So the characters don’t speak much, but their actions definitely help us define some of their core characteristics. We’ll lob a few examples at you to prove we’re not making this up. Number one, Mrs. Ramsay asks Mr. Tansley to accompany her into town when he feels left out. This shows the kindness of her character and her efforts to make everyone happy. Number two, against all social conventions, Lily deliberately ignores Mr. Tansley’s discomfort at the dinner table until it’s clear that Mrs. Ramsay would like Lily to socially save Mr. Tansley. So she does. This shows that although Lily has a rebellious streak, she does have a good heart.
Huh? Who’s doing the telling? Well, we’re in everyone’s minds, and everyone tends to get explicit about the people they are surrounded by. For example, we give you Charles Tansley’s thoughts: "She was the most beautiful person he had ever seen." This obviously means that we take direct characterization with a big grain of salt, because this isn’t some external, completely objective narrator. HOWEVER, the point of multiple perspectives is that we get to hear Lily, Mr. Ramsay, James, and everyone else think of Mrs. Ramsay as beautiful. When not one person characterizes her as ugly, it’s a safe bet to say, hey, she’s beautiful.
Mrs. Ramsay is beautiful – maybe that’s why she’s so hell bent on preserving and creating moments of beauty? Lily is not beautiful. According to Mrs. Ramsay, this will make it difficult for Lily to marry. Maybe if she were beautiful, Lily would want to get married? Who knows? Mr. Ramsay is described as "lean as a knife," which signals both his physical appearance (skinny) and his temperament (sharp and aggressive).
The occupations of the characters in To the Lighthouse are another window into their personalities and characteristics. For example, Mr. Ramsay is a metaphysical philosopher. This means that he has a big brain and spends his time trying to meaningfully contribute to intelligent society. His wife, in contrast, has the occupation of a housewife. She therefore works on being a supportive wife and doting mother – traditional feminine ideals.
OK, not so much "sex and love" as marriage. As in, it matters if you’re married. Mrs. Ramsay plays matchmaker because she believes that marriage is a happy ending, which kind of gets in the way of Lily’s determination to stay single. Mrs. Ramsay, Biggest Fan of Marriage Ever = Traditional Woman. Lily, Determined Spinster = Modern Woman.
We’d guess that 90% of the book consists of characters’ thoughts. Through reading what our characters think, feel, remember, etc., we gain an insight into their characters far beyond what we could glean as a proverbial fly on the wall. For example, Mr. Ramsay comes across as unnecessarily cruel to his six year old, but when we read his thoughts, we realize that he does in fact care for his kids. He simply wants them to learn as soon as possible that life is difficult.
You might have noticed that there is actually very little dialogue in this book, as most of the "talking" is actually thoughts running in characters’ heads. The most important aspects of the dialogue can only be seen in relation to the characters’ internal thoughts. The characters’ thoughts are free-flowing, honest, and far from always kind. In comparison, the actual dialogues among the characters tend to be stiff, restrained, formal, and prescribed by social rules of conduct. It’s very clear that the people in the book are really not saying what’s on their mind.