To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf’s most autobiographical novel, explores two sets of interlocking issues: perception and creativity. The stream-of-consciousness narrative forces the reader to examine and experience the complexities of individual perception and individual attempts to create coherence from the borderless flow of everyday events. As Woolf writes in her 1919 essay “Modern Fiction,” “Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” Woolf takes her exploration of consciousness one step further by demonstrating how perception depends on gender: Men and women perceive the world differently. These contrasting perceptions of the world produce different creative urges. In the end, however, creativity transcends gender.
Woolf’s adult male characters, except for the poet Mr. Carmichael, are philosophers or scientists, analytical men. These characters are quantifiers of experience. Mr. Ramsay, the philosopher (who bears a resemblance to Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen) imagines that knowledge is arranged like the alphabet and that each person’s intellectual worth lies in how far he or she can progress along that alphabet. He is frustrated because he is stalled at Q, even though he acknowledges that only one person each generation can actually reach Z. Mr. Tansley, a student of Mr. Ramsay’s, finds his life in his books, his dissertation, and his acute sense of his own poverty. Mr. Bankes, the botanist, has definite opinions about properly cooking vegetables. He labels the Ramsay children with mock royal names, and he clinically examines Lily’s painting. These male characters create order from life by systematizing its disparate elements and reducing them to bitter pronouncements (as Mr. Tansley does), disconnected lines of poetry (as Mr. Ramsay does), or impersonal images (as Andrew Ramsay does when he tells Lily Briscoe to picture Mr. Ramsay’s work as a kitchen table).
The adult female characters, on the other hand, view life more intuitively. Mrs. Ramsay (who is based upon Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephen) is celebrated for her beauty and her maternal nature. She pours herself into others, nourishing her children and her husband with her love and sympathy. What she values most in life, and what she seeks to create, is union, particularly marriage (she thinks, “they all must marry”). She also manifests her creative energies at her dinner party, where she recognizes that she must bring together the disparate people sitting at the table: “The whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her.” The artist Lily Briscoe (who perhaps represents Woolf herself) also feels creative pressures as she seeks to transform her private vision into art. Despite her own fears about the value of her work, and despite Mr. Tansley’s proclamation that “Women can’t write, women can’t paint,” Lily believes in her artistic vision and uses it to create order for herself from her puzzling, sometimes painful feelings and perceptions.
Woolf’s narrative style emphasizes her definition of perception. The narrative drifts from point of view to point of view, entering various characters’ minds in an apparently random succession of associations. Woolf also contrasts objective, external time with subjective, internal time. The narrative moves fluidly between past and present, memory and experience, disorienting the reader in the process.
The structure of the novel further emphasizes the contrast between external and internal time. The first section, “The Window,” occupies more than half the novel and spans a single afternoon and evening. The middle section of the novel, “Time Passes,” compresses the events of ten years into twenty pages of narrative and parenthetically inserts major events into a description of...
(This entire section contains 1010 words.)
the slow decay of the Ramsays’ summer home. The final section, “The Lighthouse,” takes approximately seventy pages to describe the events of a single morning.
Woolf uses imagery, particularly the sea and the lighthouse, to reveal the unity and individuality of human perception. The characters are drawn to the sea, often in pairs: Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, Paul and Minta, Mr. Bankes and Lily. At such moments, the sea creates a sense of unity and constancy of vision. The same sea also represents the isolation of human beings, as when Mr. Ramsay murmurs “we perished, each alone” as he and his children journey to the lighthouse. The lighthouse unifies and isolates as well. It stands at the center of the novel, uniting the several sections. It is a focus for the family as a desired destination. The lighthouse separates them, however, through their own individual visions of it. As James thinks, “nothing was simply one thing.”
In the end, it is contingent upon the artists, Mr. Carmichael and Lily Briscoe, to bring together male and female creativity, intellect and emotion, public statement and private vision. They must have, as Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own (1929), the clearer vision of androgynous minds, which, unimpeded by gender prejudice, are “naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.” The feminized Mr. Carmichael, who sits on the edge of the domestic circle dozing and waiting for the words of his poetry to come to him, brings his deeply felt poems about Andrew Ramsay and World War I into the public sphere. Lily forges ahead with her artistic efforts despite her recognition that her paintings will end up underneath beds or in attics. As she paints, she is preoccupied with thoughts of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay as she attempts to understand them both. Lily mocks Mrs. Ramsay’s sentimentality, but she recognizes the beauty and power of the older woman’s love and grieves for her loss. This grief draws Lily into sympathetic union (which she earlier refused) with the coldly intellectual Mr. Ramsay.
The final chapter brings together Mr. Ramsay and the memory of Mrs. Ramsay, as well as the male artist with the female artist, in unspoken communion. The Ramsays reach the lighthouse, Lily has her artistic vision and completes her painting, and Mr. Carmichael silently pronounces a benediction on them all. The novel concludes with a moment that is a culmination and a commencement.