Theory of Mind

Midway (through) To the Lighthouse it suddenly struck me how extremely well Woolf present us for the complexity of peoples inner life. Of corse we all know her exceptional contribution to the stream of consciousness technique.

(Stream of consciousness is characterized by a flow of thoughts and images, which may not always appear to have a coherent structure or cohesion. Stream of consciousness depict the continuous flow of sense‐perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and memories in the human mind).

Woolf is an expert in stream of consciousness, but there is even more: She is not only displaying her characters inner life, she is also capturing how people understand one-another, and how this understanding is constantly shifting through tacit communication & explicit dialogues.

It suddenly struck me as a good idea to read her characters in the light of Theory of Mind

Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds.

To the Lighthouse, chapter 17

But what have I done with my life? thought Mrs Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table, and looking at all the plates making white circles on it. “William, sit by me,” she said. “Lily,” she said, wearily, “over there.” They had that — Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle — she, only this — an infinitely long table and plates and knives. At the far end was her husband, sitting down, all in a heap, frowning. What at? She did not know. She did not mind. She could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion or affection for him. She had a sense of being past everything, through everything, out of everything, …

… They were talking about wages and unemployment. The young man was abusing the government. William Bankes, thinking what a relief it was to catch on to something of this sort when private life was disagreeable, heard him say something about “one of the most scandalous acts of the present government.” Lily was listening; Mrs Ramsay was listening; they were all listening. But already bored, Lily felt that something was lacking; Mr Bankes felt that something was lacking. Pulling her shawl round her Mrs Ramsay felt that something was lacking. All of them bending themselves to listen thought, “Pray heaven that the inside of my mind may not be exposed,” for each thought, “The others are feeling this. They are outraged and indignant with the government about the fishermen. Whereas, I feel nothing at all.” …

…and Mrs Ramsay, leaving the argument entirely in the hands of the two men (Charles Tansley & Mr Bankes) wondered why she was so bored by this talk, and wished, looking at her husband at the other end of the table, that he would say something. One word, she said to herself. For if he said a thing, it would make all the difference. He went to the heart of things. He cared about fishermen and their wages. He could not sleep for thinking of them. It was altogether different when he spoke; one did not feel then, pray heaven Then, realising that it was because she admired him so much that she was waiting for him to speak, she felt as if somebody had been praising her husband to her and their marriage, and she glowed all over without realising that it was she herself who had praised him. She looked at him thinking to find this in his face; he would be looking magnificent…

See how Woolf let Mrs Ramsay’s feelings toward her husband wander from complete indifference to intense affection. Her feelings are never still. And notice also how Woolf manage to give all of her main characters the same complexity.

Its just like life, isn’t it!?! I really have to spend some time trying to get a better hold of what she is doing – and how she is doing it.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. KM Huber says:

    Yes, Sigrun, what Woolf writes and the way she writes it is life; we can see ourselves in every word and character. I do not know of any other writer who is as consistent as Woolf so she bears reading and re-reading. Again, I so thank you for this exploration of her work in which we gain a glimpse of you as well.


    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you for your time Karen, I very much appreciate your comments! I feel like a Woolf-nerd right now, but its really great to have the possibility to go in-depth with an authorship like this.
      All the best!

  2. I suppose it’s a kind of free indirect discourse. I love this scene: The narrator is simultaneously in the minds of 4 different characters, and from giving us their perspectives we are able to piece together what the rest of the scene looks like. It’s wonderful. She is brilliant, isn’t she?

    1. Sigrun says:

      Its fantastic! And that she can go on like this and still make it all understandable – unbelievable.

  3. Arti says:

    I’ve enjoyed your Woolf posts, including getting a glimpse of the art books you just got. It’s been a while since I read To The Lighthouse and Mrs.Dalloway. Your analysis is most insightful. The next time I reread it, I’ll pay attention to these points you’ve drawn out so intricately. Thanks for a beautiful blog!

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you, great to hear that some of my writing make sense to others than myself!
      Hope you find the time to read these books again, I had a great experience also of my own development as a reader, a mother, a wife, a human being … when rereading them.

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