Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Departing from the nineteenth century formalities of literary realism, Virginia Woolf pioneered, along with James Joyce and William Faulkner, the stream-of-consciousness technique employed in To the Lighthouse. Composed of three discrete but intimately related sections, the novel provides a poetic examination of English Victorian domesticity and social roles.
Woolf stealthily weaves through her characters’ psyches to reveal realities that are not necessarily apparent in either their actions or their speech. Section 1, aptly entitled “The Window,” invites the reader’s observation of the Ramsays’ summer household. Mrs. Ramsay sits by the window with James. She has promised him that they will sail to the lighthouse tomorrow to take provisions to the lighthouse keeper and his son. When Mr. Ramsay, backed by Charles Tansley, insists that the weather will prevent their journey, an angry Mrs. Ramsay offers a more optimistic forecast. It is Mr. Ramsay’s pursuit of Truth without any regard for people’s feelings that so upsets her. Although Mr. Ramsay repeatedly offends Mrs. Ramsay, she remains the dutiful Victorian wife, accepting his word over hers, accompanying him on silent strolls, and making him feel needed although she is the one who truly rules the house.
Standing at her easel a distance from the window, Lily Briscoe works to capture Mrs. Ramsay and James on canvas. William Bankes lounges nearby. Mrs. Ramsay invites...
(The entire section is 563 words.)
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Summerhouse. Ramshackle Victorian house on an island in the Hebrides that accommodates both the large Ramsay family and their friends. It is here that Mrs. Ramsay is in her element, ministering endlessly to the needs of her husband, children, and guests. Whether in her parlor knitting, presiding over the dinner table, or tucking her children into bed, Mrs. Ramsay is the life and soul of the house. However, while the nearby lighthouse seems to endure without change, the summerhouse gradually deteriorates over time. Neglected after a series of family deaths, the house succumbs to the forces of nature and falls into disrepair. While the lighthouse—always a symbol of timeless serenity—can withstand the sea and the weather, the Ramsay house is at the mercy of these elements. Similarly, the members of the Ramsay family themselves are at the mercy of a series of upheavals that devastate their lives, particularly the untimely deaths of Mrs. Ramsay of heart-failure and of one of her sons on the battlefields of World War I. The passage of time wreaks havoc on both the family and their home, marking the end of the Edwardian world in which Virginia Woolf herself had spent her childhood. Eventually, however, after the war, the house is restored to good order, and Mr. Ramsay and his two youngest children, along with Lily Briscoe and an old poet-friend of the family, return to it to try to put their lives back together.
(The entire section is 553 words.)
Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The small revolutions fought by Lily for choosing against marriage, by Minta for wearing a torn stocking, and by Cam for refusing to give Mr. Bankes a flower are representative of the literary and social revolutions inspired by the publication of To the Lighthouse. By the time that the novel was published, Woolf had already achieved critical acclaim and was an outspoken member of the Bloomsbury group. She was constantly engaging the dominant voices of her society, and her ideas about gender and domestic life were seriously addressed as a consequence.
To the Lighthouse does not provide solutions to the problems of sexual polarization. In fact, Lily’s androgynous convergence is far from ideal. By raising the issues of gender so honestly and openly in her novel, however, Woolf laid the foundations for a feminist discourse that has not lost its momentum.
(The entire section is 142 words.)
World War I
World War I began in 1914, the result of an unresolved and perilous series of Balkan Crises. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, the intense territorial dispute between Austro-Hungary and Serbia intensified, quickly spreading through the rest of Europe. Great Britain, Russia, and France joined together as the Allied Powers against the Central Power Alliance of Austro-Hungary and Germany. After Russia dropped out of the Allied forces, and the Luisitania was sunk, America eventually entered the fray. The war, known in Europe as the Great War, took place on a scale never before seen in history. It lasted four years, cost $350 billion, and took the lives of 22 million people. In To the Lighthouse Andrew Ramsay becomes one of the victims of the war.
World War I revealed a new and horrifying form of warfare that took place in the trenches and the air, both innovations. It was also the most technologically advanced war, relying on a number of new inventions, such as machine guns, mortar bombs, and barbed wire. Most scarring was innovations in biological weaponry. Death by mustard gas in the bunkers and trenches created a profound sense of shock in the surviving troops and horrible deaths for the fallen. Movingly documented by English War Poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, the Great War sent thousands of emotionally and physically shell-shocked men back to their homes.
(The entire section is 700 words.)
The Window, Chapters 1 and 2 Questions and Answers
1. Where does the novel take place?
2. Why is six-year-old James disappointed?
3. How do Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay differ in their treatment of James?
4. Why do the children mock Charles Tansley?
5. Why does Mrs. Ramsay suggest that Tansley accompany her to town?
6. What explanation does Mrs. Ramsay give for Mr. Carmichael’s lack of success?
7. What makes Mrs. Ramsay so attractive and magnetic to Tansley?
8. What entertainment does Mrs. Ramsay suggest to Mr. Tansley?
9. How does Woolf contrast Mrs. Ramsay’s outlook with that of her husband?
10. How is Woolf’s writing style different from more conventional writers?
1. The novel takes place at a beach house in the Hebrides (off the coast of Scotland).
2. James is disappointed because he wanted to sail to the
Lighthouse the next day, but his father ruins his expectations, saying the weather won’t permit it.
3. Mrs. Ramsay treats James with encouragement, recognizing his sensitivity. Mr. Ramsay ignores James’ feelings, believing that facts are inviolate.
4. The children mock Tansley because he is serious and sarcastic. He can’t play cricket and looks and walks funny.
5. Mrs. Ramsay invites Tansley to accompany her because she is aware of his discomfort and wants to include...
(The entire section is 354 words.)
Chapters 3 and 4 Questions and Answers
1. Why does Mrs. Ramsay feel an “impulse of terror”?
2. Why does Mrs. Ramsay feel Lily will probably never marry?
3. What does Lily think of Mr. Ramsay?
4. Why doesn’t Lily want to paint like the popular Mr. Paunceforte?
5. How do Lily Briscoe and William Bankes relate to one another?
6. Describe the view that Lily and Bankes look upon?
7. What is Mr. Bankes’ relationship with Mr. Ramsay?
8. How does Bankes’ view Mr. Ramsay’s family responsibilities?
9. How does Lily compare Mr. Bankes and Mr. Ramsay?
10. Explain how Lily understands Mr. Ramsay’s work.
1. Mrs. Ramsay suddenly notices the absence of household sounds. The sounds of her husband and Mr. Tansley and the children’s playing have stopped and the sound of the waves startle her. She is reminded of the ephemeral nature of life. The day is slipping by, as is life.
2. Lily’s “little Chinese eyes and her puckered-up face” seemed, at this moment, unattractive. She doesn’t take Lily or her painting very seriously.
3. Lily recognizes that Mr. Ramsay is ridiculous in all his strange posturing and shouting, but she also admires his intellectual honesty.
4. Lily is very aware of the vibrant colors of the world, the purples and greens and whites. She feels that Mr....
(The entire section is 496 words.)
Chapters 5-8 Questions and Answers
1. Who is Mrs. Ramsay knitting for?
2. How does Mrs. Ramsay feel about the sea-side house?
3. Why does she speak sharply to her son?
4. How does Mr. Bankes feel about Mrs. Ramsay?
5. How does James feel about his parents?
6. Why does Mr. Ramsay say “Damn you” to Mrs. Ramsay?
7. What are Mr. Ramsay’s thoughts as he paces through the garden?
8. How does Mr. Carmichael feel about Mrs. Ramsay?
9. Why is Mrs. Ramsay hurt by Mr. Carmichael’s reaction to her?
10. What are Mr. Ramsay’s thoughts at the end of this section?
1. Mrs. Ramsay is knitting a stocking for the Lighthouse keeper’s son who has a tuberculous hip.
2. Mrs. Ramsay feels the house is shabby. She is frustrated by trying to keep the sea-dampness out of the house, by trying to get the family to cooperate to maintain the house.
3. She speaks sharply to James because she has been thinking about the death of Marie’s father. She feels hopeless in the face of death.
4. Mr. Bankes is awed by Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty. He compares her to a Greek goddess.
5. James feels rage towards his father and adoration of his mother.
6. Mr. Ramsay is frustrated by Mrs. Ramsay’s unwillingness to accept the fact the weather will not permit a trip to the Lighthouse. He feels...
(The entire section is 315 words.)
Chapters 9-11 Questions and Answers
1. What is Lily Briscoe’s criticism of Mrs. Ramsay?
2. What is William Bankes’ criticism of Mr. Ramsay?
3. How does Mr. Bankes view Lily’s work?
4. Why does Mrs. Ramsay feel misunderstood?
5. How does Mrs. Ramsay view life?
6. What does Mrs. Ramsay believe about James’ disappointment with the postponed trip?
7. Why does Mrs. Ramsay like to be alone?
8. What does the Lighthouse represent to Mrs. Ramsay?
9. How does Mr. Ramsay feel about his wife’s preoccupations?
10. Why does Mrs. Ramsay join her husband for a walk?
1. Lily feels Mrs. Ramsay is willful, capable of ridicule, and too preoccupied with arranging other people’s lives (i.e., marrying them off).
2. William Bankes feels Mr. Ramsay is a hypocrite.
3. Bankes is interested in learning about Lily’s painting. He listens to her ideas thoughtfully.
4. Mrs. Ramsay feels misunderstood by those people who accuse her of being domineering. She feels that she’s only tyrannical about her social causes, for example, her hospital work.
5. Mrs. Ramsay feels life is terrible and hostile. She feels that there is no reason, or order, or justice—only suffering, death, and poverty.
6. Mrs. Ramsay believes that James will remember this day for the rest of his life....
(The entire section is 315 words.)
Chapters 12 and 13 Questions and Answers
1. What do Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay talk about during their evening stroll?
2. What worry preoccupies Mrs. Ramsay?
3. How do Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay feel about Prue? about Andrew? about Jasper?
4. What does Mr. Ramsay regret?
5. How does Mr. Ramsay feel about his family?
6. What are Mrs. Ramsay’s feelings about her husband at this point?
7. What does Mrs. Ramsay hope about Lily and Bankes?
8. What scene captures Lily’s attention?
9. What is this scene symbolical of for her?
10. What does Lily realize about Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts about her and William Bankes?
1. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay talk about the garden, the children, and their houseguests.
2. Mrs. Ramsay is preoccupied with the 50 pound bill for the greenhouse. She is also concerned about all aspects of the upkeep of the garden.
3. Mrs. Ramsay worries about Jasper shooting birds. Mr. Ramsay believes it is just a stage. Mrs. Ramsay believes Prue is a great beauty; Mr. Ramsay hasn’t noticed it. Mr. Ramsay worries about Andrew’s efforts to obtain a scholarship; Mrs. Ramsay doesn’t value this one way or the other.
4. Mr. Ramsay laments the loss of his solitude, his ability to think his own thoughts without interruption.
5. Mr. Ramsay feels a deep devotion to his family and chastises...
(The entire section is 316 words.)
Chapters 14-16 Questions and Answers
1. Why didn’t Nancy want to go on the walk?
2. What is Andrew interested in on the walk?
3. What is Paul’s purpose in this excursion?
4. What personality characteristics does Minta exhibit?
5. What does Minta lose on the beach?
6. What does Paul promise to do?
7. Rose and Jasper help Mrs. Ramsay to choose what?
8. Why does Mrs. Ramsay allow Rose to select her jewels?
9. What creatures does Mrs. Ramsay talk to?
10. In what way does Mrs. Ramsay walk down the stairs?
1. Nancy finds Minta too demanding. Nancy prefers to be alone.
2. He is interested in collecting marine specimens.
3. Paul wants to ask Minta to marry him.
4. Minta is emotional, somewhat rash, and a bit pushy.
5. Minta loses her grandmother’s brooch.
6. Paul promises to return at daybreak to find the brooch.
7. They help her choose a necklace.
8. Mrs. Ramsay knows this ritual is important to her. She is in a stage of “mother worship.”
9. Mrs. Ramsay talks to the rooks who settle on the trees outside the window.
10. Mrs. Ramsay walks down the stairs like a queen who silently accepts her subjects’ adoration.
(The entire section is 186 words.)
Chapter 17 Questions and Answers
1. What does Mrs. Ramsay feel at the beginning of the dinner?
2. What does Lily observe about Mrs. Ramsay?
3. What are the thoughts of Tansley? of Bankes?
4. What are Lily’s thoughts about the relationships of men and women?
5. What is discussed at dinner?
6. What are Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts about her husband’s silence?
7. What happens when the candles are lit?
8. What has happened to Paul and Minta during the afternoon?
9. What are Lily’s thoughts?
10. What is Mrs. Ramsay’s feeling about the evening?
1. Mrs. Ramsay feels exhausted and discouraged. She wonders what she’s done with her life and doesn’t feel any emotion for her husband.
2. Lily observes that Mrs. Ramsay looks tired. She senses that she pities Mr. Bankes.
3. Tansley can’t stand the superficiality of the conversation; he thinks that women make civilization impossible. Bankes is bored and uncomfortable with all the talking.
4. Lily feels that relationships between men and women are basically insincere.
5. Talk at the dinner table is of politics and the declining fishing industry.
6. Mrs. Ramsay wishes her husband would talk, because she feels his words are sincere and pointed.
7. When the candles are lit, the faces around the table...
(The entire section is 288 words.)
Chapters 18 and 19 Questions and Answers
1. What is on Mrs. Ramsay’s mind as she ascends the stairs?
2. Why are the children still awake at 11 p.m.?
3. How does Mrs. Ramsay comfort Cam? James?
4. How does Mrs. Ramsay feel about her guests going to the beach at night?
5. What is Mr. Ramsay doing in the drawing room?
6. What occupies Mrs. Ramsay’s mind, as she sits near her husband?
7. What is Mr. Ramsay’s conclusion about Sir Walter Scott’s novel?
8. What does Mrs. Ramsay read?
9. What impact does Mrs. Ramsay’s reading have on her?
10. What enables Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay to feel re-united at the end of this section?
1. Mrs. Ramsay is trying to identify something meaningful out of the events of the day.
2. James and Cam are still awake because they are fighting about the boar’s head skull on the wall. Cam is afraid of the shadows it makes on the wall; James refuses to have it removed.
3. Mrs. Ramsay places her shawl on the skull so that James’ need is met: it is not removed. She makes up a fanciful story, filled with birds and trees and fairies, so that Cam sees the shape, not as menacing, but as beautiful.
4. Mrs. Ramsay is almost girlish in her enthusiasm. She becomes very animated as she encourages them to embark on this marvelous adventure.
5. Mr. Ramsay is...
(The entire section is 332 words.)
Time Passes, Chapters 1-7 Questions and Answers
1. What two aspects of Nature invade the house in Chapter II of Time Passes?
2. How are these aspects of Nature personified? What do they do?
3. In Chapter III, “divine goodness” is personified. What does it do?
4. What do the “stray airs” in Chapter IV find in the house?
5. Describe Mrs. McNab, the care-taker.
6. What do we learn about Prue Ramsay in Chapter VI? about Andrew Ramsay?
7. What change does summer bring in Chapter VI?
8. In a passage near the end of Chapter VI, we are told “the mirror has broken.” What is the mirror? Why has it broken?
9. What explanation is given for the publication of Mr. Carmichael’s poems.
10. In Chapter VII we learn that night and day, month and year run shapelessly together? What is the reason for that?
1. The aspects of Nature which invade the house are the dark and the wind.
2. The darkness creeps in the keyholes and crevices, steals round window blinds, swallows up jugs and basins and flowers, and furniture. The wind creeps around corners, ventures indoors, questions and wonders (“Would the wallpaper hang much longer?”), smoothly brushes the walls, asks the wallpaper and books and letters, “How long will they endure?”
3. Divine goodness parts a curtain, displays a wave falling, a boat...
(The entire section is 423 words.)
Chapters 8-10 Questions and Answers
1. What are Mrs. McNab’s thoughts on returning to the house?
2. What are Mrs. McNab’s memories of Mrs. Ramsay?
3. Explain the metaphor of the the feather. What does it signify?
4. Why do Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast and her son come to clean the house?
5. How does Mrs. McNab remember Mr. Ramsay?
6. How does Mrs. McNab remember the house when the Ramsays were there?
7. What personal handicaps do the two women have in their housecleaning efforts?
8. What is suggested by the words, “messages of peace breathe from the sea to the shore”?
9. How does nature change as a result of these messages?
10. Describe the sleep enjoyed by Lily when she returns to the house.
1. Mrs. McNab has heard the house will be sold and the family won’t be back.
2. Mrs. McNab remembers Mrs. Ramsay as pleasant with all the staff. She envisions a specific day when Mrs. Ramsay, bent over her flowers, greets her warmly and tells her she will have the cook get her a plate of soup.
3. The house is near ruin. Something as weightless as a feather could tip the balance, making absolute disintegration inevitable.
4. The caretakers come to clean the house because they have received word from one of the Ramsay daughters that they will come to spend the summer and they want the...
(The entire section is 345 words.)
The Lighthouse, Chapters 1 and 2 Questions and Answers
1. Why does Lily feel “blank” on the morning after she returns to the Ramsay house?
2. What is the mood in the household?
3. Why does Lily pretend to drink out of an empty coffee cup?
4. What words does Mr. Ramsay mutter to himself?
5. What does Lily remember about her unfinished painting?
6. What had Mr. Ramsay said to embarrass Lily and the other guests the evening before?
7. What are the children’s feelings about going to the Lighthouse?
8. How does Lily feel about her behavior toward Mr. Ramsay?
9. How does Mr. Ramsay react to Lily’s comment about his boots?
10. How do Lily’s feelings about Mr. Ramsay change?
1. She wonders why she came back, now that Mrs. Ramsay is dead. She senses the conflict and disharmony in the house.
2. The mood is aimless, unreal, and chaotic. Doors slam and voices call all over the house.
3. Lily pretends to drink out of an empty cup, because she wants to avoid Mr. Ramsay’s calls for sympathy.
4. Mr. Ramsay mutters “perished” and “alone” to himself.
5. Lily remembers that she had had a revelation ten years earlier at this very table. She had moved something on the tablecloth and had seen how she would fix up the composition of her painting.
6. Mr. Ramsay had said, “You...
(The entire section is 330 words.)
Chapter 3 Questions and Answers
1. How does Lily feel as she returns to her painting?
2. As she paints, how do Lily’s feelings change?
3. What is the image Lily has about painting?
4. What phrase recurs in Lily’s mind?
5. What scene does Lily recall?
6. What was Mrs. Ramsay’s part in that scene?
7. What revelation does Lily have about the meaning of life?
8. Why does Lily say she owes it all to Mrs. Ramsay?
9. What does Lily cry out?
10. What does Lily see when she looks out in the distance?
1. Lily feels rebuked by the canvas. She feels that her thoughts and feelings have drained her.
2. Lily becomes excited by the task and lets go of her emotional turmoil.
3. Lily thinks of painting like a kind of combat as she attacks her work.
4. Lily remembers that Tansley used to say that women “can’t paint and can’t write.”
5. Lily remembers a windy morning at the beach when she and Tansley had played ducks and drakes.
6. Mrs. Ramsay’s presence (asking about an object floating in the water, looking for her spectacles, etc.) had “oiled” the interaction between Lily and Charles. She had drained the tension from the two of them and had turned negative emotions into a harmonious encounter.
7. Lily sees that Mrs. Ramsay seemed to say,...
(The entire section is 276 words.)
Chapter 4 Questions and Answers
1. What makes James and Cam nervous as they sit in the boat?
2. Why are James and Cam angry?
3. What is the topic of conversation between Mr. Ramsay and Macalister?
4. Why don’t James and Cam take part in the conversation?
5. What is the pact that James and Cam share?
6. Why does James think Cam will “surrender”?
7. What does Mr. Ramsay think about as he looks back at the shore and their house?
8. What does Mr. Ramsay ask Cam about? What is his reaction to her confusion?
9. What are Cam’s feelings toward her father?
10. What does Cam think about as she looks out to sea?
1. Cam and James know that their father does not like to wait; they dread his agitation and impatience.
2. James and Cam are angry because they feel they have been coerced to come on the trip.
3. Mr. Ramsay and Macalister talk about last winter’s storm and a shipwreck.
4. James and Cam have made a vow to remain silent, to passively resist their father’s tyranny.
5. James and Cam will resist tyranny to the death.
6. James remembers how his mother would surrender to his father, and he believes that all females will do that.
7. Mr. Ramsay sees himself as he was at the house, walking back and forth, between the urns. He sees himself as...
(The entire section is 310 words.)
Chapters 5-7 Questions and Answers
1. Why does Lily feel depressed watching the Ramsay’s boat sail off?
2. What does Lily feel like asking Mr. Carmichael?
3. What memory is etched in Lily’s mind?
4. What is Lily’s goal for her painting?
5. How has the Rayley marriage turned out?
6. Describe Lily’s relationship with William Bankes.
7. Why does Lily call out to Mrs. Ramsay?
8. Why does Lily cry?
9. How does Lily envision Mrs. Ramsay as she paints?
10. What does Lily ask as she looks out to sea?
1. Lily feels depressed that she hasn’t given Mr. Ramsay the sympathy that he had wanted.
2. Lily feels like asking Carmichael if he remembers the Ramsays and Minta Doyle as she does.
3. Lily recalls vividly one particular day at the beach. Mrs. Ramsay had been writing letters, sitting on a rock. She had looked up and seeing something in the waves had searched for her spectacles. She had asked, “Is it a boat? Is it a cork?” Mrs. Ramsay somehow managed to lighten Charles Tansley’s mood, and Lily and Charles had been more companionable than heretofore.
4. Lily wants her painting to be beautiful and evanescent on the surface, but solid as iron underneath.
5. The Rayley marriage has not turned out well. Paul spends a lot of time in coffeehouses. Lily has observed the...
(The entire section is 366 words.)
Chapters 8-10 Questions and Answers
1. What happens to the boat out at sea?
2. What are Cam’s thoughts about the distant island?
3. What are James’ thoughts and feelings about his father?
4. What memories come to James’ mind?
5. What does James want to do to his father?
6. What are Cam’s thoughts about her father and brother?
7. How does the sudden progress of the boat affect James, Cam, and Mr. Ramsay?
8. How did Cam feel as a child when she had sat with her father and Carmichael and Bankes in the study?
9. What is Cam’s image of her father reading?
10. What does Cam murmer dreamily to herself as she looks at the distant island?
1. The boat is becalmed. There is no breeze.
2. Cam feels that they don’t feel anything there.
3. James feels that every gesture Mr. Ramsay makes is a hostile gesture directed at him. He anticipates with dread an unreasonable outburst from his father. He summons up the old image of stabbing his father in the heart.
4. James has a string of memories: he imagines his father as a black-winged harpy, striking his leg with its beak; he remembers the gardens, a dress rustling, and women gossiping. He remembers his father saying, “It will rain. You won’t be able to go to the Lighthouse.” He remembers a wagon wheel had gone over a person’s...
(The entire section is 347 words.)
Chapters 11-13 Questions and Answers
1. What is Lily’s thought as the boat recedes in the distance?
2. How does Lily feel about routine? Social convention?
3. What does Lily want to capture in her painting?
4. What is Lily’s intuition about Mr. Carmichael’s poetry?
5. Why might people have disliked Mrs. Ramsay?
6. What positive memory does Lily have of Charles Tansley?
7. Was the Ramsay marriage blissful, according to Lily?
8. What is the conversation between Macalister and Mr. Ramsay?
9. What does Cam mean when she thinks, “There! You’ve got it at last?”
10. Why is Lily exhausted?
1. Lily thinks that so much depends upon distance.
2. Lily feels that when routine is broken, one can see life more clearly.
3. Lily wants to capture “the jar on the nerves” of human experience, not a description of it.
4. Lily thinks that his poetry must be impersonal.
5. Some people may have been intimidated by her beauty or her interventions.
6. Lily remembers a day at the beach when somehow Mrs. Ramsay’s presence allowed Tansley to lighten up and be playful.
7. The Ramsays’ marriage was not a “monotony of bliss” according to Lily. She remembers certain scenes, slammed doors, plates thrown out of windows, and rigid silences.
(The entire section is 267 words.)
Stream of Consciousness
The narrative technique that Woolf uses for most of To the Lighthouse is normally called stream of consciousness. This technique was a product of Modernism a literary movement characterized by introspection, self-awareness and an openness to the unconscious. Associated primarily with Woolf and James Joyce this technique was a way of representing the whole mind of an individual, not just conscious thought. It is based on the psychological theory that human minds are made up of many layers of awareness, from highly articulated rational thought, to emotional responsiveness, all the way to the animal pre-speech level of need and instinct. The basis of the technique is the notion that all of these layers are present in the mind of a human at any given moment—a "stream of consciousness" composed of the flow of sensations, thoughts, memories, associations, and reflections. If the exact pattern of the mind ("consciousness") is to be described, then these varied, disjointed, and illogical elements must find expression in a flow of words, images and ideas similar to the unorganized flow of the mind. In To the Lighthouse Woolf describes the technique while talking about Lily Briscoe:
To follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be...
(The entire section is 670 words.)
Compare and Contrast
1910s: Unrest grows in Tsarist Russia as the oppressive state cracks down on reformers and activists.
1920s: The Bolshevik revolution has taken place, and Lenin is in power. His New Economic Policy is being instituted, which allows greater economic freedom and a measure of controlled capitalism.
Today: Communist Soviet Union has collapsed, and Russia is in ruins following a disastrous attempt to switch to a U.S.-style free market economy.
1910s: After World War I the 1919 Treaty of Versailles establishes an international body that will arbitrate disputes. It also demands that Germany pay reparations for the war.
1920s: The League of Nations has been formed, but its powers are very limited. America refuses to be involved, and has not ratified the Treaty of Versailles. The League is powerless, and fails to prevent the events that lead to World War II.
Today: The United Nations has been in place since 1945, and has learned from the fate of the League of Nations. The UN provides a working arena for international diplomacy, peacekeeping, and aid.
1910s: The British Labour Party is a new creation, struggling to find a support base. Many members of the British intellectual scene are in sympathy with its socialist ideology. After the...
(The entire section is 351 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Virginia Woolf summed up James Joyce's writing style as "the work of a queasy adolescent fingering his pimples." Look at the different versions of stream of consciousness to be found in Woolf's To the Lighthouse and Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in light of this assessment. What are the differences between the two narrative techniques? What do you think led Woolf to see Joyce's style as immature and self-absorbed?
Feminist critiques of To the Lighthouse have drawn very different conclusions about its gender politics. Elaine Showalter suggests that the novel is a retreat from feminism into mysticism, while Toril Moi argues that it is a radical feminist attack on the logic of patriarchal male society. Which assessment seems to you better supported by Woolf s book? What textual evidence can you find for either of these viewpoints?
"Had there been an axe handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father's breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it." Many critics have suggested that James Ramsay has an Oedipal complex. What is Freud's concept of the Oedipal complex? Do you think James is suffering from it? Research the history of the idea and make a case for or against.
To the Lighthouse ends when Lily Briscoe puts the final stroke on her picture. Many critics have suggested that Woolf's novel is an attempt to create...
(The entire section is 337 words.)
Techniques / Literary Precedents
Woolf's technique of narrating through a stream-of-consciousness and imagery reached their full potential in To the Lighthouse. The narrative layers subjective perceptions and rapid transitions between multiple consciousnesses, and the novel is constructed in three sections which reflect this fluidity, ending with a narrative many years after the events described in the first section take place. These devices allow Woolf to further dramatize the devastations that follow in the wake of World War I. The novel explores questions of temporality and "objective" reality while placing its central concern on the obscurity of human relationships; here, Woolf's text dialogues extensively with Freudian psychoanalysis and, in particular, with Freud's Oedipal scenario.
In all of Woolf's novels, her conceptions of form and self owe a great deal to ideas that she had absorbed in her wide reading of both English Romantic poets and the fin-de-siecle French writers. Her readings show a fusion of novel and lyric that did not lead, as expected to the dilution of the novel; rather, it intensified the novelist's task. The interior monologue is created by mental associations which proceed independently of time or cause and facilitate the interweaving of motifs, figurative language, metaphor, simile, and intense symbolism. The significance of the stream-of-consciousness is not only that it is logical and planned, but that it creates the subjectivities of the...
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The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) produced a dramatization of To the Lighthouse for British television in 1983. Kenneth Branagh, Rosemary Harris, Michael Gough, and Suzanne Bertish star. It is available from Magnum Entertainment Inc.
An audio book edition of To the Lighthouse is available from Naxos AudioBooks Ltd. The 1996 recording is read by the British actress, Juliet Stevenson.
Penguin Audiobooks also released a recorded edition of the novel in 1997. Their edition is read by Eileen Atkins.
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What Do I Read Next?
Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf's 1925 novel about a day in the life of the titular character, is not only a personality study, it is also a commentary on the ills and benefits society gleans from class. We spend a day with Clarissa as she interacts with servants, her children, her husband, and even an ex-lover, as she plans and executes one of her celebrated parties. Mrs. Dalloway shows the full emergence of Woolf's distinctive writing style that she would refine to greater heights in To the Lighthouse.
A Room of One's Own is Woolf's 1929 essay about the difficulties facing women authors. Woolf uses the constrained economic choices that women face to explain why "Shakespeare's sister" failed to write any plays, and to argue that creativity is dependent on independence.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce's 1916 novel about the development of Stephen Dedalus, is told in a ground-breaking stream-of-consciousness style. Reading this book along with To the Lighthouse provides a clearer picture of Woolf's important literary innovations.
E. M. Forster's 1924 A Passage to India is a major novel that addresses issues of nationality and empire. An intellectual peer and friend of Woolf, Forster writes in a...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Eric Auerbach, "The Brown Stocking," in his Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Princeton University Press, 1946, pp. 16-34.
Abel, Elizabeth, Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis (Chicago University Press, 1989).
Beja, Morris, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse: A Casebook (Macmillan, 1970).
Bell, Quentin, Virginia Woolf: A Biography, 2 vols. (Hogarth Press, 1972).
Joseph L. Blotner, "Mythic Patterns in To the Lighthouse," in PMLA, Vol. 71, 1956, pp. 547-62.
Rachel Bowlby, Virginia Woolf: Feminist Destinations, Blackwell, 1988, p. 79.
Irene Dash, Deena Kushner, and Deborah Moore, "How Light a Lighthouse for Today's Women?" in The Lost Traditions: Mothers and Daughters in Literature, edited by Cathy Davidson and E. M. Broner, Ungar, 1980, pp. 176-88.
DiBattista, Maria, Virginia Woolf’s Major Novels: The Fables of Anon (Yale University Press, 1980).
Gordon, Lyndall, Virginia Woolf: A Literary Life (Macmillan, 1991).
James Halfley, The Glass Roof: Virginia Woolf as Novelist, The University of California Press, 1954, p. 80.
Louis Kronenberger, The New York Times, May 8, 1927.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bassoff, Bruce. “Tables in Trees: Realism in To the Lighthouse.” Studies in the Novel 16, no. 4 (Winter, 1984): 424-434. Contends that Woolf redefines realism in her novel. Focusing on Lily Briscoe, Bassoff demonstrates how her perception is mediated by her interaction with other characters.
Beja, Morris. Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. This text attempts to reconcile disparate schools of Woolf criticism. Includes a review of To the Lighthouse, written by Conrad Aiken, that appeared in 1927 upon the novel’s publication.
Daugherty, Beth Rigel. “ ‘There she sat’: The Power of the Feminist Imagination in To the Lighthouse.” Twentieth Century Literature 37, no. 3 (Fall, 1991): 289-308. A well-argued interpretation that centers on the moment of Mrs. Ramsay’s reappearance near the end of the novel. Contends that Lily’s acceptance of Mrs. Ramsay as a woman, free of patriarchal influences, allows the latter to reappear in her own right.
Kelley, Alice van Buren. “To the Lighthouse”: The Marriage of Life and Art. Boston: Twayne, 1987. A superb starting place. Provides a reading of the book, a wealth of background information, a chronology, and a discussion of critical responses.
Kelley, Alice van Buren. The Novels of...
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