To the Lighthouse

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The Nature of Interior 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 Nature of Interior Life Theme Icon

Written as a stream of consciousness, To the Lighthouse constantly investigates the contours and patterns of human thought through its form and style. While writing within the perspective of a single character, Woolf’s sentences leap back and forth between various impressions, memories, and emotions, formally illustrating the associative nature of an individual mind. Lofty thoughts stand on par with everyday ones. Mrs. Ramsay’s mind alone leaps between thoughts on the nature of compassion, the relationship between men and women, household budgeting, her children’s futures, the state of her society, and the state of the beef dish she’ll be serving at dinner. Emotions, too, flash quickly in and out so that Mrs. Ramsay’s indignation at Mr. Ramsay’s exclamation “damn you” is restored to admiration just a few seconds later when he offers to double-check on the weather he has so adamantly insisted will be poor. While capable of such quicksilver change, the mind is also capable of extended preservation, so that Mr. Tansley’s insult floats in Lily’s mind ten years later even after she’s forgotten who said it.

Over the course of the novel, Woolf is also constantly leaping back and forth between the minds of different characters. Though everyone’s mind shares an associative, eclectic tendency, individual minds are also distinguishable enough from one another that Woolf sometimes doesn’t even have to indicate that she’s leapt from one person’s perspective to another’s, as when the text jumps from Lily’s to Mrs. Ramsey’s mind at the end of dinner in The Window. Likewise, Mr. Ramsay’s stream of consciousness is immediately distinguishable from Mrs. Ramsay’s in its lack of particular, material detail (the flowers, stars, and other such quotidian beauties that Mrs. Ramsay laments his inability to notice). As it slides in and out of different characters’ minds, the novel’s figuration further suggests that the divide between internal and external life might not be so rigid after all. Repeating metaphors of the mind as a pool of water and as a beehive transform abstract, private thought into a concrete, shared element of the natural world.

Every aspect of the novel speaks to the diversity of interior life: the diversity of disparate thoughts within an individual stream of consciousness as well as the diversity of different thoughts and thought patterns that characterize different individuals’ streams of consciousness. Lily’s reflection towards novel’s end that in order to see Mrs. Ramsey clearly a person would need “fifty pairs of eyes” (since each of those pairs would have such different insights into her character) can be read as a description of the novel itself: written through many separate pairs of eyes to achieve the most complete possible vision.

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The Nature of Interior Life Quotes in To the Lighthouse

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