To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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Chapters 5-8 Summary

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Last Updated April 26, 2023.

Sitting with James, Mrs. Ramsay attempts to console her disappointed son, attempting to distract him by asking him to stand still, so she can use him to measure a sock she is knitting for the lighthouse keeper’s young son. James squirms and fidgets; as she goes to scold him, Mrs. Ramsay notices the worn-out furniture arranged around her. Distracted from her task, her thoughts dart about, evaluating the expense of replacing these items, charting her domestic frustrations, and cataloging her own shortcomings. Each year, the furnishings deteriorate more, and the home accumulates more clutter, though she is loath to get rid of it, as it consists largely of her children’s art and school work. 

Mrs. Ramsay hesitates to open the windows for fear of allowing the air—salted by the sea and roughened by the sand—inside, where it will cause further deterioration. However, she decides to open them, remembering that Marie, their maid, appreciates the fresh air. Thinking of Marie reminds her about the maid’s father, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Mrs. Ramsay finds herself overwhelmed by a sense of despair. Slowly, she refocuses, recalling the half-finished sock in her hand. Her despair turns to annoyance, and she speaks to James sternly. Despite the distraction, she cannot escape the gloomy feelings looming over her. Mrs. Ramsay feels her sorrow is incomprehensible to others and regrets that her life is as it is. Holding her emotions close to her chest, she continues knitting. 

Seeing Mrs. Ramsay through the window, William reminisces about hearing her voice through the phone; he found it enchanting and felt captivated by its melodious tone. Her genuine allure fascinates him, as she does not seek praise and finds it tedious. Her quick choice of an unusual hat only adds to her distinct fashion sense.

Setting her annoyance aside, Mrs. Ramsay kisses James on the forehead, then encourages him to find more images to cut out. Turning, she becomes aware that Mr. Ramsey has arrived home; recognizing several "telltale indicators," she understands that he is inaccessible, so caught up is he in his own thoughts. He walks like a man possessed and almost crashes into Lily and William. Mr. Ramsay snaps out of his reverie and reaches down to touch James, but the boy pulls away. 

Mrs. Ramsay attempts to lighten the mood by telling her husband about the socks she is knitting for the lighthouse keeper’s son and plans to deliver them the following day. Mentioning the lighthouse angers Mr. Ramsay, who accuses her of ignoring reality and defying his word; as he said earlier: there will be no trip to the lighthouse tomorrow. He stomps his foot and curses her.

The words strike Mrs. Ramsay like hail, and she feels that her husband is treating her unfairly and taking his anger at himself out on her; she remains silent, wondering how a man so obsessed with the pursuit of knowledge and truth can be so blind to human emotion. When Mrs. Ramsay does not reply, Mr. Ramsay feels embarrassed by his outburst, then meekly proposes that the weather might change. Looking at his wife, he feels a deep respect for her stoic domesticity and feels remorse for treating her as he does. 

Later, Mr. Ramsay returns to philosophizing, wandering through the garden and thinking about his wife and son. As his mind turns from subject to subject, he arrives once more on the subject of his academic work. He envisions knowledge as analogous to the alphabet: beginning with “A,” each letter represents an additional achievement or accomplishment. Placing himself in the alphabet, Mr. Ramsay...

(This entire section contains 1287 words.)

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feels as if he has reached the letter “Q,” a level of accomplishment that few in England can achieve. However, he takes no pride in this, striving to reach “R” but struggling to do so; it is as if “R” is veiled to him or beyond his ability. 

In anguish, he envisions himself as the courageous commander of a fated journey. He wonders who would criticize the gallant warrior who has battled fiercely and now seeks compassion, a drink of whiskey, and a listener for his tale. He believes it is right to set aside his scholarly efforts, spend time with his wife and children, and appreciate the world around him.

As Mr. Ramsey considers how he might rebuild his relationship with his children, the narrative turns to James, who is consumed by resentment toward his father. He dislikes his father’s self-centeredness, theatrical behavior, and constant interruptions; above all, he loathes how his father disrupts his bond with his mother. When her husband approaches, James senses his mother’s anxiety and dislikes his father for causing his favorite person stress. He is angry that his mother feels compelled to pretend for her husband, gathering her strength and coming to life to provide the compassion he yearns for, needing to be comforted for his intellectual failures. To her detriment, Mrs. Ramsay provides her husband with radiant positivity and faith, but James sees how it tires her. 

Mrs. Ramsay sets aside her knitting to watch her children playing a game of cricket outside the window; as she does, she feels overwhelmed by fatigue. Picking up a book to read to James, the usually-comforting sound of the waves crashing outside seems foreboding. She worries about her relationship with her husband and wonders if people see how reliant he is on her; she also worries that she must bear the weight of the house’s failures alone. Mrs. Ramsay cannot confide in her husband that the greenhouse is crumbling just as much as she cannot tell him that his most recent book has fallen short of his previous works. Knowing that he cannot handle these truths, she takes them upon herself, willing to burden herself to avoid implying that he is failing.  

Seeing Mr. Carmichael descending the stairs, she thinks about the disheveled older man and wonders if the yellow tinge on his beard signifies opium use, as the children suspect. She is aware of his unhappiness and sense that he does not trust her, attributing this to the years of mistreatment he endured from his domineering wife. Looking at him, Mrs. Ramsay muses on her knack for winning people over, wondering if this skill should be attributed to her undeniable beauty or her compelling personality. That Mr. Carmichael seems not only unaffected by her but also somehow averse to her presence bothers her; she wonders if this is a function of her vanity or if it is just a manifestation of the selfishness inherent to every human relationship.

In the garden, Mr. Ramsay pauses again, standing silently and gazing unseeingly at the trail ahead, lined with ceramic pots full of shrubbery and plants. He envisions himself riding a horse along well-known paths steeped in history and mythology. Upon reaching the lawn's edge and gazing at the sea, he abandons these imaginary narratives and stands resolutely like a forlong seabird; staring out at the water, the truth of human ignorance is unveiled to him.

Mr. Ramsay faces this bleakness unyieldingly, certain of humanity’s darkness. Looking back toward the house and seeing his wife through the window, he feels buoyed, knowing he should not dwell on such tragic, noble subjects. Instead, he must find solace in his family, something he struggles to do because he dislikes acknowledging his emotions to others. 

Storing her painting supplies away, Lily wonders how precarious it must be to take on the role that Mr. Ramsay has; though he has in many ways surpassed ordinary human capabilities in his work, she knows that “when you reach a lofty status, you are bound to experience a downfall at some point."

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