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To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf

The Lighthouse: Chapters VIII–XIII

The Lighthouse: Chapters IV–VII

Important Quotations Explained

No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Summary: Chapter VIII

“They don’t feel a thing there,” Cam muses to herself while looking at the shore. Her mind moves in swirls and waves like the sea, until the wind slows and the boat comes to a stop between the lighthouse and the shore. Mr. Ramsay sits in the boat reading a book, and James waits with dread for the moment that his father will turn to him with some criticism. James realizes that he now hates and wants to kill not his father but the moods that descend on his father. He likens the dark sarcasm that makes his father intolerable to a wheel that runs over a foot and crushes it. In other words, Mr. Ramsay is as much a victim of these spells of tyranny as James and Cam. He remembers his father telling him years ago that he would not be able to go to the lighthouse. Then, the lighthouse was silvery and misty; now, when he is much closer to it, it looks starker. James is astonished at how little his present view of the scene resembles his former image of it, but he reflects that nothing is ever only one thing; both images of the lighthouse are true. He remembers his mother, who left him sitting with the Army and Navy Stores catalogue after Mr. Ramsay dismissed their initial trip to the lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay remains a source of “everlasting attraction” to James, for he believes she spoke the truth and said exactly what came into her head.

Summary: Chapter IX

Lily watches the sea. She notes the power of distance and how it has swallowed the Ramsays and herself. All is calm and quiet. A steamship disappears from sight, though its smoke lingers in the air.

Summary: Chapter X

Cam feels liberated from her father’s anger and her brother’s expectations. She feels overjoyed at having escaped the burden of these things, and entertains herself with a story of adventure. She imagines herself escaping from a sinking ship. She wonders what place the distant island has in the grand scheme of things and is certain that her father and the men with whom he keeps company (such as William Bankes and Augustus Carmichael) could tell her. She feels incredibly safe in her father’s presence and wishes her brother would put aside his grievances with him.

Summary: Chapter XI

Back on shore, Lily loses herself in her intense memories of Mrs. Ramsay, noticing Carmichael when he grunts and picks up his book and reflecting on the freedom from conventional chatter the early morning hour provides. Watching the sailboat approach the lighthouse, she contemplates distance as crucially important to one’s understanding of other people. As Mr. Ramsay recedes into the horizon, he begins to seem to her a different person altogether.

Similarly, Lily’s understanding of Mrs. Ramsay has changed considerably since Mrs. Ramsay’s death. Lily thinks about the people she once knew at this house, about Carmichael’s poetry, about Charles Tansley’s marriage, his career in academics, and his educating his little sister. She recalls having heard Tansley denounce the war and advocate brotherly love, which did not fit her understanding of him at all. But she thinks that people interpret one another in ways that reflect their own needs. To see someone clearly and fully, she concludes, one would need more than fifty pairs of eyes. Lily thinks about the Ramsays’ marriage, saying that theirs did not constitute marital bliss. She recounts to herself the domestic forces that occupied and tired Mrs. Ramsay, then notices what looks like a figure in the window of the house. The image is fleeting, however, and leaves Lily yearning for Mrs. Ramsay and wishing that Mr. Ramsay would return.

Summary: Chapter XII

Mr. Ramsay is almost finished with his book. The sight of the lighthouse inspires James to recognize the profound loneliness that both he and his father feel. James mutters a snatch of poetry under his breath, as Mr. Ramsay often does. Cam stares at the sea and becomes sleepy. James steers the boat, and Mr. Ramsay opens their parcel of food and they eat. The fisherman says that three men drowned in the spot the boat is in. Mr. Ramsay reiterates the line of verse, “But I beneath a rougher sea.” James lands the boat, and Mr. Ramsay praises James’s sailing. Cam thinks that James has gotten what he has always wanted—his father’s praise—but James, unwilling to share his pleasure, acts sullen and indifferent. As Mr. Ramsay stands and looks at the lighthouse, Cam wonders what he sees, what he thinks. He tells his children to bring the parcels that Nancy has packed for the voyage and bounds, like a young man, onto the rock.

Summary: Chapter XIII

On the shore, Lily declares aloud that her painting is finished, and notes that Mr. Ramsay must have reached the lighthouse by now. Carmichael rises up and looks at the sea, agreeing that the sailboat must have reached its destination. Lily draws a final line on her painting and realizes that it is truly finished, feeling a weary sense of relief. She realizes that she does not care whether it will be hung in attics or destroyed, for she has had her vision.

Analysis—The Lighthouse: Chapters VIII–XIII

James’s reflection on the lighthouse underlines the contradictory psychological and narrative structures of the book. The lighthouse provides James with a chance to consider the subjective nature of his consciousness. He decides that the tower can be two competing images at once: it is, for him, both a relic of his childhood fantasy and the stark, brutally real and somewhat banal structure he now sees before him. Just as Lily concludes that she would need more than fifty pairs of eyes in order to gain a complete picture of Mrs. Ramsay, James realizes that nothing is ever only one thing—the world is far too complex for such reduction and simplification. These metaphors explain Woolf’s technique. Only by presenting the narrative as a collection of varied and competing consciousnesses could she hope to capture a true likeness of her characters and their worlds.

In the final pages of the novel, Woolf reveals the key to the reconciliation of competing impressions that allows James to view the lighthouse and Lily to see Mrs. Ramsay in the context of both the past and present. This key is distance, which Lily notes in Chapter IX has “extraordinary power.” Lily has had ten years to process her thoughts regarding Mrs. Ramsay, ten years to work her way beyond an influence that, in the opening pages of the novel, overwhelms her with its intensity. When, earlier, Lily sits at Mrs. Ramsay’s feet, she is blinded by her love for the woman. Her opinion of Mrs. Ramsay has changed considerably by the end of the novel. She recognizes Mrs. Ramsay’s dated ways and somewhat manipulative nature, and her vision of Mrs. Ramsay is now more complete. Likewise, James is better able to see the lighthouse and, more pivotal, his father because of the distance that separates him from his childhood impressions. Mr. Ramsay, as Cam realizes, is not the same man he was ten years ago. Although still domineering, he has become more sensitive, a fact that James, overjoyed with the compliment his father has paid him, might finally begin to see.

Woolf’s phrasing of Lily’s declaration of “[i]t is finished” lends gravity and power to the moment with its biblical echoes of death and impending rebirth. The moment also parallels James’s ability to see the lighthouse and his father anew but holds singular importance for the structure of the novel. Mr. Ramsay, Mrs. Ramsay, and Lily Briscoe make three distinct attempts to harness the chaos that is life and make it meaningful. As a philosopher, Mr. Ramsay fails to progress to the end of human thought, that elusive letter Z that he believes represents the ultimate knowledge of life, while Mrs. Ramsay dies before she sees her children married. Thus, both the intellectual and social attempts to order life fall short. Only Lily’s attempt at artistic order succeeds, and it does so with grace and power. Lily has a “vision” that enables her to bring the separate, conflicting objects of her composition into harmony. This synthesizing impulse counters the narrative fragmentation as well as the competing worldviews among the characters. The painting represents a single instant lifted out of the flow of time and made permanent.

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