Before launching into what Virginia Woolf might be talking about with this here Lighthouse, let's take a second to consider what a lighthouse is. (Here's a photo.) The American Heritage Dictionary tells us that it's a "tall structure topped by a powerful light used as a beacon or signal to aid maritime navigation." So, metaphorically speaking, a lighthouse is a beacon. It's something people who are lost can look towards for guidance. And it's a "tall structure" – a big, solid, unmoving structure. But that powerful light? It does move. When the night falls, it flashes on, and when the sun rises, it shuts off. So a lighthouse works as both a symbol of stability (as a beacon) and of change (as its lights go on and off with the turning of the day).
Now, about this specific Lighthouse. We know that it's visible from the Ramsays' summer home but separated from it by a stretch of sea, because Mr. Ramsay loves to look at it (see 1.1.22). And we know that, at least at first, James Ramsay really wants to get there – so much that when Mr. Ramsay says they won't be able to sail to the Lighthouse the next day, James Ramsay contemplates murder: "Had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father's breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it" (1.1.4).
So, why do James and Mr. Ramsay have so much invested in the Lighthouse – either in getting to it in the first place or in preventing others from going? Well, one important thing they share in common is that they're both guys. Another important thing? They're both really into Mrs. Ramsay. Sure, one's her husband and the other's her son, but they feel they have to compete with each other for her attention – remember: "most of all [James] hated the twang and twitter of his father’s emotion which, vibrating round them, disturbed the perfect simplicity and good sense of his relations with his mother" (1.7.1). So we don't exactly think it's far-fetched that this whole conflict over whether they'll go to the Lighthouse might be connected to the way James and Mr. Ramsay seem to be wrangling over Mrs. Ramsay.
What we're getting at, in a roundabout way, is that the Lighthouse is potentially a symbol for family structure, and especially for the authority of the father in the traditional family. Not to be crude or anything, but the lighthouse is kind of a phallic symbol, and phallic symbols in literature often mean that there are daddy issues coming down the pike.
James and Mr. Ramsay are squabbling over who gets power over the family: Mr. Ramsay is the authority figure, so he gets to say "No! the weather will be bad!" And James is a rebel who's all "Why do you have to ruin everything? Just as I'm getting along so well with Mom!" But in the end, James concedes that his dad always seems to wind up being right (1.1.4) – which just makes everything worse for him. James won't get to the Lighthouse in this section of the novel, and the family power remains largely in Mr. Ramsay's hands. Their relations become more complicated in Section Three – but for more on that, see James Ramsay's "Character Analysis."
Other evidence for this reading? We've got lots. Consider Charles Tansley, that unpleasant guy who's always hanging around in the first section. He looks up to Mr. Ramsay (he wants to be him, basically). He's embarrassed by his own inability to insert himself successfully into social situations. And he's oppressive when it comes to the relationship between women and artistry – he basically tells Lily Briscoe that women can't paint or write (1.17.22).
Charles is obviously concerned with maintaining the patriarchal status quo. So he takes it upon himself to tell James Ramsay that James won't be able to go to the Lighthouse the next day (1.2.1). See, he's joining Mr. Ramsay in keeping the power of the Lighthouse away from the other members of the Ramsay family – because if Charles Tansley can't have patriarchal authority, no one (except, you know, Mr. Ramsay) can.
And how about Mrs. Ramsay? Here's where this gets really interesting, because Woolf loves to explore ways of thinking about family and lineage outside the traditional father-son trajectory. So motherhood is a big deal in a lot of her work.
One thing that's interesting about Mrs. Ramsay is that she knows that James won't be able to get to the Lighthouse, but she doesn't want to tell him. She hides the unpleasant truth from him, just as she wraps that boar skull in her shawl so that Cam can go to sleep in Part One, Chapter Eighteen. Mrs. Ramsay makes Mr. Ramsay's domineering, oppressive ways manageable for the Ramsay kids who have to live with his bullying. She genuinely loves Mr. Ramsay and she genuinely loves her kids – and she's also what stands between Mr. Ramsay and his family to make sure that all of them can live together.
Mrs. Ramsay finds Mr. Ramsay's place at the head of their traditional family necessary, natural, and inevitable, but she knows that it's hard for her children to accept. So she does her best to make everything run smoothly: that's her great talent. The Ramsays' traditional family would be impossible without her soothing influence.
The book underlines Mrs. Ramsay's own investment in the Lighthouse (and in the importance and authority of fatherhood) by emphasizing that she makes charitable donations to the Lighthouse keeper (who, apparently, has a son with a "tuberculous hip" [1.1.5]). She's not only looking after her own children – she's such a Supermom that she can also look after other people's kids.
In a larger sense, Mrs. Ramsay's charitable work is linked to the Lighthouse because it's part of her role as a traditional mother to take care of people. If the Lighthouse symbolizes the power the dad has in the traditional family, the charity is like the mother's place in that power structure. The dad is a beacon; he's what people are imitating, while the mom takes care of everybody. Mrs. Ramsay's support for this division of labor is pretty apparent when she gets all reproving with her daughters in that internal monologue in the first section of the novel:
For how would you like to be shut up for a whole month at a time, and possibly more in stormy weather, upon a rock the size of a tennis lawn? she would ask; and to have no letters or newspapers, and to see nobody [...] How would you like that? she asked, addressing herself particularly to her daughters. So she added, rather differently, one must take them whatever comforts one can. (1.1.5)
In other words, sure, it stinks always to be in a subordinate position in a family, but at least women don't get stuck with the lonely, difficult work of being model dads. Mrs. Ramsay gets that the patriarchy isn't great for her – but it's not great for Mr. Ramsay or the Lighthouse keeper either. She sees it as her natural job to make things better for those poor guys. Besides, Mrs. Ramsay might say, everyone has to get married anyway, right?
The answer to that question belongs to Lily Briscoe: Lily doesn't have to get married because she has her work. She can see the Lighthouse, but instead of trying to get there, instead of trying to fit herself into a traditional womanly or maternal role, she paints the scene in front of her. She uses her art to represent the essence of the Lighthouse without actually having to be part of everything it represents. Lily basically marries her art, so there's no cause for her to try to sail to the Lighthouse in Part Three: the Lighthouse doesn't offer her anything besides an attractive view and some perspective on what drives Mr. Ramsay.
We've talked about the Lighthouse as a symbol for family authority and how control over getting to the Lighthouse has a lot to do with family power. But what about the whole eternal-yet-shifting thing we brought up way back in the first paragraph of this discussion?
Like the Lighthouse tower itself, the family as an institution is (or at least, seems) solid and unchanging. But individual families come and go as rapidly as a lighthouse beacon goes on and off – time changes the shape of all families (remember the loss of Mrs. Ramsay in Part Three?). As is the case in many Woolf novels, the progress of time is a major theme of To the Lighthouse. No matter how solid Family may seem as a concept, every family has its own private shape and trajectory, a tension between the ideal and lived reality that the Ramsay family certainly dramatizes.