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To the Lighthouse | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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To the Lighthouse | The Lighthouse, Chapter 5 | Summary



Lily Briscoe spots Mr. Ramsay's boat before it launches across the bay. The memory of Mrs. Ramsay writing letters at the beach returns to her, making her wonder why this, of all memories, survives: how Mrs. Ramsay sees something in the distance and grabs for her glasses, asking and guessing what it is. Painting, Lily struggles with space, while in her mind she sits beside Mrs. Ramsay on the beach. Lily imagines updating her about the Rayleys, whose marital troubles she has fabricated: Minta careless and garish; Paul jealous and unfaithful.

Recalling the tension between Lily and her friend regarding marriage, she thinks how despite Mrs. Ramsay's power over people, nothing has turned out the way she intended. As Mrs. Ramsay had wished, she and William Bankes went on walks but remained friends. She keeps looking at the house steps, which because of Mrs. Ramsay's death seem empty. Again Lily yearns to talk to Augustus Carmichael. These desires culminate in her thoughts: "to want and not to have—to want and want—how that wrung the heart." Mourning her friend and searching for meaning, she begins to cry, thinking "all was miracle," that no one knows a thing. Tears flowing, she cries out for Mrs. Ramsay.


Lily Briscoe explores her internal conflict while painting, in an attempt to come to terms with her life and Mrs. Ramsay's death. Her uninterrupted thoughts flow from Mrs. Ramsay to Minta Doyle to Paul Rayley, deepening the theme of internal life by revealing the pain that has remained dormant. Though Lily, for once, does not want to be alone, her inability to console Mr. Ramsay plagues her, distracting her from painting. She wants to talk to Mr. Carmichael, who reclines on his chair, but his hat is tipped over his face, making him inaccessible and spiraling Lily deeper into thought.

Searching for the reason Mrs. Ramsay is obsessed with marriage, Lily—thinking about love—sees Paul, a fire protruding from him. Any time love has arisen in Lily's mind over the decade, "Paul's fire" burns, "the roar and the crackle," developing her unrequited love for him, her character, and the theme of love and loss.

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