To the Lighthouse Themes
by Virginia Woolf

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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

To the Lighthouse is considered to be a semi-autobiographical text which recollects family holidays which Woolf took with her family at St. Ives, Cornwall, although the novel is set in the Hebrides.

"The Window" is the first of the novel's three sections. It is the longest and describes in detail a summer day on which Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay along with their eight children and several guests are on holiday. Among these favored guests are the poet Augustus Carmichael, the painter Lily Briscoe and the academic Charles Tansley. On this holiday, there is much family anxiety as James, the youngest child, wants to visit the lighthouse in spite of his father's desire to thwart his attempts to do so. This section of the text resolves around a dinner party as Mrs. Ramsay reflects on change.

"Time Passes" follows with the death of Mrs. Ramsay and of her son, Andrew, who is killed in the War. Woolf's lyricism flows throughout this section as the family home is abandoned and is ostensibly renewed during the postwar period with the arrival of Lily Briscoe and Mr. Carmichael. "The Lighthouse" sees Lily Briscoe successfully complete a revelation o( shape-in-chaos which she believes she owes to Mrs. Ramsay, and the pilgrimage of Mr. Ramsay, Camilla, and James to the lighthouse explores the rivalry and loss which torment them.

Woolf's concerns here are both personal and social: She represents in her novel the pain of grieving and the weight of the past, either real or imagined, and the effects of both on the individual. There is, through the comparisons and contrasts made through the central figures of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe, a discussion of women's sexuality, creativity, and subjectivity which draws out Woolf's analysis if masculine and feminine texts and of the gendering of modes of perception.


(Novels for Students)

In To the Lighthouse, the Great War takes place during the "Time Passes" section. The structure of the novel reflects the impact of World War I on European society. Part One is set in the golden haze of prewar innocence and love. Mr. Ramsay entertains himself by reciting Lord Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade," a poem about death during the Crimean War, which valorizes the heroism of the then-unprecedented loss of a cavalry unit. Tennyson's celebration of patriotism and glorious death would be rejected by the traumatized survivors of the Great War who had witnessed death on a scale unimaginable to the Victorian poet. As Wilfred Owen wrote, World War I ended "that great lie—Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori [it is sweet and proper to die for one's country]." Owen himself would not make it home from the war.

During the middle section of Woolf's novel, the scarifying time period of 1914 to 1918 is represented by the death that comes to many of the characters, including Mrs. Ramsay and Andrew, who is killed in combat by a shell. Part Two is concerned with survivors, with a shell-shocked culture attempting to come to terms with its losses. The war marks an end to many of the old ways of life, a change in social climate and the first rumblings of collapse for the British institutions so important to the older characters, especially the Indian Empire. Britain would not grant control to India until 1947, but as Woolf s novel shows, the younger, postwar generation was already beginning to question the culture of empire building.

Debates about philosophy, particularly theories about visual reality, figure prominently in To the Lighthouse . In the first section of the novel, "The Window," Mr. Ramsay, an Oxford philosopher, does his work on the three main philosophers of British empiricism, John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. The basic argument of Empiricism is that human concepts and beliefs apply to a world outside oneself, and that it is by way of the senses that this world acts upon the individual. The question that is debated is just how much the mind itself contributes to the task of processing its sensory input. One of the...

(The entire section is 1,394 words.)