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The main theme of this novel is the effects of patriarchy on the creative lives of women. A patriarchy is a society which is controlled by the patria, the father, or more generally, men. Instead of centering her novel around the violent abuses of power in a patriarchal society or the effects on social life of prohibiting middle-and upper-class women from education or employment, Woolf centers her novel around the subtle distortions which a strict division of gender roles produces on personalities and on family life.
Closely connected to the theme of the effects of patriarchy is the theme, which deals with the question, "What is art?" Through her depiction of a woman artist, Lily Briscoe, Woolf devises a broad definition of art as that which crystallizes the moment, that which captures the moment from the flow of time. Hence, Woolf's exploration of the nature of art takes her into a secondary exploration of the nature of time. Especially important here is the human face of time, that is, the special ways in which people experience time. Rahter than experiencing it as clock time or chronological time, people experience time in a less linear manner. Certain moments of vivid experience are with a person always. The artist's function is to capture those moments and preserve them.
The mood of To the Lighthouse is one of nostalgia. The bulk of the novel (section I) takes place before World War I, before the death of Mrs. Ramsey, and before the end of childhood of the Ramsey children. The rest of the novel looks back on those moments of wholeness, innocence, and desire. The novel is heavily overlayed with a sense of memory. Each of the vivid moments of the first section has the feeling of memory in the sense that they seem to have acquired symbolic significance over the years so that they have formed vivid moments defining lives and relationships.