To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

Start Free Trial

In To the Lighthouse, what role does the beach and narrative setting play in relation to the main ideas?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The setting of the beach in Virginia Woolf's modernist novel To the Lighthouse is in part inspired by the author's own childhood. She spent her childhood vacations in Cornwall (home to many beaches and lighthouses). Born into a literary family, Virginia Woolf had two parents who were each married before. Born into a family thus accomplished and blended, Woolf took solace in natural setting of her family vacations in Cornwall.

As to the events of the novel, the Ramsay family spends a day in their vacation home and discusses the prospect of going to the lighthouse, which Mr. Ramsay (the patriarch) decides against. Ten years elapses and several family members die, and then the family returns to the summer home after World War I. The summer home is the physical setting of the novel, and it is thought that this is inspired by the author's own experience of vacations as a child.

The pervading theme is war, which is described as physically surrounding the home, and so the beach represents an escape from both reality and from the characters' minds. Within the homes four walls, characters are confined and occasionally antagonistic to one another. When the family (as well as a few non-family members) finally go to the lighthouse, the characters transcend their established character traits (especially Mr. Ramsay), and the extramural setting represents a period of growth.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

To the Lighthouse, which Virginia Woolf published in 1927, takes place on the Isle of Skye, the northernmost island in the Inner Hebrides in Scotland. The setting is, however, generally considered to bear more resemblance to St. Ives, in Cornwall, where Virginia Woolf spent many of her summers growing up. 

The landscape of Skye plays an important role in To the Lighthouse, illustrating, reinforcing, and paralleling many of the novel's themes. The novel is concerned with the passage of time, and the way in which human life is enfolded into the larger cycles or progression of the natural world. This is particularly apparent in Part II ("Time Passes"), when major human events, like the death of Mrs. Ramsay, are bracketed within in a larger, naturalistic narrative. In the same way, the powerful setting of the rocky coastline enfolds the Ramsay family at their summer home, the history of the beach and the mountains a magnificent backdrop for the small and important human drama that plays out inside it. 

The lighthouse itself, a key element of the setting, also plays an important role in the novel. The lighthouse stands in for something unknown, longed for, and ultimately unattainable. As a site, it generates many of the emotions that are so important in the novel, and which, elsewhere, are revealed in relation to Mrs. Ramsay's death, or Lily Briscoe's painting. In this way, the lighthouse helps create and magnify some of the complex emotions related to other actions in the novel.  

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial