Throughout the novel, as characters come and go and even die, Lily Briscoe continues work on her painting of the Ramsays. She gets off to a rocky start, however, and conveys as much through a combination of imagery, metaphor, and allegory in Chapter 9 of "The Window":
She could have wept…. it was infinitely bad! She could have done it differently of course, the colour could have been thinned and faded; the shapes etherealized; that was how Paunceforte would have seen it. But then she did not see it like that. She saw the colour burning on a framework of steel; the light of a butterfly's wing lying upon the arches of a cathedral. Of all that only a few random marks scrawled upon the canvas remained. And it would never be seen… and there was Mr. Tansley whispering in her ear, 'Women can't paint, women can't write...'
In this passage, Woolf uses the language and visual imagery of paint and painterly technique to catalogue Lily's creative crisis: she frets over the mixing and application of colors, the merits of an impressionist "etherealizing" aesthetic, and the influence of the painter character Paunceforte. Though Lily has a visceral artistic vision for her piece, she is beset by doubt from the criticism of Mr. Tansley, who insists that women are incapable of creative expression—even as Lily determinedly sees her painting through to completion over the course of the novel.
Lily's painting process, affected by both personal and societal woes, functions in To the Lighthouse as an allegory for Woolf's own writing process and, more generally, for creative expression as an ineffable human pursuit. For women like Briscoe and Woolf, who found themselves up against the gender roles of their time and the misogynistic expectation that works of art were for men alone to create, this expression is an existential challenge to their place in society.
After the climactic dinner party in Chapter 19 of "The Window," Mrs. Ramsay gradually begins to reflect on the dinner conversation. She conveys her thoughts on the night through a beautiful combination of visual imagery and metaphor:
And she waited a little, knitting, wondering, and slowly those words they had said at dinner, 'the China rose is all abloom and buzzing with the honey bee,' began washing from side to side of her mind rhythmically, and as they washed, words, like little shaded lights, one red, one blue, one yellow, lit up in the dark of her mind...
As Mrs. Ramsay reflects, Woolf uses the movement and imagery of the ocean to portray how her thoughts move around her head—side to side, lapping like little waves. At the same time, Woolf also uses color imagery to evoke how the words of the conversation come back to Mrs. Ramsay. As the words blink like colored lights, this synesthetic simile recalls the twinkling lights of a city or an ocean liner far out at sea.
Ocean imagery and metaphor can be found tucked into almost every corner of To the Lighthouse, and here Woolf uses the ocean to bring the outside in: the internal life of Mrs. Ramsay mirrors the surrounding ocean environment of the Isle of Skye.
In "Time Passes," the middle portion of To the Lighthouse, the timescale of the novel abruptly zooms out from the thought-to-thought stream of "The Window" to a grand, practically geologic, scale. The narrator meditates on the environment throughout this section, and how it varyingly changes and remains constant amid the passage of time. In Chapter 10 of "Time Passes," Woolf uses sound imagery and personification to characterize the sea after the conclusion of World War I:
Then indeed peace had come. Messages of peace breathed from the sea to the shore. Never to break its sleep any more, to lull it rather more deeply to rest and whatever the dreamers dreamt holily, dreamt wisely to confirm — what else was it murmuring — as Lily Briscoe laid her head on the pillow in the clean still room and heard the sea. Through the open window the voice of the beauty of the world came murmuring, too softly to hear exactly what it said — but what mattered if the meaning were plain?
Through the auditory imagery of a murmur to characterize the ocean waves and their gentle crashing sound, the sea is personified into a sort of soothsayer who carries the "voice of the beauty of the world" and speaks to Lily Briscoe as she falls asleep. This voice carries "messages of peace," of the end of the war, from the sea to the shore. Though the sea is at times sinister and threatening in the novel, here it is a gentle and calming constant in the background of the island setting—communicating indistinctly, but nonetheless spreading calm over the world.
Although the sea tends to be indifferent toward the human world in To the Lighthouse, in "Time Passes," as the narrator shifts focus toward the environment and away from the individual lives of the Ramsays and their friends, the environment gains human traits through personification. Here, the sea is very much a character, and even a healer, bringing peace as the world begins to recover from the horrors of World War I.