To the Lighthouse

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The Sea Symbol Icon
The sea symbolizes the natural world and its utter apathy towards human life. The natural world – which encompasses time and mortality – proceeds as usual regardless of whether humans are happy or grieving, in peace or at war. Like the incontrovertible fact of death gradually claiming human youth and beauty, the sea slowly eats away at the land, dissolving it minute by minute. Like the relentless progression of a clock’s hand, the waves beat ceaselessly on the beach and slow for no one. The sea itself is unchangeable, and the many different descriptions of the sea throughout the novel in fact describe shifting human opinions. As if it were a mirror, people see in the sea a reflection of their own state of mind. Thus, when Mrs. Ramsay feels safe and secure, the waves sound soothing, but when she feels disoriented, the sound of the waves seems violent and ominous. Thus, during World War I, the ocean appears senseless and brutal, but in peacetime it appears orderly and beautiful.

The Sea Quotes in To the Lighthouse

The To the Lighthouse quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Sea. 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:
Time Theme Icon
). 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, 3 Quotes

…the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, ‘I am guarding you—I am your support’, but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow…

Related Characters: Mrs. Ramsay
Related Symbols: The Sea
Page Number: 15-16
Explanation and Analysis:

The conversation on plans to see the lighthouse pauses once more, and Mrs. Ramsay suddenly becomes preoccupied by the sound of the waves outside. She observes how the ocean can be both calming and frightening depending on the context in which she hears it.

Woolf is playing here with a writing technique called the “pathetic fallacy.” The term was coined for poets who described a natural phenomenon as if it has human emotion, when in fact the emotion actually belonged to the speaker of the poem or the poet. (It is a fallacy because the body of water is not actually supportive or remorseless, but rather becomes a vehicle for Mrs. Ramsay to make sense of her own emotional state.) Woolf takes the pathetic fallacy out of an isolated moment and instead makes it the subject of longer musings by different characters throughout the text: she exposes and complicates the term by making Mrs. Ramsay aware of the fact that her perceptions of the ocean change depending on her mood and state of mind.

In Mrs. Ramsay’s specific case, the emotional significance of the waves depends on whether they are accompanied by a “task.” When she is preoccupied in her own endeavors, fulfilling her maternal role, their largeness is soothing. When, on the other hand, she can focus fully on their existential “measure of life,” she becomes more philosophical and worries about the smallness, the “ephemeral” quality of her life in comparison to the ocean’s scale. Thus we can see Mrs. Ramsay’s character as one who finds significance and peace in her tasks—one for whom the ocean brings solace to contextualize those tasks, but if focused on solely, will unleash an abstract anxiety about time and meaning.

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The Window, 4 Quotes

…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.

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The Sea Symbol Timeline in To the Lighthouse

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Sea appears in To the Lighthouse. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Window, 3
Time Theme Icon
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
The Nature of Interior Life Theme Icon
Mrs. Ramsay is suddenly alarmed to hear the sound of waves unaccompanied by the rhythms of human conversations and cricket games. As white noise behind human... (full context)
The Window, 8
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
Art and Beauty Theme Icon
...passes the window just as Mrs. Ramsay reads about the Fisherman reluctantly going out to sea, thinking ‘it is not right’ and yet going. Mr. Ramsay nods and continues on the... (full context)
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
The Nature of Interior Life Theme Icon
He walks to the edge of the lawn and looks out at the sea. The perspective zooms out to observe that it was Mr. Ramsay’s destiny, “whether he wished... (full context)
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
...Ramsay walks towards the house stopping now and then to turn and stare into the sea, then turn back away. (full context)
The Window, 9
Art and Beauty Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
...birds sang through them” and all of life’s “little separate incidents…became curled and whole like a wave ” carrying one and delivering one to the shore. (full context)
The Window, 11
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
The Nature of Interior Life Theme Icon
Art and Beauty Theme Icon
...how it is “so much her, yet so little her” and feels it is “stroking…some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight.” She feels she has... (full context)
The Window, 14
Time Theme Icon
The Nature of Interior Life Theme Icon
...her own, too, Nancy imagines that one of the little tide pools is the whole sea, turning “the minnows into sharks and whales” and herself into some God-like “fantastic leviathan” able... (full context)
The Window, 17
Gender Theme Icon
...sailing, Lily immediately puts Mr. Tansley at his ease and he prattles on about his sea prowess while she thinks how the cost of Mrs. Ramsay’s ease has been her own... (full context)
Art and Beauty Theme Icon
...Rose’s arrangement of the fruit bowl, which looks to her like “a trophy” from the sea floor, “Neptune’s banquet,” a whole world to explore. She notices Mr. Carmichael, too, admiring it,... (full context)
The Window, 18
Time Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
Mrs. Ramsay descends downstairs and finds Minta, Paul, Lily and Prue planning to go watch waves on the beach, a plan she giddily encourages, saying how much she wishes she could... (full context)
Time Passes, 3
Time Theme Icon
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
...worth of dark nights pass, “full of wind and destruction.” The trees are ravaged. “[T]he sea tosses itself and breaks itself.” It would be futile for any sleeper to rise and... (full context)
Time Passes, 6
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
Amidst the sea scenery, a battleship intrudes. Nature remains indifferent and “that dream…of…finding in solitude on the beach... (full context)
Time Passes, 10
Time Theme Icon
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
...war is over and peace declared. Lily falls asleep at the summerhouse listening to the sea. Through the window murmurs “the voice of the beauty of the world” calling sleepers to... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 3
Time Theme Icon
Art and Beauty Theme Icon
...about her stay at the summerhouse ten years before. She recalls skipping stones on the sea with Mr. Tansley while Mrs. Ramsay sat on a beach rock writing letters and, by... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 5
Time Theme Icon
The Nature of Interior Life Theme Icon
Art and Beauty Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
...of iron”) and her memory of sitting in silence beside Mrs. Ramsay looking at the sea. As Lily, “dipped into the blue paint, she dipped too into the past there.” (full context)
The Lighthouse, 6
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
...fish to use as bait for a fishing hook and throws the gouged body into the ocean . (full context)
The Lighthouse, 9
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
Art and Beauty Theme Icon
Inside a parenthesis, Lily thinks of the sea as silk stretched across the bay. She thinks of distance’s power, how it has devoured... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 11
Time Theme Icon
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
On the lawn looking at the sea, Lily thinks about how one’s impression of and feelings about people depend so much on... (full context)
Time Theme Icon
Art and Beauty Theme Icon
...to the edge of the lawn still holding her brush to look out at the sea for Mr. Ramsay. (full context)
The Lighthouse, 12
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
The Nature of Interior Life Theme Icon
...drowned. James and Cam dread Mr. Ramsay exclaiming the line, “But I beneath a rougher sea,” but, to their relief, he does not. They are nearing shore and their father praises... (full context)