To the Lighthouse, one of Woolf’s most prominent works, was first published in 1927. There is not much to say about the plot of this novel, as many modernist novels it features little dialogue, almost no action and focuses on introspection and human relationships.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

As for many people before me it took me time and multiple readings to understand it and it is fairly plausible there are going to be more in the future, but as for now I am going to focus on the figure of Lily Briscoe.
As Margaret Atwood said in an article she wrote about the novel, “the person that writes and that paints is the same” [1]  as to underline the strict link between the character and Woolf herself, a vision generally shared by all the critics that have approached the novel. The two works, the painting and the novel, are a “non-representation”, meaning that they are bereaved of their communicative function, because art is only relevant if the one who produces it is a famous artist and both live in a period where fame favours men.

“He made it impossible for her to do anything” [2]

Lily is afflicted by the frustration caused by the difficulty of translating what she wants to say into art, but she is determined to fulfill her creativity, however her difficulties are caused by her inability to reach the right mood to paint in a satisfactory way. She only has a vague idea of what she wants to paint, not certainty, which made her increasingly afraid of ruining the structure of the painting by moving the order of the elements. She also struggles to accept that an artist must be able to work amidst people, that her need for isolation, her idea of art as a solitary contemplation is wrong, because it is who people give life to art.

Mr.Ramsay, favoured by an era where men prevail on women, suffocates Lily, oppressing her creativity and influencing her painting. He uses his authority to subjugate people around him. Although, once we explore his character in depth is clear how he suffers because of his own insignificance and by the end of the novel we see the profundity of his dependence to his wife, the one that sooths him when he is afflicted by his insecurities. William Bankes in his monologue will interrogate himself on the nature of Mr.Ramsay’s life, made of achievements of youth (he wrote his first book at twenty-five) and his domestic life, and how he could have worked more and better hadn’t he had a wife and eight children.

“He weighed Ramsay’s case, commiserated him, envied him, as if he had seen him
divest himself of all those glories of isolation and austerity which crowned him in youth to cumber himself definitely with fluttering wings and clucking domesticities.” [3]

Mrs.Ramsay does not accept that any woman around her might stay unmarried, although Lily refuses the institution and what it implies. She tries to get her married to William Bankes, a widower and old friend of her husband, but the relationships that develops between Lily and William is far from what Mrs.Ramsay expects. He is a figure in contrast to Mr.Ramsey, he does not oppress Lily, he respects her artistic views, even when he does not share them. He only asks for Lily to recognise that although he comes from Mr.Ramsay’s generation they are very far from each other.

“I respect you in every atom; you are not vain; you are entirely impersonal; you are
finer than Mr. Ramsay; you are the finest human being that I know […]” [4]

According to Charles Tansely women cannot paint and cannot write, he lives in a
period of time when he is allowed to think that the world should be controlled by men like
Mr.Ramsay, controlled and philosophical, the men that he considers intellectuals. He does
not want to converse with Lily as his peer and badly reacts to the fact that she does not
pretend to cooperate with him.

“Indeed they were really close to the lighthouse now. 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.” [5]

In the end of the novel, Lily has a revelation about her own painting, on which she
had worked throughout the whole novel, under the discouraging influence of the Ramsays.
Despite this she manages to capture what she wants to show. While painting she develops
another point of view of Mr.Ramsay, she sees his real worth and that he has no power over
her artwork, and so she can paint the way she prefers, with no social restriction or male
influence over her.

“Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.” [6]


Di Simona Montella

[1] Margaret Atwood on To the Lighthouse, The indelible woman. The guardian, 7
September 2002.

[2] [3] [4] [5] [6] Quotes from Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse


About the author