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Summary of “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf

Updated on March 9, 2017

“To the lighthouse” is a novel written by Virginia Woolf at around 1927, and is centered on the visit of the Ramsey’s to the Scotland Isle of Skye between 1910 and 1920. The novels plot appears to be secondary to its own philosophical introspection especially following and extending modern novelist traditions such as James Joyce and Marcel Proust. The novel has almost no action and very little dialogue, and is cited as a significant example of Multiple Focalization as a literary technique. Most parts of the novel are written in form of observations and thoughts as the novel highlights relationships at adult age and recollect childhood emotions.

To the lighthouse reflects the female species’ struggle to obtain autonomy and how it is threatened and undermined in communities and societies that are built on patriarchal foundations. Much of the novel is saturated by the clash between gender ideologies and the writer puts more emphasis on a subversion of female traditional gender roles with Lily Briscoe’s character. This woman is an idealized female and she courageously challenges the male hegemony so as to achieve individuality of some sort. At the end, the finished painting serves to establish lily’s role as a female artist that is truly and strongly liberated. Lily’s desire to break from conventional cultural norms concerning female and to achieve autonomy is only realized fully after she experiences the alledged vision at the end when she finishes her painting. Lily’s role is keenly stressed as that of an outsider who is attempting to comprehend and analyze her unwarranted social dilemma.

Her social status as a young promising woman that loves and values artistic achievement more than she values marriage, becomes increasingly difficult to maintain especially considering the circumscribed expectations of her society. She is confronted by the pressure to conform to particular gender roles for female and this causes a moral crisis. The interaction between the objective and subjective self to attain female autonomy largely happens within Lily’s own head. Woolf uses ‘stream-of-consciousness’ as a narrative technique in several inventive ways to provide access to Lily’s disjointed being where she attempts to look for a resolution for these divergent female gender philosophies. Lily’s final artistic shrug is a representation of the general renouncing of control. This is considering Lily has always intended to discover order and stability, not in marriage as suggested by Mrs. Ramsay, but in simply being able to move the tree in her unfinished painting more to the middle of the canvas.

The tree in this matter, just like the lighthouse is a symbol of permanence and stability, even though its ability to move to another position will undermine the position it was in and may lend it an irrefutable transience. Lily is inspired to finally complete her painting, which she has been working on for more than a decade, and she fully comes to the realization that the painting may be destroyed or hung in attics. At this time, she does not feel any longing to use her art to tie herself to the huge expanses of realism. As such, she simply embraces the beautiful and ephemeral nature of the moment, when distance allows her to be herself and be inspired by shape and form and to do without thoughts about stability. She does not even need to clearly see her canvas because the tree which she has intended to move for long has been represented in vision, but as a very simple, perfunctory line. The tree and the lighthouse, which were the definitive symbols of permanence and stability had now been made entirely unrecognizable. At last, Lily swiftly embraced the unstable ephemerality of the moment and ultimately found personal and artistic fulfilment. Lily’s meditations concerning her unfinished painting are a way that Woolf used in exploring her own creative writing process, since Lily thought of painting the same way that Woolf though of writing. This outstanding work is recognized by many as her best work and was named by the modern library as 15th among the 100 best English novels during the 20th century.

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