Though the novel’s stream of consciousness jumps from perspective to perspective, the theme of gender remains in focus as each character considers gender roles and relations from his or her own standpoint. Mrs. Ramsey delights in her womanhood, successfully fulfilling the traditional female roles of caregiver, homemaker, beauty, comforter of men. Lily, on the other hand, resents those same traditional roles, resisting the pressure to fill them and then, when she succeeds in such resistance, feeling her defiant pride undercut by anxiety and self-doubt. Having successfully refused to give Mr. Ramsay the female sympathy he craves in The Lighthouse, for example, Lily thinks she must be a failure as a woman and, wracked by regret, spends the rest of the morning trying to make it up to him. Among the male characters, Mr. Tansley and Mr. Ramsay aspire to strength, chivalry, and intellectualism, trying to inhabit the traditional male role of female protector and evincing an enduring prejudice against female “irrationality” and “simplicity.” Still, even as the men look down on women, they depend on them. Mr. Tansley and Mr. Ramsay are both utterly reliant on Mrs. Ramsay and other female characters for praise and crave female sympathy to keep their egos afloat. Even when Mr. Ramsay recognizes this need as a weakness in himself, he remains unable to overcome it and thus demands of Lily in The Lighthouse the same sort of support he’d demanded from his wife ten years earlier in The Window.
Aside from considering men and women’s individual gender roles, the novel also considers the gender relations within a marriage and presents two models of domestic union. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay represent the conventional ideal (indeed, Lily thinks they have suddenly transcended themselves and become a symbol as they stand on the lawn). Though the marriage of course possesses its gender-bending quirks—Mr. Ramsay is emotionally needier, Mrs. Ramsay, more emotionally restrained—it generally operates as a conventional heterosexual romantic partnership: Mr. Ramsey is the “rational” breadwinner, Mrs. Ramsey the “comforting” homemaker. They love one another deeply and act as a team. Within this model, both are happy. Mrs. Ramsay especially praises the virtues of marriage and her eager matchmaking attempts to set up all single characters in a marriage like hers.
Though not seen first-hand, Minta and Paul’s marriage as imagined by Lily in The Lighthouse presents a point of contrast with the Ramsay marriage. It’s hinted in The Window that Minta is not entirely happy about being betrothed to Paul, and the subsequent marriage is rife with struggle and argument. Yet, over the years, relations between Paul and Minta are repaired by something that would traditionally be considered a marriage disaster: Paul takes a mistress and, thereafter, he and Minta are a team again. Remembering Mrs. Ramsay in The Lighthouse, Lily imagines holding up the example of Minta and Paul as well as of her own contented, unmarried life as evidence that Mrs. Ramsay was wrong to advocate so single-mindedly for conventional marriages. Indeed, the novel presents marriage and gender alike as complex, continued negotiations between the sexes, each facing a set of expectations that seldom fit but are nevertheless worked around, worked through, and reinvented.
Gender Quotes in To the Lighthouse
Indeed, she had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential…
…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.
The extraordinary irrationality of [Mrs. Ramsay’s] remark, the folly of women’s minds enraged [Mr. Ramsay]. He had ridden through the valley of death, been shattered and shivered; and now she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out of the question, in effect, told lies.
To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilsation so wantonly, so brutally, was to [Mrs. Ramsay] so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked.
…there issued from [Mr. Ramsay] such a groan that any other woman in the whole world would have done something, said something—all except myself, thought Lily, girding at herself bitterly, who am not a woman, but a peevish, ill-tempered, dried-up old maid presumably.