Waves, lighthouses, and the human experience Connor Beard


Reaching Q


Throughout Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the waves and the lighthouse are the driving forces of change. The novel's first section, "The Window," focuses on the holiday of Mr. Ramsay, Mrs. Ramsay, and their eight children at the beach. Mr. Ramsay often will go "on a spit of land which the sea is slowly eating away" (44), and ponder his fate. He sees his mind as "splendid" (33). If the progression of one's mind were an alphabet, his "had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached...the letter Q" (33). While "very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q" (33), he wants more. He thinks of how it would be something if he could reach R. He wants to disprove those who said "he was a failure-that R was beyond him" (34). Mr. Ramsay wants to be seen and remembered as a great man. But eventually, even those great men will fade into oblivion. Mr. Ramsay even thinks of how "the very stone one kicks with one's boot will outlast Shakespeare" (33) showing how he believes that even great men will eventually be forgotten.



Yet, even that stone will eventually be eroded away by the ocean. The ocean is constantly chipping away at the shore, and this is representative of time overtaking people's legacies. The sea is seen floating off and setting sail “thoughts which had grown stagnant on dry land” (20). It is carrying off human histories, ideas, and people, never to be seen again. This is especially seen with Minta, a protégé of Mrs. Ramsay’s, once she loses her grandmother’s brooch. She is distraught that she had lost the “sole ornament she possessed…the brooch which her grandmother had fastened her cap with till the last day of her life” (76). But, despite it being such an important part of her grandmother’s legacy, the ocean has carried it away. The sea has taken the heirloom that had been with her grandmother all her life. Symbolically, the sea has taken away her grandmother’s legacy. This is also an example of how people are relieved of their burdens once time erases them from history. Minta is now free to continue with her life, and be her own person.

"It was as if the water floated off and set sailing thoughts which had grown stagnant on dry land" (20)

The Pervasive nature of darkness

The darkness represents a similar meaning to the waves. During the ten years in between the family’s visits, darkness seeps into the house. It is seen “creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole round window blinds, came into bedrooms” (126). After the darkness has infiltrated, there is “scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say ‘This is he’ or ‘This is she’” (126). It has taken away any trace of human life; all while the ocean “tosses itself and breaks itself” (128) in the distance. The waves and darkness are doing the same action simultaneously. They both represent how, over time, the light of life with inevitably get snuffed, and along with this means the death of our legacy. Both the waves and darkness are two of three constants seen within this time span of ten years. They never change, constantly erasing human footprints.

"The profusion of darkness...creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole round window blinds, came into bedrooms" (126)

Reaching the lighthouse

The other constant seen in the ten years is the lighthouse. Only the lighthouse provides a perpetual source of light. Through the ten years, the “stroke of the lighthouse…laid itself with such authority upon the carpet in the darkness” (132). The purpose of a lighthouse is to provide light in the darkness and to ward off death and destruction. Its job is the exact opposite of that of the darkness and waves, yet they work in tandem. While the darkness and waves extinguish human life and legacy, the lighthouse is constantly creating more. The lighthouse is showing how there is this hope, this general human spirit that will always be an innate part of society. Lighthouses guide people to shore, and in this situation they are guiding people towards enlightenment. The lighthouse educates people brave enough to make the expedition.

“the stroke of the lighthouse…laid itself with such authority upon the carpet in the darkness” (132)

The lighthouse plays a key role in the story once an aged Mr. Ramsay and his children, Cam and James, return to the beach ten years later. Mr. Ramsay wishes to go travel to the lighthouse, and claiming he wants to send supplies to the lightkeeper’s son, “a poor boy with tuberculous hip” (151), but in reality it is more of a rite of passage he is finally ready to embark on. During their earlier visit, he was not prepared to take the journey. This is seen whenever his son James or Mrs. Ramsay would ask him if they could go to the lighthouse. He would always respond by saying the conditions “‘won’t be fine’” (4). The reason he can finally make the journey is due to the earlier unexpected deaths of Mrs. Ramsay and two of his children. They had all passed away while the family was not at the beach. Andrew had died in an “instantaneous” (133) death when a “shell exploded” (133), and Prue had died unexpectedly “in some illness connected with childbirth” (132), despite “everything, they said, had promised so well” (132). Lastly, Mrs. Ramsay “died rather suddenly” (128) next to Mr. Ramsay one night. All of these people were ripped away from Mr. Ramsay without any warning. For Mr. Ramsay the journey to the lighthouse is a sort of rite of passage, to find out what the next step is and to finally to accept death.

"I must move the tree to the middle; that matters-nothing else" (86)

For Lily, the Ramsay’s friend, the death of Mrs. Ramsay also prepares her for her rite of passage. Ever since Mrs. Ramsay’s death, Lily has felt as if a part of her is missing and has been wrestling around with ontological thoughts. She is often wondering “what does it all mean then, what can it all mean” (145)? When Lily was last at the beach ten years prior, the one thought on her mind was that of her painting, how she “must move the tree to the middle” (86) of her painting, and that “that matters-nothing else” (86). However, she never actually completed moving the tree, and finally finishing the painting is Lily’s rite of passage.

"i must move the tree to the middle; that matters-nothing else" (86)

Mr. Ramsay’s mantra throughout his return to the beach is constantly “we perish, each alone” (169), and this is him really trying to grapple with the sudden deaths within his family. It is only after Mr. Ramsay reaches the lighthouse that he receives the answer he has been searching for. Once he has finally reached the lighthouse, he sits down and stares at it, as if he “might be thinking, We perished, each alone, or he might be thinking, I have reached it. I have found it; but he said nothing” (207). He is coming to this revelation of truly accepting his wife’s death and learning how to move on.

"We Perish, each alone" (169)

Lily’s revelation comes when she finally finishes her painting. After constantly pondering what it all means, she looks at her painting, her “attempt at something” (208). She thinks of how “it would be hung in the attics...it would be destroyed” (208) but then asks herself, “what did that matter” (208)? She has had her "vision" (209) and is finally satisfied with the painting.

"It would be hung in attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter" (208)?

Final Thoughts


With both of these character’s revelations, it is truly impossible to put into words how they are feeling and what is running through their head. I interpret Mr. Ramsay’s experience being told through the eyes of his children as evidence of this. As the audience, we do not really know what he is thinking, and I do not think he can truly express his feelings as well. All the children can truly say is that “he sat and looked at the island, and he might be thinking, We perished, each alone, or her might be thinking, I have reached it. I have found it; but he said nothing” (207).

I also think this is why, with Lily’s revelation, she just sees her canvas “clear for a second...drew a line there in the centre” (209), lays down her brush, and simply thinks, “I have had my vision” (209). Her vision is indescribable, and that is what Woolf is trying to show us. Throughout each individual human experience is there a journey to the lighthouse. What we learn from that journey is indescribable.

"it was done; it was finished. yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision" (209)

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