To the Lighthouse

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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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To the Lighthouse explores time at every scale, tracking the intricate thoughts and impressions within a single lived second while also meditating on the infinity of geologic time stretching back into the past and forward into the future beyond the span of human knowledge. Between these two extremes, the novel presents the different measures of time out of which individual experience is composed. Part 1, The Window, and Part 2, The Lighthouse, occur almost in “real time,” as the action described takes place within a period more or less equivalent to the period of time it takes to read the section. Within these sections, each character’s perspective picks up on an immense range of detail and the observant Mrs. Ramsay and Lily are especially conscious of the unique specificity of each moment. The novel also explores the vacation time of the Ramsays and their guests, for whom the scenes of the novel are lived within a “break” from their normal lives in London, and the circular, ritual time of communal activity and habit, as the characters repeat the daily routines of walks and dinners, react to one another in predictable ways, and repeatedly profess long-held opinions. Zooming out from daily life, To the Lighthouse reflects on time’s larger frameworks as Mrs. Ramsay considers the irretrievable time of childhood and she, along with Mr. Ramsay and Lily, confront human tininess in the course of the Earth’s existence. Yet Mrs. Ramsay and Lily (and, though he has his doubts, Mr. Ramsay) believe that it is possible to make “something permanent” out of the moment, and thus Lily paints to partake of eternity as Mrs. Ramsay orchestrates lived experience until it becomes as transcendent as art. In Part 2, Time Passing, the “real time” of The Window accelerates to breakneck speed and the section spans a whole decade in just a few pages. Without much attention to detail, this view on time lacks the particularity and complexity of time in The Window and is characterized only by a barebones framework of events. Thus, the enormity of Mrs. Ramsay’s, Prue’s, and Andrew’s deaths, and of World War I, are reduced to one sentence parentheticals.

As committed as it is to capturing an experience of lived time, To the Lighthouse is just as interested in the relics that linger after experience, and the novel holds up many different forms of memory. There is the history book memory of impartially and sparely recounted event as demonstrated in the bullet-like plot points of Part 2, Time Passing. There is the circular memory Mrs. Ramsay has thinking back on her youth, recognizing in her children’s youth their own future memories, and feeling life to be a cycle of marriage and childbearing passed on from generation to generation. There is the living memory of Mrs. McNab and Lily as their recollected images of Mrs. Ramsay appear visible on the surface of the present world.

To the Lighthouse ultimately demonstrates the inadequacy of clock time to measure human experience: life is not felt, Woolf shows, second by orderly second. Instead, one minute seems to drag on an eternity while the next two decades speed by. One is one second aware of a human lifespan as a long, luxurious stretch and the next second perceives it to be an infinitesimal fraction of Earth’s much more enduring existence. Memories return in the present and live on, sometimes seeming never to have passed.

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Time Quotes in To the Lighthouse

Below you will find the important quotes in To the Lighthouse related to the theme of Time.
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, 4 Quotes

…because distant views seem to outlast by a million years (Lily thought) the gazer and to be communing already with a sky which beholds an earth entirely at rest.

Related Characters: Lily Briscoe (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Sea
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

On their walk, Lily and Mr. Bankes reflect on a beautiful view over the ocean. They are torn in their appraisal of the scene, however, because its serenity and enormity also gesture at their smallness and mortality.

Woolf is building, here, on the way the ocean can function as a symbol for the longevity of the natural world—both for the reader and for her characters. Lily and Mr. Bankes are notably repeating the thought patterns of Mrs. Ramsay as she had looked on the ocean, indicating that there is a common way that it is perceived. Yet their appraisals also speak to differences in personality. Whereas Mrs. Ramsay used a lyrical language to describe her own ephemerality—and sought solace in her household affairs—Lily takes a broader view and ponders the ephemerality of mankind: “an earth entirely at rest.”

In this way, the ocean comes to be a Rorschach test for personality, in which Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style allows us access to a variety of different interpretations within various characters’ minds. Furthermore, the passage calls us as readers to account for our own symbolic interpretations—for we are making sense of symbolism of the ocean in the exact same way as the characters. Woolf seems to poke fun at, or at least show an awareness of, this endeavor.

The Window, 6 Quotes

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, 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.

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.

Time Passes, 3 Quotes

The winter holds a pack of [nights] in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken.

Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

The speed of narrative time continues to accelerate, and the narrator observes rapidly the passing of many, many nights.

What is important to consider in these passages is how strikingly different the images and perspectives are in “Time Passes” from the previous and subsequent sections. Whereas before, the slightest external event, the tiniest change in weather, could induce pages of reflection from a character, here an entire season of nights is passed over in sentences. The nights are deemed “a pack” as if they are cards being played out, which highlights how they dictate fate. But instead of pointing to the randomness of fate—which is how an individual person would likely perceive a night being dealt to them—the metaphorical cards are given “equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers.” They are thus entirely uniform and consistent, never deviating or making special allowances. The final sentence reiterates this point by making an entire winter the result of just two curt clauses.

Woolf corroborates the earlier examinations of human smallness in the face of the grand scale of time. But here she positions these thoughts not in the minds of characters but in the style and images of the descriptive language itself. She thus moves from individual rumination on time to actually showing the way that human minds have dilated their own importance—which fades away in this broader narrative.

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, 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.