To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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Chapters 11-13 Summary

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Last Updated May 4, 2023.

Lily continues to watch the Mr. Ramsay's boat, concluding that proximity plays a significant role in the nature of relationships and determines how they evolve or decay. She ponders the surreal nature of the morning and determines that life is more vibrant when it escapes the grip of routine. The absence of obligatory small talk brings her a sense of relief, and she feels at ease with herself and with life. Mornings like this one are rich, filled with the intertwined lives of those around her, all of whom are bound together by a shared emotion, the very emotion that prompted her to declare her love for this location ten years earlier.

Gazing at the ocean, Lily senses a shift in the breeze and the positioning of the boats. This imbalance unsettles her, and she examines her painting with dismay. She has squandered her morning, failing to maintain the delicate equilibrium between her artwork and Mr. Ramsay’s gaze. Determined to regain her inspiration, Lily comes to understand that her thoughts and concepts are obstructing her progress; to replace them, she desires the jarring sensation that comes just before defining something. However, her urgency also hinders her. Creation feels just beyond her grasp, waiting just out of reach.

Lily sits on the grass, reflecting on how everything today feels like a first or final experience. She imagines that Augustus must share her thoughts. Though he is now a renowned poet, he remains as reticent as ever. His poetry, she believes, must also be somewhat detached from others, just as its author is. She remembers his dislike for Mrs. Ramsay and wonders how many others felt as he did, finding her overly confident or vapidly beautiful. Lily understands that Mrs. Ramsay had a natural tendency to care for others, which led her to become deeply entwined with humanity. People like Lily and Augustes, who valued contemplation over action, were likely irritated by Mrs. Ramsay's straightforwardness and personability.

Lily believes that it would take fifty pairs of eyes to truly see Mrs. Ramsay. She wonders about Mrs. Ramsay's thoughts on the garden, hedge, and children. Amidst the chaos of children and visitors, Lily senses repeated patterns or resonating echoes in Mrs. Ramsay’s relationship with her husband. She feels that their relationship must have been volatile, certain that their shared life was far different from the dull, continuous happiness they pretended it was. There were dramatic episodes, slammed doors, thrown plates, and tense silence; Mrs. Ramsay would grow distant, while Mr. Ramsay would lurk nearby, seeking her attention. Eventually, he would call to her, and they would stroll through the gardens. By dinnertime, normalcy would return with laughter and light-hearted banter. Lily imagines these scenes, attempting to discern what it must have been like to be Mrs. Ramsay.

Lily catches sight of a triangular shadow on the staircase, created by someone in the drawing room. This momentary image reignites her desire to paint, yearning to capture the scene entirely and merge her aesthetic sense with the objects in her view. Hearing movement in the room, she calls out to Mrs. Ramsay, feeling as if the older woman’s presence has settled into the comfortable rhythms of life as it was ten years ago. Unsettled, Lily strolls back to the border of the lawn, looking out at the water and attempting to determine the Ramsay family's whereabouts. 

On the boat, Mr. Ramsay is close to finishing his book. Looking at his father, James suddenly notices that his father appears old and tired. As they approach the lighthouse, James notices that it is a simple tower standing...

(This entire section contains 1157 words.)

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on a barren rock. This sight pleases him, as he feels a connection to it and senses that his father does as well. James thinks to himself that they are braving the storm and will likely sink, just as his father always said. They all remain silent for a prolonged period. Cam comments to herself that her father—who is still lost in his book—always manages to escape reality. As she looks back at the island becoming a tiny dot in the distance, she thinks about the various terraces, bedrooms, and paths that were once there. Gazing sleepily at the island, she envisions it as a hanging garden, teeming with birds and flowers.

Mr. Ramsay closes his book and starts to unpack the lunch. Macalister compliments James’ excellent steering skills and applauds his efforts; Mr. Ramsay remains silent, eating the bread and cheese they packed for lunch. James feels resentful that his father did not acknowledge his efforts, but Cam again comments that Mr. Ramsay’s presence makes her feel secure. Her fatalistic thoughts of shipwrecks subside, and she eagerly anticipates the boat's arrival at the rocks, believing that her father is taking them on an exciting adventure.

As they near the lighthouse, Macalister points out a spot where three men drowned. James and Cam are worried about their father's reaction, expecting him to quote a poem, as he usually does. However, Mr. Ramsay surprises them by responding mildly and with minimal interest. He then praises James for steering the boat well and lighting his pipe. Cam is relieved that her father finally acknowledged James' skill and hopes that it will endear her brother to her father. As they sail towards the reef, they notice two men waiting for them on the shore. Cam and James observe their father gazing back at the island, wondering if he is reflecting on the lines "We perished each alone" or "I have reached it. I have found it." Mr. Ramsay wears his hat and stands upright in the boat, then jumps onto the rock with the energy of a young man.

When the Ramsays successfully reach the lighthouse, the narrative suddenly turns to Lily, who is mentally fatigued from imagining the moment that Mr. Ramsay reaches the lighthouse. Despite feeling emotionally drained by her worries at attempts at sympathy, Lily feels comforted by the knowledge that she offered Mr. Ramsay sympathy this morning and the belief that he has landed safely and finally completed the decade-long journey to the lighthouse. Sitting up, Augustus finally speaks; his hair is unkempt and full of weeds, as he pompously declares: “They will have landed.” 

Lily quickly goes back to her painting; she knows it will likely be stored in the attic and never displayed, but that fact does not bother her. She gazes at the blank canvas and realizes it is blurry. Suddenly, with great focus, she draws a line in the middle, as if she sees the image clearly for a brief moment. She feels a sense of completion and puts down her brush, feeling extremely tired. She thinks to herself that she has finally understood the artistic vision that has eluded her for so long; the novel ends as Lily exults in her newfound confidence in her aesthetic abilities and ability to express herself artistically.

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Chapters 8-10 Summary