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To the Lighthouse | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In To the Lighthouse what is the significance of Paul Rayley's response to the lost brooch?

While Paul Rayley proposes at the beach in "The Window," Chapter 14, Minta Doyle loses her grandmother's brooch. The weeping willow tree adorned with pearls is a symbol of love and connection, and its loss serves as a bad omen. Trouble soon follows. With his walking stick Paul marks where they sat and, "famous ... for finding things," he plans to return at low tide to recover it. Minta's carelessness mars this traditionally tender moment, foreshadowing their marital troubles. If Paul fails to find the brooch, he kindly plans to buy another, "just like it but more beautiful." However, Minta's fiancé fails to recognize the brooch is irreplaceable. Once belonging to Minta's grandmother, it was the "sole ornament she possessed." Its value, its loss, and Paul's misunderstanding of them represent the couple's failure to connect.

In To the Lighthouse how do Nancy and Andrew Ramsay mirror their parents on the beach trip?

While Nancy and Andrew Ramsay accompany Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley, their behavior and thoughts show their parents' influence: Observation: Nancy gazes at the town of "prominent things, without names" until they disappear in "mist," likening her to Mrs. Ramsay and her imagination. During Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay's walk, a major point of contention for Mrs. Ramsay is that her husband "never" looks "at things"—the flowers, the stars. When Mr. Ramsay tells her he caught her looking "sad," she cannot look at the lighthouse (because it reminds her of her sadness). She, instead, looks at the town, as Nancy does. Thoughts: Andrew reflects his father's sexism, thinking, "taking women on walks" is "the worst," evoking Mr. Ramsay's terrace walks (alone or with male admirers). Also, when Minta mourns her lost brooch, Andrew thinks women cannot "control" their "emotions." Disagreement: When Andrew and Nancy disagree, they reflect their parents' behavior patterns. Little things annoy them (Nancy doesn't show Andrew a crayfish), and they brood silently. Like their parents discussing Andrew's intellect and future, the siblings eventually settle the fight privately without addressing their conflict, knowing the other hadn't "wanted this horrid nuisance [the beach trip] to happen."

What is the significance of Mrs. Ramsay's rooks in To the Lighthouse?

Waiting for Jasper and Rose to choose jewelry, Mrs. Ramsay watches the rooks outside in "The Window," Chapter 16, giving the birds a rich backstory, developing the theme of internal life and showing her patience. She has named a broken-winged bird Joseph, who fights another bird—Mary. Mrs. Ramsay's observations (naming the birds after Jesus's parents) reveal more than her lack of seriousness about religion; her thoughts revolve around motherhood, death, and a world needing salvation. Remembering her own mother, "some deep, some buried, some quite speechless feeling," saddens her. As Mrs. Ramsay worshipped her mother, Rose worships her, despite her thinking otherwise (lowly of herself). Her belief Rose will follow in her footsteps and suffer explores the theme of reality versus the ideal. Although Mrs. Ramsay jokingly calls the birds Mary and Joseph, they are closer in Mrs. Ramsay's description to herself and Mr. Ramsay. The bird Joseph is the one who behaves foolishly and aggressively. The tree Mary and Joseph fight over symbolizes life, love, and connection. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are not comfortable with their own expressions of love and connection, and their internal lives are in conflict with their external lives.

How does Paul Rayley's ideal of marriage contrast with the reality of his proposal and Minta Doyle's character in To the Lighthouse?

Mrs. Ramsay, who supports Victorian ideals and gender roles, suggests Paul Rayley propose to Minta Doyle. His proposal happens off the page in "The Window," Chapter 14, but walking back, newly engaged Paul envisions his and Minta's future will be like their present moment, his ideal—"he always leading her" while she cuddles "close to his side." In reality, Minta, a rebellious tomboy, leans on Paul only because she is sad about losing her grandmother's heirloom, lost because she is thoughtless and careless in wearing it to the beach. En route to the beach, Andrew accurately observes Minta as hasty (like Paul's choice to propose and her acceptance). Her thoughtlessness also annoys their hostess by making them late to the dinner party, where Minta flirts with Mr. Ramsay. Paul is likely to be disappointed in his marriage to Minta. Because she is "afraid of nothing—except bulls," Minta's dependency on and submission to Paul is unlikely, foreshadowing a less than happy marriage and developing the theme of reality versus the ideal in marriage.

In To the Lighthouse what is the significance of Mr. Ramsay's and Mrs. Ramsay's different reactions to flirtation during dinner?

When Minta Doyle arrives, Mr. Ramsay, who has remained silent through the soup course in "The Window," Chapter 17, immediately begins flirting with her, making Mrs. Ramsay momentarily jealous. Minta, aware of her power over men, knowing she wears her "golden haze," smiles and charms Mr. Ramsay in return. Aware of how Mr. Ramsay in the presence of young women becomes "attractive," Mrs. Ramsay diverts her gaze, momentarily "resentful" of her age and aging. However, she feels relieved that he can flirt with Minta because flirting and being paid female attention restores his good humor. He glories in the attention to himself. Mrs. Ramsay, on the other hand, is first and always a conventional Victorian mother and wife. Her husband can shed his burdens (failed books, stalled career) and move freely through the world, saddling Mrs. Ramsay with his insecurities. And Mrs. Ramsay accepts these roles. Therefore, returning to reality and sensing William Bankes cares for her, Mrs. Ramsay, unlike her husband (who capitalizes on attention for himself), plays matchmaker for Mr. Bankes and Lily. Her flirtatiousness, therefore, is not self-indulgent but directed outward, toward giving rather than receiving.

How is Lily Briscoe misunderstood or mistreated in To the Lighthouse?

After the Ramsays, Lily Briscoe is the most developed character in the novel. Her refusal to accept traditional gender roles and dedication to something other than marriage and family sometimes alienate her, and she is often misunderstood: Appearance: Mrs. Ramsay, with traditionally Victorian views on feminine ideals and beauty, sees Lily's "little Chinese eyes" and "puckered-up face," which Victorians did not consider beautiful, as unattractive and fears she will never marry, ignoring Lily's desire not to. Stereotypical gender bias: Charles Tansley tells Lily "Women can't write, women can't paint." This harsh statement discourages her creative process, but the sentiment motivates her as well. She commits herself fully to painting. Disrespect: Despite Lily's expressing her aversion to marriage, Mrs. Ramsay continues setting her up with William Bankes, showing disregard for her thoughts.

What is the significance of Mrs. Ramsay's comparison to a tree in To the Lighthouse?

Throughout the novel Mrs. Ramsay is described as a tree, which symbolizes life, love, and connection. These images show her in all her roles: as a mother giving life; as a wife and mother giving love and protection; and as a friend providing love and connection to those around her. She guides and nurtures her children, particularly James who is the youngest and most in need of her. She tries to protect him from disappointment and worries that Rose, like her, will be unhappy. As a wife, Mrs. Ramsay protects her husband's externally forceful but internally fragile ego and shades (eases) his professional pressure. When Mr. Ramsay is again disappointed by his lack of recent achievement, Mrs. Ramsay, tired, stands "in a rosy-flowered fruit tree laid with leaves and dancing boughs," restoring Mr. Ramsay's ego with emotional support. In thinking about Mr. Ramsay's anxiety, Mrs. Ramsay ponders her husband's touchiness at dinner and becomes "still like a tree" nestling "leaf by leaf, into quiet," thinking fame and success do not matter.

Why is Lily Briscoe's introspection 10 years later significant in her perceptions of Charles Tansley and the Rayleys in "The Lighthouse" in To the Lighthouse?

Lily's internal life offers insight into characters who were different or portrayed differently 10 years before. Lily overhears Charles Tansley, who angered Mrs. Ramsay, James, and Lily with tactless and sexist comments, speak at an antiwar rally. Her opinion of him changes, as she sees another aspect to him more in agreement with her own views, and she reflects on his character's growth. If he has not changed, perhaps he has tempered his thoughts or directed them elsewhere. Lily is honest in her self-reflection, although maybe somewhat vindictive in her assessment of the Rayleys. However, she admits when she is creating. She invents the Rayleys' shared life by collecting "impressions of the Rayleys" and "making up scenes about them": Paul Rayley's violent verbal abuse and jealousy, his briefcase-carrying mistress and Minta's "flamboyant" carelessness, garishness, and their shabby living quarters. Because of her honesty and rational thinking, Lily's introspection offers clarity and resolution for characters who do not return to the summer house and are no longer part of her life.

In "Time Passes," Chapters 4 and 5 of To the Lighthouse, how is war referenced?

The narrator remains in the abandoned house, making the second section differ from the rest of the novel. The absence of characters helps create a distant, somber tone and a dark atmosphere. These changes reflect not only the Ramsays' mourning but also the state of the world, particularly the war. Without people occupying the home, the narrator focuses on the desolation and destruction of the house's interior and exterior. The narrator's lyrical language and vivid imagery, often relating to war, highlight the emptiness and sorrow of the house, paralleling the events of war with the loss of life in the house. The description of the wind, for example, alludes to events of the outside world: "those stray airs, advance guards of great armies, blustered in." The damage done to the house reflects the physical impact of the war. Even Mrs. McNab's arrival is described with war imagery, "she rolled like a ship at sea."

In "Time Passes," Chapters 5 and 6 of To the Lighthouse, how is the passage of time represented?

This central part of the book in which time is greatly condensed, quickly covers 10 years, as life-changing events appear in brackets. Whereas "The Window" and "The Lighthouse" cover part of a day, "Time Passes" covers a decade in many fewer pages. The passage of time is displayed with imagery describing nature and the interior and exterior of the house. Lack of physical and mental activity: With little traffic in the house, the narrator includes minor happenings, which might otherwise be overlooked had the house been occupied—another loose rock tumbles down the valley; "another fold of the shawl" unfastens and swings. Actual events are indicated within brackets, creating a sense of "nothingness." Because the perspective is limited to the house, the "darkness" alludes to the tragedies befalling the Ramsay family and friends. Mrs. McNab's routine: Like the quick passing of nights, seasons, and years, Mrs. McNab's life dizzies the reader, day after day of "bringing things out and putting them away again." Her routine reflects Mrs. Ramsay's circular routine of opening and shutting things. While Mrs. Ramsay tidies the path of her family and her husband's friends (on a small-scale, a day), Mrs. McNab works against nature and time (on a large-scale, a decade).

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