To the Lighthouse Summary and Analysis
The Window: Chapters XI-XIV
Mrs. Ramsay muses that, because children have an exceptional memory, one must always be cautious about what one does in front of them, and now Mrs. Ramsay is glad to have some time alone. She draws a parallel between a solitary person and a "wedge-shaped core of darkness"--an image that is reminiscent of the purple triangle in Lily's painting that represents Mrs. Ramsay--in that, because it is invisible to others, it is limitless. It is only this invisible self, she believes, that finds peace and stability, representing a triumph over the force of life that she battles. As she stares out the window, she feels united with the long, steady third stroke of the Lighthouse. She reflects on the idea that people, when they are alone, attach themselves to inanimate objects and feel that the object both expresses and is the person viewing it. She finds herself thinking and taking comfort in the Lord and is immediately frustrated with herself because she does not believe in God, reason, order or justice and sees this thought as a silly indulgence.
Mr. Ramsay passes by his wife on the way over to the hedge and is disheartened by her aloof expression of sadness. As Mrs. Ramsay continues to stare at the light, she thinks of all the happiness that she has had and decides that "It is enough!" Though Mr. Ramsay finds her beautiful and is hurt by her distance, he resolves not to disturb her. However, as he passes by her again she senses that, though he would never ask it of her, he wants to be able to protect her, and she offers a gesture of love and generosity by calling to him.
Mrs. Ramsay takes her husband's arm and they walk together, though she is unable to tell him about the fifty-pound cost of work to be done to the greenhouse. Instead she talks about Jasper shooting birds, about Charles Tansley, and about the flowers in the garden. They discuss their children. Mrs. Ramsay talks of Prue's blossoming beauty, and Mr. Ramsay expresses his hope that Andrew will work hard enough to receive a scholarship. Finally, Mr. Ramsay summons the courage to tell his wife that he does not like to see her looking as sad as she did earlier, and they both become uncomfortable when she is upset by the realization that he watched her thinking.
Mr. Ramsay reflects wistfully on the days of his youth, when he could walk by himself all day long, spending all of his hours thinking and working. He reprimands himself, however, for thinking this way, reminding himself that having eight children is indeed an accomplishment. Though they begin to argue, Mr. Ramsay kisses Mrs. Ramsay's hand with great affection and intensity, bringing tears to her eyes and revealing the depth of feeling that they share.
As they walk back to the house, she thinks that though he is blind to many of the ordinary pleasures of life, he has a clear vision of the extraordinary things, and she feels that a mind like his must necessarily be different from the minds of most people. She looks at the first evening star with a surge of joy, wanting to show it to him but knowing that "He never looked at things." She sees Lily and Mr. Bankes walking together and decides, with excitement, that they should marry each other.
Lily Briscoe and William Bankes discuss which European countries and museums they have visited. Lily suggests that it is preferable not to see the pictures of others because "they only made one hopelessly discontented with one's own work." Mr. Bankes points out that the greatness of some would not be possible without the humbleness of many as a contrast. Lily has an impulse to compliment him, but she restrains herself, realizing that unlike most other people he does not want flattery.
They see Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay watching Prue and Jasper playing catch, and Lily decides that marriage is just this: "a man and a woman looking at a girl throwing a ball." This moment impresses Lily as a pure symbol of marriage, though this dramatic viewing renders each member of the Ramsay family hard-edged and separate. When Mr. Ramsay speaks, a spell seems to be broken, and Mr. Ramsay retreats to his study. Mrs. Ramsay asks if Nancy has been on the walk with Paul and Minta.
This chapter is a flashback from the perspective of the objective narrator, who answers Mrs. Ramsay's question (to the reader) by describing Nancy's setting off with Paul, Minta, and Andrew on their walk to the beach. Minta has a powerful effect on Nancy, who feels elated whenever Minta takes her hand and downtrodden whenever Minta drops her hand.
At the beach, they separate, and Nancy and Andrew are both conscious of allowing the couple to be alone. Nancy wades out to small pools of water, looking over at the horizon and ruminating on the simultaneous vastness and smalleness of things. Running onto the shore to avoid the incoming tide, she takes refuge behind a rock only to find Paul and Minta kissing, and she is outraged.
As the party climbs up the cliff, Minta realizes with a start that she lost her grandmother's brooch. She is severely distraught, and they all return to the beach in search of it. Because the tide is too high, they decide to return later when they might be able to find it. Paul and Minta walk ahead, and he tries to comfort her by explaining that he is famous for finding things. He silently resolves to leave the house at dawn to find the brooch and, if unsuccessful, to buy her another from Edinburgh. As they approach the house and Paul sees that the windows are lit, he knows that they are ready for dinner and his eyes "feel full."
Mrs. Ramsay feels certain that every experience is truly transient, yet she remains compelled to connect herself with symbols of permanence. She reflects on this tension as she sits at the window knitting (also a manifestation of her desire to weave and stick everything together into a cohesive whole) and staring at the Lighthouse. For Mrs. Ramsay, the steady stroke of the Lighthouse represents stability and permanence. For this reason, she connects herself to it, unites herself with it, in hopes of gaining a similar sense of connection to the present and to eternity. Mesmerized, Mrs. Ramsay figuratively attaches herself to and becomes the light, assimilating her own existence into this radiating energy and thereby asserting its creative force. Ironically, although this light is steady and enduring, it is also broken into pulses, which undermines its supposed stability. In addition, she refers to the inanimate things to which she unites herself in order to share in their permanence, yet none of these things is actually inanimate or permanent. Trees, streams, and flowers are all objects or systems that change or die. Once again, these tensions undermine Mrs. Ramsay's gesture of unity with symbols of endurance, and therefore the novel suggests the futility of her attempts.
Even the rhythm of Mrs. Ramsay's thoughts changes to mimic the rhythm of the pulsating light, capturing the three-stroke pattern in her thought structure. As she looks up to "meet the stroke of the Lighthouse," her thoughts proceed in three subsequent phrases of almost equal length, ending with "the long steady stroke, the last of the three, which was her stroke." In additionn the repetition of the phrase "sitting and looking" embodies the rhythmic pulses of light, indicating not only that Mrs. Ramsay senses a deep personal connection with the light, but also that she is inhabited by its energy and rhythm. It becomes her life force, reaching her from the Lighthouse at a great distance.
Mrs. Ramsay's vision of the essence of the individual as a "wedge-shaped core of darkness" is interesting in its resonance with Lily's abstract depiction of Mrs. Ramsay as a purple triangle in her painting. This image potentially reveals some of Mrs. Ramsay's underlying feelings about human relations and their frailty, for though she tries to draw people together, a wedge is an emblem of separation. Instead of finding peace and stability in the idea of social communion, she suggests that true stability can only be reached by this invisible core self, which is entirely private and removed from the reflections and influence of others. In this very perrsonal moment, Mrs. Ramsay's stream of consciousness reveals a fundamental dissonance with her most prominent values, and its complexity adds depth to her character.
In Chapter XIII, Lily's work emerges as the novel's expression of the unique power of an artist (a characterization of Lily and her work that the final chapter will complete). Though Mr. Ramsay struggles to gain control and immortality through his intellectual endeavors, he is unable to attain this level of success. Lily, however, makes obvious the almost magical ability of an artist to come close to attaining this goal by creating a product of universal significance. As she sees Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay watching Jasper and Prue playing catch, she views them through an artist's lens and, in the space of a few moments, envisions them as symbols: of husband and wife, of marriage. She makes these individuals abstract representations of one of the most significant social relationships, and in so doing, she hints at her intense powers of creation.
Chapter XIV is a flashback entirely enclosed within parentheses. At the end of Chapter XIII, Mrs. Ramsay asks if Nancy has followed Paul and Minta on their walk, and this question is followed by the narrator's descripton of Nancy's decision to accompany them, as well as a description of their walk. This section is taken out of real time--exploring the subjectivity of time and experience--and out of the context of the progressing narrative. In fact, Chapter XV will be a jolt back into the present, when Prue responds directly to her mother's question.
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