The Ramsay family are spending the summer in their holiday house on the Isle of Skye. Mr. Ramsay, a mathematician, and his wife, who runs the home, have eight children, including the beautiful Prue, who is likely to be married soon, and James, the youngest, still fiercely attached to his mother. There are also assorted guests, including Charles Tansley, one of Mr. Ramsay's students; Lily Briscoe, a keenly observant painter; and Mr. Carmichael, an opium-addicted poet.

James wants to be taken by boat to visit the lighthouse and his mother encourages him, but his father, enraging James, says it'll be impossible because of the weather. That night Mrs. Ramsay gives a dinner party where she orchestrates the complex dynamics of the family and their guests into a perfect social unit, which is presented as a kind of work of art.

This is followed by a short interlude, "Time Passes," which marks a shift in scale from the human to a wider view, where encroaching darkness and dissolution threaten the house and the lives connected to it. During this period, Mrs. Ramsay dies, Prue marries and then dies in childbirth, and a War takes place in which Andrew, another son, is killed.

All these events are diminished by the universal context of time and change against which Woolf places them. The final part of the novel returns to the human scale. About ten years later, the surviving characters are back at the house and Mrs. Ramsay, though dead, continues to be the central figure, motivating much of what occurs. Mr. Ramsay now takes the still-angry James to the lighthouse, and Lily Briscoe, inspired by her memory of Mrs. Ramsay, is at last able to complete the painting she began years before.


While this novel is not directly about medical matters, its representation of the relationships humans have, with each other and with an impersonal universe, offers profound insights into families, memory, communication, and into the effects of death on those who remain behind. Woolf's prose, shifting from character to character in interior monologue or stream-of-consciousness, gives a remarkably lucid view into the workings of individual minds, revealing the weightiness of what appear to be idle observations, and demonstrating the near-impossibility of transcending our isolation and connecting with others.

The opposite of her rational, abstracting husband, Mrs. Ramsay reaches beyond the limitations of individual isolation in her efforts to care for-and about-others. The true "lighthouse" of the novel, she is a beacon which casts an organizing light on the whole family, a light which, Lily discovers, continues to illuminate and connect them even after her death. Mrs. Ramsay would be an excellent example to use in any discussion of empathy, or of the ethics of care.


First published by the Hogarth Press, London, 1927.



Place Published




Page Count