To the Lighthouse Analysis
by Virginia Woolf

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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 Charles Tansley to join her for a walk into town, where she makes social calls and visits the sick. Mrs. Ramsay also spends time knitting, and Mr. Tansley discusses philosophy with Mr. Ramsay. In the meantime, the children play outside.

Andrew and Nancy have embarked upon a daring walk along the cliffs with Minta and Paul. Stealing a moment alone, Minta and Paul embrace, causing temporary discomfort to Nancy and Andrew, who spy the couple from afar. Having lost her grandmother’s brooch among the rocks, Minta provides Paul with the opportunity to conduct a heroic search. Unable to find the brooch before the tide rolls in, he devises a chivalric plan to present her with a new one. Their search for the brooch causes their late return to the house, leading Mrs. Ramsay first to worry and then to agitation, since they will disrupt her perfectly planned dinner.

The dinner, nevertheless, is a victory for Mrs. Ramsay, affording positive moments of cohesion for most present, though not without its bobbles. After dinner, Mrs. Ramsay picks up the nursemaid’s slack: She successfully puts James and Cam to bed by solving the dilemma of a decorative, but frightening, boar’s skull that keeps the children awake. She then joins her husband in the library while some of the guests go out to watch the waves.

Section 2, “Time Passes,” is short in length but covers ten years in time. Detailing the house’s deterioration, this section also brings news of World War I and the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew, which are announced in parenthetical asides.

The third and final section, “The Lighthouse,” introduces the return of Mr. Ramsay, Cam, James, Lily, and Mr. Carmichael to the Ramsay home on the Isle of Skye. With their enthusiasm for the trip to the lighthouse completely disintegrated, James and Cam nevertheless concede to their father’s insistence. Forgoing the trip herself, Lily remains on shore and completes the painting of Mrs. Ramsay and James that she had begun ten years earlier.

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....

(The entire section is 4,677 words.)