Why do you think the novel is named “To the Lighthouse” rather than, say, “Mrs. Ramsay,” “Lily Briscoe’s Picture,” “The Dinner Party,” or even, “Time Passes”?
What are some unusual features of the narrative voice? How does it employ poetic features such as sound and metaphor? Can you give examples? (21)
From whose point of view do we experience the action? Is the narrative voice that of Mrs. Ramsay’s stream of consciousness, that of the author, or of an omnipotent narrator?
What are some limits of the narrator’s understanding or perceptions?
How are the characters’ inner thoughts contrasted with their outer deportment and conversation? Are they hypocrites, or does this oscillation reflect ordinary experience?
Are the characters’ thoughts and judgments consistent? (32, change over the course of the day)
What do we learn in the opening section about the contrast between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay? Do their respective roles reflect the gender and class conventions of a particular time?
What purpose is served by presenting Charles Tansley’s adoring view of Mrs. Ramsay? Does this seem a very likely response to a 50 year old woman? Does it reflect the author’s own view?
How does Mrs. Ramsay reciprocate? What point is served by showing that her responses are often different from those of her associates? (she mostly values people according to their relationship with her husband)
What seems Mrs. Ramsay’s relationship with her son? How does James respond to his father? Can you see Freudian elements in these relationships?
Are there instances in which we see her judgments are incorrect? (believes Lucy to be a bad artist, believes Paul and Minta will make a good marriage)
What is the social class of the Ramsay family? What types of things can they afford? (a summer home) What things are a strain? (greenhouse roof)
What role is played by servants? To what extent to we learn details of their thoughts or lives?
What are some passages of particularly fine descriptions? With what places are these routinely associated? (beach, 20)
How is Mr. Ramsay’s approach to philosophy characterized? What does Mrs. Ramsay think of her husband’s intellectual pursuits? (23, sense of logical progression, as opposed to cyclical and social nature of life) To what type of adventurer is he compared? (an explorer, 35)
What are some ways in which this novel is autobiographical? (representation of parents and siblings, grief over loss of mother, her own devotion to her art)
Are there senses in which this novel could be said to be ekphrastic? (Lucy’s painting of Mrs. Ramsay parallels Woolf’s own attempt to capture essence of her lost mother)
What are Mrs. Ramsay’s concerns and responses throughout the dinner? (105) What dish has been expertly prepared, and by whom?
What are her responses to the ideas being discussed? (105) How does she respond to her husband’s conversation? (doesn’t want him to exhibit too obvious a desire for praise)
How do you think Woolf herself would have felt about each of these responses?
Why would a discussion of Walter Scott have seemed relevant at the time? (he had been fashionable a generation back)
What tensions divide the Ramsay children as they prepare to sleep? (one child likes the skull, the other finds it frightening, 114) How does Mrs. Ramsay attempt to soothe and mediate between them?
What do you make of the symbolism of covering a skull with a cloak?
Is the dinner a success? What are Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts afterwards? In what ways is she presented as bidding farewell to her world, and is this prophetic? (113-114) How do the narrator’s reflections anticipate her death? (meditates on time and existence)
What is the purpose of representing Prue’s view of her mother? (116)
Under what circumstances do Paul and Minta court? What is Mrs. Ramsay’s part in their engagement? What do the lovers seem to have in common, if anything? From whose point of view is their outing described?
What are some of the novel’s poetic references, and why has each been chosen? (“The Charge of the Light Brigade” a hyperbolically patriotic poem, 119, 112)
As the others retire to bed, in what occupation do Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay engage? (reading) What does she read, and what meaning does her choice have for her? (sonnets, draws things together)
What seems their relationship? (she assures him with her smile that she loves him)
What purpose is served by the middle section, “Time Passes”? What role is served by the wind? Does this evoke any literary associations? (e. g., Shelly’s “Ode to the West Wind”)
What do we learn in the third section about the fate of those represented in section 1? (Mrs. Ramsay , Andrew and Pru have died)
What are some instances of ironic juxtaposition? (celebration of Pru’s marriage followed by her death, 132)
What happens to Mr. Ramsay’s library of books? (permitted to decay)
How does war enter the narrative? (obliquely, ships pass by)
To which character does interest shift in section 3? What do we learn about the progress of Lily’s art?
Has James’ attitude toward his father modified or changed? Do they finally make peace, and if so, how?
How does the novel end? Is it important that the family eventually do arrive at the lighthouse and that Lily finishes her painting? (both active and artistic goals achieved)
What enables Lily to finish her painting? (memories of Mrs. Ramsay, 160)
Is the ending satisfying? Would you describe the tone of the book elegiac?
Why do you think To the Lighthouse is considered one of the great books of the 20th century? Do you agree, and why?
How would you compare this to other family novels of the Victorian period, or alternately, to other modernist novels such as Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers or E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End? (Freudian influence, importance of place)
Page numbers are from the 1981 Harcourt Brace edition.