Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 676
Lily returns to her painting. The white canvas rebukes her. She has been caught up in thoughts and feelings which have drained her emotions. As she ponders the problem of the relationship of the lines in the painting, she realizes that this challenge has tied a knot in her mind which over the years, at odd moments, she’s tried to untangle.
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In her agitation she’s taken the wrong brush and placed the easel at the wrong angle. She corrects herself and sets about her work. Letting go of her emotional turmoil, she feels the excitement of the task. She paints the first stroke and then develops a rhythm in which she paints rapidly. As she works, Lily meditates on her reason for painting. She feels that to paint is to be engaged in a kind of combat. She begins to lose consciousness of the outer world, so concentrated is her effort.
While she works, the phrase, “can’t paint, can’t write” runs through her head. She remembers that Charles Tansley had said that about women. Then she recalls a windy morning when she and Tansley and Mrs. Ramsay were on the beach. As they noticed something in the water, Mrs. Ramsay had asked, “What is that? Is it a lobster-pot? An up-turned boat?” Suddenly, Charles’ prickliness had fallen away and he had begun playing ducks and drakes with Lily. Mrs. Ramsay, sitting on a rock writing letters, seems to have been the catalyst to dispel the ill-will between her and Charles. It occurs to her that the memory of that day, so perfectly preserved, affects her like a work of art. She repeats this idea. It was Mrs. Ramsay’s presence that was needed.
Then Lily asks herself, once again, “What is the meaning of life?” Mrs. Ramsay had made something permanent out of the fleeting moment. She was able to bring order out of chaos, ordering Life to stand still. Lily sees that as an artist that is what she tries to do. Perhaps this is the revelation she seeks, that one can find a shape under all the chaos.
Lily cries out, “Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!” She feels she owes it all to her. Then, when she looks off in the distance, she sees a little boat shoot past the others, out to sea.
Lily, the artist, like Virginia Woolf herself, needs to be alone to work. She is relieved when the Ramsay’s boat sets off. Her canvas, the “problem” she seeks to solve, of line and relationship, has a magnetic pull. She can’t allow herself to be distracted by the surface movement of daily life. She becomes absorbed in the rhythm of the painting and sees the work as a kind of combat.
Tansley’s criticism of women, “Can’t paint, can’t write,” runs through her mind. Thinking of Tansley, she remembers one special day on the beach with Mrs. Ramsay and the unhappy young man. The scene is etched in her mind and she realizes that it was Mrs. Ramsay’s presence which shaped the scene and allowed it to be indelibly printed in her memory. It is Lily’s gift as an artist (as it is Woolf’s as a writer) to see the art of Mrs. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay was an artist of the heart, her presence created meaning for all who came near her.
This train of associations, begun with Lily’s recall of Tansley’s chauvinistic criticism, ends up with her awareness of Mrs. Ramsay’s “feminine” gift, her ability to give meaning and shape to ordinary existence. Lily believes this is the revelation she’s been seeking: there is shape under all the chaos. And, she now sees that in some curious way, Mrs. Ramsay has provided this for her.
Seeing a little boat—probably the Ramsays’—shooting out to sea, we connect Lily’s important insight to the journey to the Lighthouse. Her intellectual journey occurs at the same time that the Ramsays move closer to their destination.