The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening. Now—
James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?
No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.
As the Ramsays’ boat approaches the lighthouse in Chapter VIII of “The Lighthouse,” James reflects on images of the edifice that are competing in his mind. The first is from his childhood, when the lighthouse, seen from a distance, was a “silvery, misty-looking tower.” The second image, formed as he sails closer, is stripped of its shadows and romance. The structure appears hard, plain, and real. Its barred windows and the laundry drying on the rocks present nothing magical. James’s first inclination is to banish one of these pictures from his mind and grant the other sovereignty, but he corrects himself, realizing that the lighthouse is both what it was then and what it is now. The task that James faces is a reconciliation of these competing images into a whole truth. This challenge is the same one that Lily faces at the end of the novel, for she must reconcile her romantic vision of, and disappointment with, Mrs. Ramsay. To do so and to admit the complex, even contradictory, nature of all things, the novel suggests, is to possess a greater (and more artful) understanding of life.