Charles Tansley is a douche nozzle. There, I’ve started with the most heinous character in To the Lighthouse.
And yet. And yet I pity him. (You might question my use of “douche nozzle.” That’s exactly the casual language that I would use in a classroom if talking about literature and would hope my students would use as well. I would view it as a sign of someone actually engaging on an emotional level with the material. If you don’t feel it, how important is it to you?)
Things I loathe about him:
He tells Lily Briscoe, an introverted, aspiring young artist that “Woman can’t write; women can’t paint.” How dare he discourage a woman, yet alone deprecate all of womanhood! Can I get “Charles Tansley can kiss my ass” on a t-shirt, please?
He sucks up to Mr. Ramsay and worse, mimics him, pissing off Mrs. Ramsay even though she still tries to be nice to him.
He insists on carrying Mrs. Ramsay’s bag when she tells him no. (I also see that bag as a sexual metaphor, and thus find it even more crass because of that.)
Years later we learn that Lily Briscoe sees him giving a lecture and he’s a boring blowhard.
Why I Pity Him:
Because he comes from a large family with no money, and thus has no idea how to comport himself among the “better class.”
He obviously feels inferior, and I feel sorry for him for that. But he doesn’t have to make himself feel better by putting others down!
He clearly idolizes Mr. Ramsay and is trying to live up to what he, Ramsay, has become. His idolization gives Mr. Ramsay some of the unending admiration he needs, but it must also give Tansley something he needs. Perhaps in a large family he was overlooked?
It seems that while he gets some notice by lecturing when he’s older, much like Mr. Ramsay, he doesn’t achieve what he had hoped.
He still hasn’t learned, even when fully an adult, how to interact with others.
Lily Briscoe shows him more pity than I feel. She (via Woolf, of course) sees what a complex person he is and sees that her disapproval of him might in part be because of what he reveals to her about herself:
Her going (Mrs. Ramsay’s) was
a reproach to them, gave a different twist to the world, so that they
were led to protest, seeing their own prepossessions disappear, and
clutch at them vanishing. Charles Tansley did that too: it was part of
the reason why one disliked him. He upset the proportions of one’s
world. And what had happened to him, she wondered, idly stirring the
plantains with her brush. He had got his fellowship. He had married;
he lived at Golder’s Green.
She had gone one day into a Hall and heard him speaking during the war.
He was denouncing something: he was condemning somebody. He was
preaching brotherly love. And all she felt was how could he love his
kind who did not know one picture from another, who had stood behind
her smoking shag (“fivepence an ounce, Miss Briscoe”) and making it his
business to tell her women can’t write, women can’t paint, not so much
that he believed it, as that for some odd reason he wished it? There
he was lean and red and raucous, preaching love from a platform (there
were ants crawling about among the plantains which she disturbed with
her brush–red, energetic, shiny ants, rather like Charles Tansley).
She had looked at him ironically from her seat in the half-empty hall,
pumping love into that chilly space, and suddenly, there was the old
cask or whatever it was bobbing up and down among the waves and Mrs.
Ramsay looking for her spectacle case among the pebbles.
Lily also uses her painting to reshape her relationship with Tansley:
“…(she and Charles squabbling, sparring, had been silly and spiteful)
something–this scene on the beach for example, this moment of
friendship and liking–which survived, after all these years complete,
so that she dipped into it to re-fashion her memory of him, and there
it stayed in the mind affecting one almost like a work of art.
Her own idea
of him was grotesque, Lily knew well, stirring the plantains with her
brush. Half one’s notions of other people were, after all, grotesque.
They served private purposes of one’s own. He did for her instead of a
whipping-boy. She found herself flagellating his lean flanks when she
was out of temper. If she wanted to be serious about him she had to
help herself to Mrs. Ramsay’s sayings, to look at him through her eyes.”
–To the Lighthouse
These paragraphs are so dense and rich that I could write pages about them! Look how open-minded and understanding both Lily and Woolf are about this wanker. And yet I do pity him and would likely be nice to him AFTER setting him straight about women and the arts.
As I’ve hinted before, this book is not merely character or plot based, and certainly not in my estimation. But I had to get that out, had to talk about the worst aspect of the book first off. (And it’s not a fault of Woolf’s, it’s an important point to make about how society still thought of women artists as a whole. But the “Women can’t write; women can’t paint” bit makes me so angry!)
In the novel as a whole, Tansley’s opinion is at odds, creates tension, with Lily Briscoe who attempts to paint Mrs. Ramsay and her son James, tries to capture the essence of Mrs. Ramsay. From the get-go we have Tansley saying it’s an impossible task, although he just condemns all of women’s painting and not just Briscoe’s ambition. It echoes Woolf’s fears that she won’t get across what she wants to. I love that Lily is not only painting out what Mrs. Ramsay is, but she also uses it as a way to understand others, much the way I write to figure out the world. I get that.
A glimpse of future posts: This reading of the book has me pitying Mr. Ramsay more than before, too, even though before his whiny, demanding behavior irritated me. And oh, those geraniums in the book that he beat in his blind pacing made their way into my second novel. There’s a secondary reason for them in mine: for a short time, my father worked at a nursey in New Jersey. He brought us home geraniums, and I have been overly fond of them ever since. Did you ever notice that their leaves smell a bit like a tomato plant’s leaves?
I plan to try to post a couple of times a week on this book. I’d love to post more, but I can’t promise that at all because it’s getting busy around here again with marketing, with writing, and on. I have so much to say that maybe I’ll write a few post in stream of consciousness writing just to get it out. 😊
If only we could sit together and read pages and talk and talk about them. Well, we can do that here as we are able. If not now, chime in later!