This is a reread for me. I loved it the first time but this time seemed kind of a slog, at least for the first few chapters. I got pulled in at Chapter 9 or so. I think the characters did it.
The characters are fascinating in their differences. Woolf kind of slowly peels the outer layers away and we see that Mrs. Ramsey is more than beautiful earth-mother – of 8 children, and that Mr. Ramsey is more than the absent-minded intellectual. These two are (or have become) opposites in that Mrs. Ramsey is definitely oriented toward the romantic and the sensual, what she sees, hears, touches, while nothing seems to impress Mr. Ramsey much except what goes on in his head.
Lily apparently sees the same things but perceives them differently as evidenced by the purple triangle representing Mrs. Ramsey in her painting but Mr. Bankes sees things very basically, a surface realism or materialism.
Even the minor characters are distinctly described even if there are no corresponding interiors to go with them.
There is a solid dose of feminism in the book – men interfere with women’s creativity – Lilly especially feels this from the boorish Charles Tansley, a serious chauvinist, but also from Mr. Bankes.
And then there are the three Parts into which the book is divided – Part One is probably 1913 or so, the summer prior to WW1. Part Two is short but it definitely depicts the death and destruction of WWI. Part Three is like an aftermath, everything is changed but the lighthouse is still there.
The subtly woven plot through all three Parts is a trip to the Lighthouse. In Part One it is postponed due to weather. In Part Two it obviously can’t happen, the Lighthouse remains but it would appear that everything else is temporary. In Part Three it actually takes place.
In some ways this is based on Woolf’s childhood with Mrs. Ramsey being her mother and Lily her sister and so on. There were 8 children, her father was an author and critic, her family had a home on Carbis Bay with a view of the Godrevy Lighthouse. The comparison goes much further as does the symbolism and literary value.
Good overview from Jim Sherry