To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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Chapters 5-7 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1537

New Character:
Macalister’s son: son of the fisherman who accompanies the Ramsays’ on the boat

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Lily stands on the edge of the lawn, watching the Ramsay’s boat sail off. She feels depressed about withholding her sympathy. She remembers Minta Doyle’s flirtation with him and how it would lighten his mood. She almost asks Augustus Carmichael, sleeping in a lawn chair nearby, if he can remember these things.

Her thoughts return to Mrs. Ramsay and the day on the beach with Charles Tansley and herself. She wonders why that particular day, in all its detail, is so etched in her mind. Mrs. Ramsay’s words, as she looked at something out at sea, echo in her head, “Is it a boat? Is it a cork?”

When Lily returns to her work, she muses that her painting must be beautiful and evanescent on the surface, but solid as iron underneath. She feels as if she is sitting beside Mrs. Ramsay on the beach. She remembers Mrs. Ramsay’s preference for silence. She feels as if a door has opened, and she paints steadily.

Continuing to paint, her mind wanders back to the day on the beach with Mrs. Ramsay. Lily remembers noticing the hole in Minta Doyle’s stocking. William Bankes had seemed to respond to her disorderliness with revulsion. She thinks of Minta’s and Paul’s marriage.

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The marriage had not worked out. She creates a scene on a stairway, late at night where there is a disagreement. Creating such scenes is what we do, she thinks, and then we think we “know” people. In reality, Paul had told her that he “played chess in coffeehouses.” This had led her to imagine an altercation late at night. Once when she visited them at their cottage she had felt the strain between them. Yet they seem to have gotten through this stage. They are now accepting of their alienation, and Paul has taken a mistress.

Lily imagines telling Mrs. Ramsay the story of the Rayleys, and she feels a bit smug. Continuing to paint, she decides that the dead are at our mercy. Now that she is dead, we can brush aside all of Mrs. Ramsay’s old-fashioned ideas. Lily imagines her at the “end of the corridor of years” saying, “Marry! Marry!” Lily feels for a moment as if she’s triumphed over Mrs. Ramsay; all had gone against her wishes. The Rayley’s marriage was not successful and she, unmarried, was completely happy.

Lily asks herself why Mrs. Ramsay was so obsessed about marriage. Stirred by her thoughts about Paul Rayley, her mind conjures up a dream-like scene, of savages dancing round a fire on a beach. The phrase “in love” brings up powerful emotions that are compelling, yet repulsive to her. She thinks that she had only escaped by the skin of her teeth. She concludes that it was that moment at dinner, ten years earlier, that she had suddenly seen the solution to a painting , that she had felt triumphant, and that she really didn’t have to marry. Lily thinks about Mrs. Ramsay’s authority and how powerful she was.

Lily’s memory of Mrs. Ramsay, sitting at the drawing room window with James, leads her to think of William Bankes’ queries about her painting. His disinterested intelligence has comforted and pleased her. His friendship is one of the pleasures of her life. She admits that she loves William Bankes. They often stroll through Hampton Court together, enjoying the stimulation of conversation and art. One day he had spoken of his memory of Mrs. Ramsay, at nineteen or twenty, looking astonishingly beautiful.

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Latest answer posted December 15, 2011, 12:05 am (UTC)

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Returning her gaze to the drawing room steps, she imagines Mrs. Ramsay with downcast eyes, sitting silently. She thinks that beauty somehow covers over the more interesting, the more memorable. What was the expression she would have worn at the odd moment? Lily feels like asking Mr. Carmichael something, but she’s not sure what. The difficulty of communicating one’s thoughts overwhelms her. As she looks at the empty steps, a feeling of longing for whatever isn’t there overwhelms her. She calls out silently to Mrs. Ramsay.

Lily wants to ask Mr. Carmichael, “What does it mean? How do you explain it?” She thinks that perhaps Carmichael, the inscrutable poet, hears what she can’t say. She begins to cry. She is
tormented by questions, “Was there no safety?” As tears roll down her cheeks, she says aloud, “Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!” An interjection reports that Macalister’s boy has cut a square out of one of the fish in the boat and baited his hook. He threw the mutilated body back to sea. Lily repeats her cry for Mrs. Ramsay. She is grateful that no one has heard her anguish. Slowly, she feels a sense of relief. She has a sense of Mrs. Ramsay by her side, but this ghost is relieved of the burdens she had carried. Lily again attacks the problem of painting the hedge. She envisions Mrs. Ramsay holding a wreath of white flowers to her forehead. She has imagined this scene many times since she heard of her death. She looked at the bay again and notices a brown spot. It is Mr. Ramsay’s boat, half-way across the bay. She thinks of him in a vague sort of way. The morning is particularly fine, the sea and the sky look like one fabric. Lily thinks to herself, “Where are they now?”

Although momentarily disturbed that she hadn’t comforted Mr. Ramsay, Lily’s focus and confidence are restored. Her thoughts alternate between the painting challenge before her and her reflections on Mrs. Ramsay. These thoughts are woven together in a complementary way. As she probes more deeply into Mrs. Ramsay’s talent for creating meaning in human relationships, she gets closer to solving her painting problems.

Mrs. Ramsay is the catalyst that unleashes Lily’s talent. Her inner dialogue becomes more concentrated as it shutttles back and forth between technical aesthetic problems and the meaning of Mrs. Ramsay’s presence. Lily’s thought about painting, “It should be beautiful and evanescent on the surface, but solid as iron underneath,” seems to be almost a definition of Mrs. Ramsay.

In creating Lily and Mrs. Ramsay Virginia Woolf explores her own aesthetic convictions. Lily’s determination to disregard realistic details and to capture the essence of Mrs. Ramsay and her son parallels Woolf’s literary ambitions. Lily’s artistic image, developing art which is beautiful and evanescent on the surface, yet solid as iron underneath, emerges in the midst of her deep musing about Mrs. Ramsay, who personifies her objective. Mrs. Ramsay is a personification of Woolf’s technique.

Woolf’s uncanny ability to trace Lily’s thoughts from the hole in Minta’s stocking to the disappointment of the Rayley marriage is yet another example of her expertise in the development of the stream-of-consciousness technique. She is able to hone in on the one detail that triggers a stream of thought which includes Lily’s fantasies about the Rayley marriage, to her visits to them over the years, to Mrs. Ramsay’s obsession about marriage, to her own marriageless odyssey. Woolf’s execution of Lily’s thoughts is a genuine tour-de-force.

Lily’s relationship with William Bankes has proved to be far more satisfactory than Minta’s and Paul’s marriage. They enjoy a noncompetitive, mutually sustaining friendship which she regards as one of the pleasures of her life. Lily states simply that she loves William Bankes. Woolf’s representation here of an equal partnership, suggests the kind of relationship she enjoyed with her husband, Leonard Woolf. Lily’s consciousness of Bankes’ infallible courtesy, offers up to the reader Woolf’s recipe for a successful male-female bond, a more formal arrangement, in which social boundaries permit the relationship to flourish.

As she looks again at the drawing room steps, imagining Mrs. Ramsay there, she is overcome with the difficulty of communicating her thoughts. The empty steps become highly suggestive: they represent what isn’t there, what can’t be communicated: the mystery of life. Overcome, she sobs and calls out to Mrs. Ramsay. One may assume that the tears are not simply for the person of Mrs. Ramsay, but more the tears of a soul overcome by profound questions about the universe. As in life, Mrs. Ramsay continues to be the catalyst to allow Lily to explore the important questions.

The tears bring relief, and Lily feels that Mrs. Ramsay, relieved now of her burdens, is by her side. As she attacks “the problem of the hedge,” she sees Mrs. Ramsay holding a wreath of flowers to her forehead. It should be noted that Woolf had imagined her beloved sister Stella, who died due to complications of a pregnancy, in much the same way.

The boat has become a mere speck in the water and her preoccupation with Mr. Ramsay has subsided. Her question, “Where are they now?” becomes more significant than its surface meaning. It suggests the larger question. Where is the family emotionally and psychologically? How have the Ramsays fared in resolving the issues which beset them?

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Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis


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