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To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse

What effect does time have on human beings? Can it heal old wounds or reunite us with emotionally estranged relatives? Does it make us enjoy the ephemeral nature of life while we have it? Or is it an endless force that strips life of its worth as everything is transient and nothing is permanent? English author Virginia Woolf examines time's effect on an emotionally estranged family in her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse.

To the Lighthouse Book

To the Lighthouse is English author Virginia Woolf's fifth novel, and, although it's not strictly autobiographical, the setting of the story is based on Woolf's summer home when she was a child. The Talland House, near St Ives, Cornwall, was where Woolf spent the summers of her childhood, outside in the country and free from London society's academic and social pressures. Between 1882 and 1895, the Stephens spent every summer at the Talland home before their mother died in 1895. Woolf described To the Lighthouse as an "elegy" for her parents, Julia and Leslie Stephen, and her own youth.

To the Lighthouse focuses on two specific days at the Ramsay summer home, but the two days are set ten years apart. The story is told in three parts: part one, "The Window,” depicts James, the youngest Ramsay son, at odds with his father because Mr. Ramsay would not indulge in his son's desire to see the lighthouse, saying the weather would be too bad. Mrs. Ramsay throws a dinner party and tries to bring everyone together, but her husband and various other guests are rude and at odds with one another. Finally, the tension dissolves, and Mrs. Ramsay relishes in one moment of unity and connection, knowing it will not last.

In the second section, “Time Passes,” 10 years have gone by, and Mrs. Ramsay and a few of her children have died. World War I has happened and the house has fallen into neglect without the family's annual visits.

In “The Lighthouse," Mr. Ramsay finally takes James and his sister to the lighthouse, although by now, they dislike their father and are reluctant to go with him.

To the Lighthouse, The external issue between Mr. Ramsay and his children is he won't take them to the lighthouse, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The central tension between Mr. Ramsay and his children is presented when he tells his son James that they can't go see the lighthouse

Each section of the novel is told in a stream of consciousness narrative style. At times, it is difficult to tell which character is controlling the plot and whose thoughts readers are peering into because all of the character's thoughts bleed together in the stream of consciousness. Along with James Joyce and William Faulkner, Woolf is famous for pioneering the stream of consciousness narrative technique that is now common in 21st-century literature. Themes in the novel include the subjectivity of reality, time being transient, and art as unity and permanence.

To the Lighthouse, The stream of consciousness narration style, StudySmarterFig. 2 - To the Lighthouse features a stream of consciousness narration style

To the Lighthouse Summary

The three sections that the novel is broken up into each represent a pivotal time in the Ramsays' lives. Coasting over a period of ten years, the novel depicts changes in how the characters relate to one another and themselves.

The Window

In this section of the novel, the central tension between the characters is introduced, and the conflict within the title is apparent. The Ramsays and a few guests are at their summer home, Hebridean house, with a view of a lighthouse in the bay. The youngest son, James, asks if they can go to see the lighthouse tomorrow. Although his mother says yes, Mr. Ramsay shuts down the idea, saying that the weather will be too bad. Mr. Ramsay is a bit of a tyrant and takes his personal and professional anxieties about his significance and lack of work out on his family. James resents his father, and Mrs. Ramsay is frustrated that her husband is insensitive towards their children's desires and feelings.

Mrs. Ramsay throws a dinner party and does her best to make the evening go smoothly. As a devoted housewife, Mrs. Ramsay delights in her parties and dotes on her guests, especially the men, whom she sees as burdened by life's worries.

Among the guests are artist Lily Briscoe, who is struggling to paint a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay, and young philosopher Charles Tansley, who is brazenly critical of female artists. Charles claims that women, like Lily, can neither paint nor write, but most of his haughty attitude comes from his own feelings of insignificance.

Mr. Ramsay yells at one of his guests for asking for another cup of soup, and the dinner gets tense. Everything rights itself over the course of dinner, and everyone in the room connects emotionally for one moment . Although Mrs. Ramsay wishes such a beautiful moment could last forever, after dinner, she reflects on how the moment is already past, and she will not be able to get it back.

To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay Dinner Party,  StudySmarterFig. 3 - Mrs. Ramsay finds life beautiful in even the most frivolous moments, such as a dinner party.

Time Passes

This section of the novel is much shorter and less personal than the other two. In these 20 pages, ten years flash by. World War I starts and one of the Ramsay children dies in the war. Mrs. Ramsay also dies, but her death is only denoted by one small aside in parenthesis; the abruptness of her death is jarring. Another one of the Ramsay children dies in childbirth. The summer house falls into a state of neglect, only sparingly visited by the housekeeper, who does the bare minimum to keep the house from collapsing. When Mr. Ramsay calls to say that he and the children will be back to the house, she gets to work getting it ready for their return.

The Lighthouse

In this final section of the book, Mr. Ramsay has returned to the Hebridean house with his surviving children. Lily returns to the house as well but feels unable to mourn any of the Ramsays' deaths deeply. Mr. Ramsay decides that his youngest daughter Cam and James will accompany him out to the lighthouse to finally make the trip, ten years after James's request. Both James and Cam resent their father, neither wants to go with him, but they begrudgingly agree. In the face of his own self-doubt, Mr. Ramsay turns to Lily for comfort, but unlike his wife, she cannot give him any.

After a delay, Mr. Ramsay and his two youngest children go to the lighthouse. Although James and Cam are embarrassed at their father's self-pity and feel a strong disdain for him, they bond on their trip to the lighthouse. Mr. Ramsay praises James instead of criticizing him; eventually, Cam starts to admire her father. Meanwhile, back at the house, Lily evaluates her sense of reality and perception to finish the portrait of Mrs. Ramsay. Once she finishes, she realizes that finishing the portrait is more important than the idea of creating a legacy.

 To the Lighthouse, Lily struggles with art because she struggled to realize that reality is subjective, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Lily struggles with her art and becomes frustrated with the blank canvas.

To the Lighthouse Characters

Let's take a look at the main characters.

Mr. Ramsay

The patriarch of the Ramsay family, Mr. Ramsay, is a metaphysical philosopher who tends to be harsh towards his wife and children due to his personal and professional anxieties. He is afraid that future generations will not remember him and that his work is pointless. In essence, Mr. Ramsay is scared of his impermanence and takes it out on his family and guests, demanding that they constantly praise and support him.

Mrs. Ramsay

Mrs. Ramsay is a kind and loving woman who dotes on her children and house guests, giving particular attention to the men. She is the epitome of traditional gender roles, caring more for her male visitors because of the great burdens she senses that they carry as providers and striving to be a wonderful housewife and hostess. She loves her husband but is often frustrated by his dour moods and would rather see the beauty in life's ephemerality than the anxiety it can cause.

Lily Briscoe

Lily Briscoe is a young, single painter who is a guest at the Ramsays' summer house. She, like Mr. Ramsay, is frustrated by her work and worries that it lacks true worth. Her anxiety is only deepened by the male guests, like Charles Tansley, who assert that women are incapable of creating worthy art. At the beginning of the novel, Lily struggles to complete a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay because of her self-doubts, but by the end of the novel, she reaffirms her self-confidence and finishes the portrait.

James Ramsay

The Ramsays' youngest child, James, loves his mother and hates his father. The novel begins when James asks if they can go to see the lighthouse near their summer home, but his father refuses because the weather will be too bad. At the end of the novel, ten years after the initial request, Mr. Ramsay takes a reluctant James and his sister, Cam, to the lighthouse.

Charles Tansley

Charles Tansley is a young pupil of Mr. Ramsay who shares Mr. Ramsay's insecurities and subsequent tyrannical behavior due to anxieties surrounding the legitimacy of his work. Charles is critical of others, especially ambitious women like Lily Briscoe, to hide his insecurities.

To the Lighthouse Themes

Reality is Subjective

What was it then? What did it mean? Could things thrust their hands up and grip one; could the blade cut; the fist grasp? Was there no safety? No learning by heart of the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle, and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air? Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life?--startling, unexpected, unknown?" (pg. 125).

At the end of the novel, Lily still struggles to capture Mrs. Ramsay in her art. She struggles with separating her ideas of Mrs. Ramsay from who Mrs. Ramsay was. Lily goes through an intellectual transformation as she struggles with her idea of reality. In the quotes above, Lily realizes that she didn't truly know who Mrs. Ramsay was, and she doesn't know the meaning of life, or the right way to live.

She wants to share her revelation with Mr. Carmichael, one of the Ramsays' elderly guests who always seemed so wise. Lily realizes that it would be no use: "no, she thought, one could say nothing to nobody...For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? Express that emptiness there?" (124). Lily realizes that everything she thought she knew about the world—about the Ramsays, her work as a painter, and life in general—was clouded by her subjectivity.

This is also present in the Ramsay children's relationship with their father. Over the years, they have come to view him as tyrannical and cold. They loathe his self-pity and fear his tempestuous moods. But during the trip to the lighthouse, James and Cam realize how little they know him. Their entire relationship with their father shifts over the course of a few hours, and they start to admire him, although that doesn't change their entire opinion of him. The way each character relates to one another depicts the subjectivity of reality. This is further exemplified by the stream of consciousness approach. Every character contributes something different to the plot and sees the world differently. Reality is fluid and entirely dependent on the perceiver.

How would the novel be different if the story was only told from one character's point of view? Would it be as convincing?

Time is Transient

Most of the characters in the novel come face to face with the realization that time is transient, although they all handle that knowledge differently. Mrs. Ramsay attempts to make the most of her time on earth by finding beauty in life's little moments. She feels a pull to other people and experiences life the deepest when she is connecting emotionally. The transient nature of life makes her wish to connect with others as deeply as possible. On the other hand, her husband becomes paranoid about his demise. He distances himself from his family and friends because he fears that one day he will not be remembered by anyone one day. While Mrs. Ramsay stakes her claim on life in the emotional realm, Mr. Ramsay turns towards the intellectual and vows to establish a new school of philosophy. They are both dealing with the fact that life is short, but she lets the knowledge bring her closer to people while he uses it to distance himself.

The idea that life is transient is shown most clearly in the novel's second section, "Time Passes." In this section, ten years pass by in 20 pages. Some of the Ramsays die, others get married, war comes and goes, and the characters age exponentially. Everything is described so quickly that readers don't have a chance to mourn for the Ramsays. One minute they are all alive and enjoying a party at their summer home; the next, everything has changed.

Art as Unity and Permanence

...nothing stays; all changes; but not words, not paint... One might say, even of this scrawl, not of that actual picture, perhaps, but of what it attempted, that it 'remained for ever'..."(pg. 125).

Like all of the male characters in the novel, Lily struggles with her legacy. She wants to be remembered as an artist, and wants her art to mean something. Lily's greatest fear is that her art will be stashed away in someone's house: in their attic or under their couch, long since forgotten. She becomes so obsessed with her legacy that she struggles to complete a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay, and Mrs. Ramsay dies before the artwork is anywhere close to being finished.

But even years after Mrs. Ramsay's death, Lily can capture her memory through art. Life is uncertain and fleeting, but the physical reminder of Mrs. Ramsay is much more permanent than Mrs. Ramsay herself. Creating art is Lily's way of bringing a sense of permanence to her own existence as she immortalizes her friends through her work.

Art also serves as a unifying force in the novel. Lily hopes to weave together various artistic elements, people, and ideas into one unified product through her artwork. She struggles with Mrs. Ramsay's portrait so much because she can't distinguish her idea of Mrs. Ramsay from the "true" Mrs. Ramsay. When Lily realizes that reality is subjective and all of the different identities of Mrs. Ramsay are valid and unify into the complex person that she knew, Lily is finally able to bring her portrait to life. Art is about unifying various ideas into one single, permanent product.

To the Lighthouse Feminist Criticism

Although To the Lighthouse isn't Woolf's most overtly feminist work (that would be A Room of One's Own (1929)), there are certainly plenty of feminist critiques in this novel, especially of the character Lily Briscoe. In Woolf's time, women were expected to marry young and sacrifice their identities for their husbands and children. Instead of getting educations and jobs, women were expected to support their husbands, represent their families socially, and raise their children. Woolf does depict this in the character of Mrs. Ramsay, who is a much more conventional example of a 1920s wife. However, Lily Briscoe not only chooses not to marry, but she also occupies spheres that were traditionally dominated by men, further asserting her independence. When Charles Tansley degrades her work and livelihood by telling her that women can't paint or write, Lily's confidence takes a hit. The omniscient narrator reflects,

...why did she mind what he said? Women can't write, women can't paint--what did that matter coming from him, since clearly it was not true to him but for some reason helpful to him, and that was why he said it? Why did her whole being bow, like corn under a wind, and erect itself again from this abasement only with a great and rather painful effort?" (pg: 60).

When her entire identity is shaken, Lily stands up for herself. She defends herself in the face of Charles Tansley, who symbolizes a patriarchy that has undoubtedly told her who she can and cannot be her entire life. And Lily stands up to him in the most feminine way possible, which makes it sting Charles even more. Instead of lashing out, she acts as though she's submitting to him, saying, "Oh, Mr. Tansley...do take me to the Lighthouse with you. I should so love it" (pg. 60). Now Charles Tansley's identity as a man is brought into question: he can either say no and look weak compared to Lily's bold request, or say yes, and Lily will have won. Lily is strong in her independence, but she also uses her femininity and society's expectation that she should be dependent as a weapon.

Even Mrs. Ramsay, who is the picture of the perfect housewife, sees her femininity as her power. She may play the devoted housewife and the dutiful hostess, but all of her guests fall in love with her. Lily reflects on that power, saying, "—a tribute to the astonishing power that Mrs. Ramsay had over one. Do this, she said, and one did it. Even her shadow at the window with James was full of authority" (pg: 120). Through the differences between Lily, who is unconventional in her femininity, and Mrs. Ramsay, who is the picture of conventional femininity, Woolf depicts that all women are inherently strong and powerful. Femininity is a strength, not a weakness, as Charles Tansley would suggest, and the men who degrade women do so out of their feelings of inadequacy.

To the Lighthouse - Key Takeaways

  • To the Lighthouse was written by English author Virginia Woolf and published in 1927.
  • It is loosely based on her own childhood summer home and serves as an "elegy" to her parents.
  • The story is told as a stream of consciousness. It is broken into three sections.
  • It tells the story of two days in the Ramsays' summer home, set 10 years apart.
  • Themes include: reality is subjective, life is transient, and art is a unifying and permanent force.

Frequently Asked Questions about To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse can be a very difficult book to read because the stream of consciousness makes it difficult to distinguish whose thoughts are on the page. It is hard to tell who is who and who is saying/thinking what. A lot of readers really struggle to get into Woolf's writing rhythm as she switches perspectives and jumps in and out of the characters' minds constantly. The trick, says most Woolf critics, is to give yourself in to the writing and stop trying to decipher every little thing, instead just let it immerse you. 

The novel centers around these themes: reality is subjective, time is transient, and art as unity and permanence. 

The novel is a great example of Woolf's experimental writing, where she captures the stream of consciousness of several characters and captures a moment in time inside their minds. It is also important as a story that captures the relationships and life of a middle class family in the early 20th century. It is semi-autobiographical, so Woolf included some of her own experiences in the novel as well. 

The sea symbolizes the natural world's apathy for human life. The sea has the power to eat away at land, also showing how human life and achievements are temporary and delicate. 

To the Lighthouse features the Ramsay family in their relationships and mental conflicts with one another, namely Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and to a smaller extent their son James. Lily Briscoe is also an important figure as she eventually captures the Ramsay's lives in her art. 

Final To the Lighthouse Quiz


What is To the Lighthouse? 

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To the Lighthouse is English author Virginia Woolf's 5th novel. It uses stream of consciousness narration, telling the story from the perspective of multiple characters. 

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Who wrote To the Lighthouse? 

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Virginia Woolf wrote To the Lighthouse. It is semi autobiographical as she used the house her family spent their summers in every year as inspiration for the setting. She also said it was an elegy to her parents and her childhood. 

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What is the central conflict in To the Lighthouse

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The Ramsays' youngest son, James, wants to go visit the lighthouse but his father tells him now. Mrs. Ramsay is frustrated that her husband isn't more kind to his children. Mr. Ramsay is cruel as a way to avoid his anxieties surrounding death and his own insignificance. 

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How is the novel formatted? 

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It is broken up into three sections, each told by a variety of narrators using the stream of consciousness approach. The first section is "The Window." The next is "Time Passes." The final is "The Lighthouse."  

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What is "The Window" about? 

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The first section, The Window, details one day at the Ramsays' summer home. Mr. Ramsay tells his son they can't go to the lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay tries to make the most out of life by throwing dinner parties and connecting with loved ones. Lily struggles to capture the reality of the moment in a portrait. 

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What happens in "Time Passes"? 

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In the second section of the novel, 10 years flash by in the span of roughly 20 pages. Several of the Ramsays die, including Mrs. Ramsay. World War I starts and ends. The Ramsays do not return to the summer house. 

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What happens in "The Lighthouse"? 

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The Ramsays return to their summer home. Mr. Ramsay finally takes James to the lighthouse along with his sister and the two start to connect to their father like they never were before. Lily finishes her painting. 

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What is interesting about the character of Lily Briscoe? 

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Lily is seen as a feminist figure as she maintains her independence by not marrying. She also occupies a place in the artistic world, which makes certain male characters feel threatened, but she stands up for herself. 

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Why can Mrs. Ramsay be read as a feminist figure? 

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Despite being the picture of a perfect housewife, Mrs. Ramsay finds power and commands respect in her femininity. Although she is very traditional in the sense of her gender roles, she is still an authoritative figure and commands respect throughout the novel. 

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What are the themes in To the Lighthouse? 

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Reality is subjective

Time is transient (or fleeting) 

Art as unity and permanence. 

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