Have you ever wanted something so hard in life that you chased after it to the ends of the earth? Or did you idly sit by wishing and dreaming? “Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision”. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf is a story about people trying to achieve what they want most in life while battling the norms of their society - all set by the unremitting sea.
Virginia Woolf, born Adeline Virginia Stephen, took her first breath on January 25, 1882 in London, England. Virginia’s father, Leslie Stephen, was the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Julia Jackson, her mother, possessed prestigious social and art connections. Virginia had three siblings: Vanessa, Thoby, and Adrian, not including her half-siblings from her mother’s previous marriage. In 1895, at the age of forty-nine, Virginia’s mother died. Virginia was still very young when this even happened and fell into a depression. Almost a year later, she wrote her first letter since her withdrawment to her brother, Thoby. In 1906 after the family took a trip to Greece, Thoby died at the age of twenty-six from typhoid fever. Instead of slipping back into the black hole of depression, Virginia began to write and soon began to express her skills publicly. Wanting to write something that greatly differed from the average novel during this period, she experimented with a novel she named Melymbrosia. In 1911 Leonard Woolf returned after resigning from the colonial service. In August of 1912, Virginia and Leonard were married. Renaming Melymbrosia to The Voyage Out, Virginia continued to work on this as her first novel. The plot of this novel separated Virginia from the everyday authors who wrote conventional novels, and marked her journey into surrealism. In 1913 her manic-depression returned and she attempted suicide, which pushed back the release of The Voyage Out until 1915. After this episode, Virginia was mostly able to keep these deadly thoughts and feelings at bay. After purchasing a printing press, Virginia and Leonard began the Hogarth Press in their basement in 1917. Several other novels were printed on the Hogarth Press by both Virginia and Leonard. Later in 1922, the Hogarth’s largest scale novel by Virginia would be published, Jacob’s Room (Reid). In December of 1922, a new and sensual romance would spark between Virginia and Vita Sackville-West. The two women were truly the fire of each other’s loins. After their first meeting, Virginia invited Vita to a dinner party. The women had a long and romantic affair together. The two continuously wrote many love letters to each other over the course of their love affair. Virginia later released her new and cutting-edge novel, Orlando, in 1928. The novel was inspired by her secret relationship with Vita, and she received the first copy of the novel in a package sent to her by Virginia. The novel follows the adventures of a poet who changes sex from man to woman for centuries. Virginia and Vita ended their love affair but remained very close friends up until Woolf’s death in 1941 (Popova). In 1925 Woolf published one of her most acclaimed novels: Mrs. Dalloway, which was tessellated as a Post-Impressionist painting. And again in 1927 Virginia released another novel, To The Lighthouse, which is based on Woolf’s life as a child growing up. She became distraught in 1934 and 1937 due to more deaths in the family. Later in 1937, she released a new novel, The Years, that quickly became a best-seller due to its radicalism. With World War 2 and the London bombings looming over her head, Virginia’s depression returned in 1941. Feeling as if she was a failure, Virginia could no longer write. On March 28 she wrote two letters, one addressed to her husband, and the other to her sister. She walked behind her house to the River Ouse, filled her overcoat pockets with stones, and slipped into the iridescent water, never to emerge again (Reid). “To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is...at last, to love it for what it is, and then, to put it away.”
Thirteen years before the release of To The Lighthouse, the First World War broke out, large and threatening. The war lasted from 1914 to 1918. Thousands of British men were sent off to fight in the most treacherous of conditions; six million of them wounded, over 700,000 killed (Snow). Families were shattered, hearts broken. The destruction and upheaval of lives caused a ripple of desolation to spread among many modernist writers, including Virginia. They needed a break from the grisly past and desired new delineation in literature. They needed to create, to free their minds of tragedy. The cloak of darkness needed to be lifted from their battered country, to be made new and beautiful again. With the destruction over with, a long period of recovery followed. Virginia was able to write three novels during this recovery period, which included: Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, and, of course, To The Lighthouse. To The Lighthouse provided a beacon of light during this incontestable time. The lighthouse represented the hope and rejuvenation that people so craved. To The Lighthouse was an instant best-seller, Woolf said herself that “it was easily the best of my books”. The novel had sold so well that she and her husband were able to purchase their first car. It was additionally one of her many novels to be published in her basement on the Hogarth press. This novel is also the most autobiographical novel about Virginia’s childhood. The setting is based upon the family summer trips she took as a child to St. Ives, Cornwall (Scutts). While this era had its many rough patches, it had its good ones too. Many important and luxury items we have today were invented during this “fall from grace” period. Some of those advancements include: Sanitary napkins, sonar, crossword puzzles, bras, and brillo pads (Trueman).
Lily Briscoe is easily one of Virginia Woolf’s most iconic characters in To The Lighthouse. She is described as being a short woman with “screwed up” little Chinese eyes. She is single and independent, and described as not possessing physical beauty. Unlike the rest of the characters in the novel who have a set mentality, Lily mixes “masculine rationality with feminine sympathy”. She is able to hold thoughtful conversations with the men in the novel and is also able to sympathize with Mrs. Ramsay with they talk gossip and other topics. Many of the women throughout the novel are described as having the basic female dream of the time, acting and thinking as women were expected; that they had to get married, have children and raise them, and handle things around the house (Yang). The women who conform to these expectations die while they are fairly young in the novel. Lily, however, does not wish to married and live the conventional life. Lily enjoys being alone and does not believe that she was made for marriage (Woolf). She wants to focus mainly on her art. This is also a sore spot for Lily because she doubts herself as a painter because of her sex. She fears that her work will be thrown into the attic and lost among the many other miscellaneous objects up there. During the period of the novel, women were not thought of as painters and writers, etc. Because of this, Lily faced many criticisms on her art from many male companions. Throughout To The Lighthouse, she contemplates how she should go about her painting, whether or not to move the tree here or there. Her brush is her vessel to create, yet she hesitates to show her paintings to other people for fear of negative criticism. At the end of the novel, after several years, and in a moment of exasperation, she has her vision and completes her portrait (Yang).
Throughout the novel Lily has relationships with several other characters. One of the most important relationships was the one that she had Mrs. Ramsay. Lily viewed her as a mother figure and greatly admired her strength. In turn, Mrs. Ramsay admired Lily’s independence. Lily enjoyed the many conversations she and Mrs. Ramsay had in the kitchen when they were all alone. She also loved the idea of uniting people and tried to pair Lily and Mr. Bankes together. While the two admired one another, the union did not prosper. Mrs. Ramsay was also the central figure for Lily’s painting that she had been working on since the beginning of the novel. When Mrs. Ramsay passed away in the second portion of the novel, Lily was a little on the fence about how to feel about the life-altering news. She becomes angry with Mrs. Ramsay for dying and starts to question her principals. By the end of the passage, she is yearning for Mrs. Ramsay, screaming and crying into the abyss for the mother figure she was knew and loved. Charles Tansley, another guest at the Ramsay’s home, constantly preaches to Lily about the inability of women to paint and write. Lily does her best to not let his rantings undermine her confidence in her work. Mr. Ramsay is the husband of Mrs. Ramsay, and is a complicated character. Although she respects him for his intelligence, Lily doesn’t really care for him because of the way he treats his wife and children. He constantly puts them down and denies them to go to the lighthouse. He loves to be pitied and often begs for it from many characters, including Lily although she doesn’t give it to him. Mr. Bankes is a young man also visiting the family at their beach house. Lily admires him and he in turn doesn’t doubt her as a female artist. Mrs. Ramsay pushes for the two to unite in marriage, but her attempt in in vain. Lily wanted to focus on her work instead of starting a family. She felt that a family life distracted one from their work. At the end of the novel, Lily is middle-aged and still not married (Yang).
To The Lighthouse has many great themes throughout, two of which include art as a means of unity and preservation and the dichotomous representation of water. Lily Briscoe is the main artist of the novel and begins to paint a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay sitting with James. The ultimate way to preserve someone for centuries to come is to have a picture of them, whether it be a photo or a painting. Even after Mrs. Ramsay’s death, there is a portrait to preserve her memory. In the memories of others you are preserved, but only until they forget. Lily’s painting also shows what Mrs. Ramsay was like. She loved and cared about her children, wishing the best for them, always wanting to protect from the dream crushings of their pessimistic father. In the portrait, James is perched upon Mrs. Ramsay’s knee. James was her favorite child out of all them. He was also the one who suffered the most from their father. She always wanted to protect him and wished that he didn’t have to grow up in those circumstances. The painting immortalizes their close relationship. Mrs. Ramsay enjoys the idea of uniting people and does this frequently throughout the novel, whether it be at dinner or trying to start romances. She likes the idea of solid remaining after she is dead and gone. At one of their many dinner parties, she is “disturbed by the lack of cohesion” and isn’t fulfilled until everyone comes together in unit. In her preoccupation with art and unification, Mrs. Ramsay herself becomes an artist, one who creates lasting moments between people. By the end of the novel, Lily recognizes this and forms another lasting connection with her (Gradesaver).
The second theme recognized throughout the novel is the dichotomous representation of water. Everything in the novel changes, the people, the atmosphere. The only steady thing is the water. In the second passage of the novel Time Passes, many changes come to the family. Mrs. Ramsay passes away, her daughter dies during childbirth, her son dies in the war, and their beach house is being worn away by the elements. The only constant aspect is the sea, wide and unwavering. Mrs. Ramsay often reflects on the consistency of the sea and is comforted by its eternity. It provides her with stability. However, Mr. Ramsay is vexed by the ocean, by its destructive and erosive nature. He focuses on the fact that it will inevitably wear away and swallow up the land he is standing on (Gradesaver).
To The Lighthouse is abundant with symbols, some of which include the lighthouse, the sea, and time itself. The lighthouse represents what the characters want most in the novel. James wants the acceptance of his father, Lily wants her paintings to matter, Mrs. Ramsay wants to create unity, and Josh wants to complete his essay. The characters go through the whole novel trying to get what they want the most and never succeed until the end of the novel. The sea represents the stability among an already out of control and changing world. The biggest symbol, however, is time. The characters are running out of it, and they continue to try and find new ways to make it worthwhile and obtain their goals before they run out of it. Time wears away everything, including relationships and the house where they all started (Litcharts).
In conclusion, To The Lighthouse is a novel where its characters fight to get the things they want the most. Some of the characters sit by idly, and lose the precious time they were given while the others race to the end of the earth trying to obtain their goals. Virginia Woolf was an author of her time, whose writing reformed the way the world felt towards female writers. “Writers, having had their hell on earth, will escape all punishment hereafter” (West).
- LitCharts. “To the Lighthouse Symbols.” LitCharts, www.litcharts.com/lit/to-the-lighthouse/symbols.
- Popova, Maria. “How Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West Fell in Love.” Brain Pickings, 21 Mar. 2018, www.brainpickings.org/2016/07/28/virginia-woolf-vita-sackville-west/.
- Reid, Panthea. “Virginia Woolf.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 6 Feb. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Virginia-Woolf
- Trueman. “Inventions 1900 to 1990 - History Learning Site Inventions 1900 to 1990.” History Learning Site, History Learning Site, 18 Sept. 2018, www.historylearningsite.co.uk/inventions-and-discoveries-of-the-twentieth-century/inventions-1900-to-1990/.
- Woolf, Virginia. “To the Lighthouse Themes.” GradeSaver: Getting You the Grade, www.gradesaver.com/to-the-lighthouse/study-guide/themes
- Yang, Amy. “To the Lighthouse: Lily Briscoe.” Prezi.com, 4 Mar. 2013, prezi.com/iqdnrwxvwnsy/to-the-lighthouse-lily-briscoe/.
- “Historical Context for To the Lighthouse.” Columbia College, www.college.columbia.edu/core/node/1767.
- “Viewpoint: 10 Big Myths about World War One Debunked.” BBC News, BBC, 25 Feb. 2014, www.bbc.com/news/magazine-25776836.