To the Lighthouse

How do women in the novel respond to the gender roles that they perceive or that are imposed upon them?


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Many of the women in To the Lighthouse either overtly or silently subvert conventional female gender roles. Lily Briscoe, for example, has no desire to marry, but rather wants only to dedicate herself to her work (much like Mr. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes). She is independent and self-sufficient, and she is able to disregard Mr. Tansley's chauvinistic comments about women being unable to paint. Despite Mrs. Ramsay's persuasion, she holds her ground throughout the novel, refusing to become any man's wife. These choices and ideas were very unconventional in the early 20th century.

Three of Mrs. Ramsay's daughters (Nancy, Rose, and Cam) also silently reject the life that their mother chose for herself, in all of its domesticity. They know that they want their lives to be different and more complex than what they perceive as the limited realm of wife-mother, and they are headstrong and adventurous.

Moreover, the novel promises only misfortune for the women who accept the roles carved out for them. Mrs. Ramsay dies unexpectedly at a relatively young age. Prue, shortly after getting married, dies as a result of childbirth. Even Minta, who had been a somewhat unconventional lady, suffers in her marriage, for Paul leaves her for another woman. The novel seems to punish the women who accept positions as wife and mother, while it abounds with young women who are sure that they want a different existence.