To the Lighthouse (1927) tells the vacation of the Ramsays and their guests at the family’s summer house. There is really not much of plot summary to offer. It is two days divided by a decade concluding in a trip to the lighthouse. The absence of a surface plot is accounted by the rich interior lives of its characters: Lily Briscoe, Mr. Ramsay, and Mrs. Ramsay, the central character who held everyone together.
The characters are based on Virginia Woolf’s own parents. Woolf explained that she could not get over her mother who died when Woolf was thirteen. She set out to write this novel to lay down deep emotions, and this helped her to stop hearing and seeing her mother more often than not. In a particular perspective, it is an ode to her mother, but true to her original intentions, she wrote the novel with her ruminations on life and death.
A popular question discussed among the readers of this book is about its title. Why “To the Lighthouse”? Why not “The Lighthouse”? “To” implies a destination and a journey. Hence, “The Lighthouse” does not suffice because the novel is not merely about the place the characters will reach, which is a “tower, stark and straight” and “barred with black and white”. They embark on their own journeys in search for some meaning, some yearning, something that seems unattainable, like the lighthouse, always present in its nearly insurmountable distance.
The characters go through their respective journeys in the way that they know how, which depend on how they view life. Mr. Ramsay fears that all life is doomed to oblivion. Man may be able to work his way from A to Z. He may be able to produce the most illuminating scholarly works but even a stone would outlast his reputation. This frustrates him and explains most of his outbursts and the tensions among the family members, but there is Mrs. Ramsay, always there to offer the sympathy that he wants.
Mrs. Ramsay, however, does not care much for the future or for reputation. She values the present. She doesn’t want her children to grow old, she wants to make things as perfect as they are for the moment. She uses her gift in maintaining social harmony to meet this, to make moments last for as long as they could. She reads to her son James, she knits a stocking for the lighthouse keeper’s son, and she does so, she is observed by their house guest, the painter Lily Briscoe.
Lily Briscoe struggles with her artistry and the social conventions clashing against each other. The voice of a man repeatedly saying “Women can’t paint, women can’t write” drones like a bad headache. As if that were not enough, she can’t translate the fleeting visions that occur to her to paint and canvas. This would recur through the novel as she ponders on the purpose of art, wonders if art can truly keep a moment, marvels at the beauty of Mrs. Ramsay, and asks The Big Question:
What is the meaning of life? That was all–a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.
An important section of the novel is Time Passes, the middle part that has all the ten years between the postponement of the lighthouse trip and the real trip. As opposed to first and last parts, both written with much detail on the consciousness of every character, Time Passes relates the years with a detachment that seems to say that the war, the lives, the deaths, everything in this world, are inconsequential. Time may stretch to great lengths during painting sessions, a lively dinner, or the moment before sleeping, but it may also compact everything the world has ever cared for in a matter of pages. This dual nature of time, clocking so fast or so slow, is portrayed in such lush language that it is impossible to not at least stop and think about your own ticking clock.
The journey for the little daily miracles in this novel is never a smooth sailing. Woolf’s expansive use of the stream of consciousness narrative, of which this novel is considered to be a landmark, threatens to deflect the reader from the flow of the characters’ thoughts. It is easy to go astray, to get lost, or to drown, but when the matches are struck, they are, you will see, such illuminations, such visions.