The Two-Dimensional Character
In the novel, To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf illustrates the character of Mr. Ramsay, a husband and father of eight children. As a husband, he degrades and mentally abuses his wife, Mrs. Ramsay, and as a father, he disparages and psychologically injures his children. Yet, Mr. Ramsay has another side — a second dimension. He carries the traits of a very compassionate and loving husband and a securing and nurturing father. Although Woolf depicts Mr. Ramsay as crude, brusque, and insensitive, he, nonetheless, desires happiness and welfare for his family.
Even though Mr. Ramsay frequently scolds and denounces Mrs. Ramsay, he still seeks happiness and comfort for his wife. For example, after Mrs. Ramsay lies to James about the next day’s weather, “He [Mr. Ramsay] stamped his foot on the stone step. ‘Damn you,’ he said.” (31) Mr. Ramsay devastates his wife’s emotions. Because of a little lie, the temperamental Mr. Ramsay hurts, if not kills, Mrs. Ramsay’s emotions. Still, right after the incident, Mr. Ramsay self-reflects and “[he was] ashamed of that petulance [that he brought to his wife].” (32) Mr. Ramsay understands and regrets the sorrow he brought on Mrs. Ramsay. He sympathizes with her and is “ashamed” for what he had done. Mr. Ramsay wants to appease his wife and make her happy as a result of the torment that he inflicted on her. Next, Woolf again illustrates Mr. Ramsay’s insensitive dimension when Mr. Ramsay makes Mrs. Ramsay “bend her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked.” (32) Mr. Ramsay is heartless to his wife’s feelings; it is as if he enjoys “drenching” Mrs. Ramsay and enjoys seeing her in mental anguish. However, Woolf later contrasts the callous Mr. Ramsay with a more sensitive and caring Mr. Ramsay:
So stiffened and composed the lines of her face in a habit of sternness that when her husband passed he could not help noting, the sternness at the heart of her beauty. It saddened him, and her remoteness pained him. (64)
Therefore, here Mr. Ramsay is portrayed as a sympathetic and caring husband that is “pained” by the expression of sorrow on his wife’s face. Mr. Ramsay is sensitive to his wife’s feelings and desires her well-being. Woolf illustrates the inconsistency of Mr. Ramsay’s character through his and Mrs. Ramsay’s interactions.
Next, Woolf portrays Mr. Ramsay as a brusque and callous father by his harsh interactions with his children, when his true motive is to help and secure his children’s welfare. Mr. Ramsay is depicted as a father whom, “had there been an axe, or a poker, any weapon that would have gashed a hole in [Mr. Ramsay's] breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it,” because of the Mr. Ramsay’s constant, pessimistic rambling, “it won’t be fine.” (4) Mr. Ramsay is depicted as a sharp, deadly, and sarcastic killjoy that destroys the anticipation and happiness of his child, James. His children regard him with the utmost rancor that they even think of stabbing him to death. However, little do his children know that, “he [Mr. Ramsay] was incapable of untruth; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure of any human being, least of all of his own children, who should be aware from childhood that life is difficult; [he would instill] courage, truth, and the power to endure.” (4) The main purpose for his bluntness is not to intentionally hurt his children, but instead to strengthen them. He wants his children to grow up as successful, self-sufficient people. Thus, even though Mr. Ramsay does have a crude dimension in his character, he also has a second dimension of sensibility.
Virginia Woolf pictures the character of Mr. Ramsay as an authentic human being; he has a second-dimension that allows him to have both evil and sincere attributes. She does not write about either a very humble and generous man or a very insolent and cruel man; instead, Woolf gives the readers a real character with both traits that allow readers to understand the foibles of characters like Mr. Ramsay.