Expectations in “To The Lighthouse”

An Alice Walker poem begins, “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.”  How differently Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse would admonish us. “Expect everything,” she might say. “Live richly on expectation.”

Lesson: Contrast your characters’ outlooks

In Mrs. Ramsay’s world, tomorrow will always be fine, even if it’s storming today. “And even if it isn’t fine tomorrow, it will be another day.” The matriarch enriches those around her with her optimism. Her young son, hearing her promise that he may go tomorrow to the lighthouse, endows a picture of a refrigerator he is cutting from a catalog “with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy.”

Mr. Ramsay dampens the enthusiasm, saying, “But it won’t be fine.”  A houseguest reiterates, “No going to the Lighthouse, James.” Mrs. Ramsay counters the men’s harshness, saying to James, “Perhaps you will wake up and find the sun shining and the birds singing.” She recognizes her son’s passion for going to the lighthouse, recognizes the satisfaction that comes with anticipating, with always having something on the horizon to look forward to, plan for, and imagine.

Lesson: Enrich your characters with complex character

Expectation is the core of Mrs. Ramsay’s being. Matriarch of the large summer home full of her family and guests, she expects her children and companions to possess good manners and good natures and be pleasant conversationalists; she expects happiness for those she loves. In “The Window,” the first long third of the three-part novel, one day elapses. It is a summer day by the sea, one appearing to be much like many others that summer and all the summers before and many to come for the Ramsays; that is, if Mrs. Ramsay can keep hope alive, but there are signs that she can’t do this, not even for herself. At dinner, a wave of dissatisfaction submerges her own optimism: she wonders what she’s done with her life; she has no affection for her husband; she can’t perceive beauty anywhere. We see Mrs. Ramsay through the eyes of Lily Briscoe, a painter and friend of the family. “How old she looks, how worn she looks, Lily thought, and how remote.”

The first lines from Alice Walker’s poem, “Expect Nothing,” might characterize more readily Lily’s philosophy. As a single woman artist, employed in housekeeping for her father, she lives, however frugally, on the generosity of her friends and on her own resources, not the least of which is her enthusiasm for capturing her on her canvas some sense of the grandeur or fine essence of the world and life around. Lily’s thoughts on how to live might resonate with another line from Walker’s poem, “Wish for nothing larger than your own small heart or greater than a star.”  She is modest in her expectations of material things and in what her station in life might bring—not a large home, brood of children, fine drapery, dinner parties, nor servants.  But her artist’s heart is ambitious: if she could, she would paint a masterpiece.

“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 the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself—struggling against terrific odd to maintain her courage; to say: ‘But this is what I see; this is what I see,’ and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.”

She would capture the seascape, the lighthouse in the distance, and the family in its glory—especially Mrs. Ramsay’s expansiveness—if she could do justice to her vision of beauty. Many painters come to the seashore to paint the lighthouse, but Lily does not want to be one of the many who imitate all the others, nor follow the newest fashion. She seeks her own vision; the expression of it eludes her.

Lesson: Give your characters a relationship to time

Art is made of expectation, of keeping hope—or the vision inspired by it—alive.  Vision is the ability to see within oneself and beyond oneself. With that ability, the artist connects deeply to the world and creates a tangible expression that lasts beyond a lifetime. Mrs. Ramsay has the ability to connect, but her expressions are ephemeral: conversation, her giving nature, caring for her household and friends, love.

The thousand forces, which plague both Mrs. Ramsay and Lily, include the ravages of time. In the first section the reader is transported from one character’s consciousness to another, in the short second section, “Time Passes,” the deserted summerhouse and its caretaker bear witness to the family’s fate: ten years pass, Mrs. Ramsay and two of the children die. With Woolf, time is fluid, and she is a master at controlling it for the reader. She makes a moment within a character’s thought expand far beyond the clock’s measure, and makes years of time compress to a moment.

Lesson: Develop character arcs in ways that are consistent with what is set up early in the story for each character

In the third section, “The Lighthouse,” Lily has returned with Mr. Ramsay and the younger children, including James, who, in spite of his mother’s promise, has never been to the lighthouse. It’s a beautiful day and Lily, feeling like a stranger to the familiar summer place, cannot rouse emotions over the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew, even though she loved them.

The book’s color palette evokes light and fog; the rhythm suggests the ocean’s ebbs and tides. The story is carried on opposing currents of tangible and intangible, order and chaos, masculine and feminine, structured and ephemeral. These currents ripple through Lily. There are the predictable elements that lend order to the day and seasons: architecture—the solid summerhouse, the obelisk of lighthouse, domestic tasks, clock, and calendar. There are the unpredictable and more volatile forces of weather, fate, emotions, and artistic intent. In attempting to depict the lighthouse, Lily has struggled to find her artistic voice; as a woman artist, she has struggled to define herself in the social landscape. “Life is a work of art,” she says, but still she attempts to secure a moment in paint.

Mr. Ramsay, James, and Cam set out across the waves to the lighthouse; Lily remains on shore with her easel. For sixteen-year-old James, the trip cannot possibly meet his expectations, which are entwined with memories of his mother and her promise. There are two lighthouses: the one seen from across the bay and the stark tower close-up. But the journey for him becomes not as much about reaching the lighthouse as winning praise, long withheld, from his father. Finally, when they land on the rock where the lighthouse perches, Mr. Ramsay has exclaimed to James, “Well done!”

Lesson: Use symbol and metaphor to show fulfillment

Across the bay, Lily paints the scene. She had attempted the same scene a decade ago, but “there had been a problem about a foreground.” As she paints a fresh canvas, she is overwhelmed by emotion and cries for Mrs. Ramsay, for life itself, “so short…so inexplicable,” and for a vision of beauty that Mrs. Ramsay represented (and, as well, perhaps, because of Lily’s own demons mentioned above). She notices that the lighthouse “had melted away into a blue haze, and the effort of looking at it and the effort of thinking of him landing there, which both seemed to be one and the same effort, had stretched her body and mind to the utmost.”  She is thinking of Mr. Ramsay, to whom Mrs. Ramsay had devoted her life, and of a confused “rapture of sympathy”the glow, the rhapsody, the self-surrender she had seen on so many women’s faces (on Mrs. Ramsay’s, for instance).” Lily had tried to give Mr. Ramsay that glow earlier in the morning, feeling perhaps that she owed it to Mrs. Ramsay, or to him, or to some unfilled promise of her own womanhood.

Finally, Lily feels, more than sees through the fog, that the boat has reached its destination; finally Mr. Ramsay has fulfilled Mrs. Ramsay’s promise to James. “He has landed,” she said aloud. “It is finished.”

Released from expectation, she regards her picture, “all its greens and blues…its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter?” The canvas blurs and in an instant she sees clearly, then draws a line in the center. She puts down her brush in satisfaction, surprised, perhaps, at the results before her, and thinks, “I have had my vision.”

In the seascape of greens and blues on her canvas, she has made the lighthouse appear with one single stroke, a stroke whose full effort has taken her lifetime.


Full-bodied Characters

Fiction invites us to experience other peoples’ lives. As writers and readers, we enter territories—geographic, physical, psychic—that would not otherwise be available to us. A believable character is a guide to another world. For the masterful writer and the fortunate reader, “real” characters inhabit lives of their own that extend past the time of writing and reading.

As writers, we know and invent more about our characters than we show or tell. We can develop histories, physical descriptions, and emotional baggage for our characters through lists, biographies, interviews, photos, scrapbooks. (More on these tools in another post.) To make our characters appear and seem “real,” we need to put ourselves in more than their shoes. We need to shape-shift into their bodies.

The figure below serves as a nudge to ground our writing in the senses and body of a character. Add your own action verbs and sensory verbs. Keep in mind the three guiding verbs for character-driven fiction: desire, choose, act.

Know Your Characters - Body, Mind & Soul

Ground writing in the body and senses


Let’s see how masterful authors do it…

Italo Calvino, Baron in the Trees 

Biagio describes Cosimo upon waking: In the morning, on the other hand, when the jackdaw croaked, from the bag would come a pair of clenched fists; the fists rose in the air and were followed by two arms slowly widening and stretching, and in the movement drawing out his yawning face, his shoulders with a gun slung over one and a powderhorn slung over another, his slightly bandy legs (they were beginning to lose their straightness from his habit of always moving on all fours or in a crouch). Out jumped these legs, they stretched too, and so, with a shake of the back and a scratch under his fur jacket, Cosimo, wakeful and fresh as a rose, was ready to begin his day.

Rachel Cusk, The Country Life  

Stella, the first-person narrator, suffers: I examined my arms, and to my dismay saw that they were  a furious red, cross-hatched with hundreds of thick, raised white lines, as if I had worms embedded beneath my skin. Crying out, I flung back the eiderdown… I scratched, tearing at my nightdress like a maniac, and then understood that I was going to lose control of myself if I continued in this fashion. I sat, hot and exhausted, on the corner of the bed, my head in my hands. My skin tingled and itched now that my fingers were not attending to it. I bridled my urge to scratch, forcing my hands into my mouth. My back felt unbearably hot. Around me the night was shrunken and dense, like the pupil of an eye contracted to a pinprick.

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Readers (listeners) are in concert with Mrs. Ramsay: But here, as she turned the page, suddenly her search for the picture of a rake or a mowing-machine was interrupted. The gruff murmur, irregularly broken by the taking out f pipes and the putting in of pipes which had kept on assuring her, though she could not hear what was said (as she sat in the window which opened on the terrace), that the men were happily talking; this sound, which had lasted now half and hour and had taken its place soothingly in the scale of sounds pressing on top of her, such as the tap of balls upon bats, the sharp, sudden bark now and then, “How’s that? How’s that?” of the children playing cricket, had ceased; so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, “I am guarding you—I am your support,” but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that was all ephemeral as a rainbow—this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror.

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

The author Tim O’Brien gets inside his character Tim O’Brien: I remember the monotony. Digging foxholes. Slapping mosquitoes. The sun and the heat and the endless paddies. Even in the deep bush, where you could die any number of ways, the war was nakedly and aggressively boring. But it was a strange boredom. It was boredom with a twist, the kind of boredom that caused stomach disorders. You’d be sitting at the top of a high hill, the flat paddies stretching out below, and the day would be calm and hot and utterly vacant, and you’d feel the boredom dripping inside you like a leaky faucet, except it wasn’t water, it was a sort of acid, and with each little droplet you’d feel the stuff eating away at important organs. You’d try to relax. You’d uncurl your fists and let your thoughts go. Well, you’d think, this isn’t so bad. And right then you’d hear gunfire behind you and your nuts would fly up into your throat and you’d be squealing pig squeals. That kind of boredom.

Richard Yates, Doctor Jack-o’-lantern (Eleven Kinds of Loneliness)

Body language reveals Vincent Sabella’s trepidation at being a new kid in class in : He arrived early and sat in the back row — his spine very straight, his ankles crossed precisely under the desk and his hands folded on the very center of its top, as if symmetry might make him less conspicuous — and while the other children were filing in and settling down, he received a long, expressionless stare from each of them.

Whitney Otto, How to Make an American Quilt

An illicit encounter elicits desire and implies what will happen next for Sophia: He presses her flush against the stone wall with his heavy, clothed body. Now he is running his hand along the inside of her thighs, splitting her legs apart, nestling his body between them. Sophia thinks she will lose her breath forever, will drown and not care, will always have this sensation of inner heat and outer cold. He cradles her against the quarry rock. She trembles in his arms. She knows what she will say and without hesitation. Yes.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Clarissa Dalloway begins her day with senses heightened and flows to the reader a spectrum of color and fragrance: Ah yes—so she breathed in the earthy garden sweet smell as she stood talking to Miss Pym who owed her help, and thought her kind, for kind she had been years ago; very kind, but she looked older, this year, turning her head from side to side among the irises and roses and nodding tufts of lilac with her eyes half-closed, snuffing in, after the street uproar, the delicious scent, the exquisite coolness. And then, opening her eyes, how fresh like frilled linen clean from a laundry laid in wicker trays the roses looked; and dark and prim the red carnations, holding their heads up; and all the sweet peas spreading in their bowls, tinged violet, snow white, pale—as if it were the evening and girls in muslin frocks came out to pick sweet peas and roses after the superb summer’s day, with its almost blue-black sky, its delphiniums, its carnations, its arum lilies was over; and it was the moment between six and seven when every flower—roses, carnations, irises, lilac—glows; white, violet, red, deep orange; every flower seems to burn by itself, softly, purely in the misty beds; and how she loved the grey-white moths spinning in and out, over the cherry pie, over the evening primroses!