To the Lighthouse Study Guide

Study Guide for To the Lighthouse 

© by Cathy Decker, 1998

In this study guide by Dr. Cathy Decker, a professor from Chaffey College (CA), you’ll find questions you might want to consider when you read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I would suggest reading through the questions; reading the novel; then returning to any of the questions to think through anything that might

Part I: The Window


  • Mrs. Ramsay
  • James Ramsay, “James the Ruthless”
  • Mr. Ramsay
  • Mr. Charles Tansley
  • Rose Ramsay
  • Prue Ramsay, “Prue the Fair”
  • Andrew Ramsay, “Andrew the Just”
  • Jasper Ramsay
  • Roger Ramsay
  • Nancy Ramsay
  • Miss Minta Doyle
  • Mr. Paul Rayley
  • Mr. Augustus Carmichael
  • Mr. Paunceforte
  • Elsie


NOTE:: These questions are offered to help you think through the text — you don’t have to write answers for them.

“To The Lighthouse” photograph taken by user Andrew “ARG_Flickr” on June 15, 2013. Photographer’s comments: “Godrevy Lighthouse in the far distance was visited by Virginia Woolf and is reputedly an inspiration for her novel.”
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1. Why does James hate his father?
2. Why does James want to go to the lighthouse?
3. Why does Mrs. Ramsay want to go to the lighthouse?
4. What do Mrs. Ramsay’s daughters think of her?
5. Why do Mrs. Ramsay’s daughters want to live a life different from their mother’s?
6. Why was Charles Tansley invited?
7. What is Mrs. Ramsay’s “blood,” ie. her family line and nationality?
8. What events from Charles Tansley’s past seem to have shaped his personality?
9. How does Charles Tansley’s view of Mrs. Ramsay change on their trip into the town?


1. What is Woolf implying is the role of childhood in shaping the personality?
2. How does Woolf convey the different socialization of boys and girls, and what is the significance of this difference?
3. How are domestic life and academic life different? How does this make relationships between men in academia and women in the domestic world difficult?


1. Why is this a separate section?
2. Who of the three figures–Charles Tansley, James, Mrs. Ramsay–is the most powerful?


  • Miss Lily Briscoe


1. What does Mrs. Ramsay do to console James?
2. What do the ocean’s sounds mean to Mrs. Ramsay?
3. Who says the poetry so loud?
4. What is Mrs. Ramsay’s attitude towards Lily?


1. What is the power relationship in the Ramsay marriage?
2. Why, if her marriage has some unpleasant aspects to it, does Mrs. Ramsay look down upon Lily for not being married?
3. Is Mrs. Ramsay’s affection for Lily related in some way to her marriage’s problems?



  • Mr. William Bankes
  • Miss Cam Ramsay, “Cam the Wicked”


1. Why is Mr. Ramsay yelling out poetry and gesturing?
2. Why doesn’t Lily like people looking at her paintings?
3. Why is Mr. Ramsay annoyed at Lily and Mr. Bankes?
4. How does Lily conceive of painting?
5. How is Lily’s view of painting different from current art values?
6. What is Lily trying to achieve with this painting?
7. What is Mr. Bankes’ opinion of Mr. Ramsay?
8. What is Lily’s assessment of Mr. Bankes and Mr. Ramsay?
9. What is Mr. Ramsay’s work about?
10. Is Andrew’s image of the kitchen table useful? What does the table mean to Lily?
11. What is the significance of Jasper’s shooting at the birds?


How is the masculine way of thinking and judging different from Lily’s way?


  • Marie
  • Sorley
  • Sorley’s boy


1. What is the significance of the inscriptions on the books given to Mrs. Ramsay?
2. What is the state of the beach home?
3. Why doesn’t Mrs. Ramsay read the books she is given?
4. Why aren’t Mrs. Ramsay’s commands about the house not followed?
5. What is Marie’s problem?
6. Why does Mrs. Ramsay look so sad, and what do people think of her look of sadness?
7. What effect does Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty have upon other people?
8. What is the significance of the shawl covering the “authenticated masterpiece”?
9. Why is an “authenticated masterpiece” in the “shabby” home?


1. What areas of life is Mrs. Ramsay seen as powerful in?
2. What areas of life is Mrs. Ramsay supposed to concern herself with?
3. What areas of life do the men concern themselves with?
4. What does the chapter say about class relationships?


1. Why is Mr. Ramsay disgusted with his wife over the lighthouse argument?
2. Why is Mrs. Ramsay disgusted with her husband over the lighthouse argument?
3. Why does James hate his father?
4. What is Mr. Ramsay’s intellectual problem?
5. How have Mr. Ramsay’s intellectual limits affected his domestic life?
6. What is Mr. Ramsay’s “vanity” problem that makes him anguished and outraged at the opening of this section?


1. Why is Mr. Ramsay’s insistence on getting his wife’s sympathy so awful to his wife and son?
2. Why does giving Mr. Ramsay sympathy exhaust Mrs. Ramsay?
3. Why is Mrs. Ramsay dissatisfied with her marriage and with herself?
4. Why doesn’t Mrs. Ramsay like feeling superior to her husband?
5. What is Mrs. Ramsay’s feelings about Mr. Carmichael?
6. How is Mr. Ramsay like a “beak of brass”?
7. What is the significance if any of the fairy tale?


1.How have Mrs. Ramsay and many women of the era been raised to view and to treat men?
2. What burden does male superiority place upon both men and women in domestic life?


  • Mrs. Carmichael
  • George Manning
  • Mr. Wallace


1. What sort of relationship do Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Carmichael have?
2. How does Mr. Carmichael’s response to Mrs. Ramsay differ from the responses of most people?
3. Why does Mr. Ramsay want to disparage Shakespeare?
4. What is Mr. Ramsay’s opinion of the lower classes?
5. Why can’t Mr. Ramsay just be happy?
6. What is Lily’s opinion of Mr. Ramsay?


  • Thomas Caryle


1. What is Bankes’ opinion of Mr. Ramsay?
2. What is significance of the references to Caryle, his personality, and his reputation?
3. What does Bankes feel for Mrs. Ramsay?
4. Why does Lily feel that Bankes’ “rapture” is “helpful … exalting”?
5. Why do you think Lily believes women can’t love women the way Bankes loves Mrs. Ramsay?
6. How do Mrs. Ramsay and Lily differ?
7. Why does Lily want to marry?
8. How effective are the images used in the chapter to represent character or subjectivity (the glove, secret chambers, tablets, a bee hive)?
9. What is Lily trying to do with her painting?
10. What does Bankes think of her painting?


  • Ellen
  • Mr. Doyle, “the Poker”
  • Mrs. Doyle, “the Owl”
  • Mildred


1. Why do we not get into Cam’s mind?
2. Why does Mrs. Ramsay not want her children to grow up?
3. Why does Mrs. Ramsay think her children will not be as happy when they grow up? 4.Why does Mrs. Ramsay prefer “boobies” to clever men if her husband is a clever man?
5.Why will Minta having spent time with Paul alone force her to have to marry him? (requires some knowledge of period customs)
6.Why does Mrs. Ramsay tell lies to Minta’s parents?
7.What is the significance of Minta being different from her parents?
8.Why can’t Mrs. Ramsay do the work she wants with dairies and hospitals?
9.Why is Mrs. Ramsay upset looking at her fifty years of life?
10.Is Mrs. Ramsay hypocritical about wanting people to marry?
11.Do you agree children never forget childhood disappointments?


1.How is Mrs. Ramsay’s vision of herself as a “wedge” like Lily’s painting of her? Why is this significant?
2.Why doesn’t Mrs. Ramsay believe “`We are in the hands of the Lord'”?
3.Why is Mr. Ramsay depressed about his marriage?
4.Why does the lighthouse symbolize happiness to Mrs. Ramsay?


  • Kennedy
  • Aunt Camilla
  • Hume
  • Miss Giddings


1.Why do the Ramsays enjoy their disagreement about Andrew’s future?
2.Why can’t Mrs. Ramsay talk about her unhappiness to Mr. Ramsay?
3. What does Mr. Ramsay long for from his single days?
4. How are the Ramsay children like Mr. Ramsay’s books?
5. Why does Mrs. Ramsay see Mr. Ramsay’s speeches as “phrase- making”?
6.Why would she kill herself if she said half the things her husband did?

7.What insight does Mrs. Ramsay have into Mr. Ramsay’s differences as a “great man”?
8.Why is it ironic this leads to thoughts of rabbits and making Lily marry?


1.What is the difference between Titians and Darwins and humble people?
2.Why do the Ramsays appear to be “the symbols of marriage” to Lily?


1.What happened to Nancy when she held Minta’s hand?
2.What does Andrew think of Minta?
3.What does Andrew’s refusal to accept masculine behavior in Minta suggest about his values?
4.Why is Nancy outraged to find Paul and Minta in each other’s arms?
5.Why does Nancy think Minta isn’t crying at losing the brooch?
6.Why does Paul think proposing was “appalling”?
7.What is the significance of Paul’s feeling Mrs. Ramsay made him ask Minta to marry him?


1.Why does this chapter contain the answer to a question asked in chapter 13?


  • Old Joseph (the father rook)
  • Mary


1.Why does Mrs. Ramsay think Rose will suffer?
2.Why does Mrs. Ramsay feel Rose’s love exaggerates Mrs. Ramsay’s worth?
3.Why does Jasper think birds don’t feel?
4.Why does Jasper dismiss his mother’s feelings as irrelevant?
5.What has Jasper already learned about women’s place in the world?


  • Mrs. Carrie Manning
  • Mr. Herbert Manning
  • Mr. Langley
  • George Eliot
  • Sir Walter Scott
  • Voltaire
  • Madame de Stael
  • Napoleon
  • Lord Rosebery
  • Creevey
  • Jane Austen
  • Tolstoi [Tolstoy]


1.Why is Mrs. Ramsay “past everything” and unable to love Mr. Ramsay at the start of dinner?
2.What is it that Mrs. Ramsay feels is her duty to start at the table that men are incapable of?
3.Why doesn’t Lily think Mr. Bankes should be pitied?
4.What does Lily plan to do about her painting?
5.Why is Tansley mad at the conversation and “these silly women” ?
6.Why does Lily provoke Tansley?
7.Why is Tansley so mean to the women?
8.What is the significance of the discussion of the Mannings?
9.How do Mr. Bankes’ feelings about Mrs. Ramsay at the dinner differ from his “rapture” felt in section 9?
10.What is the “social manner” that Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes can speak in but Tansley doesn’t know exists?
11.What social laws about men and women does Lily acknowledge and then choose to ignore?
12.Why does she change her mind?
13.Why does being nice mean that Lily and Tansley will not know each other?
14.Why does Lily believe relationships between men and women are insincere? Do you agree or not?
15.How do Mr. Bankes and Mrs. Ramsay prove Lily right about the insincerity in this chapter?
16.What does Tansley’s speech seem to say about the others at the table?
17.Why is Mr. Ramsay mad, and why will the children laugh at him?
18.What effect does lighting the candles have?
19.Why does Minta pretend to be dumber than she is?
20.Why is Mrs. Ramsay jealous of Minta?
21.Why does the main dish make Mrs. Ramsay triumphant?
22.What are the two sides of love according to Lily?
23.Why does Mrs. Ramsay’s talking of what she values produce mocking laughter?
24.Do you agree with Mrs. Ramsay that at forty Lily will be superior to Minta?
25.What is the role “masculine intelligence” at the dinner party and in the lives of the people at the dinner party?
26.Why will a dissertation and wife keep Tansley from “`I–I–I'”?
27.Why does Mrs. Ramsay decide she likes Tansley?


1.Why does Mrs. Ramsay feel that the people at the dinner party will always remember it and her?
2.Why doesn’t Prue want to grow up?
3.How does Prue feel about her mother?
4.Why can’t Mrs. Ramsay go to the beach?

  • XIX.
  • Mucklebackit
  • Steenie
  • Balzac

1.What is it that Mrs. Ramsay wants from Mr. Ramsay that she can’t figure out for a great deal of the chapter?
2.How does reading separate works together in silence change the Ramsay’s feelings toward each other?
3.Why won’t Mrs. Ramsay say “I love you” to her husband?
4.Why does Mrs. Ramsay feel very happy after spending time alone with her husband?

Part II: Time Passes


  • Virgil


1. What is the symbolism of this discussion of the lights being out?
2.How is the point of view different in this section?

1. What is the significance of the airs’ exploration of the house?
2. Why might the terms “allies” and “enemies” be used in this section?


1. What is the significance of the description of autumn?
2. What is the impact of the news of Mrs. Ramsay’s death, given in brackets?


  • Mrs. McNab


1. What is Mrs. McNab’s job?
2. Do the descriptions of time’s effects upon the house also describe time’s effects upon humans?


1. What is Mrs. McNab’s character like?
2. How is Mrs. McNab different from mystics?
3. Which type of character do you prefer? Why?


1. What do we learn about Prue in this section?
2. What do we learn about Andrew?
3. What do we learn about Mr. Carmicael?
4. Have Mrs. Ramsay’s predictions about her children come true?
5. How is WWI represented in this section?


1. What does this chapter convey about WWI?


1. What does Mrs. McNab’s mind tell us of the years since “The Window” section of the novel?
2. What does Mrs. McNab remember of the time of “The Window” section of the novel?
3. Have Mrs. Ramsay’s predictions of the future come true or not?


  • Mrs. Bast
  • George Bast
  • Davie Macdonald

1. Why does the novel stress the fact the house, if not saved then, would fall into an abandoned hovel?
2. What happens to the house?
3. How is the dinner party of “The Window” recalled?


  • Mrs. Beckwith

1. Why is it significant that the war is over?
2. How does this section prepare us for the return to narrative about the characters of “The Window”?

Part III: To the Lighthouse


1. What is the significance of Mr. Ramsay’s question, “`What’s the use of going now?'” ?
2. How is Nancy handling Mrs. Ramsay’s tasks?
3. What needs does Mr. Ramsay try to get Lily to satisfy that Mrs. Ramsay used to for him?
4. What does Lily remember of the dinner party in “The Window” section of the novel?
5. Why does Lily see Mr. Ramsay’s forcing Cam and James to go to the lighthouse as a tragedy?
6. What do women get out of giving sympathy to Mr. Ramsay?
7. Why doesn’t Lily understand why this giving of sympathy seems so rewarding?


1. Why does Lily feel Mr. Ramsay’s need for sympathy is indecent?
2. Why does Mr. Ramsay feel angry at Lily for not giving him sympathy?
3. Why does Lily feel it is “immensely to her discredit, sexually, to stand there” and not give Mr. Ramsay sympathy?
4. Why doesn’t Mr. Ramsay demand sympathy from Mr. Carmicael?
5. Why does Lily feel guilty about praising Mr. Ramsay’s boots?
6. Why does Lily’s guilt make Mr. Ramsay’s happiness in his boots ironic?
7. Why does Mr. Ramsay’s demonstration of how to tie a shoe make Lily want to give him sympathy?
8. What conclusions about Mr. Ramsay’s marriage and character does Lily draw at the end of this section?


1. What is art like for Lily?
2. What do you think Woolf is trying to say about experimental art and To the Lighthouse?
3. Can Lily figure out what the meaning of life is?
4. How is the meaning of life revealed to Lily?
5. What do you think Lily thinks is the meaning of life?
6. How does the end of the chapter provide a transition to the next one?


  • Macalister’s boy
  • Macalister
  • Frisk


1. What compact have Cam and James made?
2. Why is Cam tempted to break the compact?
3. Why does Mr. Ramsay’s reciting of poetry `shock and outrage’ Cam ?
4. Why can’t Mr.Ramsay believe Cam can’t understand a compass?
5. Why does Mr. Ramsay think women are vague?
6. Why does Mr. Ramsay think women with vague minds are charming?
7. How is Cam forced to choose between the desires of her father and those of her brother?
8. What is the significance of the last paragraph?
9. How has Mrs. Ramsay’s prediction about Cam’s happiness come true?
10. How is Cam’s sadness like her mother’s?


1. How is praise of Mr. Ramsay linked to his treatment of women?
2. Why does a hole in a stocking so offend Mr. Bankes?
3. How does the hole represent “the annihilation of womanhood” ?
4. How does this pre-war view seem in the post-war world?
5. What happened to the Rayley’s marriage?
6. How did Paul’s affair save the marriage?
7. What does this bad marriage suggest about Mrs. Ramsay and her views upon marriage?
8. How does Lily recall Paul’s earlier love for Minta?
9. Why does Lily feel that she barely escaped being forced by Mrs. Ramsay to marry?
10. What kind of relationship have Lily and Bankes had?
11. Why does Lily feel words are inadequate to express feelings?
12. What does Lily think is the meaning of life at the end of this chapter?


1. What is the significance of this chapter?
2. Does it relate to the fairy tale of “The Window”?


1. How did Lily deal with Mrs. Ramsay’s death?
2. What is Lily’s painting representing, both literally and symbolically?


1. Why does James still want to kill his father?
2. What is James’ opinion of his father?
3. What does James remember of the events of “The Window”?
4. What does James remember about and think of his mother?


How does this section relate back to the description of the war years in “Time Passes”?


1. How is Cam’s sudden joy like her mother’s?
2. What is the significance of Cam’s belief that “one could let whatever one thought expand here like a leaf in water; if it did well here, among the old gentlemen smoking and The Times crackling, then it was right” ?
3. How does the above quote reflect the sexism of post-WWI British culture?
4. What is the significance of Cam’s fantasy “about escaping from a sinking ship” ?


1. What does the following quotation suggest was the reason for the break between the first and third sections of the story: “So coming back from a journey, or after an illness, before habits had spun themselves across the surface, one felt that same unreality, which was so startling; felt something emerge. Life was most vivid then” ?
2. Why is Lily trying to balance her picture with Mr. Ramsay?
3. Who else is trying to balance their lives and needs with Mr. Ramsay’s?
4. Who in the past tried to balance their lives and needs with Mr. Ramsay’s?
5. What does this need to deal with Mr. Ramsay say about patriarchal culture?
6. What do we learn of Mr.Carmicael since the time of “The Window”?
How did Mrs. Ramsay’s vocation to help the poor and suffering affect Lily and Mr. Carmicael?
7. What happened to Mr. Tansley since the time of “The Window”?
8. What is Lily’s opinion of the Ramsay marriage?
9. How has Lily dealt with the death of Mrs. Ramsay?
10. How has Mr. Carmicael dealt with the death of Andrew?


1. How does James feel about finally seeing the lighthouse?
2. Why does Cam feel safe by the act of Mr. Ramsay eating his lunch?
3. How does Mr. Ramsay’s praise of James affect James?
4. How is James actually like Mr. Ramsay concerning praise?
5. Does the end of the chapter imply the author does not believe in God? Why or why not?


1. Why does Mr. Carmicael’s simple comment seem `to crown the occasion’?
2. How is the end of Lily’s vision appropriate for the end of the book?
3. What is the meaning of the vision and the final stroke of the painting?

Character Worksheet

Questions for each character

1. What do we know of the character’s life prior to the period of “The Window”?
2. What is the character like, and what happens to him or her during “The Window”?
3. What is the character like, and what happens to him or her during “Time Passes”?
4. What is the character like, and what happens to him or her during “To the Lighthouse”?
5. Is the character flat or round? Why?
6. Is the character static or dynamic? Why?

Major Characters

  • Mrs. Ramsay
  • Mr. Ramsay
  • Cam Ramsay
  • James Ramsay
  • Lily Briscoe
  • Charles Tansley
  • Augustus Carmichael
  • William Bankes
  • Paul Rayley
  • Minta Doyle
  • Mrs. McNab

Many thanks to Cathy Decker, the author of the To the Lighthouse study guide, for granting us permission to reproduce it here in an adapted, reformatted version.  The original study guide was posted on her website.

This article is reprinted here for educational purposes,  with the permission of the author who retains copyright to this work.

You will read To the Lighthouse in British Literature, Module 9.

Virginia Woolf Resources