To the Lighthouse

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

At the center of this novel is Mrs. Ramsay, the beautiful, mysterious, nurturing wife and mother of an English family, headed by an autocratic, but remotely loving father, renowned in the late-Victorian world as a philosopher. The couple, modeled on Virginia Woolf’s parents, Sir Leslie and Mrs. Stephen, vacation in the Hebrides, surrounded by their children and friends, who both admire and criticize them.

The proposed action of the first part of the novel is an excursion to the nearby lighthouse, which does not take place until ten years later, after the death of Mrs. Ramsay. In actuality, the novel presents almost no external action. Rather, the entirely subjective narrative moves in and out of the minds of the various characters, both major and minor, who interpret the nature and actions of the other characters in private symbols and thus reveal their own biases and personalities. In this way, Lily Briscoe, an artist and spinster, sees Mrs. Ramsay as a “wedge-shaped core of darkness,” and Mr. Carmichael, a sour bachelor and failed philosopher, sees Mr. Ramsay as followed around by a hen and chicks. Occasionally, individual characters experience moments of epiphany, in which they have a visionary glimpse of truth. In such a moment, Mrs. Ramsay sees herself symbolized in the stern radiance of the lighthouse.

This insistence on the supreme value of the individual self collapses in the middle section of the novel, in which the vacation home falls into decay, as nature obliterates all trace of the Ramsays. This reversal is reflected in the way in which the narrative reports critical events in the life of the Ramsays: in parenthesis.

In the final section, remaining Ramsays and friends return to the house and make a pilgrimage to the lighthouse in an effort to understand and make peace with the past. The excursion, while reasonably successful, is shadowed by the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay and her oldest daughter, who closely...

(The entire section is 801 words.)