Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are staying at their summerhouse in the Hebrides with their eight children and several houseguests. James, the Ramsays’ youngest child, sits on the floor carefully cutting out pictures from the Army and Navy Stores catalogue. Mrs. Ramsay assures James he will be able to visit the nearby lighthouse the following day if weather permits, but Mr. Ramsay interjects that the weather will not allow it. Six-year-old James feels a murderous rage against his father for ridiculing his mother, whom James considers “ten thousand times better in every way.” Mrs. Ramsay tries to assure James that the weather may well be fine, but Charles Tansley, a stiff intellectual who greatly respects Mr. Ramsay, disagrees.
Tansley’s insensitivity toward James irritates Mrs. Ramsay, but she tries to act warmly toward her male houseguests, forbidding her irreverent daughters to mock Tansley. After lunch, Mrs. Ramsay invites Tansley to accompany her on an errand into town, and he accepts. On their way out, she stops to ask Augustus Carmichael, an elderly poet also staying with the Ramsays, if he needs anything, but he responds that he does not. On the way into town, Mrs. Ramsay tells Carmichael’s story. He was once a promising poet and intellectual, but he made an unfortunate marriage. Mrs. Ramsay’s confidence flatters Tansley, and he rambles incessantly about his work.
The two pass a sign advertising a circus, and Mrs. Ramsay suggests that they all go. Hesitant, Tansley explains to Mrs. Ramsay that, having grown up in an impoverished family, he was never taken to a circus. Mrs. Ramsay reflects that Tansley harbors a deep insecurity regarding his humble background and that this insecurity causes much of his unpleasantness. She now feels more kindly toward him, though his self-centered talk continues to bore her. Tansley, however, thinks that Mrs. Ramsay is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Like most of her male guests, he is a little in love with her. Even the chance to carry her bag thrills him.
Later that evening, Tansley looks out the window and announces gently, for Mrs. Ramsay’s sake, that there will be no trip to the lighthouse tomorrow. Mrs. Ramsay finds him tedious and annoying.
Mrs. Ramsay comforts James, telling him that the sun may well shine in the morning. She listens to the men talking outside, but when their conversation stops, she receives a sudden shock from the sound of the waves rolling against the shore. Normally the waves seem to steady and support her, but occasionally they make her think of destruction, death, and the passage of time. The sound of her husband reciting to himself Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” returns to her the sense that all is right with the world. She notices Lily Briscoe painting on the edge of the lawn and remembers that she is supposed to keep her head still for Lily, who is painting her portrait.
As Mr. Ramsay passes Lily on the grass, he nearly tips over her easel. Lily’s old friend William Bankes, who rents a room near hers in the village, joins her on the grass. Sensing that they have somehow intruded on their host’s privacy, Lily and Bankes are both slightly unnerved by the sight of Mr. Ramsay thundering about talking to himself. Lily struggles to capture her vision on canvas, a project, she reflects, that keeps her from declaring outright her love for Mrs. Ramsay, the house, and the entire scene.
Bankes, who once enjoyed an intimate relationship with Mr. Ramsay, now feels somewhat removed from him. He cannot understand why Mr. Ramsay needs so much attention and praise. Bankes criticizes this facet of Ramsay’s personality, but Lily reminds him of the importance of Mr. Ramsay’s work. Lily has never quite grasped the content of Mr. Ramsay’s philosophy, although Andrew, the Ramsays’ oldest son, once helpfully likened his father’s work on “the nature of reality” to thinking about a kitchen table when one is not there. Lily finds Mr. Ramsay at once otherworldly and ridiculous. When Mr. Ramsay realizes that Lily and Bankes have been watching him, he is embarrassed to have been caught acting out the poem so theatrically, but he stifles his embarrassment and pretends to be unruffled.
Virginia Woolf read the work of Sigmund Freud, whose revolutionary model of human psychology explored the unconscious mind and raised questions regarding internal versus external realities. Woolf opens To the Lighthouse by dramatizing one of Freud’s more popular theories, the Oedipal conflict. Freud turned to the ancient Greek story of Oedipus, who inadvertently kills his father and marries his mother, to structure his thoughts on both family dynamics and male sexual development. According to Freud, young boys tend to demand and monopolize their mothers’ love at the risk of incurring the jealousy and wrath of their fathers. Between young James Ramsay and his parents, we see a similar triangle formed: James adores his mother as completely as he resents his father. Woolf’s gesture to Freud testifies to the radical nature of her project. As much a visionary as Freud, Woolf set out to write a novel that mapped the psychological unconscious. Instead of chronicling the many things characters say and do to one another, she concentrated on the innumerable things that exist beneath the surface of speech and action.
Achieving this goal required the development of an innovative method of writing that came to be known as stream of consciousness, which charts the interior thoughts, perceptions, and feelings of one or more characters. Although interior monologue is another term often used to refer to this technique, an important difference exists between the two. While both stream of consciousness and interior monologue describe a character’s interior life, the latter does so by using the character’s grammar and syntax. In other words, the character’s thoughts are transcribed directly, without an authorial voice acting as mediator. Woolf does not make use of interior monologue; throughout To the Lighthouse, she maintains a voice distinct and distant from those of her characters. The pattern of young James’s mind, for instance, is described in the same lush language as that of his mother and father. It is more apt to say, then, that the novel is about the stream of human consciousness—the complex connection between feelings and memories—rather than a literary representation of it.
Through these forays into each character’s mind, Woolf explores the different ways in which individuals search for and create meaning in their own experience. She strives to express how individuals order their perceptions into a coherent understanding of life. This endeavor becomes particularly important in a world in which life no longer has any inherent meaning. Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in 1859 in The Origin of Species, challenged the then universal belief that human life was divinely inspired and, as such, intrinsically significant. Each of the three main characters has a different approach to establishing the worth of his or her life. Mr. -Ramsay represents an intellectual approach; as a metaphysical phil-osopher, he relies on his work to secure his reputation. Mrs. -Ramsay, devoted to family, friends, and the sanctity of social order, relies on her emotions rather than her mind to lend lasting meaning to her experiences. Lily, hoping to capture and preserve the truth of a single instant on canvas, uses her art.