Study Guide

To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

To the Lighthouse Summary

Overview

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.

To the Lighthouse Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Most critics regard To the Lighthouse as Woolf’s finest achievement, and she herself shared this view. Woolf perfected her method in this book, developing a highly individual technique in which structure, form, content, and meaning are extremely complex as they are used to develop individual characters, their relationships to one another, to life itself, and to the most profound problems of human existence, love, art, and death. Her method consists in elaborating a multiple point of view presenting both past and present through her characters’ eyes as well as through those of an omniscient writer. She thus reveals to the reader in manifold perspective the extraordinary range of emotional and mental processes that make up human experience for her characters.

The structure of the novel resembles that of a two-act play with an interlude between the acts. In the first and by far the longest part, “The Window,” Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay (unmistakably based on her own parents) with their eight children are vacationing at their summer home on an island off the coast of Scotland; some friends are spending a weekend with them. Their six-year-old son James wants to visit the nearby lighthouse the next day; his mother agrees, but his father is certain that the weather will not be fine. The guests intermingle; the artist Lily Briscoe works on a painting. In the evening they all enjoy a meal of buf en daube and experience a sense of unity and happiness in the perfection of this moment that, like an artist, Mrs. Ramsay has created by controlling the elements that united to produce it. Most of these events are narrated through interior monologues with numerous flashbacks and shifting points of view.

In a second, very brief part, “Time Passes,”...

(The entire section is 726 words.)

To the Lighthouse Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Mrs. Ramsay promises James, her six-year-old son, that if the next day is fair he will be taken on a visit to the lighthouse they can see from the window of their summer home on the Isle of Skye. James, the youngest of Mrs. Ramsay’s eight children, is his mother’s favorite. The father of the family is a professor of philosophy whose students believe is inspiring and one of the foremost metaphysicians of the early twentieth century, but his own children, particularly the youngest, do not like him because he makes sarcastic remarks.

Several guests are visiting the Ramsays at the time. There is young Mr. Tansley, Ramsay’s student, who also is unpopular with the children because he seems to delight in their...

(The entire section is 1153 words.)

To the Lighthouse Chapter Summary and Analysis

The Window, Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Mrs. Ramsay: main character, mother of eight children

James: six-year-old son of the Ramsays

Mr. Ramsay: husband of the main character; a professor

Charles Tansley: student and protégé of Mr. Ramsay

Augustus Carmichael: philosopher-poet; house guest of the Ramsays

Summary
Mrs. Ramsay sits with her six-year-old son James, who is cutting pictures from an army and navy stores catalogue. They are in the drawing room (living room) of their summer residence, a large, somewhat dilapidated house next to the sea on an island in the Hebrides (off the coast of Scotland).

The novel opens with Mrs. Ramsay’s...

(The entire section is 1330 words.)

Chapters 3 and 4 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Lily Briscoe: 33-year old spinster; would-be artist, friend of the Ramsays

William Bankes: widower, old friend of Mr. Ramsay; botanist; lives in the same rooming house as Lily Briscoe

Cam Ramsay: the Ramsays’ young daughter; lively and stubborn

Jasper Ramsay: the Ramsays’ impetuous son

Summary
Mrs. Ramsay, still sitting with James at the window, becomes suddenly aware of the cessation of voices and sounds which have provided a background. She is momentarily struck by an “impulse of terror.” She quickly realizes that her husband and Charles Tansley have stopped their conversation. The sounds of the waves, which often...

(The entire section is 1154 words.)

Chapters 5-8 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Mrs. Ramsay soothes James again. She asks him to stand so that she can measure the stocking she is knitting against his leg. It is for the Lighthouse keeper’s little boy. He fidgets and as she reprimands him, she looks up and notices how shabby the furniture is. Her thoughts race from the frustrations of housekeeping to her own inadequacies. (She never reads.) Things got shabbier and shabbier every summer. She frets over the children’s messes, yet reminds herself that their hobbies are reflections of their giftedness. She agonizes over doors being left open and windows shut. She remembers that Marie, the Swiss maid, does love the fresh air. She thinks of Marie’s father who is dying of cancer....

(The entire section is 1532 words.)

Chapters 9-11 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Mr. Bankes and Lily Briscoe discuss Mr. Ramsay. Bankes notes his peculiarities; Lily sees his narcissism as endearing, yet dislikes his narrowness. Bankes pushes Lily to see Ramsay as a hypocrite; Lily negates that idea. Then she thinks of the Ramsays “being in love” and is enraptured by the beauty of this idea.

Lily wants to critique Mrs. Ramsay, but refrains when she notices Bankes’ “rapture.” She appreciates his disinterested, “pure” pleasure in her beauty. However, as she turns to her painting, she is overcome with a sense of failure. She thinks again of Tansley’s comment that women can’t paint or write. Lily returns to her criticism of Mrs. Ramsay. Although she is...

(The entire section is 1377 words.)

Chapters 12 and 13 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Mrs. Ramsay takes her husband’s arm and they go for an evening stroll. She speaks of her concerns about the gardener, but avoids once again speaking to him about the 50 pounds needed to fix the greenhouse. The two continue to chat about the children and the houseguests. As they talk, Mrs. Ramsay returns many times to her thoughts about the maintenance of the garden. As Mrs. Ramsay talks about the gardener, Mr. Ramsay chides her for exaggerating. When she protests, he takes advantage of the turn in the conversation to comment on her beauty. She turns the conversation to their daughter’s beauty. Mr. Ramsay expresses his concern over Andrew’s academic motivation. She defends him. Although they...

(The entire section is 683 words.)

Chapters 14-16 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Minta Doyle: emotional young woman; impulsive, outspoken

Paul Rayley: earnest young man; timid

Nancy Ramsay: pensive; prefers solitude

Andrew Ramsay: interest in collecting marine life; somewhat aloof

Summary
All of Chapter XIV is written within parentheses. Minta, Paul, Andrew, and Nancy take an afternoon’s excursion. Minta coerced Nancy into joining them. Nancy would have preferred retreating to the attic. She feels pressured by the demands of socializing.

Andrew observes that Minta is a good walker, dressed in a short skirt and black knickerbockers. He likes her rashness, but believes it will get her into...

(The entire section is 939 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Mrs. Ramsay takes her place at the head of the table. She thinks to herself, “But, what have I done with my life?” Mr. Ramsay, at the far end of the table, is slouched down and frowning. She can’t remember why she ever felt any emotion for him. As family and guests come into the dining room, one after the other, she thinks, “It’s all come to an end.” As she ladles the soup, she thinks there is no beauty anywhere. She feels exhausted, just trying to keep things going.

Lily Briscoe notices how old and worn and remote Mrs. Ramsay looks. When Mrs. Ramsay speaks to William Bankes, Lily senses that she pities him and feels it is a typical misjudgment of Mrs. Ramsay’s. Lily respects...

(The entire section is 2078 words.)

Chapters 18 and 19 Summary and Analysis

Summary
As the dinner scene fades, Lily watches Mrs. Ramsay ascend the stairs in the lamplight. She notices that her departure brings a kind of disintegration to the group; they scatter. Bankes takes Tansley by the arm and continues the dinner table conversation about politics. The shift from “poetry to politics” strikes Lily. She wonders where Mrs. Ramsay is going so quickly.

Mrs. Ramsay is reflective. She seeks to sift through the evening and pick out the “thing that mattered” from the evening. Her internal “judges” query her: Is it good? Is it bad? She uses the branches of the elm trees outside to anchor her. She approves of the dignity of the trees’ stillness. It is windy, she...

(The entire section is 2279 words.)

Time Passes, Chapters 1-7 Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Mrs. McNab: elderly caretaker; suffers aches and pains of age

Summary
Some years after the day recorded in The Window, Andrew and Prue Ramsay, as well as Mr. Bankes, Mr. Carmichael and Lily Briscoe, return to the seaside house. Mr. Bankes remarks, as he enters the house, “Well, we must wait for the future to show.” The others comment on the extreme darkness of the evening. When they’re all safely indoors, they extinguish the lights and retire for the evening.

After this brief glimpse of the characters met in The Window, Nature becomes personified as the main character of Time Passes. The “immense darkness” and...

(The entire section is 868 words.)

Chapters 8-10 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Mrs. Bast: caretaker, born in Glasgow; did not know the Ramsays; assists Mrs. McNab

George: Mrs. Bast’s son; quiet, hard worker

Summary
Mrs. McNab has heard that the family will never come again. She picks some flowers to take home with her. She wonders what will happen to the house. She looks at the moldy books and knows they should be laid out on the grass in the sun. Talking to herself, she thinks that the war and the difficulty in finding help, have rendered the house beyond repair. It’s beyond her strength to do it. But, why hasn’t anyone come to see it? Why did they leave clothes in all the bedrooms? She thinks that poor Mrs. Ramsay...

(The entire section is 1535 words.)

The Lighthouse, Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Mrs. Beckworth: houseguest, kind, older woman; sketches

Summary
“What does it mean then, what can it all mean?” Lily Briscoe asks herself the following morning. (See close of Time Passes) As she wanders through the house, she feels a kind of numbness coming back after all these years “and Mrs. Ramsay dead.” It is a beautiful day and an expedition to the Lighthouse has been planned. Cam and James are not ready; Nancy has forgotten to order the sandwiches. Mr. Ramsay, annoyed with the children, has banged a door and now marches up and down on the terrace in a rage. Lily feels the house is chaotic and unreal. Nancy’s dazed and desperate...

(The entire section is 1616 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Lily returns to her painting. The white canvas rebukes her. She has been caught up in thoughts and feelings which have drained her emotions. As she ponders the problem of the relationship of the lines in the painting, she realizes that this challenge has tied a knot in her mind which over the years, at odd moments, she’s tried to untangle.

In her agitation she’s taken the wrong brush and placed the easel at the wrong angle. She corrects herself and sets about her work. Letting go of her emotional turmoil, she feels the excitement of the task. She paints the first stroke and then develops a rhythm in which she paints rapidly. As she works, Lily meditates on her reason for painting. She...

(The entire section is 676 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Mr. Macalister: seventy-five year old fisherman; converses with Mr. Ramsay on the boat

Summary
Out at sea, the boat is motionless. Mr. Ramsay, sitting in the middle, becomes impatient. He tells Macalister’s boy to row.

James and Cam dread their father’s impatience. They are angry that they have been bullied into the trip. They have sworn (silently) to “oppose tyranny to the death” and passively resist their father’s commands. They hope there will be no breeze; they want their father’s plans to be thwarted.

Suddenly, the boat takes off. Ramsay and Macalister share a pouch of tobacco and talk about a severe storm from the...

(The entire section is 811 words.)

Chapters 5-7 Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Macalister’s son: son of the fisherman who accompanies the Ramsays’ on the boat

Summary
Lily stands on the edge of the lawn, watching the Ramsay’s boat sail off. She feels depressed about withholding her sympathy. She remembers Minta Doyle’s flirtation with him and how it would lighten his mood. She almost asks Augustus Carmichael, sleeping in a lawn chair nearby, if he can remember these things.

Her thoughts return to Mrs. Ramsay and the day on the beach with Charles Tansley and herself. She wonders why that particular day, in all its detail, is so etched in her mind. Mrs. Ramsay’s words, as she looked at something out at sea, echo in...

(The entire section is 1537 words.)

Chapters 8-10 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Cam trails her hand in the water and looks at the distant shore. She thinks that they don’t feel anything there. The wind stops, the sails sag, the boat is calm. It seems as if the world is standing still. Under the hot sun, they feel miles from the shore, miles from the Lighthouse. Mr. Ramsay continues to read with his legs curled under him. James dreads the moment when his father will look up and demand why they aren’t moving. Each page Mr. Ramsay turns feels like a hostile gesture aimed at him. James thinks that if his father makes an unreasonable demand, he will take a knife and strike him to the heart. Aware that he’s held onto this old image, James decides that it’s not exactly the old...

(The entire section is 1380 words.)

Chapters 11-13 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Lily watches the boat sail off. She decides that so much depends upon distance, whether people are near or far away. Lily thinks again of the unreality of the morning and decides that life is more vivid when routine hasn’t quite taken hold. She feels relieved of the burden of making pleasantries with Mrs. Beckworth. The interlude is full to the brim with so many interwoven lives held by some common feeling. It was this feeling that led her to say, a decade before, that she was in love with the place.

Looking out to sea, Lily notices a change in the wind and the placement of the boats. The disproportion disturbs her and she looks at her painting with distress. She’s wasted her morning...

(The entire section is 2244 words.)