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...
(The entire section is 1,492 words.)