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Free Study Guide-To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf-Free Online Book Notes
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Standing on shore, Lily Briscoe thinks she sees their boat. She imagines that Mr. Ramsey must be sitting there and the children must still be quiet. The sympathy she had not given him weighs her down and makes it difficult to paint. She had always found it difficult to be around Mr. Ramsey. Since she could not praise him to his face, their relationship had been reduced to something neutral without the element of sex in it which was there in his relationship with Minta. As she stands there, she feels an impulse to ask Mr. Carmichael if he remembers, but she sees he is half- asleep. Maybe he is lying there catching words. She thinks of Mrs. Ramsey on the beach that day. She wonders why after all these years that memory is still so distinct when so much else is forgotten. As she would sit on the beach, Mrs. Ramsey would ask about things she dimly saw out on the water.

Lily Briscoe turns back to her canvas. She feels very grateful for the problem of space and takes up her brush again. The mass of the picture glares at her. She wants it to be beautiful and light on the surface, "feathery and evanescent," with one color melting into another like the colors on a butterfly's wing. Underneath those colors, she wants it to be clamped together with bolts of iron. "It was to be a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses." At the same time that she is painting, she seems to be sitting beside Mrs. Ramsey on the beach. She hears Mrs. Ramsey calling out questions about what she sees on the horizon, while she hunts for her spectacles. Painting, Lily Briscoe feels as though a door has opened and that she goes in and looks inside a cathedral-like space. She hears shouts from far away. She sees Charles Tansley skipping stones. In her reminiscence, Mrs. Ramsey sits silently. Lily thought she was glad to rest in silence, uncommunicative. Lily Briscoe thinks of the "extreme obscurity of human relationships," the idea that people do not know who we are and what we feel. Even at moments of great intimacy, people do not know one another. She thinks of Mrs. Ramsey sitting on the beach silently and she imagines that Mrs. Ramsey was thinking that people are more expressive when silent. The moment seemed extraordinarily fertile. Lily Briscoe digs a little hole in the sand as a way of burying the perfection of the moment.

Lily Briscoe steps back to get her canvas into perspective. She thinks of how odd it is to be taking the road of being a painter. She imagines it as going further and further out on a road until at last she was alone on a narrow plank over the sea. As she dips into the paint, she dips into the past. She remembers Mrs. Ramsey getting up saying it was time to go back to the house for lunch. Lily Briscoe remembers walking behind with William Banks. Before them, Minta walked and Lily Briscoe remembers seeing a small hole in Minta's stocking. She remembers feeling that William Banks deplored that hole, which meant to him "the annihilation of womanhood, and dirt and disorder, and servants leaving and beds not made at mid-day--all the things he most abhorred." Lily Briscoe knew the hole in Minta's stocking bothered him because he had shuddered and spread his fingers out in front of him.

Lily Briscoe thinks of the Rayleys as she squeezes the tube of green paint. She collects her impressions of them. She sees their lives as a series of scenes. In one scene, Paul is standing on the staircase at dawn. He had come in and gone to bed early and Minta was late. Minta was tinted and garish on the stairs at three o'clock in the morning. Paul had come down with a poker- suspecting burglars. Minta was eating a sandwich and the carpet had a hole in it. Lily wonders what they said. She imagines Minta continuing to eat her sandwich while Paul said something violent, abusing her but quietly so as not to wake their two little boys. Things had gone bad in their marriage after the first year. Lily thinks this making up scenes about people is how we think we know them. She knows nothing of it is true, that she had made it up, but it was still how she knew them. She goes on "tunneling her way into her picture, into the past."

In another memory, Paul had told her he played chess in coffeehouses. She had built up a whole "structure of imagination" on that saying. She imagines that he must have called the servant who had told him his wife was out. Then he must have decided not to go home either. She imagines he must have sat at some sad place and played chess with a little man in the tea trade. Lily remembers when she visited them at a cottage in the country and found things between them very strained. She had gone down to the garden with Paul to look at the hares he bred and Minta had followed them singing and put her bare arm on his shoulder to keep him from saying anything. Lily had thought that Minta was bored by hares, but could see that Minta never gave herself away. Lily moves on through their story. She thinks of how they had gotten through the dangerous stage by now. Lily stayed with them last summer and the car broke down. Minta had handed Paul the tools in a very straightforward and friendly way and Lily had thought of how that proved that they were no longer enemies, though they were no longer in love. Paul had begun an affair with another women. Minta had described her to Lily in an admiring way. The woman Paul was having an affair with was a serious woman who went to meetings and shared Paul's views about the taxation of land values. The alliance between Paul and this other women and made the marriage stronger. They had become good friends. Lily imagines herself telling this story to Mrs. Ramsey. Lily would feel somewhat triumphant telling Mrs. Ramsey that the marriage had not been a success.

Lily encounters an obstacle in her design which makes her stop, stand back, and look at it. She thinks of the dead, how people tend to pity them, brush them aside, and even feel contempt for them. The dead are at the mercy of the living. Mrs. Ramsey is with the dead and the living can override her wishes and improve upon her old-fashioned ideas. Mrs. Ramsey recedes further and further into the past. Lily thinks of her saying, "Marry, Marry!" Lily wants to say to her that it has all gone against her wishes, that the Rayleys are happy as they are and so is she. "Life has changed completely." At that thought, all Mrs. Ramsey's beauty and being seems out of date. For a moment, Lily Briscoe feels she triumphed over Mrs. Ramsey.

She thinks Mrs. Ramsey had planned Lily's marriage to William Banks. If she had lived, she might have even compelled it. She had told Lily Briscoe he was kind and that Mr. Ramsey said that William Banks was the first scientist of his age. She had told Lily Briscoe of how pitiful he was living alone as a widower with no one to arrange his flowers. Mrs. Ramsey had sent them on walks. Lily Briscoe was told that she had a scientific mind. Lily wonders what the mania was of Mrs. Ramsey's for marriage.

Suddenly a reddish light seems to burn in her mind and cover up Paul Rayley. She remembers her desire to run along the beach headlong and find Minta's pearl brooch that she had lost that day. The same fire that had so much splendor also repelled her with fear and disgust. Yet she still has the same feeling anytime someone says "in love." She instantly remembers Paul's fire. The fire sinks and she laughs to herself about the Rayleys.

She knows she only barely escaped. She remembers the moment she had escaped. She was sitting at the table looking at the tablecloth and she had suddenly envisioned the idea to move the tree to the middle and never marry anybody. She had felt exaltation. Now that she can stand up to Mrs. Ramsey, she feels the immense power Mrs. Ramsey had over people. She remembers that even her shadow as she sat at the window with James was full of authority.

She remembers William Banks's shock when she had not given due respect to the figure of mother and son. She remembers how William had listened to her, however, with a wise child's eyes, when she had explained to him that it was not irreverence, but a matter of light and shadow. She was very pleased to be able to talk about art seriously with him. She greatly values her friendship with him. She loves him. They go to Hampton Court and he is a perfect gentleman, always leaving her plenty of time to wash her hands while he strolls by the river. "That was typical of their relationship. Many things were left unsaid." He would talk to her about perspective and architecture. He would admire children. He felt greatly the lack of a daughter. Since he spent so much time in laboratories, he was especially dazzled by the beauty of the world. He told her details of his domestic life, about buying carpets, letting the housekeeper off for a holiday. Once he had told her of the first time he had seen Mrs. Ramsey. She had been wearing a grey hat and was nineteen or twenty, astonishingly beautiful.

Lily Briscoe looks at the drawing-room step in front of her. Through William's eyes, she sees the shape of a woman peaceful and silent, looking down. Her eyes are bent and she will never lift them. Lily Briscoe thinks she must have seen Mrs. Ramsey like that, but not so young nor so peaceful. She was beautiful, but, Lily thinks, beauty could come too readily and if it did, "it stilled life-- froze it." It made a person forget "the agitations, the flush, the pallor, some queer distortion, some light or shadow, which made the face unrecognizable for a moment and yet added a quality one saw for ever after." She remembers Mrs. Ramsey throwing the deerstalker's hat on her head and running across the grass to scold the gardener.

Lily has come to the surface of consciousness and is halfway outside the picture. She looks around in a daze. She sees Mr. Carmichael "basking like a creature gorged with existence." She wants to go call his name, but she does not know what she would say to him. She wants to say everything to him. For Lily, words break up thought and dismember it. They say nothing. She wants to talk about life, death, and Mrs. Ramsey, but cannot. Words are always inadequate to capture the moment. She would give up and the idea would sink back down and she would become like most middle-aged people, "cautious, furtive, with a look of perpetual apprehension." She cannot express in words the emotions of the body. She looks at the drawing room steps and they look very empty. She suddenly feels a very unpleasant sensation about the bare look of the steps. It upsets her to want and not to have. She calls out for Mrs. Ramsey silently. It had seemed so safe to think of her.

She wants to ask Mr. Carmichael what it all means. The whole world seems to have dissolved. She thinks for a moment that after all Mr. Carmichael could hear what she is silently saying to him. He is hard to understand with his yellow stain on his beard, his poetry, and his puzzles. He sails serenely through a world which satisfies all his wants. She imagines that he would have answered her that "you" and "I" and "she" vanish. Everything changes but words and paint.

Still, Lily thinks, it would be hung in attics. Looking at the picture she is surprised to find herself with tears in her eyes. She wonders if she is crying for Mrs. Ramsey. She addresses the question to Mr. Carmichael silently. She thinks that if they both got up and demanded why life was so short and so unknown, that "beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into a shape; Mrs. Ramsey would return. She shouts "Mrs. Ramsey!" and the tears run down her face.


Lily Briscoe reveals that her conception of her painting involves a strict sense of depth and surface. The depth should have a strong structure, a firm foundation and the surface should feel evanescence as if it could shimmer and shift. In a sense, this description also fits the novel. On the surface, all is flowing, relationships are amorphous and constantly shifting, but in the three-part structure of the book, Woolf has formed a solid foundation.

Lily Briscoe wonders why one afternoon is so important to her, that is, the afternoon on the beach with Charles Tansley when he was pleasant and playful and when Mrs. Ramsey called out questions about what she dimly saw on the water. It might be important to Lily because on that afternoon, she was with the two people who represent the two elements that antagonize her in regards to her art. Mrs. Ramsey told her that her painting was trivial, much less important than getting married and raising children. Charles Tansley told her she could not paint because she is a woman. On the beach that day, they were not antagonizing her. They were allies. Picturing them so allows Lily some freedom to paint.

Woolf shows here that the process of painting is like processing memories. Lily Briscoe does not paint out of pure abstraction. Her mind keeps working through memories of the past, phrases she has heard, and obsessions she cannot let go of.

Woolf develops here a theme she has worked into the novel in several different places, the theme that we do not really know the people around us. For Lily Briscoe, knowing people is a sort of creative construction of a series of images not all of which even occurred in real life. Her idea of the Rayley's marriage is a formed out of images she has made up in her mind to correspond to tidbits of information. In writing a novel like this one, Woolf faces this fact about human knowledge of other humans. As she writes, she constructs personalities out of images. The writing process imitates what people do in life to imagine that they know the people in their lives.

Lily Briscoe wonders what all the fuss was for Mrs. Ramsey about marriage. She had wanted Lily to marry and she had set up Paul and Minta to marry. Lily is subtly pleased that Paul and Minta's marriage did not work out on the line that Mrs. Ramsey imagined it would. Their construction of a new kind of relationship challenges the sufficiency of the patriarchal marriage, a challenge Lily Briscoe can only be happy about.

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Free Study Guide-To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf-Free Chapter Summary


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