The Housemaid and the Kitchen Table: Incorporating the Frame in 'To the Lighthouse.' (Book by Virginia Woolf)

By Handley, William R. | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

The Housemaid and the Kitchen Table: Incorporating the Frame in 'To the Lighthouse.' (Book by Virginia Woolf)


Handley, William R., Twentieth Century Literature


One goes down into the well & nothing protects one from the assault of truth. Down there I cant write or read; I exist however. I am. Then I ask myself what I am? . . .

It is not oneself but something in the universe that one's left with. . . . One sees a fin passing far out. What image can I reach to convey what I mean? Really there is none I think. . . . I used to feel this as a child--couldn't step across a puddle once I remember, for thinking, how strange--what am I &c. But by writing I don't reach anything.

(Virginia Woolf, Diary 3: 112-13)

The story is that Thales, while occupied in studying the heavens above and looking up, fell into a well. A good-looking and whimsical maid from Thrace laughed at him and told him that while he might passionately want to know all things in the universe, the things in front of his very nose and feet were unseen by him. This jest also fits all those who become involved in philosophy.

(Heidegger, What Is a Thing? 3)

In Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse James Ramsay tries to illustrate his father's philosophical concerns about "subject, object, and the nature of reality" for the artist Lily Briscoe: "'Think of a kitchen table then,' he told her, 'when you're not there'" (23). Lily imagines that "thinking, night after night . . . about the reality of kitchen tables" makes Mr. Ramsay's face what it is (154). It would seem that Woolf, like Plato's maid in Heidegger's transcription, is laughing in To the Lighthouse at Mr. Ramsay as a philosopher who cannot see the objects in front of him, paradoxically including his wife, who, although she is a being and not a thing, is often perceived more in her "objective" beauty than as a subject. To Mrs. Ramsay her husband sometimes seemed as if he were "born blind, deaf, and dumb, to the ordinary things, but to the extraordinary things, with an eye like an eagle's. . . . But did he notice the flowers? No. . . . Did he even notice . . . whether there was pudding on his plate or roast beef? He would sit at a table with them like a person in a dream" (70). Woolf and Lily want to incorporate what Mr. Ramsay's view leaves out, yet they are each in the position both of Plato's maid and of the philosopher, laughing at the blindly judgmental subject-object philosopher but in danger of falling into that well in their comparable attempts to know and represent the whole "truth" of things or people, burdened by their frames' limits and not blessed with fifty eyes.

While Woolf's eagle eye looks energetically in "Time Passes" at things in the Ramsay household when no one is there--things that no human being can know in their "thingness"--her eye seems weak in this section when she looks at working-class women, ordinary people whom Woolf often seems as deaf and blind to as Mr. Ramsay is to the food on his plate. Though we are not given to see it, the Great War, like Mrs. Ramsay's death, also slices through this section, disrupting briefly but starkly the ruminative flow of some of Woolf's most poetic writing. Given that Woolf's universe is insistently relational, "Time Passes," and the first and last sections that it bridges, pointedly challenge the reader to weave together Woolf's philosophy, art, and politics, especially since that section disturbingly does not represent what are for the novel's domestic narrative as for Woolf's life arguably its most significant events: the death of the mother and the Great War. Yet through her mourning of Mrs. Ramsay and her attempt to represent and incorporate Mrs. Ramsay's presence as well as her absence, Lily encounters things that remain from Mrs. Ramsay's life, things through which Lily approaches the problem of the thing itself. The thing-in-itself knows no frame and cannot be incorporated into any social, aesthetic, political, or at all human perceptual context without losing its "thingness." For this reason, paradoxically, the philosophical problem of the thing itself--bottomless though it is--provides a sufficiently broad frame through which to interpret the relationships among Woolf's contexts and concerns in To the Lighthouse. …

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