To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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Chapters 8-10 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1380

Cam trails her hand in the water and looks at the distant shore. She thinks that they don’t feel anything there. The wind stops, the sails sag, the boat is calm. It seems as if the world is standing still. Under the hot sun, they feel miles from the shore, miles from the Lighthouse. Mr. Ramsay continues to read with his legs curled under him. James dreads the moment when his father will look up and demand why they aren’t moving. Each page Mr. Ramsay turns feels like a hostile gesture aimed at him. James thinks that if his father makes an unreasonable demand, he will take a knife and strike him to the heart. Aware that he’s held onto this old image, James decides that it’s not exactly the old man sitting across from him that he wants to kill, but rather something that seems to descend on him, “a black-winged harpy with talons and a hard beak that has struck him repeatedly.” He remembers the beak striking him when he was a child. He thinks that whatever he becomes in life—a banker, a barrister, a businessman—he will stamp out that kind of aggression (“tyranny, despotism”). Still, James knows that his father can be admirable, “pressing a sovereign into some old woman’s hand.” Lately, he has felt that he and his father are alike. He asks himself, “What then was this terror, this hatred?” The image he conjures up is of a wagon wheel, ignorantly and innocently, crushing someone’s foot.

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James remembers gardens, an old woman gossiping in the kitchen, and a dress rustling. It was in this happy world, that the wheel went over the person’s foot. His father had said, “It will rain. You won’t be able to go to the Lighthouse.” He remembers the Lighthouse as a silver, misty tower with a yellow eye that opened suddenly in the evening. Now he sees that the Lighthouse is really a stark tower with black and white bars. James’ strain is acute. As he imagines the rustle of someone coming, he worries that his father will suddenly slap his book down and demand to know why they are dawdling. He remembers that once before his father had brought his blade down on the terrace and his mother had gone stiff all over. She had gotten up and left him on the floor feeling impotent, as he grasped a pair of scissors. James wonders where his mother had gone that day. He pictures himself following her, hearing her speak naturally to a servant. James knows that that was what he most admired, that one could say anything to her. With his hands on the tiller, James stares at the Lighthouse and feels powerless. He feels bound by a rope his father has knotted. His only escape would be to take a knife and plunge it. Then the breeze picks up and the boat takes off. James is enormously relieved. Mr. Ramsay doesn’t even look up, but lifts his right hand in the air as if he’s conducting a symphony. (Lily Briscoe, looking out over the bay, feels that distance has swallowed the boat up. She feels as if the Ramsays are gone forever. Smoke from a steamer hangs in the air like a mournful flag.)

Drawing her fingers once again through the waves, Cam looks at the shape of the island from a distance. It looks like a leaf, standing on one end. She starts to imagine a shipwreck story, then decides that she doesn’t want a story, but the sense of adventure and escape she’s beginning to feel. As the boat takes off, her father’s anger about the points of the compass and James’ obstinacy about their compact, all stream away. She asks herself, “What comes next? Where are they going?” Holding her hand in the ice-cold water, she feels joy that she’s alive.

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Cam thinks of Mr. Carmichael, Mr. Bankes and her father in the study. She used to stray in from the garden to catch them in their talk, their reading and writing. She had felt safe there to think her thoughts. She had felt her father’s kindness there. As Cam watches her father read, she returns to her internal dialogue with James. She imagines pointing out that he’s not a tyrant, at least not now. She imagines her father guiding or wheedling a flock of sheep as he reads, pushing his way up a narrow path. She goes on telling herself a story about escaping from a sinking ship. She feels safe with him reading there, as she had felt in the library long ago. The island is very distant. She dabbles her fingers in the water and murmurs dreamily “how we perished, each alone.”

The becalming of the boat mirrors the paralysis James and Cam feel. They are stuck in the boat and stuck in their early emotions. The rage James felt as a child is very close to the surface here. He is in a state of perpetual anxiety, anticipating his father’s impulsive and arbitrary behavior. His old “symbol,” the fantasy of stabbing his father through the heart, is as vivid now as it was when he was six-years-old. Cam is tormented with divided loyalties and is preoccupied with melancholy thoughts, i.e., the people on the island don’t have to feel. She daydreams and longs to escape.

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

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James’ inner life is communicated dramatically in this section. Mrs. Ramsay’s prediction was prescient: that day is etched in his memory. Although in his maturity he understands that he doesn’t really hate the man sitting across from him, he knows that in some moment, long ago, his feelings had crystallized around a frightening image associated with his father. James has imagined his father becoming a black-winged harpy with sharp talons striking his bare legs. We, of course, recall his father’s trying to restore his good humor by switching him playfully on the legs ( Mr. Ramsay’s attempt to “make up” for the fact that they couldn’t go to the Lighthouse). In addition to this dark memory, James recalls the image of a wagon wheel crushing a bare foot. Delving deeper into his memories, he knows there was a day that his father had brought something sharp down on the terrace (we remember his father expostulating, “Damn you!” to Mrs. Ramsay, objecting to her lack of “practicality”). He remembers his mother’s body stiffening and then her getting up and leaving him. A flood of dim memories are associated with this: the rustling of a dress, whispers, lights, etc.

James’ preoccupation with these disturbing images is suddenly interrupted when the breeze picks up and the boat shoots forward. Mr. Ramsay, totally unaware of the agony he is causing his son, lifts his hand like the conductor of a symphony. This gesture is reminiscent of other dramatic gestures we have seen. We sense that he is always listening to an innner orchestra and that his impatience is not so much directed at his children or others, but at his own need for harmony and order and progress.

The rapid movement of the boat stirs Cam also. She experiences a “fountain of joy” as her hand moves through the cold water. She has felt “deadened” almost the whole journey. Now, her sense of story, reasserts itself, “What comes next? Where are we going?” Cam’s questions, like the other questions this day, suggest more than the immediate. The questions are really about Life, the Ramsays’ life, and that of the larger world.

It is interesting to contrast the comfort and security Cam felt as a child in her father’s study, with the frustration and rage her brother felt. The two have had different experiences and different needs. Cam’s reveries haven’t included her mother; she only has a melancholy feeling about all of that being far away. She seems to have derived real sustenance from her father. This is not unlike the bond Virginia Woolf felt for her father. In an early conversation with her sister Vanessa, Virginia asked who was the better parent. Virginia’s answer was her father.

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