Summary of the Novel
To the Lighthouse is divided into three sections. The first section, The Window, takes up over half the book. In this section, we are introduced to all of the characters and become caught up in the web of relationships at the Ramsay’s summer home. We see a day unfold with the promise of a trip to the Lighthouse (which never takes place), creating an underlying tension during the day.
As the day unfolds, we see each of the characters from multiple perspectives. Each character’s private mentations are recorded, as well as other characters’ responses and interpretations of his/her behavior.
In this first section, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s relationship is highlighted, as well as their distinct personalities, i.e., Mr. Ramsay’s idiosyncracies and Mrs. Ramsay’s struggle to create harmony. Other characters are seen largely in their relationship to the Ramsays. We are watching the figures in this drama as if through a window. We get “inside their heads” as we hear their thoughts just as they occur to them.
The day passes. Mr. Ramsay takes his walks and ponders how he can push beyond “Q”. Mrs. Ramsay flutters about her guests, meeting their needs. She reads a story to her son. The children romp and act mischievously. Romance is in the air as Mrs. Ramsay encourages Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley and Lily Briscoe and William Bankes. Dinner becomes an occasion; the Bœuf en Daube is prepared perfectly and spirits are high, rounded out with poetry, “And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves.” The children are put to bed. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay sit, reading, he re-discovering Sir Walter Scott she finding the “odds and ends of the day stuck to this magnet” a sonnet. The strength of their feelings for each other, bruised and scattered by the day, returns. There is a sense of contentment.
In the second section, Time Passes, Woolf takes an entirely different approach. In this section, an omniscient narrator dramatizes the decay of the house over a period of years. We learn that Mrs. Ramsay has passed away, Andrew has been killed in the war, and Prue has died in childbirth. The abandoned house is ghost-like: Nature predominates in this section. The house is now peopled by the dark, the rain, and the wind. Mrs. McNab, the housekeeper, is the only character who we experience in this section. She is the weathervane. She reminisces about Mrs. Ramsay and the mood of the house in former days.
We watch—outsiders now—as time moves, with slowness immeasurable or with the speed of light, and the identities of the characters prevail only within parentheses.
The Lighthouse, the final section, takes place ten years after the beginning of the book. In this section, Lily Briscoe, is the central presence. It is through her struggle to create meaning of all this, the house, the family, her confused perceptions, that the novel comes to closure. Lily has her vision and completes her picture at the end. Mr. Ramsay is still brusque and demanding, but he finally manages to accompany James and Cam to the Lighthouse, even complimenting James on his sailing. James feels satisfied that he has reached the lighthouse: “It confirmed some obscure feeling of his about his own character.” The journey, representing perhaps life’s journey, has been long and fraught with difficulties, yet ultimately satisfying.
Estimated Reading Time
To the Lighthouse is divided into three sections. The first section is more than half the length of the book (143 pages). The second, and shortest section, is about 18 pages long. The third section is about 50 pages long. Each section is divided into relatively short sub-sections, 2-15 pages in length.
In order to fully appreciate the writer’s style, To the Lighthouse needs to be read more slowly than books in which the plot is of central interest. Thus, although one could conceivably complete the book in six to seven hour-long sessions (reading approximately 30 pages an hour), a more leisurely reading pace would improve understanding.
If time is an issue, then it is suggested that the reader divide the first section approximately in half, planning then on four reading sessions of about an hour.
The Life and Work of Virginia Woolf
Adeline Virginia Woolf was born on January 25, 1882 in Kensington, London, the third child of Leslie Stephen and Julia Duckworth. One of the most prominent literary figures of the twentieth century, she is best known for her literary experimentation with a “stream of consciousness” form of writing. Her novel To the Lighthouse, published in 1927, is generally regarded as her most accomplished work. In addition to fiction, Woolf is admired for her literary criticism, essays and reviews, as well as her detailed literary journals, diaries, and letters.
Virginia Woolf’s father, knighted in 1902, was an eminent man of letters, responsible for The Dictionary of National Biography. Her mother epitomized the Victorian ideal of femininity. (Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, the main characters in To the Lighthouse, were based on her parents). The death of her mother when Virginia was thirteen followed by that of her beloved half-sister Stella, precipitated a breakdown which was the beginning of Woolf’s life-long battle with depression and mental illness. Despite periods of illness, Woolf read voraciously, taking advantage of her father’s extensive library. She was also tutored in Latin and Greek.
When Sir Leslie Stephen died in 1904, Woolf moved to Bloomsbury, London, with her half-brother, George, and his family. It was there that her brother Thoby’s Cambridge friends began a series of “Thursday Evenings”—intellectual discussions in which Virginia was actively engaged and which formed the beginnings of the so-called Bloomsbury Group, known for its modernist, anti-Victorian approach to life and art. At that time also, Woolf began volunteer teaching at a college for working men and women.
In 1910, Woolf became involved in the movement for women’s suffrage. In the same year the First Post-Impressionist Exhibition received great attention and had a significant impact on the intellectual circles to which Woolf belonged. In later lectures and in her writing, Woolf commented that “human character changed on or about December, 1910.” In 1912, Virginia Stephen married Leonard Woolf, an ex-colonial administrator, writer, and political thinker. The Voyage Out, her first novel, was accepted for publication.
Woolf’s most serious mental breakdown, occurred in 1915, one year after Britain’s entry into World War I. Following her recovery, the Woolfs’ launched the Hogarth Press, publishing Virginia Woolf’s first piece of experimental fiction, The Mark on the Wall. Her early novels, The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919), were traditional in form. In Monday or Tuesday (1921), Woolf began experimenting with an expressionistic style, deliberately breaking from the Edwardian fiction of the time, as represented in the work of John Galsworthy (The Forsythe Saga). Woolf’s objective is best summarized in her essay Modern Fiction (1919):
For us at this moment the form of fiction most in vogue more often misses than secures the thing we seek. Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing, has moved off, or on, and refuses to be contained in such ill-fitting vestments as we provide.
In the novels that followed—Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), The Waves (1931), The Years (1937), Between the Acts (1941)—Woolf actualized her aesthetic inclinations. Not interested in plot, or other conventional elements which “embalmed” the whole, Virginia Woolf sought to convey, not contain, life. Her goal was not, as Woolf put it, to lead the reader to “write a check.” (Writers like Arnold Bennett, H.G. Wells, and John Galsworthy who preceded Woolf, focused their attention on the material world and wished to move their readers to action.)
The term “stream of consciousness,” which is frequently applied to Woolf’s style, was coined by Willian James in his Principles of Psychology (1890) to describe “ceaseless, chaotic, multi-levelled flow that characterizes human mental activity.” In the essay mentioned above, Woolf asserted that she was striving to record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in a way that revealed more than simply a personal vision. Woolf admired the work of James Joyce (Ulysses) T. S. Eliot (The Waste Land), and Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness), literary modernists who experimented with shifting time, multiple narrative voices, and complex allusions.
In addition to novels and short stories, Woolf published “The Common Reader” (1925 and 1932), and the now widely-read lecture A Room of One’s Own, describing the challenges confronting women writers.
The catastrophe of the war years, beginning with Hitler’s invasion of Austria in 1938, led the writer to sense an impending mental breakdown once again. In 1941, fearful of a recurrence of the mental illness which had plagued her for so many years, Virginia Woolf wrote a loving note to her husband, put heavy stones in her pockets and, walking into the River Ouse, drowned herself.