The symbols of To the Lighthouse

Question: Discuss the symbols of To the Lighthouse.


The use of words has twice meanings which are dictionary and targeted meaning. The targeted meaning of a word or language is called a symbol or symbolic meaning. According to Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, a symbol means a person, an object, or an event that represents a more general quality or situation. For an instance, white is the symbol of purity in western culture and a child is the symbol of Jesus Christ in Christianity.

Symbols of the novel

The novel “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) has used different kinds of symbols such as house, sea, or even the characters which enhance the thematic value of the novel.

The lighthouse

The lighthouse that is situated across the bay has played a role of twice symbolic meanings. At the very outset of the novel, it is a destination for each of the characters. When six years old James Ramsay asks his mother Mrs. Ramsay as to the visit of the distant lighthouse, his mother tells him that tomorrow they may visit this but Mr. Ramsay who is a metaphysical philosopher frustrates his sun asserting that the weather will not be fair the next day. By the end of the novel, it becomes vivid to the readers that the childhood attraction of James regarding the lighthouse does not exist now because while driving the boat on the way to the lighthouse he feels botheration as his father insists on him for this expedition. Thus, the lighthouse at the same time is the symbol of personal destination and change of taste with the passage of time.

Lily’s painting

Lily’s painting represents two-fold meanings. First, it represents a struggle against female gender convention. she starts her painting so that she can perfectly paint Mrs. Ramsay’s ideality, but she could not concentrate on it. She is mocked by Charles Tansley. Tansley comments “women can’t paint or write”. As the plot of the novel progresses, it becomes crystal clear that it also upholds a woman’s dedication to art. After ten years, Lily starts to work on her pending painting. This time she could well understand that the result of an action does not matter because before action, the prediction is futile and finally she finishes gloriously.

The sea

Virginia Woolf has prominently limned the sea as a symbol of the movement of the time and the changes it brings. The sea has prevailed throughout the novel. It has been illustrated by Woolf lovingly and beautifully, but it is also destructive and has an intimate indication as to the impermanence of human life as Mrs. Ramsay says to her six years old son James to amuse him:

“The sound of the waves represents destruction and ephemerality”


Besides the above symbols, there are sundry symbols in the novel “To the Lighthouse”. The boar’s skull is the emblem of fear of death. The summer house of Mr. Ramsay is further a token of a stage of unity. Mr. Ramsay himself is a symbol of failure as he thinks that his success has reached only to the ‘Q’ but he has to attain ‘R’ and here in his dialogue the readers can also learn that only a single person can reach the ‘Z’ in a generation. The novelist means to say that a highly ambitious person like Mr. Ramsay can never feel successful in life. Mrs. Ramsay is the emblem of an ideal domestic lady who can match with anybody but she has a great fault that she cannot express her love before her husband. Besides, trees and arts are the symbol of permanence and so on.


From the light of the above discussion, it is transparent and vivid that symbols are the lifeblood of the novel because the plot of the novel is very simple, but the symbols have given it a philosophic expression and insight.

S Ridoy Kumar
S Ridoy Kumar
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