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To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf

The Window: Chapters V–VIII

The Window: Chapters I–IV

The Window: Chapters IX–XI

[W]ho will blame him if he does homage to the beauty of the world?

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Summary: Chapter V

At the house, Mrs. Ramsay inspects the stocking she has been knitting for the lighthouse keeper’s son, just in case the weather allows them to go to the lighthouse the next day. Mrs. Ramsay thinks about her children and her tasks as a mother. She also recollects her father’s death. Mr. Bankes reflects upon Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty, which he cannot completely understand. She is, he thinks, much like the walls of the unfinished hotel he watches being built in back of his home. Mr. Bankes sees more than aesthetic beauty in her, “the quivering thing, the living thing.” Mrs. Ramsay goes on knitting the stocking for the little boy, and lovingly urges James to cut another picture from the Army and Navy Stores catalogue.

Summary: Chapter VI

Mr. Ramsay approaches his wife. He is petulant and needs reassurance after his embarrassment in front of Lily and Bankes. When Mrs. Ramsay tells him that she is preparing a stocking for the lighthouse keeper’s boy, Mr. Ramsay becomes infuriated by what he sees as her extraordinary irrationality. His sense of safety restored, Mr. Ramsay resumes his strolling on the lawn, giving himself over to the “energies of his splendid mind.” He thinks to himself that the progress of human thought is analogous to the alphabet—each successive concept represents a letter, and every individual struggles in his life to make it through as many letters as he can. Mr. Ramsay thinks that he has plodded from A to Q with great effort but feels that R now eludes him. He reflects that not many men can reach even Q, and that only one man in the course of a generation can reach Z. There are two types of great thinkers, he notes: those who work their way from A to Z diligently, and those few geniuses who simply arrive at Z in a single instant. Mr. Ramsay knows he does not belong to the latter type, and resolves (or hopes) to fight his way to Z. Still, he fears that his reputation will fade after his death. He reminds himself that all fame is fleeting and that a single stone will outlast Shakespeare. But he hates to think that he has made little real, lasting difference in the world.

Summary: Chapter VII

James, reading with his mother, senses his father’s presence and hates him. Discerning his father’s need for sympathy, he wishes his father would leave him alone with his mother. Mr. Ramsay declares himself a failure, and Mrs. Ramsay, recognizing his need to be assured of his genius, tells him that Tansley considers him the greatest living philosopher. Eventually, she restores his confidence, and he goes off to watch the children play cricket. Mrs. Ramsay returns to the story that she is reading to James. Inwardly, she reflects anxiously that people observing her interactions with Mr. Ramsay might infer that her husband depends on her excessively and think mistakenly that her contributions to the world surpass his. -Augustus Carmichael shuffles past.

Summary: Chapter VIII

Carmichael, an opium addict, ignores Mrs. Ramsay, hurting her feelings and her pride. She realizes, however, that her kindness is petty because she expects to receive gratitude and admiration from those she treats with sympathy and generosity. Still troubled, Mr. Ramsay wanders across the lawn, mulling over the progress and fate of civilization and great men, wondering if the world would be different if Shakespeare had never existed. He believes that a “slave class” of unadorned, unacknowledged workers must exist for the good of society. The thought displeases him, and he resolves to argue that the world exists for such human beings, for the men who operate the London subway rather than for immortal writers.

He reaches the edge of the lawn and looks out at the bay. As the waves wash against the shore, Mr. Ramsay finds the encroaching waters to be an apt metaphor for human ignorance, which always seems to eat away what little is known with certainty. He turns from this depressing thought to stare at the image of his wife and child, which makes him realize that he is primarily happy, even though “he had not done that thing he might have done.”

Analysis—The Window: Chapters V–VIII

The line of poetry that Mr. Ramsay recites as he blusters across the lawn is taken from Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” The poem, which tells of 600 soldiers marching bravely to their death, ends with the lines

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!

A meditation on immortality, the poem captures the tumultuous state of Mr. Ramsay’s mind and his anxiety about whether he and his work will be remembered by future generations. Here, Mr. Ramsay emerges as an uncompromising but terribly insecure intellectual. He knows the world almost exclusively through words, so he tries to express and mediate his sadness with the lines by Tennyson. He yearns for the “glory” and the “wild charge” of which the poem speaks in the form of brilliant contributions to philosophy. Although he acknowledges a more profound truth—that in the end no immortality exists, and even a stone will outlast a figure as influential as -William Shakespeare—Mr. Ramsay cannot help but indulge his need to be comforted, to have others assure him of his place in the world and its importance. The posture he assumes as he approaches his wife in Chapter VII is one that he returns to often. Again and again, he displays a relentless desire for sympathy and understanding from her.

Mr. Ramsay is not alone in his need for his wife’s affections. Through Mrs. Ramsay, Woolf suggests that Mr. Ramsay’s traits belong to all men. Charles Tansley exhibits similar behavior in the opening chapters. He navigates the world according to what he has studied and read, and lashes out with “the fatal sterility of the male” for fear that his contributions will be deemed lacking. Mrs. Ramsay believes such daunted and insecure behavior to be inevitable, given the importance of men’s concerns and work. She sees men as well as women forced into roles that prescribe their behavior. In her extended sympathy for her husband and in her attempts at matchmaking, Mrs. Ramsay recognizes and observes these roles while trying to make it less painful for the people in her life to have to play them. This question of gender roles, which occupies much space in the coming chapters, is played out most fully in the relationship between Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe. Mrs. Ramsay’s maternal and wifely devotion represents the kind of traditional lifestyle to which Lily Briscoe refuses to conform.

Mr. Ramsay, who is obsessed with understanding and advancing the process of human thought, reveals the novel’s concern with knowledge. To the Lighthouse asks how humanity acquires knowledge and questions the scope and validity of that knowledge. The fact that Mr. Ramsay, who is decidedly one of the eminent philosophers of his day, doubts the solidity of his own thoughts suggests that a purely rational, universally agreed-upon worldview is an impossibility. Indeed, one of the effects of Woolf’s narrative method is to suggest that objective reality does not exist. The ever-shifting viewpoints that she employs construct a world in which reality is merely a collection of subjectively determined truths.

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