Many critics, teachers and readers consider To the Lighthouse to be Virginia Woolf's masterpiece. To the Lighthouse was published in 1927 and its structure is unique, although it does contain elements of the Victorian. Woolf wrote this novel in only one year and did very little rewriting. Both subtle and sharp, the ease with which the book was written is apparent in the flow of both its narrative and its prose. The novel was written during one of the brief peaceful and happy times in Woolf's life. (In 1895, after her mother's death, Woolf became almost continuously depressed and suffered a series of nervous breakdowns, culminating in her suicide by drowning in 1941.)
To the Lighthouse, like Woolf's previous novel, Jacob's Room, is a somewhat disjointed story, possessing numerous characters, points-of-view and conflicts. The overlapping and separation of the characters and their stories seems to result from both intention and oversight and is a product of what Woolf referred to as "all characters boiled down," and the "break of unity in my design."
The story centers around the summer vacation to the Isle of Skye of the Ramsey family, a family Woolf admitted was very much like her own. In fact, Woolf said that writing To the Lighthouse helped her "rub out" the obsessive memory of her own mother. Mrs. Ramsey, like Woolf's own mother, is a woman of decidedly Victorian ideals, choosing to focus on her home, her marriage and her family.
Interacting with Mrs. Ramsey is the character most representative of Woolf, herself, Lily Briscoe, a young girl who is staying in the same beachouse as the Ramseys. Unmarried, Lily draws both disapproval and sympathy from Mrs. Ramsey who firmly believes that "an unmarried woman has missed the best of life."
Mrs. Ramsey and Lily represent the conflict between the Victorian and the Edwardian eras, the age of the woman in the home and the advent of the woman in the workplace. An intelligent young woman, as well as a sensitive and talented artist, Lily is very aware of Mrs. Ramsey's disapproval.
The role of art in the novel deals primarily with Post-Impressionism and the attempt to freeze reality, not on paper or on canvas, but in the mind, and then to paint the very equivalent of this reality. In many ways, To the Lighthouse resembles a painting because of its three distinct images of reality: the summer, the return and the seven years in between.
Woolf was not the only writer to "paint" her novels. In Place in Fiction, Eudora Welty writes of "painting and writing, always the closest two of the 'sister arts.'" Throughout the novel, Lily works on one painting and cannot seem to "connect the mass on the right hand with that on the left...But the danger was that by doing that the unity of the whole might be broken." The need for connection in the painting is much like the need for connection in the narrative. And Lily and Mrs. Ramsey both serve to fulfill the role as unifier.
One of the most startling moments of unification occurs as Mrs. Ramsey is staring at a bowl of fruit she has placed in the middle of the table during a dinner party. Because of her extreme attention to detail, Mrs. Ramsey focuses on the bowl throughout the dinner. She particularly notices the perfection of the arrangement while also fearing its imminent destruction as she catches another guest looking at the fruit, no doubt desirous of it. Mrs. Ramsey thinks, "That was his way of looking, different from her. But looking together united them."
Even when not physically present in the story, Mrs. Ramsey continues to exert a strong influence. At the end of the novel, Mr. Ramsey finally takes his two youngest children, James and Cam, to the lighthouse. Both children have changed considerably from the time of their first vacation; Mrs. Ramsey's absence has required that they develop a new independence, yet she was their only tie to their father, the typically restrained and uninvolved Victorian husband.
The children must, however, incorporate the influence of both of their parents on their journey to the lighthouse, a journey that is both literal and figurative. From shore, Lily watches them as she paints their journey, recalling Mrs. Ramsey with both annoyance and love. Lily, like Woolf, herself, has finally come to terms with the connection of all things, the completion of a painting as well as the completion of a journey.
To the Lighthouse is a quiet, reflective and meditative novel and one of the first to display Woolf's unique Impressionistic stream-of-consciousness style.