Impact of WWI in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway

Tushar Kanti Baidya
Published in
8 min readAug 8, 2020


Virginia Woolf is one of the pioneers of Modernism in literature (“Modern Library”).1 Her literary creations have various themes including feminism and psychology while many of her writings deal with World War I (Levenback 13). To the Lighthouse is one of those creations. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is a landmark novel for Modernism. Published in 1927, this novel is one of the earliest examples for the use of “stream of consciousness” and “free indirect discourse”. Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse is regarded as one of the most important and magnificent literary creations of Twentieth century.2 To the Lighthouse revolves around the lives of a family and their house guests. Even without a definitive plot, this remarkable novel connects the thoughts of different characters and gives us a visualization of the characters’ mindsets, as well as the condition of the family, society and the impact of the pre and post-World War I. In this paper, I am going to talk about how Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and as well as her another significant novel Mrs. Dalloway have been affected by the impact of World War I and how it helps the readers to understand the drastic changes that had happened in the Western Society.

Literary Modernism

Literary Modernism started in the early 20th century in Europe. It was a break from the traditional way of writing which was influenced by the change in thoughts in the society (Childs 2). Even though this movement was started before the World War I (1914–1918), it spread after the war was over. Modernist literature adapted an alternative way of writing or storytelling. Unlike traditional writing style, it talked about the dual existence of human life- internal and external. It also experimented with different writing styles which gave birth to techniques like “stream of consciousness”, “free indirect discourse” and “internal monologue”.3

Virginia Woolf’s Early Life and Work

Woolf was one of the important Modernists of all time as well as an influential Feminist.

Her work was highly affected by the devastation left by the World War I (Diaries 32).

She emphasized on character building- especially on their psychology and inner thoughts which eventually led her to experiment with the writing style and invented techniques like “stream of consciousness” and “internal monologue”.

Virginia Woolf had been suffering from psychological trauma from a very early age within her family. She lost her mother when she was only thirteen and two years later she lost her elder sister. These two deaths caused her severe mental breakdowns. Even though she was raised in an educated family, she still had to fight obstacles because of the strict Victorian society and its norms. Her mental health was also affected by the sexual abuse committed by her half-brothers (“Moments” 17). After her father’s death, she was tremendously frustrated and went through continuous mental breakdowns and was institutionalized (Meyer et al. 65).

All these experiences allowed Woolf to write about the hidden struggles of our lives. In her essay “Modern Fiction” she explains:

Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end… Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? (“Modern” 18)

From the beginning, Virginia Woolf wanted to create own ideas about the Modern novel. She searched for a new form to be made from the fragments of the old, but consisting of new patterns. Her aim was to fashion the English novel into an art form (Tezi 25). She no longer wanted to hide the sour truths of life from the readers; she wanted to reflect the inner struggles of characters.

To the Lighthouse the Novel

To the Lighthouse revolves around the lives of the Ramsay family and their houseguests. Throughout this novel we see the characters talking about a lighthouse that is situated nearby the Ramsay family summer home on Isle of Skye in Scotland. This not only symbolizes the desire to visit a place, it also shows the readers how our wills and wishes stay unfulfilled or are hampered during the course of life and time. This interpretation can easily be related to the consequence of World War I which took place from 1914 to 1918, whereas the story of the novel took place from 1910 to 1920. This timeframe gives us the opportunity to relate people’s change in view and life because of the war.

The first part of the novel “The Window” mostly gives us the view of the characters of the novel. We see the inner thoughts of the people who are trying to lead a happy and sensible life but finding it difficult to make both ends meet as their aspiration and reality do not add up to the expectation. James- young son of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay were really eager to the visit the lighthouse and was heartbroken as his father would not allow a visit for the bad weather: “This going to the Lighthouse was a passion of his, she saw and then, as if her husband had not said enough, with his caustic saying that it would not be fine tomorrow, this odious little man went and rubbed it in all over again” (“Lighthouse” 23). Here, the desire to visit the lighthouse can be compared with the human beings trying to reach their goals or happiness in life but failing to do so because of many barriers: “The presence of the lighthouse in the novel as ordering symbolic object provides a framework for mental and metaphysical thought” (Miller 13). The first part of the novel can be compared to the pre-WWI world, especially Europe. People had ideologies to follow and they had dreams to lead the life, a destiny to rely on.

The second part of the novel “Time Passes” gives us the glimpse of World War I. During this part of the novel Mrs. Ramsay and her two children Prue and Andrew passes away. Andrew is killed while serving in the war. Woolf did not mention details of what had actually happened in this time span. There are allusions in the passage to World War I, but the allusions are made through the perspective of the house, off in the distance (McCormack 4). She just gave us the theme of death and despair. There is no mention of the lighthouse- which refers to the aftermath of the war when people had absolutely no idea of what to believe in- in terms of religion, society or politics. It symbolizes how lighthouse is inhabitable for human beings- it only leads us to the destiny. As there was no proper leadership after the war or no ideologies to follow- lives of the human beings became unbearable. The World War I lasted over almost four years- and it demolished almost all ideals about European society. This horrific experience left this continent a sense that the root of civilization has been destroyed, that all traditional values has been wiped out (Tezi 19).

The final part of the novel is titled “The Lighthouse”. In this part, 10 years later James, along with Mr. Ramsay and Cam finally gets to visit the lighthouse; but this visit is filled with mixed emotions. There is frustration and at the same time a sense of relief to be able to be there. At the same time, Lily Brisco finally finishes her painting, even though the last touches of her painting was based on her imaginations as Mrs. Ramsay had passed away. Both of these experiences ended in different ways than expected which refers to life itself after everything had changed due to the massacre of the war. Here, Woolf has given her readers a sense of house by presenting the lighthouse as an inspiration or a ray of hope. After the war, people were devastated and could not find anything to hold onto; but life goes. So, they had to find strength and inspiration from whatever they had.

Mrs. Dalloway the Novel

Virginia Woolf’s literary career was just as conventional and path-breaking like her personal life. Her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway is considered one of the most influential Modern Classics of English literature. This novel truly made the inception of Modernism by elaborating the concept of life through multi-dimensional characters. About this novel the author said: “In this book I have almost too many ideas. I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity. I want to criticise the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense” (“Diary” 3). By pointing out the hidden lives of the characters, she wanted to criticize the social conventions that made her life complicated since her childhood.

“Septimus Warren Smith” is one of the most important characters of this novel. He was a WWI veteran. We see “Clarissa Dalloway”, the protagonist thinking about him and from there we learn that Smith was an intelligent, successful and joyful man before the war; but afterwards everything changed. Septimus Smith served in the war and saw the deaths and massacre which made him lose faith in humanity and all emotional attachments with life: “After World War I there was much sorrow in Europe. Public mourning, as mentioned, is done on a larger scale, and includes despair, overall uncertainty, and confusion. The Great War had shaken the world, leaving the survivors confused and uncertain as to how to heal the wounds and mourn for so many losses” (Tezi 35)

However, Smith did try to move on and carry on with his life; unfortunately he could not: “Septimus Warren Smith, aged about thirty, pale-faced, beak-nosed, wearing brown shoes and a shabby overcoat, with hazel eyes which had that look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too. The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?” (“Dalloway” 32). His life was meaningless without all the ideologies and faith that he had believed in before. He was so detached from life the, he was considered “mentally unstable” by the doctor and was ordered to stay home to get “heal”. In reality, there was no healing for him as he was permanently damaged by the devastation of the World War I. As a result, Septimus Warren Smith took his own life. He may have survived the war, but he could not survive life itself.


Virginia Woolf amazingly wrote these two novels to show us the two different sides of the WWI. With To the Lighthouse — she readers a ray of hope by rising from the destruction, while with Mrs. Dalloway — she gave us the morbid view of the war by saying how it also destroyed the life of the survivors. There were times of despair which crushed people to the ground and there were times of hope which gave people the strength to rise from the abyss.


1. Stream of consciousness (as its name implies) is the illumination of thoughts and feelings that characters consciously experience. Indirect discourse refers to the technique where identity of the narrator is not entirely clear.

2. According to the “100 Best Novels” — published by Random House (ranking done by the “Modern Library Editorial Board” authors).

3. Interior monologue (in dramatic and nondramatic fiction) refers to narrative technique that exhibits the thoughts passing through the minds of the protagonists (“Encyclopedia”).



Tushar Kanti Baidya
Editor for

Educator and Human Rights Activist from Dhaka, Bangladesh