To the Lighthouse: Overview of Style and Plot

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  • 1:12 Plot and Character…
  • 4:32 Passage of Time and…
  • 5:23 Plot Conclusion
  • 6:00 Important Non-Plot Details
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Farran Tabrizi
An overview of the plot, characters, and stylistic innovations in Virginia Woolf's 'To the Lighthouse.' We'll talk about Woolf's use of voices and perspectives of multiple characters and her fluid sense of time within the novel.

Overview of To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf described To the Lighthouse by calling it 'easily the best of my books' after she finished a draft of it. She published it in 1927, so she had a few good ones left in her after that - The Waves and Orlando. I think what she's saying is that, compared to things she'd written before, which were Mrs. Dalloway and Jacob's Room, she kind of feels like this one is really more of a fulfillment of her project, what she's trying to do. It's really a cool, weird, experimental work that's got a plot, which we'll go over, that's pretty slight and kind of easy to outline. But like with a lot of modernist work - like with a lot of Virginia Woolf, with Joyce, Elliot, everyone else - the plot is a thing to hang their experimental style and ideas about thoughts and memories and things. It's kind of a thing to hang that on, rather than the point.

Setting and Character Introduction

So basically what happens in Part One, which is called 'The Window,' the Ramseys are a family, and we meet them. They're kind of well-to-do, and they have a summer house on the Isle of Skye, which is in Scotland. Mr Ramsey is a philosopher, and he's a really smart dude. He and his wife Mrs. Ramsey have a bunch of people over to their house to stay and have a little dinner party. Some of the people they have over are Lily Briscoe, who's a painter, and this obnoxious dude named Charles Tansley, who's a philosophy student. He's kind of into Mr. Ramsey, kind of idolizes him a little bit. He says that women can't paint or write, which, coming from Virginia Woolf, you know that that guy's not a cool dude. She's not going to have someone say that who's right, because she's obviously writing. And then you have some other people, Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle. Mrs Ramsey has set them up, they're going to get married, and she's happy that she's managed to make that happen. There's a poet who comes to hang out. The Ramseys also have kids. James is their youngest son, Cam is their daughter, Prue is the oldest daughter. There's a bunch of others that don't really matter as much so we're not going to talk about them.

Plot and Character Development

The book opens with James, who is the son, the youngest son, and he's asking his father Mr. Ramsey if they can go to the lighthouse, which is the title. They're going to get in their boat and go to this lighthouse and Mrs. Ramsey says sure, if the weather is good. Mr. Ramsey says but it won't be good, and so James understandably thinks his dad's being mean and we get a nice little internal monologue from James. We all kind of know a Mr. Ramsey, you know, 'we'll be there in an hour if the traffic's good, but it won't be good,' 'we'll make it through the security line if it's short, but it won't be short.' That's kind of the dynamic that we see right away between Mr. Ramsey and Mrs. Ramsey, that she's kind of optimistic, living in the moment and he's more preoccupied. He's not going to let her say 'oh yeah, if it's good' because he knows, or he's pretty sure, that it won't be. So that's important to him, to kind of stay in the realm of the real rather than the possible or the present like Mrs. Ramsey.

And so we get some scenes of the afternoon. Lily is starting her painting, that becomes important later on, Paul and Minta get engaged, and then they have their big dinner party. Some of their guests are predictably obnoxious. Then the party is over, and Mrs. Ramsey starts reflecting on time and how things move forward, and how this dinner party is going to be remembered by people - by Paul and Minta, who got engaged right before it, how it's going to be for them. Then she and Mr. Ramsey have an interesting conversation where she finally agrees that the weather probably is going to be bad tomorrow. That's seen by him as a sort of implicit gesture of love from her, that she's kind of willing to say 'you know what, you're right, the weather is going to be bad.' And you can see right here that Woolf is interested in portraying relationships between people in a very idiosyncratic way. She doesn't have her characters just say 'I love you,' she's showing how people show love in all different kinds of ways, including just by saying that the weather is bad.

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