The novel opens with Mrs. Ramsay assuring her son James that the weather will be nice enough tomorrow for a trip to the Lighthouse. As James entertains himself by cutting out pictures, Mr. Ramsay asserts that the weather will not be fine, which provokes James to want to impale and kill his father. Mrs. Ramsay knits a stocking for the Lighthouse keeper's little boy, who has a tuberculous hip. Charles Tansley agrees with Mr. Ramsay about the unlikelihood of going to the Lighthouse the next day, and Mrs. Ramsay reflects on the fact that neither she nor her children find him agreeable; he is odious and self-centered.
After dinner, the eight Ramsay children go to their rooms. Mrs. Ramsay considers them too critical, noting that they focus too much on the differences between people. She has errands to run in town and invites Charles Tansley to join her. On the lawn, they pass Mr. Carmichael.
Mrs. Ramsay and Charles Tansley enjoy each other's company on the walk, although Mrs. Ramsay pities him. They walk out onto the quay and gaze at the Lighthouse before Mrs. Ramsay stops in to run an errand at a house in town. Charles Tansley waits for her there, and as she silently comes down the stairs, he finds her exceptionally beautiful. He feels proud to accompany her back to the house, holding her bag.
Back at home, Mr. Ramsay again tells James that a trip to the Lighthouse will not be possible. Mrs. Ramsay is angry that he is continuing to disappoint their son.
In an attempt to console James, Mrs. Ramsay looks through a magazine to find a picture of a rake or a mowing-machine for him to cut out as an engaging challenge. She hears the sound of men talking in the background, and their voices soothe her. She compares their voices to the sound of the waves beating against the shore--guarding, supportive, and constant. She also muses, however, that the sound of the waves represents destruction and ephemerality.
Mrs. Ramsay comes across a picture of a pocket-knife for James to cut. She then looks out the window and notices Lily Briscoe on the lawn, remembering that Lily is painting her portrait and that she is supposed to keep her head steady.
Out on the lawn, Lily Briscoe stands alert by her painting, keeping "a feeler on her surroundings" to prevent people from looking at it. She is extremely finicky about having her work viewed by anyone but William Bankes, who approaches her. Lily and Mr. Bankes reside in the village, and they have developed an alliance out of their brief conversations and their frequent encounters. Mr. Bankes respects Lily's good sense and orderliness.
Suddenly, Mr. Bankes and Lily notice Mr. Ramsay, in a private moment, glaring and saying, "Someone had blundered." At this moment, Mr. Bankes suggests that he and Lily take a stroll. It is with difficulty that she turns her eyes from the picture, contemplating with quiet desperation the difficulty of translating her artistic vision directly to the canvas. The two companions stroll off in "the usual direction" toward the break in the hedge at which they can see the bay, the place where they walk every evening.
Watching the waves, Lily is saddened by the realization that distant views outlast the people who gaze upon them. Mr. Bankes reflects on his friendship with Mr. Ramsay, and on a past time on Westmorland Road when Mr. Ramsay had showed his simplicity by admiring a group of small chicks. It was at this time that their friendship had ceased and had become dependent on repetition. He considers Mr. Ramsay's life and how his children both add something to his life and destroy part of it. Lily urges Mr. Bankes to "think of [Mr. Ramsay's] work," for which she has the utmost admiration. Ever since Andrew told her to think of the subject of his work by imagining a kitchen table when no one is there to see it, she sees a scrubbed kitchen table when she thinks of Mr. Ramsay's work. Mr. Bankes believes that Mr. Ramsay is among the men who have finished their best work by the time they are forty. Indeed, Mr. Ramsay made a serious contribution to the field of philosophy at the age of 25 and has merely amplified or repeated this work since. Though Lily has a keen respect for Mr. Ramsay's intelligence, she finds him vain and believes that Mr. Bankes is a finer man.
Arousing them from their thoughts, Jasper shoots a gun, scattering a flock of birds into the sky. Again, Mr. Ramsay proclaims, "Some one had blundered!" with intense and tragic emotion that causes him both shame and indulgent revelry.
The opening chapters of the novel firmly establish several of the main characters. Mrs. Ramsay immediately appears as a nurturing and domestic woman whose beauty is of particular interest to those who know her. Her roles as wife and mother form the center of her universe, and she has a burning desire to please her family and guests. Mr. Ramsay, on the other hand, is guided strictly by rationality and intellect. To his wife's dismay, he can be inconsiderate in his desire to live by truth. He is infinitely practical and self-absorbed, and his repeated expostulation that "someone had blundered" initiates his pattern of loudly and publicly voicing his cerebral anguish. He lives very much inside his own head, not even noticing Lily and Mr. Bankes on the lawn.
These opening chapters also provide a thorough initial portrait of Lily. She is very private and somewhat anxious, and despite her recognition of Mr. Ramsay's vanity, she loves the family very deeply and feels very loyal.
One of the great innovations of modernist novels is the stream of consciousness technique, whereby the writer tries to capture a character's unbroken flow of internal thoughts. Thus an author can describe the unspoken thoughts and feelings of a character without the devices of objective narration or dialogue. In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf makes constant use of this technique, and it is established as the predominant style from the beginning. In this novel, the action occurs not in the outside world but in the thoughts and feelings of the characters as exhibited by the ongoing narrative. Although there is a narrative voice apart from any of the characters, a large portion of the narrative consists of the exposition of each characters' consciousness. Some sections use entire pages without letting an objective voice interrupt the flow of thoughts of a single character.
As a literary device, stream of consciousness was perhaps the most fitting counterpart to contemporary work being done by Sigmund Freud regarding the existence and function of the human unconscious. Freud newly posited the theory that there is a portion of the mind to which we do not have complete access, with the implication that we cannot know all of our own thoughts, fears, motivations, and desires. Writers and artists of this period were intrigued by this concept, and they sought in various ways to depict and illuminate the human unconscious. Although stream of consciousness (as its name implies) is the illumination of thoughts and feelings that characters consciously experience, Woolf reaches much further into the human mind than a conventional narrative about the past, providing an intimate view of a character's interiority.
Woolf not only expresses the flow of each character's thoughts, but she also weaves them together into a narrative that flows seamlessly from one character's thoughts to another's without any obvious break or disruption.
Woolf was also a master of a related literary form called free indirect discourse, in which the identity of the narrator is not entirely clear. The novel abounds with dialogue that is not demarcated by quotation marks, as well as phrases and passages that could easily be spoken or merely thought. This form of narration is told in the third person, but it conveys a sense of the character's internal thoughts from the character's own experience, thereby expressing these thoughts somewhere between a first-person and third-person mode of narrative.
Woolf's use of stream of consciousness and free indirect discourse enhance the themes of the novel. To the Lighthouse forcefully conveys the subjective experience of reality, and the proliferation of stream of consciousness indicates that a person's experience cannot be truly viewed through the objective lens of a third party. Instead, Woolf suggests that reality is more like the accumulation of the various perspectives and experiences of individuals. Mrs. Ramsay, for instance, cannot be accurately described by one person. She can only be fully understood as the collection of different impressions of her.
Similarly, the narrative chain that Woolf creates, linking the consciousness of various characters in an unbroken flow, emphasizes the connections between people that Mrs. Ramsay always tries to establish. Though each character is separate, their influence and dependence on one other is undeniable. Their interwoven thoughts form the narrative quilt, and they both propel one another's experiences and emerge from one another's perspectives.