(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf

(Full name Adeline Virginia Stephen Woolf) English novelist, essayist, and diarist.

The following entry presents criticism of Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse (1927). See also, Virginia Woolf Criticism.

One of the most prominent literary figures of the twentieth century, Woolf is widely admired for her technical innovations in the novel, most notably her development of stream-of-consciousness narrative. In To the Lighthouse (1927) Woolf sought to come to terms with her parents' stifling Victorian marriage and events of her own childhood, as well as to explore such feminist issues as the necessity, or even desirability, of marriage for women and the difficulties for women in pursuing a career in the arts. A striking mix of autobiographical elements, philosophical questions, and social concerns, To the Lighthouse is generally considered to be Woolf’s greatest fictional achievement.

Plot and Major Characters

To the Lighthouse is divided into three parts: “The Window,” “Time Passes,” and “The Lighthouse.” Despite the inherent complexities of Woolf's many themes and stream-of-consciousness narrative, the plot of the novel is simple. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their children, and numerous house guests—including Lily Briscoe, the central consciousness of “The Lighthouse” section—are vacationing in the remote Hebrides islands. An expedition to a nearby lighthouse is put off by Mr. Ramsay, and ten years later, after the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay and two of the Ramsays' children, the trip is successfully executed by Mr. Ramsay and his children James and Cam. “The Window” is the longest section of the book, but it takes place in a single day and focuses primarily on the character Mrs. Ramsay, a beautiful, placid, upper-middle-class Victorian wife and mother who devotes herself to family and friends. The years between the planned trip to the lighthouse and the actual event are poetically recounted in the short section “Time Passes,” in which the effects of time are illustrated in a description of the slow decay of the Ramsays’ empty vacation home, combined with flashes of imagery of World War I, the physical aging of the characters, and death. Lily Briscoe becomes the dominant character in the third section, “The Lighthouse.” A struggling artist who never married—despite Mrs. Ramsay’s attempts to play matchmaker for her—Lily mourns the loss of Mrs. Ramsay, whom she alternately adores and misunderstands, and attempts to resolve her feelings about Mr. Ramsay, whom she considers at times overly philosophical, arrogant, and detached. Lily also must come to terms with her own decision not to marry and to pursue work as an artist, despite social pressure to lead a more conventional life. In the final scene of the novel, Mr. Ramsay and his children reach the lighthouse at last, and Lily finishes the painting she has been working on throughout the novel, both acts signifying the characters’ attainment of an integrated vision of life, art, and death.

Major Themes

After the novel’s publication, Woolf wrote of her depiction of her parents’ marriage in To the Lighthouse, “I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act.” Her own mother had died suddenly when Woolf was thirteen. Considered a model wife and mother, Julia Stephen was known to exhaust herself regularly to please her demanding husband, the writer and intellectual figure Leslie Stephen. But Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are heavily fictionalized portrayals of Woolf’s parents, and neither they nor the other characters in To the Lighthouse are meant to fully represent the Stephen family; rather, they are extremely complex, symbolic, and, some say, mythical figures who are not easily categorized. Literary theorists are sharply divided over the deeper meanings of Woolf’s characters. Some interpret Mrs. Ramsay as the embodiment of the feminine ideal and Mr. Ramsay as that of the masculine ideal—the pure, elemental forces of the genders. Feminist critics dispute this notion, positing instead that the Ramsays’ marriage is typical of most marriages in the pre-World War I period, forcing the wife into the role of “angel of the house”—unquestioning, supportive, generous, and self-sacrificing at any cost to personal ambition and satisfaction. These critics consider Mr. Ramsay an overbearing and domineering patriarch who drives his wife to the brink of feeble-mindedness. Still others surmise just the opposite: namely, that Mrs. Ramsay is a cold-hearted, social-climbing harpy, and Mr. Ramsay a hen-pecked husband. Regardless of conflicting interpretations of the Ramsays, Lily Briscoe is generally considered representative of Woolf’s strong feminist principles, particularly in her refusal to marry and her commitment to painting, despite the urging of others to abandon art. Overriding concerns of To the Lighthouse and all of its characters are death, mourning, and the inexorable passage of time. When Mrs. Ramsay dies, she takes with her the sense of order in the family; children die, Lily and Mr. Ramsay fall into abiding grief, and even the house itself declines into disrepair. The consummation of the trip to the lighthouse and Lily’s completion of her painting, with a single line down the center representing Mrs. Ramsay, signify the triumph of order over disorder and life over death and grief.

Critical Reception

To the Lighthouse has sustained critical predominance in Woolf’s canon since its publication in 1927. It is widely considered her most successful use of stream-of-consciousness narrative, nonlinear plot, and interior monologue, crisply identifying characters without the formal structure of chronological time and omniscient narration, as well as her most perfectly realized fictional reflection on mortality, subjectivity, and the passage of time. The novel is often described as an elegy to Woolf’s mother, and as such it is thought to be a complex and poetic character study, incorporating all facets of personality, including emotions dark and hopeless. In her diary Woolf recorded her many difficulties in writing To the Lighthouse, including her fears about reliving her parents’ deaths—events that precipitated two of her most devastating emotional breakdowns. But Woolf evidently realized the greater significance of To the Lighthouse beyond its fictional portrayal of her childhood; in a diary entry written during her final revision of the novel in 1926 she wrote, “My present opinion is that it is easily the best of my books,” an assessment with which most critics agree.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Voyage Out (novel) 1915

Kew Gardens (short stories) 1919

Night and Day (novel) 1919

Monday or Tuesday (short stories) 1921

Jacob's Room (novel) 1922

Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (criticism) 1924

The Common Reader (criticism) 1925

Mrs. Dalloway (novel) 1925

To the Lighthouse (novel) 1927

Orlando (novel) 1928

A Room of One's Own (essays) 1929

The Waves (novel) 1931

The Second Common Reader (criticism) 1932

Flush A Biography (biography) 1933

The Years (novel) 1937

Three Guineas (essays) 1938

Roger Fry (biography) 1940

Between the Acts (novel) 1941

The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays (essays) 1942

A Haunted House, and Other Short Stories (short stories) 1943

The Moment, and Other Essays (essays) 1947

The Captain's Death Bed, and Other Essays (essays) 1950

Granite and Rainbow (essays) 1958

Nurse Lugton’s Golden Thimble [also published as Nurse Lugton's Curtain] (juvenile) 1966

Collected Essays (essays) 1967

Moments of Being [edited by Jeanne Schulkind] (autobiographical essays) 1976

Freshwater [edited with a preface by Lucio P. Ruotolo] (comedy) 1976

The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf [edited by Susan Dick] (short stories) 1985

The Essays of Virginia Woolf [edited by Andrew McNeillie] (essays) 1986

Woolf Omnibus [contains Jacob's Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves] (novels) 1994

Joseph L. Blotner (essay date 1956)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mythic Patterns in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in PMLA, Vol. LXXI, No. 4, September 1956, pp. 547–62.

[In the following essay, Blotner argues for a mythic reading of To the Lighthouse, maintaining that both a coherent narrative plot and the final meaning of the novel can be located in the character of Mrs. Ramsay, who, according to Blotner, embodies the myth of the “Primordial Goddess” that includes the triad of Rhea, Demeter, and Persephone.]


The impulses and convictions which gave birth to Three Guineas and A Room of One's Own carried over into Virginia Woolf's fiction. Their most powerful expression is...

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Ruby Cohn (essay date 1962)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Art in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Summer, 1962, pp. 127–36.

[In the following essay, Cohn describes Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe as “magnetic poles,” representing, respectively, the forces of life and art.]

When Mr. Ramsay lands on the lighthouse rock, Lily Briscoe finishes her painting. All critics agree on the intimate and essential relation between these final events of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse.1 Several critics have commented, too, on how Lily Briscoe's painting structures the book.2 But there has not been adequate appreciation of the way in which the theme of art...

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John Edward Hardy (essay date 1964)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Vision Without Promise,” in Man in the Modern Novel, University of Washington Press, 1964, pp. 96–122.

[In the following essay, Hardy argues that Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay represent the “Masculine Principle and the Feminine Principle” and, as such, symbolize the tension between subject and object and their respective places in reality.]

It would seem impossible to construct the problem of human identity apart from consideration of the mysteries of sex and procreation. The sexual character of the human individual, however inevitably mixed, no one person purely male or purely female—and, indeed, this indecisiveness only serves to emphasize the importance...

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Helen Storm Corsa (essay date 1971)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘To the Lighthouse’: Death, Mourning, and Transfiguration,” in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XXI, No. 3, 1971, pp. 115–31.

[In the following essay, Corsa discusses the ways in which To the Lighthouse follows the typical psychological patterns of mourning and Woolf's own efforts to come to terms with the persistent presence of “death in life.”]

In this present year of 1970 Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse has had two interpretive studies that seem to me to have rather impressively explored two important levels of the novel: the conscious and the unconscious. Jean O. Love's Worlds in Consciousness1 examines Mrs....

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Sharon Wood Proudfit (essay date 1971)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Lily Brisco's Painting: A Key to Personal Relationships in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Criticism, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Winter, 1971, pp. 26–38.

[In the following essay, Proudfit contends that the meaning of To the Lighthouse, and particularly the figure of Mrs. Ramsay, is largely contained in the post-Impressionistic quality of Lily Briscoe's painting and in Lily's ambiguous relationship to Mrs. Ramsay.]

It has become almost commonplace among critics of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse to regard Mrs. Ramsay, unquestionably one of the most perfect statements of feminine sensibility, intuition, and maternal comfort in literature, as a...

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Alvin J. Seltzer (essay date 1974)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Tension of Stalemate,” in Chaos in the Novel/The Novel in Chaos, Schocken Books, 1974, pp. 120–140.

[In the following essay, Seltzer examines the inherent lack of integrity and stability in the human personality and the resultant personal and social distance and, ultimately, chaos as chronicled by Woolf in To the Lighthouse.]

Many contemporary novelists have surrendered a good deal or all of their artistic control to the belief that a chaotic vision of life can be truly represented only by a chaotic form. To the extent that artifice is falsification, its presence would seem to undermine the confusion that the author is trying to project. But must all...

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Norman Friedman (essay date 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Waters of Annihilation: Symbols and Double Vision in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Form and Meaning in Fiction, The University of Georgia Press, 1975, pp. 340–58.

[In the following essay, Friedman argues in favor of multiple interpretations of the symbolism in To the Lighthouse,particularly because of Woolf's belief in the supremacy of the individual's inner life over any artificially imposed outer reality.]

So much depends then, thought Lily Briscoe, looking at the sea, which had scarcely a stain on it, … upon distance: whether people are near or far from us.

(To the Lighthouse,...

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Jack F. Stewart (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Light in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 23, No. 3, October, 1977, pp. 377–89.

[In the following essay, Stewart explores the various meanings of darkness and light in the three sections of To the Lighthouse.]

The essence of the Lighthouse symbol is Light itself. In “The Window,” Light is the positive force of visionary consciousness; in “Time Passes,” it is the negative counterpart of departed consciousness; and in “The Lighthouse,” it is the reanimation of consciousness in a creative rhythm that seeks spiritual and aesthetic Oneness.

At its first appearance in To the...

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Ian Gregor (essay date 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Spaces: ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in The Author in His Work: Essays on a Problem in Criticism, edited by Louis L. Martz and Aubrey Williams, Yale University Press, 1978, pp. 375–89.

[In the following essay, Gregor argues that the autobiographical elements in To the Lighthouse ultimately compromise the novel's success because of Woolf's difficulty in distancing herself from her narrative and her characters.]

I, I, I,—how we have lost the secret of saying that.1

—Virginia Woolf


On Wednesday, 28, November 1928, a year after the publication of...

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Martin Corner (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mysticism and Atheism in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 13, Winter, 1981, pp. 408–23.

[In the following essay, Corner discusses what he sees as Woolf's intersection of atheism and mysticism in To the Lighthouse, finding that the characters come to have faith in a greater pattern but still recognize the universe as other.]


Virginia Woolf was an atheist: she was also a mystic. Both the mysticism and the atheism are there in some words that she wrote not long before her death. She is talking about the sudden shocks that life delivers, and of how she no longer finds in them “an enemy hidden behind...

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Jane Lilienfeld (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Where the Spear Plants Grew: the Ramsays' Marriage in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, edited by Jane Marcus, University of Nebraska Press, 1981, pp. 148–69.

[In the following essay, Lilienfeld contends that the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay is founded on Victorian social and personal principles that are destructive to them both and that Woolf, in To the Lighthouse, is attempting to offer an alternative in the third part of the novel.]

They had reached the gap between two clumps of red-hot pokers. … No, they could not share that; they could not say that. … They turned away from the view,...

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Bruce Bassoff (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tables in Trees: Realism in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 16, No. 4, Winter, 1984, pp. 424–434.

[In the following essay, Bassoff argues that in To the Lighthouse realism is centered on individual sight and experience.]

Toward the beginning of To the Lighthouse, young James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from an illustrated catalogue, endows one of the pictures with all the “heavenly bliss” he feels as his mother speaks.1 As the child is father to the man, moments like these are the prototypes of the Woolfian epiphany or spot of time: the moment when some consciousness—either...

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Jack F. Stewart (essay date 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Color in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 31, Winter, 1985, pp. 438–58.

[In the following essay, Stewart compares Woolf's literary technique in To the Lighthouse with the artistic techniques—particularly the use of color—of painters of the post-Impressionist movement.]

According to Virginia Woolf, “painting and writing … have much in common. The novelist after all wants to make us see. … It is a very complex business, the mixing and marrying of words that goes on, probably unconsciously, in the poet's mind to feed the reader's eye. All great writers are great colourists. …”1 While...

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Mary Lou Emery (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Robbed of Meaning’: The Work at the Center of ‘To The Lighthouse,’” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp.217–34.

[In the following essay, Emery examines patriarchal and colonialist elements in To the Lighthouse.]


Critiques of “Western feminism” have demonstrated convincingly that much of feminist discourse constructs its subject through processes of exclusion (see, for example, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Chandra T. Mohanty, Biddy Martin and Chandra T. Mohanty, and Gayatri C. Spivak's “Texts” and “Foreword”). A passage from Virginia Woolf's well-known essay “A Room of One's Own”...

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Rebecca Saunders (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Language, Subject, Self: Reading the Style of ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 2, Winter, 1993, pp. 192–213.

[In the following essay, Saunders discusses Woolf's style in To the Lighthouse and its relation to the notion of self that she constructs.]


The project of this paper is to investigate the relationship of Virginia Woolf's style in To the Lighthouse to concepts of the self—both to establish the significance of this style to the individual “selves” within the novel and to investigate the notion of self in abstracto that is constructed...

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Martha C. Nussbaum (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia Woolf's ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in New Literary History, Vol. 26, Autumn, 1995, pp. 731–53.

[In the following essay, which was originally presented at the Seventeenth International Wittgenstein Symposium in Kirchberg/Wechsel, Austria, in 1994, Nussbaum discusses the ability of people to know and understand the minds of others as Woolf sets forth her theory in To the Lighthouse.]

“How, then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were?”1 Sitting close to Mrs. Ramsay, “close as she could get” (78), her arms around Mrs. Ramsay's knees,...

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Eric P. Levy (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Woolf's Metaphysics of Tragic Vision in ‘To the Lighthouse,’” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 75, Winter, 1996, pp. 109–32.

[In the following essay, Levy argues that “at the most profound level, To the Lighthouse portrays the journey toward tragic vision, where the object perceived is the transience of the perceiving subject and the tendency of time to efface the structure on which personal stability depends.”]

In “The Brown Stocking,” a much quoted chapter of his celebrated study, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Eric Auerbach argues that To the Lighthouse inverts the conventional...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Barr, Tina. “Divine Politics: Virginia Woolf’s Journey toward Eleusis in To the Lighthouse.Boundary 2 20, No. 1 (Spring 1993): 125–45.

Discusses To the Lighthousein terms of the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone in order to locate the novel’s full political and feminist implications.

Barzilai, Shula. “The Politics of Quotation in To the Lighthouse: Mrs. Woolf Recites Mr. Tennyson and Mr. Cowper.” Literature and Psychology XLI, No. 3 (1995): 22–43.

Considers the significance of Woolf’s repetition of passages from Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”...

(The entire section is 909 words.)