Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry (1917)

"Habitual Currents": The Leitmotif of Waves in To the Lighthouse​​​​​​​​​​​​​​
Appeared in the Vassar Critical Journal, 2017.
Not uncommon to Virginia Woolf’s work, the leitmotif of waves courses throughout To the Lighthouse, paralleling the palpable tensions cresting and falling with the development of the First World War. While constantly in flux, the waves also provide a sense of rhythmic constancy throughout the novel and create a temporal reality marked by their relentlessness as well as a spatial reality which distances the maritime locale of the story from the rest of the world. Bearing deeply different meanings for each character, the waves ultimately provide an outlet for redemption.
Set in the Ramsay family’s summer home in the Hebrides, the nautical setting of To the Lighthouse is immediately characterized by the promise of a trip to the nearby lighthouse. The lighthouse functions as an unfulfilled promise throughout the novel, and its unattainability is spatially distinguished by the span of sea that distances it from the house. The swelling of waves leading to the lighthouse upon the hill separates the Ramsays’ reality from the “moon country, uninhabited of men” across the sea (13). Likewise, the constancy of waves provides a temporal reality within To the Lighthouse, creating a sense of relentless continuity throughout the story. As the dialogue throughout the story is sparse, the space in between spoken thoughts allows single moments of reverie to expand and contract endlessly, not unlike a tide crashing and retreating on a beach. The waves create a current of time and space that is as fluid as the sea itself, rising and falling from the pre-war to the post-war era.
The leitmotif of waves not only develops a sense of a fluctuating temporal reality and a watery spatial setting, but also characterizes those who live within these realities, further dividing the binary coupling of Mrs. and Mr. Ramsay in particular. To Mr. Ramsay, the tortured philosopher and self-proclaimed “desolate sea-bird,” the incoming tide is a stark premonition of his own mortality (44). Ruminating upon the roiling waters outside of his home, he bleakly sees in front of him “the dark of human ignorance” as he stands upon “a spit of land which the sea is slowly eating away” (44). Mr. Ramsay views the ceaselessness of the waves as erosive and isolating, as hostile forces worth taming; he dreams of “pitting muscle and brain against the waves and the wind” (164). By contrast, Mrs. Ramsay, a woman with a magnetic pull equal to or greater than the tide itself, derives her greatest ecstasy from the sea’s incessancy. In a nearly autoerotic moment, the waves outside of her window metamorphose from physical and aural objects of delight to vessels of pure rapture. Fixated on the crashing tide, Mrs. Ramsay delights as “the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled…and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor” (65). Further on, her daughter asks her to watch the waves together on the beach, and Mrs. Ramsay rejoices “like a girl of twenty, full of gaiety” (116). Her magnetism and allure are forces of nature, nearly inseparable from the pull of the tide that surrounds her. She is the “shape; this eternal passing and flowing” that gives form and stability to nearly everyone she knows, especially Lily, who derives her artistic inspiration from Mrs. Ramsay’s fluid presence (161). Unlike her husband, who is significantly enervated by the sea’s formidability, Mrs. Ramsay’s magnetic essence is intrinsically entangled in and invigorated by the cresting waves surrounding her.
Although the recurrent theme of waves evokes mostly rapturous imagery throughout the first section of the novel, it stealthily mutates into something much darker, acting as a harbinger of World War I and imminent death within the Ramsay family. Mrs. Ramsay finds her inner dialogue frequently intruded upon by increasingly violent images of the sea. While listening to the rhythmic pulse of the waves, which “for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts,” the comforting sound of the tide is perverted into “a ghostly roll of drums [which] remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea,” thus gripping her with terror and, unbeknownst to her, foreshadowing her own impending mortality (16). Likewise, even while relishing in moments of tranquility with her son James, a bedtime story divines forthcoming destruction in the form of a storm over the sea:
But outside a great storm was raging and blowing so hard that he could scarcely keep his feet…the sky was pitch black, and it thundered and lightened, and the sea came in with black waves as high as church towers and mountains, and all with white foam at the top. (60)
In contrast to the waves that once incited in Mrs. Ramsay unadulterated euphoria, the towering black waves, although voluntarily recounted in a bedtime story, are rife with an insidiousness that begins to invade the domestic sphere of the novel. The religious iconography of the waves is apocalyptic, evoking the unsettling sense that large-scale destruction may soon infiltrate even the stronghold of the Ramsay’s idyllic home. Mr. Ramsay’s overwhelming fear of mortality is exacerbated by the mounting non-distinction between the murky abyss and the ground upon which he stands, as “one can hardly tell which is the sea and which is the land” (125). The mutation of the sea throughout the novel acts as a harbinger of both widespread death and imminent war.
Woolf toys with the passage of time throughout To the Lighthouse, characterizing the pre-war, Victorian era with indefinitely-long inner musings and single moments spanning pages, while time marking the beginning of the war is markedly more condensed, with the death of Mrs. Ramsay, for instance, meriting a single sentence. The confusion of time is marked concurrently by a mounting intensity in the waves outside of the Ramsay’s home, their roiling presence reflecting the increasingly turbulent socio-political climate which preceded World War I. The climax of the story’s brutality, as the Ramsay family suffers three deaths and the war arrives in full force, is manifested in a violent storm over the sea, foreshadowed by James’s earlier bedtime story: “The nights now are full of wind and destruction…the sea tosses itself and breaks itself” (128). The storm obscures daylight and any other markers of time or location, characterized by gods of the sea copulating in the sky:
[T]he winds and waves disported themselves like the amorphous bulks of leviathans whose brows are pierced by no light of reason, and mounted one on top of another, and lunged and plunged in the darkness or the daylight (for day, month and year ran shapelessly together) in idiot games, until it seemed as if the universe were battling and tumbling, in brute confusion and wont lust aimlessly by itself. (134-35)
The sea’s all-consuming entropy is rarely exhibited outside of this moment, the pinnacle of the war and a time of devastating loss for the Ramsay family.
In stark contrast to the skies and sea angrily devouring everything in their path, the post-war era is eerily silent and still, and the tumultuous waves are replaced with “pools of uneasy water” (132). Without the sea’s natural rhythm to mark time, the stillness is now unsettling and lifeless—especially without Mrs. Ramsay’s presence, which was so intrinsically associated with the magnetism and lure of the waves and the sea. Although “the stillness and the brightness of the day were as strange as the chaos and tumult of the night,” life in and outside of the summer home gradually returns to normalcy, marked by the tentative return of the waves in the sea: “Gently the waves would break” as the sea surrounding the Ramsay’s home slowly embodies a new, tentative existence. Lily, one of the few guests in the house at the time, is witness to the gentle revitalization of the home and the sea in the aftermath of the war:
As Lily Briscoe laid her head on the pillow in the clean still room and heard the sea…the voice of the beauty of the world came murmuring, too softly to hear exactly what it said—but what mattered if the meaning were plain? (142)
As the rhythmic presence of the waves returns to the Hebrides, balance is shakily restored to post-war Europe; while the sea once distanced the Ramsays from the rest of the world, it now serves as a bridge to the reality of post-war Britain beyond the shores of the Hebrides, breathing “messages of peace…from the sea to the shore” (142). The lack of wave imagery throughout the war scenes suggested a haunted kind of limbo, rendering the waves’ revived sense of steadfastness an even greater comfort by comparison.
While the sea once served as a barrier between the worlds of the summer home and the unattainable lighthouse, it functions at the end of the story as a mechanism for both artistic and personal fulfillment as well as disillusionment. James, whose childhood was primarily characterized by his dream of traveling to the lighthouse with his mother, now must take the trip with his despised father in his mother’s absence. While James’s crossing the sea to visit the object of his childhood idolatry is the realization of his long-awaited dream, he does so under less-than-desirable circumstances, realizing that the lighthouse is indeed both the “silvery, misty-looking tower” of his fantasies as well as the “stark and straight” building of reality, “for nothing was simply one thing” (186). Likewise, Lily, who had previously struggled to capture her beloved Mrs. Ramsay in a painting, realizes that the matriarch was indeed only human. Thus finding herself liberated to finally finish her chef-d’oeuvre, Lily abandons convention and wildly strikes her brush upon the canvas, exchanging “the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting”—inspired, ultimately, by the ceaseless cresting of the waves along the cliff (158).
Having stood witness to lifetimes of suffering and rapture, the waves endure as constant reminders of both human mortality as well as redemption in To the Lighthouse: “The waves [were] rolling and gamboling and slapping the rocks as if they were wild creatures who were perfectly free and tossed and tumbled and sported like this forever” (207) Mimicking the passage of time, the waves rise and fall with heartbreak and ecstasy, returning post-war to a long-awaited normalcy.

Elena Schultz ‘19 is a sophomore originally hailing from La Crosse, Wisconsin. As a French and English double major, Elena is interested in literature and poetry, and she looks forward to doing research as a Ford Scholar in English this summer and studying in Paris next fall. She also enjoys working for multiple campus publications and hopes to combine her interests in literature and journalism after graduation.
Works Cited
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
Back to Top