To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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Chapters 3 and 4 Summary

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Last Updated April 26, 2023.

Mrs. Ramsay, who remains seated beside James at the window, suddenly becomes conscious of the silence that has replaced the voices and noises that previously filled the background. She experiences a fleeting sensation of fear but soon discerns that it is only quiet because her husband and Charles Tansley have ceased their discussion. The usually comforting sound of the waves now appears threatening and spectral, as if marking the tempo of existence. When she detects her husband's rhythmic footsteps and his semi-melodic, semi-grating recitations, she regains her sense of ease and returns her focus to James, finding an image of a pocket knife for him to cut out.

As Mr. Ramsay stands, lost in thought, he unexpectedly exclaims and shouts a line of alliterated prose. Fortunately, only Lily Briscoe, who is focused on her artwork on the grass, hears him. Looking out the window, Mrs. Ramsay catches a glimpse of Lily, recalling that she is meant to be posing so that Lily can paint her from outside the window. The young girl, Mrs. Ramsay thinks to herself, is aesthetically unappealing and unlikely to wed, though she silently commends her for her intellectualism and artistic spirit. 

After Mrs. Ramsay assesses Lily, the narrative turns to the younger girl, allowing her interiority to supersede Mrs. Ramsay’s assumptions about her. Startled by Mr. Ramsay’s unexpected presence and continuous, deeply absorbed ranting, she continues to paint, grateful that he did not stop to look at her work. It is half-finished, and she dislikes people seeing her work before it is complete, thinking that the half-formed shapes will make them pity her or doubt her work. Her unease at Mr. Ramsey’s presence diminishes when William Bankes—a widower many years Lily’s senior—joins her. They discuss the neighborhood, and soon their discussion transitions toward art; his perspective is meticulous and impartial, while hers is methodical and cautious.

Once more, Mr. Ramsay reemerges, making frantic gestures and exclaiming that someone made a mistake. Hastily, William proposes a leisurely walk; Lily realizes that he, like herself, is uneasy around Mr. Ramsay and wants to escape his notice. Nevertheless, she finds it challenging to leave her artwork behind, even briefly, as she often struggles with maintaining her artistic vision. Although the current trend is to mimic the style of Mr. Paunceforte—the visiting painter Mrs. Ramsey mentioned earlier, who favors delicate, refined, and semi-transparent hues—Lily refuses to undermine the vivid colors and shapes that she perceives. However, she struggles with self-doubt and is often overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and triviality. 

Walking slowly along familiar paths, the pair delight in the vibrant sensory experience of the bay, gazing out at the ocean waves and the boats sailing across them. Each slips into reflection, though their musings take different paths: Lily ponders the sand dunes, seeing them as eternal and forever untouched, while William recalls a moment many years earlier when Mr. Ramsay noticed a hen and her chicks on the side of the road and commented on their beauty. Remembering this, William wonders why Mr. Ramsay’s sensitive side seems to have declined and why their once-strong friendship has diminished. 

As William thinks about the days of his youth, he wonders if he has grown old and diminished; he contrasts his life as a childless widower with that of Mr. Ramsay, who is contentedly married and the father of eight children. The allure of domestic responsibilities captures his interest, and he oscillates between feelings of jealousy and sympathy.

Lily and William discuss Mr. Ramsay; despite her annoyance at his absurd behavior, Lily urges William to consider the significance of his work. She...

(This entire section contains 871 words.)

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imagines Mr. Ramsay’s philosophical writings as a large kitchen table, an association she received from Andrew—Mr. Ramsay’s oldest son—who described his father's writing as addressing "subject and objects and the nature of reality." When she failed to comprehend his meaning, Andrew suggested that she imagine a kitchen table; her imagined version of what it looks and feels like is inevitably different from what it actually looks and feels like. This difference, he explains, is what his father studies. 

Although William appreciates Lily’s admiration for his friend, he cannot shake the feeling that Mr. Ramsay’s best work lies in the past. As William contemplates, Lily feels a shock of insight into her friend, perceiving him as more distinguished than Mr. Ramsay, with an admirable absence of self-importance. However, following this initial surge of esteem, she recalls some trivialities: his aversion to dogs on furniture and his grievances about salt in vegetables, for example. Among these scattered thoughts lies a central question, and she wonders about the criteria she uses to evaluate others and how they might align with the criteria others use to evaluate her. 

Their stream-of-consciousness musings are interrupted by the sound of a gunshot ringing out; Lily is briefly startled but soon realizes that it was only Jasper Ramsey firing wildly at a group of starlings. Mr. Ramsay, still raving, exclaims once more; as he speaks to himself, he seems to notice the pair, but he ignores them and continues walking, immersed in the tangled web of his hyperactive mind.

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The Window: Chapters 1-2

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Chapters 5-8 Summary