To the Lighthouse | Summary, Analysis, PDF, Audiobook

To the Lighthouse | Summary, Analysis, PDF, Audiobook

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf


To the Lighthouse was published in 1927, two years after Mrs. Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway was written and it has been generally regarded as an admirable piece of workmanship. It is the most widely admired of Mrs. Woolf’s novels, and it has been a great favourite with the reading public, F.R. Leavis regards it not merely as her best novel, but also as her only good one. As soon as it was published, it became the best-seller in her novels, and it has remained her most persistently praised book.

To the Lighthouse Setting

The scene is laid in the Island of Skye in the Hebrides, near the west coast of Scotland. The Ramsays have their summer house there and they come to it with their eight children and a number of guests. The isolation of a few characters in a remote island results in intensity of effect. The author is able to concentrate on two or three main figures, and the gain in intensity is enormous. In this way, she is able to create a number of life-like, interesting, rounded figures, who once we are accounted with them, linger long in the memory.

To the Lighthouse Characters

Mrs. Ramsay, the mother of eight children, is a middle-aged woman, of great charm and fascination. She is the central figure in the novel. She, her husband and eight children, are at their home in the Hebrides. Mr Ramsay is a scholar, a philosopher, honoured by several universities. They have a number of guests staying with them. Charles Tansley, a disagreeable young man with a pod brain is a student of her husband’s. Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley are a young man and girl destined to fall in love. There is Augustus Carmichael, an old gentleman, a poet; and Lily Briscoe, who paints, and who (Mrs. Ramsay is afraid) will never marry. There is also William Bankes, an old friend of Mr Ramsay’s. They are all staying at the summer-house of the Ramsays, except William Bankes and Lily Briscoe who have rented rooms in the village, for the Ramsays’ house is not a big one.

The novel is of great autobiographical significance for the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are drawn to a great extent after the novelist’s parents, and she has put much of her own self in the character of Lily Briscoe, the painter. F.R. Leavis is of the view that the novel’s autobiographical basis accounts for much of its popularity. However it should be remembered that it is a work of art, and not an autobiography, and as such, there is considerable altering and modifying of biographical facts. Nor is a knowledge of biography necessary for an understanding of the novel.

Three-part Structure of the Novel

To the Lighthouse is the only novel of Mrs. Woolf which has a three part structure. The first part is called The Window; the second Time Passes, and the third The Lighthouse. The first section gives us the personality of Mrs. Ramsay, and the personality of Mr. Ramsay, through the eyes of James, Lily Briscoe, Charles Tansley, William Bankes and the rest of the guests they are there, isolated in Skye, to give us as full and as varied a view as possible, of the principal characters. Then, in the second section memory begins its task-memory curiously operative in the mind of old Mrs. McNab, the charwoman. We see Mrs. Ramsay and the rest as reflected in a very simple mind which can give a detached, if elementary judgment. In the third part Mrs. Ramsay is seen through the memory of Lily Briscoe. The resulting portrait of Mrs. Ramsay is incomparably rich and living. Indeed, she is the centre which holds the novel together. If she is withdrawn, the novel would fall to pieces.

To the Lighthouse Summary

The story of the novel is quite simple, and can be told briefly. The lighthouse that shines out at night, at a distance from the island of Skye where the Ramsays are spending their holidays in their summer-house with a group of friends, is the point, both material and symbolic, towards which all the lines of the novel converge. As the novel opens, we are shown James Ramsay, six years old, cutting out pictures from an old catalogue as he sits at the feet of his mother, who is knitting by the window. He is keen to go to the Lighthouse tomorrow, thus realising his profoundest dream. He shall go if it is fine, Mrs. Ramsay says. But it won’t be fine, Mr. Ramsay declares. The day draws to a close, a day like many other days, made up of petty events: the children play, Lily Briscoe paints, Carmichael dozes and dreams, Tansley argues with his master Mr. Ramsay, Mrs. Ramsay knits and James cuts out pictures from the catalogue.

Soon it is evening. The dinner gong summons them all to table to enjoy boeuf en daube, a French dish prepared specially for the occasion, for Mr. Bankes is dinning with them that evening. The children go to bed, the young people go off to the beach to have a walk, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay read. It will rain tomorrow. The evening is as empty and yet as full and almost as long as Clarissa Dalloway’s (in Mrs. Dalloway) day. Whereas the latter took its rhythm from the hours struck by Big Ben, here only the changing light in the garden marks the flow of time and the unchanging noise of the waves holds the evening motionless. The characters through their physical closeness create a multiplicity of contacts, but each also withdraws into his haunted solitude. Though living together, each is an isolated soul.

Then night comes in, everybody comes indoor, the lights go out, and that night, that few hours’ withdrawal, blends with the darkness and withdrawal of ten years’ absence that flows over the empty house in twenty-five pages in which marriages, births and deaths are recorded in parenthesis. This is the second part which, after the personal reign of day, asserts the impersonal passing of time, and the fall of night, chaos and decay.

And as morning dawns after these successive nights merged into one, the guests again return to the summer house. Mrs. Ramsay is dead but her spirit, her ‘essence’ lives on and continues to influence other characters. James starts off for the Lighthouse with his sister Cam and his father, while Lily Briscoe sets up her easel where it must have stood ten years ago and completes her painting, realizing her vision at the same moment as James lands at the lighthouse and thus realises his dream. In the intensity of this second moment, duration (psychological time) has revived and triumphed over time (clock time triumphed even over death, since Mrs. Ramsay, who was dead, haunts these pages with a presence that echoes the material permanence of the lighthouse.

The Stream of Consciousness

The story of the novel, as briefly narrated above, does not contain any sensations and thrills. There are no murders, no street fights, no blood-shed, no long lost heirs, no mystery, none of the conventional stock-in trade of the novelists. As a matter of fact, To the Lighthouse is not a conventional novel. It marks a complete break with the 19th century tradition of the English novel It is, “a stream of consciousness”, novel but with a difference. The novelist has freely exploited the interior monologues of the different characters. Each of the important character is viewed through his or her own thoughts and actions, as well as through the consciousness of other characters. In other words, each character is presented through the use of the multiple point of view”, technique. The consciousness of one or more characters is focused on other characters, we get their reflection and reactions, and in this way are created strangely living, rich, complex and fascinating personalities Mrs. Woolf’s aim was to capture reality, the fluidity of life itself the “semitransparent envelope” and she has fully succeeded in doing so.

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Technique of Narration

However, to the Lighthouse differs from the other “stream of consciousness” novels in the fact that a central intelligence the novelist, as narrator–is always at work shifting, selecting, and organising the chaotic material. As David Daiches points out there is a careful weaving together of characters’ consciousness, thor’s comments, and one character’s view of another.” This makes to the Lighthouse a masterpiece of construction. It is not chaotic and incoherent like most stream of consciousness” novels, but a well-organised and well-integrated work of art. Says David Daiches,

“To the Lighthouse is a work in which plot, locale, and treatment are so carefully bound up with each other that the resulting whole is more finely organized and more effective than anything else Virginia Woolf wrote. The setting in an indefinite island off the north-west coast of Scotland enables her to indulge in her characteristic symbolic rarefactions with maximum effect, for here form and content fit perfectly and inevitably, Middle-class London is not, perhaps, the best scene for a tenuous meditative work of this kind, and Mrs. Dalloway might be said to suffer from a certain incompatibility between the content and the method of treatment. A misty island is more effective than a London dinner party as the setting for a novel of indirect philosophic suggestion, and as a result, qualities of Virginia Woolf’s writing which in her other works tend to appear, if not as faults at least as of doubtful appropriateness, are seen in this work to their fullest advantage. In To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf found a subject that enabled her to do full justice to her technique.”

Symbolism in To the Lighthouse

Since the purpose of the novelist was to convey inner reality or psychological truths, she has made extensive use of symbolism to increase the expressive range of her language. The window, the sea and the waves, the various characters or group of characters, are important symbols, but the most important symbol is the lighthouse whose light is seen shining throughout the novel. The lighthouse itself, standing lonely in the midst of the sea, is a symbol of the individual who is at once a unique being, and a part of the flux of history. To reach the lighthouse is, in a sense, to make contact with a truth outside oneself to surrender the uniqueness of one’s ego to an impersonal reality.

Mr. Ramsay, who is an egotist, constantly seeking applause and encouragement from others, resents his young son’s enthusiasm for visiting the lighthouse, and only years later, when his wife has died and his own life is almost worn out, does he win this freedom from self and it is significant that Virginia Woolf makes Mr. Ramsay escape from his egotistic pre-occupations for the first time just before the boat finally reaches the lighthouse. Indeed, the personal grudges nourished by each of the characters fall away just as they arrive: Mr. Ramsay ceases to pose with his book and breaks out with an exclamation of admiration for James’s steering: James and his sister Cam lose their resentment at their father’s way of bullying them into this expedition and cease hugging their grievances: What do you want ? they both wanted to ask They both wanted to say, “Ask us anything and we will give it to you.” But he did not ask them anything. And at the moment when they land Lily Briscoe and old Mr. Carmichael, who had not joined the expedition, suddenly develop a mood of tolerance and compassion for mankind, and Lily has the vision which enables her to complete her picture

To the Lighthouse Themes

To the Lighthouse is a complex work of art, and as such suggest a number of themes and ideas. Different critics have interpreted it in different ways. Thus according to Blackstone, its dominant themes are (1) love, married life and family, and (2) self-shedding and self-dramatisation. According to David Daiches the main theme is the relation of personality, death, and time to each other, the relation of the individual to sum of experience in general. According to others its theme is the contrast between the rational and logical approach and the emotional and intuitive approach to the problems of life, as symbolised by Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, Others are of the view that its theme is the contrast between the permanence of art and the transitory nature of human life. According to Norman Friedman the novel studies, “Subject and object and the nature of reality”. In other words, the novel examines (a) the relationship of one person to another (b) the relation of man to nature, and (c) the relation of art to life.


In the end, let us quote in some detail from Bernard Blackstone to indicate the strange fascination the novel has exercised upon its readers. “The book is incredibly rich, it is packed with thought, with emotion, and with integrated and elaborate imagery. It is a living whole: and such a whole, though bearing upon it no mark of efforts, could not have been brought forth without great labour. By cutting out almost entirely the element of plot Virginia Woolf has made possible for herself an unparalleled depth of psychological description. There is no more living character in fiction than Mrs. Ramsay, Lily Briscoe, Charles Tansley and the rest. down to Mrs. McNab, are all given in the round, there are no two-dimensional characters. And with all this, there are the riches of thought, the exploration of points of view and the consideration of ultimate issues, which never get out of hand or detach themselves from the living framework of the book. To read any ordinary novel after reading To the Lighthouse is to feel oneself turning from the light of day into the world of puppets and paste-board.

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