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To the Lighthouse | Discussion Questions 31 - 40

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In "Time Passes," Chapters 8 and 9 of To the Lighthouse, how does Mrs. McNab remember the Ramsays, and what is the significance of her recollection?

While cleaning the house, Mrs. McNab notices Mrs. Ramsay's gray cloak, reminding her of its owner who stooped over the flowers and who saved her a bowl of milk soup. Thinking Mrs. McNab would be hungry after delivering laundry, Mrs Ramsay displays her kindness, which Mrs. McNab remembers. During renovations, Mrs. McNab remembers Mr. Ramsay, who mumbled to himself and never "noticed" her, showing his self-absorption and the difference between husband and wife. On the separate occasions, three things are consistent about Mrs. McNab's memories: Telescope: Representing Mrs. McNab's aging memory, the telescope helps Mrs. McNab see clearly back in time. Mildred: Mildred, with whom Mrs. McNab got along well, appears in both memories. Mrs. McNab was happy to be employed by the Ramsays; enjoyed being at the house and interacting with Mildred. Laughter: Thinking of Mildred reminds Mrs. McNab of laughter and better times. Mrs. McNab's memories all reveal the passing of time and the bleakness of the war and its toll on contemporary life. Her memories of the house and the Ramsays all reveal better times when the house was cared for and full of life. She was happy to be part of them, as she, too, was touched by Mrs. Ramsay.

What is the significance of Mr. Ramsay's boots in "The Lighthouse," Chapter 2 of To the Lighthouse?

While Lily Briscoe prepares to paint, Mr. Ramsay unabashedly seeks sympathy from her. Unable to appease him, she suffers internally, thinking "any other woman in the whole world would have done something." She struggles to say anything, feeling illegitimate. Even the "whole horizon seemed swept bare of objects to talk about," deepening tension between them and of their presence at the house without Mrs. Ramsay. Noticing his boots are untied, she admires them aloud. He smiles, gushes about them, and shows her how to tie hers so they don't loosen. Watching him, Lily pities him so much she is almost moved to tears. Therefore, only after he stops seeking sympathy does Lily feel it; both miss a chance at human connection, as it reflects the theme of love and loss.

What is the dynamic of Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsay's friendship in To the Lighthouse?

Although Mrs. Ramsay is conventional in her beliefs about gender roles and social norms, she is not narrow-minded and can accept others for themselves and their differences. Thinking Lily Briscoe is missing conventional fulfillment in life, Mrs. Ramsay nonetheless admires her friend's independent spirit, seeing her as a fluid character, embodying masculine and feminine characteristics. Lily Briscoe fleetingly admits to loving Mrs. Ramsay, then instantly retracts it. Yet a tender moment between them haunts Lily. In it she leans on Mrs. Ramsay's knee, desiring "unity" and "intimacy," which Lily considers "knowledge and wisdom," and thinks Mrs. Ramsay has them within her. Although Mrs. Ramsay thinks of Lily less frequently than Lily thinks of Mrs. Ramsay, their friendship appears the most intimate relationship in the novel, if intimacy represents understanding and exploring same-sex relationships.

In "The Lighthouse," Chapter 4 of To the Lighthouse, what is Cam Ramsay torn between on the boat, and how is it significant?

Their father conducts this excursion as a rite for "his own pleasure in memory of dead people," developing the theme of love and loss. Cam and James feel coerced into coming along and resent their father's intrusion into their lives. They have made a pact to resist his tyranny; their behavior at the beginning of the excursion reflects their determination. En route to the lighthouse, symbolizing the multiple feelings of those taking part in the excursion, Cam finds herself feeling differently from the way she felt initially: she feels proud of her father for his "brave" and "adventurous" spirit. As he talks with Macalister, he shows a different, more amiable, side of his character. As Cam enjoys the sea breeze and the view of the island, she realizes she and James are ruining her father's day with their sulking. Despite their agreement to "fight tyranny to the death," she feels her "tie" to James straining, as her brother steers "grimly," still wanting "escape."

What is significant for Lily Briscoe about the outcome of Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle's marriage in To the Lighthouse?

While painting, Lily Briscoe remembers the Rayleys, seeing their "lives ... in a series of scenes." Their marriage has not been a success. Minta, "careless," comes home late to Paul's verbal abuse. Despite two sons, Paul begins an affair with a professional woman, Minta's opposite. When Lily contemplates love, she thinks of Paul. She feels "again" a "headlong desire to throw herself off the cliff" looking for Minta's brooch. This sensation evokes how Lily, bravely, volunteers to help Paul, who laughs at her. Coping with her loss of love, Lily creates a world in which the man who rejects her is unhappy, and she can gossip with curious Mrs. Ramsay and speak of loss, triumphant in being right.

Which events and relationships in To the Lighthouse do not turn out the way Mrs. Ramsay intended?

Mrs. Ramsay devotes much of her time helping and encouraging others. In fact, at dinner Lily Briscoe jealously observes Mrs. Ramsay always gets her way, as though she "put a spell on them all." Yet some of her efforts eventually fail: Mrs. Ramsay suggests Lily Briscoe and William Bankes walk together, hoping they marry. They submit to her suggestion but remain friends. The night of the dinner Lily shuns the idea of marriage, thinking about painting, and knowing Mr. Bankes loves Mrs. Ramsay unrequitedly. James Ramsay, Mrs. Ramsay's favorite and youngest, whom she attempts to shield from sadness becomes a sullen teenager and remembers her exhaustion and stress. He seems anything but happy. Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle's marriage is not the success Mrs. Ramsay thought it would be.

In "The Lighthouse," Chapter 7 of To the Lighthouse, what is the significance of Lily Briscoe's seeing, through her "painter's eye," Mrs. Ramsay among flowers?

While she is painting, Lily Briscoe suffers an emotional episode. Her calling repeatedly for Mrs. Ramsay furthers the theme of love and loss, as she mourns her friend's death. She feels Mrs. Ramsay standing "lightly by her side." Donning a flower wreath, Mrs. Ramsay leaves across the field of hyacinths and lilies. Crediting the vision to her "painter's eye," Lily sees Mrs. Ramsay with her wreath and "shade" (perhaps the shadow Lily depicts in her painting) for days after Mrs. Ramsay dies. Painting, as a symbol of understanding, is how Lily works through her grief, which she hasn't faced until returning to the house. Mrs. Ramsay cared for the garden meticulously, so her consistent appearance with flowers, the wreath, and field suggest her transition, a reminder life is fleeting. Thus, through the shapes and forms in her painting, Lily begins to understand her feelings and can face her loss.

As evidenced in "The Window," Chapter 1 and "The Lighthouse," Chapter 8 of To the Lighthouse, how has Mr. Ramsay's character affected James Ramsay?

On the boat James feels his father reads pointedly and wants to "strike him to the heart." This sentiment reflects his Oedipal emotions as a young boy when he felt rage about his father stealing his mother's attention from him. James's feelings of anger toward, and domination by, his father represent a long conflict. Yet as James explores his "impotent rage," he understands it is not his father he wants to kill but the tyranny that overcomes him. By describing his father's wrath as a wheel running over someone's foot, James illustrates how his anger hurts innocents. Mr. Ramsay's tyranny has so affected James he wants to devote his life to change in business, banking, or law. He wants to turn the reality of his negative experience into positivity, or idealistic ventures, thereby differentiating himself from his father.

In "The Lighthouse," Chapter 10 of To the Lighthouse, what is significant about Cam Ramsay's impression of the island on which the Ramsays' house stands?

A young woman, Cam is visiting the lighthouse for the first time, so she sees the island on which her family's house stands from a different perspective. En route, looking back at the island, she thinks it looks like a "leaf ... on its end," and she is filled with longing for adventure, of the kind that men experience. Her perception of the island as a leaf leads back to Cam as a curious, knowledge-seeking child in her father's study, where "one could let whatever one thought expand here like a leaf in water." She recalls the men in the house (Mr. Ramsay and his admirers) who "could have told her." She remembers observing them in the study discussing religion, discoveries, and politics, thinking if opinions are respected among them they are respected elsewhere. The men know how the island looks because they have freedom in the world, which women do not. In observing the island herself, she has expanded her vision like a leaf in water. This view of the land highlights the importance of perspective. She has grown enough to understand the mutable, multiple nature of things. Her independent thought leads readers to think she will follow her own "expanded" vision and seek adventure, or knowledge, in the way that she wanted to as a child.

How is Mr. Ramsay's proposal to Mrs. Ramsay connected to the characters' arrival at the lighthouse in "The Window," Chapter 12 and "The Lighthouse," Chapter 11 of To the Lighthouse?

Lily Briscoe describes Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay's engagement as an "old-fashioned" scene in which Mr. Ramsay formally outstretches his hand to Mrs. Ramsay, sitting in a chair, "as if he had done it before" on a boat arriving at an island. Mrs. Ramsay allows herself to "be helped by him," stepping "slowly, quietly on shore." For Mrs. Ramsay, the transition is easy, showing her support of marriage, her desire for and ease with the conventions of her day. He is chivalrous; she is the gracious Victorian lady. Lily's memory of young Mr. Ramsay assisting his future wife foreshadows the penultimate scene of the novel: the boat's arrival at the lighthouse. Mr. Ramsay jumps "like a young man ... on to the rock." Being the first one out of the boat shows Mr. Ramsay's continuing dominance in a world similar to the one in which he proposed to Mrs. Ramsay. The scene ends before James and Cam disembark, creating tension as to whether he will gallantly help them, as he helped Mrs. Ramsay, or leave them to disembark on their own, suggesting their independence from him. As the lighthouse has different meanings for different characters, the reader may wonder whether these characters have in fact attained the inaccessible: connection, independence, adulthood.

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