To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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Do symbolic designs control everything in To the Lighthouse?

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There is a lot of truth in this statement, as the novel is replete with symbols that point towards the central messages that Woolf wishes to convey. Whether it is the lighthouse itself, the Ramsay's holiday house on the Hebrides or the portrait that Lily Brescoe paints of Mrs. Ramsay and only finally finishes after Mrs. Ramsay has died, every object and action seems to be richly symbolic in this novel which, amongst other things, points towards the complex and contradictory nature of all things. Note how this is captured through the enduring symbol of the lighthouse, that the characters only finally manage to reach in the text at the end of the novel, when they return to the holiday home after World War I and the death of Mrs. Ramsay:

The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening. Now—
James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?
No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.

James has to reconcile how the lighthouse appeared to him when he was a child and how it appears to him now. As a child, he imagined the lighthouse to be a "silvery, misty-looking tower" that is the stuff of imagination and fantasy. As an adult, the lighthouse has been stripped of its romance and is now presented as a practical building, "stark and straight." James initially is tempted to abandon his child's version of the lighthouse to the adult version, but then manages to reconcile these two differing images into one united whole, realising that "nothing was simply one thing." The novel suggests that one of the challenges of life is to incorporate various competing images into one whole truth. If the reader is able to do this, they are able to possess a fuller understanding of the various contradictions inherent in life. Symbolism therefore plays a very important part in this novel and is used to point towards the various messages and themes that Woolf wishes to convey.

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