To the Lighthouse Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis
by Virginia Woolf

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Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis

Mrs. Ramsay takes her place at the head of the table. She thinks to herself, “But, what have I done with my life?” Mr. Ramsay, at the far end of the table, is slouched down and frowning. She can’t remember why she ever felt any emotion for him. As family and guests come into the dining room, one after the other, she thinks, “It’s all come to an end.” As she ladles the soup, she thinks there is no beauty anywhere. She feels exhausted, just trying to keep things going.

Lily Briscoe notices how old and worn and remote Mrs. Ramsay looks. When Mrs. Ramsay speaks to William Bankes, Lily senses that she pities him and feels it is a typical misjudgment of Mrs. Ramsay’s. Lily respects the fact that he has his work, which makes him not pitiable at all. She thinks of her own work and sees that it, too, is a treasure. She muses about her painting and has an insight about placing the tree more in the middle of the picture.

Charles Tansley fumes silently; he thinks the dinner table talk is just rot. He is annoyed by the women who he thinks make civilization impossible with all their “charm” and silliness. Lily, looking at Tansley’s hands and nose, thinks him the most uncharming of men. His comment that women can’t write or paint, still rankles, but she determines to put it aside and think of her painting: that matters, nothing else. Tansley, feeling her insincerity as she offers to accompany him to the Lighthouse, is annoyed. He wishes he were alone, working.

Bankes and Mrs. Ramsay talk about Carrie Manning who has written to William Bankes. Mrs. Ramsay hasn’t seen her in 20 years and is intrigued by the gossip William shares: the Mannings are building a billiard room, and they are very well off now. Mrs. Ramsay can’t believe the Mannings have had lives that she hasn’t known about. Bankes is uncomfortable with all the waiting and talking. He wonders if family life is somehow trifling and boring compared with work. It is an effort to make himself socialize. Mrs. Ramsay uses her “social manner” to ask him if he detests dining in the “bear garden.” Bankes, becoming more uncomfortable, politely denies this.

Unable to speak in these social codes, Tansley thinks what nonsense is being talked. He fantasizes how he will report this evening to his friends. He will say how Ramsay had “dished” himself by marrying a beautiful woman and having eight children.
Still, he feels left out of the conversation about the fishing industry. Lily, sensing Tansley’s discomfort, resists helping him out of his discomfort. She thinks about the roles men and women play: what if women didn’t help men out of these social situations and men didn’t help women out of the Tube when it was on fire?

Mrs. Ramsay asks Tansley if he’s planning to go to the Lighthouse and if he’s a good sailor. Tansley, ready to explode, says he’s never been sick a day in his life. Lily, responding to Mrs. Ramsay’s desperate signals, relents and offers a kind word to Tansley, who then joins in the conversation. He tells about visiting his uncle who kept a lighthouse. Lily feels she has had to pay a price for being nice: she has not been sincere. She thinks that most relationships between men and women are insincere. She then, happily, turns back to thoughts of her painting. Tansley continues talking, beginning to enjoy himself. Mrs. Ramsay goes back to her memories of the Mannings’ drawing room 20 years ago.

The talk at the table becomes centered on the declining fishing industry and then moves to politics. William Bankes, Lily, and Mrs. Ramsay feel bored, but Bankes, always fair-minded, tries to listen to Tansley. He thinks that perhaps the young man is knowledgeable and that despite his bad manners, may turn out to be a man of genius in the world of politics.

Mrs. Ramsay wishes that her husband would say something. She feels that what he says goes to the heart of things, that he really cares about the fishermen. As she thinks of her...

(The entire section is 2,078 words.)