To the Lighthouse

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 801

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...

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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.

Bibliography:

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 of Chicago Press, 1973. A study of the significance of creative tension between objective reality and inconfirmable poetic insight in Woolf’s novels. Includes a chapter on To the Lighthouse that explores the influences of fact and vision upon the novel’s plot, characterization, and imagery.

Leaska, Mitchell A. Virginia Woolf’s Lighthouse: A Study in Critical Method. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970. A systematic examination of Woolf’s style and the multiple-point-of-view technique. Vigorously defends Woolf’s method, emphasizing the importance of the reader in achieving meaning.

Love, Jean O. Virginia Woolf: Sources of Madness and Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. A biography investigating the paradoxical connection between Woolf’s life and art. Provides a psychological interpretation of the author based on primary documents.

Marcus, Jane, ed. New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981. An insightful collection of essays that approach the author from an unabashedly feminist perspective. Includes a chapter by Jane Lilienfeld discussing the Ramsays’ marriage.

Matro, Thomas G. “Only Visions: Vision and Achievement in To the Lighthouse.” PMLA 99, no. 2 (March, 1984): 212-224. Sees an analogy between Lily’s aesthetics and the relations between the novel’s characters. Holds that the vision required for painting becomes a metaphor for the perception needed in human relationships.

Zwerdling, Alex. Virginia Woolf and the Real World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. A study of Woolf’s social vision and her response to the historical events and sociopolitical currents of her age. Included an enlightening chapter on the domestic politics of To the Lighthouse.

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