To the Lighthouse

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Themes and Colors
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The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
The Nature of Interior Life Theme Icon
Art and Beauty Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in To the Lighthouse, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
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As it examines the nature of interior life, so To the Lighthouse examines the nature of art and beauty, giving credence to commonly accepted understandings even as it puts forth alternative definitions. Weaving in pieces of a Sir Walter Scott novel and the lines from a Shakespeare sonnet, To the Lighthouse showcases the beauty of canonical art masterpieces, and in the person of Mrs. Ramsay, the novel presents a traditional ideal of human beauty. Indeed, Mr. Bankes imagines her “classical” beauty on the other end of the telephone.

The power of such beauty—in both art and humans—can work for good. The literature the characters read gives joy and consolation, as Mrs. Ramsey delights in the loveliness of the sonnet’s words and Scott’s prose frees Mr. Ramsey from anxiety about his public image. Further, such artworks can inspire faith in an all-encompassing human project. After reading Scott, Mr. Ramsey no longer cares whether it is he or someone else who “reaches Z” – someone will, he knows, and that’s enough. Mrs. Ramsay’s human beauty likewise consoles and inspires: those around her admire her and feel strengthened by her spirit. Mr. Tansley is filled with happiness just by sharing Mrs. Ramsay’s presence and attempts to be kinder and more generous for her sake. Paul attributes his courage to propose to Minta to Mrs. Ramsay’s effect upon him. Still, beauty can also exert less positive influences. Lily observes that beauty can reduce and obscure, concealing the complexity of life beneath it. Admiring Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty, Lily tries to see past it to “the living thing” that so animates her.

As it considers the nature of beauty, the novel also considers beauty’s makers. The characters of Mr. Carmichael and Lily afford a view on art in the process of being created by as-yet unestablished artists. In each case, beauty springs unexpected from unlovely circumstances. Out of the opium-addicted, shuffling Mr. Carmichael of The Window springs the incongruous sublimity of his poems, which meet with such apparent success subsequently. Through Lily’s meager existence, self-doubts, and despair arrives the painting she completes in the novel’s last section. Yet the novel does not limit the making of beauty to the production of fine art objects. It understands human conduct and daily life as a form of art also. Thus Mrs. Ramsey’s orchestration of herself, her family, and her guests is repeatedly described in terms ordinarily applied to artistic composition and Lily recognizes Mrs. Ramsay’s person as an aesthetic force, a masterpiece.

In broadening our understanding of art and beauty, the novel shifts the emphasis from finished product to process – rather than limiting “art” to concrete, enduring, delimited artifacts, the novel shows that art can also be a spirit, a frame of mind, a form of vision. Thus, Lily ends the novel satisfied even though she knows that her painting itself will not be immortalized, will almost certainly be forgotten. She feels content knowing that she has participated in art and beauty just by making the painting, just by having “her vision.”

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Art and Beauty Quotes in To the Lighthouse

Below you will find the important quotes in To the Lighthouse related to the theme of Art and Beauty.
The Window, 1 Quotes

…it was only in silence, looking up from their plates, after she had spoken so severely about Charles Tansley, that her daughters—Prue, Nancy, Rose—could sport with infidel ideas which they had brewed for themselves of a life different from hers; in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other; for there was in all their minds a mute questioning of deference and chivalry, of the Bank of England and the Indian Empire, of ringed fingers and lace, though to them all there was something in this of the essence of beauty, which called out the manliness in their girlish hearts, and made them, as they sat at table beneath their mother’s eyes, honour her strange severity, her extreme courtesy…

Related Characters: Mrs. Ramsay, Charles Tansley, Nancy Ramsay, Prue Ramsay, Rose Ramsay
Page Number: 6-7
Explanation and Analysis:

After Mrs. Ramsay has lectured on Charles Tansley’s shortcomings, she pauses, and this space allows her children to reflect on their relationship to their mother—and on the distance between her worldview and theirs.

That the children are only able to visualize these alternative futures “in silence” points to how extensively Mrs. Ramsay has determined her children's personal and social realities. Any idea on “a life different from hers” is deemed “infidel,” as if she has formed a religious cult around womanhood that can define what is spiritually good and evil. The main point of contention concerns men: to have a “wider life” to to question the “deference and chivalry” that Mrs. Ramsay has previously held up as essential to her personality. Indeed, this passage engages directly with the reasons she might find men defensible, citing first chivalry and then economic and political forces: “the Bank of England and the Indian Empire.”

By retracing these same potential reasons to laud and value men, the children conclude that there is indeed something inspiring about their mother—precisely because she can elicit “the manliness in their girlish hearts.” That is to say, Mrs. Ramsay’s unique skill is to rely on gender roles and binaries but to be so adept at maneuvering them that she turns what might be disempowering into a form of empowerment. Consider, for instance, how Woolf takes terms like “severity” and “courtesy” that might both be fodder for critique—and instead with the addition of the adjectives “strange” and “extreme” marks them as warped but useful social tools. Playing off of these stereotypes may make Mrs. Ramsay the subject of her daughters’ critique, but she also inspires their “honour.”


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Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; felt the wind and the cyclamen and the violets for he was walking with a beautiful woman for the first time in his life. He had hold of her bag.

Related Characters: Charles Tansley
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Ramsay recalls her and Tansley's walk during which he manages to grab hold of her bag. Tansley basks in the joy of accompanying her and playing a traditional masculine role.

The pride felt at finally having hold of her bag notably contrasts with Mrs. Ramsay’s earlier resistances to him holding it. That rejection seemed to resist the very codes of chivalry Mrs. Ramsay has praied, and here she lapses back into the traditional role much to Tansley’s delight. Yet if Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts on their interaction were conveyed in a series of complicated assessments, Tansley’s are oddly reductive and straightforward. He offers little compelling or notable analysis on the situation and feels just a banal “pride” for being with “a beautiful woman."

This disjoint in the narrative voice reveals two key elements of these characters: First it reiterates Mrs. Ramsay’s incredible power over men, in which she can cause his entire perception of reality to shift with relative ease. And secondly it casts Tansley as supremely unperceptive. Woolf is able to illuminate this difference by bestowing on certain characters more complete and nuanced opinions. So her narration style allows her to show the disconnect in the way Tansley and Mrs. Ramsay would experience their walk—and even the social interaction of the purse. One may find great depths of significance and complexity; another will just see general beauty and pride.

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.

The Window, 5 Quotes

For always, [Mr. Bankes] thought, there was something incongruous to be worked into the harmony of [Mrs. Ramsay’s] face. She clapped a deer-stalker’s hat on her head; she ran across the lawn in galoshes to snatch a child from mischief. So that if it was her beauty merely that one thought of, one must remember the quivering thing, the living thing…and work it into the picture.

Related Characters: William Bankes (speaker), Mrs. Ramsay
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Ramsay is now measuring a stocking, but the scene has slowly zoomed out into first her own mind and then to an external narrative. Here, the the narrator takes on the perspective of Mr. Bankes to reflect on the odd constitution of Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty.

What Mr. Bankes fixates on is the difference between an external beauty and a beauty constituted by internal character and by the action inspired by that character. This is what is “incongruous” and what therefore cannot be explained just by a visual “face.” And to make sense of this, Mr. Bankes cites more energetic and erratic behaviors of Mrs. Ramsay—stressing that her character is far from pristine and vacant. He summarizes this “something incongruous” as “the quivering thing, the living thing,” asserting that while it may be odd in some sense, it also provides a source of stimulation and vigor. Indeed, it is the thing that makes her “living,” that makes her human.

This passage speaks to the exact literary strategy Woolf employs when describing Mrs. Ramsay. Traditional, realist writing would only convey physical details and actions taken by a character, but Woolf delves deeply into Mrs. Ramsay’s mind—as if she herself wants to render for us “the quivering thing.” Indeed, Mr. Bankes' reference to integrating that quality “into the picture” stresses the importance of human interiority in art like that of Lily or Woolf herself. The text implies that pictures alone will mis the the living essence of someone, and that artists must remember to include this quality in their work.

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 Window, 17 Quotes

It partook, [Mrs. Ramsay] felt, carefully helping Mr. Bankes to a specially tender piece, of eternity; as she had already felt about something different once before that afternoon; there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that remains for ever after. This would remain.

Related Characters: Mrs. Ramsay (speaker), William Bankes
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Ramsay breaks into this moving commentary in the midst of the dinner scene. Though she has previously focused on small human interactions, alternatively appreciating and complaining about the behavior of others, here she sees the moment as beautiful and timeless.

This contrast between banal dinner interactions and Mrs. Ramsay’s sudden rapture can be seen already in the first line. Woolf separates the sentence into “It partook” “of eternity” with a clause on the distribution of dinner meat, stressing how the aesthetic merit of the scene is the result of how a human mind frames the otherwise meaningless occurrences. What constitutes this merit, for Mrs. Ramsay, is the structural unity of the event: its “coherence” and “stability” that mark it more as permanent work of art as opposed to a fleeting moment. Again, this sense does not reflect any actual permanence in the events, which are far from “immune to change”: rather, they have appeared to Mrs. Ramsay’s mind in such a way that they seem archetypal and sanctified—and thus able to “remain.”

The passage brings together a number of important themes in the novel. It summons the specter of human mortality by fixating repeatedly on the eternity of the scene: Mrs. Ramsay regards it with fascination because it seems to escape the laws of time that have preoccupied her throughout the day. That it does so by appearing to be a work of art reiterates the importance various characters have given to their artistic pursuits—but also points out that an artwork is less the providence of sculpture or painting, and far more the result of human perception. Through her vision, Mrs. Ramsay has transformed the scene before her into a piece of art that “would remain” and thus redeem any human triviality.

The Window, 19 Quotes

And then there it was, suddenly entire shaped in [Mrs. Ramsay’s] hands, beautiful and reasonable, clear and complete, the essence sucked out of life and held rounded here—the sonnet.

Related Characters: Mrs. Ramsay
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

After the dinner has ended, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay sit beside each other reading. The narrator recounts their vastly different relationships to reading, here focusing on how Mrs. Ramsay seeks an energizing progression to the climax of a text.

This relationship to poetry recalls what Mrs. Ramsay had previously found eternal and meaningful in the dinner scene: the way it was fully unified and coherent. For “the sonnet” is the stereotypical structured format of poetry, one that gives this exact sense of the “clear and complete.” Woolf portrays Mrs. Ramsay’s aesthetic preferences to be those that offer the reader this sense of solace and of “essence”: Some arduous work is required to complete the sonnet, but at its end it is presented quite directly before the reader. Such a relationship to literature contrasts notably with that of Mr. Ramsay, who seeks the confirmation in text that he need not worry about personal achievement. So if Mrs. Ramsay looks for ecstatic unity, Mr. Ramsay hopes for affirming peace. Woolf shows, then, how these different characters’ perceptions of reality also dictate their interpretations of and expectations for literature—a clever comment on how differently people will interpret her novel.

The Lighthouse, 3 Quotes

But what a power there was in the human soul! [Lily] thought. That woman sitting there, writing under the rock resolved everything into simplicity; made these angers, irritations fall off like old rags; she brought together this and that and then this, and so made out of that miserable silliness and spite (she and Charles squabbling, sparring, had been silly and spiteful) something—this scene on the beach for example, this moment of friendship and liking—which survived, after all these years, complete, so that she dipped into it to refashion her memory of him, and it stayed in the mind almost like a world of art.

Related Characters: Charles Tansley
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

As Lily works on her painting, she reminisces on Mrs. Ramsay writing letters on the beach. In retrospect, she comes to see Mrs. Ramsay’s behavior as its own type of art, akin to Lily's own painting.

For Lily, the aesthetic quality of Mrs. Ramsay’s life comes from how she “resolved everything into simplicity.” Much like a painter seeks to take disparate elements and unify them into something beautiful or meaningful, Mrs. Ramsay could bring harmony to social interactions. This memory does not highlight her active role in micro-managing such interactions, but rather refers to the way she would look from a distance and ponder human interactions. Lily at last understands the way that Mrs. Ramsay would, at times, suddenly distance herself from human affairs and gaze at them with an aesthetic eye—as she did during the dinner scene from “The Window.” And if Mrs. Ramsay’s claim that that moment would "remain" may have seemed silly or wishful earlier, the fact that Lily does recall it now partly proves her point.

“A work of art,” the text implies, is not determined by the medium of painting or literature, but rather by the power and longevity of what is produced. As a result, a memory can become just such an artistic object, which serves to further democratize the process. Whereas Lily may have before held certain elitist preconceptions about what constituted art—and looked down on Mrs. Ramsay—she has here developed a more empathetic worldview in which she sees Mrs. Ramsay as an artist in her own way.

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.