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To the Lighthouse | Symbols



Across the bay the lighthouse represents inaccessibility. It appears in the opening scene, creating conflict between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and murderous rage from young James. Over 10 years, the long sweep of the light—Mrs. Ramsay believes the light emanates from her—reaches the Ramsays' house, becoming a comfort and a curse to the characters.

With multiple meanings, the lighthouse represents what the main characters find inaccessible at first, but later accessible, or "enlightening." Lily finishes her painting, and James and Cam Ramsay reach a connection with their father. In "The Lighthouse," Chapter 8, James observes the lighthouse, once an unattainable "passion," thinking, "So that was the Lighthouse, was it?" Observing its "stark and straight" structure, he decides the lighthouse in front of him is also the lighthouse of his memories, an "opening and shutting" eye reaching their summer house, "For nothing was simply one thing." His reconciliation of the past and present images of the lighthouse typify the novel's multiple viewpoints that truth, or understanding, is not one-dimensional and that what is inaccessible to one character is not the same for others.


Painting represents understanding and catharsis. Lily Briscoe paints a scene that includes Mrs. Ramsay reading to James in the drawing room. She ponders Mrs. Ramsay's character, who is "like a bird for speed, an arrow for directness," a "commanding" presence opening windows and shutting doors. Not attempting a "likeness" but rather another sense of "mother and child," she depicts Mrs. Ramsay as a purple triangular shadow. Later Mrs. Ramsay in "The Window," Chapter 11, describes herself as a "wedge of darkness," which resembles a purple triangular shadow.

Lily navigates the issue of balance in the painting. Working on the composition, she achieves a certain understanding by moving the tree (symbolizing love, life, and connection, which for Lily show themselves in Mrs. Ramsay) to a more prominent position to reflect the Mrs. Ramsay's essence and importance.

The act of painting represents catharsis for Lily. At the beginning of the novel, she is anxious about showing the painting to others. Introverted and sensitive, she is unsure about her abilities and intimidated by Charles Tansley's derogatory comments about women's inabilities as artists. Although she continues painting, Lily cannot achieve complete catharsis—for her, the inaccessible—until she fully understands her feelings about Mrs. Ramsay.

When Lily finally allows herself sufficient distance, she is able to finish the new painting with a simple line down the center, achieving the complete sense of balance she has sought, and she can accept herself as an artist. If she achieves understanding in "The Window," she achieves catharsis in "The Lighthouse," as she finishes the painting at the same time as Mrs. Ramsay's husband and children reach the lighthouse.


While the pear tree receives the most attention in the novel, it is noteworthy that the summer house is surrounded by trees. Representing love, life, and connection, trees protect the home and those in it, as does Mrs. Ramsay.

In "The Window," Chapter 4, Lily Briscoe and William Bankes pause by the pear tree, discussing Mr. Ramsay's stalled career, a discussion showing the intimacy of their deep friendship. At that spot Lily imagines a kitchen table—which, because of Andrew Ramsay's explanation of Mr. Ramsay's field, represents the patriarch and his work—"lodged" in the tree. Lily's image, considering her love for the Ramsays, illustrates how Mr. Ramsay's difficult professional life and demanding presence harm the family's well-being.

When Lily changes the composition of her painting by moving the tree closer to the center, she affirms the tree's importance as a representation of the inner spirit of Mrs. Ramsay, which Lily is trying to capture: the love, life, and connection that make her a nurturing, protecting, and stabilizing force in others' lives.

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