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.
In order to fully understand the novel To the Lighthouse, three historical elements must be considered. The first element is Virginia Woolf’s particular personal history. The second is the intellectual landscape directly preceding the novel’s publication. And, thirdly, though in a certain respect, much less importantly, the world events which shaped the period.
Beginning with this last element, it has been said that Woolf didn’t pay enough attention to the cataclysmic events happening in the world, specifically events preceding and following the first World War and preceding the second World War. The middle section of To the Lighthouse, Time Passes, contains a veiled reference to the first World War: “there came late in the summer ominous sounds like the measured blows of hammars on felt, which loosened the shawl and cracked tea cups.” And then later we are told, in parenthesis, that Andrew Ramsay has been killed by a shell in France. The one allusion and the other matter-of-fact report are the only specific references to the war. Yet, the whole of Time Passes suggests, through atmosphere and imagery, the despair, the devastation, and the catastrophic consequences of the war. To judge the writer by the absence of literal references to war, is to miss her art entirely. Her indirect description of the climate of war, suggested by the empty house, ravaged by unseen forces, is a powerful metaphor of the death and destruction of war itself.
As noted in the preceding section, in a lecture to Cambridge undergraduates, Woolf commented, “On or about December, 1910, human character changed.” A sense of precipitous change dominated the age in which Virginia Woolf lived and wrote. War increased the speed of industrial and social change. The writings of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud opened up new ways of viewing human nature. In art, a move away from the representational and toward the communicative power of form over content occurred. The sense of a predictable world, anchored in tradition, disappeared.
Virginia Woolf was born when Queen Victoria was on the throne. By the end of her life, Woolf saw electricity replace gaslight, automobiles make the horse and carriage obsolete, and every aspect of social and cultural fashion alter. The end of the nineteenth century brought a break with the Victorian tradition of restraint and conventionality. In art as in life, previously held assumptions, approaches, and attitudes were questioned. Disillusionment with the limits of science, the newest god, as well as awareness of the need for social reform, were additional aspects of the times. This rebellion against Victorianism produced a confusing variety of literary forms, methods, and movements.
The dominant literary approaches during this time (1880-1914) were realism and naturalism. John Galsworthy (1867-1933) perfected the naturalistic novel, presenting characters in minute detail (an approach Woolf thoroughly repudiated). In addition, literary experiments with impressionism and symbolism were also popular. Following 1914, British literature became even more experimental and unconventional.
Although the historical context in which Woolf wrote was one of dramatic world events, Woolf’s personal history and particular sensibility were probably the most important aspect of her writing. In Moments of Being, written in her fifties, she acknowledged her deep feelings about the “complete model of Victorian society” she experienced growing up. Yet, she understood that she was by nature one of her generation’s “explorers, revolutionists, reformers”. Her father, the quintessential Victorian male, aroused both admiration and rebellion in Virginia. She portrays that ambivalence in her protrayal of James and Cam in To the Lighthouse. When her mother died, her father’s autocratic tendencies became more oppressive. Life at home was described by she and her sister, Vanessa, as unbearable. And, though she adored her mother, it was only through the writing of To the Lighthouse that she exorcised her mother’s ghost. She understood that writing the novel provided an essential catharsis, as she used her parents as a prism to come to terms with her own conflicts about traditional male and female roles, to select what out of her early experience living in a Victorian world was worth keeping and what must be discarded, and to find her voice as an artist—as Lily Briscoe finally does in her painting.
Master List of Characters
Mrs. Ramsay—Main character of the novel; 50-years-old; central force; nurtures family and house guests; demonstrates a heightened sensibility to nature and the needs of others.
Mr. Ramsay—Intellectual, viewed by children and others as somewhat harsh; unfeeling, fearful that he is unable to go much further with his scholarly endeavors.
James Ramsay—Six-year-old son of the Ramsays, youngest of eight; the most gifted of Ramsay children.
Cam Ramsay—Lively, devilish daughter of the Ramsays.
Prue Ramsay—Older daughter, with the beginnings of real beauty; dies in childbirth.
Nancy Ramsay—The Ramsays’ daughter; avoids people and
society by reading; confused by others’ demands.
Jasper Ramsay—Shares his mother’s love of exaggeration.
Andrew Ramsay—The Ramsays’ son, killed in the war.
Mary Ramsay—The Ramsays’ daughter.
Rose Ramsay—The Ramsays’ daughter; attached to her mother; feminine.
Charles Tansley—Impoverished scholar; awkward, ridiculed by children; taken under Mrs.Ramsays’ wing.
Augustus Carmichael—Philosopher; overweight; seems to be in drug-induced haze.
Lily Briscoe—Would-be artist, friend and admirer of the Ramsays’, somewhat unattractive, resists cultivating feminine wiles, her search for an artistic vision is an important underlying theme.
William Bankes—Elderly widower, botanist, meticulous, lives in same rooming house as Lily Briscoe, met Mr. Ramsay many years before the present scene.
Minta Doyle—Young woman( “tomboyish”); guest of the Ramsays; in Mrs. Ramsay’s special protection; marries Paul Rayley.
Paul Rayley—Earnest young man, somewhat timid; courts Minta Doyle with Mrs. Ramsay’s encouragement.
Mrs. McNab—The Ramsays’ housekeeper; elderly woman who
suffers aches and pains of age.
Mrs. Bast—Caretaker who assists Mrs. McNab.
George—Mrs. Bast’s son.
Mrs. Beckworth—Houseguest; a kind, older woman who sketches.
Mr. Macalister—Seventy-five-year old fisherman; accompanies
Mr. Ramsay and children to the Lighthouse.
Macalister’s son—fisherman who accompanies the Ramsays on the boat.
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised 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...
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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 discomfiture. Tansley is mildly in love with his host, despite her being fifty years old and having eight children. Another guest is Lily Briscoe, who is painting a picture of the cottage with Mrs. Ramsay and little James seated in front of it. There is old Mr. Carmichael, a ne’er-do-well who amuses the Ramsay youngsters with his white beard and a mustache tinged with yellow. Another guest is William Bankes, an aging widower. Prue, the prettiest of the Ramsay daughters, is there too.
The afternoon goes by slowly. Mrs. Ramsay goes to the village to call on a sick woman. She spends several hours knitting stockings for the lighthouse keeper’s child, whom they are planning to visit. Many people wonder how the Ramsays, particularly the...
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Chapter Summary and Analysis
The Window, Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis
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
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 promise that they will sail to the Lighthouse the next day, if the weather is fine. Immediately after this exciting promise, Mr. Ramsay announces from just outside their window that “it won’t be fine.” James is crushed.
Charles Tansley, who is accompanying Mr. Ramsay on one of his frequent “walks”, chimes in with his opinion that the wind is in the west, the worst possible direction for landing at the Lighthouse. Though exasperated with Tansley, Mrs. Ramsay reflects upon the incivility of her children’s mockery of the “uptight” scholar. She muses that she has the whole of the other sex under her protection as she admires their accomplishments, and she values their chivalrous attentions to her. Recognizing...
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Chapters 3 and 4 Summary and Analysis
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
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 provide a consoling “cradle song,” now seem ominous, even ghostly. They seem to be beating out the measure of life. As she hears her husband’s rhythmical walking and his half singing, half croaking chants, she feels comfortable once again. She finds a picture of a pocket knife for James to cut out.
Mr. Ramsay, caught up in some private rumination, suddenly calls out, “Stormed at with shot and shell.” She’s relieved that only Lily Briscoe, working at her easel on the lawn, was within earshot. Lily, she muses, isn’t very attractive and would probably never marry. She remembers Lily’s painting, and bends her head as Lily has requested her to pose.
Lily, though alarmed by Mr. Ramsay’s sudden appearance...
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Chapters 5-8 Summary and Analysis
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 hopelessness of it overcomes her.
Her hopelessness is converted to irritation as she speaks sharply to her son. Sadness envelopes her. Her sadness is unfathonable to others. What personal tragedy has she suffered? She never discloses her private feelings.
William Bankes recalls a telephone conversation in which he was overcome by her voice. Her unselfconscious beauty intrigues him. She isn’t interested in admiration; it bores her. Her hasty donning of the odd hat only contributes to her unique style.
Mrs. Ramsay kisses James on the head, smoothing out her earlier irritation. She asks him to find another picture to cut out.
She becomes aware of Mr. Ramsay. She knows by the “familiar...
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Chapters 9-11 Summary and Analysis
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 very moved by Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty, she thinks of her willfulness, her ability to ridicule, and her obsession with marrying everyone off, “presiding with immutable calm over destinies which she completely failed to understand.” Still, Lily ponders the “essential spirit” of Mrs. Ramsay. She tries to fathom what it is about Mrs. Ramsay that seems to convey wisdom or knowledge. She remembers sitting at Mrs. Ramsay’s knee, trying to capture her essence.
Mr. Bankes moves to look at Lily’s picture. She flinches with the anxiety of revealing the “residue of her thirty-three years.” Her friend is thoughtful and interested. He asks about the representation of Mrs. Ramsay and James as a triangular purple shape. Nervously,...
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Chapters 12 and 13 Summary and Analysis
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 disagree, they are secretly pleased with the other’s position. She worries about the group who have been gone for the after-noon. He begins to speak to her, but hesitates; she encourages him, and he tells her that he doesn’t like to see her look so sad. They both become uncomfortable and drop the conversation.
Mrs. Ramsay wishes she had not been so unguarded. Mr. Ramsay decides that if she won’t talk, then he’ll return to telling himself the story of Hume being stuck in a bog. He thinks to himself that it’s nonsense to be worried about Andrew and reminisces that at Andrew’s age he was wandering the country all day with nothing but a biscuit in his pocket. This memory leads him to think about the freedom he enjoyed before...
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Chapters 14-16 Summary and Analysis
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
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 trouble. Andrew notes that Minta doesn’t seem to mind what she says or does. Minta pitches down on the edge of a cliff and starts singing, “Damn your eyes, damn your eyes.” Andrew wants to reach the good hunting grounds, before the tide comes in. Paul reads from a guidebook about the islands being celebrated for their marine curiosities. They all slide down the cliff. On the beach, they separate. Andrew takes his shoes and socks off and goes to the Pope’s Nose. Nancy wades out to some rocks and pools. She broods over the pools, listening to the waves, and is struck by the vastness of the world and the tininess of the pool. Andrew shouts that the sea is coming up. He and Nancy, running to the shore, come upon Minta and Paul in each...
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Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis
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 fact that he has his work, which makes him not pitiable at all. She thinks of her own work and sees that it, too, is a treasure. She muses about her painting and has an insight about placing the tree more in the middle of the picture.
Charles Tansley fumes silently; he thinks the dinner table talk is just rot. He is annoyed by the women who he thinks make civilization impossible with all their “charm” and silliness. Lily, looking at Tansley’s hands and nose, thinks him the most uncharming of men. His comment that women can’t write or paint, still rankles, but she determines to put it aside and think of her painting: that matters, nothing else. Tansley, feeling her insincerity as she offers to accompany him to the...
(The entire section is 2078 words.)
Chapters 18 and 19 Summary and Analysis
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 notes. She concludes suddenly that for as long as they lived, they would remember this night, the moon, the wind, the house, and her. She feels a sense of community and happiness: all of this was theirs, and Paul and Minta would carry it on when she was dead.
Entering the nursery, Mrs. Ramsay is annoyed to find the children still awake at 11:00. They are arguing about the boar’s skull, hanging on the wall. Cam is frightened by the shadows which fill the room; James screams if anyone dares to touch it. Mrs. Ramsay covers the skull with her shawl and soothes Cam by chanting a rhythmical story about fairies living in the “bird’s nest” that the draped skull suggests. Cam falls asleep. James, reassured that the skull is still...
(The entire section is 2279 words.)
Time Passes, Chapters 1-7 Summary and Analysis
Mrs. McNab: elderly caretaker; suffers aches and pains of age
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 wind invade and explore the house “ghostily, as if they had feather-light fingers and the persistency of feathers.” They surround and touch the sleeping figures, the furniture, and all of the inanimate objects. These elements of nature sigh and murmur, asking, “How long would they endure?” The night is superseded by a restless passing of many nights. Autumn follows summer and the trees “take on the flash of tattered flags.” Nights become filled with “wind and destruction.” The sea tosses and frustrates any would-be seeker of truth.
We learn that Mrs. Ramsay has died rather suddenly one night, at an indeterminate point within this passage of time. (This, and all other references to the fate of the family, is...
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Chapters 8-10 Summary and Analysis
Mrs. Bast: caretaker, born in Glasgow; did not know the Ramsays; assists Mrs. McNab
George: Mrs. Bast’s son; quiet, hard worker
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 won’t want them again; she has been dead for years. Mrs. McNab fingers Mrs. Ramsay’s grey gardening cloak. She remembers her in the garden as she walked up the drive with the washing. She knows that once they had planned to come to the house, but the war made travel impossible.
Mrs. McNab recalls the day that she brought the washing. Mrs. Ramsay had asked the cook to keep a plate of soup for her. She thinks how all the help liked Mrs. Ramsay, she had a pleasant way with her. As she thinks of Mrs. Ramsay, she thinks how much has changed. Prue and Andrew are dead, and there have been so many other losses during the war. Prices had gone up and never come down. She is despairing as she looks at the falling plaster, where the rain...
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The Lighthouse, Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis
Mrs. Beckworth: houseguest, kind, older woman; sketches
“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 question, “What does one send to the Lighthouse?” strikes a nerve. Other questions bang around in her head, “What does one send? What does one do? Why is one sitting here, after all?”
Mr. Ramsay stops his preoccupied pacing for a moment and looks at Lily in a penetrating way. She wants to escape and pretends to drink out of her empty coffee cup, feeling his neediness. She hears his mumbled words (“alone” and “perished”) as symbolic. She wishes she could create a sentence out of all the words in her head this morning. If she could, maybe she could get to the truth of things. Lily thinks that the unreality is frightening, but also exciting: What does one send to the Lighthouse? Perished, alone, she repeats.
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Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis
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 feels that to paint is to be engaged in a kind of combat. She begins to lose consciousness of the outer world, so concentrated is her effort.
While she works, the phrase, “can’t paint, can’t write” runs through her head. She remembers that Charles Tansley had said that about women. Then she recalls a windy morning when she and Tansley and Mrs. Ramsay were on the beach. As they noticed something in the water, Mrs. Ramsay had asked, “What is that? Is it a lobster-pot? An up-turned boat?” Suddenly, Charles’ prickliness had fallen away and he had begun playing ducks and drakes with Lily. Mrs. Ramsay, sitting on a rock writing letters, seems to have been the catalyst to dispel the ill-will between her and Charles. It...
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Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis
Mr. Macalister: seventy-five year old fisherman; converses with Mr. Ramsay on the boat
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 preceding winter. Three boats had sunk. The children sense their father likes this kind of man-against-nature story, where the men are heroic and the women sit around the fire with the children.
Cam thinks that her father would have been a brave leader of such a group. Hypnotized by the motion of the sea, the “pact” becomes loosened. James, too, becomes caught up now in fantasies of he and Cam escaping.
Mr. Ramsay points out their house on the distant shore. It’s unreal to Cam; it’s too far away. Her father imagines himself there, pacing up and down. He sees himself as old and desolate. Cam looks toward the island vaguely; she feels that it’s in the past.
Mr. Ramsay teases her: Does she know the...
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Chapters 5-7 Summary and Analysis
Macalister’s son: son of the fisherman who accompanies the Ramsays’ on the boat
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 her head, “Is it a boat? Is it a cork?”
When Lily returns to her work, she muses that her painting must be beautiful and evanescent on the surface, but solid as iron underneath. She feels as if she is sitting beside Mrs. Ramsay on the beach. She remembers Mrs. Ramsay’s preference for silence. She feels as if a door has opened, and she paints steadily.
Continuing to paint, her mind wanders back to the day on the beach with Mrs. Ramsay. Lily remembers noticing the hole in Minta Doyle’s stocking. William Bankes had seemed to respond to her disorderliness with revulsion. She thinks of Minta’s and Paul’s marriage.
The marriage had not worked out. She creates a scene on a stairway, late at night where...
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Chapters 8-10 Summary and Analysis
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 man sitting across from him that he wants to kill, but rather something that seems to descend on him, “a black-winged harpy with talons and a hard beak that has struck him repeatedly.” He remembers the beak striking him when he was a child. He thinks that whatever he becomes in life—a banker, a barrister, a businessman—he will stamp out that kind of aggression (“tyranny, despotism”). Still, James knows that his father can be admirable, “pressing a sovereign into some old woman’s hand.” Lately, he has felt that he and his father are alike. He asks himself, “What then was this terror, this hatred?” The image he conjures up is of a wagon wheel, ignorantly and innocently, crushing someone’s foot.
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Chapters 11-13 Summary and Analysis
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 and has not been able to keep the requisite “razor’s edge of balance” between her painting and Mr. Ramsay. Determined to recapture her vision, Lily realizes that the words and ideas in her head are getting in the way. She wants to get that “very jar on the nerves” which precedes the naming of something. Her urgency, too, gets in the way. How can she paint, if she can’t think or feel?
Lily sits on the grass, thinking that everything today seemed to be happening for the first or the last time. She imagines that Augustus Carmichael, lounging nearby, is sharing her thoughts. He is now a famous poet and no more communicative than he’s ever been. His poetry must be somewhat impersonal, she thinks. She had sensed that he...
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