NEH Grant EX-20049-01


To the Lighthouse



To the Lighthouse was published in 1927, Woolf’s fifth novel. This is probably the best known of her novels, and a large number of critical resources are available. It is based on her childhood summers spent in St. Ives, on the Cornwall coast. The novel’s setting is the Isle of Skye, in the Hebrides. The book is divided into three sections: “The Window,” “Time Passes,” and “The Lighthouse.” Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay represent Woolf’s parents. The novel opens as James, their 6-year old son, wants to sail to the lighthouse across the bay. Mrs. Ramsay says yes, but Mr. Ramsay believes the weather will not be good enough. Charles Tansley, a frequent visitor whom the children sometimes tease, echoes Mr. Ramsay’s negative attitude. He has also said, “Women can’t write, women can’t paint.” Lily Briscoe, a central figure in the novel, is painting a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay. William Bankes looks at the painting; he is an amiable companion to Lily, an appreciator of Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty, and a drifting friend of Mr. Ramsay. Mr. Ramsay is insatiable in his demands for attention and sympathy, a fact that angers James. Ramsay broods over the time and energy drained by his large family, using it as an explanation for his lack of achievement and fame. Important parts of the novel occur at the dinner table, as character is revealed through the interactions and thoughts of the various characters. Mrs. Ramsay considers it her art to bring people together. She is gratified when Minta and Paul become engaged. She thinks Lily and William should marry. Another important scene is set in the nursery, where a pig’s skull has been nailed to the wall.  Mrs. Ramsay covers the skull with her shawl so that daughter Cam does not have to look at it, while reassuring James, who likes it, that it is still there; she is adept at having things both ways, to orchestrate people’s conflicting desires. Ten years after the first scene, Mrs. Ramsay has died and Mr. Ramsay at last will take James, now 16, and Cam to the lighthouse. It is a rite of passage. Meanwhile, on the shore, Lily at last can finish the portrait she started ten years earlier. Lily’s attachment to Mrs. Ramsay has been profound; the completion of the painting has powerful spiritual and psychological dimensions.

Essay Questions & Paper Topics

1.      Explore the symbolic meanings of the lighthouse.

2.      Identify and discuss the painterly images associated with Mrs. Ramsay.

3.      Discuss Lily’s values and search for identity.

4.      Compare the relationship of Cam and Mr. Ramsay to Woolf’s relationship with her father, Leslie Stephen.

5.      Describe Mrs. Ramsay’s values and character.


Brivic, Sheldon. “Love as destruction in Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse.’” Mosaic (Winnepeg) Sept 1994 v.27:3

Forbes, Shannon. “’When sometimes she imagined herself like her mother’: the contrasting responses of Cam and Mrs. Ramsay to the role of the angel in the house.” Studies in the Novel Winter 2000 v.32:4

Koppen, Randi. “Embodied forms: art and life in Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse.’” New Literary History Spring 2001 v.32:2

Levy, Eric P. “Woolf’s metaphysics of tragic vision in ‘To the Lighthouse.’” Philological Quarterly Winter 1996 v.75:1

Minogue, Sally. “Was it a vision? Structuring emptiness in ‘To the Lighthouse.’” Journal of Modern Literature Winter 1997 v.21:2

Nussbaum, Martha C. “The window: knowledge of other minds in Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse.’” Autumn 1995 v.26:4

Stewart, Jack. “A ‘need of distance and blue’: space, color, and creativity in ‘To the Lighthouse.’” Twentieth Century Literature Spring 2000 v.46:1

Tremper, Ellen. “In her father’s house: ‘To the Lighthouse’ as a record of Virginia Woolf’s literary patrimony.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language Spring 1992 v.34:1

Viola, Andre. “Fluidity versus muscularity: Lily’s dilemma in Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse.’” Journal of Modern Literature Winter 2000 v.24:2

Wareham, John. “Woolf’s ‘To theLighthouse.’” The Explicator Summer 1994 v.52:3

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