To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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Chapters 3 and 4 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1154

New Characters:
Lily Briscoe: 33-year old spinster; would-be artist, friend of the Ramsays

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William Bankes: widower, old friend of Mr. Ramsay; botanist; lives in the same rooming house as Lily Briscoe

Cam Ramsay: the Ramsays’ young daughter; lively and stubborn

Jasper Ramsay: the Ramsays’ impetuous son

Mrs. Ramsay, still sitting with James at the window, becomes suddenly aware of the cessation of voices and sounds which have provided a background. She is momentarily struck by an “impulse of terror.” She quickly realizes that her husband and Charles Tansley have stopped their conversation. The sounds of the waves, which often provide a consoling “cradle song,” now seem ominous, even ghostly. They seem to be beating out the measure of life. As she hears her husband’s rhythmical walking and his half singing, half croaking chants, she feels comfortable once again. She finds a picture of a pocket knife for James to cut out.

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Mr. Ramsay, caught up in some private rumination, suddenly calls out, “Stormed at with shot and shell.” She’s relieved that only Lily Briscoe, working at her easel on the lawn, was within earshot. Lily, she muses, isn’t very attractive and would probably never marry. She remembers Lily’s painting, and bends her head as Lily has requested her to pose.

Lily, though alarmed by Mr. Ramsay’s sudden appearance and preoccupied raving (“Boldly we rode and well”) is relieved he doesn’t look at her picture. However, when William Bankes comes to stand beside her she is not so uncomfortable. She shares with him an easy familiarity based on their being neighbors and their similar styles: he scrupulous and judicial, she orderly and circumspect.

Mr. Ramsay again appears, wildly gestures, saying “Some one had blundered.” Bankes suggests a stroll. Lily understands that he, like her, feels uncomfortable and wants to get away. Still, she finds it hard to take her eyes off her painting. She agonizes over the difficulty of holding on to her vision. Despite the current fashion to emulate one Mr. Paunceforte who sees only pale, elegant, semitransparent colors, she doesn’t want to deny the bright colors she sees, as well as the shapes under the colors. Still, her insecurities get the better of her. She thinks of her real life and feels a sense of personal inadequacy and insignificance.

The two, accustomed to this stroll, share a kind of exuberant joy in the sights and sounds of the bay: the waves, a fountain of water, a sailboat. They seem to be attuned in their musings, but Lily gazes at the sand dunes and thinks of eternity, while Bankes is reminded of a long ago incident in which Mr. Ramsay, walking along a road, spies a hen with her chicks. Ramsay had pointed his stick and said, “Pretty- pretty,” Bankes felt Ramsay’s sensitivity was revealed in that moment. Yet, somehow, since then, their friendship had become less real.

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Latest answer posted July 30, 2012, 2:35 am (UTC)

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As William Bankes muses, he wonders if he has become dried and shrunk. He can’t help comparing himself, childless and widowed, with Ramsay who has eight children. He is intrigued by the domestic demands, and shifts between envy and commiseration.

Lily and Bankes talk about Mr. Ramsay. Lily, though impatient with Mr. Ramsay’s ridiculous behavior, still bids Bankes to “think of his work!” The image she holds in mind, when she tries to imagine Ramsay’s work is that of a large kitchen table. Andrew had once told her that his father wrote about “Subject and objects and the nature of reality”. When she didn’t understand, he told her to “think of a kitchen table when you’re not there.” Lily, the artist, cannot imagine how one could reduce the color and beauty of nature to such angular essences, but accepts the importance of this perspective. Bankes, pleased with Lily’s admiration of his friend, nevertheless returns to a thought he’s had often before: Ramsay’s best work is behind him.

As William Bankes ponders, Lily suddenly has an intense perception of her companion. She sees him as finer than Mr. Ramsay, heroic in his lack of vanity. Yet, after this first rush of admiration, she remembers certain pettinesses: he objected to dogs on chairs, he complains about salt in vegetables. Her mind races; she asks herself, how do we judge people?

Her thoughts explode with intensity as a shot goes off. Jasper has shot a flock of starlings. Mr. Ramsay appears, distracted, booming, “Some one had blundered!” Though he looks at them for a moment, he is clearly in his own world, in the throes of some “delicious emotion.”

In this section, we see more deeply into Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay feels an impulse of terror when the soothing background sounds momentarily cease. She is so sensitively attuned to all the nuances of the rhythms of her world—the voices, the footfalls, the multitude of personal habits of her family (“the taking out of pipes and the putting in of pipes”)— that her usual composure is disturbed when things don’t “sound right.” This closer look shows us her exquisite sensitivity to the vibrations of life, as well as her vulnerability when this familiar world seems threatened.

Mr. Ramsay’s preoccupations and eccentricities become more apparent now. He is caught up in a near trance-like re-creation of some historical scenes, shouting out snatches of poetry and gesticulating wildly. Yet, we also catch a glimpse of his sensitivity—Mr. Bankes’ recollection of his delight with the chicks and his
need for praise.

As we see their vulnerabilities—her dependence on the soothing noises of family life, his intellectual preoccupations which mute the emotional sensitivity he possesses—we begin to understand their mutual need for one another.

Lily Briscoe, preoccupied with capturing the truth, further illuminates the Ramsays. She notes Mr. Ramsay’s vanity and ridiculous postures, yet, feels compelled to admire his intellectual aims, his “fiery unworldliness” as well as his love for children and animals. She adores Mrs. Ramsay, to the point of wanting to throw herself at her feet and shouting out her love. Yet, there is the hint of something else. (Her criticism of Mrs. Ramsay unfolds more slowly.)

Lily’s quest, her insecurities and her counter-cultural viewpoint are really Virginia Woolf’s own. She is the outsider, struggling to honestly depict what she sees, always overcome with self-doubt, yet convinced that her vision is true.

William Bankes shows us Ramsay from a fellow intellectual’s perspective. What had he gained and what had he lost by giving up intellectual isolation and surrounding himself by “clucking domesticity”? By following Bankes’ “stream of consciousness,” we see the author’s extraordinary ability to reveal the strange and powerful connections the mind makes. Thus, Bankes saw a sand dune, thought of a road, remembered the road with the chicks, and ends up describing Ramsay’s current state as “clucking domesticity.”

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