To the Lighthouse

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The Lighthouse Symbol Analysis

The Lighthouse Symbol Icon
The Lighthouse symbolizes human desire, a force that pulsates over the indifferent sea of the natural world and guides people’s passage across it. Yet even as the Lighthouse stands constant night and day, season after season, it remains curiously unattainable. James’ frustrated desire to visit the Lighthouse begins the novel, and Mrs. Ramsay looks at the Lighthouse as she denies Mr. Ramsay the profession of love he wants so badly at the end of Chapter 1. James, finally reaching the Lighthouse in Chapter 3 a decade after he’d first wanted to go, sees that, up close, the Lighthouse looks nothing like it does from across the bay. That misty image he’d desired from a distance remains unattainable even when he can sail right up to the structure it’s supposedly attached to. The novel’s title can be understood as a description for experience itself: one moves through life propelled by desire towards the things one wants, and yet seems rarely to reach them. One’s life, then, is the process of moving towards, of reaching, of desiring. It is “to” the Lighthouse, not “at” it.
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The Lighthouse Symbol Timeline in To the Lighthouse

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Lighthouse appears in To the Lighthouse. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Window, 1
The Nature of Interior Life Theme Icon
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...text are Mrs. Ramsey’s reply to a question James has apparently asked about going to the Lighthouse the next day. She assures him he’ll get to go as long as the weather... (full context)
The Window, 2
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Still in the scene on which the book opened, Mr. Tansley repeats: “No going to the Lighthouse , James,” and though he inwardly attempts to make his voice sound nice “in deference... (full context)
The Window, 5
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Mrs. Ramsay has been knitting a stocking for the Lighthouse keeper’s tubercular boy and, hoping to finish it in case they do go to the... (full context)
The Window, 6
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Hearing that Mrs. Ramsay is trying to finish the stocking in case they go to the Lighthouse the next day, Mr. Ramsay swells into a rage, infuriated by the irrational “folly of... (full context)
The Window, 10
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...Minta. Finishing the story, she watches James and sees he is about to ask about the Lighthouse when taken to bed by Mildred. Mrs. Ramsay thinks he will remember the disappointment of... (full context)
The Window, 11
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...she “became the thing she looked at,” and at this moment feels herself one with the Lighthouse . (full context)
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...as always emerges from solitude by “reluctantly…laying hold of some…sound, some sight.” She looks at the Lighthouse light and, still thinking how it is “so much her, yet so little her” and... (full context)
The Window, 12
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Walking on arm in arm, Mrs. Ramsay sees the Lighthouse and, not liking to be reminded that she had “let herself sit there, thinking,” turns... (full context)
The Window, 17
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...to “civilization.” He “asserts himself” 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... (full context)
The Window, 18
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...the skull remains there unharmed under the shawl. As she’s leaving, he asks her about the Lighthouse and Mrs. Ramsay says they won’t go tomorrow but will in the near future, resenting... (full context)
The Window, 19
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...her “heartless” for never articulating her love aloud. Mrs. Ramsay gets up to look at the Lighthouse through the window and feels the admiration for her beauty in Mr. Ramsay’s gaze and... (full context)
Time Passes, 9
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...moldy, decaying, broken. Plants grow in the rooms and birds nest in them. Otherwise, “only the Lighthouse beam” enters the rooms. Then, Mrs. McNab receives a letter out of the blue asking... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 1
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...strange and unreal everything seems. Mr. Ramsay, Cam, and James are supposed to go to the Lighthouse but are late and disorganized. Nancy asks Lily what should be sent to the Lighthouse... (full context)
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...he had ordered teenage Cam and James to be ready for an early trip to the Lighthouse the next morning, which they consented to with obvious resentment. Lily thought “this was tragedy—not... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 2
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...does. An awkward silence ensues which Lily tries to rescue them from with talk of the Lighthouse . Mr. Ramsay groans and sighs, and Lily inwardly feels that she is a failure... (full context)
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...them for not showing their father more sympathy. Mr. Ramsay and his children depart for the Lighthouse . (full context)
The Lighthouse, 8
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James thinks back to his memories of childhood, and recollects his childhood vision of the Lighthouse as something “silvery, misty-looking…with a yellow eye.” But now it is “stark and straight” and... (full context)
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James remembers Mr. Ramsay dashing his hopes about going to the Lighthouse as a child and Mrs. Ramsay’s attention being deflected away from James towards his father.... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 12
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...image of “that loneliness” which they both believe resides at the heart of everything. Approaching the Lighthouse , James is pleased to feel that it somehow rebukes the optimistic pleasantries of old... (full context)
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As the sailboat pulls up to the Lighthouse , James and Cam watch Mr. Ramsay all ready to leap off the boat and... (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 is weary from looking at it and imagining... (full context)