Literature Study GuidesTo The LighthouseThe Lighthouse Chapter 11 Summary

To the Lighthouse | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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To the Lighthouse | The Lighthouse, Chapter 11 | Summary



As Lily Briscoe thinks "so much ... depends on distance," she watches Mr. Ramsay's boat move across the bay. Augustus Carmichael grunts, retrieves his book, and continues reading. Barely able to spot them, Lily thinks they will land at the lighthouse before lunch and returns to her painting, not wanting to be interrupted.

Noting how Mr. Carmichael has changed and not changed, Lily feels they are connected by thoughts, despite her knowing him only vaguely—the outline, not the details. She thinks both of how Andrew's death affected him and of his current recognition, although she has never read his poetry. She recalls he did not care much for Mrs. Ramsay and was unaffected by her. Her thoughts then turn to Charles Tansley, her dislike of him, Mrs. Ramsay's treatment of him, and his antiwar advocacy. She sees him in her own way and for her own purposes, which for her are in the role of a whipping boy. But that is not necessarily how others view him.

While observing and fussing with a trail of ants, Lily wishes for "fifty pairs of eyes" to understand. She thinks, "Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with." She ponders the memory of Mr. Ramsay gallantly proposing to Mrs. Ramsay and then their marriage, which "was no monotony of bliss," recalling their arguments, "long rigid" silences, and how Mr. Ramsay bothered Mrs. Ramsay until she spoke to him again. Their petty differences and deeper conflict appear in her "impulses and quicknesses; he with his shudders and glooms."

Someone enters the drawing room. The person's shadow creates a "triangular shadow" on the step—recalling how Lily represented Mrs. Ramsay reading to James in her first painting—which slightly changes the "composition of the picture." Dipping her brush, she remembers her former "mood," thinking someone wants to see the ordinary (a "chair") as it is, but recognize simultaneously it is also miraculous. Her torment returns after her inspiration, the new shape on the porch, is altered by the wind, letting the image escape her. She recalls the Ramsays again and Prue's short-lived happiness. She sees Mrs. Ramsay again, amid flowers, and cries for her. Then Lily walks to the lawn's edge to look for the boat and Mr. Ramsay.


Facing the external conflict of balancing Mrs. Ramsay and the painting, which will bring her understanding and catharsis of grief, Lily is filled with the sensation things are "happening for the first time." This feeling creates tension between memory and the present, as she searches for what evades her.

As Lily sifts through her memory, she remembers Mr. Ramsay's tyrannical nature, giving her insight into Cam's and James's anger toward their father. She remembers how the "bedroom door would slam violently early in the morning," displaying how Mr. Ramsay's wrath would begin as soon as he woke, making Cam and James's pact reasonable.

Through her memories, Lily recalls the extent to which Mrs. Ramsay protected her children, and the source of the family's peace becomes apparent. Lily remembers how often Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay wandered off to the pear trees to "have it out together." The setting is significant here because the trees symbolize the life, love, and connection between husband and wife and between mother and children. Being in harmony with her husband and fulfilling her role as a wife enable her to fulfill her role as a mother.

Lily's statement about distance applies not only to her sighting of the boat, but of life and understanding in general. One cannot see or understand people or events when one is too close to them. The statement is only part of the author's vision, for not only does one need distance, but one needs "fifty pairs of eyes" to see the many simultaneous and often conflicting facets not only of Mrs. Ramsay but of people and events.

As Lily confronts her issues, she comes closer to understanding the complexity of life and the balance in the painting, inching closer to understanding herself—"so full her mind was of what she was thinking, of what she was seeing."

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