To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf | Themes

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf | Themes

To the Lighthouse Themes

To the Lighthouse is a complex work of art and as such it suggests a number of themes and ideas. It is for this reason that different critics have interpreted it in different ways. Writes Norman Friedman, while there is a general agreement that To The Lighthouse centres on questions of order and chaos, male and female, permanence and change, and intellection and intuition, the critics are far from unanimous in the actual tracing out of these themes.

Multiple Point of View

These examples could be multiplied, but the dominant tendency is to interpret the thematic conflict as an antithesis of two mutually exclusive terms, one of which must be rejected in favour of the other. The full significance of the trip to the lighthouse is not grasped. It is usually seen as a one way affair. But a closer study of the novel shows that this either or strategy is not adequate for dealing with the multiplicity of points of view through which each character is seen in the first section, the descending and the ascending movement of the second section, and the shifting simultaneity of events which shapes the third.

Subject, Object and Nature of Reality

In answer to a question of Lily about the content of his father’s books, Andrew replies, “Subject and object and the nature of reality”. “And it is exactly this problem which works its way through the novel on three levels human relations, metaphysics and aesthetics. The novel can be seen to have been built around the problem of how the knower looks at the known, how one person looks at another, how man looks at nature, and how the artist looks at life. Further, the overall quality of this relationship may be subsumed under the headings of order, a triumph over life’s meaningless flux and chaos, a giving way to its all but irresistible force, or a blank confrontation of its stark emptiness”.

Study of Human Relationships

To the Lighthouse shows us various fictional characters, trying with various degrees of success to establish relationship with the people. Part 1 of the novel deals chiefly with the relation of self to others. It soon becomes evident that no one single trait or characteristic of a person can be seized upon and cherished in order to know him or her. Mrs. Ramsay, for instance, is a charmingly warm and beautiful woman, yet annoyingly concerned with ordering the lives of others, as is clear from the resentment which many of her circle show against her mania for marriage. Although she is maternal, intuitive involved in life’s common cares and capable of an unreasoning fear when she allows herself to dwell upon the tragic fragility of human life, she nevertheless is capable also of a triumphantly mystical detachment wherein life’s inscrutable mystery appears. Man is a double being and as such, double vision or multiple perspective is necessary to understand him.

Mr. Ramsay is a self-dramatizing domestic tyrant, yet he is also admirable as a lone watcher at the dark frontiers of human ignorance. A detached and lonely philosopher, he, nevertheless, craves the contact of his wife and children. He is grim, yet optimistic, austere, yet fearful for his reputation, petty and selfish, and yet capable of losing himself completely in a novel of Scott; aloof, yet he thrives on the simple company and the humble fare of fishermen.

Lily Briscoe also is a complex figure, a spinster, disinterested in ordinary sexual attachment; she is nevertheless capable of a fierce outburst of love. She is an artist, perpetually worried by a blank canvas, but she is able to find a solution to the complex problem of art-life relations.

Mr. Bankes, to consider another, is an unselfish friend and a dedicated scientist, yet he is a selfsufficient bachelor. He is, nevertheless, a lonely widower craving for the affection of children.

Charles Tansley is an irritating and self-centered pedant, yet he is also a sympathetic human being.

The climax of the first section occurs at the dinner, a brilliantly dramatic communion-meal where each ordinary ego, with its petty aggression and resentment, is gradually blended with the others into a pattern of completion and harmony.

Relation of Man and Nature

Part II of the novel deals with the relation of man to nature. It does not as has been frequently supposed, portray merely the ravages of time and tide affecting the family and their summer-home. In addition to the almost complete destruction of the house, we are also shown its equally dramatic renewal. And its focus is on the comic-epic figure of Mrs. Macnab, who lurches through the house wiping and dusting, breaking into a long dirge of sorrow and trouble.

The fortunes of the Ramsay family suffer a number of serious setbacks. Mrs. Ramsay dies, Andrew is killed in the war, and Prue dies of childbirth. yet, we are given to understand that Mr. Ramsay’s work will endure for the fate of his books was somehow tied up with the Waverly novels. Also, as the next section proceeds to demonstrate the family continues to develop. The central section of To The Lighthouse, therefore, demonstrates not the victory of natural chaos over human order, but rather the reverse. The forces of destruction are defeated by man’s power and will to live.

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Relation of Art and Life

The third theme, the relation of art to life, is treated in Part Ill of the novel. The structure of this section is based upon the shutting back and forth between Lily on the island and those in the boat watching the island, who in turn get further away. This is accompanied by the corresponding movement of those in the boat getting closer to the lighthouse and Lily getting closer to the solution of her aesthetic problem. And the determining factor in each is love (the art of life), which might perhaps be defined as order or the achievement of form in human relations through the surrender of personality Lily finishes her painting as she feels that sympathy for Mr. Ramsay which she had previously refused to give. James and Cam give up their longstanding antagonism towards their father. Mr. Ramsay himself, at the same time, attains a resolution of his own tensions and worries.

Imagery and the Double Vision

The importance of this double vision can be further demonstrated by taking a closer look at the imagery of the book, its figures of speech, its scene and its plot. The lighthouse itself is the most conspicuous image functioning in two ways, as something to be reached, and as a source of flashing light. This means that it has a symbolic role to play. As a source of light, it appears in two connections, first, as it impinges upon the consciousness of Mrs. Ramsay in the first section after she had finished reading to James, and second, as it flashes upon the empty house in section two.

Reconciliation of Opposites: Harmony

Only when these two visions become reconciled, is the cycle complete. The middle section of the novel portrays the death and the re-birth of the deserted house. Here, the light makes its second appearance by gliding over the rooms “gently as if it laid its cares and lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again”. That this is one side of doubleness is clear from the sentence, which follows immediately: But in the very lull of loving cares as the long stroke leant upon the bed, the rock was rent asunder, another fold of the shawl loosened, there it hung and swayed”.

And a few pages on, just before the arrival of the forces of renewal in the house, in that moment, that hesitation when dawn trembles and night pauses”, the lighthouse beam as an image of expansion and release (life-love hope) and contraction and confinement (death-destruction-terror) held in relation, entered the rooms for a moment, sent its sudden stare over bed and wall in the darkness of winter, looked with equanimity at the thistle and the swallow, the rat and the straw” Thus the three moods-loving care, tearing apart, and equanimity-are so well represented by the light. It is only through multiple perspective that one gets a comprehensive view of life.

Doubleness of Reality

In the third section, as Lily begins her painting a second time, her brush descends in stroke after stroke. “And so pausing and so flickering she attained a dancing rhythmical movement, as if the pauses were one part of the rhythm and the strokes another, and all were related.” Thus, in echo of the lighthouse beam itself, her vision begins to emerge in stroke and pause in alternation, and the truth, the reality, which suddenly laid hands upon her, emerged stark at the back of appearance and commanded her attention.” In other words, as the light flickers, as it goes and comes back, Lily begins to see the course that her painting was to take. This flicker, which to an ordinary observer is an endless dull repetition, holds Lily’s mind and enables her to discover the truth and reality that the appearance signifies to her. The stroke and pause of the lighthouse beam symbolize the problem of subject and object and the perception of the nature of reality. Reality has always a doubleness which can be understood only through a double vision.

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