As it examines the nature of interior life, so To the Lighthouse examines the nature of art and beauty, giving credence to commonly accepted understandings even as it puts forth alternative definitions. Weaving in pieces of a Sir Walter Scott novel and the lines from a Shakespeare sonnet, To the Lighthouse showcases the beauty of canonical art masterpieces, and in the person of Mrs. Ramsay, the novel presents a traditional ideal of human beauty. Indeed, Mr. Bankes imagines her “classical” beauty on the other end of the telephone.
The power of such beauty—in both art and humans—can work for good. The literature the characters read gives joy and consolation, as Mrs. Ramsey delights in the loveliness of the sonnet’s words and Scott’s prose frees Mr. Ramsey from anxiety about his public image. Further, such artworks can inspire faith in an all-encompassing human project. After reading Scott, Mr. Ramsey no longer cares whether it is he or someone else who “reaches Z” – someone will, he knows, and that’s enough. Mrs. Ramsay’s human beauty likewise consoles and inspires: those around her admire her and feel strengthened by her spirit. Mr. Tansley is filled with happiness just by sharing Mrs. Ramsay’s presence and attempts to be kinder and more generous for her sake. Paul attributes his courage to propose to Minta to Mrs. Ramsay’s effect upon him. Still, beauty can also exert less positive influences. Lily observes that beauty can reduce and obscure, concealing the complexity of life beneath it. Admiring Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty, Lily tries to see past it to “the living thing” that so animates her.
As it considers the nature of beauty, the novel also considers beauty’s makers. The characters of Mr. Carmichael and Lily afford a view on art in the process of being created by as-yet unestablished artists. In each case, beauty springs unexpected from unlovely circumstances. Out of the opium-addicted, shuffling Mr. Carmichael of The Window springs the incongruous sublimity of his poems, which meet with such apparent success subsequently. Through Lily’s meager existence, self-doubts, and despair arrives the painting she completes in the novel’s last section. Yet the novel does not limit the making of beauty to the production of fine art objects. It understands human conduct and daily life as a form of art also. Thus Mrs. Ramsey’s orchestration of herself, her family, and her guests is repeatedly described in terms ordinarily applied to artistic composition and Lily recognizes Mrs. Ramsay’s person as an aesthetic force, a masterpiece.
In broadening our understanding of art and beauty, the novel shifts the emphasis from finished product to process – rather than limiting “art” to concrete, enduring, delimited artifacts, the novel shows that art can also be a spirit, a frame of mind, a form of vision. Thus, Lily ends the novel satisfied even though she knows that her painting itself will not be immortalized, will almost certainly be forgotten. She feels content knowing that she has participated in art and beauty just by making the painting, just by having “her vision.”
Art and Beauty ThemeTracker
Art and Beauty Quotes in To the Lighthouse
…it was only in silence, looking up from their plates, after she had spoken so severely about Charles Tansley, that her daughters—Prue, Nancy, Rose—could sport with infidel ideas which they had brewed for themselves of a life different from hers; in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other; for there was in all their minds a mute questioning of deference and chivalry, of the Bank of England and the Indian Empire, of ringed fingers and lace, though to them all there was something in this of the essence of beauty, which called out the manliness in their girlish hearts, and made them, as they sat at table beneath their mother’s eyes, honour her strange severity, her extreme courtesy…
Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; felt the wind and the cyclamen and the violets for he was walking with a beautiful woman for the first time in his life. He had hold of her bag.
Then beneath the colour there was the shape. She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child.
For always, [Mr. Bankes] thought, there was something incongruous to be worked into the harmony of [Mrs. Ramsay’s] face. She clapped a deer-stalker’s hat on her head; she ran across the lawn in galoshes to snatch a child from mischief. So that if it was her beauty merely that one thought of, one must remember the quivering thing, the living thing…and work it into the picture.
[Lily] took shelter from the reverence which covered all women; she felt herself praised. Let [Mr. Bankes] gaze; she would steal a look at her picture.
It partook, [Mrs. Ramsay] felt, carefully helping Mr. Bankes to a specially tender piece, of eternity; as she had already felt about something different once before that afternoon; there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that remains for ever after. This would remain.
And then there it was, suddenly entire shaped in [Mrs. Ramsay’s] hands, beautiful and reasonable, clear and complete, the essence sucked out of life and held rounded here—the sonnet.
But what a power there was in the human soul! [Lily] thought. That woman sitting there, writing under the rock resolved everything into simplicity; made these angers, irritations fall off like old rags; she brought together this and that and then this, and so made out of that miserable silliness and spite (she and Charles squabbling, sparring, had been silly and spiteful) something—this scene on the beach for example, this moment of friendship and liking—which survived, after all these years, complete, so that she dipped into it to refashion her memory of him, and it stayed in the mind almost like a world of art.
Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent)—this was of the nature of a revelation.
[Lily] went on tunneling her way into her picture, into the past.
One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with, [Lily] reflected. Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with, she thought. Among them, must be one that was stone blind to [Mrs. Ramsay’s] beauty.