Places: To the Lighthouse

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1927

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Stream of consciousness

Time of work: c. 1910-1920

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedSummerhouse

Summerhouse. To the LighthouseRamshackle Victorian house on an island in the Hebrides that accommodates both the large Ramsay family and their friends. It is here that Mrs. Ramsay is in her element, ministering endlessly to the needs of her husband, children, and guests. Whether in her parlor knitting, presiding over the dinner table, or tucking her children into bed, Mrs. Ramsay is the life and soul of the house. However, while the nearby lighthouse seems to endure without change, the summerhouse gradually deteriorates over time. Neglected after a series of family deaths, the house succumbs to the forces of nature and falls into disrepair. While the lighthouse–always a symbol of timeless serenity–can withstand the sea and the weather, the Ramsay house is at the mercy of these elements. Similarly, the members of the Ramsay family themselves are at the mercy of a series of upheavals that devastate their lives, particularly the untimely deaths of Mrs. Ramsay of heart-failure and of one of her sons on the battlefields of World War I. The passage of time wreaks havoc on both the family and their home, marking the end of the Edwardian world in which Virginia Woolf herself had spent her childhood. Eventually, however, after the war, the house is restored to good order, and Mr. Ramsay and his two youngest children, along with Lily Briscoe and an old poet-friend of the family, return to it to try to put their lives back together.

*Hebrides Islands

*Hebrides Islands (HEH-brah-dees). Island group off the northwest coast of Scotland on which the summerhouse stands. Woolf probably chose this as her novel’s setting because of its sense of wilderness and its proximity to an untrammeled sea that suggests the mysterious and the primal. The sea here is associated with danger and disorder and, after Mrs. Ramsay dies, with an existential meaninglessness.


Lighthouse. Coastal edifice near the summerhouse and a constant presence in this novel, beginning with its opening scene, in which the Ramsays debate the idea of making a picnic outing to the lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay, the wife and mother who presides over the summerhouse and its various guests and children, and who is sure the weather will be fine enough for the trip, has a special connection to the lighthouse. When she sits at her parlor window looking out at the lighthouse while knitting, her spiritual communion with the lighthouse occasions a flood of strong feelings. Later, as she presides over dinner, she still feels the lighthouse’s presence, which for her represents a transcendental sense of security and well-being.

Six or seven years after Mrs. Ramsay’s sudden death, Mr. Ramsay and his two youngest children return to the summerhouse and finally make the long-awaited trip to the lighthouse. Although all three are lonely and still feel the loss of Mrs. Ramsay, things miraculously begin to go well. The outing to the lighthouse becomes an occasion during which the rift between Mr. Ramsay and his children begins to be healed. Lily Briscoe, a family friend of the Ramsay’s, also seems to encounter the lighthouse through a picture she is painting from the shore. As she places a straight, lighthouselike line in her picture, she feels at last a sense of peace and completion similar to that of Mrs. Ramsay before she died.

BibliographyBassoff, Bruce. “Tables in Trees: Realism in To the Lighthouse.” Studies in the Novel 16, no. 4 (Winter, 1984): 424-434. Contends that Woolf redefines realism in her novel. Focusing on Lily Briscoe, Bassoff demonstrates how her perception is mediated by her interaction with other characters.Beja, Morris. Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. This text attempts to reconcile disparate schools of Woolf criticism. Includes a review of To the Lighthouse, written by Conrad Aiken, that appeared in 1927 upon the novel’s publication.Daugherty, Beth Rigel. “ ‘There she sat’: The Power of the Feminist Imagination in To the Lighthouse.” Twentieth Century Literature 37, no. 3 (Fall, 1991): 289-308. A well-argued interpretation that centers on the moment of Mrs. Ramsay’s reappearance near the end of the novel. Contends that Lily’s acceptance of Mrs. Ramsay as a woman, free of patriarchal influences, allows the latter to reappear in her own right.Kelley, Alice van Buren. “To the Lighthouse”: The Marriage of Life and Art. Boston: Twayne, 1987. A superb starting place. Provides a reading of the book, a wealth of background information, a chronology, and a discussion of critical responses.Kelley, Alice van Buren. The Novels of Virginia Woolf: Fact and Vision. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973. A study of the significance of creative tension between objective reality and inconfirmable poetic insight in Woolf’s novels. Includes a chapter on To the Lighthouse that explores the influences of fact and vision upon the novel’s plot, characterization, and imagery.Leaska, Mitchell A. Virginia Woolf’s Lighthouse: A Study in Critical Method. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970. A systematic examination of Woolf’s style and the multiple-point-of-view technique. Vigorously defends Woolf’s method, emphasizing the importance of the reader in achieving meaning.Love, Jean O. Virginia Woolf: Sources of Madness and Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. A biography investigating the paradoxical connection between Woolf’s life and art. Provides a psychological interpretation of the author based on primary documents.Marcus, Jane, ed. New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981. An insightful collection of essays that approach the author from an unabashedly feminist perspective. Includes a chapter by Jane Lilienfeld discussing the Ramsays’ marriage.Matro, Thomas G. “Only Visions: Vision and Achievement in To the Lighthouse.” PMLA 99, no. 2 (March, 1984): 212-224. Sees an analogy between Lily’s aesthetics and the relations between the novel’s characters. Holds that the vision required for painting becomes a metaphor for the perception needed in human relationships.Zwerdling, Alex. Virginia Woolf and the Real World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. A study of Woolf’s social vision and her response to the historical events and sociopolitical currents of her age. Included an enlightening chapter on the domestic politics of To the Lighthouse.
Categories: Places