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To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf

Important Quotations Explained

The Lighthouse: Chapters VIII–XIII

Key Facts

1.
Who shall blame him? Who will not secretly rejoice when the hero puts his armour off, and halts by the window and gazes at his wife and son, who, very distant at first, gradually come closer and closer, till lips and book and head are clearly before him, though still lovely and unfamiliar from the intensity of his isolation and the waste of ages and the perishing of the stars, and finally putting his pipe in his pocket and bending his magnificent head before her—who will blame him if he does homage to the beauty of the world?

As Mr. Ramsay strolls across the lawn in Chapter VI of “The Window,” he catches sight of Mrs. Ramsay and James in the window. His reaction comes as something of a surprise given the troubled ruminations of his mind described just pages before. He, like nearly every character in the novel, is keenly aware of the inevitability of death and the likelihood of its casting his existence into absolute oblivion. Mr. Ramsay knows that few men achieve intellectual immortality. The above passage testifies to his knowledge that all things, from the stars in the sky to the fruits of his career, are doomed to perish. Here, rather than cave in to the anxieties brought on by that knowledge, punish James for dreaming of the lighthouse, or demand that Mrs. Ramsay or Lily lavish him with sympathy, Mr. Ramsay satisfies himself by appreciating the beauty that surrounds him. The tableau of his wife and child cannot last—after all, they will eventually move and break the pose—but it has the power, nevertheless, to assuage his troubled mind. These moments integrate the random fragments of experience and interaction in the world. As Mr. Ramsay brings his wife and son visually “closer and closer,” the distance among the three shortens, buoying Mr. Ramsay up from the depths of despair.

2.
Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one? for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had thought, leaning her head on Mrs. Ramsay’s knee.

These musings come from Lily in Chapter IX of “The Window,” as she and William Bankes stand on the lawn watching the Ramsays. Bankes criticizes Mr. Ramsay for his hypocrisy in being narrow-minded, and Lily is about to respond with a criticism of Mrs. -Ramsay when she notices the look of rapture on Bankes’s face. She realizes that he loves Mrs. Ramsay, and she feels that this emotion is a contribution to the good of humanity. Overwhelmed with love herself, Lily approaches Mrs. Ramsay and sits beside her. Her thoughts here are noteworthy because they point to the distinction between ways of acquiring knowledge: instinct, on the one hand, and intelligence, on the other. Mrs. Ramsay knows what she does of the world by the former method, while Mr. Ramsay depends upon “inscriptions on tablets.” Here, as she wonders how one person comes to truly know another, Lily straddles the line that separates emotions from intellect, and that separates Mrs. Ramsay from her husband. This position anticipates Lily’s role at the end of the novel, when she stands watching Mr. Ramsay’s boat and indulges in powerful remembrances of Mrs. Ramsay. At that moment, Lily arrives at her elusive vision, completes her painting, and achieves the unity she craves in the above passage.

3.
It partook . . . of eternity . . . there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.

Chapter XVII of “The Window” is, in many respects, the heart of the novel. In Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner party, we see the rhythmic movement from chaos to order, from obscurity to clarity of vision, through which the novel progresses. The dinner party begins, to Mrs. Ramsay’s mind, as something of a disaster. Not all of the guests have arrived (Paul and Minta, for instance, have yet to return from the beach with Andrew and Nancy); Charles Tansley makes hostile comments to Lily; Augustus Carmichael offends his host by asking for a second plate of soup. Soon enough, however, as darkness descends outside and the candles are lit, the evening rights itself. Everyone is content, as Mrs. Ramsay intends, and everyone will remember the evening as beautiful and right. This passage describes these rare, priceless moments, which take on a kind of psychological permanence. The guests will remember this evening and will experience, with inexorable nostalgia, peace, and rest. In a world in which struggle and destruction are inevitable, the possibility for such domestic respite provides great comfort.

4.
[S]he could not say it. . . . [A}s she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it. And smiling she looked out of the window and said (thinking to herself, Nothing on earth can equal this happiness)—
“Yes, you were right. It’s going to be wet tomorrow. You won’t be able to go.” And she looked at him smiling. For she had triumphed again. She had not said it: yet he knew.

This passage, taken from Chapter XIX of “The Window,” is a lyrical demonstration of how disjointed people and their fragmented emotions can come together. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay represent opposite approaches to life. Possessed of a stolidly rational and scientific mind, Mr. Ramsay relies on what can be studied, proven, and spoken. Hence, at the end of “The Window,” he wants to hear Mrs. Ramsay declare her love for him. Mrs. Ramsay, however, navigates life on a less predictable course. She is led by her emotions rather than her mind. This approach provides her a greater range and freedom of expression. For instance, she can express her affection for her guests by orchestrating a lovely and memorable evening rather than forcing herself to articulate (or, like Mr. Ramsay, punish herself for not being able to articulate) these feelings. In Woolf’s estimation, these traits are gender-specific. She argues that men are most often satisfied by direct declarations, as when, in the novel’s final pages, James is mollified only by his father’s praise of his sailing skills. Women, on the other hand, often convey their meaning by what they choose not to say. Like Mrs. Ramsay in her triumph at the end of “The Window,” Lily is able to convey her sympathy for Mr. Ramsay without pronouncing it: she lets him tie her shoe.

5.
The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening. Now—
James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?
No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.

As the Ramsays’ boat approaches the lighthouse in Chapter VIII of “The Lighthouse,” James reflects on images of the edifice that are competing in his mind. The first is from his childhood, when the lighthouse, seen from a distance, was a “silvery, misty-looking tower.” The second image, formed as he sails closer, is stripped of its shadows and romance. The structure appears hard, plain, and real. Its barred windows and the laundry drying on the rocks present nothing magical. James’s first inclination is to banish one of these pictures from his mind and grant the other sovereignty, but he corrects himself, realizing that the lighthouse is both what it was then and what it is now. The task that James faces is a reconciliation of these competing images into a whole truth. This challenge is the same one that Lily faces at the end of the novel, for she must reconcile her romantic vision of, and disappointment with, Mrs. Ramsay. To do so and to admit the complex, even contradictory, nature of all things, the novel suggests, is to possess a greater (and more artful) understanding of life.

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