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Like many of Virginia Woolf's main characters, Lily Briscoe is not a traditional protagonist for a novel. She is quiet, reserved, unassuming. She is not famous or highly regarded by a community. She is unattached to family, merely a friend of the family. She is not a great artist in the sense that she has not achieved success or been recognized by other artists. Most significant perhaps, unlike the vast majority of protagonists of novels, she is a woman. All of these attributes make Lily Briscoe a perfect protagonist of a modernist novel. Using the point of view of someone who is slightly outside the norm, Virginia Woolf can look at the middle-class, patriarchal Victorian family and the roles it allots to boys and girls, men and women.
Lily Briscoe feels the force of the social norm. She knows she is expected to get married and give up her painting. In a crucial moment, which occurs in silence, Lily Briscoe decides that she will not marry and that she will paint. That moment does not exempt her from the role assigned to women in her society. It just makes that role an awkward fit. Lily Briscoe also understands what she is giving up because she is half in love with Mrs. Ramsey--or the ideal of Mrs. Ramsey. Painting Mrs. Ramsey's portrait, Lily paints what inspires her and what condemns her as a woman artist.
Mrs. Ramsey is a wife, a mother of eight children, a housewife, a woman in her sixties, and an artful hostess. Mrs. Ramsey is another of Virginia Woolf's characters whom she gives an unprecedented place at the center of a novel. Mrs. Ramsey is also at the center of her family. She holds everyone together. In fact, bringing people together is her special talent. She is sensitive to everyone's feelings, especially those of men, and she makes it her life's work to bring people into the center of community and family. Virginia Woolf even makes of Mrs. Ramsey's talent of bringing people together an art. It is a momentary and evanescent sort of art, but an art nonetheless by virtue of the fact that it brings disparate elements together to form a whole and in the sense that it crystallizes a moment in such a way that it will be remembered by all the participants throughout their lives.
Mrs. Ramsey is a critical thinker of a different sort than is usually expected. She questions herself and her motives and looks open- eyed at her faults. She notices her husband's strengths and his weaknesses. She keeps an open mind in seeing other people, like Charles Tansley for instance. While she considers him a distasteful person, she keeps her mind open to finding his good qualities. She even makes an attempt at sociology in her charity work. Woolf accords Mrs. Ramsey a great amount of dignity. Rather than viewing her as less than intelligent because she is not formally educated, Woolf finds a special kind of reasoning in Mrs. Ramsey.
Mr. Ramsey would have been the main character in a traditional novel. He is a famous philosopher. Early in his career he came out with a book that made a definite contribution to philosophy. Since then he has taught and inspired a new generation of thinkers, though he has not come out with a subsequent contribution equal to the first. Woolf treats his philosophical achievements with subtle irony. The metaphor which she provides for his life pursuit is the getting past the letter Q in the alphabet. Another metaphor for his life's work is provided by his son, Andrew, who tells Lily Briscoe to picture a kitchen table when no one is there with it. Both metaphors trivialize the achievements of the man and allow the reader to view him with a distanced irony.
Nevertheless, he is very well respected as a scholar and in his home he is granted the freedom to be eccentric. His eccentricity shows itself mainly in his habit of shouting out lines of poetry and sentences of prose as he walks around the grounds of his home thinking. Later in life, after his wife has died, another eccentricity is that he makes a show of his grief and demands the sympathy of any woman available. He is also given other prerogatives of his gender in a patriarchal society. He storms about in a temper when people do not act according to his wishes or his timetable; he demands and gets his wife's full attention any time he needs it; he is left alone to his thoughts; and he is not bothered with the mundane details of life like the family's finances.
James Ramsey is the youngest Ramsey son. His progress through the Oedipal conflict structures the novel. At the opening of the novel, his desire to go so the lighthouse is thwarted by an intrusive father. At the end of the novel, he reconciles with his father as his desire to see the lighthouse is satisfied.
Cam is the youngest daughter of the Ramseys. In putting her to bed, her mother creates a hodgepodge of images that free her imagination to escape the mundane world of strict categories. Cam Ramsey is later able to access this imaginative free-zone when she needs to escape the tension-filled relationship between herself and her brother and father