Aspects of Structure, Narration and Symbolism in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse

Seminar Paper 2002 12 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1.0 Introduction

2.1 Structure and Plot
2.2 Narration and Narrative Techniques
2.3 Language and Symbolism

3.0 Bibliography

3.1 References

1.0 Introduction

Virginia Woolf’s novel To the lighthouse is seen as one of her most experimental works and some critics call it a “tour de force”; a masterpiece. In fact, it is a very special piece of fictional prose concerning narrative techniques, plot, symbolism or language, as this paper will show. Furthermore, it will be analyzed, which effects these means and techniques have on the reader and on the novel as a whole.

The first part of the analysis will concentrate on the questions how the novel is structured and why it is structured that way. Moreover, the problem of the plot will be discussed. In the second part called ‘Narrative techniques’ it shall be focused on the different methods that are used to tell the novel, especially the stream of conscious- technique, because it offers particular possibilities, which have an effect on the characters’ portrayal and the novel’s style.

This paper’s last item examines symbolism and language and the connection between them. Especially the matter of symbolism is interesting, because it passes through the whole novel and has therefore certain importance and meaning, which is contemplated here. Virginia Woolf’s work differs from traditional novels in many points. Some of these points I chose as topics for my term paper, because I would like to show that they are part of the novel’s uniqueness.

2.1 Structure and Plot

To the Lighthouse is divided into three parts: “The Window”, “Time passes” and “The Lighthouse”. The first part of the novel, “The Window”, consists of 19 sections and is the longest of all although it only covers a period of one day. Here, the reader is introduced to nearly all of the characters and to the plot and becomes caught up in the web of relationships. Mrs. Ramsay is the most dominant character in this part and acts as connection between the other ones. Especially in the dinner-scene it becomes clear that it is Mrs. Ramsay, who is the real ‘head’ of the household and cares about everything, connects the several people and acts as a mediator. With her special gift to understand and unite people intuitively, she is able to create an atmosphere of pleasantness and domestic peace within the holiday house’s microcosm.

Although being the shortest, the second major section covers a period of ten and fulfils an important task. Standing in between the first and the last part of the novel, it is not only logically the middle, but also symbolically. The reader is given a description of the house’s decay and he gets to know that there had been considerable changes in the family’s life, furthermore; that the family does not exist any more in the same constellation as in the chapters before. This section functions as a connection of the ‘happy days’ described in “The Window” and the changed situation in “The Lighthouse” ten years later, where Mr. Ramsay has overtaken his wife’s position as the main parent.

In the last section, the reader finally witnesses the journey to the lighthouse, which was promised to James at the beginning of the book. This action can be seen as a frame in the novel, because it is both the opening and the ending of the story and furthermore a symbolic act, as will be analyzed later.

This shows parallels to Lily Briscoe’s painting, which cannot be completed at first, but in the last chapter this ambition is fulfilled. These observations underline, that the third section symbolizes and reflects the meaning of the whole book and can be regarded as a conclusion, where all conflicts come together are solved, because now the characters had reached a certain level of perception and ‘had their vision’[i].

Virginia Woolf set great store by formal aspects like structure, symbolism or language, therefore a plot in the conventional sense does not exist in the novel, but after an intensive analysis it can be pointed out that there are a lot of constellations and incidents, which at first glance might have been regarded as parts of a superficial action, but after all they do construct a ‘plot’, which is more a description of the human being’s way towards higher perception and consciousness. Arnold Kettle explains his opinion about the plot by comparing it to art:

To the Lighthouse is no more symbolic than a picture by Cézanne and no more casual. (…) If one is asked ‘What is that picture about?’ one can only reply ‘It is about itself; it is what the artist has painted.’ (…) Similarly To the Lighthouse is itself. There is nothing to do with it except read it.” [ii]

Although this is a very romantic comparison, it is also a fitting one, because Woolf’s novel is in fact sensitively composed like a picture and if the reader saw the novel as a picture, he would notice that there are many links in it. That means, that like on a picture, everything is set in relation (e.g. the characters, the action in the three sections etc.), for example by the character Mrs. Ramsay or by the trip to the lighthouse, as was mentioned before.

We can even state the thesis that there are analogies between To the Lighthouse and Lily Briscoe’s picture, which are both works of art, e.g.: as well as the perfecting of the novel, Briscoe’s picture took plenty of time and required the artist’s spiritual development. These parallels underline that the novel is more a piece of art than a novel and more artistic in composition than in plot.

In conclusion one can say that the novel is a demonstration for what is possible to do with language. The careful descriptions of destinies, little incidents, observations and memories as well as the central position of the poetic language and the narration seem to create the actual plot. But it has to be added that the characters’ developments (e.g. Lily Briscoe’s efforts to finish her picture, which were successful in the end or Mr. Ramsay’s development from hard-hearted and busy philosopher towards a father, who can finally express a slight approval for his son) also construct a kind of plot, which is only superimposed by the formal aspects’ significance.

The fact that Woolf herself considered the novel as an elegy about her own childhood emphasizes that she regarded the action as meaningful enough to serve as ‘plot’.


[i] Vgl. Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. London: Penguin, 1964, 237

[ii] Kettle, Arnold. ‘From “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Woolf” ’ .An Introduction to the English Novel.

Virginia Woolf Critical Assessments ed. Eleanor McNees, (Mountfield: Helm Information), 1994, 237


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Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald – Institute for Anglistics/American Studies
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Aspects Structure Narration Symbolism Virginia Woolf Lighthouse English Novel




Title: Aspects of Structure, Narration and Symbolism in Virginia Woolf's  To the Lighthouse