To the Lighthouse follows the daily life of the Ramsay family and some of their friends during a vacation in a summer home in the Hebrides. Instead of following a traditional plot, the novel observes its characters carry out mundane activities while their inner lives face conflict on an existential scale. Woolf uses stream of consciousness—a style of writing meant to mimic the disjointed and often jumbled way thoughts flow through people’s minds—to show how these characters wrestle with their understanding of life and mortality. Amongst this mental drama, Woolf uses the figures of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay as the archetypal marriage, and the eccentric unmarried artist, Lily Briscoe, to question society’s beliefs about gender relations, marriage, and truth.
As the first section, The Window, opens, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are locked in a mostly unspoken conflict over how to handle their son James’s inevitable disappointment about not being able to travel to the lighthouse the next day, given the approaching storm. Mr. Ramsay believes that one should not disguise life’s hardships. Mrs. Ramsay wishes to protect James from harsh realities. These gendered ideologies frame the section, shaping how the Ramsays interact with those around them. Mr. Ramsay’s hyper-awareness of mortality causes him deep insecurity, leading him to behave tyrannically. Mrs. Ramsay covers up mortality by making her world beautiful and kind. The Ramsays represent very binary ways of living, almost in an echo of the Victorian archetype of separate spheres. Their inflexible and opposite ways of interacting with the world lead up to an awkward dinner party, in which it becomes clear how in following either Mrs. Ramsay’s politeness or Mr. Ramsay’s self-absorbed anger, the guests cannot articulate their true feelings or genuinely connect.
Lily Briscoe carefully observes Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s marriage and is dismayed by what she sees. She understands why society finds Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s marriage beautiful, but she cannot help but notice its unevenness. However, her society venerates the Ramsays and all they stand for. Her attempt to paint Mrs. Ramsay thus serves as a way for her to articulate the complexity she sees in Mrs. Ramsay as a figure, creating a less binary way of relating to her. However, she cannot finish this painting because of her fear that other people’s judgement will override her own vision. She has a moment of hope when William Bankes sees her painting and respects her vision even without fully understanding it. This strength carries her into the awkward dinner party, where she attempts to resist the gendered expectation that she comfort the rude Charles Tansley. Unfortunately, Mrs. Ramsay silently forces Lily back into line with a single glance.
Part Two, Time Passes, allows time and the larger world to ravage Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s interior world. The chapter both zooms far into the summer house as it sits abandoned and also offers an extremely distant view as wars, marriages, and the death of major characters, including Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew, are reduced to parentheticals. As nature begins to swallow the house past the point where Mrs. McNab, the housekeeper, can care for it, Mr. Ramsay’s fear and belief in man’s insignificance appears to bear out. However, when the family does finally decide to return, Mrs. McNab recruits others to help her ready the house, beating back the decay. Mortality proves inevitable and the house is swallowed, but life, civilization, and order can nevertheless stem the tide. Both views are true.
Part Three, The Lighthouse, sees the Ramsay family return to the summer house. This section is divided into two alternating parts, one following Mr. Ramsay’s journey to the lighthouse with Cam and James, and one following Lily Briscoe’s attempt to finish her painting. Although Mrs. Ramsay is never mentioned by name in the boat descriptions, her presence looms. Mr. Ramsay is the one insistent upon going to the lighthouse, a reversal of The Window, and he makes sure to bring gifts for the lighthouse keepers, just as Mrs. Ramsay would have. He even praises James for the first time. These small gestures speak to the surety of Mrs. Ramsay’s legacy. When he reaches the lighthouse, in what could arguably be considered one of the climaxes of the novel, the children think he looks bleak, but the narrator describes him stepping like a young man. By bringing Mrs. Ramsay into his own actions, Mr. Ramsay has not fully deconstructed his tyrannical behavior, but some healing and progress has clearly occurred.
Meanwhile on shore, Lily bravely reattempts her painting of Mrs. Ramsay. As she considers the ways in which she both loved and resented Mrs. Ramsay, Lily grows surer and surer about how she sees Mrs. Ramsay: as a complex human with strengths and weaknesses, beautiful, nurturing, overbearing, and controlling. This allowance for multiple, often contradictory truths means that she can communicate without being afraid of others overriding her subjectivity. She finishes her painting, able to accept any reaction to it, including people destroying or hiding it because she believes that having articulated her authentic, true vision is enough. She has revealed the complexity of Mrs. Ramsay, forging her own way of living that allows for a multifaceted reality.