To the Lighthouse


Virginia Woolf

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To the Lighthouse: The Window, 13 Summary & Analysis

Mr. Bankes and Lily recount the European cities they have been to and the paintings they have seen in them. Lily remarks that there is so much she still hasn’t seen but that this is perhaps for the best as, seeing paintings just “made one hopelessly discontented with one’s own work.” Mr. Bankes protests, saying not everyone can be “Titians” and “Darwins” and that he thinks there would be no great men were there not “humble people like ourselves.” Lilly wants to praise Mr. Bankes by saying he isn’t humble, but stops herself knowing that he (unlike most men) does not want praise. Instead she says, “tossing off her little insincerity,” that she will always paint because “it interested her.” Mr. Bankes believes she will.
Lily is thinking about art through the anxious ego of an artist, worried that she herself will not be able to produce paintings as good as those of other painters. Yet Mr. Bankes is thinking about art through the calm perspective of an art appreciator, secure and unbothered by his own lack of genius. In Mr. Bankes, Lily sees a man who does not fit the standards she’s come to expect from all men, and she admires him for it. Lily wants to project an image of herself as an artist free of self-doubt who thinks only of her interest in the art (not of her worries about it).
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As she and Mr. Bankes 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 them…the symbols of marriage,” as such meaning “descends on people” now and then for no reason. Then, immediately, “the symbolical outline which transcended the real figures sank down again,” and left Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay just themselves. But in the moment of suspension, Lily feels “a sense of things having been blown apart, of space, or irresponsibility” so that everyone is spread far away from one another. This “spell” of distance is collapsed when Prue catches the soaring ball and Mrs. Ramsay asks her whether Nancy had gone walking. The question brings Prue “back into the alliance of family life.”
Lily sees symbolic “meaning” as a kind of exterior and temporary quality that overlays certain parts or people in the world. Whatever it touches is lifted out of the realm of particular circumstances and into the realm of mythic archetypes. Thus Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay come to stand temporarily for the idea of marriage itself. The boundary between exterior and interior life remains porous: Lily’s understanding of life as a kind of distant suspension continues as long as the thrown ball soars through the air, then is cut off when Prue catches the ball in her hand.
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