Study Guide

To the Lighthouse What’s Up with the Title?

By Virginia Woolf

What’s Up with the Title?

Well, obviously, the first and third sections of To the Lighthouse are literally about going to a lighthouse. Are the Ramsays going to visit it? How resentful will James Ramsay be if they can’t? Why does Mr. Ramsay insist that they must go in the third section, after he digs his heels in against going in the first? All of this fuss about the Lighthouse definitely makes us wonder what exactly the Lighthouse is representing.

For us (and we also get into this a lot more in “Symbols, Imagery, Allegory”), the Lighthouse represents family (and especially paternal) authority. That’s why James Ramsay wants to go so badly, as he’s rebelling against his father and clinging to his mother. (Oedipus complex, much? And a lighthouse can be seen as phallic – it’s not too much of a stretch to think of it as a giant symbol of the power of the patriarch.) James wants to stake out the Lighthouse as his own – in other words, to take over his dad’s authority.

This symbol of power could also be why Mr. Ramsay winds up bullying his children to go to the Lighthouse in the third section, as he’s trying to cement his place as head of the family even as his children are growing older and his wife has passed away. However, we have to admit that Mr. Ramsay’s relationship with James in this scene also complicates this interpretation of Mr. Ramsay’s motives. (For more on that, check out James Ramsay’s "Character Analysis.")

So, that’s at least some explanation for the Lighthouse part of the title. But the “To the” bit is important, too. After all, this book is all about individual characters as they strive for a place in a broken, repressive family structure. In a sense, all of the Ramsay children, and even Charles Tansley and Lily Briscoe, want to get to the Lighthouse: they all want to find ways of dealing with Mr. Ramsay and the authority that he represents.

And maybe for Woolf personally, there’s a similar kind of striving going on. According to scholar Mark Massey’s study of her diaries, Woolf claimed that writing To the Lighthouse allowed her finally to lay her own dead parents to rest. Perhaps she, too, wanted to get to that symbolic lighthouse so that she could make a place for herself outside of the shadow of parental disapproval. (Source: Mark Massey, “Introduction,” To the Lighthouse. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Books, 2005, xlviii.)