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.
The Meaning of Life ThemeTracker
The Meaning of Life Quotes in To the Lighthouse
…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…
…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…
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.
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.
The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare.
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.
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.
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.
…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?
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.
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.
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.
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.