7 Things You Should Know About Virginia Woolf's 'To the Lighthouse'

James Mato (background), Harvest Books via Amazon (book cover)

The plot of Virginia Woolf’s fifth novel, To the Lighthouse, is thin: The Ramsey family and their guests are on vacation and decide to put off a trip to a nearby lighthouse until a later visit. The book has thrilled and frustrated readers since it was published in 1927; today, it’s considered a masterpiece, and frequently appears on lists of the best novels of the 20th century. Here’s are a few facts about Woolf’s novel, as seen in Mental Floss’s book The Curious Reader.

1. To the Lighthouse is loosely based on events from Virginia Woolf’s life. 

Virginia Woolf, British author, 1930s(?).
Virginia Woolf. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

To the Lighthouse is Woolf’s most autobiographical novel, and, according to Shirley Panken in Virginia Woolf and the Lust of Creation: A Psychoanalytic Exploration, she wrote it “to grapple with the impingement of unresolved feelings concerning her parents.” Like the Ramseys, Woolf’s family had eight children. They also, like the Ramseys, spent summers vacationing on the coast—in this case, St. Ives in Cornwall, where her father, Leslie Stephen, rented a home every year until Woolf’s mother, Julia, died when the future author was 13.

2. Woolf based Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey on her parents.

As she wrote in her diary in 1925, “This is going to be fairly short: to have father’s character done complete in it; and mother’s; & St. Ives; & childhood; & all the usual things I try to put in – life, death & c.” Mrs. Ramsey was so similar to Julia that Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, told her after reading the novel, “It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead.” Other characters have much in common with Vanessa and their brother Adrian, who—like James in the novel—was disappointed at not being able to take a trip to the lighthouse. 

3. The lighthouse had real-life inspiration, too.

Godrevy Lighthouse
Godrevy Lighthouse / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Woolf based her literary lighthouse on the Godrevy lighthouse, which also inspired the cover of the novel. The cover was designed by Bell, an artist, who did all of the covers for Woolf’s novels (with the exception of her first).

4. Woolf purposefully departed from classic novel construction. 

Carefully structured in three sections (“The Window”; “Time Passes”; “The Lighthouse”), To the Lighthouse follows the shifting perspectives of each character—a narrative technique Woolf had experimented with in her previous books, Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway—as they grapple with themes such as time, loss, gender roles, and the purpose of art. It wasn’t even close to the construction of a classic novel, and it wasn’t meant to be.

“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged,” the author wrote in her essay “Modern Fiction.” “Life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?”

5. To the Lighthouse puzzled critics.

“My present opinion is that it is easily the best of my books,” Woolf wrote of To the Lighthouse—but not everyone agreed.

Some readers were puzzled by it. “Dear Mrs. Woolf,” one wrote, “do you wish to create an atmosphere? Is there a hidden meaning there? … All your characters go away … after having entered upon the scene unannounced. You assume that your readers are as intelligent as you and as accustomed to seeing into the obscurity and resolving mysteries.” 

Critics weren't necessarily kind, either. Novelist Arnold Bennett wrote thatTo the Lighthouse was “the best book of hers that I know” before critiquing both the plot (“A group of people plan to sail in a small boat to a lighthouse. At the end some of them reach the lighthouse in a small boat. That is the externality of the plot”) and her writing (“the form of her sentences is rather tryingly monotonous, and the distance between her nominatives and verbs is steadily increasing”). The New York Evening Post, meanwhile, wrote in their review of the novel that ​​“Her work is poetry; it must be judged as poetry, and all the weaknesses of poetry are inherent in it.”

In the end, the criticism didn’t matter: To the Lighthouse outsold Woolf’s previous novels.

6. The lighthouse didn’t symbolize anything. 

Since its publication, readers have said the lighthouse symbolizes things like desire, stability, and truth. Woolf, however, didn’t assign any symbolism to the lighthouse herself.

“I meant nothing by The Lighthouse,” Woolf wrote to a friend in 1927. “One has to have a central line down the middle of the book to draw the design together. I saw that all sorts of feelings would accrue to this, but I refused to think them out, & trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own emotions—which they have done, thinking it means one thing after another. I can’t manage Symbolism except in this vague, generalised way. Whether it’s right or wrong I don’t know; but directly I’m told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me.”

7. Margaret Atwood wasn’t a fan—until she was. 

In a piece for The Guardian, Atwood writes that she first read To the Lighthouse as part of a class. “Virginia Woolf was off on a siding as far as my 19-year-old self was concerned,” she recalled. “Why go to the lighthouse at all, and why make such a fuss about going or not going? What was the book about? … In Woolfland, things were so tenuous. They were so elusive. They were so inconclusive. They were so deeply unfathomable.”

Her reaction was much different when picked up the book again, 43 years later, after she was older, wiser, and had experienced loss. “How was it that, this time, everything in the book fell so completely into place?” she wondered. “How could I have missed it—above all, the patterns, the artistry—the first time through? … Some books have to wait until you're ready for them. So much, in reading, is a matter of luck.”