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Free Study Guide-To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf-Free Online Book Notes
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Lily Briscoe looks out at the sea and thinks of how much depends upon distance. Her feelings about Mr. Ramsey change as he gets further and further away. He seems to be swallowed up by the water. She hears Mr. Carmichael grunt suddenly and she laughs. Mr. Carmichael grabs up his book from the grass and puffs and blows like a sea monster. Everyone is quiet at the house.

She thinks of how things become unreal sometimes. It is like coming back from a trip or coming back around to things after a long illness, "before habits had spun themselves across the surface, one felt that same unreality, which was so startling; felt something emerge. Life was most vivid then." Lily feels most at ease during these times. She does not have to speak in a sociable manner with anyone. She feels like she is gliding between things or beyond things. "She seemed to be standing up to the hips in some substance, to move and float and sink in it, yes, for these waters were unfathomably deep." She feels like many lives had spilled into these waters of her mind, everyone from the Ramseys to waifs and strays of things, to a washerwoman to a rook, even the purples and grey-greens of flowers. A "common feeling held the whole."

Lily remembers that it was such a moment of completeness ten years ago that she had felt while she was standing where she is now painting. For Lily, "love had a thousand shapes." It could be lovers who could put things together and make a wholeness of them or make some kind of scene, or a meeting of people, "one of those globed compacted things over which thought lingers, and love plays."

Lily sees the boat now as a brown speck on the water. She imagines that the Ramseys would be at the lighthouse by lunchtime. The wind suddenly changes and things are less satisfactory to look at than they were a moment ago when everything was smooth and still. Everything is unpleasantly out of proportion. She turns to her picture and feels like she has wasted her morning. She cannot "achieve that razor edge of balance between two opposite forces; Mr. Ramsey and the picture." She thinks it might be an imbalance in the design of her painting. When she had begun painting this morning, she had thought she had solved the problem of design. She cannot get at what she wants; it evades her. She wants to get at "the thing itself before it has been made into anything." She is determined to go on, but feels ill equipped to do so.

She tries to picture Mrs. Ramsey again, but cannot think or feel. She wonders where she is when she cannot think or feel. She has a strong sense that everything is happening for the first time or for the last time. She feels that the lawn is the world. She sees Mr. Carmichael and imagines that he shares her thoughts. He is growing old and also he is growing famous. She might not see him again. Poetry he wrote forty years ago is getting published. Now there is this famous man named Carmichael. She smiles to think of how many different shapes one person can have. He is the man in the newspapers and he is also this man on the lawn with her. Someone had told her that when Mr. Carmichael had heard of Andrew's death, he had lost all interest in life. She wonders what that would mean in his life. Would he just turn pages over and over in a book without reading? Her way of knowing Mr. Carmichael is mumbling to him as they pass on staircases about the weather, but she still thinks that this is one way of knowing people, "to know the outline, not the detail." She has never read any of his poetry. She imagines that it must read slowly and sonorously and must be about the desert and the camel. She thinks it is probably extremely impersonal, something about death, and very little about love. She remembers how he always lurched past Mrs. Ramsey and wonders why he did not like her. Lily remembers that Mrs. Ramsey would always make him stop so she could ask him if she could do anything for him. He would bow to her and say he did not need anything and Mrs. Ramsey would be annoyed that he did not and ask him if he was sure he did not need something. Lily imagines that it must have been Mrs. Ramsey's "masterfulness, her positiveness," her matter-of-fact and direct manner that he did not like.

Lily's eyes are drawn to the drawing-room window by a sound, but she sees nothing there. Lily thinks there must have been people who did not like Mrs. Ramsey. People thought she was too sure, too drastic, and too beautiful. Another of Mrs. Ramsey's flaws was her weakness with her husband. She let him make scenes. Lily knows it is impossible to imagine Mrs. Ramsey standing painting or lying reading all morning on the lawn. Lily saw her very often going off with her basket on her arm. She would think when she saw Mrs. Ramsey return, "eyes that are closing in pain have looked on you." Lily Briscoe remembers Mrs. Ramsey being annoyed when somebody was late or the butter was not fresh. Lily thinks that even while Mrs. Ramsey was talking about these things, people would be thinking of her beauty like Greek temples. Mrs. Ramsey never talked about her errands. For Lily, it was Mrs. Ramsey's nature to go, "like the swallows for the south, the artichokes for the sun, running her infallibly to the human race, making her nest in its heart." Lily Briscoe imagines that this instinct of Mrs. Ramsey's was slightly distressing to people who did not share it, like Mr. Carmichael and herself. Both of them thought about the ineffectiveness of action and the supremacy of thought.

Lily Briscoe thinks that Charles Tansley was like Mrs. Ramsey in the sense that he also moved things, "upset the proportions of one's world." She wonders what had happened to him. She knows he had gotten his fellowship, had married, and lived at Golder's Green. She had heard him speaking of the war one day. "He was denouncing something: he was denouncing somebody." While Mr. Tansley was preaching brotherly love, Lily Briscoe had been wondering how he could love anybody when he could not tell one picture from another. He had stood behind her smoking and making it his business to tell her "women can't write, women can't pain." She knows he did not really believe that, but that he just wished it. As she thinks about him standing on the platform, "lean and red and raucous," she stirs ants with her brush and thinks how like Mr. Tansley the "red, energetic, shiny ants" are. As she had sat in the half-empty hall listening to him "pump love into that chilly space," she had remembered Mrs. Ramsey calling out on the beach that day that she had lost her spectacle case, telling Mr. Tansley not to bother looking, that she lost thousands every summer.. Lily Briscoe had seen Mr. Tansley "push his chin back against his collar, as if afraid to sanction such exaggeration." Mrs. Ramsey had told Lily Briscoe that Charles Tansley was educating his little sister. Lily knows that her ideas of Mr. Tansley are distorted. She knows that most people's ideas of other people are distorted, serving their own purposes. He was her whipping boy. Lily makes a mountain for the ants to climb over. She interferes in their cosmogony.

Working on the picture, Lily Briscoe thinks "one wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with. Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with. Among them must be one that was stone blind to her beauty." Another pair of eyes would be able to get through keyholes and surround her while she was knitting or sitting silently. Lily wonders what the hedge or the garden or a breaking wave meant to Mrs. Ramsey. Lily remembers when Mr. Ramsey had stopped dead in front of Mrs. Ramsey. Lily noticed that Mrs. Ramsey seemed to experience a curious shock as he stood over her. He had reached out and raised her from her chair. Lily imagines the moment when Mrs. Ramsey had realized she would marry Mr. Ramsey as taking place in an old-fashioned setting where Mr. Ramsey had helped her out of a boat. Lily imagines Mrs. Ramsey saying she would marry him in one word only. Lily guesses that time after time the same thrill must have passed between them. Lily smoothes a way for the ants while she thinks and tries to smooth out some thought of years ago. In the rush of daily life with children and visitors, Lily imagines "one had constantly a sense of repetition--of one thing falling where another had fallen, and so setting up an echo which chimed in the air and made it full of vibrations."

Lily Briscoe realizes it would be wrong to simplify Mrs. and Mr. Ramsey's relationship. She knows it was no "monotony of bliss." She remembers seeing signs of them fighting. Mr. Ramsey would throw things and slam around the house. It cowed Mrs. Ramsey. They would go through long silences. After a while, Mr. Ramsey would begin to hang around her again and Mrs. Ramsey would be too busy for him and evade him. Then he would come to her and after holding off, she would go to him when he called her name and then they would go off together and have it out together. Lily remembers Prue especially would be upset by her parents' long silences and her father's shows of temper. Lily thinks of Prue has having let the flowers fall from her basket.

Lily Briscoe's thoughts are interrupted by the sight of someone at the window of the drawing room at which she has been staring. The shadow throws an odd-shaped triangular shadow over the step and it alters the composition of Lily's picture enough to be useful to her. She keeps looking intently without relaxing. To be in the perfect mood to paint, Lily had to be on a level with ordinary experience, but also to realize it is all a miracle and an ecstasy. Just as she is feeling hopeful that the problem will be solved, a wave of white goes over the windowpane. She cries out, "Mrs. Ramsey! Mrs. Ramsey!" as she feels the old horror come back, "to want and want and not to have." Then that whiteness over the windowpane also becomes part of ordinary experience. She sees Mrs. Ramsey sitting there at the window quite simply and she is knitting her stocking. Lily is so full of what she is thinking and seeing that she goes past Mr. Carmichael to the edge of the lawn. She wonders where the boat is now. "And Mr. Ramsey? She wanted him."


Woolf opens the chapter by describing a special kind of feeling in which it is especially good for producing art. The rush of everyday life is gone and the sense of finding things anew makes the person see everything in a new light. Lily compares this to a sense of completeness that a person sometimes gets when a group of people coheres especially well.

When the wind picks up, Lily loses her sense of completeness. Ironically, the wind picking up out at sea made the Ramseys on board feel great relief in the previous chapter. In this contrast, Woolf seems to be pointing to two modes of life: the active life and the contemplative life. Lily and Mr. Carmichael lead contemplative lives. Stillness and silence are perfect elements for their work. Mr. Ramsey out on the boat is doing something active. Therefore, when Lily thinks she must reach a perfect balance between Mr. Ramsey and her picture, she seems to have something like a balance between activity and the contemplation of activity in mind.

Lily's mind moves to her relationship with Mr. Carmichael over the years, a man with whom she has never held a conversation, but with whom she has been an acquaintance for years. She realizes with a painter's eye that people have many shapes, depending on who is looking at them and from what vantagepoint a person sees them. This thought takes her to Mrs. Ramsey the subject of her painting. Mr. Carmichael had not liked Mrs. Ramsey, Lily knows. She thinks of why people would not like Mrs. Ramsey.

She remembers Mrs. Ramsey always going off on her social errands with her basket. She realizes the Mrs. Ramsey was a woman of action, one reason she would disturb a contemplative man like Mr. Carmichael or even her, Lily. She realizes the Charles Tansely, too, was a person who disturbed things as they were. Woolf has Lily Briscoe stir up the world of ants as she thinks of Charles Tansley as if to show the different layers of existence that are disturbed when any one layer is disturbed.

Woolf provides a perfect image for describing the style of her novel when she has Lily think that in order to capture the image of one person, she would need to have fifty pairs of eyes. Woolf seems to do just this in writing the novel from so many different points of view. Even the point of view of a single character shifts continuously as moments past and slight changes in their environment makes them see the object of their vision differently.

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


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