Literature Study GuidesTo The LighthouseThe Lighthouse Chapter 1 Summary

To the Lighthouse | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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To the Lighthouse | The Lighthouse, Chapter 1 | Summary



It is not quite eight o'clock in the morning, 10 years after the beginning of the novel. As Lily Briscoe sits at the table alone, she struggles with her feelings. Mr. Ramsay, Cam, and James are late for their lighthouse expedition. Mr. Ramsay, who stormed out, walks angrily outside. He peers through the window. Lily avoids him. Sitting in the same spot she did at the dinner party, Lily recalls her epiphany to move the tree. Before Mr. Ramsay looks at her again, she retrieves her art supplies.

Lily sets up her easel in the same spot as 10 years before. She decides to paint the picture again; she never finished the first one, and now she knows how to complete it ("move the tree to the middle"), but Mr. Ramsay's sulking distracts her. She pretends she is busy to ward him off, messing with a rag and paint tubes, hoping Cam and James will arrive. Mr. Ramsay stops beside her. She resolves to "give him" what she can.


Mr. Ramsay's character introduces most of the conflict. He loses his temper because the children sleep late and Nancy has forgotten to order lunches. Nancy storms in, "desperate," asking for help: "What does one send to the Lighthouse?" Yet the house remains as is, dumbstruck. Lily sits; Augustus Carmichael pours his coffee and leaves as Mr. Ramsay walks "in a rage," wearing a "distraught wild gaze."

Lily keeps referring to the passage of time (sitting and standing in the same spots), drawing attention to the absences. As she grows angry with Mr. Ramsay for his selfishness, she thinks, "She was dead. The step where she used to sit was empty. She was dead." This repetition of Mrs. Ramsay's death develops the theme of love and loss as Lily continues to grieve.

The trip to the lighthouse recalls the decade-old disagreement about the weather, a battle between genders and between father and son (Mrs. Ramsay and James versus Mr. Ramsay and Charles Tansley). Ten years later, on a "beautiful still day," disagreement looms between father and children, a battle between generations (Mr. Ramsay versus James and Cam). The trip to the inaccessible lighthouse has been delayed for a decade, and the family seems unable to overcome conflict, deepening the enduring tension between Mr. Ramsay and James. James still carries his aversion to his father, exposing their unloving relationship, their inability to connect, and James's Oedipal struggles with his mother's death.

The third part of the novel, "The Lighthouse," stretches time again to cover one morning. The effect of stretching and compressing time continues to emphasize the significance and effects of particular events on the characters. The movement in time throughout the three parts of the novel from afternoon/evening, to night, to morning suggests that the characters are moving toward some resolution to their conflicts.

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