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 – ...
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.
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.
Virginia Woolf To the LighthouseThe 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.
London-born Virginia Woolf came from a wealthy family and, unlike her brothers, received her education at home, an unusual step for the times. Her parents had both had children from previous marriages, so she grew up with a variety of siblings, stepbrothers and stepsisters. Her father was a well-respected editor and author and the former son-in-law of William Makepeace Thackeray. Author James Russell Lowell was her godfather, and Henry James and George Elliott were regular visitors and guests at the family home. As she recalled later in life, her most pleasant childhood memories were of the summers spent at the family home in Cornwall, by Porthminster Bay (the Godrevy Lighthouse there was the basis for her novel "To the Lighthouse").
The sudden death of Virginia's mother in 1895, when she was 13, and the passing of her sister two years later led to the first of Virginia's mental breakdowns. In 1904 her father died, which caused a complete mental and physical collapse and for a while she was sent to a mental institution to recover. Nervous breakdowns and bouts of severe depression tormented Virginia throughout her life, and the fact that as children she and her sister Vanessa were sexually abused by two of their stepbrothers added to her already considerable feelings of guilt and inferiority.
She studied at London's Kings College, where she became acquainted with such literary figures as Lytton Strachey, Saxon Sydney-Turner and Leonard Woolf. She married Woolf in 1912. Virginia was always ashamed of what she termed her "unattractive countenance", and once wrote that "being wanted [was] a pleasure that I have never felt". In 1922 she met Vita Sackville-West, and the two women began a relationship that lasted for almost ten years. She was said to have written her novel "Orlando" as a love letter to West.
After the publication of her novel "Between the Acts" she fell into a deep depression, exacerbated by the destruction of her London home by Nazi planes during the bombing of that city, and the less than enthusiastic critical reaction to her biography of her close friend Roger Fry. Her condition deteriorated to the point where she was unable to write or even read. She finally had a full-blown nervous breakdown. Unable and unwilling to continue, she wrote a note to her husband saying that "I am certain I am going mad again" and "I shan't recover this time . . . I can't fight any longer . . . I can't go on spoiling your life any longer