I think that slower readers will find “To The Lighthouse” easier and more pleasurable than quick-eyed ones. You read prose like Woolf’s for itself, for its beauty and the thoughts it provokes – you can’t keep skipping down to the next plot-moving point, because you’d skip the whole book. A family is holidaying on the Isle of Skye, in Scotland, and the youngest boy is desperate to visit the nearby lighthouse. Ten years later, after war and tragedy have come to the world and the family, a second attempt to visit the lighthouse is made. As in “Mrs Dalloway”, Woolf treats us to the thoughts of and her commentary on several characters, shifting between them in ways that illuminate their intelligence as well as their limitations, a technique that always leaves me in awe of Woolf’s intellectual power. The story, the lives it depicts, its oddly sentient natural environment all seem held inside one greater mind.
The question I want to answer here is: what is the nature of the vision that the painter, Lily Briscoe, has at the very end of the novel? (“Yes, she thought… I have had my vision“.) In the edition I got from the library, Hermione Lee, one of Woolf’s biographers, says that “To The Lighthouse” is about firstly loss, and secondly about social change after WW1. As I think that’s totally wrong, I offer a rival explanation.
What topic is referred to again and again through the novel? I’d say it was the differences, the gulf, between men and women – the differences in the way they think, their goals, their two, very separate kinds of genius. The mother and father of the eight children are both brilliant figures – the father a famous metaphysician, the mother beautiful and charismatic. The adult men of the book are largely abstract thinkers, dreamers – there is a quiet researcher, an opium-stoked poet and a university philosopher, and these men are most ridiculous when commenting on the actual world – Mr Ramsay on his boots, Tansley when giving lectures on brotherly love. The female characters can’t understand this abstract world – Lily remains sweetly in awe of Mr Ramsay’s invisible “table”, and Mrs Ramsay treats that work as a source of her admiration for her husband, not a world she can join him in. The men can think only of the world in their heads; Mrs Ramsay can keep half a dozen thoughts and necessities in mind at once (and, in Woolf’s prose, sometimes can recall several different things in the same sentence).
Perhaps the reason why Minta and Paul’s marriage fails is that they don’t match this tradition / law of nature: she is a fantasist, he is practical.
The male characters seek immortality through fame and the work of their minds, Mrs Ramsay seeks immortality through children. Mr Ramsay’s great goal is to reach the next level of intellectual thought, to move off Q to R (he has long ago given up reaching Z); Mrs Ramsay’s dream is for everyone to marry, to win her battle against “life” – by encouraging children in everyone she knows. It might seems unkind to call a man with eight children sterile, as Woolf repeatedly does, but the point is that men need women for encouragement, vitality, healing – just as young James needs his mother (and hates his father for needing the same thing, for competing for the same attention).
Mr Ramsay could have been a great philosopher, but, it is implied, he fell out of that male heaven because he fell in love with his wife, and made a family with her. His best work was done young, and he makes life difficult for everyone around him by still seeking his intellectual goals, forever lacking interest in the flowers and the sea (his wife delights in them), yet demanding sympathy and attention because he knows he will never reach greatness.
What, then, is the lighthouse? The family’s house in Skye is likened to a mind, to a person’s mind, full of competing voices and memories; the lighthouse surely stands for a dream of order, a light from outside bringing clarity to the troubled human intelligence. The lighthouse is surely male. And yet, Mrs Ramsay states that she is the lighthouse (which makes James’ desire for it extremely Freudian). Its eyes are her eyes.
This symbolism makes the ending of the story less puzzling. I expected the conclusion to show James reaching the lighthouse – which would tie the story together nicely. Instead, on the second voyage, he doesn’t want to go, he is still resisting his father, and on the boat over, is hoping his sister will stick with him in their sullen defiance of the whole trip (Woolf, once again, contrasts the male and female mind: James’s simplistic absolutes versus Cam’s awareness of the complexities of her relationship with her father, of her desire for both sides). So, it is not James going to the lighthouse; it is Mr Ramsay. Why?
On the boat journey over, Mr Ramsay is reading an old notebook, full of philosophical argumentation, trying once again to get his mind to R, even though at 71, we guess he won’t reach it. And yet, unlike Cam and James, who are trapped in the outlooks of their genders, lonely, Mr Ramsay smiles when he puts his book down – he feels content, or is able to understand something new. And he looks at the lighthouse as if looking for someone – the lighthouse is both his love for abstraction and his love for his wife. The two geniuses, the two loves, are, in the end, deep down, somehow, the same thing. Or, perhaps: two sides of the same thing. “He has landed”, Lily says: he has resolved the struggle, with him his whole life, between the male world and the female one. And so, seeing this, Lily is able to move on from her fears about being a female artist, able to send out across the sea the feminine support that Mr Ramsay demanded of her, and then finish her painting – she too has gone beyond, has understood.
Perhaps this is the great genius of fiction writers: that, unlike philosophers, they are not only able to set out a view of reality, but, through the working out of their stories, show what lies beyond it.
PS The centrality of Mr and Mrs Ramsay to the tale is also hinted at by the two children that die – Andrew, who, like his father, is known for his mind, and Prue, who, like her mother, is famous for her beauty.
PPS The interesting question then is what William Bankes and Lily’s unconsummated relationship signify. Perhaps their problem is that they see through the game, the battle of the sexes, and don’t want to take part in it, because it obviously involves conflict. And so, too wise for their own good, they forfeit the happiness that the more foolish Mr and Mrs Ramsay have.
PPSS The explanation of the ending that wikipedia gives seems quite, quite insane (and unjustified by the text itself).