I first began reading Jean Elliott’s article “The Protean Image: The Role of Mr. Carmichael in To the Lighthouse” with a sense of incredulity. Basing her argument mainly from the last scene where Lily Briscoe works through her emotions and tries to finish her painting while Augustus Carmichael basks in the sun dozing, she claims that she can prove that Carmichael symbolically represents the Greek god Proteus. He was the god of prophecy and who once captured, would answer questions; however, he disliked answering questions so he would change shapes. If one holds him tight until Proteus tires of his ruse of shape changer, he will answer your questions. I agreed with the ocean god motif, but I couldn’t quite agree with the shape changing; however, Elliot supports her argument and is convincing.
The shape changing is explained with the phrases “cat eyes,” “his paws,” “padding softly,” and “like some sea monster” (294). And Lily does indeed question him while he is captured by sleep as he lies near her while she paints. In further proving her point, Elliot points out that Carmichael never answers one of Mrs. Ramsay’s questions. The following quote she uses from Dryden’s translation of the Proteus tale illuminates her argument: “But first the wily Wizard must be caught, / For unconstrain’d he nothing tells for naught: / Nor is with Pray’rs, or Bribes, or Flatt,ry bought” (11.571-573). Another godlike quality is that Lily believes he reads her mind in that last scene.
The other aspect of her paper that I found pertinent (also because I had already had the thought, but she gave me the phrases that support the hypothesis) was that Mr. Carmichael adds a stable element to the story. Both Lily and Mrs. Ramsay comment that Mr. Carmichael is the same. Of course, this is contradictive to the argument that he is Proteus.
Elliot convinced me that Carmichael could be representative of Proteus, and she also believes that he was based off of Leslie Stephen’s old friend Professor Wolstenholme. She gave me insight to the character of Augustus Carmichael. She does make one comment that she never explained; I am supposing that her readers would know why it was significant without having to explain it. She comments that the name Augustus is pertinent to the writings of Virgil which leads me to believe that a mythology class should be a requirement for English majors.
Elliott, Jean. "The Protean Image: The Role of Mr. Carmichael in To the Lighthouse." Studies in the Novel 12.4 (1980): 359-368. Web.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. 1927. Ed. Mark Hussey. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, Inc., 2005. Print.