Literature Study GuidesTo The LighthouseThe Lighthouse Chapter 12 Summary

To the Lighthouse | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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To the Lighthouse | The Lighthouse, Chapter 12 | Summary



James observes Mr. Ramsay, close to finishing his book, and thinks he looks old, the physical manifestation of "what was always at the back of both their minds"—"loneliness." Approaching the lighthouse, James is satisfied and repeats something his father has said, "We are driving before a gale—we must sink." Bored, Cam watches her father read, oblivious to them, and dozes off. Hungry, Mr. Ramsay startles Cam, demanding, "Come now."

Macalister praises James for his control of the boat, but James is annoyed his father never compliments him. Feeling safe, Cam eats an egg, adding to her story, as Mr. Ramsay and Macalister discuss the war. Mr. Ramsay scolds Cam for almost throwing her sandwich overboard and tells her to save it. She reacts as though he has said something wise, of which she approves, and he gives her a gingerbread nut from his own lunch.

Finally, Macalister's son speaks, pointing out where three men drowned in the storm. James and Cam think their father will recite poetry, which they hate. To their surprise, he doesn't. Mr. Ramsay compliments James on his steering. As they prepare to land, two men wait at the lighthouse, and James and Cam watch Mr. Ramsay looking back at the island, thinking, "Ask us anything and we will give it you." But he is silent. He then asks his children to carry the parcels Nancy packed. They obey and prepare to follow him as he jumps "lightly like a young man ... on to the rock."


In the novel's denouement, the group arrives at the previously inaccessible lighthouse, bringing the mounting tension over the bad weather and human interaction to rest and offering resolution.

James faces his emotional conflict, reflecting the Freudian Oedipal theories of early childhood, his murderous rages being the natural reaction to a father's interference in a boy's desire for intimacy with his mother. Reflection helps James recognize he and his father are similar: both are lonely; both have now shared a close view of the lighthouse. As James faces the structure he was once so passionate about, he realizes it is a "stark tower on a bare rock," and he repeats one of his father lines, "exactly as his father said it," showing deep contemplation and acceptance.

After Mr. Ramsay compliments James on his sailing, Cam, torn between them, thinks "There! ... You've got it at last." Even though James looks "sulky" and frowns, Cam knows he does not want to "share a grain of pleasure," illuminating their bond, a milestone between father and son, and another confirmation of their similarity. Earlier Cam pondered Mr. Ramsay's inaccessibility—like the lighthouse's. Now they arrive at what has seemed impossible, or inaccessible, for them throughout the novel: the lighthouse trip and human connection.

Through Mr. Ramsay's approval of his sailing, James and his father are able to connect. James may already have forgiven, or at least come to terms with, his father and his failures. In this scene, Cam, who knows her brother better than the other passengers do, believes he is content, but he does not reveal this emotion.

It is up to the reader to decide how much James has accepted and where he is emotionally. Certainly his vision is broader and his acceptance greater—he sees the lighthouse as it was to him and as it is now—but he is still young and may need more distance, which he and Cam maintain somewhat, for although they rise to follow their father, they are still in the boat at the end of the novel. Readers may wonder whether Mr. Ramsay, with his newfound energy, will help them disembark or leave them to do it on their own, affirming their independence. Either way, they will disembark, and James, like Cam earlier in the excursion, has moved toward accepting his father and his father accepting him in their journey toward understanding and connection.

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