On the shore, Lily declares aloud that her painting is finished, and notes that Mr. Ramsay must have reached the lighthouse by now. Carmichael rises up and looks at the sea, agreeing that the sailboat must have reached its destination. Lily draws a final line on her painting and realizes that it is truly finished, feeling a weary sense of relief. She realizes that she does not care whether it will be hung in attics or destroyed, for she has had her vision.
James’s reflection on the lighthouse underlines the contradictory psychological and narrative structures of the book. The lighthouse provides James with a chance to consider the subjective nature of his consciousness. He decides that the tower can be two competing images at once: it is, for him, both a relic of his childhood fantasy and the stark, brutally real and somewhat banal structure he now sees before him. Just as Lily concludes that she would need more than fifty pairs of eyes in order to gain a complete picture of Mrs. Ramsay, James realizes that nothing is ever only one thing—the world is far too complex for such reduction and simplification. These metaphors explain Woolf’s technique. Only by presenting the narrative as a collection of varied and competing consciousnesses could she hope to capture a true likeness of her characters and their worlds.
In the final pages of the novel, Woolf reveals the key to the reconciliation of competing impressions that allows James to view the lighthouse and Lily to see Mrs. Ramsay in the context of both the past and present. This key is distance, which Lily notes in Chapter IX has “extraordinary power.” Lily has had ten years to process her thoughts regarding Mrs. Ramsay, ten years to work her way beyond an influence that, in the opening pages of the novel, overwhelms her with its intensity. When, earlier, Lily sits at Mrs. Ramsay’s feet, she is blinded by her love for the woman. Her opinion of Mrs. Ramsay has changed considerably by the end of the novel. She recognizes Mrs. Ramsay’s dated ways and somewhat manipulative nature, and her vision of Mrs. Ramsay is now more complete. Likewise, James is better able to see the lighthouse and, more pivotal, his father because of the distance that separates him from his childhood impressions. Mr. Ramsay, as Cam realizes, is not the same man he was ten years ago. Although still domineering, he has become more sensitive, a fact that James, overjoyed with the compliment his father has paid him, might finally begin to see.
Woolf’s phrasing of Lily’s declaration of “[i]t is finished” lends gravity and power to the moment with its biblical echoes of death and impending rebirth. The moment also parallels James’s ability to see the lighthouse and his father anew but holds singular importance for the structure of the novel. Mr. Ramsay, Mrs. Ramsay, and Lily Briscoe make three distinct attempts to harness the chaos that is life and make it meaningful. As a philosopher, Mr. Ramsay fails to progress to the end of human thought, that elusive letter Z that he believes represents the ultimate knowledge of life, while Mrs. Ramsay dies before she sees her children married. Thus, both the intellectual and social attempts to order life fall short. Only Lily’s attempt at artistic order succeeds, and it does so with grace and power. Lily has a “vision” that enables her to bring the separate, conflicting objects of her composition into harmony. This synthesizing impulse counters the narrative fragmentation as well as the competing worldviews among the characters. The painting represents a single instant lifted out of the flow of time and made permanent.