What are some of the main symbols in To the Lighthouse, and what do they signify? How does Woolf’s use of symbolism advance her thematic goals?
James gives us a clue as to how to interpret symbols in To the Lighthouse. As he finally draws the Ramsays’ boat up to the lighthouse, he considers two competing, and seemingly contradictory, meanings of the lighthouse. The first depends upon the lighthouse as it appeared to him as a child; then, it was a “silvery, mist-colored tower” and seemed to suggest the vague, romantic quality of the past. The second meaning stands in opposition, for, as James nears the lighthouse and sees its barred windows and laundry drying on the rocks, there is nothing romantic about it. He resolves, however, to honor the truth of both images, deciding that “nothing [is] simply one thing.”
Like James’s interpretation of the lighthouse, the dominant symbols in the novel demand open readings. Mrs. Ramsay wrapping her shawl around the boar’s head can be read merely as protection of her impressionable children from the unsightly suggestion of death, but it can also be read as a selfish attempt to keep from them a profound and inescapable truth. Choosing one option or the other diminishes the complexity of the novel’s symbols and characters. Woolf resists formulaic symbols, whereby one entity straightforwardly stands for another; she thus places us in the same position as her characters. The world of the novel is not filled with solidly or surely determined truths. Rather, truth, as Lily points out, must be collected from an endless number of impressions—she wishes that she had more than fifty pairs of eyes with which to view Mrs. Ramsay and understand her. We must approach the symbolism of To the Lighthouse with the same patience for multiple meanings.
If To the Lighthouse is a novel about the search for meaning in life, how do the characters conduct their search? Are they successful in finding an answer?
Although all the characters engage themselves in the same quest for meaningful experience, the three main characters have vastly different approaches. Mr. Ramsay’s search is intellectual; he hopes to understand the world and his place in it by working at philosophy and reading books. Mrs. Ramsay conducts her search through intuition rather than intellect; she relies on social traditions such as marriage and dinner parties to structure her experience. Lily, on the other hand, tries to create meaning in her life through her painting; she seeks to unify disparate elements in a harmonious whole.
While these characters experience varying degrees of success in their quest for meaning, none arrives at a revelation that fulfills the search. As an old man, Mr. Ramsay continues to be as tortured by the specter of his own mortality as he is in youth. Mrs. Ramsay achieves moments in which life seems filled with meaning, but, as her dinner party makes clear, they are terribly short-lived. Lily, too, manages to wrest a moment from life and lend to it meaning and order. Her painting is a small testament to that struggle. But, as she reflects while pondering the meaning of her life, there are no “great revelations” but only “little daily miracles” that one, if lucky, can fish out of the dark.
Compare and contrast Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. How are they alike? How are they different?
Although Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s love for each other and for their children is beyond doubt, their approaches to life could not be more opposite. Mrs. Ramsay is loving, kind to her children, selfless, and generously giving, while Mr. Ramsay is cold and socially awkward. He is stern with his children, which causes them to hate and fear him, and he displays a neediness that makes him rather pathetic in the eyes of his guests. Despite these profound differences, however, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay share the knowledge that all things—from human life to human happiness—are destined to end. It is from this shared knowledge that their greatest differences grow. Keenly aware of human mortality, Mrs. Ramsay is fueled to cultivate moments that soothe her consciousness, while Mr. Ramsay nearly collapses under the weight of this realization.
1. To the Lighthouse opens with a portrayal of the Oedipal struggle between James and Mr. Ramsay. This conflict resounds throughout the book. How does the family drama shape the book as a whole?
2. Conventional gender roles—and more broadly, conventional social roles—present a major subject of exploration in To the Lighthouse. Choose three characters and describe how each approaches this subject. Do gender roles play a part in the lives of the younger children?
3. What effect does the ocean have on different characters at different times in the novel? Why, for example, do the waves make Mrs. Ramsay sad?
4. What makes the “Time Passes” section so different from the rest of the novel? Why do you think Woolf chose such an unusual narrative approach for this section?
5. How does work function in the novel? For example, how does Lily approach what she sees as her work? How do Mr. Ramsay and Charles Tansley approach what they see as their work?