To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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Chapters 9-11 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1377

Mr. Bankes and Lily Briscoe discuss Mr. Ramsay. Bankes notes his peculiarities; Lily sees his narcissism as endearing, yet dislikes his narrowness. Bankes pushes Lily to see Ramsay as a hypocrite; Lily negates that idea. Then she thinks of the Ramsays “being in love” and is enraptured by the beauty of this idea.

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Lily wants to critique Mrs. Ramsay, but refrains when she notices Bankes’ “rapture.” She appreciates his disinterested, “pure” pleasure in her beauty. However, as she turns to her painting, she is overcome with a sense of failure. She thinks again of Tansley’s comment that women can’t paint or write. Lily returns to her criticism of Mrs. Ramsay. Although she is very moved by Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty, she thinks of her willfulness, her ability to ridicule, and her obsession with marrying everyone off, “presiding with immutable calm over destinies which she completely failed to understand.” Still, Lily ponders the “essential spirit” of Mrs. Ramsay. She tries to fathom what it is about Mrs. Ramsay that seems to convey wisdom or knowledge. She remembers sitting at Mrs. Ramsay’s knee, trying to capture her essence.

Mr. Bankes moves to look at Lily’s picture. She flinches with the anxiety of revealing the “residue of her thirty-three years.” Her friend is thoughtful and interested. He asks about the representation of Mrs. Ramsay and James as a triangular purple shape. Nervously, she explains that her purpose is not to depict them realistically, but rather to indicate their essence through line and shape and mass. She is profoundly grateful to share her most intimate vision with another human being. When Cam dashes past Lily, nearly knocking her easel over, Mrs. Ramsay reflects upon the distractedness of her daughter. Then her mind wanders to Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley who have gone off for a walk. She’s anxious to know if Paul will propose.

James urges Mrs. Ramsay to continue with the story she is reading him. Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts, still on Minta and Paul, remembers her nickname for Minta’s parents, the Owl and the Poker. She recalls private conversations with her husband in which she mimicked them. Her memory then skips to a comment by a woman who had accused her of “robbing her of her daughter’s affection.” Mrs. Ramsay becomes agitated as she recalls accusations that she is dominating and interfering. She thinks that she’s only tyrannical about her social concerns, specifically hospitals and dairies. If she weren’t so busy with her children, she would devote herself to reform in these areas.

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Maternal devotion and joy is evident as she thinks of her childrens’ talents and wishes that they’d never grow up. She is ready to dismiss the negative judgments as she revels in her children. Her joy in them is combined with a sadness, that they will never be so happy again. Mr. Ramsay becomes annoyed when she says that. She wonders if she isn’t the more pessimistic of the two. Pondering about her combat with life, she admits that she sees life as terrible and hostile. Once again, Mrs. Ramsay becomes introspective. As she continues her reading to James, the light begins to fall and the darkness brings on a feeling of anxiety, which leads her to wonder again about Paul and Minta and Andrew.

When she finishes the story, James turns his interest to the lighting of the Lighthouse. She worries that he will ask again if they will make the trip the next day. She’s relieved that the maid distracts him, but knows that he will remember that moment for the rest of his life. As she puts away James’ pictures, she feels a sense of enormous relief to be alone. She is released from the strain of being and doing; she feels herself shrink to a “wedge-shaped core of darkness.” Released from her attachments, her mind is free to roam. She experiences a feeling of infinite possibilities and a sense of stability. In this mood of reverie, she sees the third stroke of the Lighthouse which is her stroke. This long steady stroke somehow focuses her random thoughts into a phrase, “Children don’t forget, children don’t forget.” Her internal dialogue continues and she says, “We are in the hands of the Lord.”

Recoiling from this “insincerity,” Mrs. Ramsay realizes that sometimes inanimate objects produced this intense sort of reaction. She asks, “How could any Lord have made this world?” She feels that there is no reason, or order, or justice; only suffering, death and the poor. As she thinks about this, her face becomes stiffened and severe. When Mr. Ramsay, lost in thought, passes by, he can’t help but notice her sad expression.

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Mrs. Ramsay moves out of these solemn thoughts when she notices the light again. Her identification, this time, takes a different form; she is overcome with the exquisite happiness she has known. As her thoughts turn to the joy she has experienced, Mr. Ramsay notices her and marvels at her beauty. He chooses not to interrupt her daydreaming, but she, responding to his protectiveness, takes her shawl and joins him.

In this section, we are given a more objective view of the Ramsays. Lily Briscoe, the artist, and William Bankes, the scientist, analyze their more subtle shortcomings and possible motives. Bankes, who has previously felt defensive about Mr. Ramsay, prods Lily to see him as a hypocrite. She, who has previously expressed only adoration for Mrs. Ramsay, wants to point out her obtrusiveness and her inclination to mock others weaknesses.

It is important to note Lily’s authentic strength here. She puts aside her reservations, as she sees Bankes’ “rapture” with the essence of Mrs. Ramsay. A true artist, she is able to put personal feelings aside, when in the presence of this kind of transcendent emotion. She is tuned into the power of truth and beauty, for “nothing so solaced her, eased her of the perplexity of life as this sublime gift.” Lily’s sensibilities and reverence for discovering the essence of life mirrors Woolf’s life as a writer. Lily’s struggle with her painting is becoming a central motif. She wants to paint as she, alone, sees (as Woolf wants to write as she sees). She wants to convey the essence of things, not merely the surface details. She works with color and shape and mass, impressionistically. We should note at this point that Woolf is using a similar technique with words. For example, we are shown, again and again, Mrs. Ramsay sitting at the window with James. We aren’t given multitudinous details, but as we return repeatedly, we experience the mother and child as a kind of abstract presence.

Mrs. Ramsay’s self-doubts and pessimism become more pronounced at this point. She resents the fact that others find her too strong-willed. She feels misunderstood. The depth of her pessimism becomes evident, too. She sees, most particularly, death, suffering, and poverty. She imagines suffering and loneliness for her children. The small space she has provided for James quickly evaporates as he sees the Lighthouse being lit. She understands how this disappointment will become symbolic: for the rest of his life, he’ll remember this. Presumably, all his joy will be tinged by this moment.

Mrs. Ramsay’s interior life is more fully revealed. Her craving for solitude and silence, as well as her ability to feel a kind of transcendence as she meditates on the Lighthouse, gives testimony to her depth. Despite what others may judge from her behavior, her depth and seriousness are revealed in her solitary reflections. The fact that she sees herself as a “wedge-shaped core of darkness,” which echoes Lily’s preoccupation with forms, suggests that she too has an aesthetic sensibility.

As Woolf delves further into Mrs. Ramsay’s essence, the reader needs to reflect on Woolf’s own personal and private persona. In letters and biographies, we learn that Woolf resorted to a social
side which was a kind of camouflage for her intense interior life. She could be superficial and satirical with friends and take on a kind of social pose which might belie her real life which was exactly the opposite.

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