To the Lighthouse | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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To the Lighthouse | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


To the Lighthouse is divided into three parts, which are further broken down into numbered chapters. Virginia Woolf described the division as an H shape, the longer first and third "vertical" sections taking place during single days and the shorter "horizontal" connecting second part taking place over 10 years. These divisions illustrate the extension and contraction of time.

The Window

The story begins in early 1900s Scotland, just before World War I, as the Ramsays and company travel to their vacation home in the Hebrides. "The Window" covers about seven hours during an afternoon and evening but spans nearly half the novel. Mrs. Ramsay tells her six-year-old son, James, he can go to the lighthouse if the weather permits. Her husband, a metaphysician who made a significant contribution to the field early in his career, and his brash "admirer" Charles Tansley extinguish James's hopes by saying the weather will make it impossible. Later in the afternoon the Ramsays argue over the weather.

Family friend Lily Briscoe is attempting to paint a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay and James. William Bankes, another friend, living in the village, has agreed to stay for dinner. Mrs. Ramsay dedicates much of the day to protecting James's "fleeting" innocence and arranging a dinner party. Mr. Ramsay behaves boorishly, demanding female praise and reassurance. Throughout the day Mrs. Ramsay worries over the whereabouts of her daughter Nancy (who she thinks may be out walking with Minta Doyle, Paul Rayley, and Andrew Ramsay) and thinks about matchmaking and domestic issues like the greenhouse repair bill. Intermittently posing for Lily Briscoe's painting, Mrs. Ramsay devotes most of her time to ensuring the comfort of others, particularly her husband, within the house and in the community (the lighthouse keeper's ill son and poor Elsie in town).

The day culminates in the bœuf en daube supper for a group of 15 that includes newly engaged Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley. Mrs. Ramsay dedicates great effort to create a peaceful meal and thinks the event memorable, with Mr. Ramsay, despite his earlier ill temper, reciting a poem for her. This first part of the novel ends with Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay reading and talking quietly. She tells him he was right about the weather, her way of affirming her love.

Time Passes

The second part, "Time Passes," covers about 10 years in the span of a mere 10 to 20 pages or so. William Bankes, Lily Briscoe, Augustus Carmichael, and Andrew and Prue Ramsay arrive somberly at the summer house, as war begins across Europe. During one night Mrs. Ramsay dies unexpectedly. Prue Ramsay marries and dies from childbirth complications. At war, Andrew Ramsay is killed instantly by a shell.

The house sits abandoned. Mrs. McNab cleans and tends to the house but during World War I closes it. After a decade the Ramsays write Mrs. McNab asking her to ready the house. She, along with Mrs. Bast, her son, and contractors, restore the summer home in time for the guests' arrival.

The Lighthouse

"The Lighthouse" covers only a few hours in one morning, focusing on the home's current state after a tumultuous decade. Lily Briscoe is unable to process all that has happened. Mr. Ramsay has planned a trip to the lighthouse and is angry his children have made them late for the trip. Lily recalls the painting of Mrs. Ramsay and James and decides to paint the scene again. When she sets up her easel outside, Mr. Ramsay interrupts her, seeking sympathy. Unable to comfort him, she remains silent until she notices his shoes. James and Cam Ramsay arrive, and the family leaves, while Lily feels remorse.

In the boat James and Cam are forced to confront their anger with Mr. Ramsay. On the lawn Lily is forced to confront her repressed emotions over the loss of her friend. After intense introspection, and Cam's change of heart, Cam and James reach the lighthouse together with their father; Lily finishes her painting.

To the Lighthouse Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Mrs. Ramsay tells James he can visit the lighthouse.

Rising Action

2 Mr. Ramsay and Charles Tansley predict poor weather.

3 Lily Briscoe starts painting Mrs. Ramsay and James.

4 Mrs. Ramsay hosts a dinner party.

5 Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay realize Paul and Minta are engaged.

6 Mrs. Ramsay and her two eldest children die.

7 Mrs. McNab closes, then restores, the house.

8 Family and guests arrive at house after 10 years.

9 Lily Briscoe, highly emotional, works on a new painting.

10 Mr. Ramsay, Cam, and James leave for lighthouse.


11 Mr. Ramsay praises James.

Falling Action

12 The group arrives at the lighthouse.

13 Mr. Ramsay disembarks.

14 James and Cam follow Mr. Ramsay to the lighthouse.


15 Lily Briscoe completes her painting.

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