Motifs and Symbols in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse

Seminar Paper, 2004

19 Pages, Grade: 1



1. Introduction

2. The Use of Motifs and Symbols in Virginia Woolf’s Works

3. Lighthouse and Light as Major Symbols in the Novel
3.1 The Function of the Lighthouse
3.2 The Lighthouse as a Symbolic Image
3.3 The Lighthouse Beam

4. The Elements of Sea and Land

5. The Ramsay’s Holiday Residence
5.1 The Garden
5.2 The House

6. Cutting Objects and Knitting Needles

7. The Alphabet

8. The Green Shawl

9. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Virginia Woolf’s fifth novel To the Lighthouse, which first appeared in 1927, captures its readers with its characterisation of the Ramsay family and their guests who meet at their holiday home on the Isle of Skye, an island near the Scottish mainland. The novel is set in a ten year period with the first section taking place on a day before the First World War, a middle period in which all the action happens “off stage” during the war and a last section taking place on a day after the war.

Virginia Woolf uses stream of consciousness narration which, unlike traditional linear narration, records thoughts in the order in which they arise without bringing them in a rational or chronological context. This sort of narration can make it difficult for the reader to follow the story. Therefore, the novel is structured round a series of images which help to bind the prose into coherence in the absence of a strong story. These images can be regarded as motifs, recurrent elements which assist our understanding of the novel. If certain meanings and associations cluster around them, these motifs become symbols. In this way, “external objects can become symbols for one’s own feelings. As such they become a means of investigating one’s feelings or providing a focus for them.”[1]

If we are alert to the imagery, frequently we will see images, as simile or metaphor, gradually

acquiring symbolic weight; and once a symbol is established, it is often possible tot race the

novel’s narrative progress through the extension and expansion of that symbol. By moving into

the province of poetry, Mrs Woolf was able to surmount many of the difficulties indigenous to

prose expression.[2]

To the Lighthouse is full of symbols which have been interpreted in many different ways by various critics. Many of those interpretations deal with the central image of the novel, the lighthouse. It has been said to represent a religious symbol by some critics, a phallic symbol by some others. It has been connected with Mr Ramsay in some essays, with Mrs Ramsay in others.[3] But just as James says in the novel: “Nothing is simply one thing.”[4] As a consequence, the symbols in the novel can have several different meanings.

The following paper will closely examine the major motifs and symbols in To the Lighthouse. First of all, a short introduction will be given about Virginia Woolf’s use of motifs and symbols in her work. Then, the lighthouse image will be looked at, taking into consideration its function, its different symbolic meanings and separating it from the lighthouse beam which has a special function in the novel. As a third point, the different elements of land and sea as well as their impact on the different characters will be examined. The next chapter of this paper will then focus on the holiday residence of the Ramsay family. First of all, the function of the garden, especially of the hedge, will be analysed. After that, the focus will be on the house, especially on the most significant components of the house which are the windows. After that, the opposition between cutting objects and knitting needles and its function in the novel will be very briefly examined. Finally, the paper will look at two other important images in To the Lighthouse which have grown to symbolic potential, namely the alphabet and the green shawl.

2. The Use of Motifs and Symbols in Virginia Woolf’s Works

Symbols and motifs are very important in the writings of Virginia Woolf. “She knew how an image could grow to symbolic potential in order to carry her narrative forward; and she was sensitive to the way poetic connotations accrue to define the numerous inflections upon which the meaning of her novel would rest.”[5] Virginia Woolf seems to have dedicated a large amount of her time and thought determining the nature and scope of symbols. In her diary as well as in her critical essays, she worked out a theory about the use of symbols.

One important aspect which she stresses in one of her essays, entitled “On Not Knowing Greek”, is that “a symbol should have some similarity to the thing symbolised, which it should make splendid”[6]. There must be some community between the thing symbolized and its meaning because, otherwise, it would not be a symbol but only empty imagination.

By the bold and running use of metaphor he will amplify and give us, not the thing itself, but

the reverberation and reflection which, taken into his mind, the thing has made; close enough

to the original to illustrate it, remote enough to heighten, enlarge, and make splendid.[7]

Furthermore, Virginia Woolf states that “the intuitive realization that a symbol imparts to us should be instant, because we start doubting the real and the symbolical if we do not apprehend symbol and meaning simultaneously”[8].

By saying that “symbols should not inform but suggest and evoke”[9], Virginia Woolf stresses the importance of not completely working out a symbol’s meaning but leaving a part of it to the reader’s imagination.

The use of symbols should be conscious, as they function “to suggest and to give insight into the ineffable in human thought and feeling, or to heighten and make splendid the desired emotions and ideas”.[10] Thus, the symbols used by Virginia Woolf also give insight into her mind and her feelings.

According to Woolf, repeated images, characters, atmosphere and actions can have symbolic value. She explains why we need symbols by stating that “words are meagre in comparison with ideas”.[11]

She made a frequent use of symbols which was partly due to her illnesses. Virginia Woolf was a very ill person throughout her whole life and she suffered from different diseases like influenza, headaches and even hallucinations. She had some nervous breakdowns and depressions and it often took her a very long time to recover. According to Virginia Woolf, insanity lies just beneath the surface of sanity. Her long-time illnesses frequently supplied her with ideas for her literary work.

Something happens in my mind. It refuses to go on registering impressions. It shuts

itself up. It becomes chrysalis. I lie quite torpid, often with acute physical pain …

Then suddenly something springs … ideas rush in me; often though this is before I can

control my mind or pen.[12]

One of those attacks of depression happened during her work on To the Lighthouse, making her incapable of any steady work during two months.[13] This depression might have had some impact on her fifth novel.

3. Lighthouse and Light as Major Symbols in the Novel

3.1 The Function of the Lighthouse

The lighthouse is the central image as well as the strongest and most meaningful symbol of the novel. Firstly, this is indicated by being part of the title, immediately making it a focus of attention, and, secondly, by headlining Part 3 of the novel. It is also a recurring motif throughout the novel. Its reality in Virginia Woolf’s childhood years at St. Ives was the Godrevy light.[14]

Virginia Woolf wrote in 1927:

I meant nothing by The Lighthouse. One has to have a central line down the middle of the

book, to hold the design together. I saw that all sorts of feelings would accrue to this, but

I refused to think them out, and trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own

emotions – which they have done, one thinking it means one thing another another. I can’t

manage Symbolism except in this vague, generalised way. Whether its [sic] right or wrong

I don’t know; but directly I’m told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me.[15]

At first sight, this statement seems to be a contradiction to what she stated in her theory of symbols, namely that symbols should be used consciously. But in fact, she uses it intentionally as the function of the lighthouse is to evoke the reader’s imagination. She wants the lighthouse to mean various things to various readers. As there have been so many attempts to interpret the function of the lighthouse in the novel, her idea worked out in a more than satisfying way.

3.2 The Lighthouse as a Symbolic Image

The lighthouse functions in two ways: as something to be reached, and as the source of a flashing light.[16] But not only the physical presence of the lighthouse becomes important. It also exists within the consciousness of individual characters. The symbolic meanings of the lighthouse differ, change and are even contrasted in different contexts and with regard to different characters in the novel. Due to these multiple and varying meanings, the lighthouse carries the narrative forward.

The first mentioning of the lighthouse is very realistic and primarily negative. It describes the disadvantages of having to live and work in a lighthouse.

… to give those poor fellows who must be bored to death sitting all day with nothing to do

but polish the lamp and trim the wick and rake about on their scrap of garden, something

to amuse them. 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; if you were married, not to see your wife, not to know

how your children were, - if they were ill, if they had fallen down and broken their legs or arms;

to see the same dreary waves breaking week after week, and then a dreadful storm coming, and

the windows covered with spray, and birds dashed against the lamp, and the whole place rocking,


[1] T.E. Apter. Virginia Woolf – A Study of Her Novels. London: Macmillan Press, 1979, p. 75-76.

[2] Mitchell A. Leaska. The Novels of Virginia Woolf – From Beginning to End. New York: John Jay Press, 1977, p. 150.

[3] A survey of some interpretations by various critics can be found in: Christoph Schöneich. Virginia Woolf. Darmstadt: WBG, 1989, p. 60-64.

[4] Margaret Drabble, ed. Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse. New York: OUP, 1999, p. 251. (From now on,

quotations taken from the novel will be indicated with: To the Lighthouse + page number.)

[5] Mitchell A. Leaska, p. 150.

[6] N.C. Thakur. The Symbolism of Virginia Woolf. London: OUP, 1965, p. 2.

[7] Ibid., p. 2.

[8] Ibid., p .3.

[9] Ibid., p. 4.

[10] Ibid., p. 4.

[11] Ibid., p. 6.

[12] Ibid., p. 9.

[13] Cf. Jean Guїguet. Virginia Woolf and Her Works. London: Hogarth Press, 1965, p.250.

[14] Cf.Clair Sprague. Virginia Woolf – A Collection of Critical Essays. London: Prentice Hall inc., 1971, p. 95.

[15] Makiko Monow-Pinkey, Virginia Woolf and the Problem of the Subject. Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1987,

p. 84.

[16] Cf. Norman Friedman. The Waters of Annihilation: Double Vision in To the Lighthouse, p. 545.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Motifs and Symbols in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse
University of Trier
Virginia Woolf
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Motifs, Symbols, Virginia, Woolf, Lighthouse, Virginia, Woolf
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MA Simone Petry (Author), 2004, Motifs and Symbols in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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