Memory and immortality (To the Lighthouse by Woolf)

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) is a book that has been interpreted in many different ways, from feminist readings, to modernist interpretations, to post-colonial analysis. This essay will look at the book in terms of its religious, spiritual, and supernatural elements.

It is well known that this book is a biographical fiction; Woolf recreated the lives of her own family. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay take the place of her own parents, her own role is played here by Lily Briscoe, not the Ramsay’s actual daughter but a surrogate child. Woolf’s own father, Leslie Stephen, was a well known agnostic1, much of Woolf’s writing can be interpreted with that fact in mind. English society at the time was undergoing many great changes, religion was losing hold in many people’s minds yet they were still looking for a spiritual aspect2. To the Lighthouse is, in many ways, Woolf’s exploration of this search for meaning.

Lily Briscoe’s search is through the medium of art. Mr Ramsay’s work is very much about what life means. For Mrs. Ramsay, the earth mother figure, meaning comes through family and children. They all search in their own way for what life is all about. Lily comes to realise that there is no great breakthrough, no one moment that will show her the truth.

“The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark”3

Throughout To the Lighthouse we can see that very notion of self and one’s relationship with another is being examined. Mrs Ramsay reminds us that death is inevitable. Everyone will die, everyone will leave. Yet that does not mean that that is the end of us. Mrs Ramsay dies but her presence lingers. In her life she filled such a space in the summer house that her absence cannot be ignored. Woolf shows that “homes, houses and cities carry the haunting presence of times and people who have left, are gone”4. Her lack of presence is a reminder of how much space she occupied, a reminder of her central, vital role in the family. Her existence continues because she is “imprinted on places and on others’ lives.5

In my opinion To the Lighthouse seems to argue that even without religion or god we can still live on after our deaths. Every relationship we have means that some part of us will have an impact after our death. The memory of someone remains, as does the influence that person had while still alive. In the grand scheme of things nothing we do may really have any great influence6, that makes what we do all the more important, because it is the only thing that lives on.

  1. IEP, ‘Stephen, Leslie’, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004 [accessed 20 July 2013]. 

  2. Mark Gaipa, ‘An Agnostic’s Daughter’s Apology: Materialism, Spiritualism, and Ancestry in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse’, Journal of Modern Literature, 26 (2003), 1–41. 

  3. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (Ware: Wordsworth Classics, 1994). 

  4. Gina Wisker, ‘Places, People and Time Passing: Virginia Woolf’s Haunted Houses’, Hecate, 37 (2011), 4–26 (p. 9). 

  5. Wisker, p. 5. 

  6. Thomas J. Wright, Epiphany, N/A. 

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