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To the Lighthouse

In To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, Lily Briscoe's painting is almost a disparity within the rhythmic framework of the novel. The painting, a still image formed by pigment applied onto a cloth, is one of the invariant objects in To the Lighthouse. Despite their static nature, Lily's painting is the surface through which streams of changing emotions flow. Inducing the knowledge of love and life, the fluctuating field of emotions act like the changing magnetic fields which generate electricity. The stream of changing emotions allows the painting to transcend the domain of still images.

Virginia Woolf equates emotions and painting, and through this equation, the painting leaves the two dimensional world and tackles the spectrum of human emotion. For Lily Briscoe, the act of painting is strenuous. "The human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment" (193). The overwhelming power of emotions can be both distressing and gratifying. Sorting through emotions stretches the mind and causes the loss of focus. Lily Briscoe, distressed over an incongruity on her canvas, fights the anomaly so that her "beautiful pictures" can be painted (193). On the other extreme, the lack of feeling causes another failure. Mr. Bankes, approaching from a technical standpoint, makes a "scientific examination of [Lily's] canvas" (53). The punctilious evaluation and interpretation does not examine the emotional aspect of the paint and thereby commits the fallacy of misinterpretation. Tired of Mr. Bankes' hackneyed questions, Lily "took the canvas lightly off the easel" (53). Emotions and paintings are personal. When Lily starts to paint, her soul leaves her body and is "exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt" (158). True emotions run through the medium of pigment on canvas. The act of painting is a reflection on peace, worship, and memories. Ms. Woolf ties the emotions to Lily Briscoe's painting.

More than mere records of one emotion, the painting reflect emotional fluctuations in the house. All the minor variations induces character and adds to the painting of Lily Briscoe. Morphing an evil skull into a innocuous shawl evince the gamut of emotions flowing about. When the children first screech at the sight of a gruesome skull, the mood is foreboding. Words like "horrid," "possessed," and "shadow" suddenly change in tone when Mrs. Ramsay wraps her shawl around the skull (114). Now that same, once evil, object transmutes into "a bird's nest ... a beautiful mountain ... a garden" (115). The shawl placates the fright caused by the hideous skull. The interlude further expounds emotional flux, or changes of the "emotional field." Replete with serene landscape images, the interlude underscores the rhythms of the sea. Even with the rhythmic motion of the waves, the image rests calm and still. As time passes, brief glimpses of reality shine through. "[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died ..." (128). In spite of waves battering the shores and cliffs, the coast remains the same, unchanged by the news of distant death. Glossing over two more deaths and focusing on the desolate and dark scene of the Ramsays' old home, Woolf hints at the emotions which travel "through" the unchanging scene of the sea. Both the transmutation of the skull and time passing through the serene image of the sea create a flux around the painting resting in the attic of the Ramsays' house.

The emotions passing through Lily's painting induces an element beyond the images on the canvas. The painting transcends the boundaries of time. "[Lily] went on tunneling her way into her picture, into the past" (173). Emotions and intangible subtleties all stem from the dynamic and heartfelt swirls of feelings that flow through the scenes. When she views her painting, she falls into "a trance, frozen over superficially but moving underneath with extreme speed" (201). Just as the interlude tells a distant story underneath a idyllic landscape, Lily also dives into the depths of the sentiments that flow through. Pulling her in, the painting, still and unchanging, carries great powers all endowed by the human side of the brush: heart, soul, and spirit flowing freely. Compelling and attracting, the freely changing flux of emotions induces a magnetism between the image and the viewer.

From the variations of currents around the painting, a vision comes to light. As the painting had started, Lily "could not see it ... that vision" (53). Searching for "something to base her vision on," she sees the distant lighthouse and the boat with Mr. Ramsay, Cam, and James in the middle of the bay (181). Her thoughts revolve around the power of distance and the copious vitality of the scene. Understanding her vision, she comments, "Love had a thousand shapes" (192). The scenes around her, the landscape, and the people "all now gone and separate" serves as a testament to love. Those thousand shapes of love are distilled and purified when all the different emotions flow through Lily Briscoe's painting. Finally, the last stroke is a line in the center. The exact point where the emotional eddies circle; the point where everything is at peace. Lily Briscoe experiences through her painting memories, images, and comes to new understandings about love and life. Notwithstanding the importance of the painting's image, the sentiments and emotional flux induces a vision which surpasses the most vivid memories.

Virginia Woolf paints action beneath a calming landscape and notes the beauty of the people, stories, and emotions ever-changing and never standing still. These dynamics sum up to more that their constituent parts, they induces electricity from magnetism in To the Lighthouse.

ALL REFERENCES FROM: Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Hartcourt Brace & Company, 1927.