Does it seem to you a just criticism that in “To the Lighthouse” the usual concerns of a novel—character and plot—have been sub-ordinated to symbols and ideas?
It is not criticism but reality that “To the Lighthouse” is symbolical representation of themes like human nature. Every character, every object, every scene and every situation has a meaning attached to it. Readers should keep in mind that literal meanings of a character and object are not enough while reading “To the Longhouse”. If your think that sea is just a sea and lighthouse is mere a lighthouse then you are wrong. There is no story in the novel. Only a visit to the lighthouse cannot be considered a story. The presentation of human psyche through stream of consciousness is subject matter of this novel. In fact, these are symbols, due to which, this novel has freshness till today. Virginia Woolf is among symbolists of 19th century, who preferred indirect presentation method called symbolism. The writer has directly said nothing to the readers; she has indirectly make suggestions for them. Each character is revealing something to the readers. Every object, in hidden meanings, is suggesting something. It is on the readers how they perceive meanings from symbols instead perceiving only literal meanings of objects and characters.
The title “To the lighthouse” is the primary symbol of this novel. The whole story of the novel revolves around a trip to the lighthouse. It starts with an ambition to visit the lighthouse and ends with fulfillment of the same but in hidden meanings it indicates something. The light house is symbol of guidance. In the past, lighthouses were built to guide the sailors. Far from the lighthouse, boats and ships can be seen. It was also built for protection, through which, security of the people could be ensured. The insistence to visit the lighthouse is actually a course of action to seek guidance and security. James Ramsay wants to visit the lighthouse because of his father’s rough attitude towards him and his siblings. Somewhere, in his mind, he lacks protection and security and his wish to go to the lighthouse suggests that he is seeking the same. Similarly, Lily Briscoe cannot complete her painting because of lack of guidance but after visiting the lighthouse, she at the end, completes the same while saying “I have my vision”. Lighthouse, being symbol of light, also guides Mr. Ramsay. When lighthouse has been seen far from the sea by a lost sailor, it indicates hope. Mr. Ramsay’s character, in this regard is directly hit by this symbol. He is hopeless and fears that his work, one day, will be forgotten. He is a realistic person and wants her children to face the reality. A visit to the lighthouse can give him hope, motivation and optimism. Similarly, for Mrs. Ramsay, it is symbol of reality. She consoles her children and says they will be able to visit the lighthouse tomorrow. Hence, symbolically, the lighthouse serves many purposes in this novel. “To the Lighthouse” is not mere a title of the novel, it is symbol of hope, guidance and protection.
The relationship between the artist and art is also symbolized in this novel by Virginia Woolf. There are two artists; first one is a painter, whereas the second is a poet. Lily Briscoe’s paining is notable in this regard. She cannot complete her painting until she has a clear vision. If her mind is mingled with extreme thoughts, she cannot paint her vision on the canvas. In first part of the novel, her struggle to complete the painting symbolizes that an artist needs peace of mind in order to portray his mental picture either in form of painting or words. She lacks harmony, which she gets at the end of novel. If truth be told, the effort of Lily Briscoe is the effort of Virginia Woolf; she in her early days also struggled a lot to write poetry, therefore, Lily Briscoe’s struggle to paint symbolizes the struggle of the writer for writing poetry. In this way, art and artist, both are symbols in this novel.
As mentioned above, each object and characters serves a symbol. Let’s first discuss the objects. Apart from above discussed objects, the window is also a symbol. There are a lot of incidents in the novel, where we see a character seeing through a window and imagining the sea, the stars, the landscapes and events of live. Through window, we can have a glimpse of reality. Everyone has a window like space, through which we can approach him; his words, his style as well as actions reveal something. We can look through window and have a glimpse on outer world. Similarly, the actions and words of a person are window to approach his inner personality. Thus, undoubtedly, window is also symbolized in this novel.
The sea also symbolically refers something. In fact, it is an important symbol of the novel. Mr. Ramsay thinks that land is life and the sea is destroyer, whereas Mrs. Ramsay thinks positively. According to her, sea is symbol of life. No matter, who is right but it is certain that sea is highly symbolized in this novel. Virginia Woolf lefts on the minds of readers and characters; how they perceive the sea, it is dependent on their attitude towards life. Sea, for someone, is symbol of destruction, whereas for someone, it symbolizes life. Some of us can perceive it as symbol of wildness and some for wideness. Anyhow, sea, in this novel, symbolically reveals something to the readers.
Coming towards the characters, each and every person of the novel is a symbol. Mrs. Ramsay is symbol of hope and optimism, Mr. Ramsay is realistic and is symbol of pessimism, Lily Briscoe and Carmichael are symbols of art and Ramsay’s whole family is symbol of togetherness. Consequently, not only objects but characters are also symbols in this novel.
To cut short the whole discussion, Virginia Woolf is well aware with the technique of symbolism. Due to symbols, the novel has extraordinary meanings. There is no denial the fact that the survival of this novel, till date, is dependent on its symbols. Words do not only convey literal meanings but they suggest much more than that. Study of the novel suggests that every object and character is saying something in hidden meanings; the lighthouse, the sea and waves, the window, the day and night, the colours and even characters are highly symbolic in this novel. Thus, it is not just criticism that in “To the Lighthouse” the usual concerns of a novel—character and plot—have been sub-ordinated to symbols and ideas but truth.