In the English language, the masculine is the neutral. Essays default to the use of “he” when referring to hypothetical persons of any gender; default to the use of “man” when postulating on shared universal experience; default to the use of “his,” so that even individual possession turns male. It’s jarring to read “she” or “woman” in the abstract. There is no objective feminine. To simply be in a sentence is to be a man.

This is not inconsequential—all these grammar and language quirks work to validate the idea that using the word “woman” requires a specific set of circumstances that using the word “man” does not. The English lexicon has been built in a way that presupposes the word “woman” comes loaded with conditions. Being a woman is dependent on acting, presenting, looking, speaking, a certain way; it is decidedly not neutral. “Woman” can’t be used in an all-encompassing way, because not everyone fits the requirements of “woman.”

Comparatively, “man” contains within it the ability to unconditionally exist. Its general use isn’t reliant on anything; “mankind” means everyone, not just men. If Friedrich Nietzsche, in his work On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, asked: “What does woman actually know of herself?” the scope of his intended question would’ve narrowed. Instead of referring to the general act of dissimulation—the idea that people simultaneously lie to themselves, lie to others around them, and let themselves be lied to, in order to preserve their importance as individuals—Nietzsche would’ve been asking about something specific to the formation of female identity.

The word “woman” is denied freedom that the word “man” has. It is both the limited, and the thing that limits; within its definition lies a trap. To feel like a woman is something visceral, but to be a “woman,” requires the conditions of a definition to be met. There’s a break between existence and structure, so that it’s possible for someone to both be and not be a “woman.”

This simultaneous being and nonbeing is the state in which the reader finds Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Lily Briscoe feels like a woman, but, in her own eyes, she doesn’t meet the conditions to be one: she thinks marriage is degrading, she isn’t interested in being polite to men, she’s not beautiful, and on top of it all, she loves to paint, an activity she has been told specifically women can’t do. Her identity is fractured, and it’s fractured because of the way she defines the word “woman.”

In this essay, I will show that Virginia Woolf has Lily define “woman” the way Nietzsche suggests all words are defined—by equating the unequal. I will show that Lily uses Mrs. Ramsay as Woman with a capital W, as convention, to base her sense of womanhood off, all while knowing she can’t fit into the mold she thinks Mrs. Ramsay creates. I will show that Lily’s painting—the thing in and of itself, and the process of creating it—forces her contradictory feelings together; that it serves as both an opposition to womanhood, and an affirmation of her own identity. I will show that to finish the painting, Lily has to realize Mrs. Ramsay isn’t Woman with a capital W, that Mrs. Ramsay herself is a contradictory person, and that the process in which “woman” is defined is wrong. Finally, I will show that Virginia Woolf uses Lily’s painting to offer an alternative way to define womanhood; as something deeply personal and individual.

First, it’s important to understand what “equating the unequal” actually is, and what Nietzsche says the process of doing so entails. In, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, he draws a distinction between “words” and “concepts”:

Every word becomes a concept, not just when it is meant to serve as a kind of reminder of the single, absolutely individualized original experience to which it owes its emergence, but when it has to fit countless more or less similar—that is strictly speaking, never equal, hence blatantly unequal—cases. Every concept arises by means of the equating of the unequal.1

According to Nietzsche, words become, that is change into, concepts. Concepts are formed, they aren’t given or natural—and they’re formed out of a necessity for expansion. “Words become concepts” when they move out of the realm of describing the “single, absolutely individualized original experience” that they come as a result of, and expand to encompass all other vaguely similar experiences.

In order to do this, a word has to “fit” itself—conform, adjust, accommodate—itself, so that its original meaning can switch from the individual to the general. Nietzsche calls these individual experiences signaled by a common word, “unequal cases.” “Unequal” because they’re literally not equal; none of the individual experiences are the same, none of them have the exact same components. The problem with concepts is that these “unequal cases” are treated as equal, as the same. An uncountable number of individual experiences form every concept known to man, but those individual experiences end up getting referred to by the same identifier.

“Equating the unequal” to Nietzsche, means “arbitrarily ignoring … individual differences” and “forgetting what distinguish[es]” one individual thing from the other. It’s taking two experiences, or alternatively, two women, say woman1 and woman789, no matter how different the two people) and simply thinking about them as two women, that have only ever been equaled, that have never had separate identities. Individuality ceases to exist, or rather, individuality becomes an obstacle to overcome in order to be a woman, or to fit a concept.

For men, and for the concept of “man,” the process of “equating the unequal” does not require a comparatively intense overwriting of individuality. Though it would be disingenuous to say that men don’t struggle with fitting into a masculine heteronormative image, because of the universality of the word “man”—that is, that the masculine is often the default in language—the concept contains a much larger space to exist in comfortably.

Nietzsche ends by showing how the formation of these concepts creates convention—“the obligation to lie in a fixed way.”2 Using leaves as an example, he says the process of equating the unequal “gives rise to the notion that there is in nature something other than leaves, something like “the Leaf,” a kind of protype according to which all leaves were woven.”3 By equating the unequal, people suppose we’re equating in accordance with something. When people falsely suppose this “something” enough, they end up creating “The Leaf,” the objective thing, the convention, that contains the essential quality of the concept they’re creating, but that has no individual deformities. Everything about “the Leaf” is correct—the color, the crimping, the size—so that being an individual leaf means constantly trying to reach the exact structure “the Leaf” is a part of.

This “Leaf,” or convention, doesn’t actually exist, it’s “give[n] rise to,” it’s created, so it’s possible for individual people to choose their own individual manifestations of “the Leaf.” For Lily Briscoe, the character of Mrs. Ramsay is her “Woman,” a model she attempts to conform with. Mrs. Ramsay represents everything Lily thinks womanhood is: the oppressive structure of marriage, motherhood, and subservience. Lily thinks about a hypothetical conversation she might have with Mrs. Ramsay:

She [Lily] would urge her own exemption from the universal law; plead for it; she liked to be alone; she liked to be herself; she was not made for that; and so have to meet a serious stare …and confront Mrs. Ramsay’s simple certainty … that her dear Lily… was a fool.4

First, Lily equates Mrs. Ramsay to the “universal law” of womanhood—Mrs. Ramsay is Woman. She is the person that Lily would have to “plead to,” make an emotional appeal to, to exempt her from the law of womanhood, because she is the thing that all women are judged by. Lily goes on to list things that she is that are opposite to the “universal law,” the unequal qualities that she would have to do away with to please Mrs. Ramsay. Lily “like[s] to be alone,” unmarried, she “like[s] to be herself,” an individual not a concept. By positioning these qualities as opposed to Mrs. Ramsay, she is saying Mrs. Ramsay doesn’t have these qualities, that Mrs. Ramsay in fact has the opposite qualities, and that Mrs. Ramsay thinks Lily’s qualities are actually foolish.

Lily covets Mrs. Ramsay as Woman, thinking, “Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one?”5 She wants to conform to Mrs. Ramsay, literally be “one” with her. In any case, Mrs. Ramsay is the convention Lily would have to be “one” with. Even though Lily herself is deeply distressed by her inclusion in the idea of Woman—she would “plead” to be free of it, a desperate emotional action—she still believes in the convention, because she believes in her love for Mrs. Ramsay as an object. The act of loving can be beautiful, but it can also be objectifying. Lily’s love is good natured, but through it all, she believes the love is one sided. This one-sided love takes away Mrs. Ramsay’s agency as a person and keeps her position as Woman intact.

Lily’s identity is fractured because she thinks of Mrs. Ramsay as Woman, and thinks she must conform to her, while at the same time believing in her own independence. Lily is trapped between her love and loyalty to Mrs. Ramsay, and her own deep belief that she doesn’t fit into the convention Mrs. Ramsay represents. This is expressly evident in the family dinner scene at the end of “The Window” section of To the Lighthouse. 

Throughout the scene, Lily reflects on what’s expected of women, and how she wants to go against those expectations. After remembering how rude Charles Tansley was to her, how he “sneered at women, ‘can’t paint, can’t write,’” Lily thinks: “why should I help him relieve himself?” (She’s referring to his obvious need to assert himself.) Lily knows that convention dictates that “it behoves the woman, whatever her own occupation may be, to go to the help of the young man,” but she doesn’t want to act in accordance with it.6 Lily, first, includes herself in the “women” Charles Tansley insults—Lily does think of herself as a woman—but then recognizes her opposition to the actions “the” woman has to take. The importance of the word “the” is that its purpose is to single out the idea of woman. It’s important, as well, that Lily mentions her painting in this scene, a symbol that will be explored later in this essay. Lily connects the “painting” to her womanhood, but poses it as opposition to “the Woman.”

Lily places herself within the realm of womanhood when she opposes the conventions the Woman requires of her. Nevertheless, with Mrs. Ramsay’s prompting, Lily has to go against her identity, and conform to the expectations Mrs. Ramsay, the Woman, requires of her. She ends up prompting Charles Tansley to talk about himself. Lily thinks that: “staying with the Ramsays, was to be made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel, was one; that’s what I feel, was the other, and then they fought together in her mind, as now.”7 Lily is describing the process in which what she feels is her identity, is “fighting” against what Mrs. Ramsay expects of her. The action is “violent,” it’s distressing, brutal, and causes Lily stress. Lily hates it—what Mrs. Ramsay does to her—but goes along with her anyway, because if she doesn’t, Lily feels that she’ll lose her identity in general.

Woolf shows Lily’s internal conflict  by having Lily hyper-fixate on her painting, a thing that is both an opposition to womanhood and an affirmation of Lily’s own identity as a woman. In the dinner scene, every time Lily goes against her “unequal” nature, her individualism, she ends up returning to the same thought: “I shall put the tree further in the middle,” “I must move the tree to the middle.”8 She’s referring to an aspect of her painting, an awkward empty space that she needs to be filled with something. Lily wants to move the tree, a symbol of life, to the center of her painting; “the point from which an activity is directed.” She wants the life she creates to be what structures her identity.

The painting is an affirmation of Lily’s identity. Earlier in the novel, when describing the process of painting, Lily makes it a point to say that painting represents how she sees the world. Woolf writes, “The jacmanna was bright violet; the wall staring white. [Lily] would not have considered it honest to tamper with the bright violet and the staring white, since she saw them like that, fashionable though it was, since Mr. Pauncefort’s visit, to see everything pale, elegant, semitransparent.”9 Lily is categorizing how she sees the world, she’s centering herself as the interpreter of what’s around her—this flower is this color, that flower is that color—Lily emphasizes that “she saw them that way,” that other people interpret the things she sees in a different way. The “popular” view, the view enjoyed by many people, the conventional view, the view enjoyed by Mr. Pauncefort (a man), is wrong for Lily. The “pale, elegant, semitransparent” way (all qualities connected to femininity in the traditional sense), to Lily, didn’t feel authentic to her viewing experience. Lily sees “flowers,” an object historically known to symbolize women, in an unconventional, unfeminine way, but she still thinks of them as flowers. To Lily, flowers, women, are “bright,” and passionate. Women are not meant to be degraded or washed out or boxed in by elegance, they are meant to be dynamic. On top of that, in this scene, Lily is literally painting Mrs. Ramsay, her ideal of Woman. Mrs. Ramsay is posing for Lily, and Lily is transferring her image to canvas, trying to recreate Mrs. Ramsay the Woman.

Despite that Lily’s painting is about identity and womanhood, Lily believes the act of painting itself to be an opposition to the conventional Woman. Lily “saw the colour [in her painting] burning on a framework of steel … and there was Mr. Tansley whispering in her ear, ‘Women can’t paint.’”10 This passage shows that Lily sees the color in her painting clearly. She understands her representation of the world: It’s “built on a framework of steel,” it’s strong, unwavering, and yet there’s that voice in her head, the voice of men, reminding her of convention. “Women can’t paint,” but she can, Lily can, and she is a woman.

This confusion and contradiction is what stops Lily from actually painting. She picks up her brush, tries to assert her view of womanhood and Mrs. Ramsay, and feels completely paralyzed. Despite her ability to see Woman in a different way, Lily can’t act on the belief—it’s too difficult to go against convention. Woolf writes,

It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself—struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: “But this is what I see; this is what I see,” and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.11

This passage is incredibly hard to read, because it’s so desperate. Woolf is contextualizing what convention actually feels like, she’s taking Nietzsche’s idea and applying it to a real-life situation. She’s using Lily to show what conforming to convention entails, that it isn’t just a theory, that it hurts. Lily tries to define Woman in her own way, and “demons” set in, literal monsters from hell target her. They bring her to tears, reduce her to a child afraid of the dark. She paints and the agony sets in, she is no longer herself, she is forced to justify her existence; “this is what I see, this is what I see.” A belief that she previously thought was built using a steel structure, the idea that Lily could see her own colors in the world, suddenly doesn’t seem all that strong. The idea that there is an alternative to the conventional view of Woman, that there is a different way to see the world, becomes a “miserable remnant” that causes Lily distress.

It feels too awful for Lily to paint, to go against convention, she is debilitated. If she puts her brush on her canvas and creates, a thousand forces suddenly work against her, try to force her back into a role that Lily fundamentally doesn’t think fits her. If Lily paints, she loses; if Lily doesn’t paint, she loses. If Lily paints, she becomes more herself, but if Lily paints then she’s not a woman, because “women can’t paint.” The entire process is Lily existing within the tension that comes when she recognizes that the convention of Woman isn’t true to her, but that she can’t work against it. Lily can’t “equate the unequal” on her own terms; she can’t just get rid of her individuality, but she can’t create a new definition of woman either.

Then, Mrs. Ramsay dies. Suddenly, Lily’s objective Woman doesn’t exist anymore, she isn’t alive, and Lily has to grapple with that. The Thing she believed to be convention turned out to simply be a person—a person that Lily finds she resents. Lily resents Mrs. Ramsay for being the Woman. She thinks, “Mrs. Ramsay had given. Giving, giving, giving, she had died—and had left all this. Really, she [Lily] was angry with Mrs. Ramsay.”12 Lily believes that this womanly act of giving herself over and over to men is what killed Mrs. Ramsay. She’s angry that Mrs. Ramsay left her. Woolf writes,

With the brush slightly trembling in her fingers she looked at the hedge, the step, the wall. It was all Mrs. Ramsay’s doing. She was dead. Here was Lily, at forty-four, wasting her time, unable to do a thing, standing there, playing at painting, playing at the one thing one did not play at, and it was all Mrs. Ramsay’s fault. She was dead. The step where she used to sit was empty. She was dead.13

Lily, at age fourty-four, is stuck in the same place she was ten years earlier, unable to assert herself, unable to paint. She attributes this inability to Mrs. Ramsay—“It was all Mrs. Ramsay’s doing”; “it was all Mrs. Ramsay’s fault”—because Mrs. Ramsay was convention. Upon Mrs. Ramsay’s death, Lily believes that in life, Mrs. Ramsay trapped Lilyby enforcing the conventions of Woman. Now, Mrs. Ramsay is dead; “the step where she used to sit was empty,” meaning, the position she held as Woman in Lily’s mind is empty, and Lily doesn’t know what to do with herself.

Lily decides to push on with her painting, decides to attempt to redefine Woman, but she has to battle with the memories of Mrs. Ramsay, and the imposition of her husband, in order to do so. The beginning of her process is marked with self-doubt, and Lily still uses Mrs. Ramsay as the marker for womanhood. When Mrs. Ramsay’s husband berates Lily, when he groans and tries to guilt Lily into fitting the convention of Woman, Woolf writes, “any other woman in the whole world would have done something, said something—all except myself, thought Lily, girding at herself bitterly, who am not a woman, but a[n] … ill-tempered … old maid.”14 Lily separates herself from other women; she is not a woman but an old maid because she won’t do what Mrs. Ramsay would’ve done—comfort her husband. Unlike earlier in the novel, though, this failure to conform doesn’t distress Lily, it just makes her “bitter,” angry because the expectation she’s subjected to is unfair.

And yet, despite believing in her rightness, Lily finds it difficult to paint. She can’t redefine womanhood, finish what she started, put the tree in the middle of the space. Her memories connected to Mrs. Ramsay continue to fill her, Mrs. Ramsay is still there, controlling her. She thinks of Charles Tansley, the misogynist who’s words “women can’t paint,” still haunt, of a memory she shared with him connected to Mrs. Ramsay, and ultimately, her perception of him shifts. Mrs. Ramsay “resolve[s] everything into simplicity,” and suddenly, Lily can see the good in him, can see the good in a man who has insulted her very process of identity creation.15 Mrs. Ramsay is still the Woman to Lily, the thing that resolves the unequal parts of her.

Lily pushes through this. She puts her brush to the canvas and paints a stroke. Affirms a little bit of her identity despite Mrs. Ramsay’s influence. Her thought process shift. She starts thinking about two of her old acquaintances, how Mrs. Ramsay set them up to be married, and how the marriage between them turned out to be completely unhappy.

She imagined herself telling it to Mrs. Ramsay … She would feel a little triumphant, telling Mrs. Ramsay that the marriage had not been a success … That she was right, that marriage didn’t make women happy. “Mrs. Ramsay had faded and gone, she thought. We can over-ride her wishes, improve away her limited, old-fashioned ideas.”16

Lily still thinks of Mrs. Ramsay as convention—as someone with old-fashioned ideas about marriage and womanhood—except now that Mrs. Ramsay has “faded,” died, Lily feels comfortable “over-riding” her, and even wishes she could gloat her “triumph” to Mrs. Ramsay. Lily thinks she has won something, that she has prevailed over Mrs. Ramsay, by pointing out that the institution Mrs. Ramsay represented turned out to be fallible. She has chipped away at a fact central to Mrs. Ramsay’s convention.

Through all of this chipping away, though, Lily has to deal with her grief over the loss of the person Mrs. Ramsay. Lily constantly oscillates between thinking about Mrs. Ramsay as convention, and violently missing her. Her heart is wrung again and again by her memory, she laments over wanting and not having Mrs. Ramsay, and it’s this grief that leads to Lily’s ultimate realization; Mrs. Ramsay was a person, a woman, not the Woman.

Lily remembers Mrs. Ramsay and her husband, includes herself in the memory, and feels peace. She realizes that “it would be a mistake … thinking how they walked off together, arm in arm, past the greenhouse, to simplify their relationship.”17 It would be wrong to “simplify” Mrs. Ramsay’s relationship with men and the institution of marriage, not because Lily thinks marriage is secretly great, but because Mrs. Ramsay had her own unique relationship with it. Lily has been using Mrs. Ramsay to center womanhood, but this entire time, Mrs. Ramsay has had her own experience with the conventions that were placed on both of them. It’s only when Lily recognizes Mrs. Ramsay’s individuality, her own “unequal” nature, that Lily can finish her painting:

There it was—her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something …With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.18

It’s only when she realizes that things can be separate, that nothing has to be equated, that the space in her painting can be whole and divided at once, does Lily finish her painting. She draws a line in the center, striking out the idea that she needs to have something at the center of her formation of womanhood to structure it. Lily understands now, she sees it clearly, that her definition of womanhood doesn’t put her in opposition to being a woman. There is her picture, her definition, with all its different colors, and different facets—there is her identity, an identity that can coexist with Mrs. Ramsay.

With Lily’s painting, Virginia Woolf offers an alternative to the traditional definition of womanhood. She shows that women don’t have to conform to convention, that in fact, convention doesn’t even really exist. Convention is a lie based off of a continued misunderstanding and willful blindness to individuality, there is no way to “equate the unequal,” two different things will never be the same, two different women will never be the same concept of woman. She shows, through Lily, that it is not existing outside of convention that is impossible, it is only that convention itself makes it seem impossible. “The Woman,” isn’t real, what’s real is individual women, and with them, millions of “definitions” of womanhood. Womanhood cannot be structured around a center, it’s just something that is.

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense,” in On Truth and Untruth: Selected Writings, translated and edited by Taylor Carman (HarperCollins e-Books, 2010),  28.
  2. Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense,” 30.
  3. Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense,” 28.
  4. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), 49.
  5. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 51.
  6. Woolf, To the Lighthouse,
  7. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 102.
  8. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 84.
  9. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 19.
  10. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 48.
  11. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 19.
  12. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 149.
  13. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 149.
  14. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 151.
  15. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 160.
  16. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 174.
  17. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 199.
  18. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 209.
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