To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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In To the Lighthouse, what are the major motifs/symbols and concerns of the novel?

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The lighthouse is a major symbol that has multiple meanings: it serves as a symbol of desire, a symbol of aloneness (especially in light of the Cowper poem "The Castaway" quoted in the novel: "we perished, each alone"), and a symbol of patriarchy (phallic, remote, identified with Mr. Ramsay's will, tended by a man), among other things. Another important motif is the alphabet, with Mr. Ramsay's intellect, formidable as it is, only getting as far as the letter "Q"; he has limitations. The lines from the poem "Luriana Lulilee" by Charles Elton in which Mrs. Ramsay finds joy—"The china rose is all abloom / And buzzing with the yellow bee"—symbolize beauty in the ordinary rhythms of life. The boar's skull in the nursery, which James fears, symbolizes the threatening and the frightening, which can be veiled but not eradicated.

Central concerns are the influence of patriarchal family on its members, the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, marriage (for example, Mrs. Ramsay as matchmaker and Lily Briscoe's refusal to marry), death, the denigration of women, the role of the artist, and childhood. Woolf is centrally concerned with capturing what she calls "moments of being"—the seemingly ordinary moments in which the world flares into life, the moments that stick in the memory when a hundred or a thousand similar moments disappear. She wants us to notice the breeze flapping the blind or the way the light falls on a bowl of fruit. She communicates that much of what is most important in life happens in these seemingly insignificant moments of being.

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If you look at the very beginning of the novel, one of the symbols is the lighthouse itself.  Because of the fact that it is solid and unchanging, unlike the weather (which the father is particularly concerned with) it can act as a goal, something for people to reach out to in the midst of so many of life's uncertainties.

Another symbol, in some ways, is the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay as it mirrors that of Woolf's parents own marriage.  Their respect for each other's ambitions as well as the particular cares they have about certain issues is well evidenced and is very similar to the reputation of Woolf's parents.

For the concerns and themes of the novel, the guide below is fantastic, but one of the main ones, as in most literature about that time, is the impact of WWI on not only the political and economic climate but also the psyche of the characters themselves.

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