function by deciding,
It had seemed so safe, thinking of her. Ghost, air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily and safely at any time of day and night, she had been that, and then suddenly she put her hand out and wrung the heart thus. Suddenly the empty drawing-room steps, the frill of the chair inside, the puppy tumbling on the terrace, the whole wave and whisper of the garden became like curves and arabesques flourishing round a center of complete emptiness. (Lighthouse 133)
Comparing Mrs. Ramsay to a “ghost” or “air” implies invisibility of substance shifting from place to place – from center to edges ? easily and without leaving traces. They leave only empty spaces that can be filled with other shifting objects, that is why she transforms all the scene in front of her into detours and intertwined flowing lines and is inspired to create a new vision in which there are no centers or edges, in which she can easily manipulate the positions of the figures and in which she transcends all the boundaries. But Lily does not know “where to begin? ? that was the question; at what point to make the first mark?” (Lighthouse 118). As there is no centers around which she can situate the other figures, Lily tries to find a way to start painting harmoniously without breaking the unity of the painting. As soon as she dips her first line of paint, “keeps looking on the hedge” and murmurs “monotonously” “can’t paint, can’t write” ( Lighthouse 119), she starts painting, follows a passionate rhythm and uses these hindering forces as motivation to complete her drawing.
From time to time, Lily feels unable to paint, she thinks of Mr. Ramsay and how she treated him coldly when he approached her in the morning demanding sympathy. She turns many times towards the sea to search for his boat, as if she wants to make sure that he is in the right direction to reach his goal that is going to the lighthouse, another center that may shift, with his children Cam and James. Nevertheless, she does not cross “the edge of the lawn” (Lighthouse 127) to see more closely, she wants to affirm to herself that she will never leave her position, never surrender to any other force or pressure after she has overcome Mrs. Ramsay’s influence. Lily keeps following the boat advancing in the sea “for her feeling for Mr. Ramsay changed as he sailed farther and farther across the bay” (Lighthouse 142). Being busy following the movement of the boat makes her unable to concentrate on her painting. She needs to “achieve that razor edge of balance between two opposing forces; Mr. Ramsay and the picture; which was necessary” (Lighthouse 143). Again Lily needs something to balance the figures in the painting in the same way she needs to balance her feeling towards Mr. Ramsay.
When she finally realizes that “he has landed” and “it is finished” (Lighthouse 154), Lily achieves her balance in both cases; on the one hand, with Mr. Ramsay’s landing, she will not feel guilty for refusing to be a copy of his wife, on the other hand, she is certain that the empty space of Mrs. Ramsay has no effect on her anymore. Sharon Wood Proudfit claims,
Lily has struggled, Lily has wrestled, Lily has wept, and finally Mrs. Ramsay has lost her dominance; Mrs. Ramsay has become like all other objects, and Lily can now grasp the formal relations in her picture. One of the masses, the dark triangle, the wedge of darkness with which Mrs. Ramsay identifies herself, is no longer bound up with emotions outside the formal relations of the picture. Lily has overcome these emotions and can finish her picture. Mrs. Ramsay, who could not really take Lily’s painting seriously, no longer controls Lily. (38)
This qoute summarizes Lily’s transformation from a reluctant, easily influenced person into an assertive, confident artist who is able, with an empty center, to create the balance that equalizes the edges. The vanishing of the center enables Lily to manipulate the position of the figures easily as there remains no emotional connection with them.
So her liberation of any outside influence creates a new vision in her mind and “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 center. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision” (Lighthouse 154). In spite of her recognition that there should be a figure in the “center” of the canvas to keep the balance of the other figures, she draws a line, just a line, not Mrs. Ramsay, a tree or even the lighthouse. She wants to make it clear that this line may represent anything and places like centers and edges are flexible and susceptible to change.
Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse traces the influence of Mrs. Ramsay as a central figure in the novel and in Lily’s first painting through the frequent use of the words “middle”, “hedge” and “edge” which suggest a central influence and limiting boundaries. After ten years, the same words are repeatedly used but with a faint or blurred effect; the death of Mrs. Ramsay terminates the power that hedges Lily’s ability to express what she perceives in her painting. So, by the end of the novel, Lily proves that she does not need to change her position on the edge of the lawn, her painting does not need a specific figure to be in the center and that the final line which she has drawn in the middle can substitute Mrs. Ramsay’s figure in the previous painting and achieve the required balance to keep the unity of the picture. She successfully shifts the places of centers and edges to create a flexible structure in which each figure although part of a unity can be described as independent because the line in the central space has no power.

Works Cited
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Gliserman, Martin. “Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”: Syntax and the Female Center.” American Imago, vol. 40, no. 1, 1983, pp. 51-101.
Hejazi, Seyedeh Fatemeh. “Stream of Consciousness as a New Method of Creating Works of Art”. International Journal of Scientific Study, vol. 5, issue 5, 2017, pp. 106-111.
Kaivola, Karen. “Revisiting the Ramsays: Love, Alterity, and the Ethical Experience of the Impossible in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, 2013, pp. 202-225.
Lilienfeld, Jane. ‘”The Deceptiveness of Beauty’: Mother Love and Mother Hate in To the Lighthouse.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 23, no. 3, 1977, pp. 345–376.
McLoughlin, Kate. “Woolf’s Crotchets: Textual Cryogenics in To The Lighthouse.” Textual Practice, 2014, pp. 949-967.
Proudfit, Sharon Wood. “Lily Briscoe’s Painting: A Key to Personal Relationships in To the Lighthouse.” Criticism, vol. 13, no. 1, Winter 1971, pp. 26–38.

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