The Mother- Figure in Two Novels:

Mother- Figure in Two Novels:

Comparison of the Characters of Joan and Mrs. Ramsey


     This paper shall act as a criticism of the
role of the mother figure in two classic novels.  The character of Mrs. Ramsey from Virginia Woolf’s To the
Lighthouse and the character of Joan in Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle
shall bear the focus of this paper, where their roles as a “mother- figure”
shall be examined.  In Lady Oracle,
the character of Joan recounts the story of her life, set in a post- modern
future where she is bound by social roles to conform with convention but not
with the traditional theme of motherhood.. 
Mrs. Ramsey, on the other hand, is the proper embodiment of the
Victorian lady and mother, yet expresses the desire for a sense of freedom from
this role.

     Virginia Woolf first introduced the novel To
the Lighthouse to the reading public in 1927.  The novel was heralded as a masterpiece of literary innovation,
where the three perspectives from the three major characters in the novel
created the image of the obnoxious male, the submissive woman, and the artist
that combined the better elements of both extremes.  Here, Mrs. Ramsey is placed in the role of the “ideal” Victorian
mother:  She is dutiful to her husband
and to her children, even to those strangers whom she meets. 

Woolf demonstrates through the divided nature of Mrs. Ramsey that the role of
the mother figure is unfulfilling to some extent.  Mrs. Ramsey has two roles as a mother- figure:  She is asked to nurture her children and she
is ordered to tend to her husband.  Mrs.
Ramsey’s children tend to see her as a beloved woman, but even her own children
so despise the fact that Mrs. Ramsey has given up so much of her own life to
Mr. Ramsey that they tend to push her aside.

     Indeed, it can be seen that Mrs. Ramsey’s
ultimate role in To the Lighthouse is more of the caregiver for her
mate.  Mrs. Ramsey has a
"…singleness of mind [that] made her . . . alight exact as a bird . .  . upon truth which delighted, eased, and sustained"
(29).  Here, Woolf indicates that Mrs.
Ramsey has only been given the opportunity to hold a specific function in life,
and that is to be the caregiver to her husband.  (Beja:  63-65)

Ramsey, however, does not perceive her position as her husband’s handmaiden as
the role that she desires from life. 
The mother- figure in Mrs. Ramsey seems more highly attuned to tend to
her children, but the demands placed upon her are generated by her
husband.  For example, when Banks and
Lily disrupt Mr. Ramsey’s solitude when he is in the hedge, he comes out with
“…all his vanity, all his satisfaction in his own splendor, riding . . . fierce
as a hawk at the head of his men . . . had been shattered, destroyed."
(30)  Mrs. Ramsey comes to quickly
pacify her husband but finds that the note in his voice is "like the
cuckoo" (strident and obnoxious) and therefore seems ridiculous to her, as
does his intense need of her that burdens and diminishes their
relationship.  (Woolf:  33) 

     In contrast to the role of Mrs. Ramsey, the
character of Joan in Lady Oracle is seen as a woman who is forced to
generate her own sense on femininity and the state of motherhood.  Joan lives in a world where all elements of
society are controlled and she is forced to live on the prescripts established
within her position.  Yet Joan does not
wish to conform to these social prescripts and sets out to create her own
world, a world of fantasy, where she can survive and be the woman whom she
wants to be.

     Joan is considered empathic:  Atwood presents her heroine as a force that
provides hope more than any other creation to the people of her society.  In order to allow others to share her world,
Joan extends her fantasy world to others, and this lets them partake in the
fantasy that keeps her alive.  Atwood
writes:  "Escape wasn\'t a luxury
for them, it was a necessity... I had the power to turn them from pumpkins to
pure gold... Why refuse them their castles, their persecutors and their
princes... The truth was that I dealt in hope, I offered a vision of a better
world" (31-2).

     Here, Joan can be seen to have taken on the
aspect of the mother- figure.  Joan not
only provides,