To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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Chapter 4 Summary

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Last Updated May 4, 2023.

Out on the ocean, the boat remains still. Growing restless, Mr. Ramsay instructs Macalister’s son to start rowing. Both James and Cam dislike their father's impatience and resent being forced into this excursion. Silently, they vow to resist his authority and secretly hope for a windless day to foil his plans. After so many years, their father's emotional immaturity has ruined their long-awaited journey to the lighthouse.

Suddenly, the boat begins to move. Ramsay and Macalister—a local fisherman with fantastic tales about danger and survival on the open ocean—share tobacco while discussing a fierce storm from the previous winter that sank three boats. The children perceive their father's fondness for stories involving man's struggle against nature and realize that these stories follow a similar pattern: in these stories, men are heroic and women tend to the home and children. 

These stories lead Cam to imagine her father as the courageous leader of their journey, seeing him in the role of the heroic men of Macalister’s stories. As they forge onward, the boat’s motion and Macalister’s stories weaken the siblings’ “pact” against their father. Cam adapts to their circumstances, but James imagines escaping from the boat and their father with Cam. Mr. Ramsay points to their home, which is just visible in the distance and seems surreal to Cam. Staring at his home, Mr. Ramsay envisions himself there, forever pacing and growing old. Cam sees the island and their home as part of the past and grows melancholy, realizing the years that have been lost since they last visited.

Mr. Ramsay asks Cam if she can identify the points of the compass, but she is too absorbed in her thoughts to respond. In the ensuing silence, Mr. Ramsay ponders the vagueness of women, which he finds endearing. Seeing Cam's unease, he tries to engage her in conversation. Cam feels torn between her love for her father and her loyalty to James. James fears Cam will betray their pact, recalling a vague memory of a moment when his mother appeared to "surrender" to his father’s pride and need for female approval. Recalling his anger at his father for forcing his mother to constantly provide emotional support, James feels worried that Cam will do the same.

Cam is painfully aware of James’ expectations of her but feels upset that he cannot understand her conflicting emotion; she knows the pain her father’s insensitive and tyrannical actions have caused but still adores him. Uncertain, she gazes silently toward the shore, wondering if there is any suffering there.

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Chapters 5-7 Summary