To the Lighthouse
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 resembled her. Thus the novel points out the fragility of human relationships, for these are always threatened by the chaos of the waves.
Bassoff, Bruce. “Tables in Trees: Realism in To the Lighthouse.” Studies in the Novel 16, no. 4 (Winter, 1984): 424-434. Contends that Woolf redefines realism in her novel. Focusing on Lily Briscoe, Bassoff demonstrates how her perception is mediated by her interaction with other characters.
Beja, Morris. Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. This text attempts to reconcile disparate schools of Woolf criticism. Includes a review of To the Lighthouse, written by Conrad Aiken, that appeared in 1927 upon the novel’s publication.
Daugherty, Beth Rigel. “ ‘There she sat’: The Power of the Feminist Imagination in To the Lighthouse.” Twentieth Century Literature 37, no. 3 (Fall, 1991): 289-308. A well-argued interpretation that centers on the moment of Mrs. Ramsay’s reappearance near the end of the novel. Contends that Lily’s acceptance of Mrs. Ramsay as a woman, free of patriarchal influences, allows the latter to reappear in her own right.
Kelley, Alice van Buren. “To the Lighthouse”: The Marriage of Life and Art. Boston: Twayne, 1987. A superb starting place. Provides a reading of the book, a wealth of background information, a chronology, and a discussion of critical responses.
Kelley, Alice van Buren. The Novels of Virginia Woolf: Fact and Vision . Chicago: University...
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