To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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Chapters 11-13 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2244

Lily watches the boat sail off. She decides that so much depends upon distance, whether people are near or far away. Lily thinks again of the unreality of the morning and decides that life is more vivid when routine hasn’t quite taken hold. She feels relieved of the burden of making pleasantries with Mrs. Beckworth. The interlude is full to the brim with so many interwoven lives held by some common feeling. It was this feeling that led her to say, a decade before, that she was in love with the place.

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Looking out to sea, Lily notices a change in the wind and the placement of the boats. The disproportion disturbs her and she looks at her painting with distress. She’s wasted her morning and has not been able to keep the requisite “razor’s edge of balance” between her painting and Mr. Ramsay. Determined to recapture her vision, Lily realizes that the words and ideas in her head are getting in the way. She wants to get that “very jar on the nerves” which precedes the naming of something. Her urgency, too, gets in the way. How can she paint, if she can’t think or feel?

Lily sits on the grass, thinking that everything today seemed to be happening for the first or the last time. She imagines that Augustus Carmichael, lounging nearby, is sharing her thoughts. He is now a famous poet and no more communicative than he’s ever been. His poetry must be somewhat impersonal, she thinks. She had sensed that he didn’t like Mrs. Ramsay.

Thinking about Mr. Carmichael and Mrs. Ramsay, she realizes that many people must have disliked Mrs. Ramsay. They may have found her too self-assured, or too beautiful. Lily realizes that Mrs. Ramsay’s instinct was to minister to others, “turning her infallibly to the human race, making her nest in its heart.” People like she and Mr. Carmichael, who preferred thought to action, were annoyed by Mrs. Ramsay’s directness.

Lily is reminded of Charles Tansley (who also upset others). She had once heard him giving a lecture, preaching brotherly love. Although she still found him irritating, she had remembered the day on the beach when an old cask had bobbed in the waves and Mrs. Ramsay had searched for her spectacles. Tansley had been amused by Mrs. Ramsay’s exaggerations and had smiled charmingly. Lily thinks that it was only through Mrs. Ramsay’s eyes that she could look without abhorrence at Tansley.

Fifty pairs of eyes are needed to see Mrs. Ramsay, Lily decides. What did Mrs. Ramsay think of the garden, the hedge, the children? She remembers Mrs. Ramsay’s embarrassment when Mr. Ramsay stopped near her. He had stretched his hand out and raised her from her chair. Had she said she would marry him once in this identical pose? Lily feels that despite the confusion of children and guests, there were repetitions, or vibrations that echoed in the air. Yet, their closeness was no “monotony of bliss.” There were scenes, slamming of doors, plates hurled out of windows, and rigid silences. She would become remote and withdrawn. Mr. Ramsay would skulk about, trying to get her attention. After a time, he would call out to her and they would walk off together in the gardens. Later, at dinner, things would return to normal with laughing and joking.

Lily glances at the window and notices a triangular shadow on the steps caused by someone in the drawing room. Her painting mood returns. She wants to hold the scene in a vise, to become one with the objects before her. A stirring in the room moves her to call out to Mrs. Ramsay. Her old horror returns, then quickly subsides. It is as if Mrs. Ramsay has sat down with her knitting. She walks to the edge of the lawn and wonders where Mr. Ramsay is now.

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On the boat, Mr. Ramsay has almost finished reading. He looks very old, James decides. As they near the Lighthouse, James sees that it is a stark tower on a bare rock. It satisfies him. He identifies with it and senses that his father does too. He says to himself, “We are driving before a gale—we must sink,” much as his father would have said. None of them have spoken for a long time. James and Cam again vow silently that they will fight tyranny to the death. Cam feels that her father, lost in his book, always escapes. As she looks back at the tiny dot of the island, she thinks of the terraces, and bedrooms and paths that were there. As she looks drowsily at the island, she thinks it is a hanging garden full of birds and flowers.

Mr. Ramsay shuts his book and opens the lunch parcels. Macalister praises James’ steering. His father says nothing. James sees that his father is happy eating bread and cheese with the fishermen. Cam feels safe in her father’s presence. She is excited as the boat nears the rocks. Macalister says that they (he and Mr. Ramsay) will soon be out of it, but that their children will see some strange things. Cam feels her father is leading them on a great expedition.

Macalister points to the spot where three men have drowned. James and Cam dread another outburst. They are afraid their father will say, once again, “But I beneath a rougher sea.” But all Mr. Ramsay says is “Ah.” He lights his pipe, looks at his watch and then says triumphantly to James, “Well done!” for James had steered them “like a born sailor.” Cam thinks, “There! You’ve got it at last!” Sailing up to the reef, they see two men getting ready to meet them. Cam and James watch their father looking intently back at the island. They wonder if he is thinking, “We perished each alone,” or “I have reached it. I have found it.” Mr. Ramsay puts on his hat and stands tall in the boat, ordering the parcels to be brought. He leaps, like a young man, onto the rock.

Back on the island, Lily thinks, “He must have reached it.” She is exhausted with the effort of looking at the Lighthouse and thinking of him landing there, but she thinks that whatever he had wanted this morning, she had given him. She says out loud, “He has landed,” and “It is finished.” Carmichael, like an old pagan god, shaggy with weeds in his hair, gets up and says, ‘“They will have landed.” Lily decides that they had, after all, been thinking the same thing. Carmichael’s presence seems to crown the occasion.

Quickly, Lily returns to her picture. It will be hung in the attics, but that doesn’t matter. She looks at the empty steps; she looks at the canvas. It is blurred. With a sudden intensity, “as if she saw it clear for a second,” she draws a line in the center. “It was done; it was finished.” She lays down her brush, in extreme fatigue, and thinks, “I have had my vision.”

In these last chapters, Woolf not only brings closure to the book, but illuminates her creative process. As we follow Lily’s stream-of-consciousness, we glimpse the evolution of Woolf’s own “vision.” Woolf herself said that in the beginning, Lily was a minor character in her mind, but that as the writing progressed, the artist had formed the central consciousness of the book.

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There is a rhythm in Lily’s alternating focus—looking out to the sea, then back at her painting. Her attention moves from reflection and contemplation about the meaning of lives and relationships to the more abstract problem of creating aesthetic meaning. Tracing her associative process, Woolf accomplishes precisely what Lily herself seeks to achieve. Lily thinks,

What was the problem then? She must try to get hold of something that evaded her. It evaded her when she thought of Mrs. Ramsay; it evaded her now when she thought of her picture. Phrases came. Visions came. Beautiful pictures. Beautiful phrases. But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything. Get that and start afresh; get that and start afresh; she said desperately, pitching herself firmly again before her easel. It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically one must force it on.

We glimpse Woolf’s struggle to capture the evanescent moment, to convey real experience and not a mere description of experience. Beautiful phrases alone don’t create meaning. She (and Lily) want to capture not a scene, but a feeling about a scene, the split-second when the mind perceives meaning.

As Lily watches the Ramsay’ssboat sail into the distance, she reflects that so much depends upon distance, whether people are near or far away. What is suggested here is not physical distance alone, but the distance of time. Time has been a continuous thread throughout the novel. In The Window, the characters are absorbed in speculation about the future: “Will we go to the Lighthouse tomorrow?”, “Will James remember this all of his life?” “What future lies in store for Prue? for Minta? for Lily?” “Will Mr. Ramsay make R”? How will his work be appraised in the future?” “Will this candle-lit dinner stay in our memory in the future?” Time Passes is entirely about the passage of time: How are human structures treated by time and nature? How do events in the world impact on human lives? How does time obliterate what has been? In The Lighthouse, the characters are caught up in understanding the meaning of the past and finding a direction for the future.

Again, Lily’s meditation on distance (“whether people are near or far away”) echoes Woolf’s own experience. Writing in To the Lighthouse about her own parents, she has gained a more detached objectivity. Lily now sees that her much-adored Mrs. Ramsay (modeled on Julia Stephen) must have been disliked by many people. Her physical beauty, as well as her social self-confidence, must have intimidated or aggravated some.

Throughout The Lighthouse, Lily is disturbed by the “unreality” of the day—normal human activity seems suspended. Yet, it is this “unreal” quality that jars her thinking and observation and allows new insight and understanding. This is another kind of distance, a state of mind unencumbered by social routine. The distraction of social convention, in particular the obligation to make small talk, is a constant threat to Lily.

Lily’s memory of Mrs. Ramsay searching for her spectacles leads to her thought that to see Mrs. Ramsay one needs 50 pairs of eyes. Once again, Woolf has triumphed in her brilliant use of the stream-of-consciousness. She has captured, probably as well as any writer, the true workings of the mind. Is it ever possible for the writer or artist to capture the whole of a person?

Lily perceives pattern and meaning (“vibrations”) in the Ramsays domestic life. Looking beyond and beneath the surface confusion and tension, she sees the shape of the marriage. The reader feels that it is her ability to connect these random events that finally opens her mind to the correct proportions for her

As Lily walks to the edge of the lawn, wondering where Mr. Ramsay is now, the two journeys—the Ramsays’ and her own—are more deeply enmeshed. All of Lily’s questions suggest more than superficial queries. Where is Mr. Ramsay now in terms of his needs, his sorrows, his personal journey?

Nearing the Lighthouse, James is able not only to see the Lighthouse for what it is—“a stark tower on a bare rock,” but also to see his father more realistically, (he looks very old). His internal dialogue mirrors his father’s, “We are driving before a gale—we must sink.”

Cam’s reverie about the island being a hanging garden full of birds and flowers echoes the story her mother told to soothe her in the nursery. Her memories are less specific than James’. Cam thinks with her heart and feelings about her parents.

Macalister’s remark to Mr. Ramsay that they will be out of it soon, but the children will see some strange things, is a barely noticeable reference to the fallout of the first World War.

The culmination of the trip occurs when Mr. Ramsay compliments James on his sailing. James has been waiting for his father’s approval for his whole life. They have not only finally made it to the Lighthouse, but the child’s rage has been assuaged.

In the last scene, back on the island, Lily feels the exhaustion of looking at the Lighthouse and thinking of Ramsay landing there. Lily, the artist, not only has struggled with her picture, but with her identification with the emotional and psychological struggles of the family. Her words, “It is finished” may be an analogy of the words spoken by Jesus at his crucifixtion. In some mysterious way, her quest for proportion and harmony, as well as understanding, has enabled the others to experience peace.

Lily’s sudden completion of her painting, through blurred eyes, culminates her wish to capture the very jar of the nerves and not a thought about a scene.

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Chapters 8-10 Summary and Analysis