To The Lighthouse

Hoy High Lighthouse, Graemsay, Orkney Islands (in northern Scotland)
Photo taken by Richard Harvey

She looked up over her knitting and met the third stroke and it seemed to her like her own eyes meeting her own eyes, searching as she alone could search into her mind and her heart, purifying out of existence that lie, any lie. She praised herself in praising the light, without vanity, for she was stern, she was searching, she was beautiful like that light. It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself. There rose, and she looked and looked with her needles suspended, there curled up off the floor of the mind, rose from the lake of one’s being, a mist, a bride to meet her lover.” (p. 63-64)

I can’t escape the idea that the lighthouse represents Mrs. Ramsay. Not literally, of course, but in terms of beauty. Purpose. Meaning for those who are searching for a guide, a beacon of light to help them through the dense fogs in life.

In the beginning of the book, James, her tender-hearted son of six, wants nothing more but to go to the lighthouse. His mother says yes, while his father is adamant that the weather will not permit it. More than what these words mean is the significance behind them: Mrs. Ramsay is soft and beautiful and loving;  Mr. Ramsay is seen as a tyrant. He slams doors, he focuses on his books, he whirls plates out of windows if he is displeased that an earwig has landed upon his meal.

Virginia paints for us a picture in words, just as scrunched-face Lily paints one with her brushes. She laments the worth of her painting; do the shadows and light balance one another? Do the images connect? and we wonder the same about the family. Each member brings his or her own personality to create the whole, and each distinct characteristic is needed. For instance, Mrs. Ramsay sees her husband’s work as a scrubbed table:

Whenever she ”thought of his work” she always saw clearly before her a large kitchen table. It was Andrew’s doing. She asked him what his father’s books were about. “Subject and object and the nature of reality,” Andrew had said. And when she said Heavens, she had no notion what that meant. “Think of a kitchen table then,” he told her, “when you’re not there.” (p. 23)

Whereas he sees woman’s minds as foolish:

There wasn’t the slightest possible chance that they could go to the Lighthouse tomorrow, Mr. Ramsay snapped out irascibly.

How did he know? she asked. The wind often changed.

The extraordinary irrationality of her remark, the folly of woman’s minds minds enraged him. He had ridden through the valley of death, been shattered and shivered; and now, she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out of the questions, in effect, told lies. He stamped his foot on the stone step. “Damn you,” he said, But what had she said? simply that it might be fine tomorrow. So it might.” (p. 31-32)

Despite their differences, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay love each other. They forgive each other their faults.

Then, suddenly, Mrs. Ramsay is gone. There is no one left to bring the group together; the summer house is neglected, the books grow mushrooms and spiders, James longs for a reassuring word which he doesn’t receive from his father until the very last pages. Her absence is felt keenly, as Virginia must have felt when her own mother died.

It seems to me that Virginia Woolf is mourning the loss of her mother through the loss of Mrs. Ramsay. We know that her mother was beautiful. That she led a family of eight children just as Mrs. Ramsay does. We know that her sudden death caused Virginia to suffer tremendously, as the death of Mrs. Ramsay causes those who knew her to mourn deeply. And these are the very things that happen in To The Lighthouse.

For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express the emptiness there? (She was looking at the drawing-room steps; they looked extraordinarily empty.) It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind. The physical sensations that went with the bare look of the steps had become suddenly extremely unpleasant. To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have-to want and want-how that wrung the heart , and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs. Ramsay! she called out silently…(p. 178)

Thank you, Emily, for leading us To The Lighthouse. I’m already looking forward to the next Woolf in Winter read, Orlando, hosted by Frances on February 12.  The last read for Woolf in Winter is The Waves, hosted by Claire, on February 26. Hope to see you there!

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36 thoughts on “To The Lighthouse”

  1. I wish I'd known you all were reading this right now. I would have picked it up too as I think it's the one Woolf book I do have on my shelf right now. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on To the Lighthouse and now I'm even more eager to read it. I want to get to know the Ramseys.

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  2. What a helpful insight, that the lighthouse represents Mrs. Ramsay in its beauty and its function as a guiding light. It amplifies a feeling I have, that there is much in To The Lighthouse that is only suggested. It really is akin to poetry. I didn't understand everything that was going on, but I could sense truths about human experiences like marriage, especially coping with a difficult husband; motherhood; physical beauty; hosting guests. Thanks for the note about the lighthouse. It adds to my understanding of the novel.

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  3. I agree, Belleza – Mrs. Ramsay does the work of providing everyone else with solidity, with cohesiveness, in the face of chaos, just as the lighthouse is a guiding light on a solid rock out at sea. It's interesting how, for James post-war and post-Mrs. Ramsay's death, his actual physical impression of the lighthouse changes. Lovely review, as usual, and thanks for reading along!

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  4. I can't imagine making Woolf's books into film. They are so much of internal thought, to me, rather than action or plot. I'll have to look up the film though, because it would be interesting to compare to the book after reading it. I'm so glad that you enjoyed my review.

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  5. I think I should keep the read alongs I'm doing in the sidebar, such as this and the L'Engle read along. I have them under challenges, but then it's hard to see them right away when my blog opens up. Anyway, I wish I'd told you of it sooner because I'd have loved to hear your opinion. I didn't own any Woolf novel, but bought the first two used on eBay, and found the last two in our local library. I hope you could join in for Orland and The Waves.

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  6. Julia, it is so like poetry! The images are all over, and sometimes not so easy for me to decipher. Plus, I'm afraid of missing the deeper meanings of things. I think Virginia Woolf is one of those authors that requires multiple meanings to grasp all she wants to say (much like Murakami!).

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  7. I never read Woolf in college, or before this Winter for that matter, so it's good to finally get caught up with all my bibliophile friends. It is a lovely read, a slow, long, contemplative read which I find perfect for Winter.

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  8. Emily, thanks for opening up Virgina Woolf's works for me. It means so much to be able to visit one another's reviews and share the experience with other participants in this read along. I feel like I'm in a great book group, and I find this so enriching! I'm glad my post made sense because Woolf is new to me this Winter.

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  9. To the Light House has always been one of those books that I thought I should read. Your review was the first one that has made me actually want to read it. Thanks.

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  10. Thank you for this beautiful review. I really liked the link you made between Mrs. Ramsay and the lighthouse. She does seem to imbue them all with a sense of meaning and purpose, what a wonderful gift to have!

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  11. I intended to participate in this discussion, but time has successfully slipped by me. Loved reading your post anyway, Bellezza, and I'll keep it in mind when I actually do get to read the book. 🙂

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  12. I thought that the title must have a purpose, and to me, a lighthouse always means direction; a beam against the foggy mist, if you will. That is also what I think of mothers, the good ones anyway; ideally they should be a source of light in their families against the storms. Although, I seem to fall short of that a bit too often for my liking! 😉

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  13. Time successfully slips by me on a steady basis, Andi. While the paper piles to grade creep up, n'est ce pas? Perhaps you can join in the last two readings of Virginia Woolf…

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  14. I don't know if you'll have a new post up tomorrow, so I'll go ahead and be the first to wish you a very, very Happy Birthday, Miss Bellezza! I hope your day is filled with love, laughter and oodles of good books and treats. Maybe even some sunshine! Love you like a sister, dear friend.Les

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  15. I love the connection you draw between the balance of light and shadow in Lily's painting, and the balance of personalities in the family/party. Mrs. Ramsay had been casting a shadow right at the center of Lily's first painting, and later, without her, the right balance could not be achieved.

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  16. I don't suppose it should be a "should" thing, dear Kailana. But, it would be lovely to have your thoughts if you had the time to read the last two. I've loved this read along, and the L'Engle one which you are hosting. They're such great ways to start my reading year!

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  17. Lesley, a huge package arrived yesterday filled with surprises. It's my first present(s) which I won't open until the 30th, but let me tell you, you take my breath. You can't wrap friendship which is the best gift you give me. More on this later; love you, too, sister.

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  18. Lovely thoughts as always! Mrs. Ramsay is the unifying force in her family and the biographical ties to Woolf's own mother are undeniable. Gender politics aside, I always equate her character with love and beauty and an ideal (though flawed) of sorts. All about the love (for me). Thanks so much for taking part. Hope to see you for Orlando on the 12th.

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  19. Like you, Bellezza, I never read any Woolf before the Woolf in Winter readalongs forced me to make up for lost time. Anyway, loved your post–and thinking about Mrs. Ramsay as the lighthouse, something I hadn't really considered so directly, really reinforces the sense of loss in the "Time Passes" part of the novel (as if that section needed any help to be more tragic!). Thanks for the fine review!

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  20. This book sounds wonderful. I love the quotes you've picked out. I wasn't aware of Woolf's mother's sudden death, or its implications. Really wish I'd read it as part of Woolf in Winter as well. I am enjoying reading all the reviews, and be rest assured, I'm planning on reading it sometime soon.

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  21. That's a very interesting, Bellezza, to have imagined that the lighthouse represents Mrs. Ramsay. I hadn't even come close to thinking of that 🙂 But I do agree with you, now that you mentioned it. When Mrs. Ramsay died, you can see how everyone was affected. They needed her more than they realized. She was, indeed, a beacon.To The Lighthouse really is such a sweeping, timeless novel.You might be interested to know that there's a traditional term that we Filipinos use to refer to mothers, and in English it can be translated as "Light of the House" 🙂

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  22. Bellezza, I also think your comparison of Mrs Ramsay to the lighthouse so insightful! And, indeed, this book is like a painting. In fact, Margaret Atwood, in her second reading of it, points out that the painting of Mrs Ramsay that Lily did was in fact this book. Lily was Woolf, Mrs Ramsay her mother, and the book her own painting of her. Isn't that just breathtaking to imagine?

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  23. I do not understand what To The Light House is; is it a book or a movie? I do not know who Virginia Woolfe is; a writer or a person whose name was written in history? Yet I find your review excellent and beautiful, like I could relate to what exactly this post is. I am praising you Bellezza since you have continually amazed me with the simplicity of your writing and how it smacks me right at the very center.

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  24. I love the symbolism of the lighthouse being Mrs. Ramsey – I love how you pulled together this book into such a concise review. Now I have to go seek out the movie. I think this would be easier to film than Mrs. Dalloway which I rather liked. But I agree – how can such a thought-propelled story be transferred to visual action clips? (which is why these films intrigue me so)

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