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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors
used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Lying across the bay and meaning something different and
intimately personal to each character, the lighthouse is at once
inaccessible, illuminating, and infinitely interpretable. As the
destination from which the novel takes its title, the lighthouse
suggests that the destinations that seem surest are most unobtainable.
Just as Mr. Ramsay is certain of his wife’s love for him and aims
to hear her speak words to that end in “The Window,” Mrs. Ramsay
finds these words impossible to say. These failed attempts to arrive
at some sort of solid ground, like Lily’s first try at painting
Mrs. Ramsay or Mrs. Ramsay’s attempt to see Paul and Minta married,
result only in more attempts, further excursions rather than rest.
The lighthouse stands as a potent symbol of this lack of attainability.
James arrives only to realize that it is not at all the mist-shrouded
destination of his childhood. Instead, he is made to reconcile two
competing and contradictory images of the tower—how it appeared
to him when he was a boy and how it appears to him now that he is
a man. He decides that both of these images contribute to the essence
of the lighthouse—that nothing is ever only one thing—a sentiment
that echoes the novel’s determination to arrive at truth through
varied and contradictory vantage points.
Lily’s painting represents a struggle against gender convention,
represented by Charles Tansley’s statement that women can’t paint
or write. Lily’s desire to express Mrs. Ramsay’s essence as a wife
and mother in the painting mimics the impulse among modern women to
know and understand intimately the gendered experiences of the women
who came before them. Lily’s composition attempts to discover and
comprehend Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty just as Woolf’s construction of
Mrs. Ramsay’s character reflects her attempts to access and portray
her own mother.
The painting also represents dedication to a feminine
artistic vision, expressed through Lily’s anxiety over showing it
to William Bankes. In deciding that completing the painting regardless
of what happens to it is the most important thing, Lily makes the
choice to establish her own artistic voice. In the end, she decides
that her vision depends on balance and synthesis: how to bring together
disparate things in harmony. In this respect, her project mirrors Woolf’s
writing, which synthesizes the perceptions of her many characters
to come to a balanced and truthful portrait of the world.
The Ramsays’ house is a stage where Woolf and her characters explain
their beliefs and observations. During her dinner party, Mrs. Ramsay
sees her house display her own inner notions of shabbiness and her
inability to preserve beauty. In the “Time Passes” section, the
ravages of war and destruction and the passage of time are reflected
in the condition of the house rather than in the emotional development
or observable aging of the characters. The house stands in for the
collective consciousness of those who stay in it. At times the characters
long to escape it, while at other times it serves as refuge. From
the dinner party to the journey to the lighthouse, Woolf shows the
house from every angle, and its structure and contents mirror the
interior of the characters who inhabit it.
References to the sea appear throughout the novel. Broadly,
the ever-changing, ever-moving waves parallel the constant forward movement
of time and the changes it brings. Woolf describes the sea lovingly
and beautifully, but her most evocative depictions of it point to
its violence. As a force that brings destruction, has the power
to decimate islands, and, as Mr. Ramsay reflects, “eats away the
ground we stand on,” the sea is a powerful reminder of the impermanence
and delicacy of human life and accomplishments.
After her dinner party, Mrs. Ramsay retires upstairs to
find the children wide-awake, bothered by the boar’s skull that
hangs on the nursery wall. The presence of the skull acts as a disturbing
reminder that death is always at hand, even (or perhaps especially)
during life’s most blissful moments.
Rose arranges a fruit basket for her mother’s dinner party
that serves to draw the partygoers out of their private suffering
and unite them. Although Augustus Carmichael and Mrs. Ramsay appreciate the
arrangement differently—he rips a bloom from it; she refuses to disturb
it—the pair is brought harmoniously, if briefly, together. The basket
testifies both to the “frozen” quality of beauty that Lily describes
and to beauty’s seductive and soothing quality.
Ace your assignments with our guide to To the Lighthouse!