To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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Chapter 17 Summary

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Last Updated May 3, 2023.

As everyone sits down for dinner, Mrs. Ramsay assumes her position at the head of the table; despite her attempt to set her worries aside, she is consumed by thoughts of regret, questioning what she has made of her life. At the opposite end of the table, her husband is silent and appears gloomy; looking at his downturned expression, she wonders why she ever loved him and has given him so many years of her life. Their children and guests take their places at the dining table, and she begins to serve dinner; while doing so, Mrs. Ramsey realizes that she no longer sees beauty or value in her life and feels overwhelmed by the immense effort that she must put into maintaining her facade of maternal joy. 

Lily watches Mrs. Ramsay closely, noticing that the older woman appears weary and distant, and her age becomes apparent in ways that it has not before. The conversation flows around the table, and Lily finds herself listening to a conversation between Mrs. Ramsay and William, whom Mrs. Ramsay speaks to in a tone of both compassion and pity. To herself, Lily comments that Mrs. Ramsay has misjudged William; he is dedicated to his work, and although his wife passed before they could have children, his life has value. Considering her work in comparison to William’s, Lily feels a rush of pride in her paintings, seeing them as treasures and symbols of her skill. While reflecting on her painting of Mrs. Ramsay, Lily realizes that adding a tree in the center of the picture would enhance its overall appearance.

Charles remains silent and appears angry as he considers the conversation at the dinner table to be meaningless. He is particularly bothered by the behavior of women, whom he views derisively, feeling that their charm and seemingly foolish manners and speech are degrading to his intellectual desires. Watching Charles’s expression grow sour, Lily observes him, glancing at his hands and nose, and decides that she finds him entirely unappealing. Although his remark that women cannot write or paint still bothers her, she decides to set it aside and focus her energy on her work, as his opinion of her does not matter. When Lily insincerely offers to accompany Charles to the lighthouse, he senses her lack of sincerity and becomes even more annoyed, wishing to be alone.

William and Mrs. Ramsay discuss Carrie Manning, who recently wrote to William. Mrs. Ramsay is curious about the Mannings—whom she has not seen in two decades—and expresses interest in the most mundane details of their life that William shares, including the fact that they are constructing a billiard room and have become wealthy. Mrs. Ramsay is surprised that the Mannings have had experiences that she was unaware of. William feels uneasy with the direction their conversation has taken and argues to himself that family life is unimportant and tedious in comparison to work. This thought distracts him, making it difficult for him to socialize. Mrs. Ramsay makes several attempts to re-engage William, but he grows increasingly uncomfortable with each attempt. 

Charles finds himself feeling left out of the conversation and thinks that the subjects of which Mrs. Ramsay speaks are nonsensical and pointless. He daydreams about reporting this evening's events to his friends, including how Mr. Ramsay "ruined" himself and his intellectual sensitivity by marrying a beautiful woman and having eight children. Despite also feeling excluded from the conversation, Lily does not intervene to help herself or Charles feel more comfortable. Instead, she contemplates traditional gender roles and wonders what would happen if women stopped helping men...

(This entire section contains 1716 words.)

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in social situations and men stopped helping women in times of danger.

To break the awkwardness, Mrs. Ramsay asks Charles if he intends to go to the lighthouse and whether he has any experience sailing; Charles replies indignantly that he has never been sailing before and withdraws even further from the conversation. Lily, seeing Mrs. Ramsay’s discomfort at Charles’ reaction, relents. She offers Charles a friendly remark and draws him back into the conversation, allaying the awkwardness. Emboldened by Lily’s words, Charles tells the story of the time he visited his uncle, who once worked as a lighthouse operator. 

While Charles speaks, Lily grapples with her feelings of insincerity, realizing that she had to sacrifice her values to be pleasant and that most relationships between men and women lack authenticity in this way. Happy to withdraw from the conversation, Lily turns her thoughts once more to her painting. Charles continues to speak, telling stories and engaging with the other guests. The conversation churns through several subjects, turning from the worsening state of the fishing industry to current events and politics. Lily, William, and Mrs. Ramsay all find the subject uninteresting but attempt to keep the conversation lively, despite Charles’ rude tone and mannerless speech. William thinks to himself that if Charles could learn manners, he might become a brilliant politician in the future. 

Mrs. Ramsay wishes her husband would speak and attempt to join the conversation, finding his silence frustrating and petulant. However, Mr. Ramsey only scowls, seemingly frustrated by everything around him and impatient for dinner to end. Mrs. Ramsay senses that he is about to lose his temper but manages to hold himself back. The couple exchange glances, understanding what each other is thinking, while their children watch their father struggle to maintain his composure with amusement. As the night continues, Mrs. Ramsay asks for candles to be lit; when the candlelight illuminates their faces, each guest becomes more aware of their presence in the group and feels a sense of togetherness and cohesion. A maid then enters the room carrying a large dish, while Minta and Paul arrive and take their seats at opposite ends of the table.

Minta tells the group about her lost brooch; as she explains how she lost it, Mr. Ramsay teases her. The older man’s attention excites Minta, and she feels a rush of confidence in her physical appearance. Watching this unfold, Mrs. Ramsay notices Minta’s radiant—if unconventional—beauty and feels envious, knowing that her husband is attracted to younger, vibrant women like Minta. While she feels resentful of her husband’s attention to the younger woman, she also feels grateful that her husband still feels youthful. Mrs. Ramsay reminisces about her youth; to avoid lingering in her sorrow, she motions for Paul to sit beside her. As he speaks, she realizes that she much prefers the company of her female friends to that of men and their arrogant intellectualism.

Paul uses the pronoun “we” in his stories, which implies to Mrs. Ramsay that he has indeed proposed to Minta. As Mrs. Ramsay begins to serve the meal, the casual dinner becomes a significant event that quietly celebrates the new couple. The thought of marriage leads Mrs. Ramsay to consider two dueling feelings: that marriage is a union born of deep understanding between two people and that it is little more than an ironic illusion maintained by female agreeability. 

William compliments the meal, his earlier annoyance with Mrs. Ramsay's social behavior vanishes, and he rekindles his admiration for her. William's renewed interest and affection for Mrs. Ramsay brings her joy, so she grows animated and excitable, filled with confidence once more. Observing Mrs. Ramsay’s shift from despondent to lively after William’s praise, Lily feels that Mrs. Ramsay is a sorceress who enchants the men who look upon her. Lily thinks that she must look spiritless and dull in comparison, wishing that she could be more like Mrs. Ramsay. 

The Ramsays inspire intense emotions in Lily: watching Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay interact leads her to consider the concepts of love and marriage and wonder if women truly desire them. This feeling is compounded when, during a discussion about the merits of putting cream in one’s coffee, Mrs. Ramsay voices her concerns about the unfairness of the English dairy system. Mr. Ramsay and their children mock her for her opinion, and she falls silent. Looking at Mrs. Ramsay, Lily feels a surge of sympathy, a sentiment that Mrs. Ramsay mirrors, as she thinks that though Minta is beautiful, Lily will age better and be happier. She adds that although she admires Lily’s artistic determination, she knows that only William might appreciate the young girl’s unique charms, then resolves to set up another long walk for the pair. 

Mrs. Ramsay considers having a picnic tomorrow; the image of everyone eating peacefully together fills her with optimism and makes her feel that her life has the stability and quiet joy that she so often wishes for. The conversation flows around her, but she filters it all out, ignoring her husband’s thoughts about Voltaire and the French system of land tenure. Although she does not engage with the men around her, their conversation buoys her, and she feels strong again. 

When Mrs. Ramsay tunes back into the conversation, she hears Charles criticize another author and realizes that the younger man’s strong reaction is merely a projection of his insecurities. Paul interjects himself into the conversation to tell juvenile stories about the books he loved in his youth. Though his thoughts are misplaced in the highbrow literary discussion, Mrs. Ramsay admires his confidence, which contrasts with Charles’ self-important drive to impress others. 

The evening winds to a close, but the conversation remains lively. Despite his earlier silence, Mrs. Ramsay sees that her husband seems to be in high spirits and feels unwilling to end this moment by rising from the table. The voices of her children and guests swirl around her, sounding like the harmonious sounds of an organ in a cathedral. Mr. Ramsay’s voice rises above the others as he recites a line of poetry about the endless cycle of life, and the poem resonates in Mrs. Ramsay like a beautiful melody. Before he can finish, Augustus stands up to complete the poem; as he does, he bows to Mrs. Ramsay and holds the dining room door open for her. She lingers in the doorway, struggling to hold onto the fleeting moment but knowing that even as she works to prolong the evening, it has already passed.

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