Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2078
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.
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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 husband’s intelligence and authenticity, she glows with admiration. However, at that moment, Mr. Ramsay is scowling and frowning. She realizes that he is furious that Augustus Carmichael has asked for another plate of soup. Ramsay can’t bear waiting for people to eat when he has finished. He is about to explode, she senses, but he holds himself back. The couple, looking at each other down the length of the table, know exactly what each other is thinking. The children are close to bursting with laughter as they watch their father about to erupt. Mrs. Ramsay asks for the candles to be lit. She decides that she respects Augustus for being above public opinion; she admires his composure.
The bowl of fruit at the center of the table draws her attention. She and Augustus silently admire this yellow and purple dish of fruit in the candlelight. It looks like Neptune’s banquet. The candlelight brings the faces closer round the table. The dark night is shut out and the group becomes conscious that they are a party. It is as if they are stranded on an island together. The maid carries in a large dish; Minta and Paul arrive and take seats at opposite ends of the table.
Minta laments her lost brooch. Mr. Ramsay teases her gently and she feels confident of her attractiveness. Mrs. Ramsay, seeing Minta’s glow, feels jealous. She knows that her husband likes these golden-reddish girls who didn’t “scrape their hair off.” She feels a little resentful that she has grown old, but is grateful to these lively girls for bringing out the youthfulness in her husband. She remembers his gallantry when they were young. As the maid puts the Bœuf en Daube on the table, she motions to Paul to sit beside her. She thinks that she sometimes prefers her “boobies” to all these clever men with their dissertations.
Paul’s reference to “we” is enough to tell Mrs. Ramsay that he’s proposed. As she prepares to serve the meal, the moment becomes an occasion. She feels two emotions; one the profound sense of the joining of a man and a woman, and the other, a sense of a kind of mockery, as these two enter into an illusion.
Mr. Bankes declares the dish a triumph. His previous impatience with Mrs. Ramsay’s social manner disappears, and his adoration returns. Mrs. Ramsay, buoyed up by William’s renewed enthusiam and affection, begins to laugh and mock and gesticulate. Lily thinks there is something frightening about her; she puts a spell on them all. Yet, she contrasts Mrs. Ramsay with her own poverty of spirit and feels left out.
Lily’s emotions become feverish. She thinks that when she’s with the Ramsays she feels two things at the same time: “that’s what you feel and that’s what I feel.” Lily thinks about love and marriage and wonders if women don’t feel “this is not what we want.” When the conversation turns to coffee and cream, and Mrs. Ramsay expresses her deep concerns about the iniquity of the English dairy system. The children and Mr. Ramsay laugh at her. Mrs. Ramsay notices Lily’s distance from the group, but thinks that, despite Minta’s glow this evening, Lily will be the better at forty. Mrs. Ramsay admires Lily, but decides most men won’t see her unique charm, except perhaps Mr. Bankes. She decides that William must marry Lily. She must arrange a long walk for them soon.
Mrs. Ramsay begins to plan a picnic for the next day. She feels optimistic. Everything seems possible. Her thinking becomes almost euphoric: she feels secure, solemnly joyful, looking at all of them eating there. The moment brings a feeling of coherence and stability. It is this moment of peace, she decides, which allows that which endures. She is vaguely aware of the intellectual conversation at the table (square roots and Voltaire and Napoleon, and the French system of land tenure). She feels the support of this masculine intelligence.
William Bankes praises the Waverly novels. Tansley denounces them. Mrs. Ramsay knows that it is Tansley’s insecurity which drives him so fiercely to assert himself. Someone asks how long Scott’s novels will last. Mrs. Ramsay senses her husband will fasten onto this issue of literary longevity. Paul Rayley speaks with obvious feeling about books which impressed him as a boy. His honest response contrasts with Tansley’s need to impress.
Mrs. Ramsay turns her gaze back to the fruit bowl. Rose has taken a pear. She is surprised that her own child has disturbed the composition. She looks at the children sitting silently in a row, with the hint of a joke between them. She thinks that Prue is envying Minta. She thinks, you will be happier than she is one day, because you are my daughter.
She is ready to get up, but the others are still involved in spirited conversation. She thinks that Mr. Ramsay is in great spirits this evening. She hears all the voices as voices at a cathedral. Then her husband recites some poetry and the line, “All the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves.” These words, like music, have been in her mind all evening.
Augustus gets up and chants the end of the poem, and bows to her and holds the door open. She pauses at the threshold, holding on to the scene which is vanishing. As she takes Minta’s hand, she realizes, looking over her shoulder, that it is now in the past.
The dining room scene is the culmination of the day. The group moves from irritation and detachment to connection and harmony. Private soliloquies of the day are abandoned, the meal and conversation is shared. Like survivors on an island, they sit together in the circle of light at the table. The evening becomes an occasion, an evening to remember.
Like survivors, they have moved through perilous waters. The island metaphor is rich in meaning. They are literally on an island; they have also created an island within the island which has provided a place to temporarily put to rest individual battles. The evening progresses from isolation and dissatisfaction to community and harmony.
Mrs. Ramsay’s mood at the start of the meal is despondent. The worries and misunderstandings of the day have accumulated. She asks herself what she has done with her life and thinks, “it’s all come to an end.”
Lily is annoyed with Mrs. Ramsay’s narrowmindedness. Tansley is disgusted with the small talk. Mrs. Ramsay is taken aback when she learns that Carrie Manning has a billiard room. Bankes is bored with the waiting and talking. Mr. Ramsay is enraged when Carmichael asks for a second plate of soup.
Then the candles are lit. Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Carmichael notice the eloquence of the bowl of fruit. Minta arrives and Mr. Ramsay’s mood improves as he teases her. The Bœuf en Daube is pronounced a triumph. Mr. Bankes recovers his adoration of Mrs. Ramsay. Paul indicates that he has proposed. Mrs. Ramsay is buoyed up by the prospective marriage and Mr. Bankes’ improved mood.
Woolf’s dramatization of this evening suggests a well-constructed play. The players arrive from disparate places, disconnected and preoccupied with private griefs. As the meal progresses, they experience a growing sense of well being and rapport. We see that Mrs. Ramsay’s ability to create this harmony is her special gift. Hearing their voices as voices in a cathedral, we feel her importance as a synthesizer, an artist of human relations. Her husband’s poetry captures the essence of the evening and of the events of the day, “All the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves.” The setting and ambience of the scene are so vividly etched in our minds that at the end, when Mrs. Ramsay pauses at the threshold, wanting to hold on to the scene, it is as if a curtain has gone down for the reader, too.