The Major Themes of Virginia Woolf's novel “To the Lighthouse”

Gillian Beer believes Woolf tries to “hold within a single work …the experience of family life and culture, before and after the First World War” and that Woolf does so by separating the two worlds (Hume). Instead of being more explicit and political in ‘Time Passes,” Woolf transcends politics by universalizing the experience of war on the home fi’ont, using brackets, placing distance between her readers and the battle fields, and referring to and personifying nature. Interestingly, “Time Passes” originally contained more direct references to war.

James M. Haule explains in “To the Lighthouse and The Great War: The Evidence of Virginia Woolf’s Revisions of ‘Time Passes'” that the holograph and recently discovered typescript of “Time Passes” show Woolf’s thematic and cognitive progression (p.166). I He uses six examples from the holograph and traces their changes up to the 1927 publication. “The mindless warfare, the soulless bludgeoning” of the holograph and Woolf’s side note, which states that the darkness is an image of the war, are deleted, for example (p.

167) (see Table 16). The “darkness” which Woolf describes in the second chapter is associated not with battle anymore but simply with night (p.168). Through his examples Haule reveals that Woolf drastically reduced direct references to war, particularly with regard to identifying war with male destructiveness, because Woolf hoped to modify traditional perceptions of war.

Woolf accomplishes this in part by making the empty summer home of the Ramsay’s the focus of “Time Passes.” The war years literally and fundamentally change the house; World War I destroys the home figuratively.

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With her use of the house, Woolf demonstrates that the war affects domestic as well as political life. She emphasizes the home front because it is often forgotten about, and in doing so, she deemphasizes and somewhat degrades the front lines by virtually ignoring them. The house also functions as a representation of the shared experience of all the countries at war: war empties homes and leaves home fronts in despair. Kathy J. Phillips argues that Woolf makes good use of the empty teacups in her description of the house: Woolf “brilliantly punctures the pretensions of strong warriors” by signifying the destruction of war through the cup (p.112). The teacups are cracked and empty. Woolf implies through the teacups and the house that the only thing the war accomplished was damaging the home.

Once the disintegration of the home has been firmly established and war is understood as a cause of domestic neglect. They attempt to restore the home and recover the pre-war world in the process. In performing the ordinary task of cleaning a house, the women embody Europe’s struggle to endure and return to a routine after the war (Olson). Moreover, their hard work represents an end to the leisure that was central to the section titled as “The Window.” Pain and loss is addressed through their struggle to clean and “re-establish a sense of continuity and security” (p. 61).

Woolf describes war uniquely in To the Lighthouse in part due to the fact that traditional ceremonies of mourning and remembering the dead were no longer sufficient after World War I. Mass casualties on such a scale had been unfathomable, and the grim realities left people disillusioned and unable to cope with such death. Woolf believes that mourning must now be an ongoing experience. Individual soldiers can be buried, but the Great War itself cannot and should not be buried. Woolf does not seek closure-she “compels [readers] to refuse consolation, sustain grief, and accept responsibility for the difficult task of remembering the catastrophic losses of the twentieth century” so that conditions can change and so war will not break out again (Clewell). For this reason, Lily’s eyes fill with tears, and she “[demands] an explanation of why … life is so short”, so inexplicable” (p.180).

Woolf attempts to demonstrate what is best to explain the inexplicable. Like Lily, who wants to see Mrs. Ramsay with fifty pairs of eyes, Woolf looks at war (and indeed almost everything in her novel) in many ways. Because Woolf believes in the value of multiple perspectives, she chooses not to focus on any one aspect of war or any one character’s reaction to it. Even James realizes that “nothing was simply one thing” (p.186).

When he finally approaches the lighthouse he has dreamed of since his youth he finds that it is different from what he has imagined. With mutability as the new and acknowledged rule, Woolf astutely chooses to arrive at the truth about war through multiple voices and perspectives. She takes advantage of the fact that war is difficult to describe, that it is “at once personal and social, emotional and political” (Clewell). Like Lily, Woolf knows that attempting to fully describe events or feelings about war is futile because a disparity exists between words and the actual world they are signifying. “Like everything else,” Lily muses at the breakfast table, “the words became symbols” (p.147). Truth, Lily continues, can only be found by arranging words into a sentence. Let us have a look at the results obtained after applying Fillmore’s Frame Semantics on the novel as well as her personal writings.

 Frame Elements in To the Lighthouse Frame Elements in Diaries Lexical Units Comment

“He shivered; he quivered. All his vanity, all his satisfaction in his own splendour, riding fell as a thunderbolt, fierce as a hawk at the head of his men through the valley of death, had been shattered, destroyed…flashed through the valley of death, volleyed and thundered … he shivered.” (p.30) “Another loud night. Another bad raid. Oxford Street now smashed…A gale and rain here.”


(19th September, 1940) “valley of death” and “Oxford Street now smashed”. The “valley of death” in the novel is indicative of the threat of life people experienced in the war era.

“…never to see them grow up into long legged monsters.”(p.58) “An air raid in progress. Planes zooming… Couldn’t see if it were English.”


(7th September, 1930) “long legged monsters” and “Couldn’t see if it were English” The “long legged monsters” indicate the cruel and gruesome temperament of people who initiated and advocated warfare in Woolf’s time.

Rather than presenting war by giving a direct account of it, then, Woolf represents it by providing impressions of it. She incorporates a house, brackets, and the painting of a canvas instead of writing an account such as Tennyson’s in hope that the amalgamated impression provides as truthful and as enduring a rendering as possible. Because everything changes and “nothing stays,” Woolf was careful to not be overtly political in her novel (p.179). She wanted her fiction to withstand the test of time. However, readers can uncover through close reading various fragments of her personal thoughts on war.

6.3. Conclusion

Woolf believed that World War I forever changed and sentimentalized the way people look at the past. She reveals her conviction while illustrating that war is childish and permanently damages the families.

Even so, the historico-political reality of World War I is suggested indirectly in To the Lighthouse. It is not intended to be a focal point of her work. Being the radical Modernist she is, Woolf undermines methods of traditional history by transposing history from a metaphysical explanatory narrative to an exploration of multiple human states. Woolf wanted her novels to speak and address to all generations. To accomplish this, she uses ambiguities that “blur the lines between peace and war; civilians and combatants; survivors and victims; and, most basically, life and death” (Levenback). She also achieves this by placing the action away from the fighting and by refusing to represent it precisely.

Woolf transcends realism for the sake of art. To create her masterpiece, Woolf had to make war an illuminating “match struck… in the dark” and an “oyster of perceptiveness” (p.491). She was determined to use war as a vehicle through which she and her readers could gain fuller insight into her ever-evasive question, “What is the meaning of life?” (p.161). “Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small,” she explains in “Modern Fiction” (p.155). Although there are few things as consequential as war, she carves war up into digestible pieces in hopes that all readers-whether they have lived through the horrors of war or not-can process her text and somehow connect with it.

Just as Lily declares while pausing from her painting, “in the midst of chaos there was shape,” Woolf hopes her readers will perceive a particular shape, or revelation, in the chaotic war-tom world and aftermath she describes. It is only by finding such revelations that life is meaningful and worth living.

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The Major Themes of Virginia Woolf's novel “To the Lighthouse”. (2019, Dec 03). Retrieved from

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