The high point of ‘To the Light house’ is the dinner party. At that moment in the evening there is a sense of all-pervading light and warmth. The lightening of the candles at the dinner party has a two fold effect. It causes the group of people gathered round the table to come close together, and it seems, too, to cut off the small group from the darkness of the night. At the dinner party, too, Mrs. Ramsay wears her ‘golden haze’. Paul and Minta ‘glow’. Laughter spreads ‘like a fire leaping from tuft to tuft of furze’.
And at the centre of the party the perception of Mrs. Ramsay searches and seeks. In the opening paragraphs of ‘To the Light House’ both an event and an emotion are associated with the light. The event is the sail to the Light house that could take place ‘after a night’s darkness’ and the emotion is one of joy roused in James at the prospect of the sail. The light oozing out of ‘candles; and the ‘lighthouse’ is an important symbol. Mrs. Ramsay in attempting to preserve that joy, in holding open the possibility of the sail, is the person associated with the light.
She continuously struggles to keep the ‘light burning’, for she sees life primarily in terms of light, but containing ‘dark areas, whereas Mr. Ramsay, on the other hand, looks on life as predominantly ‘dark’. The end of life for his is, for example, where ‘light’ is extinguished or ‘that fabled land where our brightest hopes are extinguished’, and the journey to it is one of the darkness and danger, one in which ‘our frail barks founder in darkness’. Light and dark in the opening episode stand for the emotions of joy and sorrow, though these are suggested by the more suffused shades of ‘gloom and radiance’.
They represent the ‘extremes of emotion’ that Mr. Ramsay can excite in his children’s breasts. A more subtle form of this ‘light-dark polarity, symbolic of joy and sadness, is used later by Virginia Woolf to describe Mrs. Ramsay’s sudden sense of anguish at the Swiss girl’s sorrow: ‘Bitter and black, half-way down, in the darkness, in the shaft which run from the sunlight to the linking ‘shaft’ there is the suggestion that the dark and the light, of joy and sorrow , are one, or form two different areas of the whole spectrum of consciousness.
The same idea had been more subtly and concretely presented in the beautiful emblem of the bird flying out of the sunlight: “All had folded itself quietly about her, when the girl spoke, as after a fight through the sunshine the wings of a bird fold themselves quietly and the blue of its plumage changes from bright steel to soft purple. ” The culmination of the ‘light’ imagery of the book is, of course, in the symbol of the light house. Seeking within her own consciousness, having penetrated to her ‘wedge-shaped core of darkness’, Mrs.
Ramsey gropes after the light, the light and warmth which she shed out of that darkness. Looking outwards in that moment of intensity, she looked at the light ‘that was so much her’, the long steady beam of the Lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay herself describes different modes of her identification with the lighthouse. There is, first of all, a process of identity, of ‘sitting and looking, with her work in her hands until she became the thing she looked at. ’ There is also the more detached comparison that Mrs.
Ramsay draws between qualities in herself and qualities of the lighthouse: “She was stern, she was searching, she was beautiful like that light. ” The lighthouse as an enduring object which sheds light is an appropriate symbol for Mrs. Ramsay. The whole action of the book is pervaded by the guarding and haunting presence of the light, oozing out of the candles and the lighthouse, as it is by the presence of Mrs. Ramsay. So it is that structurally, the pattern of the candles’ and the lighthouses’ beam with its rhythmic steady flashes of light through the darkness, which forms a basic pattern of the novel itself.