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Overcoming Trauma in Virginia Woolf’s "To the Lighthouse"

Trauma in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is represented mainly by death. The novel, published in 1927, is divided into three parts: “The Window”, “Time Passes”, and “To the Lighthouse”. The book starts with some members of the family wanting to go to the lighthouse, with the exception of the father. Eventually, this journey will be completed many years later, under different circumstances. After Mrs. Ramsay’s death, Mr. Ramsay decides to go there with his children to honor his wife’s memory. Although the concept of loss pervades the entire book, it only becomes clear in the second section. This transitory part, addresses the effects that World War I has had on England whilst informing the reader about the passing of some of the characters: Mrs. Ramsay, her daughter Prue and her son Andrew. The third part is directly linked to the previous one in that it questions the overcoming of trauma through the artistic medium and the voyage to the lighthouse. To further investigate how Woolf uses her novel to deal with trauma and how the concept of loss is treated in it, it is important to consider the following features: Woolf’s personal trauma, Lily Briscoe’s painting and the Ramsays’ journey to the Lighthouse.

How To the Lighthouse mirrors Woolf's personal trauma

The reason why trauma plays such a central role in the novel is that its very publication was motivated by Woolf’s family death. It is no surprise, then, that the novel is still regarded as “the most autobiographical of all Virginia Woolf’s novels and an elegy for her parents […]” (Rutherford, 2018).

As she explains:

Until I was in the forties… the presence of my mother obsessed me. I could hear her voice, see her, imagine what she would do or say as I went about my day’s doings […] Then one day walking round Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, To the Lighthouse; in a great, apparently involuntary, rush. One thing burst into another… Why then? I have no notion. But I wrote the book very quickly; and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother.” (Woolf, 1976)

Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephen, is personified by the character of Mrs. Ramsay, the cohesive force of the family (Woolf, 2017). Curiously enough, it was the alter ego of her father who had to be the center of the narration in the initial project of the novel. This shift gives us a better understanding of the dynamics governing the author’s family and, more precisely, Julia’s superiority over her father, Leonard, as well as the difficulties concerning Virginia and Leonard Woolf (Woolf, 2017). “What he said was true. It was always true”, says the narrator about Mr. Ramsay/Leonard (Woolf, 1981).

Figure 1: "Julia Prinsep Stephen" (London Photographic Company, 1867).

Other associations concern the writer’s siblings: Prue dies in section two from complications of childbirth; this episode recalls the death of Woolf’s stepsister, Stella Duckworth Hills, who died in 1897 shortly after her marriage. Similarly, Andrew is killed during the war in the same passage. The model for Andrew’s death was the loss of Woolf’s younger brother, Thoby, who died of typhoid fever in 1906 (Fleishman, 1981). Another interesting shift can be noted concerning the timing of Andrew’s/Thoby’s death: the first one occurs during World War I, the second at the end of the nineteenth century: the author Fleishman describes it as Woolf’s attempt to generalize “from her personal loss to the cataclysmic losses of Western civilization” (Fleishman, 1981). Another character that echoes Woolf’s personal life is Lily Briscoe. A pivotal figure in the book, the reference to Woolf’s biography is sometimes overlooked. Not only is she Mrs. Ramsay’s counterpart, for her diverging ideas on marriage and women’s duties, but she is also the author’s alter ego. As was mentioned above, the redaction of the novel was motivated by Julia Stephen’s death, just like Mrs. Ramsay is the subject of Lily’s painting, which is completed after her death. This allows for a reflection on the function of art and literature as means of dealing with grief.

The Function of Art

Writing and painting are constantly related throughout the novel. As the mother, Mrs. Ramsay evokes the notion of fertility, while Lily’s refusal of marriage is one of the many ways in which the two women are opposed in the pages of the book. Still, this opposition is far from being clear-cut, as the painter herself experiences another form of creation, one that manifests itself through the painting (Woolf, 2017). Thanks to it, Mrs. Ramsay becomes, somehow, eternal. Through her paintbrush, Lily can face “a world of strife, ruin, chaos” (Woolf, 1981). Accordingly, writing the novel allows Woolf not to be haunted by the thought of her parents anymore (Woolf, 1928).

Roger Fry defines Lily as a post-impressionist painter because her aim is not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent for it (Woolf, 1940). This parallel suggests an important aspect. Post-impressionism was characterized by a revolution that brought artists to realism so as to express their own subjectivity. A recurring example made by J. F. Stewart (1985), who studied the role of color and light in To the Lighthouse, is the post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne. His art exemplifies the transition from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism, which was made possible by his simplification of reality. Through this process, the painter can perceive the essence of the external world, achieve a deeper vision of it, and fix it through the artistic medium. It is the very procedure accomplished by Lily Briscoe at the end of the novel as she completes her work. In reality, she is not interested in reproducing Mrs. Ramsay’s figure perfectly. That is why, when she is done with her portrait, she is not concerned about its quality, its destiny or her memory of the woman it represents; it is what she achieves through it that matters, her “vision” (Woolf, 1981).

The figure of Mrs. Ramsay as the main character of part one and as the protagonist of the painting gives the novel a circular structure. Similarly, the discussion about the Ramsays’ children wanting to go to the lighthouse in “The Window” and the accomplishment of it in “The Lighthouse” contribute to the novel’s remarkable architecture.

Figure 2: "The bend in the road" (Cézanne, 1906).

The Final Journey to the Lighthouse

The journey to the lighthouse that involves Mr. Ramsay and his surviving children can be perceived as a spiritual and metaphorical journey and plays a role similar to that of Lily’s painting. Mr. Ramsay is subject to an interesting evolution. Being the main opposer of the voyage to the lighthouse in the first part, he is only capable of reaching it in the third, when he abandons his hostility, his obsession with books and shows tenderness towards his children, Camilla and James (Cohn, 1962). This journey is also a way of honoring his wife’s death, symbolized by the lighthouse’s beam. Already in section two, Mrs. MacNab is sure that the beam that she sees in the abandoned house of the Ramsays is Mrs. Ramsay’s ghost:

“She could see her now… (and faint and flickering, like a yellow beam or the circle at the end of a telescope, a lady in a grey cloak, stooping over her flowers, went wandering over the bedroom wall…”(Woolf, 1967)

When the reader grasps this reference, it becomes evident that the journey to the lighthouse is related to the memory of Mrs. Ramsay herself.

The idea of death is subtly introduced at the beginning of the journey by the words of the boatman, Mr. MacAlister, who recounts a shipwreck that happened in the channel between the Isle and the lighthouse. Rutherford (2018), who published an extensive study about the influence of the Egyptian Book of the Dead on Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, explains that the Outer Hebrides, where the story takes place, is also known as the “Western Isles”; in the Egyptian myth, the west is the land of the dead. Just like Mr. Ramsay, even James changes his attitude throughout the journey on the boat. At first, he resents that he has to “[…] take part in these rites he [Mr. Ramsay] went through for his own pleasure in memory of dead people” (Woolf, 1981). Both children’s resentment for having been forced to go with the father is eventually replaced by feelings of empathy and admiration for him. As they reach the lighthouse, Lily finishes her painting and, in the meantime, achieves a better understanding of Mrs. Ramsay’s opinions and behavior, which differ so much from hers. Still, one cannot say that art has led to life, as the artist understands that the vision she had is more relevant than the destiny of her painting: “It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? […] I have had my vision” (Woolf, 1981).

Figure 3: "Papyrus of Hunefer". A scene from the Book of the Dead (1285 BC).

The journey to the lighthouse and the writer’s personal and artistic journey overlap. The book serves as Woolf’s own attempt to overcome her grief, which is why all the main characters of the book are representations of her deceased family members. Her process of sublimation of life and elaboration of loss through art is represented by Lily’s painting, whose process of realization echoes that of the writing of the novel. Similarly, the journey to the lighthouse symbolises the Ramsays' journey in coping with the death of Mrs. Ramsay. By the end of it, even death seems to be set aside, leaving the characters with a heightened awareness of life itself.

Bibliographical References

Cohn, R. (1962). ART IN “TO THE LIGHTHOUSE.” Modern Fiction Studies, 8(2), 127–136.

Fleishman, A. (1981). “To Return to St. Ives”: Woolf’s Autobiographical Writings. ELH, 48(3), 606–618.

Rutherford, B. (2018). Virginia Woolf’s Egyptomania: Echoes of The Book of the Dead into the Lighthouse. Woolf Studies Annual, 24, 135–164.

Stewart, J. F. (1985). Color in To the Lighthouse. Twentieth Century Literature, 31(4), 438–458.

Woolf, V. (1966). Collected Essays. London: Hogarth Press Woolf, V. (1967). To the Lighthouse. London: Hogarth Press Woolf, V. (1976). Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings. Sussex: Jeanne Schulinkd Woolf, V. (1977). The Diary of Virginia Woolf. London: Anne O. Bell and Andrew McNeillie Woolf, V. (1979). Roger Fry: A Biography. Harmondsworth Middlesex: Penguin Woolf, V. (1981). To the Lighthouse. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Woolf, V. (2017). Gita al faro. Milano: Edizioni Conoscere

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1 comentario

Carol Lawrence
Carol Lawrence
21 dic 2023

Lily, as a character, becomes a conduit for Woolf's introspection and a vehicle through which the narrative confronts the complexities of grief and healing. For further insights into the nuanced layers of "To the Lighthouse," one might consider engaging with, a reputable academic writing service. Their expertise in literary analysis and research can provide additional perspectives on Woolf's portrayal of trauma and loss in this seminal work.

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