“I” to Eye: Inclined Subjectivity and Feminine Vision in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

Essay by Anna Pontin

Art by Alex Hoang

In 1928, one year after the publication of To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf wrote and delivered a series of feminist lectures that would become her most famous work. Later published as A Room of One’s Own, her essay on “Women and the Novel” closes with a biting and insightful critique of the pitfalls of masculine writing. She describes reading the novel of one Mr. A:

Back one was always hailed to the letter “I”. One began to be tired of “I”. Not but what this “I” was a most respectable “I”; honest and logical; as hard as a nut, and polished for centuries by good teaching and good feeding. I respect and admire that “I” from the bottom of my heart. But … the worst of it is that in the shadow of the letter “I” all is shapeless as mist. (83–84) 

Brilliantly, Woolf fixes multiple qualities she identifies as endemic to masculine writing to a single, phallic figure. The “I” is sterile, solipsistic, and reinforces a sense of selfhood which dominates the entire piece and, worse, obscures all else in its shadow. It is a symptom of the purely masculine, a condition Woolf denounces as deadly for good writing. She vouches instead for a writer who is “woman-manly or man-womanly” (Room 87): an artistic androgyne with access to the styles of both sexes. 

As identified by Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero in her book Inclinations: A Critique of Rectitude, Woolf does not complete her schema with “a corresponding geometrical figure for the feminine” (Cavarero 41). Indeed, she gestures to an alternative feminine writing style which is less self-centred and more concerned with “suggestive power” (Room 86) but veers away from characterizing it on its own terms. This is not a mistake. Chapter Four of A Room describes women writers like Jane Austen and Emily Brontë who were forced to use literary forms “made by men out of their own needs for their own uses” (64) and refashion them for their own purposes. This argument—that historical conditions dictated by patriarchy have largely formed the raw materials of women’s art—is familiar and disheartening. How to access the “woman-manly” without a positive feminine lexicon to complete the spectrum? Preceding notions of “vulvic” (Irigaray 26) or “inclined” subjectivity introduced by contemporary feminists, Woolf does not hand us an explicit answer to this question. Nevertheless, by looking to the novel which precedes A Room we may discover an equally inventive model which both complements the “I” and counteracts its overbearing nature.

Completing the framework of A Room of One’s Own, To the Lighthouse conjures a uniquely feminine form of expression: the Vision. This paper will qualify The Woolfian Vision—not to be confused with sight—as produced by the inclined (instead of upright) subject, self-effacing (instead of self-asserting) and generative (instead of sterile). Drawing from the work of feminist philosophy and scholarship, I will examine three instances of the feminine Vision in To the Lighthouse: Mrs. Ramsay’s interaction with the lighthouse, Lily’s painting, and the dinner party, in order to trace these qualities and outline how they differ from the masculine idea. 


Defining the Masculine Idea and the Upright Subject

Woolf personifies her critique of hypermasculine expression in Mr. Tansley, Mr. Ramsay, and Mr. Carmichael who represent an upright subjectivity associated with Enlightenment values of independence and rationality. Their opinions and publications erect the “I,” enabling each man’s “urgent desire to assert himself” (TtL 99). For example, when Mr. Tansley is discussing Anna Karenina during the dinner party, he is not thinking of the book itself. He is “saying I–I–I” (115) and attempting to express some facet of his identity. Instead of being interested in “the thing simply” (TtL 117), these men wish to establish themselves as atomistic models of “a self that legislates from itself and upon itself—a straight and self-balanced self” (Cavarero 30). In other words, their goal is to produce totally self-originating ideas unrelated to outside influences or even to the object they are addressing. 

Mr. Carmichael is particularly guilty of this solipsism. He is described with eyes “like a cat’s [which] seemed to reflect the branches moving or the clouds passing, but to give no inkling of any inner thoughts or emotions” (14). Despite his physical exposure to the outside world, Mr. Carmichael is a sealed entity: the perfect asocial rational subject with no essential relation to anything. His unseeing eyes are the antithesis of vision—both literally and figuratively—and position him as the artistic foil to the hypersensitive Lily Briscoe. 

Woolf goes further than simply identifying instances of the “I.” She also undermines its strength by examining Mr. Ramsay’s internal life. In one of the most compelling refrains of the novel, Woolf builds an analogy which frames Mr. Ramsay’s hyper-rational thoughts as progressing letters in the alphabet. As he paces alone, his reflections are methodical and systematic. He moves from thought to thought one at a time, separating them out like the “keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes” (TtL 39) and using his masculine qualities that “would have made him the leader, the guide, the counsellor” (TtL 40) to help his progression of ideas. This is Woolf’s characterization of the masculine genius. It foreshadows her description of the “I” from A Room of One’s Own: “honest and logical; as hard as a nut” (83), and although Mr. Ramsay eventually gets stuck at the letter R (tellingly, his own initial) and can’t continue, the reader may begrudgingly respect him for his effort. Even so, Woolf does not leave it there. She is specific in describing exactly what impedes Mr. Ramsay’s success: “a shutter … flickered over the intensity of his gaze” (39) and an inability to “miraculously lump all the letters together in one flash” (40). Mr. Ramsay’s mind, despite its logical power, has none of the qualities associated with vision and is figuratively blinded by his own rationality. Like Mr. A from A Room of One’s Own, he faces “some obstacle, some impediment in [his] mind which blocked the fountain of creative energy and shored it within narrow limits” (Room, 84), associating both characters with the symbolic limitations of the masculine thinker. 

Having established the masculine idea as an act of self-assertion from a subject which embodies the upright geometric figure in its “claim to be autarchic” (Cavarero 39), we now turn to its effect. Throughout both To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own, Woolf returns to the problem of longevity. Mr. Ramsay is most fixated on “fame and books lasting” (TtL 128), a feature made painfully ironic as his publications fade into irrelevance within his own lifespan. This quality of work which “falls plump to the ground—dead” (Room 85) is directly linked to the recurring theme of masculine sterility. Woolf states that only an idea that “explodes and gives birth to all kinds of other ideas [is the] sort of writing of which one can say that it has the secret of perpetual life” (Room 85). Unfortunately for Mr. Ramsay, this explicitly fertile and reproductive creativity is incompatible with work that is merely a projection of the short-lived individual. For all its power, the sterile, isolated, domineering “I” —representing both masculine art and masculine artist—fails to survive the test of time. Even more surprising perhaps is that concealed in its shadow, “shapeless as mist” (Room 84), is a counterpart which manages to endure. 


The Lighthouse and the Inclined Subject

In addition to identifying the unfinished nature of Woolf’s geometric framework and attaching the “I” to the Enlightenment subject, Adriana Cavarero contributes her own theory of inclined subjectivity to the question of gendered positioning posed by A Room of One’s Own. She defines the inclined subject as:

The geometrical figure of the female world [related] to the inclined line, or if you will, to inclination. … the inclined line is such because, departing from the barycentric vertical axis, it leans forward … this materializes in the female figure who habitually leans over the infant, which is to say the other, who is completely vulnerable and hence dependent (Cavarero, 42)

Restated, her thesis amounts to a radical reimagining of the subject as one who is embedded in interdependent social relationships. If the “I” stands alone and apart, then the inclined subject (“I”) cannot be understood without a context of care and emotional attachment. 

Mrs. Ramsay, of course, is the figure most easily associated with inclination. She is at the centre of almost every relationship in the novel; she forges marriages, nurtures children, sympathizes with men, and fulfils the roles of hostess, mother, and wife. Her relationships define her identity. She describes her wish to “always have had a baby” (65), and when we are granted a look into her thoughts she considers others instead of reflecting on herself.  As a pair, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s polarized value systems often conflict, most strikingly when they disagree over how to communicate with their son James. Mr. Ramsay, fixated on truth and reason is enraged by his wife’s “extraordinary irrationality [and] the folly of women’s minds,” while she cannot understand his “astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings” (37). Their dispute comes down to two people of extremely different positioning—one inclined outwards towards others, the other “focused on itself and wrapped around the rigid vertical axis of his erect posture” (Cavarero 40).

Because of her inclined nature, Mrs. Ramsay is rarely alone, and it is in the scene in which she is finally left to herself that the feminine Vision first appears. After having witnessed her character repeatedly self-abnegate to serve the ends of others, there is an expectation that once alone we will perhaps get a glimpse of the “real” Mrs. Ramsay. We imagine that like her husband, she will have ideas, judgments, and clear motivations to focus on. Figuratively, we imagine that she will coalesce into a more atomized version of herself. Instead of turning inwards, however, Mrs. Ramsay expands out:

Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always some exclamation of triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity; and pausing there she looked out to meet that stroke of the Lighthouse … one could not help attaching oneself to one thing especially of the things one saw (TtL 70)

Her vision of the Lighthouse transforms Mrs. Ramsay’s isolation into an attachment. It is not just seeing which constitutes this state, but the crucial process of a self which sublimates into (instead of separating from) the other. As a “wedge of darkness” (TtL 69) Mrs. Ramsay isn’t concealed in the “shadow of the letter ‘I’” (Room 34), she is the shadow itself, tethered and dependent but also “dark … spreading … unfathomably deep” (TtL 69) and free from the rigid structure of an autarchic identity. The way inclined subjectivity integrates and sublimates Mrs. Ramsay’s selfhood is also relevant to our understanding of Lily Briscoe. 


Lily’s Painting and Self-Effacement 

“One haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives which were people” (TtL 58). To be like a beehive is to be open, porous, and to contain a swarming group consciousness. This state could be attributed to the entire novel but also has special relevance for Lily, the character most explicitly associated with creating a Vision. 

Lily embodies gendered contradictions much like Mr. Ramsay. Both straddle the tension between integrated and segregated selfhood, although they face contrasting social pressures. While Mr. Ramsay is ashamed of his neediness and dependence, Lily must fight to maintain her right to pursue her own interests as an artist positioned outside the domestic sphere. What differentiates her from the upright, “sealed” (TtL 58) men is her extreme sensitivity to the external. It is impossible for her to be self-contained; she describes needing to be “looking down, purposely, for only so could she keep steady” (53), so powerful is her inclination to be absorbed in her surroundings. 

Lily’s distinctly queer fascination with Mrs. Ramsay as the subject of her painting does not come from a desire to impose an interpretation or idea onto her, “for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired … nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge” (57). Lily is actively trying to dismantle the “I” in her work; she wants to become one with the other instead of asserting a separate identity. 

Her process embodies what writer and philosopher Susan Sontag argues for in her essay Against Interpretation, published almost thirty years after Woolf’s death. In her case against the compulsion to prioritize intellectual meanings over sensory responses to art, Sontag writes that “what is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more” (10). Lily Briscoe would have been Sontag’s perfect artist and ideal art critic. Her hypersensitive consciousness forms impressions without structuring ideas about them. She has trouble articulating distinct answers to her own questions of “what meaning attached, after all?” (TtL 29) and “what did she feel? … nothing, nothing that she could express at all” (159). When conversing with Mr. Bankes she is dumbfounded by his ability to judge others and “add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt, or disliking” (29),  an act of discernment incompatible with the fullness of her perceptions. 

Where Mrs. Ramsay is inclined by her relationships with others, Lily is inclined by her senses. It is in this way that she is the foil of deadened Mr. Carmichael, the artist who looks without perceiving.  She is the open and porous beehive where he is sealed and self-contained. This difference is at the crux of the feminine Vision: not a phallic self-erection, dominating the perceived by the subject’s idea of what it means or what it is, but an act of total immersion of subject into perceived object. Further, these radically relational and integrated aspects are what allow the vision to exist beyond the structures of traditional art.


The Dinner Party and Fertility 

Despite her sudden death at the midpoint of the novel, Mrs. Ramsay permeates all three sections. In life and in death she exerts a gravitational pull, featured in every other character’s consciousness and managing to influence their decisions even post-mortem. In their paper “Subject and Object and the Nature of Reality: The Dialectic of ‘TO THE LIGHTHOUSE’,” A.C. Hoffman beautifully describes “the creative force” (694) Mrs. Ramsay embodies. They write that “Mrs. Ramsay seeks to achieve order in the midst of confusion … she must bring everyone and everything together at the table … but she creates order only to see it fall apart” (694). This moment of order is of course the dinner party scene, which serves as the climax of “The Window” and arguably the entire text. In Hoffman’s view, the dinner party does not achieve the permanence of other more tangible visions like Lily’s painting because the unity Mrs. Ramsay creates exists only in “the perfect bowl of fruit” (Hoffman 694). However, despite the transience of the fruit bowl, the vision of the dinner party prevails due to its fertile nature. 

Here again, we return to A Room of One’s Own, where Woolf explicitly states that only an idea which “explodes and gives birth … has the secret of perpetual life” (85). This phenomenon is exactly what takes place at Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner party. Her effort of “merging and flowing and creating” (TtL 91) constructs a vision which resounds powerfully through time even when every material aspect is erased. In joining her guests in a moment of shared consciousness, she is able to leave them with an impression of “coherence in things, a stability” (114) in which they all play a part. Lily is struck years later by Mrs. Ramsay’s ability to “make of the moment something permanent” (176), demonstrating both the effect of the Vision and how its survival depends on being reborn in others. 

The difference between the sterile idea and the fertile Vision is that the Vision occurs between subjects; it is relational instead of autonomous. When an idea is entirely self-asserting and self-generated, “nothing will grow there” (Room 84) because it is solely attached to a single, mortal individual and does not connect to an external network. Conversely, the Vision is independent from its author. It transcends materiality and even time because it exists in the “world of impressions and intuitions” (Hoffman 693), in collective memory and feeling instead of “the world of fact” (693). 


Grown up and mourning his mother’s absence, Mrs. Ramsay’s son James reflects on women’s natures near the end of To the Lighthouse: “they look down, he thought, at their knitting or something. Then suddenly, they look up” (185). This simple image, of a woman inclined over her creation, looking up to interact with the outside world, captures Woolf’s entire theory of feminine Vision. Overlooked, overshadowed, and undervalued, this particular mode of creative thought is not only featured in To the Lighthouse, it characterizes the book itself. We leave Woolf’s masterpiece with no explicit message, moral, or authorial signature. Where A Room of One’s Own is explicit and personal, To the Lighthouse is subtle and immersive. Its images and characters wash over us and engage us in their social networks, their intersecting—sometimes indiscernible—thoughts, and above all their vivid impressions of the other. In A Room, Woolf glimpses the shape of a woman on a beach obscured by the “I.” In To the Lighthouse, we meet her; she is Mrs. Ramsay’s daughter:

Letting her eyes slide imperceptibly above the pool and rest on that wavering line of sea and sky … and the two senses of that vastness and this tininess (the pool had diminished again) flowering within it made her feel that she was bound hand and foot and unable to move by the intensity of feelings which reduced her own body, her own life, and the lives of all the people in the world, for ever, to nothingness. (TtL 83)

Inclined outside of their bodies, outside of  themselves, tapping into the generative creativity that can only exist between subject and object, Woolf’s women kneel in the shadow of the “I” and have their visions.

Works Cited

Cavarero, Adriana. Inclinations: A Critique of Rectitude. Stanford University Press, 2016.

Hoffmann, A. C. “Subject and Object and the Nature of Reality: The Dialectic of ‘TO THE  LIGHTHOUSE’.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 13, no. 4, 1972, pp. 691. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/subject-object-nature-reality-dialectic/docview/1305353205/se-2.

Irigaray, Luce. “This Sex Which is Not One.”  This Sex Which is Not OneTranslated by Catherine Porter, Cornell University Press,. 1985. 

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation: and Other Essays. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Penguin Classics, 1927.

Woolf, Virginia. , A Room of One’s Own. E-book, Feedbooks , 1929.