Literary Analysis Of To The Lighthouse By Virginia Woolf

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

To the Lighthouse (1927) is written by Virginia Woolf and is one of the most famous novels of the Woolf. By using different themes related to society in this novel, she became one of the well-known writers of modernism. This novel tells about women’s and men’s freedom in society and also talks about the various experiences, thoughts of characters which makes this book unique. Also, Woolf brings up the themes of life, loss and death which are somehow are said to be related to her life through evidences. “Woolf records her perceptions of the gender dynamics in a meeting of the Memoir Club in which she read the memories about the sexual abuse she suffered from her half-brother”. “Virginia has explained in her diary in May of 1925, two of the main characters in the novel, Mr. Ramsay and Mrs. Ramsay, were based on her parents, Sir Leslia Stephen and Julia”.

“Virginia Woolf is considered as one of the greatest twentieth century novelists and short story writers and one of the pioneers, among modernist writers using stream of consciousness as a narrative device”. Woolf’s other most known works include Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando and A Room of One’s Own. This novel talks about a family (Ramsay family) and their life which undergoes lots of changes throughout the novel. The novel revolves arounds the lighthouse containing lots of characters in it and all the characters shares connection with the lighthouse and its light in one or another way. This book is divided into three sections and this takes place between the time period of 1910 to 1920 on the Isle of Skye. Woolf in the novel explores the topics related to feminism, staying independent, masculinity, symbolism, tackling the problems of others minds and dealing with lot of emotions.

Woolf brings up the thought of feminism in novel through Lily Briscoe. Woolf shows two different personalities in novel who shares entirely different opinions about life. Mrs. Ramsay expects all girls (Lily Briscoe, Minta) to get married which she considers as best part of women’s life “an unmarried women has missed the best of life”. Lily, on the other hand, wants to be independent “she liked to be herself; she was not made for that”. Both characters perceive ideal life in different ways. Mrs. Ramsay controls and manages the family and she is praised throughout the novel for it even after her death while Lily Briscoe who does not wants to get into marriage life receives negative thoughts for it by Mrs. Ramsay and Charles Tansley. These two characters provides diversity of thoughts in the novel. Woolf shows two ways of living a life through these characters, one is depending on men and spending whole life devoted to the family (Mrs. Ramsay) and other is following own passion and not worrying about what others think regarding it.

Among the male characters, Charles Tansley and Mr. Ramsay tries to show their dominancy of their gender and poses to be more capable, strong and intelligent of other characters. Charles Tansley passes remark in the novel “Women can’t paint, women can’t write…”. This remark by Mr. Tansley shows the perception set in the society regarding the superiority and masculinity of males over the females and professions. A quote by Woolf tells about the dislike she has regarding masculinity “I detest the masculine point of view. I am bored by his heroism, virtue, and honour I think the best these men can do is not talk about themselves anymore”. In the novel, Mr. Tansley and Mr. Ramsay are both dependent of females i.e. Mrs. Ramsay and others for their needs but they are not ready to admit it. They crave for sympathy and praise in the story but due to their ego, they hesitate to ask for it directly. In the section “The lighthouse”, Mr. Ramsay is seen as expecting understanding and sympathy from Lily Briscoe in the same way as he was getting from Mrs. Ramsay in the section “The Window”.

Woolf never forgets to use symbols in her novels. To the Lighthouse contains different symbols to make more connection and relation between characters and objects like the Lighthouse itself, painting of Lily, the house of Ramsay family, the window and Sea. The lighthouse alludes to the character’s depth and motive. Woolf uses “yellow beam” of light as a symbol for Mrs. Ramsay who still travels throughout the house “over the bedroom wall, up the dressing, across the washstand” and still manages to remain in the minds of those around her despite her passing. This is the light projecting in the house, reminding Mrs. McNab of Mrs. Ramsay. Woolf uses light from lighthouse to symbolize Mrs. Ramsay, as if she provided a light beyond their lives and the home. Lily’s painting represents a struggle of a female to prove herself in male dominant society and falsify the Charles Tansley’s statement that women are not able to paint and write. Painting expresses feminine artistic vision and Mrs. Ramsay’s picture as a mother and a wife, expressed through Lily’s anxiety when she shows it to William Bankes. Painting also shows the regard and honor given by one female to another.

The Ramsay’s house stands as stage for all the characters to show their thoughts and emotions. House is a centre of novel which brings all the characters together and gives reason to discus over various topics. Till the journey to the lighthouse from the dinner party, Woolf shows every angle of the house and its structure. Feelings for the house keeps on changing throughout the novel, sometimes characters want to escape from it while sometime they feel it as refuge. Woolf describes the sea in very beautiful way, but her to mention it is to point to its violence. It brings destruction as a force like anger of James for his father at times in the novel. Flannery O’ Connor describes in one of her casebooks that violence is a force which can be used for good or evil. Violence allows the outflow of emotions either in positive or negative way. For example, Lily gets angry at Charles Tansley for discouraging her while making painting. The anger of James for his father is also somewhat due to same reason as his father is discouraging him to go to the lighthouse and becoming dominant but is little more intense than Lily’s anger. Eventually violence in the behaviour of characters shows their good or evil personality and leaves impression in the story.

The window symbolizes a static position, Mrs. Ramsay chooses to spend her afternoon with her son, James, while sitting at a window whereas others are in dynamic movement: Mr. Ramsay is enjoying walk, Lily is busy with her painting, children are playing cricket. Mr. Bankes gazes adoringly at her. The window represents the personality of Mrs. Ramsay and brings down the thought to Mrs. Ramsay as a centre of house; she is separate and apart from everyone else. Woolf shows the characters facing different problems at times in the novel but the style of working on them is quite unique. Characters have self-doubts like the discouragement: Lily gets from Charles Tansley makes her doubt her ability. Drastic change is found in the personality of Lily at the end of the novel. She becomes clear with her vision and ideas of working on them. She realizes her ability and gains her vision from a girl who was underconfident and confused in herself. By the end of the novel, Lily overcomes her anxieties and becomes responsible enough to put all the things into practice which she has learned from Mrs. Ramsay. On the other hand, Mrs. Ramsay tackles with the daily life issues in her own style which makes her different from other characters. She is excellent in dealing and comforting her family “we will cover it up”. Mrs. Ramsay creativity and by using excellent powers of her manipulation comforts her both the children and puts them into sleep.

“To the Lighthouse takes on some elements of Woolf’s own life: she felt stifled by her father in much the same way that Mrs. Ramsay squeezes the life out of his children”. Woolf puts emotions and thoughts of characters in this novel on top. Mrs. Ramsay and Lily attempts to capture special moments of life in their own style differently. Mrs. Ramsay does it by working on near-impossible situations while Lily Briscoe prefers painting to capture moments in more long-lasting way which is quite old-school way of doing it. On the other hand, Mr. Ramsay pens down his writing and academic reputation which he wishes to last ever long and even after his life. In the novel, Woolf switches perspectives rapidly. For example, Lily Briscoe says that 50 eyes are not enough to see one person properly, “Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with, she thought”. In other words, she tries to say even 50 eyes are not capable of judging anyone or making conclusions about the truth. Novel attempts to answer the meaning of life, meaning of the moments we experience, all compiled together.

Woolf’s narrative style is intensely free flowing, running in and out of everyone’s brains. The plot isn’t the most important, but the thoughts of the individuals makes this this book interesting and unique. Woolf uses the technique of stream-of-consciousness; recorded from the long paragraphs which works on the human thoughts. The title of the novel is obvious in the first and third parts. Lighthouse represents family authority, being a giant symbol of the patriarch. Individual characters with individual thoughts make a family in this novel and comes at one place all together to find about their vision and goal for their life. All the characters attempt their best to fulfil their dreams and desires in own way. Woolf claimed that writing To the Lighthouse allowed her finally to lay her own dead parents to rest, making a place for herself outside of the shadow of parental disapproval.

Works Cited

  1. Connor O’, Flannery. “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable”. The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Edited by Ann Charters, 10th edition. Bedford/ ST. Martins. 2019. PP. 1200.
  2. Hankins, Leslie Kathleen. ‘A splice of reel life in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Time Passes’: censorship, cinema and ‘the usual battlefield of emotions.’.’ Criticism, vol. 35, no. 1, 1993, p. 91+. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com.ezproxy.okanagan.bc.ca/apps/doc/A13471964/GLS?u=kelo91364&sid=GLS&xid=8a1536c9. Accessed 14 Aug. 2019.
  3. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks. “The Virginia Woolf Blog”. 7 March 2013. http://virginiawoolfblog.com/to-the-lighthouse-by-virginia-woolf/?share=digg
  4. “Gender Theme Analysis.” LitCharts, www.litcharts.com/lit/to-the-lighthouse/themes/gender.
  5. “SparkNote on To the Lighthouse.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2003. Accessed 14 lAug. 2019.
  6. Shmoop Editorial Team. ‘To the Lighthouse.’ Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Accessed 14 Aug. 2019.
  7. Virginia. “A Quote from The Pargiters.” Goodreads, Goodreads, www.goodreads.com/quotes/871486-i-detest-the-masculine-point-of-view-i-am-bored.
  8. Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. The Hogarth Press Ltd ,1927.


Read more