The Philosopher and the Artist:
Literary Archeology in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse explores the relations between time, memory, and the interconnected experiences which bind one another together. Philosopher and father of the household Mr. Ramsey, throughout the first section of the novel, grapples with the dual-edged realization that within his lifetime he will not be able to finish the scholarly pursuits which define his career and that his academic legacy will be short-lived after his death. The artist Lily Briscoe, throughout the entirety of the novel, struggles with painting a depiction of Mrs. Ramsey and her son James, all the while confronted with the question of “how to connect this mass on the right hand with that on the left” (Woolf 56). It is only in the final moments of the novel that she “has her vision” and is able to finish the painting. The two characters, despite standing diametrically opposed in representing their respective pursuits–philosophy on one side, art on the other–seek to obtain the same objective: an understanding of the nature of time and memory, especially as it pertains to the subjective perspectives of their own lives. Delving into their pursuits, the two characters unearth an awareness that the passage of time imbues their memories with significance and understanding, and that the events and details which constitute one’s memories are inextricably connected with the experiences of others. While for Mr. Ramsey such an awareness foments an existential crisis, one which culminates in the painful feeling that he has overlooked matters which were most important, for Lily Briscoe, such an awareness inspires an encapsulating perspective of life, allowing her to see how the passage of time grants her an understanding of the past, thus enabling her to finish the painting.
The endeavors of both Mr. Ramsey and Lily Briscoe invoke Toni Morrison’s concept of “literary archeology” which she expounds in her 1995 essay “The Site of Memory.” As a writing strategy, Morrison’s method refers to the task of excavating a certain moment in history, examining its specific details, then collecting and rearranging them in order to construct a narrative which in turn reconstructs and reimagines historical, social, and cultural context. She writes, “What makes it fiction is the nature of the imaginative act: my reliance on the image–on the remains–in addition to recollection, to yield up a kind of a truth” (Morrison 92). While Morrison utilizes her method to unearth “a kind of truth” which captures the voices of slaves and other marginalized communities whose legacies and cultures have been buried both by the passage of time and the white-washed records of history, for Woolf “literary archeology” entails an excavation into the philosophy of time and memory, one which strives to reimagine the interconnected experiences which define an individual’s life in order to understand how the passage of time inspires meaning and significance. About Morrison’s method, scholar Portia Owusu writes, “it acknowledges that the essence of history is fragmentations; that we learn of the past (in whatever form) through fragments pieced together to help us narrativize and imagine what may have taken place” (Owusu 27). However, for both Mr. Ramsey and Lily Briscoe, “literary archeology” acknowledges that the essence of a singular moment is fragmentation, and that it is only with the passage of time that one is able to fully understand the meaning and significance of that moment. In Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Mr. Ramsey and Lily Briscoe are the archeologists that excavate the spatial and temporal relations, the fragments of the moment, which in turn grant them with a new perspective of their own lives.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “archeology” as the “systemic description or study of antiquities,” in other words, an examination of objects which the passage of time has made significant and worthy of research. Time and space render an object important, and those “antiquities” which are the focus of an archeological excavation contain fragments of a specific time and place, details that provide researchers with an insight and understanding of the conditions which bore such an object. Studying artifacts offers a unique perspective which improves and influences previous understandings and preconceived notions. Like archeologists, Mr. Ramsey and Lily Briscoe strive to improve their own perspectives. For Mr. Ramsey, the investigation and study reside in his scholarly endeavors; for Briscoe, it is the medium of art. Both individuals desire to obtain a deeper understanding of the world, a new perspective which ties together the various strings which comprise the intricate fabric of reality. However, the etymology of the word “archeology” also lends a more specific insight into the philosophical inquiries of Mr. Ramsey and Lily Briscoe. The word comes from the combination of Greek words literally translating to “the study of discourse” (OED), an etymology which aptly describes not only Mr. Ramsey’s epistemological pursuits and contributions to the field of metaphysics and philosophy, but also Lily Briscoe’s painting through which she strives to communicate her thoughts, perspectives, and memory, albeit through the medium of visual art rather than an “interchange of words or conversation” as the term “discourse” implies (OED). The “antiquities” which are the objects of archeological study are, for the two characters, the instances of the present moment which comprise their individual perspectives but which only the passage of time imbues with meaning and significance.
Mr. Ramsey, the father and scholar whose achievements in philosophy underpin his sense of grandiosity and self-importance, undergoes an identity crisis in the first section of To the Lighthouse. Confronted with the ephemerality of his life’s work, with the revelation that his philosophical legacy will not and cannot endure the passage of time, Mr. Ramsey collapses in on himself. He faces the dual awareness that he will never accomplish what he seeks in his scholarly endeavors, that ““He had not genius; he laid no claim to that… Yet he would not die lying down; he would find some crag of rock, and there his eyes fixed on the storm, trying to the end to pierce the darkness, he would die standing” (Woolf 38); and that any fame accredited his achievements are fleeting: “And his fame lasts how long?...His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still” (Woolf 39). Such an existential revelation not only serves as a source to his curmudgeonly disposition and constant need of validation, but also offers an insight into the archeology of both his work and his character, one which reveals a double-edged truth about the nature of time.
As Morrison’s literary archeology is an excavation into history, Mr. Ramsey’s work is a philosophical archeology into the nature of time, metaphysics, and reality, one which in turn foments a new archeology into his sense of identity. Comparing his life as a prominent metaphysician at Cardiff University where he is respected among his colleagues and students to his life as a father with his family, he muses, “It was true; he was for the most part happy; he had his wife; he had his children; he had promised in six weeks’ time to talk ‘some nonsense’ to the young men of Cardiff about Locke, Hume, Berkeley, and the causes of the French Revolution” (Woolf 48). His contemplation offers two important insights: that Mr. Ramsey, rather than being able to fully submerge himself into the scholarly atmosphere which inspires his work, must instead grapple with a family to whom his career and work are nothing more than “some nonsense”; and that if Mr. Ramsey subscribes to the philosophies of the men named, it follows that Mr. Ramsey is an empiricist, an advocate for “sense experience or direct observation rather than abstract reasoning [being] the foundation of all knowledge of reality” (OED). Extending the empiricist foundation from Mr. Ramsey’s work into his perception of reality raises a certain conundrum about the way that Mr. Ramsey perceives time: the nature of time thwarts an immediate perception through the senses, therefore jeopardizing any understanding founded upon direct observation. Philosopher Bertrand Russell describes such a challenge that Scottish empiricist David Hume once faced; he writes,
“Hume is commonly accused of having too atomic a view of perception, but allows that certain relations can be perceived. ‘We ought not,’ he says, ‘to receive as reasoning any of the observations we make concerning identity, and the relations of time and place; since in none of them the mind can go beyond what is immediately present to the sense.’ Causation, he says, is different in that it takes us beyond the impressions of our senses, and informs us of unperceived existences.” (Russell 668).
Confronting Mr. Ramsey is a crisis born of the intersection of time, place, and identity. Because he is unable to fathom time’s infinitude while accepting that he–as a man, a scholar, and a father of a family who does not understand and appreciate his work–and that his life’s work will be confined to mere fragment of history, Mr. Ramsey is thrown into existential anxiety. The archeology into the nature of time and reality which has heretofore marked his career and contributed to his sense of individuality therefore foments a new archeology into his own identity, one which dismantles the empiricist perspective with which he is forced to turn towards himself. Time’s elusive nature impels Mr. Ramsey to consider his entire life, his relations, and his scholarly pursuits in a different way–that his accomplishments and achievements are not granted value by the passage of time, but actually diminish across the course of time. Like “the very stone one kicks with one’s boot [that] will outlast Shakespeare” (Woolf 39), Mr. Ramsey faces a new understanding of the scope of time, one that inspires a too astronomical view of perception, which in turn sends his mental and emotional faculties into chaos.
As Mr. Ramsey grapples with his crisis while walking through the garden, Lily Briscoe attempts to paint Mrs. Ramsey and her son James as they sit within the window frame, Lily standing outside looking in. And just as Mr. Ramsey struggles with his newly-found awareness, Lily Briscoe also struggles with a certain awareness, but one of spatial and temporal relations which complicate her task of visually depicting mother and son. She strives, not to capture the scene’s details accurately, but to capture an essence which in turn will serve as a tribute to Mrs. Ramsey. Lily expounds her emphasis on relations over accuracy in an interaction with William Bankes who inquires, “What did she wish to indicate by the triangular purple shape, ‘just there’” (Woolf 55). Lily Briscoe responds,
“But the picture was not of them she said. Or, not in this sense. There were other senses too in which one might reverence them. By a shadow here and a light there, for instance. Her tribute took that form if, as she vaguely supposed, a picture must be a tribute. A mother and child might be reduced to a shadow without irreverence. A light here required a shadow there” (Woolf 56).
Lily Briscoe’s intention to capture an “other sense” born of the relational interplay between mother and son and the details which fill the spaces within, invokes Morrison’s literary archeology in that Lily’s pursuit is an excavation into the fragmented nature of reality. Her task is not to capture accuracy and maintain fidelity to the scene, but rather to depict the essence unique to that specific time and place, an atmosphere that transcends just a visual portrayal. Lily wants to encapsulate the relationship between Mother and son, the love that binds them in that specific, simple moment: “It was Mrs. Ramsay reading to James” (Woolf 55). But in order to capture such an instant, Lily must identify the parts that comprise the moment, the fragmented shards of time, and rearrange and reconstruct the pieces into a cohesive and completed portrait, one which will serve to “reverence them.” Borrowing Owusu’s description of Morrison’s method, Lily Briscoe acknowledges not only “that the essence of the history is fragmentation” (Owusu 27) but that the essence of the moment is fragmented. As Mr. Ramsey encroaches upon a similar revelation that an understanding of time spurns sensory perception via direct observation, so too does Lily Briscoe begin to understand that the passage of time imbues a portrait with a meaning unattainable through present observation, and it is this meaning that she seeks to portray in her painting.
In the final section of the novel, both Mr. Ramsey and Lily Briscoe reach the end of their respective pursuits, in the process attaining new perspectives granted them by the passage of time. Ten years have passed, and Mr. Ramsey finally embarks out to the lighthouse with his son James and daughter Cam, while Lily stands on the shore finishing her painting. The opening line of the final section reinforces the questions that mark the revelations which take place in the first: Lily ponders, “What does it mean then, what can it all mean?” (Woolf 149). The passage of time has granted the two characters a new perspective of the events and details of the past, but which they were unable to see in the moment. For Lily, “the extraordinary unreality was frightening; but it was also exciting” as she stands where “she had stood ten years ago” and ponders the same question “of some relation between those masses” (Woolf 151). For Mr. Ramsey, such a new perspective inspires a recognition of all that he had missed during his life ten years ago while he was overwhelmed with his scholarly pursuits and blinded by his self-deprecation. Now, he feels a “concentrated woe” (Woolf 157) which he projects onto Lily who, to Mr. Ramsey, has symbolically taken the place of the late Mrs. Ramsey. For both, the passage of time inspires an archeology which allows them to piece together the shards of the past in order to create a new understanding and perspective of the events, details, and relations that remain fragmented in their memories.
The truth which arises out of their respective archaeologies is a theory of life: that the passage of time and the lengthening of distance imbue the impressions which comprise one’s memory with significance. In the final section of the novel, Lily Briscoe contemplates time and distance, realizing the significance that arises from a distant perspective: “So much depends then, thought Lily Briscoe…so much depends, she thought, upon distance: whether people are near us or far from us; for her feeling for Mr. Ramsay changed as he sailed further and further across the bay” (Woolf 194). The convergence of temporal and spatial relations comes when Mr. Ramsay reaches the lighthouse, and at once Lily is able to complete her painting: “For the Lighthouse had become almost invisible, had melted away into a blue haze, and the effort of looking at it and the effort of thinking of him landing there, which both seemed to be one and the same effort, had stretched her body and mind to the utmost” (Woolf 210). Lily’s final revelation spans both the spatial distance from land to lighthouse and the temporal distance from present to ten years’ past. In the concluding moments of the novel, such a final revelation overwhelms the two characters, pushing them both into the background and elevating the philosophical convergence into emphasis. As scholar Ann Banfield describes:
“Mr. Ramsey’s landing thus coincides with Lily’s completion of her painting. A possible contrastive stress on the possessive pronoun in the final sentence ‘I have had my vision’ indicates the complementarity between the philosopher’s and the artist’s vision. And, like Mr. Ramsay’s face, the description each provides – philosophy, on the one hand, fiction, on the other – takes on the impersonal quality of its object, while the persons producing it inevitably disappear” (Banfield 55).
Emphasized is the full scope of time and space; the two characters finally realize the value of such a perspective, that time and space render the details of memory meaningful. The work of the philosopher and the artist is one and the same: that an excavation into the fragmentation of history reveals the essence that binds meaning to the moment.
In the final moments of the novel, both Mr. Ramsey and Lily Briscoe are finally able to look back on their lives with the clarity which the passage of time has bestowed them. The two characters have new perspectives of the moments which defined their pasts, perspectives which allow them to understand the relations, experiences, and significance which they were unable to attain in the moment itself. Just as the passage of time transforms an object into an artifact, for Mr. Ramsey and Lily Briscoe, the passage of time imbues an instant with significance, transforming a moment into a memory. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is a meditation on such a transformation. Lily Briscoe is able to “have her vision” only after ten years have passed, when time has granted her the context and understanding which was unattainable in the present. For Mr. Ramsey, contemplating the nature of time, examining the ways which time thwarts empirical analysis, provides for him a clarity through which he is able to consider his life, family, marriage, and children in a completely different way. The passage of time changes the events which an individual strives to remember. However, within such remembrance, the relations between individuals and across multiple perspectives, also influence a present understanding of the past since the experiences of one are inherently tied to the experiences of another.
English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead asserts that, “the misconception which has haunted philosophic literature throughout the centuries is the notion of ‘independent existence.’ There is no such mode of existence; every entity is to be understood in terms of the way it is interwoven with the rest of the universe” (Whitehead 64). Not only are the endeavors of both philosopher and artist intrinsically connected, but Mr. Ramsey and Lily Briscoe, as the archeologists of time and memory, are themselves inherently connected, and their respective work influences each other’s. While each seeks a certain understanding of time, what each invariably finds through their individual approaches–Mr. Ramsey through philosophy; Lily Briscoe through art–is an essence of life founded upon interconnected experiences. Toni Morrison’s “literary archeology” offers not just a strategic method with which a writer may excavate history and recreate a narrative to “yield up a kind of truth” (Morrison 92), but inspires a deeper and grander exploration into the mysterious nature of life, perception, and memory, an exploration which lies at the very heart of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
"archaeology, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2021.
Banfield, Ann. The Phantom Table: Woolf, Fry, Russell and the Epistemology of Modernism, Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2000.
"discourse, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2021.
"empiricism, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2021,
Morrison, Toni. “The Sites of Memory,” Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, 2nd Ed., edited by William Zinsser (Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 83-102.
Owusu, Portia. “Literary Archeology: The Uncovering and Recovering of Black Historical Memory and Trauma in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” Spectres from the Past: Slavery and the Politics of History in West African and African-American Literature (1st ed.). Routledge. New York, 2019.
Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 1945.
Whitehead, Alfred N. Essays in Science and Philosophy. New York: Philosophical Library, 1947.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Edited by Mark Hussey, Orlando: Harcourt, 2005.