To the Lighthouse

Lily Briscoe Character Analysis

Observant, philosophical, and independent, Lily is a painter pitied by Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in Chapter 1 for her homeliness and unattractiveness to men. Still, though Mrs. Ramsay thinks nothing of her painting and wants her to marry, she admires Lily’s independence. In Chapter 3, Lily struggles (and eventually succeeds) in painting the picture she had first attempted in Chapter 1, all the while revisiting memories of Mrs. Ramsay and contemplating the great mysteries of life, death, art, and human experience.

Lily Briscoe Quotes in To the Lighthouse

The To the Lighthouse quotes below are all either spoken by Lily Briscoe or refer to Lily Briscoe. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Time Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt edition of To the Lighthouse published in 1989.
The Window, 4 Quotes

Then beneath the colour there was the shape. She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child.

Related Characters: Lily Briscoe
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

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…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:

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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:

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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:

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The Lighthouse, 3 Quotes

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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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Lily Briscoe Character Timeline in To the Lighthouse

The timeline below shows where the character Lily Briscoe appears in To the Lighthouse. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Window, 3
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The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
Art and Beauty Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
...looking for pictures for James. Mr. Ramsay suddenly shouts, but Mrs. Ramsay sees that only Lily Briscoe is present to hear the outcry and thus it “did not matter.” Mrs. Ramsay... (full context)
The Window, 4
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At her easel on the lawn, Lily is irritated when Mr. Ramsay rushes by shouting, but is relieved he doesn’t stop to... (full context)
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Finding it hard to look away from her painting, Lily considers it: she uses bright colors because she considers them more “honest,” accurate to what... (full context)
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Lily and Mr. Bankes walk to look at the water as they do each evening. “It... (full context)
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The Nature of Interior Life Theme Icon
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...child an English King or Queen in accord with that child’s essence. He talks to Lily about Mr. Ramsay, thinking that his children “gave him something…but they had also…destroyed something.” He... (full context)
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The Nature of Interior Life Theme Icon
Lily is suddenly overcome by “her accumulated impressions” of Mr. Bankes and feels in awe of... (full context)
The Window, 9
The Nature of Interior Life Theme Icon
...with Mr. Ramsay striding about and Mrs. Ramsay reading at the window, Mr. Bankes and Lily discuss the Ramsays. Mr. Bankes laments that Mr. Ramsay isn’t even-tempered while Lily defends his... (full context)
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Before answering, Lily considers Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, feeling it is only possible to discuss them when they... (full context)
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Then, as Lily is about to answer Mr. Bankes with a criticism of Mrs. Ramsay, she notices that... (full context)
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Lily turns to look at her painting and is thrown into despair. She remembers Mr. Tansley’s... (full context)
The Nature of Interior Life Theme Icon
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Lily braces herself as Mr. Bankes turns to examine her painting, feeling that he is seeing... (full context)
The Window, 10
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Cam races by Lily, Mr. Bankes, and Mr. Ramsay on the lawn and only stops after Mrs. Ramsay calls... (full context)
The Window, 12
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Mrs. Ramsay catches sight of Lily and Mr. Bankes walking on the lawn and it occurs to her that they should... (full context)
The Window, 13
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Mr. Bankes and Lily recount the European cities they have been to and the paintings they have seen in... (full context)
The Meaning of Life Theme Icon
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...come upon Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay watching Prue and Jasper playing catch on the lawn, Lily thinks “so that is marriage” and feels that “suddenly the meaning…came upon them, and made... (full context)
The Window, 17
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Watching Mrs. Ramsay, Lily notes that, asking Mr. Bankes about the letters, Mrs. Ramsay goes from looking old and... (full context)
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...by remarking that they won’t be able to go to the Lighthouse the next day. Lily, repulsed by his charmlessness, mockingly asks Tansley to take her to the Lighthouse. Tansley, infuriated... (full context)
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...the moment, he flails, furiously trying to break into conversations around him to no avail. Lily notices “as in an X-ray…the ribs and thigh bones of the young man’s desire to... (full context)
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Yet, seeing within Mrs. Ramsay’s quick glance an immense desperation imploring Lily to help her with Mr. Tansley, Lily once again must “renounce the experiment” of not... (full context)
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As Mrs. Ramsay talks, Lily observes how she is at once “childlike” and “frightening,” how she always gets her way,... (full context)
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Seeing the saltshaker reminds her about her painting, and Lily consoles herself that she doesn’t have to get married, and can be spared “that dilution.”... (full context)
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Mrs. Ramsay, talking about milk in England, sees Lily’s distance (as Lily thinks about love) and draws Lily into the conversation. Talking on, she... (full context)
The Window, 18
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Lily observes that as soon as Mrs. Ramsay leaves, “a sort of disintegration set in.” She... (full context)
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Mrs. Ramsay descends downstairs and finds Minta, Paul, Lily and Prue planning to go watch waves on the beach, a plan she giddily encourages,... (full context)
Time Passes, 1
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...wait for the future to show,” says Mr. Bankes on the terrace. Andrew, Prue, and Lily come up from the beach in the darkness. They turn out all the lamps in... (full context)
Time Passes, 9
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...house is on the verge of slipping “downwards to the depths of darkness.” In parentheses, Lily and Mr. Carmichael arrive by train. (full context)
Time Passes, 10
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The war is over and peace declared. Lily falls asleep at the summerhouse listening to the sea. Through the window murmurs “the voice... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 1
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Lily sits at the breakfast table feeling how strange and unreal everything seems. Mr. Ramsay, Cam,... (full context)
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Avoiding Mr. Ramsay’s “wild gaze” of “imperious need,” Lily takes her easel out on the lawn in just the place she’d painted from ten... (full context)
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Yet Lily is distracted by Mr. Ramsay’s constant approach as he paces the terrace. She recalls how,... (full context)
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Unable to paint because she is so distracted by Mr. Ramsay’s imposing presence, Lily thinks angrily that he only knows how to take, while Mrs. Ramsay had always given.... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 2
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Looking at Lily, Mr. Ramsay thinks she looks a bit shriveled, but “not unattractive.” He likes her. He... (full context)
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Finally, Lily thinks to praise Mr. Ramsay’s boots, which gives him the chance to talk at length... (full context)
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Lily is moved by considering Mr. Ramsay’s face and the way it shows his devotion to... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 3
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Relieved to be alone, Lily confronts her canvas thinking how different the “planning airily away from the canvas” is from... (full context)
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Suddenly, Lily remembers it was Mr. Tansley who’d originally said the words she murmured and she starts... (full context)
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Taking a break from painting, Lily thinks as she has often thought, “What is the meaning of life?” She reflects that... (full context)
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Lily looks at the house, “faint and unreal…pure and exciting.” She looks at her canvas. She... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 5
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Imagining Mr. Ramsay on the boat, Lily thinks back to how she’d always found things with him “difficult,” unlike Minta, who had... (full context)
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Lily thinks back on Paul and Minta and imagines a series of scenes from their failed... (full context)
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Lily imagines triumphantly recounting the reality of Paul and Minta’s failed marriage and her own unmarried... (full context)
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Lily remembers how Mrs. Ramsay had planned to set her up with Mr. Bankes. Inside parentheses,... (full context)
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Thinking back to Mr. Bankes’ great admiration for Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty, Lily considers beauty’s “penalty” which is that “it came too readily…too completely.” Beauty “stilled life—froze it.”... (full context)
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Seeing Mr. Carmichael, Lily is suddenly moved to go and wake him except she wants to say so much... (full context)
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Turning to look at her painting, Lily realizes she cannot see clearly through the tears that have risen to her eyes. She... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 7
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Still crying Mrs. Ramsay’s name in anguish, Lily thinks how silly she must look and is glad Mr. Carmichael hasn’t noticed her outburst.... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 9
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Inside a parenthesis, Lily thinks of the sea as silk stretched across the bay. She thinks of distance’s power,... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 11
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On the lawn looking at the sea, Lily thinks about how one’s impression of and feelings about people depend so much on distance.... (full context)
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Dissatisfied with her painting, Lily feels that she keeps losing track of it when she thinks of Mr. Ramsay. She... (full context)
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Sitting down on the lawn, Lily feels that “everything this morning was happening for the first time, perhaps for the last... (full context)
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Seeing Mr. Carmichael, Lily wonders about his sorrow, his experience, his poetry, which she has never read. They only... (full context)
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Lily thinks back on Mrs. Ramsay, on her idiosyncrasies and unique character. She thinks how Mrs.... (full context)
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Lily thinks of Mr. Tansley, who had become a professor and whom she’d once heard give... (full context)
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Lily stirs her brush among the ants on the lawn and distresses them by making them... (full context)
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Lily thinks how one would need more than fifty pairs of eyes to see one woman... (full context)
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Lily considers Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s marriage and feels like she can remember their courtship, which... (full context)
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Sitting still on the lawn, Lily appears to be in a trance even as she is “moving underneath with extreme speed.”... (full context)
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The windowpane goes white as if a breeze had blown a curtain over it and Lily feels thrown into despair. But the despair, then, “became part of ordinary experience” and Lily... (full context)
The Lighthouse, 13
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On the lawn, Lily says, “He must have reached it.” The Lighthouse has disappeared into the haze and she... (full context)
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Lily looks at her painting and thinks once again how it will be thrown away and... (full context)