The novel To the Lighthouse (1927) is written by Virginia Woolf, One of the popular literary figures of the twentieth century. Woolf is widely admired for her technical innovations in the novel, most notably her development of stream-of-consciousness narrative. In this novel, Woolf sought to come to terms with her parents' stifling Victorian marriage and events of her own childhood, as well as to explore such feminist issues as the necessity, or even desirability, of marriage for women and the difficulties for women in pursuing a career in the arts. A striking mix of autobiographical elements, philosophical questions, and social concerns, To the Lighthouse is generally considered to be Woolf’s greatest fictional achievement.
Plot and Major Characters
To the Lighthouse is divided into three parts: “The Window,” “Time Passes,” and “The Lighthouse.” Despite the inherent complexities of Woolf's many themes and stream-of-consciousness narrative, the plot of the novel is simple. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their children, and numerous house guests—including Lily Briscoe, the central consciousness of “The Lighthouse” section—are vacationing in the remote Hebrides islands. An expedition to a nearby lighthouse is put off by Mr. Ramsay, and ten years later, after the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay and two of the Ramsays' children, the trip is successfully executed by Mr. Ramsay and his children James and Cam. “The Window” is the longest section of the book, but it takes place in a single day and focuses primarily on the character Mrs. Ramsay, a beautiful, placid, upper-middle-class Victorian wife and mother who devotes herself to family and friends. The years between the planned trip to the lighthouse and the actual event are poetically recounted in the short section “Time Passes,” in which the effects of time are illustrated in a description of the slow decay of the Ramsays’ empty vacation home, combined with flashes of imagery of World War I, the physical aging of the characters, and death. Lily Briscoe becomes the dominant character in the third section, “The Lighthouse.” A struggling artist who never married—despite Mrs. Ramsay’s attempts to play matchmaker for her—Lily mourns the loss of Mrs. Ramsay, whom she alternately adores and misunderstands, and attempts to resolve her feelings about Mr. Ramsay, whom she considers at times overly philosophical, arrogant, and detached. Lily also must come to terms with her own decision not to marry and to pursue work as an artist, despite social pressure to lead a more conventional life. In the final scene of the novel, Mr. Ramsay and his children reach the lighthouse at last, and Lily finishes the painting she has been working on throughout the novel, both acts signifying the characters’ attainment of an integrated vision of life, art, and death.
After the novel’s publication, Woolf wrote of her depiction of her parents’ marriage in To the Lighthouse, “I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act.” Her own mother had died suddenly when Woolf was thirteen. Considered a model wife and mother, Julia Stephen was known to exhaust herself regularly to please her demanding husband, the writer and intellectual figure Leslie Stephen. But Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are heavily fictionalized portrayals of Woolf’s parents, and neither they nor the other characters in To the Lighthouse are meant to fully represent the Stephen family; rather, they are extremely complex, symbolic, and, some say, mythical figures who are not easily categorized. Literary theorists are sharply divided over the deeper meanings of Woolf’s characters. Some interpret Mrs. Ramsay as the embodiment of the feminine ideal and Mr. Ramsay as that of the masculine ideal—the pure, elemental forces of the genders. Feminist critics dispute this notion, positing instead that the Ramsays’ marriage is typical of most marriages in the pre-World War I period, forcing the wife into the role of “angel of the house”—unquestioning, supportive, generous, and self-sacrificing at any cost to personal ambition and satisfaction. These critics consider Mr. Ramsay an overbearing and domineering patriarch who drives his wife to the brink of feeble-mindedness. Still others surmise just the opposite: namely, that Mrs. Ramsay is a cold-hearted, social-climbing harpy, and Mr. Ramsay a hen-pecked husband. Regardless of conflicting interpretations of the Ramsays, Lily Briscoe is generally considered representative of Woolf’s strong feminist principles, particularly in her refusal to marry and her commitment to painting, despite the urging of others to abandon art. Overriding concerns of To the Lighthouse and all of its characters are death, mourning, and the inexorable passage of time. When Mrs. Ramsay dies, she takes with her the sense of order in the family; children die, Lily and Mr. Ramsay fall into abiding grief, and even the house itself declines into disrepair. The consummation of the trip to the lighthouse and Lily’s completion of her painting, with a single line down the center representing Mrs. Ramsay, signify the triumph of order over disorder and life over death and grief.
To the Lighthouse has sustained critical predominance in Woolf’s canon since its publication in 1927. It is widely considered her most successful use of stream-of-consciousness narrative, nonlinear plot, and interior monologue, crisply identifying characters without the formal structure of chronological time and omniscient narration, as well as her most perfectly realized fictional reflection on mortality, subjectivity, and the passage of time. The novel is often described as an elegy to Woolf’s mother, and as such it is thought to be a complex and poetic character study, incorporating all facets of personality, including emotions dark and hopeless. In her diary Woolf recorded her many difficulties in writing To the Lighthouse, including her fears about reliving her parents’ deaths—events that precipitated two of her most devastating emotional breakdowns.