Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf wrote To The Lighthouse after living through both the First World War and seeing that a second war was on the horizon. She grew up through the wars and economic depression and saw how everything about cultural, political, and economic life in Britain had vastly changed. “The First World War broke out suddenly in the summer of 1914 and dragged on far longer, and at vastly greater cost, than anyone had dared to predict. In Britain, thousands of young men responded to appeals to join up in defense of nation and ‘civilization,’ and found themselves stuck, in Ezra Pound’s words, ‘eye-deep in hell,’ living in trenches alongside rats and corpses, and measuring their progress and victories in inches. The destruction of the landscape of battle, of human bodies, and of lives was unprecedented and indescribable, and for many writers and artists like Woolf, grouped under the loose term ‘modernist,’ it represented a decisive, irreparable break from the past and a need for new forms of representation in art and literature” (Scutts).  

Woolf herself, took part in the Bloomsbury Group, where she was able to think and discuss concepts freely instead of trying to be a standard of the outdated Victorian ideal woman. To the Lighthouse seems to have been written as a farewell to the Victorian age as the family looks across the sea to the austere Lighthouse that they can only imagine what it is really like. Going to the lighthouse in a way represents emerging “from the period of painful recovery from the war” (Scutts) and for the family it becomes the symbol of healing when they finally cross over the sea to reach it. 

In her introduction in the Everyman’s Library edition, Julia Briggs notes that “the last part of the novel is free from the idealizing presence of Mrs Ramsay and all that she stood for; in the absence of feminine beauty, the eye is now drawn to objects rather than people, to the boat in the bay or the lighthouse itself; and the search for a moment of happiness when life stands still is replaced by the more masculine and end-directed goal of reaching a particular destination (if Mr Ramsay cannot arrive at R, at least he can get to the lighthouse)” (xxii). Getting to the lighthouse for Mr. Ramsay, Cam, and James marks “the final stages in this movement towards forgiveness and acceptance, the emotions that the mourning process aims to induce” (Briggs xxiv). Mr. Ramsey knows that his wife loves the lighthouse and wished to go there. In the beginning of the novel, he sees her staring at “the hoary Lighthouse, distant, austere, in the midst” (Woolf 14). He notes that as she looks across the water she grows “greyer-eyed, that her husband loved” (Woolf 14). At the end of the novel, the lighthouse is described again in an austere view. “There it loomed up, stark and straight, glaring white and black, and one could see the waves breaking in white splinters like smashed glass upon the rocks . . . 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” (Woolf 231-2). 

It is almost as if what they have been hoping for all this time has been reached. For James, it is when they are almost there that he receives the praise that he has earned for from his father. Cam “knew that this was what James had been wanting, and she knew that now he had got it he was so pleased that he would not look at her or at his father or at any one” (Woolf 235). For the others, according to Julia Briggs, “James and Cam come to see their father not as a tyrant but a sad old man, their sense of pain and anger, in part deflected from Mrs Ramsay to Mr Ramsay, is transformed into a generosity that is releasing and empowering, bringing peace to the children ” (Briggs xxiv).   

It is interesting to note, that the three members of the Ramsay family who make the journey to the lighthouse do so with a parcel to take to the lighthouse keepers, almost as an offering to this new way of life and forgiveness and relationships with each other begin. Nor do we get to see what happens when they step on shore as Mr. Ramsey “rose and stood in the bow of the boat, very straight and tall, for all the world, James thought, as if he were saying: ‘There is no God,’ and Cam thought, as if he were leaping into space, and they both rose to follow him as he sprang, lightly like a young man, holding his parcel, on to the rock” (237). Moving into a new way of living, pulling oneself from the wounds of the past, is like taking a leap with your offerings as the lighthouse has always been there as a guide. The Ramsay family, and I suppose, all of Britain in the modernist era, had to first go through the pain of war and loss to be at a stage when they were ready to go to the lighthouse.
Works Cited
Briggs, Julia. “Introduction of To the Lighthouse.” To the Lighthouse. Everyman's Library. 1991. Print. 
Scutts, Joanna. “Historical Context for To the Lighthouse.” Columbia College.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Everyman's Library. 1991. Print. 
Image: "Cuckolds Lighthouse, ME" by hatchski is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0