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Free Study Guide-To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf-Free Online Book Notes
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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

CHAPTER 4

Summary

Lily is taken aback that Mr. Ramsey has almost walked right over her easel as he has walked through the yard yelling "Boldly we rode and well." She finds him "at once ridiculous and alarming." She is relieved nevertheless that he is waving and shouting, because it keeps him from looking over her shoulder at her painting. Even as she concentrates on painting, she has to keep "a feeler on her surroundings" to prevent anyone from sneaking up behind her and surprising her. She notices William Banks coming out of the house toward her and she does not turn her painting on the grass as she would have if it had been any of the others.

Since she and William Banks both have rooms in the village, they have developed an easy comradery because they have walked to and from the Ramsey's house. She just stands there as he stands beside her thinking she has excellent shoes. He had noticed how orderly she was. He thinks her Minta Doyle's superior because even without Minta's complexion or allurement, Lily has good sense. "Now, for instance, when Ramsey bore down on them, shouting, gesticulating, Miss Briscoe, he felt certain, understood. 'Some one had blundered.' Mr. Ramsey glared at them." Even though Mr. Ramsey is glaring at them, he does not even see them. Lily and William Banks are uncomfortable as if they have encroached upon Mr. Ramsey's privacy, so Mr. Banks suggests they take a stroll. Lily agrees, but has difficulty leaving her picture.

Lily thinks of the colors of the scene she is painting. The jacmanna is bright violet and the wall is starkly white. She does not think it is honest to tamper with what she sees in representing it, even though that is the fashion in painting since Mr. Paunceforte visited the Hebrides and did his paintings of the landscape in transparent and pale colors. Lily sees that beneath the colors there is a shape. She can see it clearly as she looks at it, but when she tries to represent it with a brush stroke she loses it; the "demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child." She often feels that it takes tremendous courage against great odds to insist on what she sees and hold onto the remnant of the original vision. Also, as she paints other thoughts force themselves onto her, her sense of her own inadequacy, her insignificance, her duties keeping house for her father. She has to stifle a strong impulse to throw herself at Mrs. Ramsey's knee and say to her "I'm in love with you." Yet, she does not really feel so. Maybe she would say, "I'm in love with this all."


She agrees to take the walk with William Banks. It is the middle of September and past six in the evening. She takes this walk with Banks every evening toward the water. They feel like the water sets "sailing thoughts which had grown stagnant on dry land" and even made their bodies feel a relief. Lily thinks that distant views outlast the view by a million years. These distance views seem to commune with the sky which at last beholds the earth in its entirety.

William Banks looks at the far sand hills and thinks of Ramsey walking along a road in Westmoreland in a solitude that suited him as a natural state of being, but Mr. Ramsey was interrupted by a hen clucking at a covey of little chicks who distracted his attention. It seems to Mr. Banks that his friendship ceased with Mr. Ramsey at that moment and that afterwards Mr. Ramsey had married. William Banks is anxious about Lily's opinion of Ramsey. As a childless widower, he feels somewhat dried up and shrunken next to Ramsey with his "welter of children." He wants Lily to understand how things had stood between him and Ramsey. Having seen his friendship in the sand hills, he is alive to things, like, for instance, Cam, Ramsey's youngest daughter, who is picking Sweet Alice on the bank. She refuses to give him a flower when he requests one and he feels aged and saddened and thinks he must have dried and shrunken. Banks wonders how the Ramseys manage to feed eight children on Mr. Ramsey's philosophy. He sees another of the Ramsey children, Jasper, who is off to "have a shot at a bird." He swings Lily's hand like a "pump-handle as he passes" and Mr. Banks feels jealous thinking she is a favorite of the children while he is not. Banks can scarcely tell the children apart. He calls them privately after the kings and queens of England: "Cam the Wicked, James the Ruthless, Andrew the Just, Prue the Fair.

As he is walking up the drive. "Lily Briscoe said yes and no and capped his comments." William Banks thinks that perhaps Ramsey is developing eccentricities and is amazed that a man of his intellect should stoop so low as to depend so much on people's praise.

Lily got her idea of Ramsey's work from Andrew who helped her understand his father's philosophical ideas--"Subject and object and the nature of reality"-- by having her "think of a kitchen table when you're not there." Since then, Lily always pictures a scrubbed kitchen table, now, in her mind's eye, lodged in the fork of a pear tree. Lily decides that if a person spent all his days reducing "the lovely evenings, with all their flamingo clouds and blue and silver to a white deal four-legged table," he could not be judged as ordinary people were.

Mr. Banks is glad when she tells him to think of Mr. Ramsey's work. He thinks Ramsey did his best work before he was forty. He has written one little book when he was twenty-five years old, which had made a definite contribution. After that, his work consisted of amplification and repetition.

Mr. Banks makes a gesture with his hand and it releases in Lily "the load of her accumulated impressions of him." She thinks that she respects him in every atom because he is not vain, but is impersonal and finer than Mr. Ramsey. She thinks that Mr. Banks lives for science and, as she says the word, "sections of potatoes rose before her eyes." She thinks that unlike Ramsey, Banks does not require praise. He had brought his valet all the way up to the Hebrides for his vacation. He did not like dogs on chairs and he would go on for hours about the ineptitude of English cooks.

Lily ponders the question of how one judges or thinks of people. She thinks Banks has greatness, but that Ramsey is petty, vain, and egotistical, a spoilt tyrant, who wears Mrs. Ramsey to death. She also thinks that Ramsey has what Banks is missing, "a fiery unworldliness; he knows nothing about trifles; he loves dogs and his children." Lily's thoughts of the two men "danced up and down, like a company of gnats, each separate, but all marvelously controlled in an invisible elastic net." A gunshot goes off close by.

Mr. Banks yells out, "Jasper!" They see a flock of starlings fly off. They step through the hedge and directly into Mr. Ramsey. He intones to them "Some one had blundered!" His eyes rest on theirs for a moment, and then he waves them away and turns abruptly.

Notes

Woolf captures in this chapter the difficulty of painting as a woman artist. The interruptions by inquisitive men, the scorn and belittlement by other women, the self-doubt of not having predecessors all work to keep Lily from carrying through from vision to painting.

This is a good chapter to notice Virginia Woolf's unique technique of shifting the point of view of the novel from character to character without much notice at all to the reader. In a traditional novel, the narrative point of view remains constant; that is, it might give the thoughts of one character and give that character's speculations on the thoughts of other characters. Instead, Woolf gives us the random thoughts of all the characters as they occur. Moreover, she does not separate the characters' thoughts into convenient chapters. She jumps, for instance, from Mrs. Ramsey's thoughts about her husband's somewhat embarrassing habit of yelling out his private musings, to Lily Dyer's thoughts of Mr. Ramsey almost running her over, to William Banks's thoughts about Lily's shoes. One function of this technique is to demonstrate the many things that happen at one moment. People might be together on the same lawn, but their thoughts are vastly separate from their spoken words. Woolf even achieves as sort of pastiche with the several characters' consciousness thoughts. For instance, notice when William Banks thinks admiringly of Lily, that she understood--what, the reader is not sure. Woolf immediately follows this oblique reference with an insertion of Mr. Ramsey's fragmented thought "Some one had blundered." It is almost as if Banks thinks Lily understands that someone had blundered, but that line is Mr. Ramsey's point of view. He is glaring at them, but he absent-mindedly does not even see them.

William Banks's thoughts on his friendship with Ramsey introduce a theme Woolf will take up with Mr. Ramsey in later chapters, the theme of men's sense of their own lack of life force. Banks feels dried and shrunken because he is a widower and has never had children. In this novel, Woolf seems to propose that one of the flaws of patriarchy is that it apportions all life to women and all abstraction to men, leaving them awkwardly incomplete in themselves.

In Lily's walk with William Banks, the reader sees that she has certainly not escaped the call upon women of this era to mirror men's thoughts, to "say yes and no and cap their comments." As a woman artist, she walks a thin line on the side of social convention. She cannot afford to give up all social interchange as Mr. Carmichael, the poet, can. She must play the role her society offers her. Even when it is a pleasant walk with a friendly acquaintance, it is a role that calls upon her to be silent and agreeable.

Mrs. Ramsey is involved in the philosophic question of the subject and object and the nature of reality, a question central to twentieth-century philosophy. Andrew's help for Lily, to picture a kitchen table when one is not there with it, has also been formulated in the by-now trite illustration which has a person imagine a tree falling in a forest and being asked the question, if one is not there to hear it, does it make a sound. If the subject--the perceiver of the object--is not there to perceive the object, how does the object exist in reality. Put in other words, reality cannot be arrived at without perception. It exists only as it is perceived. If the perceiver is absent, the reality-status of the object is in question. The kitchen table only exists in the perceiver's mind and the nature of reality is not as solid as had been previously imagined.

This question of perception, of how reality is composed in the relation between the subject and the object, is utterly central to Woolf's novel. It is important to the artist Lily to be true to her vision of bright colors when she sees them rather than going with the fashion of the art world and painting in pastels. It is important for Woolf, the novelist, to compose a novel using techniques which attempt to get at how people perceive the reality of their lives and how the multiple perceptions of a group of people make up a rich and varied picture of a simple day in the Hebrides when nothing much happens.

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