To the Lighthouse

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The Meaning of Life Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Time Theme Icon
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
The Nature of Interior Life Theme Icon
Art and Beauty Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in To the Lighthouse, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon

Characters throughout To the Lighthouse question life’s ultimate meaning and supply different answers based on their own perspectives and on the circumstances that surround their questioning. Mrs. Ramsay understands the meaning of life to be family and domestic happiness, while Mr. Bankes and Mr. Tansley understand it to be work and professional success. Mr. Ramsay vacillates between these answers, finding ultimate meaning sometimes in family, sometimes in philosophy. Lily thinks life’s greatest meaning lies in making art.

Yet even as each character’s thoughts and behavior seem to present a loose argument for each “meaning,” no character ever feels personally confident or satisfied with one answer. Their moments of conviction are always shadowed by doubt. Thus, Mrs. Ramsay despairs at the start of dinner in The Window, feeling her marriage, her family, and her life are hollow and worthless. Thus, Mr. Ramsay continually doubts himself, one moment disparaging his family life, the next moment his professional life, and forever relying on Mrs. Ramsay for sympathy and praise to soothe his spirits. Thus, Mr. Tansley experiences bitter anguish and hurt at the dinner table, proving how much weight he actually gives to the very world of human relations he calls meaningless. Thus, Lily repeatedly turns on herself, belittling her life choices and criticizing her painting.

No matter where the characters of To the Lighthouse find meaning in their lives, those meanings are integrally related to the theme of Time. A character’s perspective on life is always affected by that character’s relationship to time. When characters feel that human action transcends mortality to endure the ages or when they are able to luxuriate in the present moment and feel the breadth of a human lifespan, then they are able to feel life is meaningful, worthwhile. Thus, reading Sir Walter Scott, Ramsay feels that the ongoing torch of human accomplishment passed from person to person is much more meaningful than the identity of each individual torch carrier. Thinking this way, he no longer worries about his own achievements and feels happy knowing that his work in philosophy will be carried on by other thinkers in the future. On the other hand, Mr. Bankes, on tasting Mrs. Ramsay’s beef dish at dinner, is finally grounded in the pleasure of the present moment and can thereby see the merit in domestic rituals he’d previously considered meaningless.

There is, ultimately, no one meaning of life and, instead of reaching for one, the novel shows that meaning is subjective, contingent upon circumstance and perspective. Each life, then, contains many “meanings,” which shift and change from year to year, from moment to moment.

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The Meaning of Life Quotes in To the Lighthouse

Below you will find the important quotes in To the Lighthouse related to the theme of The Meaning of Life.
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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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.

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 very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare.

Related Characters: Mr. Ramsay (speaker)
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Mr. Ramsay is deep in thought on his own intellectual accomplishments, as well as the accomplishments of others. But then he suddenly relativizes any legacy, by comparing it to the immense scale of the natural world.

The question of scale preoccupies Woolf throughout the novel: often a character will be lost in their own thoughts until something external and belonging to nature gives them perspective on their minuscule human position. Woolf is not, however, simply presenting human affairs as trivial and meaningless, but rather putting on display how humans can create extensive meaning through their minds. After all, though a stone may indeed outlast Mr. Ramsay, his musings have taken up more page space in Woolf’s text.

To reference Shakespeare also calls up Woolf’s own accomplishments as an author—and questions whether her work will live on in literary history. Woolf’s texts are filled with Shakespeare references—most notably in Mrs. Dalloway—so the allusion to the relative smallness of Shakespeare implicates a much-esteemed and personally-important author. Woolf thus explains how even a writer deemed essential for this very text will pale in comparison to the natural world.

The Window, 11 Quotes

All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless. And to everybody there was always this sense of unlimited resources, [Mrs. Ramsay] supposed.

Related Characters: Mrs. Ramsay
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Ramsay has now left James and reflects, alone, while looking out to the ocean. She observes how without other people or social responsibilities, she holds within her an endless range of possibilities.

The language in this passage describes two contradictory experiences: the disappearance of the self into invisibility, as well as the expansion of one’s opportunities. Mrs. Ramsay first reflects on the difference between a social identity and a solitary one: The first is constituted by “the being and the doing”; it is large, visual, and auditory, and makes a distinct mark on the world, whereas the second is a silent, small “core of darkness.” Yet that invisibility is not a process of self-abnegation, but rather brings Mrs. Ramsay into more direct contact with her own identity. And this identity is not a fixed sense of self, but rather is defined as the potential for “the strangest adventures,” “limitless,” and “unlimited resources.” The passage implies that a firm sense of self is not necessarily defined by external actions and by fitting into a social network, but rather by quiet moments that actually open one’s identity up into various possibilities. And it marks a striking shift from Mrs. Ramsay’s earlier preference for distraction amidst domestic concerns, for here she feels most empowered when she is alone.

Here Woolf is building on a tradition in romantic literature that valued the solitary, brooding hero who separated himself from society to reflect on identity. But she takes that trope away from its epic context and places it within a home, in the small moments after putting a child to bed. (This also takes the romantic from the more masculine hero and places it in the "feminine" domestic sphere, to which women were often confined.) This is a striking statement on the ability of the human mind to create its own depth and reality: Mrs. Ramsay can think philosophically on the most serious concerns of identity with neither professional employment nor fanciful adventures but simply by employing her mind.

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.

Time Passes, 2 Quotes

…certain airs, detached from the body of the wind [the house was ramshackle after all] crept round corners and ventured indoors. Almost one might imagine them, as they entered the drawing-room, questioning and wondering, toying with the flap of hanging wallpaper, asking, would it hang much longer, when would it fall?

Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

As night falls, the novel’s narration changes dramatically. The text no longer considers human interactions and instead muses on the behaviors of the natural environment and the passing of time.

Woolf anthropomorphizes the winds here, giving them human agency and perspective. The process begins when she differentiates “certain airs” from the general wind, thus bestowing them with a special significance. Next, these airs gain the ability to act in specified ways: they “crept” and “ventured,” both verbs that imply an intentionality to movement. Finally, the narrator puts forth the idea that they may even possess thoughts and desires—able to be “questioning and wondering” about the physical environment like the human occupants of the house.

These descriptions are notably different from the earlier way that characters would attribute feelings to the ocean or lighthouse through the pathetic fallacy. For here we are not in a specific characters’ mind, but rather that of the omniscient narrator. Yet the fixation is similarly on decay and mortality, noting how “ramshackle” the house is when the wallpaper will fall. Intriguingly, these descriptions resonate with earlier worries from Mrs. Ramsay and others, stressing that there is a universal human concern with time passing and with decay. Even as the text zooms out into an omniscient perspective, this consideration is still the unifying concern of the book. The passing of time thus links the characters in a physical level, on a formal level within the book, and a philosophical level as a universal human concern.

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.

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, 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.