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To the Lighthouse | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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What is the importance of the sock Mrs. Ramsay knits in To the Lighthouse?

As Mrs. Ramsay gives James hope of sailing to the lighthouse in "The Window," Chapter 1, she knits a sock for the lighthouse keeper's son, who suffers from a tuberculous hip. Imagining how bored they must be "shut up for a whole month at a time," she plans to bring stockings, magazines, and tobacco to busy them. That she continues knitting when she knows the trip to the lighthouse most likely will not take place reinforces her optimism and the emotional support she provides for her son. Despite Mr. Ramsay's pessimism about foul weather for the trip, she not only comforts her son but hurries to finish the sock whenever her hands are free. As the emotional caretaker for the house, which includes her husband, children, and friends, Mrs. Ramsay finds time to help less fortunate people, thereby reflecting her charitable and kind nature.

In "The Window," Chapter 1 of To the Lighthouse, how is Charles Tansley's role as antagonist complicated?

The Ramsay children dislike "bony"-fingered Charles Tansley because he has hounded "them all the way up to the Hebrides" against their wishes. They call him the "atheist" and a "sarcastic brute." Even though Mrs. Ramsay suggested the trip to Tansley, she has a strong aversion to him because he continually disappoints James with bad weather news. On the other hand, invited on an errand with Mrs. Ramsay, he reveals greater depth of character, as Mrs. Ramsay attempts to win him over. He yearns to tell Mrs. Ramsay his background. As soon as the opportunity arises, he tells her how he came from nothing (bearing winter without a coat, paying "his own way" at 13). This revelation develops their relationship, and the change is signified by Mrs. Ramsay's allowing him to carry her bag.

In "The Window," Chapter 3 of To the Lighthouse,what is significant about Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe being the only people who hear the "loud cry"?

While Mrs. Ramsay sits with James in the drawing room, someone cries, "Stormed at with shot and shell." Looking "apprehensively" to see if anyone is disturbed by the disruption, she is relieved to find the only one who heard is Lily Briscoe, a reaction that shows the connection of their close friendship. Lily Briscoe knows them well. Mrs. Ramsay's dread shows that her husband's behavior, the bellow and what might follow, is an unpleasant pattern. Often Mr. Ramsay acts out because he wants to be seen and praised by women. His neediness requires attention and energy, and both Lily and Mrs. Ramsay are engrossed in activities (painting; posing and comforting James) and exhausted by his antics.

What is William Bankes's relationship to children, and what does it say about his character in To the Lighthouse?

Childless William Bankes openly resents Mr. Ramsay for their estrangement in "The Window," Chapter 4. Yet an underlying jealousy and personal sense of loss arise in the attention he pays to beautiful Mrs. Ramsay and the eight Ramsay children: Observing Cam disobeying the nursemaid: When Cam refuses to give him a flower, he feels "saddened," a feeling that shows his desire to connect with children. Wondering how the Ramsays can afford eight children: Mr. Bankes is amazed Mr. Ramsay supports ten people "on philosophy," a situation that contrasts with Mr. Bankes's comfort and freedom (buying art, traveling). Scolding Jasper for shooting at starlings: Mr. Bankes's reproach displays his fatherly instinct.

In "The Window," Chapter 3 of To the Lighthouse, what is the significance of the way in which Mrs. Ramsay is framed in the window?

Mrs. Ramsay, in the drawing room, is framed by the window, through which her husband speaks to her and sees her. From the edge of the lawn, Lily Briscoe paints Mrs. Ramsay, framing her first in her mind and then on the canvas. These multiple and simultaneous visions of Mrs. Ramsay reveal her character from different perspectives. At once she is the wife, mother, friend, and host, depending upon who is observing or interacting with her at that moment. The momentary glimpse sheds light on her multiple roles and on the many demands made of her, as well as how she confronts them. That she is central to the lives of those around her makes her loss, later in the novel, the more difficult. This layered distance and fragmentation also give the impression Mrs. Ramsay is, like the lighthouse, unattainable.

How does Lily Briscoe's creative process play a role in "The Window," Chapters 3 and 4 of To the Lighthouse?

As Lily Briscoe stares at the violet flowers and white wall, she faces internal conflict. Transferring her vision to canvas, she is disrupted by "demons" that torment her. She compares the process to a child's journey down a "dark" hallway. Aware of her self-imposed "inadequacy" and "insignificance," Lily, a 33-year-old single woman maintaining her father's house, struggles against external forces. Mrs. Ramsay, who admires Lily's strength, urges her to marry, to conform to social norms; Lily knows she does not want to marry. And Charles Tansley's opinion that women can't contribute to intellectual and artistic fields echoes in her mind. Her struggle with her own sense of worth and the process of painting itself reveal her conflict. Her painting represents the transition to the modernist era; she paints Mrs. Ramsay reading to James as a "triangular purple shape." As the artist figure, Lily and her struggle for independence and fulfillment speak to Virginia Woolf's creative experience both in general and specifically in the catharsis, symbolized by painting in the novel, of writing about her mother.

What is the significance of the hen in To the Lighthouse?

When William Bankes is on an evening stroll in "The Window," Chapter 4, the sand dunes remind him of Mr. Ramsay many years ago. In Westmorland, Mr. Ramsay observed a hen protect her chicks by spreading her wings around them and saying, "Pretty—pretty." Shortly after, he married Mrs. Ramsay, and they had children. Mr. Bankes says it feels as though "their friendship had ceased, there, on that stretch of road." Their estrangement shows the different routes their lives have taken and develops the theme of reality versus the ideal. Mr. Bankes covets what Mr. Ramsay has, especially Mrs. Ramsay's love, protection, and complete devotion. He faults neither Mr. Ramsay nor himself for the lost friendship, which seemed to die out. This honesty also shows William Bankes's maturity, which is contrasted with Mr. Ramsay's childishness.

How does Lily Briscoe regard William Bankes in "The Window," Chapter 4 of To the Lighthouse?

Lily Briscoe listens to William Bankes as he vents to her about Mr. Ramsay. Next to the pear tree—a symbol of love, life, and connection—she tells Mr. Bankes to consider Mr. Ramsay's work. Otherwise she contributes little to the conversation, but her internal life shows the richness of her thoughts and emotions. In a long confession, linked by semicolons, she praises Mr. Bankes's character, contrasting him positively with Mr. Ramsay. She loves him platonically and feels compassion for his loneliness. She admits Mr. Bankes is the "finest human being" she knows. Yet, she immediately balances her intense emotions with criticism, such as his fussy habits and tendency to be boring, wondering how people know whether they love or hate someone. This uncertainty develops her character, showing her honesty and clarity.

In "The Window," Chapter 5 of To the Lighthouse, how does the condition of the house reflect the state of the family?

The house is "untamed" like the Ramsays' lives. In fact, its condition echoes Mrs. Ramsay herself, who is casual about matters of dress and decor. Like her, the house is a sanctuary that protects her husband and children. After Mrs. Ramsay tells James, "My dear, stand still," she notices the house is "fearfully shabby." Refurnishing seems pointless because anything new will "spoil" over winter, but she expects the house will eventually "become so shabby that something must be done." At this moment, however, it is a reflection of Mrs. Ramsay who is protective, warm, and welcoming This prediction also foreshadows the losses the family will suffer in the next decade (Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew), which are later reflected in the abandoned home in "The Lighthouse," Chapter 3. Mrs. Ramsay's plea to James evokes her tendency to say, "Life stand still here." She wants her son to stop moving yet imbues the moment with permanence. This verbal irony, saying one thing and meaning another, draws attention to life's "daily miracles": her reading to James, Andrew dissecting crabs, seaweed soup, and beach treasures, furthering the theme of love and loss as what is there now is not permanent.

In To the Lighthouse, "The Window" what is significant about the placement of Lily painting at the lawn's edge, Mr. Ramsay walking on the terrace, and Mrs. Ramsay inside?

The title of Part 1, "The Window," draws attention to the position of people in relation to the house. Mrs. Ramsay is observed inside in the drawing room window. Her place is inside the home, as she is its heart and soul. Lily Briscoe sets up her easel and painting supplies at the edge of the lawn. Lily's position at the property's edge represents her independence, functioning outside of Mrs. Ramsay's enclosed and protected space, thus outside of society's expected roles for women. Although she sees inside and enters that world, her art and independence keep her outside of it. Mr. Ramsay and his protege walk along the terrace. His placement there represents his movements between the outside world and home and being part of both, much more than Lily is.

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