thoughts on Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and the insightful Lily Briscoe


Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse has surely received much literary criticism and analysis, all of which is far more credible than mine, however what I hope to offer here is my own interpretation and thoughts on her expressive, moving work, even though there are many important themes and ideas that I neglect to cover in my analysis. These are my own personal first impressions and I know full well that they are up for debate and that I can hardly do her seminal work justice; any comments or thoughts would be welcome and appreciated.

To begin, it seems that central to the novel is the question “what is the meaning of life?”, the purpose of human existence. Woolf’s chief characters all seem to share a fundamental insecurity despite their many profound differences relating to the way in which they lead their lives. Her characters seem to be constantly looking for validation, a justification for the way they have chosen to spend their fleeting, precious time as ephemeral beings, albeit in different ways. Mr Ramsay is constantly seeking to elicit sympathy and praise from others, there being an important conflict between his need for renown (and in this way transcend time) and his love and concern for his domestic life. Mrs Ramsay is constantly encouraging others to couple up, to get married and follow her example, as she believes “people must marry, people must have children”. As Lily Briscoe observes, Mrs Ramsay is always “giving, giving, giving”, so perhaps it is out of a desire to justify such a life that she insists on the necessity of marriage. Another, similar character is Charles Tansley, the black sheep of the group. He refuses to partake in conversation, perceiving the others to be beneath his lofty intellectual pursuits, considering them to be vacuous and petty. He is disparaging towards the women, asserting “Women can’t paint, women can’t write …” all the while aspiring to academic greatness like Mr Ramsay. Tansley considers his dissertation to be of the utmost importance, focusing on it to the exclusion of almost all else, perhaps out of an insecurity relating to what he is missing (particularly in regards to the opposite sex), in an effort to justify himself, .

Another important theme of the book is the question of whether one can really and truly know another. The novel is composed of the different perspectives of the major characters, Woolf embodying each to show the ambiguity of reality and the utter isolation of individual experience. Some, however, try to escape their isolation, Mr Ramsay’s insatiable desire for sympathy only one example. Towards the end of the novel, Woolf repeats the words of the poet William Cowper through Mr Ramsay and his daughter Cam: “we perished, each alone”, a phrase that encapsulates one of the novel’s central themes. In To The Lighthouse, one’s impression of the characters shifts depending on circumstance and point of view, the characters at once priggish then sympathetic, egotistical then pitiable, a demonstration of the fluidity of human nature. Briscoe puts it well when she asks herself, as she wrestles with the common problem of the meaning of life, “why was it [life] so short, why was it so inexplicable[?]”

If one follows this interpretation, the setting of the Hebridean coast becomes significant, though my interpretation is only one of many. Each character lives by their own experience, has their own perceptions which effectively isolate them and make them unknowable to their fellows, as is clear on on the family boat trip that concludes the novel:

So it was like that, James thought, the
Lighthouse one had seen across the bay all these years; it was a stark
tower on a bare rock. It satisfied him. It confirmed some obscure
feeling of his about his own character.

Later, he remarks to himself “So that was the Lighthouse, was it? No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was one thing”. Reality here is not objective but subjective, contingent on the lived experience of the individual, particularly in relation to other people, as “Half one’s notions of other people were, after all, grotesque. They served private purposes of one’s own”. It seems reasonable to argue that Woolf seeks to undermine the idea that people, memories and experiences relate to one coherent truth but are rather inconstant and uncertain. This is only made clearer in the musings of Lily Briscoe who thinks to herself that:

“This making up scenes about them, is what we call “knowing” people,
“thinking” of them, “being fond” of them! Not a word of it was true;
she had made it up; but it was what she knew them by all the same.”

Mr Ramsay is at once familiar and a stranger much like the other characters, who each exist in their own, impenetrable bubbles of reality. Lily asks herself “Where was he, that very old man who had gone past her, holding a brown paper bag under his arm? The boat was in the middle of the bay”. All of Woolf’s characters are floating alone out at sea, each familiar to each other yet ultimately a strangers, utterly unknowable. Only the Lighthouse offers respite from this semi-total isolation, its beam offering a brief glance of hope, of community feeling, a suspended moment like those that Mrs Ramsay was set on creating. In moments of “profound stillness” such as the successful turn of the dinner party “there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change and shines out…in the face of the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby”. The Lighthouse arguably represents respite from loneliness, a reprieve from total isolation in an uncertain, chaotic world, contained in Lily Briscoe’s question when she asks “what was this life? – startling, unexpected, unknown?”.

It is also important to note Woolf’s presentation of the artist and her analysis of the role of art, a theme close to her own heart and manifested in the reflective character of Lily Briscoe. Throughout the novel, her character remains apart from the action, diligently trying to express herself and her perception of the present and the past – the nature of her private reality – through her art. It seems reasonable to assume that Woolf had herself in mind when drawing Lily’s character as, out of nothingness, she creates, she brings into existence, which itself transcends the changeability and decay of the world around her, best represented by the dilapidation of the old house. As she concisely puts it, “‘you’ and ‘I’ and ‘she’ pass and vanish; nothing stays; all changes; but not words, not paint”. Lily, perhaps, like Woolf, is tempted to lose herself in the lives of others though chooses to  refrain, apparent when she professes her “headlong desire to throw herself off the cliff and be drowned looking for a pearl broach”  like Paul Rayley, though she essentially scorns love, calling it “the most barbaric of human passions”.

The ending of the novel is ultimately a symbol of liberation, for more characters than one. Lily Briscoe has her “vision” that allows her to finish her long drawn out painting project free from the constraint represented by the dynamic of the Ramsay family. Mr Ramsay is finally able to praise his son, demonstrative of the way that he chooses to accept his place in the universe, to stop struggling, resisting or, in the eyes of his son, tyrannizing. Previously “shabby” he becomes “very straight and tall…like a young man” while Lily Briscoe is able to recognize the intrinsic worth of her own work regardless of the opinion of others. It might “be hung in attics…be destroyed. But what did it matter?”. With the arrival at the Lighthouse, Woolf’s characters experience a profound relief, however fleeting, a beam of light in a dark and tumultuous sea.


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