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To the Lighthouse

ramsay family lily ‘the

a novel by V. Woolf, published in 1927, frequently judged to be her best work, and one of the finest achievements of English Modernism. Family comedy, elegy, symbolic prose poem, and meditation on the artist's responsibility all in one, it was planned (in 1925) ‘to have father's character complete in it; & mother's; & St Ives; & childhood’, and was felt by her sister Vanessa Bell to have ‘given a portrait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived of as possible’. The Stephen family in their holiday home in Cornwall is transformed into the Ramsay family at ‘Finlay’, on the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides. Mr Ramsay, a philosopher whose best work is done and who fears he will never ‘reach R’ in the alphabet of the mind's journey, is passionate-tempered, rationalist, comically tyrannical, eccentric, and demanding of admiration and female sympathy. Mrs Ramsay holds the family together, loves children, believes in marriage, comforts the dying, is short-sighted, queenly, beautiful, and manipulative, and in her private self profoundly melancholy. The relationship is examined through a narrative which moves between their thought processes and those of the onlookers at the house. These are the painter Lily Briscoe, in love with Mrs Ramsay and the whole family, but determinedly independent; the fastidious objective bachelor William Bankes, a scientist, with mixed feelings about family life; Charles Tansley, a working-class self-made scholar, awkward and aggressive; Augustus Carmichael, a sleepy, opium-taking, inscrutable poet; and the stupid, attractive young couple Paul and Minta. Of the eight Ramsay children, Cam, wild and intractable, and the youngest, James, hating his father, are the most prominent. In the first section, ‘The Window’, Mr Ramsay tells James he won't be able to go to the lighthouse the next day, Mrs Ramsay reads him the story of ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’, while Lily tries to paint them, observed by Mr Bankes; Paul and Minta get engaged on the beach, Mrs Ramsay gives dinner (‘bœuf en daube’) for fourteen people and feels she has created something momentarily ‘immune from change’, and the Ramsays are seen alone together. In the middle section, ‘Time Passes’, a ‘solitary sleeper’ contemplates the advent of war, the house is deserted, the deaths of Mrs Ramsay and of her two oldest children, Prue and Andrew, take place shockingly in parentheses, and after ten years two charladies, Mrs McNab and Mrs Bast, resuscitate the house. The last section, ‘The Lighthouse’, is divided between Lily's strenuous attempt to start her painting again as a way of remembering Mrs Ramsay and of balancing the opposing forces of the Ramsays, and the journey to the lighthouse, in which Cam and James move from resentment of their father's tyranny to admiration of his heroism. Lily's vision ends (and is analogous with) the novel.

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