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Free Study Guide-To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf-Free Online Book Notes
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The novel begins with Mrs. Ramsey saying yes. She is assuring her young son, James that he will be allowed to go to the lighthouse the next day. James receives her assurance with great joy. James feels transfixed by the moment of peace and love and hopeful prospect as he sits with his mother. His thoughts are interrupted by his father saying "But it won't be fine." His father insists that the sail out to the lighthouse will be prohibited by bad weather and that James should be told the truth about the unlikelihood of getting his wish to visit the lighthouse the next day. James feels intense anger at his father's words and wishes he could kill his father by "gashing a hole in his father's breast."

Mr. Ramsey thinks of his wife's annoying habit of exaggerating the truth. He prides himself on his accuracy of thought and is always urging his wife to inculcate the same habit in the children. Mr. Ramsey "never tampered with a fact; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being." He believes his children should know that life is difficult and "facts uncompromising."

Mr. Ramsey's admirer, the young philosopher Charles Tansley, stops by to agree with Mr. Ramsey, that the weather will not permit a trip out to the lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsey thinks of how her children mock Tansely behind his back, calling him "the atheist." She thinks of how she always invites too many guests and often has to lodge some of them in the village nearby, but that she cannot bear incivility to her guests.

Mrs. Ramsey imagines herself to have "the whole of the other sex under her protection." She cannot explain why she feels this way, but she guesses that it is because men negotiate treaties, rule India, and control finance, and that they have an trustful, childlike and reverential attitude toward her. She cannot imagine any women who would not find this attitude agreeable.

Mrs. Ramsey is fifty years old. She is formidable to behold and her daughters, Prue, Nancy, and Rose, can only entertain ideas in silence that do not coincide with hers. They imagine a life different from their mother's, one in which they did not take care of men. They all silently question the reverence to the status quo of their society, symbolized in the Bank of England and the Indian Empire. However, they also felt some sense of beauty in these symbols of British society, "which called out to the manliness in their girlish hearts." Therefore, they honor their mother's severity and extreme courtesy.

Mrs. Ramsey's thoughts are interrupted by Charles Tansley repeating that there will be no sailing to the lighthouse tomorrow. She thinks of him as a "miserable specimen," as her children call him.

She thinks with humor about her habit of exaggeration. She had said "waves maintains high," and Charles Tansley had said, "yes, it was a little rough." She had asked him was he not "wet through" from the water, and he had replied, "damp, not wet through."

She thinks of her eight children sneaking off after dinner to their bedrooms, the only private places they have to discuss or debate anything: "Tansley's tie; the passing of the Reform Bill; sea birds and butterflies; people." Mrs. Ramsey wishes her children were not so critical. She thinks her children invent differences, when the real differences--those between rich and poor, high and low--are enough. She thinks of her own heritage of a "very noble, if slightly mythical Italian house," but then begins to think about the problems of rich and poor. She visits poor widows and struggling wives. When she does she carries a notebook and pencil and writes down in columns the wages, spending, employment and unemployment. She does so to imagine herself not a woman whose charity is partially selfish, but an investigator, elucidating the social problems.

She thinks these are insoluble questions. She holds her son James's hand who has followed her into the drawing room. She sees Charles Tansley in the room looking awkward and she realizes he has been left behind by the children who have gone off to have fun. She asks Tansley to accompany her on her trip into the village to visit a sick woman. On their way out, she asks Mr. Carmichael, one of her guests, if he would like her to bring him anything from town. She says they are going on a "great expedition." He does not want anything.

Mrs. Ramsey tells Tansley on their walk that Mr. Carmichael should have been a great philosopher, but had made a bad marriage. Mr. Tansley feels flattered that Mrs. Ramsey tells him this. He likes to hear talk which insinuates the "greatness of man's intellect, the subjection of all wives to their husband's labours." He revives. He wishes he could pay for a cab if they were taking one. He feels capable of anything. He sees Mrs. Ramsey has caught the sight of a man pasting a bill advertising a circus. She says they should all go. Even though he agrees they should all go, she can tell he is being false and his tone makes her wince. She asks him had he not been taken to circuses when he was a child? He tells her they had not, being from a family of nine children with a working man for a father. He tells her his father is a chemist and that he, Tansley, has paid his own way since he was thirteen. He tells her his subject of study and she hears it as "the influence of something on somebody." She cannot follow his "ugly academic jargon." As he talks, she thinks of him as an "awful prig." He talks all the way to town and gets back his entire self-confidence.

She interrupts him to exclaim over the beauty of the water with the lighthouse in the distance. She tells him artists have come to the Hebrides to paint since Mr. Paunceforte had been there three years before and had become famous for his pastel-colored paintings of the ocean and the beach, paintings filled with "pink women." Mr. Tansley tries to see what she wants him to see and wonders if he should say the painter's colors are not solid. He wants to tell Mrs. Ramsey everything about himself. He wants to carry her bag.

They arrive at a small house and he waits for her in the parlor while she goes up to visit the sick woman. She comes back down to the parlor and stands still against a picture of Queen Victoria and Tansley suddenly realizes she is the most beautiful person he has ever seen. He takes her bag. He feels an extraordinary pride walking down the street with Mrs. Ramsey such that he has never felt in his life. "He was walking with a beautiful woman. He had hold of her bag."


Woolf begins the exploration of James Ramsey's Oedipal conflict. As a son, his time with his mother, in which all his needs and desires are met, is thwarted by the interrupting father. (See the notes for chapter 7 for a fuller explanation of Woolf's use of the Freudian theory of the Oedipal conflict).

Oddly, Mrs. Ramsey thinks of herself as a protector of men. Her sense of her place inside patriarchy goes against the usual view that women are the protected, while men are the protectors. Here, Woolf describes a sort of bargain of patriarchy in which the men conquer the world and the women nurture them. She connects, thereby, patriarchy and imperialism, two forms of domination.

Like many women of her class, Mrs. Ramsey visits the poor and needy and offers personal charity. Unlike the women of her class, she records statistics and despite her lack of formal education, attains to social investigation. Here again, Woolf describes a housewife in non-stereotypical ways. Mrs. Ramsey both is and is not representative of her class. Moreover, Woolf points out the intelligence of a woman, who, though prohibited from getting a formal education, still applies reason to the understanding of social problems.

Mrs. Ramsey takes care of Mr. Tansely by buoying up his feelings of masculine superiority. She tells the story of a wife causing her husband's failure as a philosopher. This story confirms his view that men's work is more important than women and that women should be subordinate to men. In every aspect of her manner, Mrs. Ramsey gives him the sense of mastery, and he wants to assert more of it by paying for a cab if only they had taken one and by carrying her bag. The scene is written as a sort of farce of patriarchy. Mr. Tansley's ego is manipulated so deftly by Mrs. Ramsey that he is raised to the highest of pride and joy by carrying her bag down the street

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