Symbolism, in general, is the presentation of objects, moods and ideas through the medium of emblems or symbols. At the end of the nineteenth century in France and Belgium the symbolists were members of a school of literature and music that rebelled against realism and also against the conventional in form and sought to express themselves by indirect rather than direct suggestion. In literature when words are invested with the suggestion of concealed spiritual and intellectual significance, they become symbols. Words then suggest much more than is conveyed by their literal meaning.As a novelist Virginia Woolf’s main purpose was to look within and ‘convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit’, hence she has to make extensive use of symbols in her “stream of consciousness” novels including To The Lighthouse. In fact imagery permeates and symbolism pervades the whole of To The Lighthouse. The title of the novel, To The Lighthouse, is symbolic. The sea, the waves, the window and even the characters assume some sort of symbolic significance in this great novel.
(a) The Lighthouse Symbol
The most important and impressive symbol in Mrs. Woolf’s To The Lighthouse is the Lighthouse itself and such is the importance of this symbol that it can be described as a character. Standing lonely in the midst of the sea it is a symbol of the individual who is at once a unique being as well as a part of the flux of history. The Lighthouse undoubtedly seems to be a mystery, but it also concerns day-to-day living. It is at once distant as well as near, It is man-made; something permanent and enduring that man has built in the flux of time to guide and control those at the mercy of its destructive forces. From this aspect it seems related to the human tradition and its values, which last from generation to generation and tell of both the unity and continuity of man. Man tends its light, which sends its beams out over the dark waters to those on the island and so establishes communication with them and illumines them. Thus we find that to Mrs. Ramsay it seems at one moment the light of truth, stern, searching and beautiful, with which she can unite her personality, at another, steady, pitiless, remorseful, an enemy of any place of mind; or again a reminder of past ecstasy, thus bringing it into the present. But it always illumines and clarifies the human condition in some way. In fact the title of the book, To The Lighthouse, signifies the quest for the values the Lighthouse suggests. Thus the journey itself assumes a symbolic significance. In the very opening chapter of the book we have a sentence that deserves consideration. “Yes, of course, if it is fine tomorrow.” “If” points to the uncertainty and insecurity of human fate and “tomorrow” to its imprisonment in time. And then in the last sentence of the book we get: “1 have had my vision.” This means that by landing on the lighthouse something stable has been revealed as a flash in the general doubt, something which seems to triumph over the eternal cycle of change.
Contact with Truth outside Oneself
David Daiches’ remarks, regarding the symbolic significance of the Lighthouse are very interesting as well as illuminating. According to him: “To reach the Lighthouse is, in a sense, to make a contact with a truth outside oneself, to surrender the uniqueness of one’s ego to an impersonal reality. Mr. Ramsay, who is an egoist constantly seeking applause and encouragement from others, resents his young son’s enthusiasm for writing the Lighthouse, and only years later, when his wife had died and his own life is almost worn out, does he win this freedom from self and it is significant that Virginia Woolf makes Mr. Ramsay escape from his egotistic preoccupation, for the first time just before the boat finally reaches the Lighthouse. Indeed, the personal grudges nourished by each of the characters fall away just as they arrive; Mr. Ramsay ceases to pose wits his book and breaks out with an exclamation of adoration for James’ steering; James and his sister Cam lose their resentment at their father’s way of bullying them into this expedition and cease hugging their grievances.
In fact the Lighthouse is a mystery and holds a cluster of suggestions. That is why different critics have tried to explain it in different ways. To Joan Bennett the alternate light and shadow of the Lighthouse seem to be the rhythm of joy and sorrow, understanding and misunderstanding. H.K. Russet asserts that the Lighthouse is the feminine creative principle. And to John Grahams the Lighthouse as symbol has no one meaning. He thinks it to be a vital synthesis of time and eternity: an objective correlative for Mrs. Ramsay’s vision, after whose death it is her meaning.
(b) The Sea and Waves
The sea with its monotonous fall of the waves provides a kind of background music to the life of the Ramsay family members who have come to pass their vacation along with their friends in a tiny island in the Hebrides. It can be seen and heard all day long from their holiday home situated in the Isle of Skye. So it is but natural that the sea permeates thoughts, reflections and imagery throughout the novel. Indeed it symbolises the eternal flux of time and life in the midst of which we all exist.
In To The Lighthouse we find the sea constantly changing its character. At one moment it sounds soothing and consoling like a cradle song to Mrs. Ramsay, at others, ‘like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beating a warning of death’ it brings terror. And sometimes its power, ‘sweeping savagely in’ seems to reduce the individual to nothingness, at others it sends up ‘a fountain of bright water’ which seems to match the sudden springs of vitality in the human spirit. Then again we find the sea surrounding the island on which the action takes place and this suggests both the human race in general and the individual personality.
The waves have also been used as symbol — the symbol of the moment of life carrying us towards the shore, irresistible but on the whole beneficent. We can say that they have a dual aspect while identifying themselves more closely with existence in its alternating serenity and anguish. The waves are predominantly storm-tossed in Part II of To The Lighthouse, but in Part III there is a restoration of calmness and serenity.
We find that the ‘action’ of To The Lighthouse takes place on an island. Hence the location is surrounded, and cut off, by the sea: Then there is an even smaller island off the coast of the above location. And on a rock of this smaller island stands the Lighthouse. The link between the two islands, is, firstly the sea, and also in a different way, the light beams of the Lighthouse shining rhythmically through the darkness. James passionately longs for a journey to the Lighthouse at the very beginning of the book. And the longed-for journey takes place across the sea in the third or the last part of the book. So it is at the literal, concrete level, that sea, light and the journey are bound up with each other. But these take on a symbolic dimension from the literary level, so that symbolically they weave the texture of the whole, and again each is linked or interwoven with the other at that symbolic level.
(c) The Window
The Window has really an important part in To The Lighthouse. Even the title of the first part of the novel is ‘The Window’. It is not a transparent but a separating sheet of glass between reality and Mrs. Ramsay’s mind. It may be noted that in almost all of her novels the reader may see a character standing at a window, gazing at the landscape, at the street, at the sky and experiencing as by some catalytic phenomenon, the mingling of his own being with the outer reality which he beholds. In To The Lighthouse Mrs. Ramsay is found experiencing moments of both revelation and integration. In fact the window is a screen between reality and consciousness. The pageant of the world is reduced by the window to the scale of the being who contemplates it. And finally we realise that this window is really the very symbol of the imperfection of our knowledge.
(d) Day and Night
In Virginia Woolf’s novels the change of day and night provides at every instant the image of the mind’s constant rhythmical alternation between darkness and light, concentration and dispersal, attention to life and attention to the outside world. Day with its light, giving shape and colour to the objects, is the creative presence of the universe, reborn at every dawn. ‘But if day represents life in its richness and splendour, the dazzlement, which accompanies it and the multiplicity which it imposes, represents disorder and confusion. Night, obliterating one colour after another,one form after another the whole of visible world, leaving us alone with what faint afterglows of vanished light are left within us, will restore our integrity, our self control, after having felt the vision, which sight had concealed from us.’ And hence we find that it is in the heart of darkness that Clarissa’s world in Mrs. Dalloway and that of Mrs. Ramsay in To The Lighthouse take one meaning. Thus symbolically day means sensation, contact and night consciousness and fusion—the two complementary modes of existence. In fact, they are the rhythms of Virginia Woolf’s books as, they are of her life.
(e) Colour symbolism
Even the colour has some sort of symbolic significance in To the Lighthouse. David Daiches, comments on this aspect is worth noting “There is a colour symbolical running right through the book. When Lily Briscoe is wrestling unsuccessfully with her painting, in the first part of the book, she sees the colours as ‘bright violet and staring white’, but just as she achieves her final vision at the book’s conclusion, and is thus able to complete her picture, she notices that the lighthouse ‘had melted away into blue haze; and though she sees the canvas clearly for a second before drawing the final line, the implication remains that this blurring of colours is bound up with her visitor. Mr. Ramsay, who visualizes the last unattainable step in his philosophy as glimmering red in the distance, is contrasted with the less egotistical Lily, who wakes with blues and greens, and with Mrs. Ramsay, who is indicated as a ‘triangular purple shape.’ Red and brown appear to be the colours of individuality and egotism, while blue and green are the colours of the impersonality. Mr. Ramsay, until the very end of the book, is represented as an egotist and his colour is red or brown; Lily is the impersonal artist, and her colour is blue; Mrs. Ramsay stands somewhere between, and her colour is purple. The journey to the Lighthouse is the journey from egotism to impersonality.”
The very setting of To The Lighthouse is indefinite and symbolic. And in this symbolic the characters also become symbolic. They are so carefully arranged in their relation to each other that a definite symbolic pattern emerges. This group of people on a remote island represents a microcosm of society, while the background of the natural scenery provides images and suggestions that can be used as interpretative symbols.
Mrs. Ramsay has been depicted as the creator of fertile human relationship, symbolized by her love of matchmaking and her knitting. She is also the creator of warm comfort, symbolised by her green shawl. Draped first over the frame of a picture of the Madonna and the child, the picture is then put over her shoulder when she goes out for a stroll with her husband and later used to cover up the skull in her children’s bedroom. And we find that these qualities of Mrs. Ramsay are illustrated clearly and concretely in the scenes with her husband, with her children, her friends and guests, or anyone in distress or difficulties. Even the perverted and cynical Charles Tansley has a vision of her — ‘stepping through fields and flowers and taking to her breast buds that had broken and lambs that had fallen ‘As the creator of fertile human relationship she plays a wonderful role in the dinner party, as ‘the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her’. And her efforts were crowned with superb success.
If Mrs. Ramsay is the symbol of creative vitality, Mr. Ramsay stands as the symbol of the sterile destructive barriers for relationship. Just as Mrs. Ramsay is shown to us in images of fertility and the warmth and the comfort of love and harmony with others, Mr. Ramsay is evoked in the images of sterility, hardness and of deliberate isolation. To James he is the wagon while going blindly over a person’s foot, leaving it purple, crushed. This is how he felt about his father while sitting in the tiny boat that was at last approaching the silvery, misty looking tower of the Lighthouse.
Lily Briscoe is the artist who refuses to get married and tries to express her sense of reality in terms of colours and form. And In To The Lighthouse art is the ultimate symbol for the enduring ‘reality’. In life, relationships are doomed to imperfection and decay, but in art the temporal and the eternal unite in unchanging form. It also must be noted that Lily’s struggle with the composition and texture of her painting are a counterpart of Virginia Woolf’s tussles and triumphs in her own medium. But in fact Mrs. Woolf has chosen poetry as the image that reminds mankind that the everchanging can yet become immortal. This becomes evident when we find that a poem recited by Mr. Ramsay just before the dinner party ends seems to crown the harmony of the evening.
Even old Mr. Carmichael with his yellow beard and inscrutable mind is a symbolic character. In To The Lighthouse we have two creative figures—Lily the painter and Carmichael the poet. And Carrmchael’s is the only mind we never enter. He seems to us, as it were, poetry itself. And in the final scene when he stands on the edge of the lawn ‘spreading his hands over all the weakness and suffering of mankind’, it seems that for Lily he has taken the role of a sea God or figure of Fate.
Thus a careful and close study of Mrs. Woolf’s To The Lighthouse clearly reveals to us that the theme of her novel is symbolic in its implication. “The framework of To The Lighthouse is simple but upon it Virginia Woolf weaves a delicate pattern of symbolic character and situation.”