The theme of the novel To the Lighthouse

Question: Discuss the theme of the novel To the Lighthouse.


Multiple themes are discussed in a novel. “To the Lighthouse” is one of the best fictional literary works of the modernist movement composed by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and It is an autobiographical novel in terms of the genre. The time setting of the novel is preceding the First World War and after the First World War from 1910 to 1920. In this novel, the novelist has illustrated the multiple significant themes narrating a very simple plot of summer vacation.


Ephemerality is one of the themes of the novel. Very few novels capture the ephemeral nature of life like Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”. The reality of life seems as chaotic as the waves of the ocean. Each of the main characters of the novel struggles with this realization and tries to establish permanence and stability in life though they can understand that the world is transient. Mrs. Ramsay searches for the permanent emotional and mutual world but on the other hand, Mr. Ramsay is obsessed with the intellectual sphere. He desires that he has to contribute to philosophy so that he can be remembered forever though he asserts that even William Shakespeare’s contribution will not last forever. Lily Briscoe suffers from a similar experience that her painting will never make a lasting impression. Finally, they feel that ephemerality is the fact of life.

Deep psychological analysis

Virginia Woolf has an extraordinary ability for a deep psychological analysis of human beings. By the end of the nineteenth century, a truthful account of the subjective nature of experience writing witnessed innovations. Woolf shows her mastery of the very art of writing through this novel. She limns the subjective reality of the main characters of the novel by the innovative power of the stream of consciousness and indirect discourse, interior monologue. With the passage of time, the characters can realize and understand that reality has fleeting nature and exists only within ourselves as a collection of various subjective experiences. So subjective experience is one of the prime themes of the novel.

Lighthouse as a permanent fact

The presence of the lighthouse is another subject matter of the novel. The lighthouse is a distant, old, and majestic image of a pillar in the novel. It is a permanent fact to the characters because it is at the same time a symbol of personal destination and change of taste in the life of the journey. In James’ childhood, it was attracted to him and in adulthood, it has been a fact of irritation to him to a journey by boat for the visit of the lighthouse.


Time is one of the major themes of “To the Lighthouse”. Most of the adult characters concentrate on the concept of a better future. Mr. Ramsay desperately hankers after to be a great philosopher. Lily longs for being a perfect painter and Mrs. Ramsay does not want James and Cam to grow up because adulthood is inevitably a stage of suffering that is why time has been a vital theme for this novel.

Love and marriage

Another exigent theme of “To the Lighthouse” is love and marriage. The protagonist of the novel at the first phase is Mrs. Ramsay whose philosophical concept on marriage is:

“An unmarried life loses the best of life”

She desperately wants Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle should get married as soon as possible. She also tries to convince Lily Briscoe to get married to William Bankes. Her elder daughter Prue is married though she dies in connection with childbirth. Lastly, Lily contemplates marriage though there is a controversy in her thinking. So, “To the Lighthouse” talks about domestic life from dawn to dusk of the novel.

The subversion of the female gender

The subversion of the female gender roles has been highlighted as a vital theme of the novel. Though Lily does not want to marry at all to be subject to the husband, she is reprimanded by Charles Tansley, one of the pupils of Mr. Ramsay, by his remark:

“women can neither write nor paint”

Even Mrs. Ramsay tolerates her metaphysical philosopher husband silently and Minta is to suffer from her marriage with Charles Tansley who improves a passionate attraction to another lady.


In fine, we can say that the simple summer vacation story of the Ramsay family in the Isle of Skye limns the psychological predicament of modern society in an unforgettable way.

S Ridoy Kumar
S Ridoy Kumar
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