Life Lessons from Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”

To the Lighthouse is one of the most prolific books written by Virginia Woolf and its premise and musings are somehow more relevant in the uncertain times we live in currently.

The story begins with a family – the Ramsays – and is focussed on a summer spent on the Isle of Skye. It revolves around Mrs. Ramsay, the enigmatic mother with her eight children, Mr. Ramsay, her erratic “brilliant” husband, and the friends and acquaintances who assemble at the summerhouse. Mrs Ramsay, the mother figure is always pandering to others’ needs, mainly the gentlemen. Lily Briscoe is a guest of the Ramsays’. She struggles to find her ground as a woman and an artist and is very drawn to Mrs. Ramsay.

In the first section, the reader glimpses the world through Mrs. Ramsay’s lens as she reigns over her children and a group of guests on a summer holiday. In the second section of the novel, Woolf illustrates the passage of time by describing the changes that afflict their summer home over a decade. The third part enumerates the return of the Ramsay children, now adults, and Lily Briscoe, a painter who was part of the initial summer holiday and who abandoned an unfinished painting all those years ago.

It’s hard to define the premise of the book. What is the book about? Well, perhaps a more pertinent question would be What isn’t it about? If I were to hazard an adequate summation, I would say that it is about the return of a family back to their summer home, the changes brought about by the ravages of time, shifting perspectives, the beauty of fleeting moments and a realisation that completing a piece of work is important, regardless of what happens to it after. Through it all, the lighthouse stands a symbolic depiction of strength, inaccessibility and constancy. So close, yet so far. One goes through life reaching for the heart’s desire, but rarely attains it. Your life is thus a process of constantly moving towards, of yearning, of desiring. A process of reaching for that ‘Lighthouse.’

The first part of the novel entitled ‘The Window’ spreads over half the book, but in actuality takes place only in a span of seven hours. Woolf’s lucid descriptions and stream-of-consciousness narrative allows us to dig deeper into the characters and come to a realisation that everything could occur in the span of seven trifling, fleeting hours. 

At a deeper more intrinsic level, the almost brooding nature of the book is about the passage of time, the way things fade, relationships, people and the chasm between art and life.

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“And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves.”

– Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse

Woolf tackles the subject of time through the stream of consciousness genre. “Life stands still here”, claims Mrs. Ramsay. It draws parallels to the current pandemic times that we live in. Haven’t we all felt in these past few months that time has somehow stopped? But for all the challenges we have faced through the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s also been an emergence of creativity through art, sharing tips, videos and words. Art and creativity has the potential to do just that : allow time to stand still and let you live through your creation.

 Woolf teaches us that time in our lives is ephemeral and we should make the most of every beautiful moment as it fades. Nothing holds truer than our lives at the moment : filled with the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen next, yet failing to enjoy all time that we have at our disposal.

Through the book, Virginia Woolf shines a torch on the dull edge of that boundless question of how to live with, and perhaps even find beauty, in the ambivalence of time, space, and being — a question suddenly more relevant at times of especial uncertainty.

Mrs. Ramsay was incredibly likeable because of her kindness and desire to help others. While she has a clear ability to enjoy and experience daily life, she is also a symbol of strength, like the lighthouse itself. Her kindness and love is immortalised through Lily Briscoe’s work even after she dies.

Lying across the bay, and meaning different and personal things to each character, the lighthouse is inaccessible, enlightening and quite discernible. It suggests that sometimes destinations that seem the surest are the most unattainable. The lighthouse stands as a dominant symbol of this lack of inobtainability. James, the son, returns ten years later only to realise that the lighthouse isn’t really the fog- encompassed destination of his childhood. He has to come to terms with two contrasting images of the tower – how he saw it as a boy and how he sees it as a man. He finally decides that both represent the essence of the lighthouse and that nothing is ever just one thing – but can be different things when seen from different vantage points and varied times in life. Doesn’t this ring true about experiences in your own life?

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By the novel’s end, Lily Briscoe makes a return to the island and to the painting that she failed to complete a decade before. She eventually expresses herself with a green slash across the canvas. The lesson to be learnt here is to hold fast to your own process, no matter how slow. Moreover, it reminds you not to let go and be persistent, regardless of how long it takes. The reason why Briscoe finishes the painting is to restore and reinforce her own zest for life through completion.

References to the sea and particularly the waves appear throughout the novel. The constantly moving waves symbolise the movement of time and the transformations it brings. While she describes the sea beautifully, her most expressive depictions of it are violent. It is reckoned as a force that brings destruction, and is a lethal reminder of the transitory nature of human life and its achievements.

It seems impossible that their calm should ever return or that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole or read in the littered pieces the clear words of truth.

– Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Emanating from Woolf’s beautiful words is the reminder that all states of mind or feeling, even the ones that we feel are unsurvivable are only momentary, and moving along with the rest of the current, just the way time moves on, changing and undulating, moments and experiences overlapping each other. Constantly flowing but each one beautiful and memorable, either in introspect or retrospect.

“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.”

– Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse

That says it all !

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