Virginia Woolf
To the Lighthouse

By Jennifer Kerr

she looked out to meet that stroke of the Lighthouse, the long steady stroke, the last of the three, which was her stroke, for watching them in this mood always at this hour one could not help attaching oneself to one thing especially of the things one saw; and this thing, the long steady stroke, was her stroke. Often she found herself sitting and looking, sitting and looking, with her work in her hands until she became the thing she looked at - that light for example.

In 1927 the Hogarth Press (owned by Leonard and Virginia Woolf) published To the Lighthouse  - Virginia Woolf thought it her most important book and it is still regarded as one of the most significant books of the twentieth century.

This is not the first book by Woolf in which we experience the 'stream of consciousness' for she has already established this method in Mrs Dalloway (1925) where we have the mingling of thoughts and actions.  The narrative does not rely on an 'all seeing observer' or explanatory conversations.  Unlike Mrs Dalloway which takes place in one day and focuses on the thoughts and actions of one person, Clarissa Dalloway, and how others relate to her, To the Lighthouse is a greater and more complex book as it intertwines the thoughts and reflections of numerous different people and their relationships with each other over a period of ten years.

The story takes place on the Isle of Skye just before the First World War.  The Ramsay family have a holiday home overlooking the sea and the distant lighthouse.  During the summer the family, which consists of Mr and Mrs Ramsay and their eight children, invite numerous friends and colleagues to stay.

The book contains three sections or 'movements': the first part takes place during an afternoon and an evening in the house, the second portion - which may be considered the night - is a ten year interlude during which time Mrs Ramsay dies and two of her children die.  The house remains empty throughout this time and we observe the encroaching decay of the house and garden.  The third section is a return visit to the restored house, by some of the family their guests, and the time element is the duration of one morning.

Section 1: The Window

Virginia Woolf called the first section of her book 'The Window.'  This sequence begins one summer afternoon when the Ramsay family are all congregated with their guests on Skye.  Mrs Ramsay and her son are discussing the planned expedition to the Lighthouse, which is situated across the bay overlooked by the house.  Mrs Ramsay a beautiful, intelligent and charming woman of fifty is sitting at the window, (from this vantage point she is also able to survey her family and guests as they come and go through the garden) with her youngest son James who is six years old, and both mother and son are bound in a mutually loving relationship.  James is in a state of thrilling excitement at the prospect of his first visit to the lighthouse and then Mr Ramsay enters the room, and in an off-handed manner dismisses the prospect of the visit, as the weather on the following day will not be suitable.  This devastates James not only the idea that he cannot go to the Lighthouse, but that his father shows such a dismissive attitude which seems so callous and uncaring and he resents his father's intrusiveness into his relationship with his mother.

But his son hated him.  He hated him for coming up to them, for stopping and looking down on them; he hated him for interrupting them; he hated him for the exaltation and sublimity of his gestures; for the magnificence of his head; for his exactingness and egotism (for there he stood, commanding them to attend to him); but most of all he hated the twang and twitter of his father's emotion which, vibrating round them, disturbed the perfect simplicity and good sense of his relations with his mother.  By looking fixedly at the page, he hoped to make him move on; by pointing his finger at a word, he hoped to recall his mother's attention, which, he knew angrily, wavered instantly his father stopped.  But no. Nothing would make Mr Ramsay move on.  There he stood, demanding sympathy.

Mr Ramsay an interesting and brilliant man, loved by his wife, but lacking in warmth and empathy and constantly haunted by his feelings that he has already achieved his best in his professional life.  He is often perceived as being distant and introverted,  while his wife consciously strives to understand her family, and unlike her husband, is loved by her children.  She is a charming hostess mixing friends together and showing sensitivity to others, but we also know that beyond all the social graces she is looking to find the opportunity to live her own inner life.  

For it was odd; and she believed it to be true; that with all his gloom and desperation he was happier, more hopeful on the whole, that she was.  Less exposed to human worries - perhaps that was it.  He had always his work to fall back on.  Not that she herself was 'pessimistic', as he accused her of being.  Only she thought life - and a little strip of time presented itself to her eyes, her fifty years.  There it was before her - life.  Life: she thought but she did not finish her thought.  She took a look at life for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband..  A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it as it was of her; and sometimes they parleyed (when she was alone); there were, she remembered great reconciliation scenes; but for the most part, oddly enough, she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance.

The guests at the house are a mixture of young and old - Lily Briscoe, relieved from caring for her father has escaped to the island to concentrate on and struggle with her painting, watched over by the arrogant and anxious young Tansley, who undermines her abilities, possibly from sheer wilfulness and his own insecure nature.  William Bankes an old friend of Mr Ramsay joins the family but has underlying thoughts that Mr Ramsay has not been able to achieve his early promise as a great philosopher.   Bankes, a widower with no children, stands apart from the family, and is removed from family life, but perhaps is also longing for the family and the love that Mr and Mrs Ramsay share.

Also staying is the elderly poet Mr Carmichael who seems content to sit quietly reading and remains uninvolved with the stresses happening within the house.  He is perceived as a literary failure due to an unfortunate marriage.

Two young guests Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle become engaged during this time - their relationship has been overseen and encouraged by their hostess.  Mrs Ramsay would also like to see Lily Briscoe and William Bankes married and endeavours to draw these two guests together promoting their shared interests. 

The approach of evening draws us towards the end of the first section of the book with Mrs Ramsay planning a dinner party - the meal is delicious and the table perfect - the guests however, create small diversions of unease, and unsettle the dinner party.  On leaving the dining room after the meal Mrs Ramsay reflects onthe events at the table.  Although distressful to her at the time, she is aware they have already slipped away.

With her foot on the threshold she waited a moment longer in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked, and then, as she moved and took Minta's arm and left the room, it changed, it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past.

The conflicts which have come up during the day between Mr and Mrs Ramsay are overcome when they talk with each other later in the evening, Mr Ramsay stating his continued love for Mrs Ramsay and Mrs Ramsay confirming his opinion regarding tomorrow's weather.  She would never be able to commit herself to saying she loved him, but by this acknowledgement that his opinion was correct,  he believes she confirms her love.

Then, knowing that he was watching her, instead of saying anything she turned, holding her stocking, and looked at him.  And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him.  He could not deny it.  And smiling she looked out of the window and said (thinking to herself, Nothing on earth can equal this happiness) -

'Yes, you were right.  It's going to be wet tomorrow.'  She had not said it, but he knew it, And she looked at him smiling.  For she had triumphed again.

The evening ends and night falls.

Section 2: Time Passes

The middle section of the book - Time Passes - is the most poetic and haunting section.  Ten years pass, the Great War comes and goes, Mrs Ramsay dies suddenly, her elder son Andrew dies in the war and her daughter Prue marries and dies in childbirth.  We receive this information while reading about the house, now left shut up and neglected with no family visitors.  The house becomes a symbol of life - a life that had been lived, a life dying and decaying and finally being restored to new life.

Nothing stirred in the drawing-room or in the dining-room or on the staircase.  Only through the rusty hinges and swollen sea-moistened woodwork certain airs, detached from the body of the wind (the house was ramshackle after all) crept round corners and ventured indoors.  Almost one might imagine them, as they entered the drawing-room, questioning and wondering, toying with the flap of hanging wallpaper, asking, would it hang much longer, when would it fall?  Then smoothly brushing the walls, they passed on musingly as if asking the red and yellow roses on the wallpaper whether they would fade, and questioning (gently, for there was time at their disposal) the torn letters in the wastepaper basket, the flowers, the books, all of which were now open to them and asking.  Were they allies?  Were they enemies?  How long would they endure?

We watch the house slowly and gently decay, the occasional visit from the Mrs MacNab the caretaker catalogues the neglect, the wardrobes and dressers left with clothes, the fading colours, the flutterings of moths, the scutterings of mice, the garden becoming overgrown and wild.

Mrs MacNab's memories of the family drift in and out of this sequence as she moves around the deserted house, she contemplates all the life that had taken place there, but what will happen now, will the family sell the house?  Then suddenly after ten years she receives a letter requesting her to prepare the house for a summer visit.

The house is again inhabited by Mr Ramsay, his sixteen year old son James his sister Cam and their guests Mr Carmichael and Lily Briscoe. 

In the first part of the book Mr Carmichael is viewed as a sad and failed man, but now, over the passing years we learn he is a successful poet.  Lily Briscoe had not married Mr Bankes as Mrs Ramsay had hoped, but she is very happy with her single life.  Mrs Ramsay had also orchestrated the engagement of Minta and Paul, and now we learn that their marriage has not been a success.

Section 3: The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse is the third and final section of the book and concentrates on the visit Mr Ramsay makes with James and Cam to the lighthouse accompanied by two local fishermen. Both children are irritated by Mr Ramsay; his constant need for understanding, his too long period of grief, his criticisms rather than praise, his brisk temper. 

The trip, after a brief delay takes place, overseen from the garden by Lily Briscoe while she continues her painting.  During this time her thoughts dwell on the passing of time and people, and how all must pass and vanish 'but not words, not paint.' 

The idea of 'passing and perishing' is repeated throughout the book, the passing of people and time.

Cam  gazes from the boat

About here, she thought, dabbling her fingers in the water, a ship had sunk, and she murmured, dreamily, half asleep, how we perished, each alone.

Just before the boat which James has steered lands, Mr Ramsay calls out to James

Well done!'  James had steered them like a born sailor.

There! Cam thought, addressing herself silently to James.  You've got it as last.  For she knew that this was what James had been wanting, and she knew than now he had got it he was so pleased that he would not look at her or at his father or at any one.  There he sat with his hand on the tiller sitting bolt upright, looking rather sulky and frowning slightly.  He was so pleased that he was not going to let anybody take a grain of his pleasure.  His father had praised him.  They must think that he was perfectly indifferent.  But you've got it now, Cam thought.

Both children now, after so many years, appear to finally connect with their father.

They both wanted to say,  Ask us anything and we will give it you.  But he did not ask them anything.  He sat and looked at the island and he might be thinking,  We perished, each alone, or he might be thinking, I have reached it.  I have found it, but he said nothing.

As the boat eventually arrives at the lighthouse Lily Briscoe finishes her painting and the book ends.

Virginia Woolf appears to have used autobiographical background for the book.  The Ramsay parents are similar to both her mother and father.  Her mother died when Virginia was thirteen, and Leslie Stephen her father withdrew into a long period of mourning.  Also there are similarities between the Lilie Briscoe and Virginia's sister the painter Vanessa Bell.

In a letter from Vanessa to Virginia after she completed reading To the Lighthouse we have confirmation of the family connection between Mrs Ramsay and Virginia's mother:

Anyhow, it seemed to me in the first part of the book you have given a portrait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived of as possible.  It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead.  You have made one feel the extraordinary beauty of her character, which must be the most difficult thing in the world to do.  It was like meeting her again with oneself grown up and on equal terms and it seems to me the most astonishing feat of creation to have been able to see her in such a way.  You have given father too I think as clearly, but perhaps, I may be wrong, that isn't quiet so difficult.  There is more to catch hold of.  Still it seems to me to be the only thing about him which ever gave a true idea.   [Virginia Woolf  1912 - 41 Quentin Bell]

The Stephens family would regularly take a holiday home, Talland House in St Ives, which overlooked the Godrevy Lighthouse.  The land and seascape of the West Coast of England and Scotland are similar and I sense she moved the location in name only. 

The lighthouse is used as a focal point and as the destination but I also thought it provided beautiful descriptive imagery, not only of place but of mood.

In this quote from the first part of the book Mrs Ramsay is alone knitting:

Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always some exclamation of triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity; and pausing there she looked out to meet that stroke of the Lighthouse, the long steady stroke, the last of the three, which was her stroke, for watching them in this mood always at this hour one could not help attaching oneself to one thing especially of the things one saw; and this thing, the long steady stroke, was her stroke.  Often she found herself sitting and looking, sitting and looking, with her work in her hands until she became the thing she looked at - that light for example.

From the middle section of the book Time Passes:

And now in the heat of summer the wind sent its spies about the house again.  Flies wove a web in the sunny rooms; weeds that had grown close to the glass in the night tapped methodically at the windowpane.  When darkness fell, the stroke of the Lighthouse, which had laid itself with such authority upon the carpet in the darkness, tracing its pattern, came now in the softer light of spring mixed with moonlight gliding gently as if it laid its caress and lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again.  But in the very lull of this loving caress, as the long stroke leant upon the bed, the rock was rent asunder; another fold of the shawl loosened; there it hung, and swayed.

Woolf assured her friend the art critic Roger Fry that the lighthouse had no symbolic significance in the story:

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 another another.  I can't imagine Symbolism except in this vague, generalised way.  Whether its right or wrong I don't know; but directly I'm told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me.   [Virginia Woolf 1912 - 41  Quentin Bell].

I see the Lighthouse as a beautiful and haunting image, used by Woolf to create an event - the trip, and also to provide a sense of time passing, its continuousness regardless of the family or the house, but no more.

© Jennifer Kerr, October 2010


See also: Virginia Woolf Books > Virginia Woolf Web Sites >

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