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 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...
(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.
(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...
(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....
(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?
(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.
(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...
(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?...
(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...
(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?...
(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...
(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...
(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?...
(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...
(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 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?
(The entire section is 267 words.)
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
Techniques / Literary Precedents
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
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...
(The entire section is 455 words.)