Themes, Symbols, and Imagery in Virginia Woolf’sTo The Lighthouseby: Lizette Lopez
Themes There are several recurring themes in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse that include: • Isolation • Repetition • Time • Art and Religion • Light • Psychoanalysis • Fear of drowning • Feminism
Isolation • Isolation is apparent in the novel with the lighthouse being the most obvious symbol seeing as it is secluded away on the island • Mrs. Ramsey contemplates on the Lighthouse keeper and how he must feel as he stands guard of the lighthouse: • “For how would you like to be shut up for a whole month at a time, and possibly move in stormy weather, upon a rock the size of a tennis lawn. […] and to see nobody; if you were married, not to see your wife, not to know how your children were….” (pg.5) • Other moments of isolation in the novel are connected or compared to the lighthouse such as the dinner scene in which the characters felt isolated from the rest of the world in the moment they shared • “Some change at once went through them all, as if this had really happened, and they were all conscious of making a party together in a hollow, on an island; had their common cause against that fluidity out there.” (pg. 97)
Repetition • Repetition in this novel occurs in different way. Woolf not only shows repetition through her description of certain characters, but has characters return to places and moments in their past. • Woolf often times repeats descriptions of idiosyncrasies or sayings that the characters have such as: • Mr. Ramsey’s repetition of “Some one had blundered” (pg. 18) • Mrs. Ramsey “holding her parasol erect and walking as if she expected to meet some one round the corner” (pg. 14) or the mention of Mrs. Ramsey’s knitting needles • Mr. Tansley being a “little atheist” or an “odious little man” • In and after the section “Time Passes”, the characters return to places that bring memories of the past • Lily returns to the house so she can finish her painting • Mr. Ramsey visits the lighthouse with James and Cam • Woolf even includes the “repetition” of poetry that the family often times does such as when James recites poetry upon their return to the light house and Mr. Ramsey as he recites poetry during the dinner scene.
Time • Time is a major theme in the novel with a section of the novel “Time passes” dedicated entirely to it. Though time may pass memories of the past still linger on: • As the dinner party draws too a close, Mrs. Ramsey takes the time to take the moment all in: • “With her foot on the threshold she waited a moment longer in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked, and then, as she moved and took Minta’s arm and left the room, it changed, it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knows, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past.” (pg. 111) • Time has a connection with repetition in that the characters return to their past after time has passed by.
Art and Religion • Art plays a major role in the novel and is at times tied in with religious themes as well. The world is seen in an artful way through the eyes of the artist Lily Briscoe. • As Lily finishes her painting, she also draws a clear understanding and vision of the family. • “With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.” (pg. 209) • Lily’s stating that “it is finished” is like an inference from the bible when Christ dies upon the cross and has finished his mission just as she has finished her time with the family and painting. • Art isn’t only seen through Lily’s work but the philosophical work that Mr. Ramsey does and the social “art” that Mrs. Ramsey has. The dinner scene was not only her “triumph” but her social masterpiece.
Light • Light and light imagery are recurring themes and symbolically connects the characters and places • Once the candles were lit up during the dinner scene, a sudden change seemed to come over the characters: • “Now all the candles were lit up, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candlelight, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off my panes of glass, which far giving any accurate view of the outside world, rippled it so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to b order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things wavered and vanished, waterily.” (pg. 97) • Light can also be symbolic of time such as when Mr. Carmichael hesitated to blow out his candle as if almost hesitating to let time pass by: • “One by one the lamps were all extinguished, except that Mr. Carmichael, who liked to lie awake a little reading Virgil, kept his candle burning rather longer than the rest.” (pg. 125) • Penetrating light such as the light from the lighthouse and the moonlight seem to be other images that Woolf uses. Though there may not be anyone walking around the house, light and air seem to be the only dwellers: • “So some random light directing them with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, from some uncovered star, or wandering ship, or the Lighthouse even, the little airs mounted the staircase and nosed round bedroom doors.” (pg. 126)
Psychoanalysis • Woolfstudied and read the works of Sigmund Freud who influenced some of her works. • In the novel, James appears to have what Sigmund Freud labeled as the Oedipus Complex. The Oedipus complex is the concept in which a male child reaches maturation by identifying with his father. This leads to jealously and anger towards his father but a desire for his mother. • “Had there been an axe handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it.” (pg. 4) • James felt that his mother “was ten thousand times better in every way than [his father] was”.
Fear of Drowning • There are many instances in the novel when there seems to be a fear of drowning and of the power of the ocean. Mr. Ramsey’s constant pessimism towards being able to visit the lighthouse is the most obvious of these instances. • Whenever the family does take a trip over to the lighthouse, the subject of drowning is brought up: • “Three men drowned where we are now, the old man said. He had seen them clinging to the mast himself. And Mr. Ramsey taking a look at the spot was about , James and Cam were afraid, to burst out: But I beneath a rougher sea.” (pg. 205)
Feminism • Feminism is seen in various ways throughout the novel. • Mr. Tansley’s beliefs about women seem to represent the type of thoughts and fears that Woolf was feeling during that era. • Tansley claimed that “Women can’t write, women can’t paint […]” and later refuses “to be made a fool of of women”. • Women in the novel seem to play strong and important roles however seeing as Mrs. Ramsey is what held the family close together. • Woolf herself being a feminist was also a lesbian. The feelings that Lily had for Mrs. Ramsey appears to have been lesbian in nature: • “[Lily] had much ado to control her impulse to fling herself (thank Heaven she had always resisted so far) at Mrs. Ramsey’s knee and say to her - but what could one say to her? “I’m in love with you?” (pg. 19)
Work Cited • All parenthetical citations are in reference to Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc. 2005. • Information about the Oedipus Complex found from www.wikipedia.org