To the Lighthouse

From Academic Kids

To the Lighthouse (1927) is a novel by Virginia Woolf.The freely, multiply discursive tale centers on the Ramsay family and their visits to the Isle of Skye in Scotland between 1910 and 1920. The story is seen through the perspective of an omniscient narrator.

To the Lighthouse follows and extends the tradition of modernist novelists like Marcel Proust and James Joyce, where the plot is secondary to philosophical introspection, and the stream of consciousness prose can be winding and hard to follow. The novel includes little dialogue and almost no action; most of it is written as thoughts and observations of the major characters. Foremost among these characters are Lily Briscoe, whose observations on the Ramsay family form the backbone of the book, and Mrs. Ramsay.


Plot overview

Part I: The Window

The novel opens just before World War I as the Ramsay family spends the summer at their second home in the Hebrides. In an incident that is bookended by the novel’s final section, six-year-old James Ramsay asks his father to take him to the lighthouse. While his sympathetic mother tries to assuage him by telling him they’ll go when the weather clears, Mr. Ramsay always dashes James’ hopes by saying that the weather won’t be clear. We hear James’ thoughts of rage and even the desire to hurt his father.

The Ramsays are joined by a number of friends and colleagues. Lily Briscoe begins the novel as a young, uncertain painter who attempts a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay but finds herself plagued by doubt, fed by the cold taunts of Charles Tansley, an admirer of Mr. Ramsay’s philosophical treatises whose icy, negative air savages his attempts to befriend various members of the group. Tansley’s claim that women can neither paint nor write creates a nagging doubt in Lily’s mind that lasts through most of the novel.

The section closes with a large dinner party. Mr. Ramsay snaps at Augustus Carmichael, a visiting poet, when the latter asks for a second serving of soup. Mrs. Ramsay, who is striving for the perfect dinner party that no one could achieve, is herself out of sorts when Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle, two acquaintances whom she brought together in engagement, arrive late to dinner, as Minta lost her grandmother’s brooch on the beach.

Part II: Time Passes

The pace quickens appreciably in this short section, which exists primarily as a bridge between Parts I and III. The War hits home as one of the Ramsays’ sons, Andrew, is killed in action. Their daughter Prue dies while giving birth to her first child. And Mrs. Ramsay herself passes away suddenly one night, leaving Mr. Ramsay adrift without her there to praise him and comfort him in his fears over his mortality and that his best work is behind him.

Part III: The Lighthouse

In the final section, “The Lighthouse,” some of the remaining Ramsays return to their summer home one year in the late 1920s, as Mr. Ramsay finally plans on taking the long-delayed trip to the lighthouse with his son James and daughter Cam. The trip almost doesn’t happen, as Mr. Ramsay seems almost intent on finding excuses to delay it, but they eventually take off. En route, the children give their father the silent treatment in response to his criticism of the son of the sailor McAlister, both of whom have accompanied them on the trip. James handles the boat in a difficult spot, but rather than receiving the harsh words he has come to expect from his father, he hears praise, providing a rare moment of empathy between father and son.

During this trip, McAlister’s son catches a fish and cuts a piece of its flesh to use for bait, throwing the injured fish back into the sea. This serves as a metaphor for Woolf’s view of the world as a cruel, unfeeling environment where one must overcome one’s trials to survive.

While they set sail for the lighthouse, Lily attempts to complete her long-unfinished portrait of Mrs. Ramsay. She reconsiders Mrs. Ramsay’s memory, grateful for her help in pushing Lily to continue with her art, yet at the same time struggling to free herself from the tacit control Mrs. Ramsay had over other aspects of her life. Upon finishing the painting and seeing that it satisfies her, she realizes that the execution of her vision is more important to her than the idea of leaving some sort of legacy in her work – a lesson Mr. Ramsay has yet to learn. Lily states aloud to the poet Carmichael (and to herself), “It is finished,” a phrase uttered by Jesus in the Gospel of John during the moments immediately before his death.


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