To The Lighthouse Summary

To the Lighthouse Summary

To the Lighthouse summary: Virginia Woolf’s novel is structured in three parts and each, to an extent, displays a different use of time. This essay will look at each and every way the author represents not only the movement but also affects the temporality of how people’s consciousness is perceived.

In the first section of the summary of the novel “To the Lighthouse”, the Window, concerns itself with the Ramsey family and the various holidaymakers on a small island in the Hebrides and, as Bernard Blackstone suggests in Virginia Woolf: A Commentary, it is the house where they stay and the lighthouse that they wish to visit, that binds the story and the characters together as they are symbols of constancy and solidity in the flux of time.

Further down the summery of To The Lighthouse, the narrative flits between characters; we see Mr Ramsey, the rather unsuccessful academician, Lily the painter, James Ramsey and the austere and bookish Charles Tansley. However, for the most part, the narrative concentrates on the stream of consciousness of Mrs Ramsey, wife of Mr Ramsey and mother to the eight children of the book.

It is through Mrs Ramsey that we encounter Woolf’s first use of time in the novel, as the character’s thoughts and feelings co-mingle past memory and present sensation with future projections, as in this section from chapter ten, where Mrs Ramsey anticipates her son’s future:

“…he kept looking back over his shoulder as Mildred carried him out, and she was certain that he was thinking, we are not going to the lighthouse tomorrow; and she thought, he will remember that all his life.” 
(Woolf, 1990: 57)

Of course, as we discover in later sections, this prediction turns out to true, as James never fully rids himself of the resentment towards his father. The inner monologue of Mrs. Ramsey also contains references to the past, such as her reminiscences concerning her husband’s academic career or as her mind drifts to “the banks of the Thames where she had been so very, very cold twenty years ago”

Woolf’s depiction of time in the first section of To The Lighthouse concerns itself with how its passing is conceived and condensed in the individual psychology. Mrs Ramsey exists in the past, in the present and in the future; flitting between each as her attention is drawn by events around her. We can see this idea of time as being condensed by the psychology of the individual, also in T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” where he states:

“Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future And time future contained in time past.” 

The narrative of the first section covers only a day but, within this, depicts a wide variety of times, such as the section in chapter twelve, where Mr. Ramsey first reminisces about his own childhood:

“One could walk all day without meeting a soul. There was not a house scarcely, not a single village for miles on end.” (Woolf, 1990: 64)

Then is brought, sharply into the present:

“It sometimes seemed to him that in a little house out there, alone – he broke, sighing. He had no right. The father of eight children”
 (Woolf, 1990: 64)

Only to then project his thoughts into the future:

“Andrew would be a better man than he had been. Prue would be a beauty, her mother said.” (Woolf, 1990: 64)

Of course, this forward projection is also used as a means of heightening the tragedy of time passing in the section of the same name, as we learn of both Andrew and Prue’s deaths.


To The Lighthouse Summary: Part 2

In the second section of the summary of the To the Lighthouse is, in many ways, intriguing. Woolf conveys the notion of temporal flux and the rapid passing of time through impressionistic language interspersed with factual and brusque asides concerning the fates of the characters we have been introduced to in the first section. We learn that Prue gets married but dies after childbirth, that Andrew is killed during the war and that Mrs Ramsey also dies. The use of time here is shocking and violent, the images, however, are natural and concern themselves with the manifestations of nature and the changing of the seasons:

“As summer neared, as the evenings lengthened, there came to the wakeful, the hopeful, walking the beach, stirring the pool, imaginations of the strangest kind – of flesh turned to atoms which drove before the wind.” (Woolf, 1990: 126)

As in this extract, much of the text of Time Passes is devoid of any distinct human presence. Woolf portrays the temporality that is beyond the human psychology; as the slow condensed nature of the first section gives way to a confusing but rich evocation of the speed with which years pass and events occur:

“…night after night, and sometimes in plain mid-day when the roses were bright and light turned on the wall its shape clearly there seemed to drop into this silence…

[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsey.” (Woolf, 1990: 127)

In this summary of To the Lighthouse, the characters’ lives are played out against the machinery of time passing and only the house and lighthouse remains intact, as symbols of both constancy and memory.

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