To the Lighthouse

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Lily Briscoe Character Analysis

Observant, philosophical, and independent, Lily is a painter pitied by Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in Chapter 1 for her homeliness and unattractiveness to men. Still, though Mrs. Ramsay thinks nothing of her painting and wants her to marry, she admires Lily’s independence. In Chapter 3, Lily struggles (and eventually succeeds) in painting the picture she had first attempted in Chapter 1, all the while revisiting memories of Mrs. Ramsay and contemplating the great mysteries of life, death, art, and human experience.

Lily Briscoe Quotes in To the Lighthouse

The To the Lighthouse quotes below are all either spoken by Lily Briscoe or refer to Lily Briscoe. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt edition of To the Lighthouse published in 1989.
The Window, 4 Quotes

Then beneath the colour there was the shape. She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child.

Related Characters: Lily Briscoe
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

As Lily Briscoe and Mr. Bankes prepare to take a walk, Lily looks back once more at her painting. She reflects on her artistic short-comings and on the division between conceptualizing a work of art and executing it.

Lily differentiates, here, between different elements that compose the painting. She sees the surface being the result of “color” and below that the “shape”—not the shape in terms of the physical objects in the canvas, but rather the abstract idea that will be conveyed with the materials of “color.” That she can “see” this invisible idea seems to indicate it would be easy to manifest in the painting, yet she finds the opposite to be true. “The picture” of her internal mind and “her canvas” of external production do not immediately connect, and, in the space between the two, “the demons set on her.” That is to say, there are corrupting elements between the “conception” of imagining a work to its actual manifestation.

Woolf is using Lily as a case study to speak about the broader process of artistic creation and, of course, about this novel itself. Art, she explains, suffers from a fundamental disjoint between what we see in the world, what we can imagine, and what we are capable of representing. This is a subtle critique of realist writing—against which Woolf’s prose responded—that had traditionally assumed that the novel should be a perfect representation of external reality. Lily’s character shows that even in a visual medium like painting that equivalence of “picture” and “canvas” is impossible. This thus justifies and explores Woolf’s idea that writing will similarly diverge from simply recounting events—due, in particular, to the “demons” that enter the writer’s mind.

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…because distant views seem to outlast by a million years (Lily thought) the gazer and to be communing already with a sky which beholds an earth entirely at rest.

Related Characters: Lily Briscoe (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Sea
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

On their walk, Lily and Mr. Bankes reflect on a beautiful view over the ocean. They are torn in their appraisal of the scene, however, because its serenity and enormity also gesture at their smallness and mortality.

Woolf is building, here, on the way the ocean can function as a symbol for the longevity of the natural world—both for the reader and for her characters. Lily and Mr. Bankes are notably repeating the thought patterns of Mrs. Ramsay as she had looked on the ocean, indicating that there is a common way that it is perceived. Yet their appraisals also speak to differences in personality. Whereas Mrs. Ramsay used a lyrical language to describe her own ephemerality—and sought solace in her household affairs—Lily takes a broader view and ponders the ephemerality of mankind: “an earth entirely at rest.”

In this way, the ocean comes to be a Rorschach test for personality, in which Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style allows us access to a variety of different interpretations within various characters’ minds. Furthermore, the passage calls us as readers to account for our own symbolic interpretations—for we are making sense of symbolism of the ocean in the exact same way as the characters. Woolf seems to poke fun at, or at least show an awareness of, this endeavor.

The Window, 9 Quotes

[Lily] took shelter from the reverence which covered all women; she felt herself praised. Let [Mr. Bankes] gaze; she would steal a look at her picture.

Related Characters: Lily Briscoe, William Bankes
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

Just as Lily is preparing to criticize Mrs. Ramsay, she sees Mr. Bankes looking passionately at her. This observation causes Lily to feel a transferred joy on behalf of their shared female identity.

Her comments equates two types of gazes: those bestowed on artworks and those bestowed on women (by men). Though she might have been liable to criticize Mr. Bankes for his wandering eyes, the pure rapture he feels makes Lily sense that there is something significantly aesthetic and meaningful within the beauty of Mrs. Ramsay. This parallel grows more clear when Lily decides to “steal a look at her picture”: Now she and Mr. Bankes are both looking at the corresponding art forms that interest them.

That this gaze provides “shelter” presents it as more than a casual aesthetic moment. Rather, it offers a source of solace and protection for Lily, for it reaffirms the power of women to captivate men—and to serve as a source of beauty. If Lily is anxious about her ability to create pictorial art, this gaze reminds her that her very identity, like that of Mrs. Ramsay, can itself serve as a sort of artwork. Woolf again is straddling a complex and ambivalent account of female power: Lily feels “praised” by the validating look from Mr. Bankes, yet her thinking also implies that a man’s look will constitute whether an object or painting is a significant work of art.

The Lighthouse, 2 Quotes

…there issued from [Mr. Ramsay] such a groan that any other woman in the whole world would have done something, said something—all except myself, thought Lily, girding at herself bitterly, who am not a woman, but a peevish, ill-tempered, dried-up old maid presumably.

Related Characters: Lily Briscoe (speaker), Mr. Ramsay
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

During her interaction with Mr. Ramsay, Lily worries about her imperfect role as a woman. She feels that she cannot (and will not) placate him sufficiently, and is therefore failing in their social interaction.

This scene is written in direct contrast to the descriptions in “The Window” of how effectively Mrs. Ramsay could deal with Mr. Ramsay. She, after all, did not even require “such a groan” to know how to act, but could read his most minute expressions and shift her actions so as to best please her husband. Lily, in contrast, feels uncertain and awkward in the setting, for she has neither valued nor trained herself in these social arts. Her invocation of “any other woman,” after all, recalls the way she had identified Mrs. Ramsay as a universal archetype of the gender. It also implies that Lily’s self-critical speech is less the result of actually seeing herself as a “maid” and more that, in contrast to Mrs. Ramsay, she lacks the features of a traditional femininity. The passage, then, points both to Mrs. Ramsay’s effect on structuring Lily’s perception of womanhood—and to the intense void left behind by her death. Whereas the actual event was, when seen from a broad time perspective, quite flippant, here we visualize its intense social ramifications.

The Lighthouse, 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Lily Briscoe
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

As she pauses from her work with the painting, Lily returns to this most abstract question on human significance. She wonders if indeed there is no such transcendental and abstract meaning and that significance is only located in small occurrences.

This rumination speaks to Lily’s new age and maturity. Ten years before, she harbored more high-minded principles about her art and sought within it a “great revelation.” Yet time, witnessing deaths, and a World War have narrowed her idealistic dreams and caused her to locate beauty in ephemeral and unintentional moments as small as “matches struck unexpectedly.”

The passage returns to the question of scale that has preoccupied the text. Both the characters and the narratorial voice have often turned to the natural environment to try to make sense of life and to perhaps search for a “great revelation.” Yet they are only ever moved to wonder about human mortality and insignificance, which denies the meaning of life instead of answering it. Woolf has instead located meaning in the smallness of human interactions—in the way Mrs. Ramsay perceives a dinner event or executes splendidly an interaction with her husband. This realization is part of why Lily has come to value Mrs. Ramsay—and it teaches her a lesson about art that Woolf has employed throughout the novel: to wonder about and expand the smallness of humanity is the source of “daily miracles.”

Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent)—this was of the nature of a revelation.

Related Characters: Mrs. Ramsay, Lily Briscoe
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

Lily connects her memories of Mrs. Ramsay to her realization about the meaning of life. She concludes that the two pursued identical goals of giving the fleeting moment a more eternal existence.

That Lily defines “a revelation” as “making of the moment something permanent” reiterates the importance of eternity to the definition of meaning and artwork. It develops the idea that significance comes from “daily miracles” but extends the earlier passage to claim that those ephemeral moments must somehow be stretched into “something permanent.” Human life is thus not inherently aesthetic, but it can become so if a skilled enough artist can stretch it throughout time to create “a revelation.” For Lily, this happens through painting, while for Mrs. Ramsay it is a matter of creating and examining social scenes.

As is the case throughout the novel, Woolf’s use of parenthesis complicates the narrative perspective. Parentheses are often used in the novel to switch narratorial voice and to offer an alternative or broader perspective on the scene—or on a character’s thoughts. Here, they directly link Mrs. Ramsay and Lily’s forms of art, but it remains unclear whether Lily herself is defining the similarity, or if the narrator is doing it for her. The ambiguity is important because whoever speaks the parentheses is creating her own sort of eternal artwork: by linking Mrs. Ramsay’s behavior to Lily’s, the parenthetical speaker is herself defining an idea that stretches across time and across people and thus has itself “a more eternal existence.” In a sense, that artist is Woolf, for she as a writer is the one who has connected moments across years, aestheticized them, and written them into eternity through the novel.

The Lighthouse, 5 Quotes

[Lily] went on tunneling her way into her picture, into the past.

Related Characters: Lily Briscoe
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

As she paints, Lily continues to ponder old memories, and here she turns to fantasizing about Paul and Minta’s failed marriage despite having little information about the actual event. She notes that creating these stories in one’s mind is an odd but necessary way to make sense of other people.

The description once more equates art and memory, here through a parallel clause: Lily is “tunneling” more deeply into her “picture” and simultaneously into “the past.” She asserts that both have an element of consistency across time that allows a transient moment to become permanent, and both provide sufficiently solid ground for someone to “tunnel.”

Despite its earnest philosophical intent, this is a slightly ironic comparison, considering that Lily has falsified the past by making up stories about Paul and Minta. Yet this is itself a similarity between “picture” and “past,” for while both might seem to be objective representations of reality, they can both contain falsehoods or half-mistakes. Memory, Lily implies, is susceptible to the tastes and skills of the artist, just like a painting. Their significance depends not on the reality of the external event, but rather on how skillfully the painter or rememberer has defined the aesthetics of their internal perception.

The Lighthouse, 11 Quotes

One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with, [Lily] reflected. Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with, she thought. Among them, must be one that was stone blind to [Mrs. Ramsay’s] beauty.

Related Characters: Mrs. Ramsay, Lily Briscoe
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis:

Still pondering the relationship between her painting and the external world, Lily points out the flaws and biases inherent in any single visual perspective. She takes Mrs. Ramsay as her example of how people’s identities cannot be so easily understood from just one point of view.

Lily’s observation here is the logical conclusion that both art and memory capture a partial moment and preserve it for eternity. She wants to crystallize in that artwork the complete "quivering" essence of Mrs. Ramsay, but also realizes that this would require not just her own perspective on the woman but also those of many, many others. This wish to more fully understand the nature of people speaks to Lily’s maturity, for she can now recognize that what other people (like Mr. Ramsay or Mr. Bankes) valued in women she had previously found rather banal. Lily concludes, however, that capturing a person in art is in an impossible feat. Human subjectivity will prevent her from ever forming a complete image—in either painting or in memory—of Mrs. Ramsay.

We should note that this is an observation that several other characters have had, even if phrased in different ways. At this exact moment, for instance, James is observing how the lighthouse can stand for many different things, and at the novel’s onset Mrs. Ramsay pointed out how the ocean could be experienced as either calming or frightening. That this observation on multiple conflicting perceptions is actually shared by many characters thus unifies them even as it articulates their mental distance. Woolf’s novel returns again and again to the idea that people experience external reality vastly differently, constantly misunderstanding each other as a result. Yet by creating a common set of thoughts, images, and conclusions in their minds, she also points out a consistency in human nature that can provide the basis for mutual experience.

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Lily Briscoe Character Timeline in To the Lighthouse

The timeline below shows where the character Lily Briscoe appears in To the Lighthouse. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Window, 3
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...looking for pictures for James. Mr. Ramsay suddenly shouts, but Mrs. Ramsay sees that only Lily Briscoe is present to hear the outcry and thus it “did not matter.” Mrs. Ramsay... (full context)
The Window, 4
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At her easel on the lawn, Lily is irritated when Mr. Ramsay rushes by shouting, but is relieved he doesn’t stop to... (full context)
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Finding it hard to look away from her painting, Lily considers it: she uses bright colors because she considers them more “honest,” accurate to what... (full context)
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Lily and Mr. Bankes walk to look at the water as they do each evening. “It... (full context)
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...child an English King or Queen in accord with that child’s essence. He talks to Lily about Mr. Ramsay, thinking that his children “gave him something…but they had also…destroyed something.” He... (full context)
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Lily is suddenly overcome by “her accumulated impressions” of Mr. Bankes and feels in awe of... (full context)
The Window, 9
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...with Mr. Ramsay striding about and Mrs. Ramsay reading at the window, Mr. Bankes and Lily discuss the Ramsays. Mr. Bankes laments that Mr. Ramsay isn’t even-tempered while Lily defends his... (full context)
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Before answering, Lily considers Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, feeling it is only possible to discuss them when they... (full context)
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Then, as Lily is about to answer Mr. Bankes with a criticism of Mrs. Ramsay, she notices that... (full context)
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Lily turns to look at her painting and is thrown into despair. She remembers Mr. Tansley’s... (full context)
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Lily braces herself as Mr. Bankes turns to examine her painting, feeling that he is seeing... (full context)
The Window, 10
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Cam races by Lily, Mr. Bankes, and Mr. Ramsay on the lawn and only stops after Mrs. Ramsay calls... (full context)
The Window, 12
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Mrs. Ramsay catches sight of Lily and Mr. Bankes walking on the lawn and it occurs to her that they should... (full context)
The Window, 13
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Mr. Bankes and Lily recount the European cities they have been to and the paintings they have seen in... (full context)
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...come upon Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay watching Prue and Jasper playing catch on the lawn, Lily thinks “so that is marriage” and feels that “suddenly the meaning…came upon them, and made... (full context)
The Window, 17
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Watching Mrs. Ramsay, Lily notes that, asking Mr. Bankes about the letters, Mrs. Ramsay goes from looking old and... (full context)
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...by remarking that they won’t be able to go to the Lighthouse the next day. Lily, repulsed by his charmlessness, mockingly asks Tansley to take her to the Lighthouse. Tansley, infuriated... (full context)
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...the moment, he flails, furiously trying to break into conversations around him to no avail. Lily notices “as in an X-ray…the ribs and thigh bones of the young man’s desire to... (full context)
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Yet, seeing within Mrs. Ramsay’s quick glance an immense desperation imploring Lily to help her with Mr. Tansley, Lily once again must “renounce the experiment” of not... (full context)
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As Mrs. Ramsay talks, Lily observes how she is at once “childlike” and “frightening,” how she always gets her way,... (full context)
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Seeing the saltshaker reminds her about her painting, and Lily consoles herself that she doesn’t have to get married, and can be spared “that dilution.”... (full context)
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Mrs. Ramsay, talking about milk in England, sees Lily’s distance (as Lily thinks about love) and draws Lily into the conversation. Talking on, she... (full context)
The Window, 18
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Lily observes that as soon as Mrs. Ramsay leaves, “a sort of disintegration set in.” She... (full context)
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Mrs. Ramsay descends downstairs and finds Minta, Paul, Lily and Prue planning to go watch waves on the beach, a plan she giddily encourages,... (full context)
Time Passes, 1
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...wait for the future to show,” says Mr. Bankes on the terrace. Andrew, Prue, and Lily come up from the beach in the darkness. They turn out all the lamps in... (full context)
Time Passes, 9
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...house is on the verge of slipping “downwards to the depths of darkness.” In parentheses, Lily and Mr. Carmichael arrive by train. (full context)
Time Passes, 10
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The war is over and peace declared. Lily falls asleep at the summerhouse listening to the sea. Through the window murmurs “the voice... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 1
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Lily sits at the breakfast table feeling how strange and unreal everything seems. Mr. Ramsay, Cam,... (full context)
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Avoiding Mr. Ramsay’s “wild gaze” of “imperious need,” Lily takes her easel out on the lawn in just the place she’d painted from ten... (full context)
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Yet Lily is distracted by Mr. Ramsay’s constant approach as he paces the terrace. She recalls how,... (full context)
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Unable to paint because she is so distracted by Mr. Ramsay’s imposing presence, Lily thinks angrily that he only knows how to take, while Mrs. Ramsay had always given.... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 2
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Looking at Lily, Mr. Ramsay thinks she looks a bit shriveled, but “not unattractive.” He likes her. He... (full context)
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Finally, Lily thinks to praise Mr. Ramsay’s boots, which gives him the chance to talk at length... (full context)
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Lily is moved by considering Mr. Ramsay’s face and the way it shows his devotion to... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 3
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Relieved to be alone, Lily confronts her canvas thinking how different the “planning airily away from the canvas” is from... (full context)
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Suddenly, Lily remembers it was Mr. Tansley who’d originally said the words she murmured and she starts... (full context)
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Taking a break from painting, Lily thinks as she has often thought, “What is the meaning of life?” She reflects that... (full context)
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Lily looks at the house, “faint and unreal…pure and exciting.” She looks at her canvas. She... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 5
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Imagining Mr. Ramsay on the boat, Lily thinks back to how she’d always found things with him “difficult,” unlike Minta, who had... (full context)
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Lily thinks back on Paul and Minta and imagines a series of scenes from their failed... (full context)
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Lily imagines triumphantly recounting the reality of Paul and Minta’s failed marriage and her own unmarried... (full context)
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Lily remembers how Mrs. Ramsay had planned to set her up with Mr. Bankes. Inside parentheses,... (full context)
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Thinking back to Mr. Bankes’ great admiration for Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty, Lily considers beauty’s “penalty” which is that “it came too readily…too completely.” Beauty “stilled life—froze it.”... (full context)
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Seeing Mr. Carmichael, Lily is suddenly moved to go and wake him except she wants to say so much... (full context)
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Turning to look at her painting, Lily realizes she cannot see clearly through the tears that have risen to her eyes. She... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 7
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Still crying Mrs. Ramsay’s name in anguish, Lily thinks how silly she must look and is glad Mr. Carmichael hasn’t noticed her outburst.... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 9
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Inside a parenthesis, Lily thinks of the sea as silk stretched across the bay. She thinks of distance’s power,... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 11
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On the lawn looking at the sea, Lily thinks about how one’s impression of and feelings about people depend so much on distance.... (full context)
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Dissatisfied with her painting, Lily feels that she keeps losing track of it when she thinks of Mr. Ramsay. She... (full context)
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Sitting down on the lawn, Lily feels that “everything this morning was happening for the first time, perhaps for the last... (full context)
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Seeing Mr. Carmichael, Lily wonders about his sorrow, his experience, his poetry, which she has never read. They only... (full context)
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Lily thinks back on Mrs. Ramsay, on her idiosyncrasies and unique character. She thinks how Mrs.... (full context)
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Lily thinks of Mr. Tansley, who had become a professor and whom she’d once heard give... (full context)
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Lily stirs her brush among the ants on the lawn and distresses them by making them... (full context)
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Lily thinks how one would need more than fifty pairs of eyes to see one woman... (full context)
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Lily considers Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s marriage and feels like she can remember their courtship, which... (full context)
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Sitting still on the lawn, Lily appears to be in a trance even as she is “moving underneath with extreme speed.”... (full context)
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The windowpane goes white as if a breeze had blown a curtain over it and Lily feels thrown into despair. But the despair, then, “became part of ordinary experience” and Lily... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 13
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On the lawn, Lily says, “He must have reached it.” The Lighthouse has disappeared into the haze and she... (full context)
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Lily looks at her painting and thinks once again how it will be thrown away and... (full context)