To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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The Lighthouse, Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1616

New Character:
Mrs. Beckworth: houseguest, kind, older woman; sketches

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“What does it mean then, what can it all mean?” Lily Briscoe asks herself the following morning. (See close of Time Passes) As she wanders through the house, she feels a kind of numbness coming back after all these years “and Mrs. Ramsay dead.” It is a beautiful day and an expedition to the Lighthouse has been planned. Cam and James are not ready; Nancy has forgotten to order the sandwiches. Mr. Ramsay, annoyed with the children, has banged a door and now marches up and down on the terrace in a rage. Lily feels the house is chaotic and unreal. Nancy’s dazed and desperate question, “What does one send to the Lighthouse?” strikes a nerve. Other questions bang around in her head, “What does one send? What does one do? Why is one sitting here, after all?”

Mr. Ramsay stops his preoccupied pacing for a moment and looks at Lily in a penetrating way. She wants to escape and pretends to drink out of her empty coffee cup, feeling his neediness. She hears his mumbled words (“alone” and “perished”) as symbolic. She wishes she could create a sentence out of all the words in her head this morning. If she could, maybe she could get to the truth of things. Lily thinks that the unreality is frightening, but also exciting: What does one send to the Lighthouse? Perished, alone, she repeats.

Suddenly Lily remembers a revelation about a painting she had had at this very table ten years ago. She had looked at a leaf pattern on the tablecloth and thought that she should move a tree to the middle. She remembers that she had never finished the painting and decides to paint that picture now. Setting up her easel in the same spot she had painted from long ago, she sees the wall, the hedge, and the tree and recalls that the problem was with the relation between those masses. Lily realizes that she has worked on this problem all these years and now she has the solution; she knows what she wants to do.

Mr. Ramsay’s presence distracts her. She feels oppressed by him and can’t paint. The evening before he had embarrassed her and the other guests by saying, “You find us much changed.” She had sensed the children’s discomfort and rage and had felt that the house was full of unrelated passions. Mr. Ramsay had demanded that they were going to the Lighthouse at the stroke of seven-thirty in the morning. She had felt, not only his demands, but also his histrionics, his gift for gesture. He had looked like a king in exile. Sixteen-year-old James and 17-year-old Cam had seemed to her the victims of a tragedy, their spirits had been subdued.

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Returning to her canvas, Lily knows that when Mr. Ramsay is nearby she can’t see colors or lines. She worries that he’ll be upon her presently with his excessive demands. Lily becomes increasingly agitated and angry. She decides that Mr. Ramsay only takes and that Mrs. Ramsay had had to constantly give. Lily wishes she hadn’t come. She feels pressured to feel something she doesn’t feel. He will not let her paint, she thinks, until she gives him what he wants: sympathy. She supposes she must imitate the glow which Mrs. Ramsay, and other women, emanate when masculine need is so exposed.

Mr. Ramsay notices that Lily seems to have shriveled. He decides that she does not look unattractive. He is overcome with an enormous need to get sympathy from her. When he asks her if she has everything that she needs, Lily decides she can’t do it; she can’t fill his overwhelming need for sympathy. Bitterly, she decides she’s a peevish, ill-tempered old maid. Mr. Ramsay continues to sigh and groan; she feels his dramatizing is indecent. He tells her that the journey to the Lighthouse will be painful. She feels she can’t sustain the enormous weight of his grief. She decides that Ramsay’s very looks seem to discolor the sunny grass, and place a funeral crepe over Mr. Carmichael, sitting reading nearby.

She, being a woman, has provoked this horror, Lily feels. She tells herself that it is immensely to her discredit, sexually, to stand there, dumb. His self pity, pouring in pools around her feet, only makes her want to draw her skirts closer, so that she doesn’t get wet.

Lily hears Cam and James and begins to feel she may escape. When Ramsay notices his shoes are untied, Lily exclaims, “What beautiful boots!” She expects him to reject her for responding to his boots and not his emotional need, but he smiles and dives into a monologue about boots and bootmakers. He asks if she can tie a knot, then ties and unties her shoes three times to show her the correct way. As he stoops over her shoes, Lily is overcome with
sympathy for him; tears well-up in her eyes. She thinks there is no helping him on the journey he is on, but now feels moved to speak to him. However, it is too late: James and Cam arrive, looking melancholy.

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Ramsay’s demeanor changes. As he takes charge of the parcels, he becomes like the leader of an expedition. The children’s submission suggests to her that they have suffered beyond their years. Still, together, they look like a little company, moving off together.

Lily feels the sympathy she could not feel before. She reflects upon Mr. Ramsay’s extraordinary face. She decides that thinking, night after night, about the reality of kitchen tables (remembering Andrew’s image) has taken its toll. Mr. Ramsay has taken on the appearance of the unadorned table, an unornamented kind of beauty, which Lily admires. She decides that he must have had his doubts, about that table (“whether it was real, whether it was worth the time he gave to it, whether he was able, after all, to find it”). His need for others approval must be because of these doubts, Lily conjectures. She imagines that he must have shared his doubts with Mrs. Ramsay and that must have been exhausting for her.

As Lily watches the group disappear in the distance, she becomes aware of a different phase of Mr. Ramsay’s emotions: he can suddenly become revitalized by something concrete (like the discussion about the boots); he can shed his worries, and recover his interest in ordinary things, entering another region; marching, as he did now, at the head of the little procession.

The morning begins with Lily’s question, “What does it mean then, what can it all mean? Lily’s search for meaning provides the underpinning for the whole of The Lighthouse. Returning after all these years, Lily experiences a feeling of blankness. What, after all, has been the meaning of these lives?

Through Lily’s eyes we see the current dysfunction of the family: Mr. Ramsay’s helplessness, the children’s anger and depression, and the disconnection they feel to each other (“a house full of unrelated passions”). She feels unnerved by what she senses as the symbolism of the words jumbling about in her head. Nancy’s confusion about what to send to the Lighthouse stirs her.

Woolf uses Lily’s stream-of-consciousness to suggest larger questions: “What does one take on one’s journey through life? What is one to do on this journey? Why are we here, after all?” The journey is an important literary device which has rich metaphoric value. It is often used to suggest the human journey through life, the overcoming of obstacles, the movement toward a goal, the search for meaning.

Lily’s struggle to somehow put together all these words and thoughts leads her to remember the unfinished painting. She becomes focused once again. She remembers the question was of the relation between the masses of the wall, the hedge, and the tree. Her search for correct relationships in her painting corresponds to her search (and Woolf’s search) for understanding of the relationships she has so closely observed. Also, her earlier feeling of blankness and disorientation at the beginning of the day may be compared to that of the (artist) child trying to put together the family puzzle. Later in the day, the mature (artist) adult can place things in their proper relationships.

Mr. Ramsay is seen here as a helpless child. He has lost his anchor and he thrashes about for any female to comfort him. Woolf lays bare stereotyped gender expectations: Ramsay wants all women to mother him; Lily feels guilty about her “unwomanly” reaction, but resists his demands. In his presence she cannot see “color or line.” Woolf’s exploration of the needs of the artist, later developed more fully in the now-classic essay A Room of One’s Own, reveals her own frustrations in accommodating womanly duties within the intellectual life.

Woolf discredits Lily’s self-criticism by letting us see that she does respond deeply and sympathetically—when she is not being manipulated through role expectations. She is touched by Mr. Ramsay’s childlike enthusiam over his boots and in tying her shoes. It is then that she feels his genuine vulnerability and neediness. She is moved to tears. When Mr. Ramsay regains his sense of self, organizing the expedition, Lily, relieved of a gender expectation, gains the distance she needs (as an artist) to admire him. She appreciates the rigor of his intellectual focus and senses that he (like she) is re-vitalized by the concrete world (the boots, the parcels, the expedition).

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Chapters 8-10 Summary and Analysis


Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis