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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse is divided in to three parts.
In the first part, "The Window" Woolf describes several people who are spending the day outside the Ramsey vacation house in the Hebrides. Mrs. Ramsey walks into town to visit a sick woman and takes Charles Tansley, one of her husband's proteges, with her. Later, she watches over her youngest son, James, as he looks through magazines and cuts out pictures of household appliances. Still later, she reads the Grimm fairytale "The Fisherman and His Wife" to her son. Mr. Ramsey walks through the garden in and out of sight muttering lines of poetry to himself. He overhears Mrs. Ramsey promising James that he can go to the lighthouse the next day and Mr. Ramsey contradicts her by saying the weather will not permit the landing of a boat at the lighthouse. Lily Briscoe stands on the lawn facing the house painting a portrait of Mrs. Ramsey as she sits on the terrace with James. In the evening, Lily takes a stroll with William Banks. Cam Ramsey runs in and out of sight as she plays. Her brother, Jasper, also comes in and out of sight as he plays. Charles Tansley drops into the scene occasionally. He seconds Mr. Ramsey's pronouncement that the weather will not permit a landing at the lighthouse the next day. Mr. Carmichael sits on the lawn near Lily Briscoe dozing.
Off the scene of the lawn, Minta Doyle, Paul Rayley, Nancy Ramsey and Andrew Ramsey take a walk on the beach and Paul proposes marriage to Minta. As evening approaches, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey stroll over the lawn together. Mrs. Ramsey dresses for dinner with the help of her daughter Rose and her son Jasper. She serves dinner to the entire company, especially interested in pleasing William Banks. The conversation is at first faltering and awkward. Mrs. Ramsey silently appeals to Lily Briscoe to bring Charles Tansley into the conversation in a way that will make him feel good about himself. Lily resists doing so, but finally submits to her role as a woman who must take care of the feelings of a man sitting across from her at the dinner table. Lily Briscoe realizes during dinner that moving a tree to a different position can solve the problem she has been having with the composition of her painting. She is so pleased with this revelation that she decides she will be an artist and will not marry. Paul, Minta, Nancy, and Andrew arrive late to dinner.
After dinner, Mrs. Ramsey looks in on her youngest children in the nursery and finds them awake. She talks them to sleep and then comes back down stairs to find her older children planning an evening walk on the beach. She sends them off happily and goes to the sitting room for a quiet moment alone. Her husband joins her and they sit together reading their respective books until it is time to go to bed.
In Part II, "Time Passes" the characters are all "off-stage." The empty vacation house is visited by personified "airs" which slowly wear things out in the house, returning it to the earth. World War I interrupts the natural flow of the world. Prue Ramsey marries and then dies from a sickness from childbirth. Her brother Andrew Ramsey dies from a shell in the war. Mr. Carmichael comes out with a very popular book of poems. Mrs. Ramsey dies. Years pass and then Mrs. McNab, caretaker of the house, is requested to clean the house. She does so and then no one comes. Once again, she is asked to ready the house for the family to visit. She enlists the help of Mrs. Bast and her son. Lily Briscoe arrives at the house and sleeps her first night there fitfully.
In part III, "The Lighthouse," Lily Briscoe wakes up to find an uncomfortable atmosphere in the house. Mr. Ramsey is to take his son James and his daughter Cam to the lighthouse. His children are reluctant to go with him. They have delayed until the tide has gone out. Mr. Ramsey is in a temper. Lily Briscoe goes out to the lawn to paint. She sets up her easel a short distance from Mr. Carmichael. She decides to paint the portrait of Mrs. Ramsey that she began ten years ago on the same lawn. She cannot begin the painting, however, because Mr. Ramsey is hovering around her demanding her sympathy. She cannot bring herself to give him what he wants. He stands beside her and she can only look out to sea and make small talk. He groans several times, but she still cannot bring up the required emotion to give him sympathy. Finally, she notices his beautifully made boots. He is very pleased that she has noticed them and proceeds to tell her all about how they were crafted and to show her his special method of tying shoelaces. Cam and James come out and the Ramseys depart to board the boat.
The remaining chapters go back and forth between the two locations: Lily's spot on the lawn and the Ramseys in the boat headed out to the lighthouse. On board the boat, Cam and James have made a pact to "fight tyranny to the death," that is, to oppose their tyrannical father. However, Cam begins to soften toward him. Nevertheless, she maintains her ground in opposing him. James remembers the moment in his childhood when his father took his mother's attention away from him and he felt abandoned by her and angry at him. James still feels intensely angry at his father. Mr. Ramsey reads a book while his children fume against him. Close to the end of the boat ride, James begins to soften toward his father. Mr. Ramsey praises his work guiding the sail of the boat. When they arrive at the lighthouse, Mr. Ramsey steps off the boat and his two children happily follow him. On shore, Lily struggles to paint her portrait of Mrs. Ramsey.
She runs through her memories of Mrs. Ramsey as she paints. She remembers Mrs. Ramsey's desire that people get married. Lily feels vindicated in her choice not to marry. She knows the Rayleys did not have the kind of marriage Mrs. Ramsey would have liked. Lily also remembers the words of Charles Tansley who told her women cannot paint or write. She remembers him in a less threatening pose when he played on the beach one day with her and Mrs. Ramsey. Lily struggles with her idea of Mrs. Ramsey and finally comes to a recognition of her as a powerful and also a flawed human being. At the last moment, Lily makes a stroke of the brush, which completes her painting.