An Affirmation of Life through Art? An Analysis of the Interrelation between Life and Art in Virginia Woolf's Novels "The Waves" and "To the Lighthouse"

Seminar Paper 2008 16 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Virginia Woolf’s view of art
2.1 Influence of Roger Fry and the Formalism
2.2 Woolf’s demands on art
2.3 Symbolism in To the Lighthouse and The Waves

3. Comparison of the artists Lily Briscoe (To the Lighthouse) and Bernard (The Waves)
3.1 Lily’s life and art in ‘The Window’ section compared to and contrasted with Bernard’s
up to the death of Percival
3.2 Lily’s life and art in ‘The Lighthouse’ section compared to and contrasted with
Bernard’s after Percival’s death

4. Conclusion


List of Abbreviations

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1. Introduction

In her essay “The Artist Figure in Woolf’s Writings”, Pamela L. Caughie writes: “[Many critics’] commentaries rest on the assumption that [Virginia] Woolf and her artists are concerned with the nature of art’s relation to life, where art and life are two realms of experience”.[1] She doubts that this assumption is a useful means for discussing works of Virginia Woolf. Instead of focussing on the relation between life and art; she suggests to look at the status and function of art.

As a matter of fact, most of Virginia Woolf’s works deal with artists. That might be a writer, a poet, like Bernard in The Waves. It might as well be a painter, like Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse. Reasons, why Woolf often chose (or felt the urge) to write about artists and the creation of art, are easy to find: During all her life, she was deeply concerned with dealing both theoretically and practically with the facets of art.

But not only the nature of art was in the focus of Woolf’s interest. She also thoroughly investigated the nature of life: Her novels, Mrs Dalloway as well as The Waves or To the Lighthouse, are about the lives of different characters that are linked with one another. But what is ‘life’? This term is of course not easy to define. The novels mentioned above are, among other things, about people’s memories of the past and about their actual present, about relationships which have been changed by time, and about how the characters perceive reality. In this essay, ‘life’ is to be seen as a conglomerate of these factors: Time, the development of relationships and the perception of the world.

These three factors of life shall be investigated by comparing two of Woolf’s probably most distinguished artist figures, Lily Briscoe and Bernard, and they shall be related to their art. The central questions of this essay are therefore: Does their art mean an affirmation of Lily’s and Bernard’s lives? How do their lives and their understanding of art develop? And: What is the impact of life and art on one another in the respective characters and novels?

In order to give a convincing answer to these questions, it is necessary first to have a look on Virginia Woolf’s own view of the role of art in her and her critics’ opinion. After that, Lily’s and Bernard’s life and art shall be investigated and compared through the different stages of the novels.

In this essay, especially Woolf’s texts themselves shall be analysed but also the opinions of critics are to be considered. Finally, I hope to be able to give an answer to the question if life is affirmed through art in To the Lighthouse and The Waves. Apart from that, it should become clear if Pamela Caughie is right with her thesis that art is not necessarily related to life in Woolf’s novels.

2. Virginia Woolf’s view of art

2.1 Influence of Roger Fry and the Formalism

The Bloomsbury Group is well-known for their discussions on art and aesthetics. One of its members was the art critic and historian Roger Fry, who expressed his ideas of art in his “Essay on Aesthetics”. Virginia Woolf’s critics agree that his theories thoroughly influenced her attitude towards art in general and towards her writing in particular. For example, Nancy Bazin writes that Woolf “was evidently fascinated by the postimpressionists”,[2] to whom Fry belonged as well as her sister Vanessa and her brother-in-law Clive Bell. Also Julia Briggs is convinced of Fry’s impact on Woolf as Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse obviously “echoes Roger Fry in her artistic ideals”.[3] But Woolf had adapted her writing to techniques of painting much earlier: in her short story Kew Gardens (1919), which was “the first of Virginia’s raids upon her sister’s art”.[4] In this text, she arranges the park, the flower-beds and passer-bys like a painting; the composition of colours, light and shade becomes more important than actions.[5] This corresponds with the theories of the post-impressionists, or rather formalists, like Vanessa Bell or Roger Fry: they also emphasized the “impact of form and structure in painting” as it seemed to them more essential than mere representation. Clive Bell even found that “representation itself threatened to distract the artist from the more urgent requirements of form: only too often, representation was ‘a sign of weakness’ in an artist”.[6] Thus, they helped the writer Woolf “to make her own art new” and overcome conventional ideas of the value of literature.[7]

But what exactly did Fry say in his famous “Essay on Aesthetics”? Its central question is about the value of painting.[8] In former times, Fry argues, art’s value was the imitation of the world. But in the beginning of the 20th century, this “‘imitation theory of art’ had been ‘killed by the invention of photography’” – therefore, an artist “must aim to produce something more than an imitation” according to Fry: form becomes more important than representation in modern art.[9] In To the Lighthouse, the paintress Lily Briscoe embodies these formalist ideas.[10] When she talks with William Bankes about her picture, this becomes evident. Bankes stands for the traditional attitude towards art and does not understand her artistic aims, while Lily is “less concerned with imitation than with ‘the relations of masses, of lights and shadows’”.[11] By painting Mrs Ramsay and he son James as a “triangular purple shape”, Lily has “made no attempt at likeness”.[12] Creation itself has become much more essential than representation. In this sense, Jean Guiguet writes that form is a basic requirement in order to transform the reality, i.e. the world we see around us, and thus create a piece of art.[13]

Another crucial thought in Roger Fry’s “Essay” is the confrontation of an artist’s ‘attachment’ and his/her ‘detachment’. What does he mean by these terms? Fry distinguishes everyday life from imaginative life. The latter is determined by its detachment from action; it is occupied with the ‘inner life’ of a person. If an artist wants to transform everyday life, he or she has to withdraw from reality and become a ‘spectator’ instead of an ‘actor’. What is required in order to create art, according to Fry, is ‘the visionary quality’. This exactly corresponds to Lily’s final vision in ‘The Lighthouse’: She becomes a spectator as she has established a detachment from actual objects (Mrs Ramsay) and has attached to her feelings (about Mrs Ramsay). Therefore she is finally able to complete her work of art.[14] Fry is convinced that instead of expressing the ‘outer world’, a work of art should rather express the imaginative, ‘inner’ life.[15] This is also what Woolf tried and did in her novels. They are never much concerned with the development of a plot and the characters’ actions but with the development of their inner lives.

2.2 Woolf’s demands on art

What should art do, what should it express? These questions concerned Virginia Woolf throughout her career as a writer. She was engaged in them theoretically, but also tried to give answers to them practically, by writing. While her first novel, The Voyage Out, still much resembles a traditional piece of literature,[16] her later works, especially the highly praised novel The Waves, show how much her style and expressiveness had developed during the years.

So, what did art exactly mean to Virginia Woolf? There are at least two answers: First, by art a short moment can be made to last forever. According to Julia Briggs, Virginia Woolf was fascinated by the similarities and differences between painting and writing:[17] a painter can make a moment ‘freeze’ on his canvas[18] as does Lily Briscoe when she paints Mrs Ramsay.[19] Since Virginia Woolf was not a paintress like her sister, she had to find her own way of fixing time and thus to derive techniques from painting for her own art.[20] In order to make a single moment memorable for the reader, she had to expand and intensify the descriptions of what is seen or heard or felt. Her short story Kew Gardens is a perfect example for this fusion of painting and writing: it almost resembles a still life in its beginning, when Woolf describes the raising flowers, the light gleaming in the drop of water or the snail’s shell in the bed.[21] In general, one could say that Woolf used art to make the world appear under a different light, to show life with all its facets to her reader.

Secondly, for Woolf herself art was a shelter from her mental illness. On this score, Guiguet writes: ‘It is just her passion for life that makes the action of art so necessary to her. She refuges from one into the other constantly’[trans. Eck].[22] During all her life, Woolf suffered from depressions and nervous breakdowns. Her art, writing, helped her cope with the adverseness of life, and in her novels, she could express what occupied her. In a way, her writing could surely be called a therapeutic process. Also most of the artist figures she invented are struggling with life. In Mrs Dalloway, there is the ‘poet’ Septimus Warren Smith, a traumatised ex-soldier whose only salvation seems to be suicide. Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse cannot fulfil the role society wants a woman to play. In The Waves, the poet Neville feels solitary and regards his life senseless after Percival’s death. His friend Bernard, however, finally fights death. Virginia Woolf herself, instead, committed suicide, some weeks after she had finished her last novel Between the Acts. For her, writing was always a very strenuous, demanding process. Although her art was a refuge from her illness on the one hand, it brought her near to nervous breakdowns on the other hand. Often, she had to rest for her doctors worried about her health. When she drowned herself in the River Ouse in 1941, one reason was her fear that she would lose her creativity.[23]


[1] Pamela L. Caughie. „The Artist Figure in Woolf’s Writings: The Status and Function of Art.“ In Pamela L. Caughie. Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism. Literature in Quest and Question of Itself. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991: p. 30.

[2] Nancy G.T. Bazin. The Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms,1969: p. 48.

[3] Julia Briggs. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. London: Penguin Books, 2006: p. 181.

[4] Ibid. p.68

[5] Cf. Virginia Woolf. Kew Gardens In Street Haunting. London: Penguin, 2005; p. 16: “From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface […]The light fell either upon the smooth, grey back of a pebble, or the shell of a snail with its brown, circular veins, or falling into a raindrop, it expanded with such intensity of red, blue and yellow the thin walls of water that one expected them to burst and disappear.”

[6] Briggs, p. 69

[7] Ibid. p. 68.

[8] Cf. Michael Whitworth. Virginia Woolf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005: p. 111: „[...] what makes painting valuable, as painting. This question had been addressed influentially by Roger Fry in his ‘Essay on Aesthetics’ (1909).”

[9] Ibid. 111.

[10] Cf. ibid. p.111: “Fry valued Chinese art for its formal qualities, and this provides one explanation for Lily Briscoe’s ‘Chinese eyes’: they imply that she has a formalist artistic ‘vision’.”

[11] Ibid, p. 110.

[12] Virginia Woolf. To the Lighthouse. Ed. David Bradshaw. Oxford and New York:Oxford University Press, 2006: p. 45.

[13] “la définition esquissée ici nous incline à voir dans la forme tous les éléments, toutes les forces qui, appliquées à l’émotion, matière du roman, la transforment, opèrent une sorte de transmutation du réel. […] cette forme est le principe agissant de la création.”

‘The definition outlined here, makes us see in the form all the elements, all the forces which are, together with emotion, the material of the novel, which transform, which bring a kind of transmutation of the real. […] this form is the agitated prinicple of creation.’ [Trans. Eck]

Quoted from: Jean Guiguet. Virginia Woolf et son œuvre. L’Art et la Quête du Réel. Paris: Didier, 1962: Page 70.

[14] Cf. Whitworth, pp. 113-4: “[…] To paint, Lily needs to be ‘attached’ to her feelings, but she needs also to be detached from the people around her. Only then she can have her vision.”

[15] Cf. Briggs, p. 69.

[16] Cf. Briggs, pp. 1-28; Bazin, p. 57.

[17] Cf. Briggs, p. 69.

[18] Cf. ibid. p. 69: “Painting could cut through the novelist’s task of recording time passing by […] making a single moment last forever.”

[19] Cf. Bazin, p. 150: “[I]n all her novels Virginia Woolf wants to give an impression of ‘tumult’ and ‘pattern’ or, in Lily Briscoe’s terms, ‘chaos’ and ‘shape’. Thus, like Lily in her painting, she aims in To the Lighthouse ‘to make of the moment something permanent’. Both she and Lily want to make life itself ‘stand still’.”

[20] Briggs, p. 68.

[21] Cf. reference 5.

[22] Guiguet, pp. 104-5: “[C]’est justement sa passion de la vie qui lui rendait si nécessaire l’action de l’art. Elle se réfugie constamment de l’une dans l’autre”.

[23] Cf. Woolf’s suicide note to her husband Leonard: “I […] cant concentrate. [..] I cant even write this properly.”; quoted from Briggs, p. 400. Also cf. Ibid. p. 399.


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Title: An Affirmation of Life through Art? An Analysis of the Interrelation between Life and Art in Virginia Woolf's Novels "The Waves" and "To the Lighthouse"