Published in 1927, To the Lighthouse is sandwiched between Virginia Woolf’s other two most famous novels, Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and Orlando (1928). In our opinion, Woolf is totally at her best here, as she engages with her ongoing themes of memory, family, and fiction.
To the Lightbouse takes on some elements of Woolf’s own life: she felt stifled by her father in much the same way that Mr. Ramsay squeezes the life out of his children. And the sudden deaths of her mother and her sister Stella left her in deep mourning (echoes of Mrs. Ramsay and Prue’s deaths in To the Lighthouse).
But, Woolf herself got fed up with critics who insisted on reading the Ramsays as direct representations of the Stephens (Stephen was Woolf’s maiden name). To the Lighthouse is also an extended meditation on the relationship between art and life, and on late Victorian family structures. (Source: Mark Massey, “Introduction,” To the Lighthouse. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Books, 2005, xlviii.)
What makes To the Lighthouse important in literary terms is Woolf’s ambitious formal experimentation. She’s really working her signature style in this novel, as she takes two days, separated by ten years, to evoke a whole picture of the Ramsay family life. Her run-on sentences and meandering paragraphs work to replicate what her characters are thinking in addition to what they’re doing. Woolf is a great example of the Show Don’t Tell School of Narration. Instead of sketching us a stiffly realistic portrait of her characters, Woolf goes for the emotional impact of their internal landscapes.
Oh! There it goes! Yep! There goes another one! Good-bye to that one! Sayonara to the next one!
We’re talking about moments, man, fleeting, ephemeral, transient moments. You might not care so much about the moments you’re spending here, trying to get a handle on a "classic" book, but you probably do care about the moment that special someone asks you to Prom. Or the moment you blow out all your birthday candles with your friends and loved ones watching. The point is, life is full of beautiful moments.
In their own particular ways, Mrs. Ramsay and Lily try to figuratively nail down life's special moments. They try to freeze them, and make them permanent. Mrs. Ramsay does it by creating them out of near-impossible situations, like getting frenemies to kiss and make up. Everyone remembers that. Lily, in contrast, does it in a much more lasting way: through painting, which, you know, is like the old-school way of capturing that Kodak moment. And Mr. Ramsay attempts the same through his writing and academic reputation, which he wants very much to live on beyond his own life.
Anyway, back to the moment! What makes moments in this novel so complex is that the characters don’t just feel emotions in the moment, they FEEEEL EMOOOOTIONS! In the first thirty seconds of the novel (depending on how fast you read), James goes from seeing everything around him as "fringed with joy" to wanting to kill his father in a murderous rage. Nor is this an anomaly (read: weird abnormal thing) in To the Lighthouse. Each moment in the novel is rich with emotion and memory.
But, wait! We’re not done talking about moments. While the moments are told from one person’s view at a time, Woolf switches perspectives rapidly. We get only a glimpse into just about everyone’s head. What’s the point, you say? Well, we’ll defer to Lily Briscoe, who says that 50 eyes are not enough to see one person properly. In other words, 50 eyes aren’t enough to see the truth. But that’s what Woolf is trying to get at here: the truth. Life.
What makes it even more complex is that To the Lighthouse actually attempts to answer that age-old question: What is the meaning of life? Or rather, the meaning of these life moments we experience, all compiled together. Now, the book doesn’t attempt to answer the question by sitting down and saying, The meaning of life is…," but rather by showing us fleeting moments the lives of several different people who are attempting to extract meaning from their lives. Cool, huh?