“To The Lighthouse” is a novel written by Virginia Woolf that was originally published in 1927. The novel’s main purpose was to relate deep philosophical insights about the complexity of the human experience. A key example of the literary technique of multiple focalizations, the novel mainly focuses on internal introspection and contains little dialogue and no action scenes.
The story revolves around Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and their stay with their eight children and several guests as their summer house off the coast of Scotland. The novel explores the relationship between the Ramsays and the relationships between their guests, including Lily Briscoe a painter and friend to Mrs. Ramsay.
The novel consists of three parts, the middle of which is a fast moving section that spans ten years in between the first and last parts. In that ten years, Mrs. Ramsay, the exuberant host, dies suddenly and eccentric, closed off Mr. Ramsay is left to raise their children.
A decade later, it is obvious that Mr. Ramsay’s youngest children hate him and his moody nature. The title of the novel comes from the youngest Ramsay child, James and his desire to visit a lighthouse on the island that his father refuses to take him to. In the end, Ramsay’s visit the lighthouse and James feels closer to his father.
The novel was voted one of Time magazine’s one hundred best English-language novels since 1923 and was adapted into a telefilm in 1983.
Part One: The Window
Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay bring their eight children and several house guests to their summer home in the Hebrides Islands, off the coast of Scotland. The house is situated near a lighthouse and James, the couple’s youngest child, asks his parents if they might visit the lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay tells him that if the weather holds up the next day, they can walk to the lighthouse but Mr. Ramsay coldly interjects that it looks like it is going to rain. James holds an anger toward his father for his constant poor treatment of his mother, whom James thinks is better in every way.
Mrs. Ramsay tries to tell James that the weather will be found but a friend of the couple, Charles Tansley who is trying to win favor with Mr. Ramsay, disagrees. Also staying with the Ramsay’s is an elderly poet named Augustus Carmichael. Mrs. Ramsay tells Tansley on the way into town that Carmichael was once a promising poet but he married badly and fell in societies opinion. Tansley comes from a poor family, as well. When they pass a sign for a circus show, Tansley confesses to Mrs. Ramsay that he has never been to the circus. Mrs. Ramsay feels that Tansley is insecure about his family and that is why he tends to be rather unpleasant. This revelation makes her feel more charitable toward him.
Despite his coldness, Tansley, like the other male guests, thinks that Mrs. Ramsay is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and he is a little in love with her. Later that night, it begins to rain and Tansley announces to Mrs. Ramsay a little more gently that the trip to the lighthouse will have to be canceled. Mrs. Ramsay tries to comfort James the next day as her portrait is being painted by a friend named Lily Briscoe. She hears the sound of the waves outside and gets reminded of death and the passage of time.
The sound of her husband reciting Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” comforts her somewhat as it is routine. Later that day the sun comes out and Lily and her friend William Bankes are outside on the grass. Lily is still trying to paint her portrait of Mrs. Ramsay. Mr. Ramsay passes by them and nearly trips on Lily’s easel. He does not stop but keeps walking and talking to himself.
Lily and Bankes are unnerved by the thought that he may not have realized that they were there. Bankes complains to Lily about his deteriorating relationship with Mr. Ramsay. Lily reminds him that Mr. Ramsay has a very important profession and that he is probably needier as a friend because of it. Mr. Ramsay’s work has something to do with “the nature of reality”. Lily remembers that the Ramsay’s oldest son, Andrew once compared his father’s work to thinking about a kitchen table when there is no table present. As if he hears himself being talked about, Mr. Ramsay seems to realize that Lily and Bankes are watching him and tries to act unembarrassed.
Mr. Ramsay returns to the house and frustratingly tries to find reassurance for his embarrassment from his wife. Mrs. Ramsay tells him that she is knitting a stocking for the lighthouse keeper’s son and Mr. Ramsay harangues her for being irrational, something that makes him feel more balanced and in charge. However, Mr. Ramsay goes out for another walk and thinks about his life. He starts to worry that he has not made a big enough impact on the world and that he has made no lasting difference that will survive after he is gone. Returning home again, Mr. Ramsay seeks more reassurance from his wife.
James wishes that his father would just leave he and his mother alone. Mrs. Ramsay tells her husband that Tansley thinks of him as the greatest living philosopher in the world. Confidence restored, Mr. Ramsay leaves and Mrs. Ramsay continues reading to James. She wonders if anyone watching her interactions with her husband would assume that he relies on her too much and that her contribution to the world is actually larger than his.
Mr. Ramsay wonders about the fate of civilization and great men like Shakespeare. He thinks that a “slave class” of unacknowledged workers must exist for society to continue. This thought depresses him and he tries to think that the world actually exists for this class, rather than the great men and geniuses.Mr. Ramsay watches the ocean lap against the shore and thinks that it is a good metaphor for how human ignorance always seems to eat away at what we know with certainty. He turns to view his wife and child through the window which reminds him that he is essentially happy even though he might not have done everything that he could have in life.
On the lawn, Lily puts away her paints as Bankes continues to discuss Mr. Ramsay with her. He suggests that Ramsay is a hypocrite but Lily thinks that he is sincere if self-absorbed. Lily is about to say something else when she notices that Bankes is staring in “rapture” at Mrs. Ramsay. Lily knows that Bankes is in love with Mrs. Ramsay and she lets him look at her portrait although she feels that it is poorly done. She remembers Tansley’s claim that women cannot write or paint as well as men.
Lily resents him and Mrs. Ramsay for insinuating that Lily, as an unmarried woman, cannot possibly be truly happy. Lily feels that she is not right for marriage. She feels that no one can ever really known anyone since people are so secretive. But she hopes to use her art to obtain some type of greater intimacy with humanity. Suddenly, Ramsay’s daughter, Cam rushes by, nearly knocking over the easel. Mrs. Ramsay calls out to her to ask about Andrew and two other guests, Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle who have not returned from their walk on the beach. She assumes that Paul has proposed to Minta, a situation which she was trying to engineer.
Mrs. Ramsay has been called domineering for her matchmaking and for the fact that she thinks that the island needs a dairy and a hospital but she doesn’t mind as long as she can pursue social causes. She hopes to pursue them further once all of her children are grown, but she also resents the passage of time and the fact that her children are already growing so quickly. Mrs. Ramsay wonders if marriage between Paul and Minta would really be what they want and if marriage is enough to make everyone happy. When the nursemaid comes to put James to bed, Mrs. Ramsay wonders if he is still thinking about the lighthouse and if he will remember not being allowed to go for the rest of his life. From outside, Mr. Ramsay sees her and thinks that she looks sad but does not wish to disrupt her. He knows that his temper upsets her.
Soon, however, Mrs. Ramsay comes out to meet him on the lawn and they walk together. As they walk, they talk about Tansley, whom Mrs. Ramsay finds disagreeable. Mr. Ramsay enjoys him but says that he would disinherit their daughter, Prue if she were to marry him. They also talk about their son Jasper’s love of shooting birds and Prue’s beauty as well as Andrew’s intelligence. Mrs. Ramsay wonders if, with all of her husband’s lofty thoughts, he ever stops to appreciate the smaller things in life. She sees Lily with Bankes and decides that she wants to match-make them.Lily and Bankes meets up with the Ramsay’s and Lily can tell immediately that Mrs. Ramsay has decided to match-make her. She feels a deep sense of unease over the situation.
Mrs. Ramsay tells them that she is worried about Paul and Minta not returning home and asks if her daughter, Nancy went with them. Nearby, Nancy walks with Paul and Minta, confused about the heavy tension in the air. She accompanied the pair out of a sense of obligation and on Minta’s request but she is confused about why Minta is acting strangely. Nancy’s brother, Andrew is also there. Andrew appreciates Minta as he thinks that she is different from other women. But he does not like the walk and especially does not like Paul. When they reach the beach, Nancy and Andrew accidentally come across Paul and Minta kissing. Further annoying, Nancy when they leave the beach Minta realizes that she has lost her grandmother’s broach.
Paul offers to leave the house early the next morning to search for the broach. He thinks back to the moment that he asked Minta to marry him and is disappointed by her response. He wonders if he should tell Mrs. Ramsay, who he feels pressured him into asking. But when they get back to the house he decides not to tell her to save himself the embarrassment.Mrs. Ramsay dresses for dinner and wonders if Nancy’s presence will keep Paul from proposing to Minta. When she hears that the group has returned from the beach, she is annoyed at them for taking so long. The group all have dinner together.
Mrs. Ramsay begins to have a crisis about the shabby nature of her dining room and whether or not her guests are having a good time. She feels that these problems are her responsibility. Lily knows that Mrs. Ramsay pities Bankes and Tansley and wonders why Mrs. Ramsay seems to always pity men but never women. Tansley is angry at being called away from his work and rails against women for creating such gatherings. Lily notices his discomfort and realizes that as a woman it is her duty to comfort him just as it would be his to save her from bodily harm. She wonders what the world would be if men and women refused to conform to these gender roles. But when she speaks to Tansley she does so sarcastically.
The conversation turns to politics and Mrs. Ramsay looks to her husband, excited to hear him speak. She is disappointed to find that he is only scowling at Carmichael. Minta tells the group that she lost her grandmother’s broach. Mrs. Ramsay assumes that the couple is engaged. Mrs. Ramsay knows that Bankes is in love with her, but decides that he and Lily must fall in love. She plans to seat them closer at tomorrow’s dinner. Lily looks at the salt shakers sitting against the tablecloth and realizes that she needs to change her painting so that the tree is in the middle. Mrs. Ramsay thinks that Tansley will only be so unpleasant until he can find a wife and a professorship at a college. She wonders if she should set him up with Prue. At the end of the dinner, Mrs. Ramsay recites a poem that Carmichael finishes as a tribute to her.
Mrs. Ramsay leaves the room but realizes as she looks back that the special dinner has already become a moment in the past. Mrs. Ramsay goes to the nursery only to discover that her youngest children are still awake. James and Cam stare at a frightening boar’s head on the wall. Cam cannot sleep while it stares at her. Mrs. Ramsay covers the head with her shawl. James asks his mother if they will go to the lighthouse the next day and she feels that she has to tell him no, wondering again if he will never forget this moment. Prue, Minta, and Paul go down to the beach again to watch the ocean. Mrs. Ramsay joins her husband in the parlor. She considers how insecure her husband is about his own worth.
Mr. Ramsay, who has been developing a theory that all of the human thought is like the alphabet and that he cannot seem to move past the letter Q, further laments his inability to come up with any new thoughts. Mrs. Ramsay tells her husband that Paul and Minta are engaged and Mr. Ramsay says that he is not surprised. Mr. Ramsay points out that his wife won’t finish the stocking she is working on tonight and she agrees.
Mrs. Ramsay realizes that he wants her to tell him that she loves him but she rarely says these words and is uncomfortable. Instead, she walks to the window and tells him that she thinks that he is right and that they won’t be able to walk to the lighthouse the next day. Mr. Ramsay understands that this is her way of saying that she loves him.
Part Two: Time Passes
The group all go to bed, and the house becomes dark except for in Carmichael’s room, as he sits up reading until midnight. Time begins to pass more quickly in the novel. Autumn arrives, and destructive winds waft along the beach. Mrs. Ramsay dies suddenly one night, and Mr. Ramsay is left bereft.
The summer house is packed up and the only person that enters anymore is Mrs. McNab, the housekeeper. The narrator speaks about the wind again, wafting through the house and asking questions like “Will you fade? Will you perish?” as the steadfast furniture in the house says “We remain”. The following spring, Prue marries, and the wedding is a happy one. But she soon dies in childbirth. The summerhouse falls into disrepair. Weeds take over the garden and flies take over the house.
Andrew is killed while serving in France during World War I and Carmichael publishes a volume of poetry that enhances his social standing. Mrs. McNab begins to wonder if the family will ever return to the house and if keeping it up is too much work for her as she grows older.
Once the war ends, Mrs. McNab hires some other women around town to help her clean up the house and return it to its original glory. Ten years have now passed since the dinner party. Lily goes to the house and listens to the sea as she lays in bed at night. Carmichael arrives as well. Late at night, Lily shoots up in bed, awakening instantly.
Part Three: The Lighthouse
That morning at breakfast, Lily wonders why she has returned to the house after ten years. She struggles to remember the portrait of Mrs. Ramsay that she was working on and decides that she will finish the painting now. Mr. Ramsay is also at the house, but Lily feels that she isn’t able to meet his need for sympathy and does not want him interfering with her painting. She struggles to paint as she feels Mr. Ramsay walking toward her. She thinks that Mr. Ramsay does nothing but take from people but becomes convinced that it will be easier to muster up some of the sympathies that Mrs. Ramsay always had for the man. But when she tries to do so, a silence falls between them. Lily feels that she is an awful woman for not being able to comfort men properly.
Cam and James walk up, returning from visiting the lighthouse. They are both cold to their father. Lily thinks that they would be more capable of sympathizing with Mr. Ramsay than she. When the others leave her, Lily returns to her painting, moving along nicely. She remembers Tansley saying that women cannot paint but shoves his words away as she works. She remembers Mrs. Ramsay and her ability to create something of substance out of “silliness and spite”. She thinks that Mrs. Ramsay’s art was life itself. She sees a boat out on the sea and thinks that it belongs to the Ramsay’s.
On the boat, James and Cam are discomforted by their father’s treatment of the fisherman’s son who is growing. James steers the boat and controls the sail, fearing his father’s criticisms for any mistake. Ramsay talks to Macalister, the rower, about a storm that sank a few ships on Christmas. Cam thinks that her father often talks about adventures that he was not on. She thinks he would have helped with the rescue if he’d been on the island that day and is proud of him for the thought, but resolved to stay with James in their dislike of the man. James wonders if Cam is about to crumble and join their father’s side.
On the shore, Lily thinks about Paul and Minta and wonders how their marriage turned out. She has the urge to talk to Mrs. Ramsay about it and thinks about how no one can change the mind of the dead. She finally feels that she would be able to stand up to Mrs. Ramsay about her independence. Lily never married and is happy that she did not. She is still friends with Bankes.
Mrs. Ramsay’s memory makes her cry and she considers going over to Carmichael but knows that she would not be able to say what she thinks. She calls out to Mrs. Ramsay as if the woman were still alive, although she knows that she is not. The boat comes to a stop. James waits for his father’s disapproval to show. He thinks now that he does not want to kill his father but wants to kill the moods that sometimes descend on the man. Now that they are in front of the lighthouse, James remembers his father’s refusal to let him go to it as a child and thinks that the lighthouse looks different than it does in his memory. He misses his mother and the way that she used to speak her mind. Meanwhile, Cam realizes that she does not care what her father or her brother think. She imagines herself on adventures like escaping from a sinking ship. She wishes that her father and brother would forgive each other.
On the shore, Lily thinks about the former guests of the Ramsay house and how they turned out. Tansley married and became a professor which has made him more calm and sensitive. As she thinks of Mrs. Ramsay she thinks that she sees her standing at a window in the house, but the figure disappears quickly.
On the boat, Mr. Ramsay, his children, and the rower all eat a meal. James docks the boat and his father praises his sailing abilities. Cam is surprised and thinks that his father’s praise is all James has ever wanted but he still acts sullen. Mr. Ramsay stands before the lighthouse and Cam wonders what he is thinking. He tells them to bring the parcels that Nancy packed for the trip and bounds off to the lighthouse like a child. Lily announces that her painting is finished and assumes that Mr. Ramsay has reached the lighthouse by now. Carmichael agrees. Lily realizes that she doesn’t care if the painting only ends up in an attic as she has finally realized her vision.
Mrs. Ramsay – Mrs. Ramsay is the wife of Mr. Ramsay and the mother of the eight Ramsay children. She is the hostess that invites the party to the family’s summer home on the Hebrides islands of Scotland. Mrs. Ramsay is a kind, thoughtful mother who loves her children. She is a less thoughtful wife although she tries endlessly. Though Mrs. Ramsay views the duties of a wife and mother in a strictly, old fashioned, traditional sense of a woman caring for the house and emotionally supporting her husband, she often finds herself unable to do either of these things. With her husband, she feels a distance. She attempts to support him emotionally but feels unable to say that she loves him out loud. Mrs. Ramsay’s other defining character trait is her propensity for matchmaking. Though it happens before the start of the novel, it is clear that she pressures Paul into proposing to Minta only to have her inevitably turn him down. Mrs. Ramsay, however, is so confident in her abilities that she assumes that Minta agreed and that the two are engaged with not confirmation from either of them. Mrs. Ramsay is such a defining, gregarious character that it is somewhat surprising that Woolf chooses to kill her off in the second part of the novel suddenly and without fanfare. The hole that Mrs. Ramsay leaves in the lives of those that loved her is so deep that it still greatly affects them ten years later.
Mr. Ramsay – Mr. Ramsay is the father of the Ramsay children and the owner of the summer house. A philosopher, Mr. Ramsay is often absorbed with his own thoughts and musings. He is also very self-absorbed and tremendously emotionally needy, regularly seeking his wife out for emotional comfort when he is the slightest bit upset. Mr. Ramsay seems to be more open about his love for his wife than she is, but also views chastising her as something that makes him feel more balanced. However, after Mrs. Ramsay’s death, Mr. Ramsay is so bereft that he seems to temporarily lose his mind. Ramsay’s relationship with his children is even more strained. By the end of the novel, James and Cam view their father as domineering and irrational. James and Cam seem to have formed a united front against Mr. Ramsay, which Cam worries that she is betraying constantly. However, James also seems to have developed many of the same moody traits as his father. In the end, Mr. Ramsay praises his son about his sailing, surprising everyone and skips off to the lighthouse in a strangely childish way.
Lily Briscoe – A guest of the Ramsay’s. Lily is a painter whose main worry is that her art will be shut up in attics or forgotten under sofas. She struggles through much of the novel to finish a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay. Lily admires and loves Mrs. Ramsay but also resents her for her traditional views on marriage and family. Lily values her independence and does not wish to marry, a choice that Ramsay looks down on. In the end of the novel, it is revealed that Lily did not marry and she completes the portrait, feeling like she has achieved her vision.
Adeline Virginia Woolf Biography
Adeline Virginia Woolf was an English novelist and critic whose stream-of-consciousness technique and poetic style are among the most important contributions to the modern novel.
Woolf was born in London, the daughter of the philosopher Sir Leslie Stephen, who educated her at home. In about 1905 after the successive deaths of her mother and father, Woolf and her sister, Vanessa (an artist) made their home a gathering place for the former university colleagues of their older brother. The circle, which came to be known as the Bloomsbury group, included in addition to other members of the London intelligentsia, the writer Leonard Woolf, whom Virginia married in 1912. With her husband, she founded Hogarth Press in 1917.
Virginia Woolf’s early novels – “The Voyage Out” (1915), “Night and Day” (1919) and “Jacob’s Room” (1922) – offer increasing evidence of her determination to expand the scope of the novel beyond mere storytelling. The next novels, “Mrs. Dalloway” (1925) and “To The Lighthouse” (1927), the plot is non-existent. Instead of psychological effects are achieved through the use of imagery and metaphor.
Woolf was a critic of considerable influence, as well as a biographer and feminist. In “A Room of One’s Own” (1929), she was among the first writers to espouse the cause of women’s rights.
Throughout her life, Woolf suffered many bouts of mental illness. It is thought that she suffered from what is now known as Bipolar disorder.
In March of 1941, Woolf, deeply depressed, committed suicide by filling her pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home. Her husband Leonard buried her ashes under a tree in the garden of their home.