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.