Lecture 5: To the Lighthouse


“With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre.  It was done; it was finished.  Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”  (Closing lines of To the Lighthouse, 209)


See the Woolf seminar To the Lighthouse web pages for a plot outline and many study aids prepared by previous students, including an annotated bibliography of selected scholarly criticism.  All scholarly articles cited in this lecture are in that annotated bibliography.


Orientation Autobiography Themes


Basic Orientation to the Novel

Next to Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse (1927) is Woolf’s most loved and most studied novel.  She began writing it almost as soon as Mrs. Dalloway was published, and she uses some of the same narrative techniques she developed in Mrs. Dalloway, notably the kind of stream of consciousness that scholars call “free indirect discourse.”  This narrative technique allows the perspective to move from one character’s mind to another, sometimes ambiguously.  Mitchell Leaska has identified 17 different “angles of perspective” in the novel (quoting Mark Hussey, Virginia Woolf: A-Z, p 314).  


The book is in three parts: The Window, Time Passes, and The Lighthouse.  The Window takes place on a few days at a summer house on a seacoast, ostensibly the Hebrides (the island of Skye, off the coast of Scotland, see p 7), but described more like the small Cornish town of St. Ives, where Woolf spent every childhood summer till she was 13.  Here we meet Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay (we never learn their first names), their eight children, and their house guests.  The Ramsay’s youngest son James, age 6, wants to visit the lighthouse they can see from the window, and this thwarted “quest” is about as much plot as there is.


In the short middle section, “Time Passes,” the Ramsay’s oldest son, Andrew, is killed in World War I, their oldest daughter Prue dies in childbirth, and Mrs. Ramsay—who has been the dominant character in The Window-- herself dies.  All of this is reported from a radically different perspective than Woolf used in The Window.  Instead of moving intimately into people’s minds, Time Passes is told from a detached perspective that never enters anyone’s mind.  It is almost as though we were watching a fast forward of a videocam focused on the house itself, and what happens to the people who had lived there is incidental.  Mrs. Ramsay’s death, for example, is reported in square brackets at the end of chapter 3 (p 128).  It is a perspective Woolf would develop more fully in her most experimental novel, The Waves (1931), in which there is no clearly defined narrator, and the characters are more like voices than embodied people.


Part 3, The Lighthouse, takes us back to the multiple perspectives of part 1.  It is ten years later, and the remaining Ramsays have returned to the house for the first time since part 1.  Some of the same house guests are there, notably Lily Briscoe, an amateur painter who had spent much of part 1 trying to paint a picture of Mrs. Ramsay sitting in the window with James.  In this final part, Lily finishes her painting at the same moment that Mr. Ramsay, James, and Cam (the youngest Ramsay daughter) reach the lighthouse.  


Plot summary does little to convey what makes To the Lighthouse one of the great novels of the 20th century. Eudora Welty’s foreword to the 1981 Harcourt edition (an excellent introduction to the novel) describes some of what makes it great:  “No matter how often we begin it again, it seems to expand and expand again ahead of us” (vii).  One of the most influential readings of the novel is by Erich Auerbach Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946; trans English 1953).  His final chapter focuses entirely on To the Lighthouse as his example of Modernism, a major change in the relation of art to reality. He analyzes chapter 5 (part I, beginning “never did anybody look so sad”) and discusses who is speaking; what is reality and what is the interior voice.  The result of Auerbach’s analysis was to focus scholarly attention on Woolf as a Modernist, especially on her narrative technique.  (“The Brown Stocking” is the way Auerbach’s chapter is usually reprinted, the most often reprinted article about Woolf.)  As in Mrs. Dalloway, more is going on inside than outside.


To the Lighthouse  is Woolf’s most autobiographical novel, especially in recreating her parents in her depiction of the Ramsays. (See details of characters based on Woolf’s family at www.uah.edu/woolf/lightbio.html .)  In some respects, writing the novel was an exorcism, for Woolf had been haunted by her mother’s memory and felt that in writing this book she finally laid her to rest.  Here is how she puts it in “A Sketch of the Past,” an unfinished autobiography written in 1939-40 and later published in Moments of Being (1976):


Until I was in the forties—I could settle the date by seeing when I wrote To the Lighthouse, but am too casual here to bother to do it—the presence of my mother obsessed me.  I could hear her voice, see her, imagine what she would do or say as I went about my day’s doings.  She was one of the invisible presences who after all play so important a part in every life. . . .

            Then one day walking round Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, To the Lighthouse, in a great, apparently involuntary, rush.  One thing burst into another. . . .  I wrote the book very quickly; and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother.  I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.

            I suppose that I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients.  I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion.  And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.  But what is the meaning of ‘explained’ it? (80-81; Woolf was 45 when she began writing To the Lighthouse in 1925)


To underline the connection with her mother, Woolf arranged to have the book published on the date of her mother’s death, May 5, 1925 (Julia Stephen died May 5, 1895). See Maria DiBattista’s 1980 essay on the novel for an analysis of how Woolf uses the novel to make peace with her parents, both of them long dead when she was writing.  See Jane Lilienfeld’s 1977 essay, " 'The Deceptiveness of Beauty,' "  for an analysis of Woolf’s connection to Lily Briscoe and how Woolf uses this to work out her feelings about her dead mother.


Of course, To the Lighthouse (TTL for short) is much more than memoir disguised as novel.  I like what Eudora Welty says about the autobiographical element in this novel:  “what connects To the Lighthouse to autobiography seems meteorological in nature.  Not slow recollection so much as a bolt of lightning runs between them; we enter a world that is lit by its flash and play and under its heavenly signs is transformed” (foreword to Harcourt Brace edition, p vii).



Slim as the plot may be, To the Lighthouse engages major themes that have dominated all great literature:  love, death, and the meaning of life.  What she has to say about these things cannot be readily summarized, and of course critics disagree.  There is much disagreement about the meaning of the lighthouse itself (see e.g., Stewart 1977 and Levy 1996).  Woolf herself, in a letter to her friend Roger Fry, said this about it:

I meant nothing by The Lighthouse.  One has to have a central line down the middle of the book to hold the design together.  I saw that all sorts of feelings would accrue to this, but I refused to think them out, and trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own emotions—which they have done, one thinking it means one thing anther another.  I can’t manage Symbolism except in this vague, generalized way.  Whether its right or wrong I don’t know, but directly I’m told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me. (Letters, vol. 1, May 27, 1927, #1764).  


This shifting the authority to the reader for making meaning is part of what Woolf is after in her narrative technique and in her approach to writing generally.  It may even be what she means by a “feminine sentence.” (However, I have yet to find her using the phrase “feminine sentence.”  Better to say writing “woman-manly”?)  The point is to avoid taking power over what should be for the reader to determine.


Meaning of Life.  To guide you in thinking about what this novel has to say about love, death, and the meaning of life, I’ve prepared a handout of quotations, which I briefly review here.  Mrs. Ramsay ponders the meaning of life on pp 59-60, concluding with: she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance” (60).  Then on pp 62-65 is the scene where she sits alone and feels herself  “a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others” (62)  and then on the next page ponders the beams of the lighthouse and seems to identify with the third stroke, “the long steady stroke, was her stroke” (63).


Lily Briscoe directly ponders the meaning of life at several points, both in part 3 (see 161, 179).  The first begins “What is the meaning of life?  That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years.  The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” (161).  A little later, Lily imagines herself sitting beside Mrs. Ramsay at the beach: “Who knows what we are, what we feel?  Who knows even at the moment of intimacy, This is knowledge?” (179).


Art.  Critics especially disagree about the meaning of the ending of the novel.  The original plan was to end with Mr. Ramsay on the rock.  But Woolf began working on simultaneity in the Lily/boat scenes and ends with Lily and her vision.  This shift gives special attention to the function of art in the novel.  Most critics see Lily Briscoe as Woolf’s surrogate in the novel.  Woolf is much more like Lily than she is like Cam, the youngest Ramsay daughter, which would be Woolf family position (though Cam is on the boat that reaches the lighthouse, and her perspective is important). 

I especially like Thomas Matro’s reading of Woolf’s use of art in TTL (“Only Relations:  Vision and Achievement in To the Lighthouse.   PMLA [March 1984]: 212-24).  He challenges the critical view that Woolf’s ideas about painting echo Roger Fry’s, especially regarding double vision” --- the artist’s balance between objective observation of life and subjective involvement.  This view is that achieving this double vision creates unity, and that this unity is what Lily’s painting and the novel achieve.  There is a common belief that art brings order out of confusion, and that Woolf’s “aim is to reveal order beneath ‘the flux of experience’ or to get at ‘the reality beneath appearance’” (Matro 213).  Matro agrees that Fry’s “aesthetic” ideas are in play and that Woolf “consciously and metaphorically” uses “postimpressionist concern with form, pattern, balance, and significant design”  (213)—but it is a metaphor, not a method for Woolf.  Matro notes that Woolf’s text foregrounds these—calls attention to them so much that it ultimately calls them into question.  He points out that the text repeatedly juxtaposes contradictory elements or relationships, and that in parts 1 and 3 we frequently get the rhetorical construction “Yes. . . . but . . .” 

 Matro argues that the view of art as capturing something fixed and unchanging shifts from part 1 to part 3, and that in part 3 Woolf depicts art as a process.  It is the process that matters, not the final product, so it doesn’t matter if Lily’s paintings end up in somebody’s attic.  The artist’s vision is in the doing, making the painting (or going to the lighthouse) is a dynamic thing, not a fixed and final (hence dead) thing.  It’s the journey, not the destination.  Matro concludes that Woolf’s concern is with relations, not with achieved unity.

 One thing I like about Matro's reading is how well it fits into ideas about fluid gender roles in Orlando, the novel Woolf wrote immediately after TTL.  In many ways, Orlando takes literally what is used metaphorically in TTL, especially the manipulation of time.

Updated May 28, 2004             Copyright 2004 Rose Norman
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