To the Lighthouse

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Themes and Colors
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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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Though the novel’s stream of consciousness jumps from perspective to perspective, the theme of gender remains in focus as each character considers gender roles and relations from his or her own standpoint. Mrs. Ramsey delights in her womanhood, successfully fulfilling the traditional female roles of caregiver, homemaker, beauty, comforter of men. Lily, on the other hand, resents those same traditional roles, resisting the pressure to fill them and then, when she succeeds in such resistance, feeling her defiant pride undercut by anxiety and self-doubt. Having successfully refused to give Mr. Ramsay the female sympathy he craves in The Lighthouse, for example, Lily thinks she must be a failure as a woman and, wracked by regret, spends the rest of the morning trying to make it up to him. Among the male characters, Mr. Tansley and Mr. Ramsay aspire to strength, chivalry, and intellectualism, trying to inhabit the traditional male role of female protector and evincing an enduring prejudice against female “irrationality” and “simplicity.” Still, even as the men look down on women, they depend on them. Mr. Tansley and Mr. Ramsay are both utterly reliant on Mrs. Ramsay and other female characters for praise and crave female sympathy to keep their egos afloat. Even when Mr. Ramsay recognizes this need as a weakness in himself, he remains unable to overcome it and thus demands of Lily in The Lighthouse the same sort of support he’d demanded from his wife ten years earlier in The Window.

Aside from considering men and women’s individual gender roles, the novel also considers the gender relations within a marriage and presents two models of domestic union. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay represent the conventional ideal (indeed, Lily thinks they have suddenly transcended themselves and become a symbol as they stand on the lawn). Though the marriage of course possesses its gender-bending quirks—Mr. Ramsay is emotionally needier, Mrs. Ramsay, more emotionally restrained—it generally operates as a conventional heterosexual romantic partnership: Mr. Ramsey is the “rational” breadwinner, Mrs. Ramsey the “comforting” homemaker. They love one another deeply and act as a team. Within this model, both are happy. Mrs. Ramsay especially praises the virtues of marriage and her eager matchmaking attempts to set up all single characters in a marriage like hers.

Though not seen first-hand, Minta and Paul’s marriage as imagined by Lily in The Lighthouse presents a point of contrast with the Ramsay marriage. It’s hinted in The Window that Minta is not entirely happy about being betrothed to Paul, and the subsequent marriage is rife with struggle and argument. Yet, over the years, relations between Paul and Minta are repaired by something that would traditionally be considered a marriage disaster: Paul takes a mistress and, thereafter, he and Minta are a team again. Remembering Mrs. Ramsay in The Lighthouse, Lily imagines holding up the example of Minta and Paul as well as of her own contented, unmarried life as evidence that Mrs. Ramsay was wrong to advocate so single-mindedly for conventional marriages. Indeed, the novel presents marriage and gender alike as complex, continued negotiations between the sexes, each facing a set of expectations that seldom fit but are nevertheless worked around, worked through, and reinvented.

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Gender Quotes in To the Lighthouse

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

Indeed, she had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential…

Related Characters: Mrs. Ramsay
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Ramsay offers these sympathetic comments on men after complaining about the character flaws of Charles Tansley. She wonders what precisely causes her to take such a positive stance on the sex.

That Mrs. Ramsay feels men are “under her protection” seems to put her in a position of empowerment, for she determines if they are seen positively or negatively. But that instinct also indicates the power men have exerted on her. Indeed, Mrs. Ramsay seems unable to fully explain her solicitous behavior, indicating it may be irrational or socially constructed. She attempts to brainstorm a variety of reasons: perhaps due to old-fashioned character tropes like “chivalry and valour,” perhaps pragmatically for legal, political, and economic reasons, or perhaps because of how men allow her to be agreeable within her own and others’ minds.

Woolf begins at the novel’s onset a subtle exploration of gender relations within a traditionally patriarchal society. She renders Mrs. Ramsay neither a crusader for female independence nor a simple domestically-confined housewife. Rather, Mrs. Ramsay reveals an awareness of the male forces that dictate her life and finds a source of empowerment in that awareness. Perhaps her protection is not blind, but rather a resourceful calibration of how men can be made useful to her. She is capable, Woolf demonstrates, of interrogating why she embraces traditional gender roles through this interior monologue, while maintaining the external presentation of social decorum.


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…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.”

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, 6 Quotes

The extraordinary irrationality of [Mrs. Ramsay’s] remark, the folly of women’s minds enraged [Mr. Ramsay]. He had ridden through the valley of death, been shattered and shivered; and now she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out of the question, in effect, told lies.

Related Characters: Mrs. Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

Mr. Ramsay is infuriated by Mrs. Ramsay’s supposedly irrational belief that the weather will allow them to visit the lighthouse. He defines a striking divergence in their personalities in which Mrs. Ramsay prefers niceties to facts.

Woolf’s text does not lend full allegiance to either side of the debate. It may focus of the “extraordinary irrationality” of what Mrs. Ramsay has said and call her hope for a sunny day mere “lies,” but this language is also being partially constituted by Mr. Ramsay. Indeed, his quick movement from a single comment by his wife to an overarching note on “the folly of women’s minds” parodies how quickly people generalize small instances of human interaction. The bombastic language only grows more dazzling as Mr. Ramsay describes his journey as one through “the valley of death,” making it increasingly difficult for the reader to take his comments seriously. By juxtaposing that rhetoric with his complaints on Mrs. Ramsay’s lies, Woolf shows a certain irony in Mr. Ramsay’s thought process: He is telling his own set of lies to himself—not about something like the weather but about the way he has conceived of himself and of his wife. Thus Mrs. Ramsay’s concern for others is deemed no more false than Mr. Ramsay’s own concern for his self-esteem. Woolf implies that though each one might set up a binary relationship between the two, each is also capable of committing the sin for which they criticize the other.

To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilsation so wantonly, so brutally, was to [Mrs. Ramsay] so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked.

Related Characters: Mrs. Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Mrs. Ramsay responds to Mr. Ramsay’s outburst. She offers the opposite opinion on the value of fact, arguing that the quest for the truth is only meaningful if accompanied by a sense of human decency.

It’s notable how Mrs. Ramsay uses similarly inflated language here as Mr. Ramsay: Whereas he saw himself as having traveled through “the valley of death,” Mrs. Ramsay describes him as a “pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water.” They thus both recreate their own identities in order to fit their argument. And if Mr. Ramsay’s language was ironically untruthful, Mrs. Ramsay’s is paradoxically uncouth. She complains of how Mr. Ramsay’s can “rend the thin veils of civilisation,” but her own sentence is similarly “wantonly” in that it is thought immediately without any self-editing.

Woolf points out, then, the disjunct between our logically formulated opinions and the way in which our immediate opinions are phrased. The split between the factual Mr. Ramsay and the courteous Mrs. Ramsay is only the tip of the iceberg that obscures an entire psychic complexity within each of their minds. Once more, Woolf’s work points out how radically differently people view their experiences and, even as we might construct a binary between the two of them (or between men and women in general), their internal experiences may reveal more commonality than first perceived.

The Window, 7 Quotes

…the arid scimitar of the male, which smote mercilessly, again and again, demanding sympathy.

Related Characters: Mr. Ramsay
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

James reflects on the moment of conflict he has just watched between his parents. He is unable to understand the deeper social context of what they say and relates to it as a violent ritual.

In this ritual, Mr. Ramsay is abusive, but ironically he is abusive not to punish Mrs. Ramsay, but rather to gain her emotional support or “sympathy.” The image first takes the metaphorical violence done by Mr. Ramsay’s emotional demands and makes it literal with the “scimitar.” “Arid” can hold a similarly dual meaning as both physically dry and metaphorically lacking excitement. And though “smote” is primarily a term of physical violence, it also summons the term “smitten by” as in an attraction to someone. In these double set of meanings, then, we see both the actual emotional demand being made by Mr. Ramsay and the weirdly epic struggle that James envisions between his parents.

Woolf’s language is, of course, far more verbose and ornate than that used by a child of James age. Though a child might imagine his parents as mythic archetypes, he would never articulate the concepts as such. This can help us clarify the perspective and position of the limited omniscient narrator, who adopts the perspectives of different characters but not necessarily their vocabulary. By maintaining an autonomous control of the language, Woolf is able to both point to the external reality of the events and the way they are internally processed by each character.

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.