Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse paints a picture of family life during the Edwardian era in England, with an emphasis on some remaining presence of Victorian ideals. Written in a stream of consciousness, this novel is presented through a multitude of characters' minds with the narration constantly switching amongst them. Due to this frequent change of narrator, the reader is exposed to the characters' differing perspectives of social and familial construction. This novel focuses on the Ramsay family, made up of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and their eight children, along with the family's relations with other individuals, such as Lily Briscoe and Augustus Carmichael. In the first part of the novel, entitled "The Window," Mrs. Ramsay's role as a wife and mother is predominantly displayed. The recurrent image of Queen Victoria in relation to Mrs. Ramsay epitomizes the ideal domestic angel of the Victorian era, who always performs her duty to her family household and her kingdom. Mrs. Ramsay plays this role of the ideal domesticated female exceptionally well, especially as hostess during a dinner party who keeps everything running smoothly and in order. Though she performs the duty expected of her as a woman, her family fails to notice the importance behind the wife/mother role she plays. Mrs. Ramsay's social agency as a woman is completely overlooked because everyone is so focused on her physical beauty that they do not see the significance of her presence. During "Time Passes," however, the Ramsay family, particularly Mr. Ramsay, begins to recognize Mrs. Ramsay's agency through her sudden death. Without her to perform her role in the household, the family and the house fall apart, leading the remaining family members to realize that they took everything that Mrs. Ramsay did while she was alive for granted. Essentially, Mrs. Ramsay's absence causes the family to grasp the significance that her presence once held.
During "The Window," Mrs. Ramsay consistently does whatever is deemed necessary to take care of her family. At multiple times, Woolf describes Mrs. Ramsay in terms of "her capacity to surround and protect" (38). Lily Briscoe also imagines Mrs. Ramsay as having "the shape of a dome" (51). In this image, Mrs. Ramsay is seen as the ultimate protector of her household, similar to the way in which a queen reigns over her kingdom. By focusing on the part that Mrs. Ramsay plays in the family system, Woolf exemplifies a woman's significance as a Victorian domestic angel. Mrs. Ramsay encapsulates the Victorian ideology of women being expected to marry and have children, rarely, if ever, questioning her designated place in society. Though Mrs. Ramsay asks herself several times "what have I done with my life," she comes to the conclusion that being a wife and mother "is enough" (82, 65). She takes her motherhood very seriously, believing that it is her duty, as a woman, to play that role. The entire Ramsay family, Mr. Ramsay and all the children, believes that Mrs. Ramsay has a duty to them as well. They expect her to do exactly as she does: care for them, host dinner parties, and manage the household in order to keep everything together. Mrs. Ramsay embraces all of her family members in her arms (whether they like it or not) and gives them the sympathy and love that they desire. Mr. Ramsay is always "demanding sympathy" from her, which she readily gives him without question (37). She also shelters her husband and children in order to keep them out of harm's way. Playing this role of the queen keeping peace in her kingdom, Mrs. Ramsay's female agency remains unnoticed. She is continually depicted as an iconic Victorian image of female beauty and royalty. This depiction is encapsulated with the scene in which Woolf presents Mrs. Ramsay in relation to an image of Queen Victoria. In "The Window," there is a moment where Mrs. Ramsay enters a room in which Charles Tansley was waiting and "stood quite motionless for a moment against a picture of Queen Victoria . . . when all at once he (Tansley) realized that . . . she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen" (14). All that Mrs. Ramsay does for her family resembles a queen caring for her country, but the Victorian image of beauty masks the inner agency that Mrs. Ramsay possesses in caring for her household.
As Mrs. Ramsay gets killed off in "Time Passes," she is no longer physically present to the family, making it impossible for them to focus on her outer image. Since they can no longer see her as the portrait of a Queen, whom is expected to always to be there performing her duty to her family and her country, the family begins to realize the significance of the wife and mother role that Mrs. Ramsay played in the household. Mrs. Ramsay's absence becomes a means by which her female agency is made apparent to the remaining members of the Ramsay family. She was the glue that held the family, as well as the entire household, together. Without her, the controlled order and life that the house once held falls empty. Once held together and full of life, the house is now left vacant without Mrs. Ramsay to tend to it. Everything covers in dust and dirt and the wallpaper fades and falls, leaving the house with nothing but "hangings that flapped, wood that creaked, the bare legs of tables, saucepans and china already furred, tarnished, cracked" (129). The house ages in its desolate state of immense silence. Now empty of all life, the house serves as a reminder of Mrs. Ramsay's role in the family. The remaining individuals, especially Mr. Ramsay, become painfully aware of her absence and the emptiness left behind. When Woolf parenthetically mentions Mrs. Ramsay's death, she states, "Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty" (128). Mrs. Ramsay always knew when Mr. Ramsay felt the need to protect her and filled this place in his arms without ever being asked. Since Mr. Ramsay was accustomed to her knowing exactly when he needed her, he had the expectation that she would always be there as a wife and mother is supposed to be. With Mrs. Ramsay no longer there, however, Mr. Ramsay realizes the importance of the role she played in the household because of the vacancy of his open arms in her absence.
Throughout To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay represents the Victorian domestic angel. Encapsulated in the image of Queen Victoria, Mrs. Ramsay's role as wife and mother is depicted in "The Window" to show what the family expects from her, as well as what she expects from herself. Mrs. Ramsay's physical beauty hinders her family's ability to see her social agency, however. Since she protects the family and holds the household together, as she is expected to, no one realizes the importance of her presence beyond its' beauty. When Mrs. Ramsay is killed off during "Time Passes," the house and the family fall apart, withering with age. Since she is no longer present to perform her duty to her kingdom, Mrs. Ramsay gains social agency in her family's newfound appreciation for everything she did. The void she leaves behind causes Mr. Ramsay and the remaining children to realize that they took her for granted as a wife and mother while she was alive. Now that Mrs. Ramsay is absent from the household, her family becomes aware of the importance of her role as a Victorian domestic angel.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. 1927. A Harvest Book: Harcourt, Inc., 1981.