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Love, Death, and the Meaning of Life in To the Lighthouse

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Love, Death, and the Meaning of Life in To the Lighthouse

Mrs. Ramsay

pp 59-60

Not that she herself was “pessimistic,” as he accused her of being. Only she thought life—and a little strip of time presented itself to her eyes—her fifty years. There it was before her—life. Life, she thought—but she did not finish her thought. She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband. A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her; and sometimes they parleyed (when she sat alone); there were, she remembered, great reconciliation scenes; but for the most part, oddly enough, she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance.


She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of—to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. . . . Her horizon seemed to her limitless. . . . This core of darkness could go anywhere, for no one saw it. They could not stop it, she thought, exulting. There was freedom, there was peace, there was, most welcome of all, a summoning together, a resting on an platform of stability [goes on to identify with the third stroke of the Lighthouse, p. 63, to lapse into “We are in the hands of the Lord” on 63] With her mind she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that. [perspective shifts to Mr. Ramsay watching her, “the sternness at the heart of her beauty. It saddened him, and her remoteness pained him” 64 [Then back to Mrs. Ramsay and the sound of the sea; she stops to listen and to look at] “the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much her, yet so little her . . . as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness . . . and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough! [and Mr. Ramsay turns and looks at her, and she goes to him.]

Lily Briscoe

161 What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. This, that, and the other; herself and Charles Tansley and the breaking wave; Mrs. Ramsay bringing them together saying, "Life stand still here;” Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent)—this was of the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here, Mrs. Ramsay said. “Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!” she repeated. She owed it all to her.

All was silence. Nobody seemed yet to be stirring in the house. She looked at it there sleeping in the early sunlight with its windows green and blue with the reflected leaves. The faint thought she was thinking of Mrs. Ramsay seemed in consonance with this quiet house; this smoke; this fine early morning air. Faint and unreal, it was amazingly pure and exciting. She hoped nobody would open the window or come out of the house, but that she might be left alone to go on thinking, to go on painting. She turned to her canvas. But impelled by some curiosity, driven by the discomfort of the sympathy which she held undischarged

pp 171-72 Mrs. Ramsay sat silent. She was glad, Lily thought, to rest in silence, uncommunicative; to rest in the extreme obscurity of human relationships. Who knows what we are, what we feel? Who knows even at the moment of intimacy, This is knowledge? Aren’t things spoilt then, Mrs. Ramsay may have asked (it seemed to have happened so often, this silence by her side) by saying them? Aren’t we more expressive thus? The moment at least seemed extraordinarily fertile. She rammed a little hole in the sand and covered it up, by way of burying in it the perfection of the moment. It was like a drop of silver in which one dipped and illumined the darkness of the past.

Lily (continued)

p 179 “What does it mean? How do you explain it all?” she wanted to say, turning to Mr. Carmichael again . . .

She looked at her picture. That would have been his answer, presumably—how “you” and “I” and “she” pass and vanish; nothing stays; all changes; but not words, not paint.

James Ramsay (186), lighthouse as symbol

James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?

No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too. It was sometimes hardly to be seen across the bay. In the evening one looked up and saw the eye opening and shutting and the light seemed to reach them in that airy sunny garden where they sat.

James/Mr. Ramsay 202-03

“He looked very old. He looked, James thought, getting his head now against the Lighthouse, now against the waste of waters funning away into the open, like some old stone lying on the sand; he looked as if he had become physically what was always at the back of both of their minds---that loneliness which was for both of them the truth about things.”
James/Cam, as Mr. Ramsay sets foot on the rock (207)

He rose and stood in the bow of the boat, very straight and tall, for all the world, James thought, as if he were saying, "There is no God," an Cam thought, as if he were leaping into space, and they both rose to follow him as he sprang, lightly like a young man, holding his parcel, on to the rock.

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