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To the Lighthouse | Themes

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Love and Loss

Whether the love is familial (James and Mrs. Ramsay), lustful (Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle), marital (Mr. Ramsay and Mrs. Ramsay), platonic (William Bankes and Mr. Ramsay), or unrequited (Lily Briscoe and Paul Rayley; William Bankes and Mrs. Ramsay), each character contemplates love and copes with loss in individual ways. Often characters miss opportunities to connect with one another, making reflection their only expression of love or loss, which is witnessed through the shifting point of view and stream-of-consciousness style. This isolation represents an almost constant loss throughout the novel.

In "The Window," Chapter 19, Mrs. Ramsay senses Mr. Ramsay wants her to tell him she loves him, desiring the "thing she always found it so difficult to give him." Unable to articulate her love, she tells him he was right about the rainy weather, which is her way of connecting with him. Typically, where others may fail to connect, Mrs. Ramsay succeeds merely by being present. Therefore, the absence caused by her death is all the more pervasive.

Sometimes unconscious or seemingly unrelated actions reveal love and loss. In "The Window," Chapter 9, while Mr. Bankes complains about Mr. Ramsay to Lily Briscoe, he quietly admires Mrs. Ramsay, making Lily aware of his unrequited love. In "Time Passes," Chapter 6, quiet Augustus Carmichael, grieved by Andrew Ramsay's death, publishes a well-received poetry collection. A decade later in "The Lighthouse," Lily completes a new painting of Mrs. Ramsay, and Mr. Ramsay takes James to the lighthouse. These final actions reveal not only love for Mrs. Ramsay but acceptance of her death and an affirmation of the love, life, and connection she inspired.

Internal Life

Because of the novel's stream-of-consciousness style and shifting point of view, most of the "plot" unfolds in the minds of the characters. Very little outward action occurs. Indeed, the plot is driven not by what characters do but by what they observe, think, and feel, thus defining their existence.

Mrs. Ramsay may be the most obvious character whose internal and external lives conflict. Externally, she is a devoted mother, compassionate neighbor and benefactor, and sympathetic and sensitive wife. She performs these roles with calm and grace; however, her internal life is chaotic, as conflicting thoughts and emotions battle. As she directs guests to their seats at her dinner party, she feels far removed from the task, asking herself what she has done with her life. The role she has created for herself and in which others see her is not what it appears.

During one-on-one encounters, characters are alienated by their own or others' isolation, or lack of connection. In "The Window," Chapter 10, Cam Ramsay ignores Mrs. Ramsay when she calls her, making Mrs. Ramsay wonder what her daughter is dreaming about, standing in front of her "with some thought of her own." Mrs. Ramsay compares talking to Cam with dropping a message into a well, showing their lack of connection, and she asks her daughter to repeat the message to ensure she listened to her.

Mr. Ramsay's internal life, too, is one of insecurity and continual need for praise and reassurance. He seeks admiration from his followers, who are few, and comfort from his wife, who supplies it. He knows, internally, the reality of his limited intellect will lead to no great contributions in his field. Externally, however, he acts like the "philosopher" he aspires to be, and in his demands for attention from those around him, he is cranky and belligerent, causing murderous emotions in his son and antipathy in others.

Reality versus the Ideal

Many of the characters in the novel consider ideals. During the summer holiday each one—whether pursuits are professional, artistic, domestic, or romantic—makes an effort to organize what and whom they encounter to extract beauty or truth. After the dinner party in "The Window" Mrs. Ramsay enjoys a moment of silence in the stairwell where she tries to extract the "thing that mattered" from the dinner. Wanting to "detach it; separate it off; clean it of all the emotions and odds and ends," she wants to possess it, the dinner's ideal, to understand how she and others will remember it. In reality, however, it is a dinner party not unlike others and already a memory.

Throughout the novel, Lily Briscoe labors to represent Mrs. Ramsay and James, their shape and color. Struggling through her creative process and impressions, she tries to create a truth, which she knows, in "The Window," Chapter 9, is not a "likeness" but a "vision ... she had seen clearly once."

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