Part 1

The Ramsay family is on holiday on a Scottish island where they have a vacation home. Mrs. Ramsay sits at the window regarding the various interrelating pursuits of her family, taking in every detail of their activities and attitudes, much like Woolf herself, and therefore the reader. However, the members of the family also watch and contemplate Mrs. Ramsay. This conceit is Woolf's commentary upon reading: she allows the characters in her novel to look back at and scrutinize the reader.

Mr. Tansley, an intellectual but rather déclassé friend of Mr. Ramsay, tells James, the youngest Ramsay son, and Mrs. Ramsay, that the weather will prevent them from going to the Lighthouse - on another island accessible only by boat. Mr. Ramsay is taken up by thoughts on poetry and philosophy. Lily Briscoe, in her early thirties and dowdy; William Bankes, an aging botanist; Augustus Carmichael, a poet friend of Mr. Ramsay; Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley, young lovers who represent optimism and simplicity of expression; are all staying with the Ramsays. There are eight Ramsay children, although only the youngest two - James and Cam - are explored as characters in any great detail. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay stroll together in the garden that evening, watching their children play and squabble. Paul and Minta announce their engagement, although Minta is upset at losing her brooch. The family and visitors sit together over dinner and a sense of contentment descends upon the group, brought about by the obvious happiness of Paul and Minta. A loving and supportive picture is painted of the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay.

Part 2, Time Passes

This sections is Woolf at her best: unfettered by the rules of novel writing, she presents a masterful example of poetry in prose form. The claustrophobic darkness which envelops the ten years contained within this short section represents the coming of the war and the death of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue and Andrew. The holiday home in Scotland is battered by storms and Mrs. McNab, the housekeeper, struggles to maintain order. When the war ends, the family, in its reduced state, returns.

Part 3, The Lighthouse

Lily resumes painting a picture which she had begun many years before. As she paints, she contemplates her feelings about the loss of Mrs. Ramsay and watches Mr. Ramsay prepare for the trip to the lighthouse. James and Cam resent Mr. Ramsay's efforts to take them to the Lighthouse. However they somehow get taken up in the excitement of the journey and, in a union of joint resolution, the trip to the Lighthouse is completed at the same time as Lily finishes her picture.

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