By Dr Oliver Tearle
To the Lighthouse was Virginia Woolf’s fifth novel. By this stage of her career, she’d written a couple of more conventional novels, The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919); she’d written the novel which is often cited as the turning point in her career as a modernist writer, Jacob’s Room (1922); and she’d written what is probably her most famous novel, Mrs Dalloway (1925), which features a couple of characters who’d featured in The Voyage Out (the action of Mrs Dalloway takes place over one day in June 1923, although there are numerous flashbacks to earlier in the characters’ lives, particularly to the youthful years of the title character).
However, to call To the Lighthouse (1927) a ‘novel’ at all is to go against Woolf’s own intentions, slightly: she believed that a new word (‘elegy’ was her own suggestion) more satisfactorily summed up what she is trying to do in this nov… sorry, in this book, call it what you will.
Summary of To the Lighthouse
The book is divided into three sections: ‘The Window’, ‘Time Passes’, and ‘The Lighthouse’.
The first section, ‘The Window’, follows Mrs Dalloway in being set over the course of just one day during the Ramsays’ family holiday on the Isle of Skye. The son, James, wants to take a boat out to the lighthouse (hence the title), but his father, the distant Victorian patriarch Mr Ramsay, isn’t sure the weather will allow it – perhaps tomorrow (but probably not even then).
The second section, ‘Time Passes’, is at odds with the first section in reducing ten years of ‘action’ into a relatively short middle section. Several of the novel’s characters – including Mrs Ramsay herself – die, news of their deaths dropped casually into the narration parenthetically. The War lurks behind this section – that is, WWI.
The final section, ‘The Lighthouse’, sees James – now grown into a young man – finally making the trip to the lighthouse, ten years after he’d originally wanted to make the journey.
Themes of To the Lighthouse
To the Lighthouse is Woolf’s most autobiographical work of fiction, drawing on her own childhood and family experiences in the 1890s and early 1900s. Interestingly, John Sutherland (in an essay included in his hugely entertaining book of ‘literary detection’, Where Was Rebecca Shot?: Puzzles, Curiosities and Conundrums in Modern Fiction) points out that when Mr Ramsay and his house-guest Minta Doyle refer to the ‘final’ third volume of George Eliot‘s Middlemarch, someone has blundered: unlike most other long Victorian novels, Middlemarch was actually published in four rather than three volumes.
Perhaps Woolf altered the facts here to suggest the ironic relationship between her ‘three-volume’ novel and the triple-deckers that had dominated the Victorian era, of which Middlemarch (despite its actual four-volume structure) symbolically embodies. (Sutherland also suggests that the closing words of Middlemarch are being alluded to here: Eliot’s magnum opus ends by extolling the value of those who live hidden lives – implicitly, the women who faithfully serve their menfolk.)
Divided into three sections (‘The Window’, ‘Time Passes’, and ‘The Lighthouse’), the novel may, then, be attempting to put us in mind of the triple-decker novels of the Victorian era (which had rapidly died out in the 1890s during Woolf’s childhood). But if we expect a linear, teleological narrative with a clear goal and conclusion, our expectations are to be dashed, because To the Lighthouse is all about delay, repetition, and inaction. Note that the title, To the Lighthouse, could suggest a journey steadily progressing towards an end goal (compare Woolf’s earlier use of the journey motif in The Voyage Out), but what the novel actually gives us is a narrative in which that journey ‘to the lighthouse’ is delayed until the end of the novel (and that final section, pointedly titled ‘The Lighthouse’; the preposition has been dropped, but has the trip to the lighthouse really been achieved? It is, after all, years later and the children have grown up).
Thus the novel ostensibly remains a novel with a linear narrative (as its title and three-part structure imply), while at the same time it seems to be straining against the limits or expectations of such a narrative. Note how the novel ends with the lighthouse being reached, and Lily Briscoe finishing her painting (which may be read as a self-reflexive touch on Woolf’s part, since Woolf the literary ‘artist’ is at this moment finishing her portrait of Mrs Ramsay, namely the novel).
Yet the action of painting the picture, the experience of artistic creation and the memories and thoughts it entails, have been the important thing for Lily Briscoe: she doesn’t care what happens to her picture once she’s finished it. Unlike Mr Ramsay, she couldn’t be less concerned with questions of legacy or posterity.
Analysis of To the Lighthouse
Immediately we can see that subjective experience and perspective are key elements of Woolf’s novel. Mr Ramsay sees the world very differently from his wife. However, the two are not so different as they may first appear. For instance, Mr Ramsay seems to embody the male, patriarchal, linear, and teleological view of the world which nineteenth-century novels had often adopted (where we find out who the murderer was, the man and woman get together, and all loose ends are satisfactorily tied up by the final page): he sees ‘thought’ as something to be understood in a linear fashion, like working through the alphabet from A to Z (there is an autobiographical suggestion here, too, since Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, who was the model for Mr Ramsay, was the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, now the ODNB). He also spends part of the early section of the novel reciting Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, which is revealing because this is a Victorian poem by the pre-eminent Victorian poet (Tennyson was Poet Laureate for 42 years) but also because it is a poem about the action of charging, moving forward, attacking, progressing.
However, it is also ironic, because the ‘charge’ memorialised in Tennyson’s poem was a futile and self-destructive military action which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of men: the light brigade charged to their deaths. But the linear, progressive, masculine quality of Mr Ramsay’s reference to this poem is also undermined by the fact that he is constantly repeating the same phrase (tellingly, ‘Someone had blundered’), and is thus caught in a cyclical world of repetition and return which is at odds with the linearity he ostensibly embodies. Mr Ramsay’s best work also appears to be behind him, and he seems doomed to repeat the same ideas in his later work. He is caught in an ideology of teleological development but cannot develop to any precise ‘end’.
Similarly, Mrs Ramsay’s narrative may embody more ‘feminine’ qualities, with its emphasis on cycles, return, nurturing, and selflessness, but these same qualities also point up her complicity in the Victorian patriarchy embraced by her husband: she is a traditionalist who believes women should be married, wives should serve their husbands, and unmarried men and women should not stay out too late together. In other words, those looking for a clear distinction where Mr Ramsay = linearity and progress and Mrs Ramsay = cycles and returning are sure to be disappointed.
If you enjoyed this analysis of Woolf’s novel, check out our short analysis of her earlier novel, Jacob’s Room and our introduction to her last novel, Between the Acts.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.