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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
To the Lighthouse is written in three parts.
The first part takes place in one day in the life of the Ramsey family and their friends. Rather than choosing a day in which something surprising or life changing occurred, Woolf chose a regular day in which nothing out of the ordinary occurs. Nevertheless, in the space of the everyday, the life of a family is revealed, the role of the mother in shaping her children's imaginations and habits of thought, a marriage relationship, the exchanges between a married woman and a woman artist, and much more.
The second part of the novel, titled "Time Changes," takes place in ten years. World War I occurs during this period as does the deaths of three of the characters, including Mrs. Ramsey. This section of the novel is written from a great distance. It describes the changes of time on the house which the Ramseys have deserted.
Part III, "The Lighthouse," resumes the story of the Ramseys, now without Mrs. Ramsey.
In the first part of the novel, James Ramsey had asked to go to the lighthouse. His mother had said he could and his father had said he could not because the weather would be too rough to allow the boat to land. The novel ends with James achieving his desire and, along with his sister Cam, reconciling with his father. Part III is also a completion of the narration of Lily Briscoe painting a portrait of Mrs. Ramsey. In the absence of Mrs. Ramsey, she completes this portrait begun ten years ago.
Virginia Woolf's center of focus in To the Lighthouse is a woman artist, Lily Briscoe. Lily Briscoe is on the cusp of change for women, moving out of the old position which women occupied as wives and mothers into a new mode of being a woman. The old position is filled by Mrs. Ramsey. Lily Briscoe both admires and disdains the roles Mrs. Ramsey has taken up in life. She most values Mrs. Ramsey's artful ability to bring a group of people together around a moment, to make a moment of time coalesce into something which has meaning for a lifetime. It is just this ability to capture a moment in all its liveliness that Lily strives for in her art.
Lily Briscoe in her painting and Mrs. Ramsey in her ability to bring people together both strive to make the moment last. At Mrs. Ramsey's dinner party, Lily Briscoe makes the choice not to marry; instead she decides to pursue her art. She does not make this choice easily and she is never able fully to move outside of patriarchal relations with men because she continues to exist in a social world organized with men's needs at the center. Lily watches as Mrs. Ramsey fully gives herself up to her husband's and her children's needs. She notices Mr. Ramsey's inadequacy in the realm of life outside his abstract ruminations into philosophical questions. She struggles to transform a clear vision she has for her painting onto the canvas. In doing so, she must combat the words of misogynists like Charles Tansley who insist that women cannot create and that they are not intellectual beings.
Woolf explores the different kinds of thinking that men and women do when they live in a patriarchy. Mr. Ramsey thinks in starkly abstract terms. His pursuit in his philosophy is to explore the relation between the subject and the object and the effect that relation has on what is known as reality. He explores that vital question with the methods of rationality which he has learned in his education and which he has sharpened with further scholarship and teaching. The primary method is a linear one represented in the metaphor of the alphabet. Mr. Ramsey compares his progress in understanding this philosophical problem to the progress one makes through the letters of the alphabet. That is a sequential progress, the letters are in a fixed order in the alphabet, and Mr. Ramsey imagines only two ways of getting through the alphabet-- plodding through the letters one by one or knowing the whole in a moment of genius. In Mr. Ramsey's time, only men are educated formally in logic and reasoning.
Virginia Woolf looks at that kind of thinking from the outside, from the perspective of someone who was prohibited from attending the university. She does not hold his kind of thinking sacred. She knows of alternative methods of exploring the relation between the subject and the object in their effect on reality. Lily Briscoe works on just this problem in her attempt to paint Mrs. Ramsey's portrait. In that pursuit, Mrs. Ramsey is the object of her painting and Lily Briscoe is the subject, the one who perceives that object. What is the reality of Mrs. Ramsey?
Lily understands the many different perspectives it would require to represent the complex reality of Mrs. Ramsey adequately. Virginia Woolf does too. She gives us the perspective of Mrs. Ramsey's children, her husband, her husband's colleagues, her servants, and Lily Briscoe's. All these perspectives come together in the novel to give us a view of Mrs. Ramsey. They could not ever be reduced to a metaphor of A to Q. In demonstrating the richness of the kind of thinking women can do, Woolf counters the prevailing view of her time held by men like Charles Tansley. In parodying the kind of thinking men like Mr. Ramsey do, Woolf punctures the inflated estimation of men's rationality.
In an important parallel, Woolf explores a new way of representing time in her novel. Unlike clock time, which, like the alphabet, works sequentially and in a fixed order, Woolf's concept of time is non-linear. In a single hour, a person can remember vivid moments of the past and in some sense relive them. Other moments in the past are lost to the person's memory. This kind of time, then, is not sequential and it does not proceed in a fixed order. The past lives in the present. The art of Lily Briscoe's painting and Mrs. Ramsey's bringing people together rests in recognizing the vividness of the moment and crystallizing it. The first part of the novel is made up of several such vivid moments which the actors see as passing, but which they know will be remembered for the length of life.
When Lily Briscoe decides she will paint rather than marry, she is making a world-changing decision. She is deciding to step outside of the role assigned her in her patriarchal society and to embrace an alternative existence. Woolf provides her as a model for imagining women's choices in what seems to be a society that offers them no choices. In this way, her novel frees women to imagine something different for themselves, while at the same time it honors the strength of women like Mrs. Ramsey who made beauty out of a confined role.