To the Lighthouse – a study guide
plot summary, characters, criticism, resource materials
To the Lighthouse (1927) is the second of the twin jewels in the crown of Virginia Woolf’s late experimental phase. It is concerned with the passage of time, the nature of human consciousness, and the process of artistic creativity. Woolf substitutes symbolism and poetic prose for any notion of plot, and the novel is composed as a triptych of three almost static scenes – during the second of which the principal character Mrs Ramsay dies – literally within a parenthesis.
The writing is lyrical and philosophical at the same time. Many critics see this as her greatest achievement, and Woolf herself realised that with this book she was taking the novel form into hitherto unknown territory.
Virginia Woolf – portrait
To the Lighthouse – plot summary
Part I: The Window
The novel is set in the Ramsays’ summer home in the Hebrides, on the Isle of Skye. [*] Part I begins just before the start of World War I. Mrs Ramsay assures her six year old son James that they should be able to visit a lighthouse across the bay next day. This prediction is denied by Mr Ramsay, who voices his certainty that the weather will not be clear. This attitude creates a certain tension between Mr and Mrs Ramsay, and also between Mr Ramsay and James. The incident is referred to on various occasions throughout the chapter.
The Ramsays have been joined at the house by a number of friends and colleagues. Lily Briscoe is a young painter attempting a portrayal of Mrs. Ramsay and her son James. She finds herself plagued by doubts throughout the novel, doubts largely fed by the statements of Charles Tansley, another guest, claiming that women can neither paint nor write. Tansley himself is an admirer of Mr Ramsay and his philosophical treatises. During the course of the afternoon, another guest Paul Rayley proposes to Minta Doyle, Lily begins her painting, Mrs. Ramsay soothes the resentful James, and Mr. Ramsay frets over his shortcomings as a philosopher, periodically turning to Mrs. Ramsay for comfort.
The section closes with a large dinner party which is fraught with minor tensions. Mr Ramsay nearly snaps at Augustus Carmichael, a visiting poet, when he asks for a second serving of soup. Mrs Ramsay, who is striving for the perfect dinner party is herself out of sorts when Paul and Minta arrive late to dinner, as Minta lost her grandmother’s brooch on the beach.
[* This Scottish location is completely unconvincing. The setting is clearly modelled on St Ives in Cornwall where Woolf spent all her childhood summer holidays.]
Part II: Time Passes
The second section is a lyrical interlude which gives a sense of time passing, absence, and death. During this period World War I breaks out in Europe. Mrs Ramsay passes away, her daughter Prue dies from complications of childbirth, and her son Andrew is killed in the war. Mr Ramsay is left adrift without his wife to praise and comfort him during his bouts of fear and his anguish regarding the longevity of his philosophical work.
The house itself is neglected during this period, and falls into a state of disrepair. Ten years pass before the family and their friends return for another holiday. Mrs McNab, the housekeeper, employs a few other women to help set the house in order.
Part III: The Lighthouse
Mr Ramsay finally plans on taking the long-delayed trip to the lighthouse with his son James and daughter Cam(illa). The trip almost does not happen, as the children are not ready, but they eventually set off. En route, the children resent their father for forcing them to come along. But James keeps the sailing boat steady, and rather than receiving the harsh words he has come to expect from his father, he hears praise, providing a rare moment of empathy between father and son; Cam’s attitude towards her father has changed as well.
Whilst they visit the lighthouse, Lily attempts to complete her long-unfinished painting. She reconsiders her memory of Mrs Ramsay, grateful for her help in pushing Lily to continue with her art, yet at the same time she struggles to free herself from the tacit control Mrs Ramsay had over other aspects of her life. Upon finishing the painting and seeing that it satisfies her, she realizes that the execution of her vision is more important to her than the idea of leaving some sort of legacy in her work – a lesson Mr Ramsay has yet to learn.
To the Lighthouse – Oxford World Classics edition
To the Lighthouse – Wordsworth Classics edition
To the Lighthouse – Kindle eBook edition
To the Lighthouse – free eBook edition
To the Lighthouse – 1983 dramatisation on DVD
To the Lighthouse – audio book (unabridged)
To the Lighthouse – York Notes (Advanced)
To the Lighthouse – Macmillan Master Guides
To the Lighthouse – Penguin Critical Guide
Blogging Woolf – news and web site
Virginia Woolf – biographical notes
Selected Essays – by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links
Virginia Woolf at Mantex – tutorials, web links, study materials
Virginia Woolf – biography
part of biographical documentary
|Mr Ramsay||a prominent metaphysical philosopher|
|Mrs Ramsay||his dutiful, beautiful, and loving wife|
|James Ramsay||their youngest son|
|Lily Briscoe||a young and single painter|
|Paul Rayley||a young friend of the Ramsays|
|Minta Doyle||a friend of the Ramsays who marries Paul|
|Charles Tansley||a young philosophy pupil of Mr Ramsay’s|
|William Bankes||a botanist and old friend of the Ramsays|
|Augustus Carmichael||opium-using poet visitor|
|Mrs McNab||the Ramsay’s elderly housekeeper|
|Andrew Ramsay||the eldest son, who is killed during the war|
|Jasper Ramsay||one of the Ramsay’s sons|
|Roger Ramsay||one of the Ramsay’s sons|
|Prue Ramsay||the eldest daughter, who dies in childbirth|
|Rose Ramsay||one of the Ramsay’s daughters|
|Nancy Ramsay||one of the Ramsay’s daughters|
|Cam(illa) Ramsay||the youngest Ramsay daughter|
To the Lighthouse – first edition
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927) Cover design by Vanessa Bell.
“Advance sales totaled over 1,600 copies, more than twice the number for Mrs Dalloway. Virginia’s mood at the time expressed itself in her gaily ironic joke with Vita Sackville-West. When Vita returned from her second trip to Persia, she found a copy of To the Lighthouse waiting for her, inscribed by Virginia, “In my opinion the best novel I have ever written”. It was a bound dummy copy, with blank pages. Leonard Woolf, anticipating both an artistic and a commercial success for To the Lighthouse, ordered 3,000 copies printed by R. & R. Clark (a thousand more than Mrs Dalloway) and quickly ordered another 1,000 copies in a second impression. The novel outsold her previous fiction. The American publisher of Hogarth Press books, Harcourt Brace, printed 4,000 copies initially (almost twice the number of copies for Mrs Dalloway). American readers had begun to take notice of Woolf’s novels.”
Mont Blanc pen – the Virginia Woolf special edition
Beja, Morris, ed. To the Lighthouse: A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1991.
Davies, Stevie. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, London: Penguin Books, 1989.
de Gay, Jane. ‘Behind the Purple Triangle: Art and Iconography in To the Lighthouse.’ Woolf Studies Annual 5 (1999): 1-23.
Hyman, Virginia R. To the Lighthouse and Beyond: Transformations in the Narratives of Virginia Woolf. New York: P. Lang, 1988.
Ingram, Penelope. ‘One Drifts Apart’: To the Lighthouse as Art of Response’. Philosophy and Literature 23, no. 1 (1999): 78-95.
Kato, Megumi. ‘The Politics/Poetics of Motherhood in To the Lighthouse’ In Virginia Woolf and Communities, ed. Laura Davis and Jeanette McVicker. New York: Pace University Press, 1999.
Kelley, Alice van Buren. To the Lighthouse: The Marriage of Life and Art. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.
Knox-Shaw, Peter. ‘To the Lighthouse: The Novel as Elegy’. English Studies in Africa: A Journal of the Humanities 29, no. 1 (1986): 31-52.
Leaska, Mitchell Alexander. Virginia Woolf’s Lighthouse : A Study in Critical Method. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.
Raitt, Suzanne. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.1990.
Ruddick, Lisa Cole. The Seen and the Unseen: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1977.
Vogler, Thomas A., ed. Twentieth-Century Interpretations of To the Lighthouse: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970.
To the Lighthouse – dramatisation
Kenneth Brannah as Charles Tansley
Rosemary Harris as Mrs Ramsay
“I feel certain that I am going mad again”
Virginia Woolf – podcast
A eulogy on words
Other works by Virginia Woolf
Mrs Dalloway (1925) is probably the most accessible of her great novels. A day in the life of a London society hostess is used as the structure for her experiments in multiple points of view. The themes she explores are the nature of personal identity; memory and consciousness; the passage of time; and the tensions between the forces of Life and Death. The novel abandons conventional notions of plot in favour of a mosaic of events. She gives a very lyrical response to the fundamental question, ‘What is it like to be alive?’ And her answer is a sensuous expression of metropolitan existence. The novel also features her rich expression of ‘interior monologue’ as a narrative technique, and it offers a subtle critique of society recovering in the aftermath of the first world war. This novel is now seen as a central text of English literary modernism.
Buy the book here
The Waves (1931) is her most experimental and most demanding novel. Rather like her exact contemporary James Joyce, she was pushing the possibilities of the novel to their furthest limit. She abandons conventional narrative and setting altogether, and substitutes the interior monologues of six different characters. They are friends (and lovers) whose lives are revealed by what they think about themselves and each other. The monologues that span the characters’ lives are broken up by nine brief third-person interludes detailing a coastal scene at varying stages in a day from sunrise to sunset. Readers have to work out who is ‘thinking’ at any moment – but assistance is provided by patterns of imagery and fragments of repeated ideas associated with each character. Not for the faint-hearted. Read the other novels first.
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Virginia Woolf is a readable and well illustrated biography by John Lehmann, who at one point worked as her assistant at the Hogarth Press. It is described by the blurb as ‘A critical biography of Virginia Woolf containing illustrations that are a record of the Bloomsbury Group and the literary and artistic world that surrounded a writer who is immensely popular today’. An attractive and very accessible introduction to the subject.
Buy the book here
Virginia Woolf links
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