To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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What does the lighthouse symbolize in To the Lighthouse?

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As something both illuminating and out of reach, the lighthouse symbolizes different things for different characters. The existence of multiple standpoints is a common feature of literary modernism, especially in the works of Virginia Woolf. Therefore, the lighthouse does not symbolize just one thing; it is open to a wide variety of interpretations.

For little James, it's a source of childish excitement. He constantly badgers his mother to take him on the short trip across the bay to this beguiling source of light. Yet for one reason or another, the trip never takes place. The lighthouse, then, could be said to represent the sense of wonder each of us has in our childhood, but which we subsequently lose once we reach adulthood.

As for Mr. Ramsay, the lighthouse symbolizes what he fondly believes is the love he shares with his wife. Like the lighthouse, this is supposed to be something permanent and illuminating. Yet like little James, Mr. Ramsay's perspective is partial and distorted. He doesn't realize that his feelings for his wife are not fully reciprocated. It's instructive that Mrs. Ramsay can't even bring herself to say that she loves her husband. That's not to say that she doesn't love him; it's just that her feelings for him are not as intense as his are for her.

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How does the Lighthouse act as a symbol throughout To the Lighthouse?

The lighthouse acts as a symbol throughout the novel of different and competing versions of reality that are created through the passing of the years, emotions or subjective experience. This is shown most clearly in Chapter VIII, when James, on the Ramsay's boat that is approaching the lighthouse, reflects on the different images he has of the lighthouse in his mind. Note what he ponders:

The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening. Now—
James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?
No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.

He deliberately remembers the memories of the lighthouse thathe has a child, when it assumed an important place in his imagination, becoming a "misty-looking tower with a yellow eye." Now, however, the lighthouse appears practical and functional and nothing to excite the imagination. As he decides about which "version" of the lighthouse is actually real, he realises that this is the wrong question to asks, as both lighthouses are actually "true," even though they are so different from each other. What James has to do is to allow both of these contradictory images to be reconciled into one unifying truth. This is the challenge that faces the characters in this novel, and the reader, as to admit the contradictory nature of all things and to reconcile those differences is to enjoy a richer understanding of life.

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