Lily Briscoe is one of the most intriguing characters in Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse. The painting that Lily works on throughout the novel comes to symbolize important aspects of the novel’s narrative: unity of vision, the importance of shape and perspective, and the transcending of the feminine form in overcoming obstacles to self-awareness and self-acceptance. Interestingly, Woolf uses visual arts to express these themes in her novel, instead of written arts, as, although Lily initially aspires to seek truth by “[writing symbols] out in some sentence” (124), she ultimately finds self-acceptance and triumph through the final brushstrokes of her post-impressionistic painting. Woolf’s choice of symbolic medium perhaps stems from a desire to convey her themes through the kind of optical relief that painting provides in conjunction with the sometimes-veiled medium of conventional literary narrative, where symbols and metaphors can be buried within contextual clues. By making Lily a painter as well as a thinker, Woolf is able to deepen the thematic experience for the reader, by using the modern conventional narrative, in accord with the more overt visualization of fine arts, to create a deeper sense of symbolism that resonates throughout the text.
Divided into three distinct parts, To the Lighthouse is a work that charts one woman’s journey to find a kind of inner truth that she has been seeking all her life. In the final part, “The Lighthouse,” Lily realizes her unfinished dream of completing her painting and thus exorcizing the ghosts of her past that have hindered her from self-actualization as an artist. By normalizing the barriers that had been obstructing her from reaching a higher truth, i.e., the aesthetic hold Mrs. Ramsay still has on her, even after death, and the consternation of Mr. Ramsay, who never believed in her art, Lily is able to complete her painting and unify the vision she began so many years prior: “It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision” (175). Woolf’s use of the fine arts medium is an imaginative choice that amplifies the symbolism of Lily’s journey. The physical act of putting the final brushstrokes on a project spanning a decade or more adds to the impact of the conventional narrative by introducing a further aspect of aestheticism to explore. This effect carries a tiered aesthetic approach in which the layers of the narrative, much like the brushstrokes on a painting, can be deepened and the meaning enrichened.
Lily Briscoe is a fascinating character study in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Through her characterization, Woolf is able to explore themes of form and space, distance and perspective, and feminine self-realization. The completion of Lily’s painting mirrors the achievement of her journey of self-worth, put into doubt by Mr. Ramsay and the masculine figures in her life, and in some ways Mrs. Ramsay’s conventionalism as well. At the end, Lily is able to reconcile the conventional feminine (embodied by Mrs. Ramsay) with the conception of her own femininity in a way that would not have been as directly possible if not for the addition of the fine arts medium. The aesthetic model and its thematic layering effect, which Woolf utilizes, deepens the meaning in the novel, and, through its tiered approach, carries a profound effect on the reader. By normalizing all the aspects of the painting, i.e., both the animate and inanimate, Lily is finally able to work through the barriers that had been opposing her quest for her own personal truth.
- Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. 1927. Feedbooks. http://gutenberg.net.au. Accessed 4 Feb. 2017.