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Panken, S. (1983). “Working Through” and the Novel. Psychoanal. Rev., 70(1):4-23.

(1983). Psychoanalytic Review, 70(1):4-23

“Working Through” and the Novel

Shirley Panken, Ph.D.


In Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927) Mrs. Ramsey is the central figure, both heroic and flawed, integrating the disparate passions in the family. A recent psychoanalytic study (Wolf and Wolf, 1979) that views her as a “narcissistic disorder,” narrows and misrepresents her character as well as the scope of the author's vision. Foregoing psychiatric diagnosis an attempt will be made to present Mrs. Ramsey in her multifacetedness, as guests and members of the household view her; as she sees herself, experiences others, or ruminates in private; and, as the author as omniscient narrator perceives her. Her relationship with her children emerges as concerned and caring though she evidently favors her youngest child. Towards her husband she is both mocking and nurturing. The novel's opening delineates the oppositional stance of the parents towards one another; the mother's vicarious acquiescence to the son's excited request for a trip to the lighthouse; the father's debunking of the boy's exuberance, brooking no rejoinder, and catalyzing the son's sense of injustice and vengeance. Though the mother is also depicted as invasive in attempting to be a matchmaker, her guest, Lily Briscoe, sexually undefined, maintains her inviolacy. At the end Lily, viewing the mother as creative force, “making of the moment something permanent” (Woolf, 1927, p. 241), finds Mrs. Ramsey has helped her define her identity as an artist. Restructuring her negative conception of the father also allows Lily to finish her painting.

In addition to considerable critical acclaim, audacity in handling time, and originality of form and technique, the uniqueness of VW's novel has been its acknowledged autobiographical theme. To The


* When it seems appropriate, in dealing with childhood and family, “Virginia” will be used; otherwise, the designation hereafter for Virginia Woolf will be “VW.”

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