Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Departing from the nineteenth century formalities of literary realism, Virginia Woolf pioneered, along with James Joyce and William Faulkner, the stream-of-consciousness technique employed in To the Lighthouse. Composed of three discrete but intimately related sections, the novel provides a poetic examination of English Victorian domesticity and social roles.

Woolf stealthily weaves through her characters’ psyches to reveal realities that are not necessarily apparent in either their actions or their speech. Section 1, aptly entitled “The Window,” invites the reader’s observation of the Ramsays’ summer household. Mrs. Ramsay sits by the window with James. She has promised him that they will sail to the lighthouse tomorrow to take provisions to the lighthouse keeper and his son. When Mr. Ramsay, backed by Charles Tansley, insists that the weather will prevent their journey, an angry Mrs. Ramsay offers a more optimistic forecast. It is Mr. Ramsay’s pursuit of Truth without any regard for people’s feelings that so upsets her. Although Mr. Ramsay repeatedly offends Mrs. Ramsay, she remains the dutiful Victorian wife, accepting his word over hers, accompanying him on silent strolls, and making him feel needed although she is the one who truly rules the house.

Standing at her easel a distance from the window, Lily Briscoe works to capture Mrs. Ramsay and James on canvas. William Bankes lounges nearby. Mrs. Ramsay invites...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Summerhouse. Ramshackle Victorian house on an island in the Hebrides that accommodates both the large Ramsay family and their friends. It is here that Mrs. Ramsay is in her element, ministering endlessly to the needs of her husband, children, and guests. Whether in her parlor knitting, presiding over the dinner table, or tucking her children into bed, Mrs. Ramsay is the life and soul of the house. However, while the nearby lighthouse seems to endure without change, the summerhouse gradually deteriorates over time. Neglected after a series of family deaths, the house succumbs to the forces of nature and falls into disrepair. While the lighthouse—always a symbol of timeless serenity—can withstand the sea and the weather, the Ramsay house is at the mercy of these elements. Similarly, the members of the Ramsay family themselves are at the mercy of a series of upheavals that devastate their lives, particularly the untimely deaths of Mrs. Ramsay of heart-failure and of one of her sons on the battlefields of World War I. The passage of time wreaks havoc on both the family and their home, marking the end of the Edwardian world in which Virginia Woolf herself had spent her childhood. Eventually, however, after the war, the house is restored to good order, and Mr. Ramsay and his two youngest children, along with Lily Briscoe and an old poet-friend of the family, return to it to try to put their lives back together.


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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The small revolutions fought by Lily for choosing against marriage, by Minta for wearing a torn stocking, and by Cam for refusing to give Mr. Bankes a flower are representative of the literary and social revolutions inspired by the publication of To the Lighthouse. By the time that the novel was published, Woolf had already achieved critical acclaim and was an outspoken member of the Bloomsbury group. She was constantly engaging the dominant voices of her society, and her ideas about gender and domestic life were seriously addressed as a consequence.

To the Lighthouse does not provide solutions to the problems of sexual polarization. In fact, Lily’s androgynous convergence is far from ideal. By raising the issues of gender so honestly and openly in her novel, however, Woolf laid the foundations for a feminist discourse that has not lost its momentum.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

World War I
World War I began in 1914, the result of an unresolved and perilous series of Balkan Crises. When Archduke...

(The entire section is 700 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

A coastal town in Cornwall, England, the setting of To the Lighthouse. Published by Gale Cengage

Stream of Consciousness
The narrative technique that Woolf uses for most of To the Lighthouse is...

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Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1910s: Unrest grows in Tsarist Russia as the oppressive state cracks down on reformers and activists.


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Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Virginia Woolf summed up James Joyce's writing style as "the work of a queasy adolescent fingering his pimples." Look at the different...

(The entire section is 337 words.)

Techniques / Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Woolf's technique of narrating through a stream-of-consciousness and imagery reached their full potential in To the Lighthouse. The...

(The entire section is 279 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) produced a dramatization of To the Lighthouse for British television in 1983. Kenneth...

(The entire section is 75 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf's 1925 novel about a day in the life of the titular character, is not only a...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Eric Auerbach, "The Brown Stocking," in his Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western...

(The entire section is 901 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 455 words.)