To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse Study Guide

To the Lighthouse (1927) is widely considered one of the most important works of the twentieth century. With this ambitious novel, Woolf established herself as one of the leading writers of modernism. The novel develops innovative literary techniques to reveal women's experience and to provide an alternative to male-dominated views of reality. On the surface, the novel tells the story of the Ramsay family and the guests who come to stay with them at their vacation home on the Hebrides Islands in Scotland. At its heart, however, the novel is a meditation on time and how humans reckon with its relentless passage.

The novel was written and published during one of the most dense and impressive periods of development in English literary history. The modernist period gave rise to many groundbreaking and enduring masterworks, such as T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and James Joyce's Ulysses. This was also a period of rapid intellectual achievement, and Woolf's emphasis on consciousness and a character's inner lives is consistent with the scientific and psychological ideas posited at the time. As Sigmund Freud explored theories of consciousness and subconsciousness, Virgina Woolf wrote a novel that focuses not on the events of the external world but on the richness and complexity of mental interiority.

Thus, to convey this sense of human consciousness, Woolf's narrative departs from the traditional plot-driven structure as it is often expressed by an objective, third-party narrative. Instead she incorporates highly innovative literary devices to capture the thought process, using in particular stream of consciousness and free indirect discourse. Given that the novel is defined by subjectivity, it focuses on the subjectivity of reality, experience, and time. The novel also represents the inverweaving of various perspectives and individual trains of thought that, strung together, constitute a cohesive whole.