Virginia Woolf'sPortrayal of Working Class People in "To the Lighthouse"
In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf portrayed the working class people as a social group with some impressive qualities including inner strength.
According to the novel, personal inner strength has several varieties. First, there is the quiet inner strength and self-assurance of Mrs. Ramsay, which comes from within a person. Mrs. Ramsay is the right person in the right place in the right time speaking in chronological and social terms (though her daughter Prue is not so lucky).
Then there is Lily Briscoe. Lily's strength comes from two different external sources - Mrs. Ramsay and Lily's own artwork. By the end of To the Lighthouse, Lily succeeds in uniting these two sources into her picture, which shows that she learned how to tap such external sources using them to achieve her goals. The fact that this occurs after Mrs. Ramsay has died shows that Lily has developed her own inner strength in the process, similar to the inner strength possessed by Mrs. Ramsay.
At last, there is the working class people like Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast: whether Virginia Woolf guessed correctly or not, they are self-secure and self-confident; they may not be as smart as educated Mr. Ramsay, William Bankes, or Charles Tansley, but they are much more self-assured than the scholars are. To prove that point, let us examine the characters of the novel and compare the people from the working class with their counterparts from the other social levels.
To the Lighthouse centers around the Ramsays, a well-to-do family, who own both a summerhouse on the Isle of Skye and a regular home in London. In addition, they are able to pay other people (like Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast) to take care of their belongings for several years straight. Another main character of To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe, appears to belong to the upper levels of society as well.
For all of their material possessions, the Ramsays appear to belong to the class of intelligentsia, not aristocracy (i.e., they are not at the top of England's social ladder either). Their peers are from the English intelligentsia class as well: William Bankes is an old comrade of Mr. Ramsay (Woolf, 34-35); Augustus Carmichael is a poet (202); Charles Tansley is a scholar of sorts. Even Lily Briscoe, both as an artist and an educated woman, does not appear to be uncomfortable or inappropriate in this group. Nor, for that matter, do the Ramsays appear embarrassed or disgusted by Lily, as they do by Charles Tansley.
Charles Tansley, the young man who came to visit the Ramsays during the summer, is obviously some kind of an up-and-coming young scholar, "the hundred and tenth young man to chase them all the way up to the Hebrides" (13) eager to learn from the master, Mr. Ramsay. The Ramsays - even the mild-mannered Mrs. Ramsay - tend to treat him with contempt, while, for his part, Tansley lives with the Ramsays and is probably dependent on them for room and board. It is unknown whether he pays them rent, but even if he does, To the Lighthouse does not mention it. Of course, other lodgers of Ramsays - William Bankes, Augustus Carmichael - apparently do not deal with rent either. Furthermore, Augustus Carmichael, who due to his addiction to opium appears to be even worse than Charles Tansley is: "the poor man was unhappy, came to them every year as an escape" (63); Mrs. Ramsay, however, seems to treat Augustus Carmichael with pity rather than derision, and at one point tends to blame Augustus' wife rather than Augustus (63).
Compared to the members of the intelligentsia, the working class characters of the novel appear to be more impressive than the intelligentsia is. Mrs. McNab, Mrs. Bast, and Macalister and his boy possess that quiet self-confidence that is absent from the characters of Mr. Ramsay, Charles Tansley, or even William Bankes. Mrs. Ramsay, by the way, seems immune to such flaws; however, her urge to get everyone married seems to compensate fully for that - perhaps because at that time, raising a family was a full-time job, and Mrs. Ramsay did not have time to feel insecure? Consequently, it may be reasonable to believe that Virginia Woolf thought rather negatively of the old-fashioned intellectuals such as Mr. Ramsay and Charles Tansley - for example, her most sympathetic picture of Tansley is when he remembers his humble fisherman roots, at the Ramsays' dinner party:
But in that one sentence lay compact, like gunpowder, that his grandfather was a fisherman; his father a chemist; that he had worked his way up entirely himself; that he was proud of it; that he was Charles Tansley--a fact that nobody seemed to realize; but one of these days every single person would know it (Woolf 138).
As a man, Charles Tansley is officially higher in the English society of that time than a single woman Lily Briscoe. Unfortunately, unofficially the Ramsays treat him with much more contempt than they treat Lily and that makes him uncomfortable. In spirit, Charles Tansley is arrogant, but the fact that he is dependent on the Ramsays for sustenance as well as a possible social promotion, forces him to keep his arrogance in check, and so Charles Tansley tries his best not to aggravate the Ramsays in any way. He tries to compensate that by saying demeaning remarks about Lily, but the latter just ignores him, only making him angrier (130).
One of the reasons behind that attitude of Charles may be the fact that Charles Tansley is from a poor family, and thus may have issues due to his background, even if he tries actually to be self-collected and appears arrogant instead. As a result, his social skills are lacking, and he often finds himself mocked by the Ramsay children: "Rose mocked him; Prue mocked him; Andrew, Jasper, Roger mocked him; even old Badger without a tooth in his head had bit him" (12).
As opposed to Charles Tansley, Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast appear to be likeable people, but they do not play too large a part in the book: Mrs. McNab is the caretaker of the Ramsays' house during those years while they are away - "Mrs. McNab, tearing the veil of silence with hands that had stood in the wash-tub" (196). Her thoughts are slow in movement, are not very philosophical or concerned with sophisticated matters, but she does have a kind of a self-assurance that enables her to go on, practically untroubled, throughout the years of the second part of To the Lighthouse. Moreover, Mrs. Bast, who appears only briefly near the end of the second part - "Mrs. McNab groaned; Mrs. Bast creaked. They were old; they were stiff; their legs ached" (209) - seems to be identical to Mrs. McNab: both are quiet old women who, nonetheless, have outlived Prue and Andrew Ramsay and numberless other young folks.
Finally, there is the keeper of the lighthouse (Macalister) and his grandson, whom Mr. Ramsay treats with suspicion that almost borders with contempt:
James would be forced to keep his eye all the time on the sail. For if he forgot, then the sail puckered and shivered, and the boat slackened, and Mr. Ramsay would say sharply, "Look out! Look out!" and old Macalister would turn slowly on his seat (244).
In part, that situation may have taken place because Mr. Ramsay actually feels insecure or inferior to them because he cannot row his children to the lighthouse. Since the death of his wife and several children, the Ramsays' family life has grown increasingly uncomfortable for them, and Mr. Ramsay does not like to deal with uncomfortable situations; he loses his self-control and makes a fool of himself as he does with his boots before Lily (229). On the other hand, neither Macalister nor his boy suffer from that problem - they just do their jobs and ignore everything else.
Thus, To the Lighthouse says that at the beginning of the twentieth century the working class was mentally tougher and more resilient than their social superiors were, and generally more comfortable with themselves than the English intelligentsia (Mr. Ramsay, Charles Tansley, or William Bankes need almost constant reassurance in their prowess). Whether that is fair or not is debatable, but Virginia Woolf made her ideas clear.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Canada: Broadview Press Ltd. 2000.