Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

The Differing Behaviors of Men and Women

As Lily Briscoe suffers through Charles Tansley’s boorish opinions about women and art, she reflects that human relations are worst between men and women. Indeed, given the extremely opposite ways in which men and women behave throughout the novel, this difficulty is no wonder. The dynamic between the sexes is best understood by considering the behavior of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. Their constant conflict has less to do with divergent philosophies—indeed, they both acknowledge and are motivated by the same fear of mortality—than with the way they process that fear. Men, Mrs. Ramsay reflects in the opening pages of the novel, bow to it. Given her rather traditional notions of gender roles, she excuses her husband’s behavior as inevitable, asking how men can be expected to settle the political and economic business of nations and not suffer doubts. This understanding attitude places on women the responsibility for soothing men’s damaged egos and achieving some kind of harmony (even if temporary) with them. Lily Briscoe, who as a -single woman represents a social order more radial and lenient than Mrs. Ramsay’s, resists this duty but ultimately caves in to it.


In “Time Passes,” brackets surround the few sentences recounting the deaths of Prue and Andrew Ramsay, while in “The Lighthouse,” brackets surround the sentences comprising Chapter VI. Each set of sentences in brackets in the earlier section contains violence, death, and the destruction of potential; the short, stabbing accounts accentuate the brutality of these events. But in Chapter VI of “The Lighthouse,” the purpose of the brackets changes from indicating violence and death to violence and potential survival. Whereas in “Time Passes,” the brackets surround Prue’s death in childbirth and Andrew’s perishing in war, in “The Lighthouse” they surround the “mutilated” but “alive still” body of a fish.


To the Lighthouse is full of beautiful nature imagery, from Mrs. Ramsay’s garden, to the sea and the birds that live there. In some cases, nature is part of the beauty that delights the characters. Mrs. Ramsay makes up a backstory for the birds she sees through her bedroom window. Mrs. McNab cannot resist picking some of Mrs. Ramsay’s flowers. Cam delights in the fish and seabirds she sees on the boat.  However, nature also reminds the characters of their smallness in the universe. Mr. Ramsay notes that a rock will outlast Shakespeare because of the transience of humankind. Nancy, while playing in the tide pool, pretends to be God by creating shadows over the hapless creatures. Minta loses her grandmother’s brooch on the beach, where it is presumably swallowed by the sea. As the Ramsay summer home lies empty, animals, plants, and mold take hold. Even the garden that once was under human cultivation runs wild. In this way, nature imagery also plays an important role in the theme of mortality.