To the Lighthouse | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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To the Lighthouse | The Window, Chapter 1 | Summary

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Virginia Woolf wrote To the Lighthouse in three parts. This study guide provides a summary and analysis of each chapter within those parts.

Summary

In the drawing room of her summer house on the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides, Mrs. Ramsay tells her son James, he can visit his beloved lighthouse in the morning if the weather permits. Looking out of the window, Mr. Ramsay says the weather will be poor. His wife reassures the disappointed James, saying she expects "it will be fine." To Mrs. Ramsay's frustration, Charles Tansley, her husband's disagreeable pupil, tests the wind with his hand and supports his mentor's opinion, disappointing James further. Mrs. Ramsay, always hospitable, then speaks with "severity" to her daughters as they mock Tansley for chasing them "all the way up to the Hebrides" when they would rather be alone. She tells Nancy, "He had been asked." Mrs. Ramsay's daughters dream of a "life different from hers; in Paris, perhaps," lives in which they are "not always taking care of some man or other."

Later Mrs. Ramsay asks Tansley, who admires her, to accompany her on an errand. On the way she asks Mr. Carmichael if he wants anything and then informs Tansley of Mr. Carmichael's "unfortunate marriage." He offers to carry her bag. She refuses. He wants her to see his successes, but a one-armed man posting an advertisement for a circus distracts her. When she asks Tansley if he has attended a circus, he talks about impoverished youth as she half-heartedly listens. She vows to stop making fun of him.

In town Mrs. Ramsay enjoys the sight of the bay, a favorite view of her husband's. While Mrs. Ramsay visits Elsie, Tansley waits in the foyer and vows to carry Mrs. Ramsay's bag. Taken with Mrs. Ramsay's beauty when she re-enters the room, he carries her things. As a worker admires her, Tansley experiences "pride," a new feeling for him.

Analysis

The novel begins in media res, in the middle of conflict, engaging readers immediately in a family problem: a disagreement over the weather. The stream-of-consciousness narrative, combined with interior monologue (the intimate thoughts, reactions, and emotions of characters), develops both conflict and characters. The shifting focus of the narrative point of view, moving from character to character, contributes to the novel's modernist aspects.

When Mr. Ramsay says the weather will not be favorable, James feels angry toward him for crushing his hope, and the conflict develops. James thinks, "Had there been an axe handy" or any weapon to kill his father with he "would have seized it," showing evidence of the rivalry for Mrs. Ramsay's love typified in Sigmund Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex. As Mrs. Ramsay restores James's hope, his love for his mother grows.

Mr. Ramsay's and Tansley's lack of consideration for James's feelings annoys Mrs. Ramsay, furthering the conflict. Tansley's character is complicated by his admiration for Mrs. Ramsay; he thinks she is the "most beautiful person he had ever seen." His affection for her motivates him to please her, and her attention comforts him, thus making his character more palatable to readers, if not to other characters. As Mrs. Ramsay spends time with him, her negative feelings wane and return, complicating their interactions.

In addition to the complex relationships in this section of the novel, its title, "The Window," draws attention to the characters' locations. Mrs. Ramsay and James sit in the drawing room while Mr. Ramsay and Tansley engage with them through the window during their walk and discussion. This placement creates an opposition, which might represent gender roles. Mrs. Ramsay, mother and wife, remains in the house. Her husband and his male student find their place outside, near the home but not constricted by it. Where women have the house, men have the rest of the world. This difference creates tension that looms around the roles of Mrs. Ramsay and other female characters.

Finally, "The Window," the longest of the three parts of the novel, addresses events that cover about seven hours of time. Stylistically, Woolf anchors time through events and experiences in the characters lives rather than anchoring time to the traditional calendar or clock. She stretches or compresses time through the length of the narrative to suggest the significance and effects of particular events on the lives of the characters. While To the Lighthouse takes place over 10 years, it also takes place over the course of one day or one 24-hour period. "The Window" covers an afternoon and an evening; "Time Passes" covers a dark night that spans 10 years; and "The Lighthouse" covers a morning.

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