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To the Lighthouse  
1st edition cover
Author Virginia Woolf
Cover artist Vanessa Bell
Country England
Language English
Genre(s) Modernist/Stream of consciousness
Publisher Hogarth Press
Publication date 5 May 1927
Media type Print (hardbound with cloth)
Preceded by Mrs Dalloway
Followed by Orlando: A Biography

To the Lighthouse (5 May 1927) is a novel by Virginia Woolf. A landmark novel of high modernism, the text, centering on the Ramsay family and their visits to the Isle of Skye in Scotland between 1910 and 1920, skillfully manipulates temporality and psychological exploration.

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 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. The novel recalls the power of childhood emotions and highlights the impermanence of adult relationships. Among the book's many tropes and themes are those of loss, subjectivity, and the problem of perception.

In 1998, the Modern Library named To the Lighthouse No. 15, on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.[1] In 2005, the novel was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels from 1923 to present.[2]


Plot summary


Part I: The Window

The novel is set in the Ramsays' summer home in the Hebrides, on the Isle of Skye. The section begins with Mrs Ramsay assuring James that they should be able to visit the lighthouse on the next day. This prediction is denied by Mr Ramsay, who voices his certainty that the weather will not be clear, an opinion that forces a certain tension between Mr and Mrs Ramsay, and also between Mr Ramsay and James. This particular incident is referred to on various occasions throughout the chapter, especially in the context of Mr and Mrs Ramsay's relationship.

The Ramsays have been joined at the house by a number of friends and colleagues, one of them being Lily Briscoe who begins the novel as a young, uncertain painter attempting a portrayal of Mrs. Ramsay and her son James. Briscoe finds herself plagued by doubts throughout the novel, doubts largely fed by the statements of Charles Tansley, another guest, claiming that women can neither paint nor write. Tansley himself is an admirer of Mr Ramsay and his philosophical treatises.

The section closes with a large dinner party. Mr Ramsay nearly 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 is herself out of sorts when Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle, two acquaintances whom she has brought together in engagement, arrive late to dinner, as Minta lost her grandmother’s brooch on the beach.

Part II: Time Passes

The second section is employed by the author to give a sense of time passing, absence, and death. Woolf explained the purpose of this section, writing that it was 'an interesting experiment [that gave] the sense of ten years passing.'[3] This section's role in linking the two dominant parts of the story was also expressed in Woolf's notes for the novel, where above a drawing of an "H" shape she wrote 'two blocks joined by a corridor.'[4] During this period Britain begins and finishes fighting World War I. In addition, the reader is informed as to the fates of a number of characters introduced in the first part of the novel: Mrs Ramsay passes away, Prue dies from complications of childbirth, and Andrew is killed in the war. Mr Ramsay is left adrift without his wife to praise and comfort him during his bouts of fear and his anguish regarding the longevity of his philosophical work.

Part III: The Lighthouse

In the final section, “The Lighthouse,” some of the remaining Ramsays return to their summer home ten years after the events of Part I, as Mr Ramsay finally plans on taking the long-delayed trip to the lighthouse with his son James and daughter Cam(illa). The trip almost does not happen, as the children had not been ready, but they eventually set off. En route, the children give their father the silent treatment for forcing them to come along. James keeps the sailing boat steady, and 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; Cam's attitude towards her father has changed as well.

They are being accompanied by the sailor Macalister and his son, who catches fish during the trip. The son cuts a piece of flesh from a fish he has caught to use for bait, throwing the injured fish back into the sea.

While they set sail for the lighthouse, Lily attempts to complete her long-unfinished painting. She reconsiders her memory of Mrs Ramsay, 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.

Major themes

Complexity of experience

Large parts of Woolf's novel do not concern themselves with the objects of vision, but rather investigate the means of perception, attempting to understand people in the act of looking.[5] In order to be able to understand thought, Woolf's diaries reveal, the author would spend considerable time listening to herself think, observing how and which words and emotions arose in her own mind in response to what she saw.[6]

Narration and perspective

The novel lacks an omniscient narrator[citation needed] (except in the second section: Time Passes); instead the plot unfolds through shifting perspectives of each character's stream of consciousness. This lack of an omniscient narrator means that, throughout the novel, no clear guide exists for the reader and that only through character development can we formulate our own opinions and views because much is morally ambiguous.

Whereas in Part I the novel is concerned with illustrating the relationship between the character experiencing and the actual experience and surroundings, the second part, 'Time Passes' having no characters to relate to, presents events differently. Instead, Woolf wrote the section from the perspective of a displaced narrator, unrelated to any people, intending that events be seen related to time. For that reason the narrating voice is unfocused and distorted, providing an example of what Woolf called 'life as it is when we have no part in it.'[7][8]

Allusions to actual geography

Leslie Stephen, Woolf's father and probably the model for Mr Ramsay, began renting Talland House in St Ives in 1882, shortly after Woolf's own birth. The house was used by the family as a family retreat during the summer for the next ten years. The location of the main story in To the Lighthouse, Hebridean island and the house there, was formed by Woolf in imitation of Talland House. Many actual features from St Ives Bay are carried into the story, including the gardens leading down to the sea, the sea itself, and the lighthouse.[9]

Although in the novel the Ramsays are able to return to the house after the war, the Stephens had given up the house by that time. After the war, Virginia Woolf along with her sister Vanessa visited Talland House under its new ownership, and again later, long after her parents were dead, Woolf repeated the journey.[9]

Publishing history

Upon completing the draft of this, her most autobiographical novel, Woolf described it as 'easily the best of my books' and her husband Leonard thought it a masterpiece, 'entirely new...a psychological poem'. They published it together at their Hogarth Press in London in 1927. The first impression of 3000 copies of 320 pages measuring 7.5 inches by 5 inches was bound in blue cloth. The book outsold all Woolf's previous novels, and the proceeds enabled the Woolfs to buy a cat.


  • Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, (London: Hogarth, 1927) First edition; 3000 copies initially with a second impression in June.
  • Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1927) First US edition; 4000 copies initially with at least five reprints in the same year.

Film, TV, music, or theatrical adaptations


  1. ^ "100 Best Novels". Random House. 1999. Retrieved 11 January 2010.  This ranking was by the Modern Library Editorial Board of authors.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Dick p2
  4. ^ Dick p11
  5. ^ Davies p13
  6. ^ Davies p40
  7. ^ Woolf, V. 'The Cinema"
  8. ^ Raitt pp88-90, quote referencing Woolf, Virginia (1966). "The Cinema". Collected Essays II. London: Hogarth. pp. 267–272. 
  9. ^ a b Davies p1


  • Davies, Stevie (1989). Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse. Great Britain: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-077177-8. 
  • Raitt, Suzanne (1990). Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf. ISBN 0-7450-0823-2. 
  • Dick, Susan; Virginia Woolf (1983). "Appendix A". To the Lighthouse: The Original Holograph Draft. Toronto, Londo: University of Toronto Press. 

External links


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