To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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Chapters 9-11 Summary

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Last Updated April 27, 2023.

William and Lily engage in a conversation about Mr. Ramsay. William points out Ramsay's odd traits, and Lily comments that she finds his self-absorption strangely charming but disapproves of his limited perspective. William encourages Lily to view Ramsay as insincere, but she disagrees with his assessment of his old friend. When she contemplates the Ramsays as "in love," she becomes captivated by the loveliness of the concept.

Lily considers critiquing Mrs. Ramsay but holds back when she realizes the intense admiration William feels for the older woman, marveling at his genuine, untainted delight in Mrs. Ramsay's beauty. Yet, as Lily turns to her painting, feelings of failure overwhelm her, and she recalls an unfair remark that Charles Tansley once made: women, he explains, cannot paint or write. Lily revisits her critique of Mrs. Ramsay, feeling deeply affected by her beauty but also acknowledging her faults: she is stubborn, has a tendency to mock others, is fixated on marrying people off, and struggles to understand the nature of others. Nevertheless, Lily contemplates Mrs. Ramsay’s essence, attempting to grasp the source of the wisdom or knowledge she seems to possess, recalling sitting at Mrs. Ramsay's feet, endeavoring to capture her true spirit

William gazes at Lily's portrait, causing her to flinch with apprehension, certain that he will comment on the imperfections which reveal her youth and inexperience. To her surprise, he is curious and understanding, asking her why she has represented Mrs. Ramsay and James as a purple triangle. Lily nervously explains that her intention is not to accurately depict them, but rather to convey their essence through artistic elements such as line, shape, and mass. Knowing that her art style is controversial and viewed poorly when compared to the work of Mr. Paunceforte, she feels grateful that William is willing to listen and attempt to understand her attempts to create a style of her own. 

Cam Ramsay rushes past, nearly knocking over Lily’s easel. Watching Cam, Mrs. Ramsay wonders why her daughter appears so distracted; the question lingers briefly but is soon consumed by more exciting considerations, such as the fact that Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley—friends of the Ramsay children—have left for a walk. From the window, Mrs. Ramsay waits anxiously for them to return, certain that Paul will use this opportunity to propose to Minta.

James encourages Mrs. Ramsay to keep reading the story, prompting her to reminisce about Minta and Paul. While thinking of them, she recalls the nicknames she gave Minta's parents—calling them the Owl and the Poker—-and how she imitated them during private conversations with her husband. Her thoughts then shift to a conversation where a woman accused her of taking away her daughter's affection. Mrs. Ramsay becomes upset as she remembers being accused of being domineering and meddling. She thinks to herself that she only wishes to be helpful, recalling the social issues that she feels strongly about and wishes she had more time to dedicate herself to. Briefly, she slips into bitterness, feeling that if she were not so preoccupied with her children, she could focus on making changes and reforms in the world.

However, that thought is quickly cast out, replaced by the knowledge of Mrs. Ramsay’s deep love for her children and her wish that they would stay young forever. Disregarding negative thoughts about her life and Mr. Ramsay’s work, Mrs. Ramsay takes solace in her children’s happiness, knowing that they will carry these moments of childish joy with them into adulthood. Thinking sadly that her children, who are rapidly growing up, may never again experience these childhood joys, Mrs. Ramsay confesses...

(This entire section contains 1045 words.)

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her thoughts to her husband, who reacts with irritation. 

Deflated by her husband’s words once again, Mrs. Ramsay wonders if she is perhaps more pessimistic and reflective than him; indeed, she approaches life as something that is innately harsh and unfriendly, and this existential dread renders her in an equally pensive light to her self-absorbed, philosophizing husband. The evening light begins to fade, slowly darkening the room where Mrs. Ramsay continues to read to James. As night sets in, Mrs. Ramsay grows anxious, worrying about Paul and Minta and thinking about her eldest son, Andrew. 

Mrs. Ramsay finishes reading the story, and James immediately shifts his attention to the lighthouse, staring at its beacon, which shines through the darkness. She worries that he will ask to go to the lighthouse again the next day and is relieved when the maid tells him that it is time for bed. Watching her son gaze longingly at the lighthouse, then disappointedly pulling his eyes away, Mrs. Ramsay knows that this first experience of disappointment will stay with him forever; even now, he is growing up, changing, and losing the childishness she loves so dearly. 

As Mrs. Ramsay puts away James's photographs, she feels a great sense of relief wash over her; she is finally alone, granted a reprieve from the pressure to perform for those who rely on her. As she unwinds from the demands of the day, she describes feeling herself shrinking into a dark, wedge-shaped core, free from her attachments and able to explore the infinite possibilities that lay ahead. While lost in this trance-like state, she catches sight of the lighthouse, which helps focus her thoughts and inspires her to repeat the phrase, "Children don't forget." 

With her thoughts spiraling inward, Mrs. Ramsay faces the discomforting reality of her dishonesty and false nature. As she criticizes herself for these failures, she turns to the existential question of creation, wondering how any divine being could have allowed for such a reality where suffering, death, and poverty exist without any sense of purpose, organization, or fairness. The lighthouse—though only a lifeless object—has conjured these fears, and they have warped her beautiful face into something rigid and severe. Walking past, lost in his own thoughts, Mr. Ramsay catches sight of his wife’s despondent expression and stops to observe her. 

When Mrs. Ramsay senses her husband’s presence, she allows her attention to turn from these serious thoughts and focuses on lighter things, feeling grateful for her children and allowing their joy to wash over her. Wrapping her shawl around her, she stands and joins him.

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