To the Lighthouse | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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To the Lighthouse | Character Analysis

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Mrs. Ramsay

The wife of Mr. Ramsay and mother of eight, Mrs. Ramsay is an advocate for marriage and family. She is deeply involved with her roles as wife, mother, hostess, benefactor, and muse. She supports the domestic and emotional needs of her husband, children, and guests and is particularly sensitive to her husband's continuing demands for reassurance and love. Mrs. Ramsay encourages women to fulfill society's traditional gender roles and believes marriage and family are necessary for fulfillment. Her unexpected death forces her family and friends to navigate the world without her, but she leaves a lasting influence on all.

Mr. Ramsay

Mrs. Ramsay's husband and father of eight, Mr. Ramsay published a significant book in his field at 25. After his early success, he has failed to gain more recognition. His lack of professional success has helped make him insufferably needy, irritable, and ill-tempered—traits he demonstrates by slamming doors, throwing plates, and other attention-grabbing, childish behavior. He constantly seeks praise and attention, especially from women: at 61 to ease the pain of his failures and at 71 to soothe the pain of heartbreak.

Lily Briscoe

Free-spirited Lily Briscoe is intense, thinking she is in love with the Ramsays, the island, the house, and perhaps Paul Rayley. Despite her independence and unwillingness to follow a traditional life, Lily is insecure about her work and her choices. She grows impatient with Charles Tansley, who insists women cannot be artists, and is envious of beautiful and seemingly serene Mrs. Ramsay, who appears to get everything she wants. Years later after Mrs. Ramsay's death, Lily returns to Scotland to confront her loss and paint her picture again, this time finishing it.

James

James Ramsay plays a key role in the novel because he is the character that wants to sail to the lighthouse as the novel begins. Always seeking to protect her children from disappointment, Mrs. Ramsay tries to preserve his sweet innocence by shielding him from his father's gruff, but accurate, comments about bad weather that will prevent the excursion. James carries a long and serious grudge toward his father, initially for stealing his mother's attention and later for not demonstrating love as his mother had.

Cam

Cam is rebellious, refusing to listen to her nursemaid and mother. Like Lily Briscoe, she is independent, but her youth prevents her independence from taking real form. Because of a later pact with James to withstand their father's dominance, her neutrality causes conflict between the siblings as she relents in her resolve against their father, seeing him at his most charming. She shares in and understands James's pleasure when Mr. Ramsay finally compliments him for his sailing.

Paul Rayley

At Mrs. Ramsay's encouragement, simple and handsome Paul Rayley proposes to Minta Doyle, with whom he has been spending a lot of time. To Mrs. Ramsay's satisfaction, Paul is a refreshing alternative to academics, whom she finds boring. When Lily, who thinks she loves Paul, asks to accompany him to look for Minta's brooch, he laughs at her, hurting Lily's feelings.

Minta Doyle

A charismatic tomboy, Minta Doyle evokes Mrs. Ramsay's jealous feelings because of her youth, beauty, and Mr. Ramsay's attention. Fearless, Minta rushes into things with no thought of the consequences: wearing a precious heirloom to the beach, accepting Paul Rayley's proposal. These rash actions cause her pain (she cries over the brooch) and threaten the harmony of others (she is late to dinner and makes others late because they search for her brooch).

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