This is the second time I read To the Lighthouse, and this time I am noticing the humor more. Woolf does an excellent job of subtly making fun of her characters’ pretensions while still writing a moving and dramatic novel.

I, personally, especially like the way she pokes fun of psychoanalysis, but I believe that this would be a fruitful way to read the novel. There is plenty of sea imagery in the novel for there to be a Jungian reading of the unconscious, and Freud is sprinkled throughout the text, but I would like to look at how Woolf (symbolically) castrates, in a Lacanian sense, all the males in the novel, especially Mr. Ramsay:

Standing between her knees, very stiff, James felt all her strength flaring up to be drunk and quenched by the beak of brass, the arid scimitar of the male, which smote mercilessly, again and again, demanding sympathy.
He was a failure (38)

This is juxtaposed with the Fisherman’s Wife story, which is another man who has been symbolically castrated. The phallic object is in this case symbolically signifying power. Joel Doer says two important thing about the phallic object that apply here:

“The subject never stops trying to justify his possession of the [phallic object]; at the same time, he assiduously claims he does not have it– when, in the end, no one has it”
Doer goes on to explain why ‘no one has it’
“The phallic object is above all an object whose nature it is to be a signifying element” (Doer 85-87).

Mr. Ramsay, in his insecurity, is left castrated, and he worries out loud to his wife that he has lost his phallus, “He was a failure, he said” (Woolf 37). If the phallus is a symbol of power, then it is seen here how Mr. Ramsay, the arid scimitar, looses that power in his insecurity, but then Mrs. Ramsay takes over the phallus and wields it more effectively, putting order to her world, “And then she said to herself, brandishing her sword at life, Nonsense. They will be perfectly happy” (Woolf 60).

Zizek explains symbolic castration by saying, “This gap between my direct psychological identity and my symbolic identity (the symbolic mask or title I wear, defining what I am for and in the Big Other) is what Lacan […] calls ‘symbolic castration’, with the phallus as its signifier” (34).

This is precisely what occurs over and over again. Mr. Ramsay, who wears the mask of the great intellect, master philosopher, is caught in the gap between this image of himself and his almost crippling insecurity and vanity. Tansley has only his dissertation, and when he can no longer speak about it (as is seen when he goes into town with Mrs. Ramsay), he become “impotent” in a sense. This is why the children and Lily see him as rude.

At the dinner party, Mrs. Ramsay, as the symbolic holder of the phallus, gets to impose order (and in a sense meaning) on the party. After a rough start, after the men have been castrated (Tansely is forced to, finally, not talk about his dissertation; Mr. Ramsay, once again, fails to exert his power, and doesn’t speak up when the other men are talking about politics), there is a subtle sense of hope in the passage.

This is followed by the scene in which Mr. Ramsay wants Mrs Ramsay to tell him that she loves him, which shows Lacan’s idea of the subject as always lacking. As one who contemplates the metaphysics of subject-object, Mr. Ramsay seems to need the objects outside of himself in order to create his own sense of self, which is always lacking and always never sure of that sense of self. For Mr. Ramsay, the table in the room when no one is there to see it is still there if the subject is thinking of it, I would guess.

If I had more time to think and words to write here I am sure that the Lighthouse can fit easily into this symbolic order.