To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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The Lighthouse, Chapters 1 and 2 Summary

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Last Updated May 4, 2023.

The next morning, Lily wanders around the house; returning after all these years, she feels strangely numb. The deterioration of the house and the absence of Mrs. Ramsay unsettle her, leading her to wonder why she has come and what her return means. It is a beautiful day, perfect for the trip to the lighthouse that the group had planned; however, Cam and James are not yet ready, Nancy forgot to order sandwiches for lunch, and Mr. Ramsey is in a rage, pacing on the terrace and slamming doors out of annoyance. Lily sees the house and the family through a lens of disorder and surrealism. When Nancy asks what they should bring to the lighthouse, Lily interprets the question existentially and falls into musing.

For a brief moment, Mr. Ramsay pauses his preoccupied pacing and gazes intently at Lily as if sensing her complicated thoughts. His gaze makes her feel uncomfortable and eager to leave. In an attempt to avoid the situation, she pretends to drink from her empty coffee cup; her attempts to avoid his gaze fail, and she cannot help but sense his emotional vulnerability. Lily perceives his muttered words, particularly "alone" and "perished," as symbolic. Watching Mr. Ramsay struggle to capture his thoughts, she realizes that she, too, cannot encapsulate her feelings in words. Reality feels strangely warped, and Lily finds their shared return to the past both frightening and thrilling.

Staring at the dining room table, Lily is struck by a startling memory. The leaf design on the tablecloth reminds her of a decision she made about an old, unfinished painting: at dinner one evening, she had decided to add a tree to the composition. Ten years have passed since she last thought about this painting, but she now decides to complete it. Placing her easel in the same spot as before, Lily sees the wall, hedge, and tree and remembers struggling with the relationship between these elements. She realizes that she has been working on understanding these elements without realizing it and knows exactly what to do.

Despite Lily’s excitement to complete the painting, she cannot focus because she feels oppressed by Mr. Ramsay's distracting presence. The previous evening, he had embarrassed her and the other guests by saying, "You find us much changed," causing the children to feel uncomfortable and the atmosphere of the house to fill with tension. He had also demanded that they leave for the lighthouse early in the morning; in his voice, she had sensed his familiar, domineering nature and dramatic flair. To her, sixteen-year-old James and seventeen-year-old Cam appear as tragic victims, their spirits subdued by their domineering father.

As Lily returns to her painting, she realizes that the presence of Mr. Ramsay interferes with her ability to perceive colors and lines. She becomes anxious about his demanding nature and feels increasingly restless and angry. Lily believes that Mr. Ramsay always takes from others, whereas Mrs. Ramsay constantly gave to others. She regrets coming to the place and feels pressured to express emotions she does not genuinely feel, thinking that Mr. Ramsay will not leave her alone or allow her to paint until she provides him with sympathy. Lily supposes that she has to imitate the aura of other women, such as Mrs. Ramsay, when they deal with masculine needs.

Mr. Ramsay observes that Lily appears to have become smaller and less confident. Although he still finds her attractive, he feels a great urge to receive sympathy from her. When he asks if she has everything she needs, Lily realizes that she cannot meet his overwhelming need for...

(This entire section contains 1029 words.)

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attention. She becomes bitter and concludes that she is a cranky and irritable unmarried woman. Mr. Ramsay continues to express his emotions with heavy sighs and moans, which Lily thinks is inappropriate. He informs her that the trip to the lighthouse will be difficult, and she feels unable to bear the weight of his sorrow. She decides that Mr. Ramsay's mere presence seems to darken the sunny grass and cast a mournful shadow over Augustus, who is sitting nearby reading.

Lily hears Cam and James talking and thinks that maybe she can escape the frustrating social niceties that Mr. Ramsay requires of her. When Mr. Ramsay realizes his shoes are untied, Lily comments on how nice his boots are. She worries he will be upset with her for not addressing his emotional needs as well as Mrs. Ramsay could, but to her surprise, he smiles and begins to talk about boots and their makers. He then asks Lily if she knows how to tie a knot and proceeds to demonstrate the correct way by tying and untying her shoes three times. While he is helping her, Lily feels a deep sense of sympathy for him, and tears come to her eyes. She realizes he is on a difficult journey that she cannot help him with, but she still feels compelled to talk to him. However, they are interrupted by the arrival of James and Cam, who are now ready to leave. 

Mr. Ramsay becomes gruff once more, assuming responsibility for the things they plan to bring to the lighthouse and acting like the harsh commander of a grueling journey. His children appear sullen and long-suffering; they are accustomed to their father acting this way. The group sets off toward the lighthouse, and Lily feels struck by immense empathy. She thinks about Mr. Ramsay’s work and wonders if the years of intellectualism have worn him down and left him feeling uncertain and insecure, concluding that his philosophical failures must have contributed to his immense need for female sympathy. She envisions that he must have confided in Mrs. Ramsay about his doubts, which would have been draining for her.

As Lily observes the Ramsay family fading into the horizon, she notices a new aspect of Mr. Ramsay's feelings: he can unexpectedly be invigorated by a tangible matter, such as the conversation about the boots, which enables him to let go of his concerns and regain enthusiasm for mundane matters. This transition from mental anguish to material joy fascinates her, and she mulls his unique way of thinking. 

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