On the Isle of Skye in the summer house owned by the Ramsays, James is convinced by Mrs. Ramsay that a visit to the lighthouse will happen tomorrow. Mr. Ramsay does not agree, citing the weather as the main reason. The situation becomes quite tense as a result of this argument. The trip to the lighthouse never materializes. The Ramsays invite all of their guests to a dinner party. (A few pertinent guests include Charles Tansley, Lily Briscoe, Augustus Carmichael, Paul Rayley, Minta Doyle, as well as many others.) The tension builds further among all the guests. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Ramsay can handle even minor mishaps such as guests requesting second helpings or arriving late.
Ten years pass, World War I comes and goes, and various and sundry things happen to the above mentioned characters. Characters like Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew all pass away for different reasons. Mr. Ramsay fees quite destitute without his wife to dote over his philosophies.
Eventually, many Ramsays return to the original summer house and Mr. Ramsay revisits the idea of taking James and Cam to the lighthouse. The kids aren't thrilled and refuse to speak to their dad; however, James is surprised to hear praise instead of criticism from his dad. It becomes clear that both children feel differently towards their father.
An important point in the novel comes from a sort of epiphany from the character of Lily who, on the way to the lighthouse, has been struggling to complete a painting (a culmination of the art that Mrs. Ramsay always encouraged her to finish). Lily ponders that encouragement from a lady who struggled with her own overbearing husband. Upon finishing the painting, Lily feels fulfilled, knowing completion was more important than legacy. Mr. Ramsay has yet to experience that same epiphany.