When literary critics use the word ‘symbolism’ what do they mean? In Theory of Literature, Wellek and Warren suggest that in literary criticism the usage of ‘symbolism’ be confined to discussion of an object which refers to another object but which demands attention also in its own right’. This description of symbolism indicates the dual nature of the symbol in literature, existing on the level of representational realism (demanding attention in its own right) as well as pointing towards another object of an area of experience. Thus, an object like the lighthouse in To The Lighthouse exists on one level as a lighthouse in the fictional world of the novel, while also directing the reader towards another kind of truth. In a letter to her friend, the artist and critic Roger Fry, Virginia Woolf seems to have agreed with such an understanding of symbolism.
Much of the significance of To The Lighthouse is created by its symbolic structure, which pushes the immediate reference of the story and the individual characters on to a more general level, where they represent the common human experience of the encounter against time, death and the cosmic forces that forever threaten to destroy man. So closely is the symbolic material interwoven with the psychologically realistic details of the novel that the separation of symbolic elements from the rest of the novel and from each other does To The Lighthouse an injustice.
I meant nothing by the Lighthouse. I can’t manage symbolism except in a vague, generalised way. Whether it’s right or wrong I don’t know; but directly when I’m told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me.
Virtually every detail of the world created in To The Lighthouse can be seen to contain some symbolic suggestion and it would be impossible to trace and assess the development of each individual to a certain symbol. However there are associated symbols which, intertwined with each other and with the diverse ‘elements of the novel, create what we may describe as the ‘meaning’ of the novel.
The sea is a powerful element in the setting of To The Lighthouse. The Ramsays’ summer house is situated on an island which faces the smaller island on which the lighthouse stands. The sea pervades the lives of the Ramsays and their guests. The house is full of bric-a-bric from the sea and beach which the children have collected, so that the sea is physically present even in the house. The sound of the waves is a constant background to the sounds of house and garden. This sound raises ambivalent fealings in Mrs Ramsay, representing to her both the reassuring permanence of natural forces and their potential to destroy.
Mr Ramsay, frequently depicted by the image of the sailor-explorer, faces the infinity of the sea, which suggests to him the vast expanse of human knowledge yet to be explored, at once terrifying and challenging.
“He reached the edge of the lawn and looked out on the bay beneath. It was his fate, to stand on his little ledge fancing the dark of human ignorance, how we know nothing and the sea eats away the ground we stand on —that was his fate, his gift.”
The seascape which can be seen from the garden becomes a focus for the feelings of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, bringing them together in spite of their differences.
“…the whole bay spread before them and Mrs Ramsay could not help exclaiming, “Oh how beautiful.” That was the view, she said, stopping growing greyer-eyed, that her husband loved.
While it is the benevolent aspect of the sea that is most in evidence in “The Window”, in “Time Passes” its destructive aspect is dramatised. In To The Lighthouse we learn of shipwrecks and storms, and the sea assumes a malevolent character.
In the final part, both aspects are reconciled in the perceptions of the various characters and this reconciliation is an aspect of the internal voyage undergone by the main characters. Mr Ramsay lives up to the promise of his image as the brave sailor, leading his little band across the dangerous sea to safety. Cam comes to terms with the past and her fear of death through the security her father’s presence confers. For Lily, as she paints, the sea becomes part of a whole which can be encompassed by her art.
In contrast with the mysterious cosmic forces that are symbolised by the sea, the land —the house on the island, the garden, the sand dunes — represent a precarious human stronghold. The house, Mrs Ramsay’s domain, is a haven of tranquility for family and guests, but its vulnerability is an illusion. In the early part of the novel, we learn that the children brings their sea treasures into the house, and after the death of Mrs Ramsay, the house falls prey to the destructive forces in nature. The garden also, time-honoured symbol of man’s ability to tame nature, is quickly overpowered by the elements in man’s relatively brief absence. House and garden are both recovered from these forces through human determination and effort, but, in keeping with the general theme of the novel, neither can ever he completely restored to its earlier state:
“Mr. Ramsay associated himself with the sand dunes, that mysterious territory between sea and land. ‘That was the country he liked best, over there; those sand hills dwindling away into darkness’. When Mr Bankes thinks of his friendship with Ramsay, he looks towards the sand dunes: ‘But in this dumb colloquy with the sand dunes he maintained that his affection for Ramsay had in no way diminished’. The climax of Bankes’ meditation is associated with sand dunes: there like the body of a young man laid up in peat for a century, withered fresh on his lips, was his friendship, in its acuteness and reality laid up across the bay among the sandhills.”
The Lighthouse, as the title of the novel suggests, and as Virgina Woolf acknowledged in her letter to Roger Fry, is the central symbol of the novel. It is associated with the many images of light and darkness that occur in the novel, as well as with the sea and land imagery. Mrs Ramsay, as she bargains with death and change, attempts to create and preserve the light. Mr. Ramsay is concerned with the dark reaches of human ignorance. When Carmichael extinguishes his lamp at the beginning of ‘Time Passes’, it is the signal for the invasion of the house by the sinister forces of nature. Lily’s painting attempts to capture this quality of life of light.
The atmosphere and achievements of Mrs Ramsay’s dinner party are expressed also in the imagery of light and darkness. Paul Rayley, entering the house when he returns from the beach with Minta, notices especially the lights. Mrs Ramsay is surrounded by a ‘golden haze’ and the lights on the table enable the guests to come out from the darkness of the outside world.
The alternating light and darkness represented in this imagery is amplified by the lighthouse itself sending its beam across the sea to the house and land. Mrs Ramsay particularly identifies with the light that comes from the lighthouse: she looked at the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much her, yet so little her, which had her at its beck and call (she woke in the night and saw it bent across their bed, stroking the floor). ..Her thoughts reach a climax as she faces the power of the lighthouse over sea and darkness.
In the ‘Time Passes’ section the lighthouse cut off from human associations, becomes an ambivalent observer of the chaos which descends upon the house. Just as light is powerless to stay the destruction of house and garden’ it too fails to save the local fishermen who are drowned nearby.
The final section of the novel, “The Lighthouse”, uses the lighthouse as a central focus for the narrative and symbolic structure of the novel. On the narrative levels Ramsay and his two children finally make the journey to the lighthouse, and on the symbolic level these three characters, and Lily Briscoe, accomplish an internal journey until they can accept that truth is frequently contradictory. The lighthouse as it is seen by James represents this synthesis very powerfully.
Mr Ramsay’s spiritual renewal is signalled by the last glimpse we have of him, springing ‘lightly like a young man’, towards the lighthouse. For Lily, the final stage of her inward journey occurs at the moment of Ramsay’s landing, when the lighthouse has become almost invisible. The final line of her painting, drawing all together, represents the lighthouse, ‘a line there, in the centre’.