The Various Use of Symbols in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse




Introduction: Written from multiple perspectives and shifting between times and characters with poetic grace, To The Lighthouse is not concerned with ordinary story telling. Rather through integrate symbolic web it reads the mind and recounts the passage of multiple experiences of different characters in the novel.The key symbols in To The Lighthouse are are – the sea, the lighthouse, Lily’s painting, the window, and the personalities of Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Ramsay. They are all woven together, along with many other less important ones, into a central meaning, which suggests Mrs. Woolf’s conception of life and reality. Let them study closely under the following heads.

The eternal flux of time and life – The sea: The sea with its waves is to be heard throughout the novel. It symbolizes the eternal flux of time and life, in the midst of which we all exist; it constantly changes its character. To Mrs. Ramsay at one moment it sounds soothing and consoling like a cradlesong, at others, “like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beating a warning of death it brings terror. Sometimes its power “sweeping savagely in, “seems to reduce the individual to nothingness, at others it sends up ‘a fountain of bright water” – which seems to match the sudden springs of vitality in the human spirit.

The Lighthouse – a whole cluster of suggestion: The lighthouse holds a whole cluster of suggestions. It is a mystery, yet a concern for day-to-day living. It is at once distant and close at the mercy of its destructive forces. The lighthouse surrounded by sea always illumines and clarifies the human condition in someway. Farther, it is the quest for the values the lighthouse suggests. The tower is frequently shadowed in mist, its beams are intermittent in the darkness, the moments of assurance they bring the momentary, but upon these assurances reality rests, by landing on the general doubts, something which seems to triumph over the eternal cycle of change. To reach the lighthouse is to establish a creative relationship.




            Indeed, the lighthouse is the most important symbol and different critics have explained it in different ways. For example Russel declares that the lighthouse is the feminine creative principle. Jon Bennett calls the alternate light and shadows of the lighthouse the rhythm of joy and sorrow, understanding and misunderstanding. F.L. Overcarsh, finds the novel as a whole an allegory of the old and New Testements: Mrs. Ramsay is Eve, the Blessed virgin and Chirst; Mr. Ramsay is among other things God the Father; the lighthouse is Eden and Heaven. The strokes of the lighthouse are the persons of the Trinity, the third of them, long and steady representing the Holy Ghost. The lighthouse as symbol has not one meaning, that it is a vital synthesis of time and eternity: an objective correlative for Mrs. Ramsay’s vision, after whose death it is her meaning.

The Window, a view to oneself: It is from the window that we have the little of the part-I of To The Lighthouse. It is not a transparent but a separating sheet of glass between reality and Mrs. Ramsay’s mind. Mrs. Ramsay experiences such moments of revelation and integration at watching the window. It is the very symbol of the imperfection of our knowledge and riddle of human mind. It is debates about philosophy, particularly theories about visual reality on the three main philosophers of British empiricism, John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. The basic argument of empiricism is whether or not a person can be empirically certain that objects have a distinct and continued existence apart from our perceptions of them.

Mr. & Mrs. Ramsay: The characters are carefully arranged in the novel in their relation to each other, so that a definite symbolic pattern emerges. Mrs. Ramsay pervades the whole book. Mrs. Ramsay is the mother of the Ramsay family who dies during the middle section of the novel. A beautiful, caring woman, she means all things to all people, and each character of To the Lighthouse has a different perception of her personality. Lily sees her as a mother, and doesn’t think she has ever inspired romantic passion. William Bankes and Charles Tansley adore her, and think she doesn’t realize how beautiful she is. The children see her as the “Lighthouse” of their lives—the stable, warm force that protects and guides them. She is above all the creator of fertile human relationships symbolized by her love of match making and her knitting; and of warm comfort symbolized by her green shawl. Just as Mrs. Ramsay stands for creative vitality, so Mr. Ramsay stands as the symbol of the sterile, destructive barriers to relationship. Just as Mrs. Ramsay is described in images of fertility and the warmth and comfort of love and harmony with others, Mr. Ramsay is evoked in images of sterility, hardness and cruelty and of deliberate isolation. It is to be noted that Mr. Ramsay is the father of the family is the most misunderstood character in the book, a man whose children hate him because they think he is viciously unemotional and cold.

Lily’s Picture: Lily sees that Mrs. Ramsay’s gift of harmonizing human relationship into memorable moments is “almost like a work of art” and in the book art is the ultimate symbol for the enduring ‘reality’. In life, as Mrs. Ramsay herself well knows relationships are doomed to imperfection, and are the spot of time and change; but in art the temporal and the eternal unity in an unchanging form-through, as in Lily’s picture, the form may be very inadequate. We cannot doubt that Lily’s struggles with the composition and texture of her painting are a counter part of Virginia Woolf’s tussles and triumphs in her own medium, but she chooses poetry as the image that reminds mankind that the ever changing can yet become immortal. Lily is a Postimpressionist painter, descendant of a poor family, and has spent most of her life taking care of her father. In many ways, Lily is the chorus figure of the book—providing the histories of the characters and commenting on their actions. The beginning and completion of her painting form the frame of To the Lighthouse, and her final line, “I have had my vision,” is the final line of the novel, acting as Woolf's own comment on her book.

Conclusion: The uses of symbols serve the purpose of introspection, self-awareness, and openness to the unconscious in the novel. Composed on the flow of sensations, thoughts, memories, associations, and reflections in the ambit of symbol the action moves on normal constructional lines from scene to scene and from the mind to mind. There is less complication. These shifts from one consciousness to another and these movements are made further easy by allowing every incident to take place in close-knit homogeneous world. To The Lighthouse is a masterpiece of construction through symbolism. It is an organic whole.

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An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

"Dear Readers/ Students, I am a huge fan of books, English Grammar & Literature. I write this blog to instill that passion in you." 

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