To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse

May 5, 1927

tells the story of the Ramsay family's annual summer holidays. The family summer at their home on the Isle of Skye in Scotland between 1910 and 1920. In addition to depicting a holiday, the novel also reflects on marriage, parenthood, childhood, ...

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tells the story of the Ramsay family's annual summer holidays. The family summer at their home on the Isle of Skye in Scotland between 1910 and 1920. In addition to depicting a holiday, the novel also reflects on marriage, parenthood, childhood, and loss.

To the Lighthouse is a 1927 novel by Virginia Woolf. The novel centres on the Ramsay family and their visits to the Isle of Skye in Scotland between 1910 and 1920.


Following and extending the tradition of modernist novelists like Marcel Proust and James Joyce, the plot of To the Lighthouse is secondary to its philosophical introspection. Cited as a key example of the literary technique of multiple focalization, the novel includes little dialogue and almost no action; most of it is written as thoughts and observations. The novel recalls childhood emotions and highlights adult relationships. Among the book's many tropes and themes are those of loss, subjectivity, the nature of art and the problem of perception.


Adeline Virginia Woolf ( 25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941) was an English writer, considered one of the most important modernist 20th-century authors and also a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device.

Woolf was born into an affluent household in South Kensington, London, the seventh child in a blended family of eight. Her mother, Julia Prinsep Jackson, celebrated as a Pre-Raphaelite artist's model, had three children from her first marriage, while Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen, a notable man of letters, had one previous daughter. The Stephens produced another four children, including the modernist painter Vanessa Bell. While the boys in the family received college educations, the girls were home-schooled in English classics and Victorian literature. An important influence in Virginia Woolf's early life was the summer home the family used in St Ives, Cornwall, where she first saw the Godrevy Lighthouse, which was to become central in her novel To the Lighthouse (1927).


I read this book like I eat chocolate, always intending to indulge in just a little bit, then finding myself inexorably unwilling to stop. This was not due to any gripping plot twists, not to witty repartee or romantic involvements that I just had to find the end to. In fact, a common issue taken with Virginia Woolf’s writing is the way in which plot is perhaps passed over in favour of examining the minutiae, holding a microscope to a human emotion or, as in the central section in this book, the manner in which a house decays. Strangely, though I would generally describe myself as the finicky type of reader that requires consistency and depth in my stories, this didn’t bother me. I was more than content to sink back into the warm-bath quality of this book and this, I think, was due to the characters.


To The Lighthouse is written in what I’ve heard described as “dense prose” or “stream of consciousness”, but what I think of as the literary equivalent to perching in the back of someone else’s mind, watching the to-ing and fro-ing of their thoughts and fears all from behind their eyes. The closeness with characters that this way of writing gave me, the understanding of them that I felt I had, is the thing that made them so engrossing. They were not extraordinary – in fact, on the contrary, they were rather conventional, middle-class intellectual-types, of the kind you find in arguably too many books. It could even be said that they offered nothing new or exciting, nothing to surprise or excite in a reader. Yet for me, the familiarity was proof of the skill in which they are written – because everyone knows someone like them. Virginia Woolf, in a few hundred pages, seemed to capture exactly the essence of certain people – certain traits, quirks and mannerisms that I can recognise from my life, from my world, despite it being over eighty years from hers.

Everyone has experienced the feelings captured in the novel, from the intense anger and resentment felt for someone you love or the irrational but intense irritation at a stranger, to the longing to become something you never possibly can and the disappointment that follows. They feel so familiar because they are so realistic. As such, I wanted to read about their lives for the same reason that I want to hear what a friend got for a birthday, what happened to my Mum at work – I felt like I knew them and so the story was immediately more interesting to me.


As to the story itself, the book details the activities of the Ramsay family and a few acquaintances staying with them in their house on the coast, all in the context of a proposed trip to the lighthouse. I’ll be the first to admit that this is not an extremely promising plot summary, but far from the “style over substance” I was warned I might find, I found that this book conveyed so much in so little. The most memorable points for me included the passing of time as shown by the changing of the seasons and the way that a house deteriorates, and the most heart-wrenching description of a wife bending to the will of a husband that I have ever read. Then, throughout, Virginia Woolf used the shortfalls and eccentricities of her characters to create a spirited, wry kind of humour that made the novel so enjoyable to read.

There was an odd kind of poetry in the writing, a sort of rhythm beating at the back of the sentences, tugging and pushing at the punctuation and drifting through the pages. Tension was built up into a great crescendo and then allowed to fizzle away into nothing, almost like the waves by the Ramsay’s house would gain momentum and crash onto the beach before trailing softly back to the sea.


Sometimes, I feel, Virginia Woolf is thought of as one of those unreachable, lofty kind of authors that can only be read by someone with an English Literature degree. I felt like that, picking the book of the shelf almost apologetically. How could I believe that I could appreciate a writer like Virginia Woolf? I asked myself; what made me think I would be able to understand it? But I think that I did understand and I know that I enjoyed it, and if I could do so, then it’s possible for anyone who likes to read. The idea that it was written for a select, serious few is bizarre and unnecessary because to me, this book is – above all – about humans. Our loss, our longing, our love. It captures those feelings so perfectly, so why wouldn’t we be able to relate?

I really loved this book, and I think that many other people, if they put aside their apprehension or doubt, would be surprised at how much they enjoyed it too.

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