We don’t know much about Lily Briscoe’s painting in To the Lighthouse (1927). Among occasional references to an abstract composition of a mass here, a line there, a bright violet owed to some clematis, the only specific description Virginia Woolf provides is of a purple triangular form through which Lily registers its subject: Mrs. Ramsay (Madonna-like) sitting with young James between her knees. Lily pronounces the painting’s earliest incarnation to be “bad…infinitely bad” and laments the distance dividing her vision of “colour burning on a framework of steel” and its unrealized execution in “only a few random marks scrawled upon the canvas.” Even ten years later, as she finishes the painting with a kind of epiphany, slashing a line through the center, we don’t learn more than that a hint of the purple triangle remains. But ekphrasis would be beside the point, for Lily’s work is only contingently a visual artifact. Instead, the painting epitomizes a way of seeing, not a thing seen.
Lily aspires to render “something that evaded her…. Phrases came. Visions came. Beautiful pictures. Beautiful phrases. But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it had been made anything.” This also describes Woolf’s own ambition: not merely to represent the contents of consciousness, but to lay bare its emergence, shifts, mutations, and extinction—the “jar on the nerves” of experiencing a thing, not the thing itself. And while this comparison suggests a sympathy between Woolf and her fictional painter, it more strongly signals the staging of a paragone. Like Homer’s narrative of Achilles’s shield, a pictorial imagining impossible to realize in a visual object but readily rendered in a verbal one, Woolf presents Lily’s painting as bearing just those constraints of its medium from which Woolf’s own form is free.
Lily’s painting, as a painting, is forced to resolve itself into a presentation of some positive thing, however nonfigurative its style might be. What is no longer present—Mrs. Ramsay reading to James—can play no meaningful role once its corresponding visual signs are removed from the finished composition. Woolf, by contrast, makes of Mrs. Ramsay’s absence an organizing principle of the novel. Her death, like those of others, is gestured at only in passing. Her absence, however, is presented as a constant dimension—the unseen side of a figure—of all. In a painting, a shadow has no reason for being once its casting object is displaced; in the haunting presences of Woolf’s novel, shadows survive as shades.
Further, Woolf presents Lily’s vision as only achieved once she reaches a sufficient conceptual distance from her subject: to ascend from being the swimmer for whom waves come “divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests,” to one who gazes down from the cliffs, seeing “the waves shape themselves symmetrically.” Only as Mr. Ramsay and the children reach the lighthouse, and Lily is unencumbered of both his needs and the hold of Mrs. Ramsay, does she finish the painting—now only “clear for a second.” Woolf’s vision, however, is never not intimate; indeed, the figure of the lighthouse, off on the horizon, perpetually anticipated as a destination, brings into relief the anchoring of all the novel’s representations, inflected through the consciousness of its characters, in the here and now.
And, finally, Lily’s painting, abandoned and then retrieved after ten years, exists outside of time; it is a puzzle to be solved through incremental advances, as when, during dinner, she realizes she ought to move a tree-shape from one part of the canvas to another. Woolf’s novel, by contrast, treats the temporal affordances of narrative as a reservoir of meaning. The first part of the novel is all stasis, fixity, and idle promise. Even as she speculates about the future, Mrs. Ramsay wishes (seeing her children) for time to stop. Touching James’s hair, she thinks “he will never be so happy again.” The third part is a wan retrieval of that past and a resolution or putting to rest of its aspirations (an unhappy marriage, deaths in the War, James achieving his father’s approval, the reaching of the lighthouse). And the interlude of the second part conveys the passing of time as if behind our backs, where momentous events are registered only parenthetically—both within the actual punctuation marks and the human form they mimic. Thus Mr. Ramsay, like Aeneas reaching for the ghost of his dead wife, stretches out his arms one dark morning but grasps nothing, given, the narrator remarks, “Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before.”
Look at painting’s limits, Woolf suggests, and see how my novel transcends them.