Subjective Reality in Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”


One of the major themes that can be traced through all of Virginia Woolf’s writings is the involvement of time in the outcome of her stories. Her fascination seems to center upon the concept that time is as subjective as experience. This idea is easily discovered in the different experiences of it as one person stresses out trying to get ready for a class they’re late to and another person relaxes at the desk, needing only to get a paper finished sometime in the next two days.

Time means something different to these two people as they go about their business. Usually the one feeling stress experiences time as speeding away before they can get anything done while the one relaxing understands it as something that simply ticks away steadily. The expression ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ is born out of this same observation while anyone who’s ever worked at a boring job can attest that the opposite effect is also true – time seems to stop when one is forced to endure something unpleasant.

At these times, it seems as if it takes several years for the clock to tick off that next minute. However, regardless of one’s experience of time, the clocks all seem to keep the same record of time passing, forcing us all to synchronize at some level all the time. This simultaneous homogenous (in which all individuals are the same) and heterogeneous (in which each individual is understood to be different) conception of time is difficult to convey even in the most basic terms.

To make matters worse, attempting to put the concept of time into words transforms it, forcing it to create space rather than remaining within the continuous progression of which it is a part. Within her novel To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf attempts to illustrate these concepts of time through the progression and description of Lily’s artwork as well as through the various perspectives held regarding Rose’s centerpiece.

Main Text

Lily’s painting is perhaps the strongest symbol of the subjective nature of time within the novel. It is introduced within the first 30 pages of the book and is discussed throughout the book as if it is a sort of measuring stick, or clock, for the reader. As the story progresses, the painting continues to evolve. Rather than evolving in a strictly linear fashion, the painting evolves and changes based upon Lily’s understanding and observation of the way the family works.

It reflects the various underlying tensions that arise, work themselves out or don’t, and then change the way in which the individual members of the family relate to each other as they each struggle against or for the changes that time inevitably brings.

The painting also symbolizes Woolf’s reluctance to rely on traditional symbols or ideas as she solidly rejects them through the medium of the painting as Lily insists upon using bold colors and sharp lines in her painting rather than capitulating to the “pale, elegant, semi-transparent” (32) artistic approach that was expected both in the art world of the story as well as in the contemporary art world of Virginia Woolf. Within the novel, the example of Paunceforte epitomizes the popular outlook on art in which the pale semi-transparent sense of images is intended to convey an idea of times already past.

Instead of following in this tradition, Lily finds it necessary to remain true to her own conceptions which includes the idea that time is still passing: “She would not have considered it honest to tamper with the bright violet and the staring white since she saw them like that” (31-32). Her vision of time includes the use of bright colors to help define the shapes that she sees occupying spaces within the given time of her work. Woolf explains: “Then beneath the colour there was the shape” (32). Thus, shape, color and time are inextricably combined to create a more solid whole within Lily’s understanding.

The images used to make up the painting also do not conform to the traditional concepts of static and recognizable form, instead preferring to allow her form to be influenced by the time in which it is seen. In taking this approach, Lily demonstrates her understanding that the forms themselves are also held to the changing vagaries of time. For example, Mrs. Ramsey is not provided with the soft curves or visual detail that might have been expected of a beloved mother and dutiful housewife. Instead, she is given a representational form that illustrates Lily’s impression of this woman – a large, vividly purple triangle that is both impossible to ignore and completely stable in its approach.

Considering the critical responses she receives regarding the painting, Lily “knew his objection – that no one could tell it for a human shape. But she had made no attempt at likeness” (81) because it was truth she was after instead. She is told by another character, Charles Tansley, that women just can’t paint and is nervous as a result of this assessment, but at the same time liberated from the conventional forms as she is not expected to turn out anything worthwhile anyway.

In the end, however, it doesn’t make any difference whether her painting is good or not, the ‘reality’ is that Lily was able, through her art, to capture the essence of the family as she perceives it simply by being engaged in the creation process. Within her depiction, she thus manages to illustrate the subjective nature of reality while also transcending the concept of static time by avoiding those images that were likely to change with the years.

The concepts discovered within Lily’s artwork illustrate the central truth of the novel regarding the oppositional relationships between beauty, color and the bare form as it is shaped by time. Instead of focusing on shapes that will necessarily change with time, Lily envisions Mrs. Ramsey as a purple pyramid playing a central role within the family dynamic. Mrs. Ramsey is quiet and dignified, earning her the balanced form of the triangle while also regal in her nature earning her the royal colors.

This form also captures the sense that it is Mrs. Ramsey who continuously spreads light and color throughout the household and among her guests keeping everyone in balance. It is her shade which sets the mood of the home and it is she who brings balance and harmony to everything, making her the central component of the final image. No one is quite the same when they come within range of Mrs. Ramsey’s light, again indicating the progression of time as well as the subjective experience of the woman.

The shape representing Mrs. Ramsey “burns on a framework of steel” (75), illustrating that the shape of the woman is defined and supported by the composition of the man. Mr. Ramsey is given the hard line and the crisp angle regardless of what time has done to him. Like Mrs. Ramsey’s pyramid, Mr. Ramsey’s shape provides a certain type of balance as well. Also like Mrs. Ramsey, these concepts of the subjectivity and transcendence of time and its spatial forms are carried throughout the book as Mr. Ramsey is constantly dependent upon Mrs. Ramsey for comfort, love and color. At the same time, Mrs. Ramsey depends upon Mr. Ramsey for a structural framework.

While he believes she depends on him and she believes he depends on her, Lily’s painting represents yet a third view of reality in that they each complete and depend upon each other. This is shown in the way that Lily places her shapes on the canvas as well as in the rhythms and movements that the painting undergoes as the novel progresses. From this canvas, and its development throughout the story, Woolf provides a symbol of the passing time element and the changes it brings about. Even though everything seems to stay the same, everything is also constantly shown to be in a state of flux and change.

While Lily’s painting represents the paradoxically changing and static nature of the family relationships, Rose’s fruit centerpiece becomes another example of art that is dependent on time. Woolf again employs the vivid purples and yellow discussed in Lily’s painting as reminders of the family dynamics as they naturally occur within the types of fruit used for this centerpiece. The artistry of the piece is brought forward by the thoughts of Mrs. Ramsey. “What had she done with it, Mrs. Ramsey wondered, for Rose’s arrangement of the grapes and pears, of the horny pink-lined shell, of the bananas, made her think of a trophy fetched from the bottom of the sea, of Neptune’s banquet, of the bunch that hangs with vine leaves over the shoulder of Bacchus” (146).

In this fruit arrangement, Mrs. Ramsey sees entire worlds of fantasy coming to light before her eyes. At the same time, she is able to see not the mythical scenes of bliss and joy taken straight out of folklore and myth, but also of peaceful landscape vistas through which one might explore for hours. Thus, she is seeing the immediate and vibrant action of the myth as well as the sedentary and daylight consuming aspect of the unchanging countryside.

Through her consideration of the artistry of the piece, Mrs. Ramsey transcends the static time of the moment and enters into worlds of myth and fantasy, times that may or may not have ever existed and times that existed for others centuries earlier as well as remaining aware of the time that she herself inhabits sitting at the dinner table admiring her daughter’s artwork.

Like Lily’s painting, this centerpiece is also dependent upon and exposes the elements of the subjective nature of time. This is captured as Mr. Augustus Carmichael’s view of the artwork is contrasted against the view of Mrs. Ramsey. Carmichael’s response to the centerpiece is presented by the author through crisp, short lines that focus upon mundane action, pure practicality and existence within the present moment rather than through the guise of soft poetry.

Woolf writes, “his eyes focused on the same plate of fruit, plunged in, broke off a bloom there, a tassel here, and returned, after feasting, to his hive” (146). Significantly different from the response of Mrs. Ramsey, Mr. Carmichael is only capable of living in the moment, devouring time as he devours the fruit, taking care of his desires of the moment with little or no regard for the past or future. Mr. Carmichael sees the fruit platter, realistically, as delicious food that he wishes to eat while Mrs. Ramsey sees it, also realistically, as a piece of art.


The way that Woolf approached the topic of subjectivity makes it clear that she felt neither means of viewing the world was greater than or lesser than the other, merely complementary. While it is the women who are able to discern the multi-faceted elements and effects of time on their subjects – whether people or fruit – it is also telling that the male view has equally valid concerns.

While the perception of a bowl of fruit as a piece of art and the perception of the same bowl of fruit as a simple offering of food are simultaneously and equally valid, only one perception allows for the abstract understanding of time. Similarly, the vivid colors and abstract representations of Lily’s painting are as much about the people she paints as they are about presenting unchanging building blocks capable of transcending the mundane elements of time.

In the end, though, Woolf illustrates with a single line down the center of the painting that the painting was not made for anyone else, just as the fruit platter wasn’t made to exist forever in its artistic form. They were creations of the moment, expressions of an idea of reality as it existed for that person at that time. Its value was not in the finished product, but in the fact that it was a unique view of reality that had been recognized and experienced.

Works Cited

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1955.

Find out your order's cost