To the Lighthouse Symbols | Virginia Woolf

  • May 11, 2022
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Linguistically, words are just symbols and their meanings are dependent on the situation as well as the knowledge of readers. Virginia Woolf uses lots of images as symbols in her novel To The Lighthouse. Symbols suggest something more than just the literal meaning. When a writer wants to convey a message in hidden words or more than one meaning in a single word, he uses the technique of symbolism. Rarely, any writer skips this technique of writing. This novel has great importance due to its symbolic significance. From the lighthouse to Lily Briscoe’s painting, everything suggests more than its literal meanings. 

It is not criticism but reality that the novel is a symbolic representation of themes of To the Lighthouse such as human nature. Every character, every object, every scene and every situation has a meaning attached to it. Readers should keep in mind that literal meanings of a character and object are not enough while studying To the Longhouse. Sea is not just a sea and the lighthouse is not merely a lighthouse; their out of sight meanings have importances of their own; there is no story in the novel; only a visit to the lighthouse cannot be considered a story. The presentation of the human psyche through the technique of stream of consciousness is its subject matter. 

Important Symbols of To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf word-for-word does not say anything to her readers; she indirectly makes suggestions. She is among those symbolists of the 19th century, who preferred an indirect method of presentation to write a story. Thus, each character reveals something and every object, with hidden meanings, makes suggestions. It depends on the readers how they perceive definitions from symbols instead of sensing only literal meanings of objects and characters. The list of symbols, used in this novel, is too long; however, some important ones that are obvious after bare reading the novel are:

  • Symbolic Title of the Novel
  • Symbolic Representation of Art
  • The Sea and The Beach
  • Characters as Symbols in To the Lighthouse

Symbolic Title of the Novel

The title of the novel To the lighthouse is its primary symbol. The whole story of the novel revolves around a trip to the lighthouse. It starts with an ambition to visit the lighthouse and ends with the fulfilment of the same but in hidden meanings it indicates something. The lighthouse is a symbol of guidance. In the past, lighthouses were built to guide the sailors. Far from the lighthouse, boats and ships might be seen. It was also built for protection, through which, the security of the people was ensured. The insistence to visit the lighthouse is actually a course of action to seek guidance and security. 

Symbol of Guidance

One of the most important characters, James Ramsay wants to visit the lighthouse because of his father’s rough and harsh attitude towards him and his siblings. Somewhere, in his mind, he lacks protection and security and his wish to go to the lighthouse suggests that he seeks the same. 

Similarly, Lily Briscoe cannot complete her painting because of a lack of guidance but after visiting the lighthouse, she, in the end, completes her painting while saying “I have my vision”.

Lighthouse, being a symbol of light, also guides Mr Ramsay. Usually, when a lost sailor sees a lighthouse from a far part of the sea, he becomes hopeful. Thus, the lighthouse also indicates hope. Mr Ramsay’s character, in this regard, is hit directly by this symbol. He is hopeless and fears that his work, one day, will be forgotten. He is realistic and wants his children to face reality. A visit to the lighthouse can give him hope, motivation and optimism.

Likewise, for Mrs Ramsay, the lighthouse is a symbol of truth. She consoles her children and says they will be able to visit the lighthouse tomorrow. Hence, symbolically, the lighthouse serves many purposes in this novel. To the Lighthouse is not merely a title of the novel but also one of its major symbols of hope, guidance and protection.

Symbolic Representation of Art

Virginia Woolf also symbolises the relationship between art and artist. Mainly, there are two artists; the first one is a painter whereas the second is a poet; to some extent, Mr Ramsay is also an artist. Lily Briscoe’s painting is notable in this regard. She is unable to illustrate her vision until she has a clear representation of life and reality. Her mind is mingled with extreme thoughts due to which she cannot convert her imagination into painting. In order to imitate life on the canvas, she needs peace of mind and harmony.

In the first part of the novel, she struggles to complete the painting. It symbolises that an artist needs peace of mind in order to portray the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful either in the form of painting or words. She lacks harmony, which she gets at the end of the novel. If truth be told, the efforts of Lily Briscoe are the efforts of Virginia Woolf. In her early days of life, she also struggled a lot to write poetry. Thus, Lily Briscoe’s struggle to paint symbolises the struggles of the writer for writing poetry. In this way, art and artist, both are symbols in the novel To The Lighthouse.

Frequent Sighting through Window 

In addition, the window is also a frequently used symbol in the novel. On a number of occasions, characters see through a window and imagine the sea, the stars, the landscapes and events of life. In this regard, the window shows a glimpse of reality. A window-like space between the characters is there and so as to get closer to someone, it is necessary to discover emotional strengths. Mrs Ramsay does the same. Her emotional strength brings her closer to others. On the other hand, Mr Ramsay lacks the same. 

Besides, a look through the window shows a glimpse of the outer world. Similarly, the actions and words of a person are like a window to approach his inner personality. In this way, time and again mention of windows in the novel indeed shows that it is one of the most prominent symbols of To the Lighthouse. 

The Sea and The Beach

The sea also symbolically refers to something. In fact, it is an important symbol of the novel. Mr Ramsay thinks that land is life and the sea is a destroyer. Mrs Ramsay, on the other hand, has the opposite opinion. She is a lady who brings positivity to every negative moment of life. Thus, her thinking remains positive throughout the whole novel. It is, therefore, her influence is there even after her death. The sea is a symbol of life According to her.

It depends on the readers to make a decision, which one of them is right regarding the sea but it is true that the writer uses the sea as a symbol. How a person perceives the sea, is always dependent on his attitude towards life. Sea, for some, is a symbol of destruction, whereas, for others, it symbolises life. Some perceive it like a wild beast and some like it for its wideness. Nevertheless, the sea is among the most important symbols of To the Lighthouse.

Characters as Symbols in To the Lighthouse

Each character of the novel symbolises something. The writer attaches meanings to them. None of the characters in the novel is extra or meaningless. Thus, everyone has his own importance. Mrs Ramsay is a symbol of hope and optimism. She always consoles her children by saying positive words to them though most of the time she tells lies. Mr Ramsay is realistic. He always makes his children aware of the harsh realities of life. He wants to tell them that life is difficult; his approach toward life is pessimistic; hence, he is a symbol of pessimism. Lily Briscoe and Carmichael are symbols of art. Ramsay’s family symbolises finding unity.

Virginia Woolf uses not only the objects but also the characters as symbols in the novel To the Lighthouse. She is well aware of the technique of symbolism, hence, she uses it freely and skillfully. Due to the symbols, the novel has extraordinary meanings. There is no denying the fact that the survival of this novel, to date, is dependent on its symbols. Words do not only convey literal meanings but suggest much more than that. A study of the novel suggests that every object and character has something more than literal meanings. The lighthouse, the sea and waves, the window, the day and night, the colours and even the characters are highly symbolic in this novel. 

Thus, it is not just criticism that in “To the Lighthouse ” the usual concerns of a novel—character and plot—have been subordinated to symbols and ideas but the truth.

Does it seem to you a just criticism that in To the Lighthouse the usual concerns of a novel—character and plot—have been sub-ordinated to symbols and ideas?

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