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To The Lighthouse: Symbols Related To Women And To Men

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The novel To The Lighthouse, written by the british writer Virginia Woolf belongs to the literary movement known as Modernism. Modernism in its essence breaks with the previous form of creation that was conceived in the Victorian era, and demands more focus on the writing itself, relegating content in favour of form. This can be applied to To the Lighthouse in the sense that what matters is not the story of the family itself, but the ongoing reflection and inner thoughts of the characters. Modernism is often associated with James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf herself.

Adeline Virginia Stephen, also known as Virginia Woolf, was a novelist born on January 25th 1882 in South Kensington, London, in a family of eight. This fact about her life is portrayed in the novel, where the story also focuses on a family of eight and their many friends. She is nowadays considered one of the greatest modernist novelists and is known for her peculiar writing, which is the entanglement of her characters’ thoughts. The novel is set between 1910 and 1920, and deals with the period of war and post war.

This period of desolation can be seen in the novel through the death of some members of the family and the state of ruin in which the family’s house remains for years. However, the major historical events are not mentioned deeply, and the events that may seem insignificant to the reader are the ones that hold profound thoughts.

2. Theoretical Framework

The term symbolism has been defined by Cambridge Dictionary as ‘a type of art and literature developed in the late 19th century that tries to express ideas or states of mind rather than represent the real world, using the power of words and images’. In To the lighthouse Virginia Woolf builds up a world based on symbols and images to express her inner thoughts and worries as well as to depict a sexist society. Virginia Woolf herself stated that symbols should resemble the object they are depicting and that they should give an instant significance to the reader. However, they should not be informative, but evoke and suggest different things for different readers.

In the following sections a further analysis of the symbolism used throughout the novel is done, focusing on the topics regarding women, men and life. This narrowing of the topics is essential in order to bring out the issue of women’s role in society and how female characters are described in the Victorian era.

2.1 Symbols related to women

Women have been portrayed in novels throughout history mainly because of the duality they sometimes represent. In other words, that is to say that women in literature often represent either the femininity and goodness or the sexuality and evilness. This can be seen in To the lighthouse in the character of Mrs. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay is seen as the epitome of what a woman should be: devoted and traditional. All the characters are constantly alluding her beauty as well as her kind nature: ‘for the first time in his life Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; felt the wind and the cyclamen and the violets for he was walking with a beautiful woman.’(Woolf, 1927, p.21). Critics all throughout history have agreed that she is the traditional role model of what a woman should be in the past.

However, this has changed in recent years thanks to a feminist approach. In an article that figured on Women’s Studies Quarterly it was implied that the public should rethink the nature of Mrs. Ramsay’s character (R. Silver, 2009, p.259). Moreover, it called into question wether the character of Mrs. Ramsay was a symbol of sexism or feminism. Through the novel it can be seen that Mrs. Ramsey is rather conventional and she supports the male sex and the values that masculine figures stand for. This can be seen in the following extract of the novel: ‘she had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential’ (Woolf, 1927, p.10). Moreover, she is often thought to be the light of the family, as a feminine but also human figure. However, if thought with the modern day’s mentality, Mrs. Ramsay could not only represent motherhood or unity as many thought. Hence she represents the strength of women in a society lead by men, in which women’s figures are taking control over the family and the other sex.

Another female figure that needs to be analysed is Lily Briscoe. The symbol allied with Lily Briscoe’s character is that of her painting. Through Lily’s painting Woolf shows the struggle of women when it comes to artistic representation. Furthermore, it symbolises the difficulties women have to overcome due to the general mislead conception of gender roles. Additionally it brings out the topic of female self-esteem and appreciation of their own work as individuals with abilities just as the ones men have, not inferior ones. In the case of Lily, she is afraid of how others may receive her painting, as this painting itself is a representation of women and their sexual identity. And it is not just herself who criticises her paintings ‘She would have snatched her picture off the easel, but she said to herself, One must. She braced herself to stand the awful trial of some one looking at her picture.’ (Woolf, 1927, p.75), men do it too ‘Mr Tansley whispering in her ear, ‘Women can’t paint, women can’t write…’’ (Woolf, 1927, p.71.). Undoubtedly, Lily is afraid to how people would react to her painting, but she is slowly convincing herself that it is something the world needs to see. With this symbol Woolf calls society out to start appreciating women’s work and value, while encouraging women to express themselves.

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2.2 Symbols related to men

Men make their appearance in this novel through many characters: Mr. Ramsay, William Bankes, Charles Tansley, Paul Rayley…Yet a male symbol that stands out is no other than the lighthouse. As Helen Dunmore explains, the lighthouse may be a phallic symbol. This symbol could represent the stability of men, their strength, as well as their control over the world. However, Hajjari Leila and Abjadian Amrollah have pointed out that the lighthouse does not only represent men, but rather an androgyny figure that depicts both male and female. Hence, it could represent a mix of masculine and feminine qualities that complement each other, making a balance between two different conceptions of life.

2.3 Symbols related to life

The most relevant yet intricate symbol in To the lighthouse is the lighthouse itself. One of its many interpretations states that the lighthouse symbolises the desire of human kind (Ross, M. 2014). For instance, the desire of James to go to the lighthouse. This need to get there and the disillusion once achieved the ultimate goal show how life works. Humans put high hopes on dreams and fantasies that once experienced lose the value they had. In addition to this, the lighthouse symbolises the path of life, the continuous journey of both male and female. If one looks at the title of the novel, To the lighthouse, one can see that the title itself does not describe a final destination but a journey, a process of reaching one’s goals.

Another symbol related to life that has been studied is that of shells. J. Briggs implies that it is used to symbolise the emptiness of life and of the author herself. The appearance of shells along with the unexpected disappearance of objects throughout the novel also shows the essence of life, how it is unpredictable and ephemeral.

3. Research & Methodology

The process of research started with a first reading of the book, in which many quotes and annotations were made . After reading the novel and deciding the topic of the paper, a second, more narrow reading was done. This time around, the focus of the research was to find symbols related to men, women and life. Afterwards followed the process of online research. At first it was difficult to find information relevant to this topic in particular. However, after finding many websites that gathered articles around the topic, the research process sped up. With more articles to take into account, a new problem arose: which ones to use and which ones to discard. This part of the research also included watching a documentary of Virginia Woolf’s life and works, but no relevant information was used for the writing of the research paper. Then the next step was reading many theories, articles and other research papers and choosing which quotes of the book to make use of in this paper. From then on the writing begun. It took many attempts to express the theories in an orderly way that made sense. Finally, the research paper was read thoroughly to spot any mistakes that could have been made.

4. Results

After the long and exhaustive process of research the results reached prove the initial hypothesis in which this paper is based on. Many studies show that To the Lighthouse is an intricate and deep novel and its relevance does not fall back onto the story itself but the different images and symbols created by the author. These paper focused on how the different symbols show a depiction of a society that is slowly changing and taking women into account. This can be seen through the attitudes of the two female protagonists Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsay, as well as the many symbols associated with life and the passing of time.

Moreover, along the process it became noticeable that female representation in literature is not as wide as it should be by now. In figure a in the annexes a chart which deals with female representation in literature is shown in order to prove this point. In addition to this, a chart which deals with LGBTQ representation is also included. This issue relates to the sexual identity of Lily Briscoe which may have been hinted in the novel.

5. Conclusion

Virginia Woolf has a particular technique of writing and due to belonging to the literary movement of Modernism it is distinctive of her novels the use of symbolism. Subsequent to all the research what I learned about my discoveries is that symbols work in many different ways. What is more, the issue of women can be studied thoroughly in many novels even though it may not seem possible at first. After researching about the several symbols that represent women or female nature I found that some characters, like Mrs. Ramsay, may not be as sexist as I thought, but they may represent the strength of women in the Victorian era and what they accomplished for future generations.

After all the research process and the writing process the conclusion of this paper is that symbolism is an compelling and fascinating topic to research about due to all the interpretations that can be made about a simple object. The most captivating though about it is that even though critics speculate over a topic for decades, no one would ever be entirely certain that he or she reached the ultimate correct answer. At first I though I would not enjoy researching because in my mind It was such a complex thing that I did not know about yet I found the process exciting. Reading so many articles about diverse critics and reaching a conclusion of my own has been an exceptional process. I never though about the possibility of becoming a professional researcher but after this experience it may be a possibility in the future.

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To The Lighthouse: Symbols Related To Women And To Men. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 28, 2023, from
“To The Lighthouse: Symbols Related To Women And To Men.” Edubirdie, 18 Mar. 2022,
To The Lighthouse: Symbols Related To Women And To Men. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 Sept. 2023].
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