To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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Chapters 18 and 19 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2279

As the dinner scene fades, Lily watches Mrs. Ramsay ascend the stairs in the lamplight. She notices that her departure brings a kind of disintegration to the group; they scatter. Bankes takes Tansley by the arm and continues the dinner table conversation about politics. The shift from “poetry to politics” strikes Lily. She wonders where Mrs. Ramsay is going so quickly.

Mrs. Ramsay is reflective. She seeks to sift through the evening and pick out the “thing that mattered” from the evening. Her internal “judges” query her: Is it good? Is it bad? She uses the branches of the elm trees outside to anchor her. She approves of the dignity of the trees’ stillness. It is windy, she notes. She concludes suddenly that for as long as they lived, they would remember this night, the moon, the wind, the house, and her. She feels a sense of community and happiness: all of this was theirs, and Paul and Minta would carry it on when she was dead.

Entering the nursery, Mrs. Ramsay is annoyed to find the children still awake at 11:00. They are arguing about the boar’s skull, hanging on the wall. Cam is frightened by the shadows which fill the room; James screams if anyone dares to touch it. Mrs. Ramsay covers the skull with her shawl and soothes Cam by chanting a rhythmical story about fairies living in the “bird’s nest” that the draped skull suggests. Cam falls asleep. James, reassured that the skull is still there, asks if they will go to the Lighthouse tomorrow. She admits that they won’t go tomorrow, but on the next fine day. Again, she thinks that he will never forget this and is angry with her husband, Charles Tansley, and even herself for raising his hopes.

Mrs. Ramsay closes the nursery door and thinks about Charles Tansley in the room above. She hopes he won’t bang his books and wake the children and once again lists for herself his faults and his virtues. She notices the yellow harvest moon through the staircase window. Prue, watching her mother from below, is overcome with love and admiration. Prue says that the group may go down to the beach to watch the waves. Mrs. Ramsay with a sense of revelry, urges them to go. When she asks if anyone has a watch, Paul Rayley pulls a gold watch out of his wash-leather case. Mrs. Ramsay feels Minta is lucky to be marrying a man with such a watch.

Mrs. Ramsay exclaims that she wishes she could go, but she feels held by something very strong. Still smiling, she goes into the room where her husband is reading. Entering the room, she has a vague feeling of wanting something. Mr. Ramsay, absorbed in his reading, clearly doesn’t want to be interrupted. She sits down and takes up her knitting. Then she realizes that he is deeply into a Sir Walter Scott novel and is most probably trying to determine if Tansley was right: people don’t read Scott anymore. She knows he is comparing his work to Scott’s. She is troubled about her husband’s preoccupation with measuring his worth: will he be read? are his books any good? why aren’t they better?

Mrs. Ramsay thinks, “What does it all matter?” However, she is reminded of her thoughts at dinner, how she admires his unflinching truthfulness; she trusts him. She sinks deeper into a reverie, again wondering what it is she wants. Half sleeping, half knitting, the rhythmic lines of poetry seem to move from side to side in her mind. She reaches for a book, murmuring,

And all the lives we ever lived
And all the lives to be
Are full of trees and changing leaves,

As she reads at random, she feels as if she’s moving from branch to branch of her mind, from one red flower to one white flower. Mr. Ramsay slaps his thighs and their eyes meet. They do not want to speak to each other just now, but something seems to go from him to her.

Mr. Ramsay, overcome with the strength and simplicity of Scott’s writing, feels “roused and triumphant.” He becomes choked with tears, and hiding his face with his book, lets them fall. He thinks that it doesn’t matter a damn who reaches Z (“if thought ran like an alphabet from A to Z”). Finishing the chapter, he feels as if he’s been arguing with someone and now has got the better of him. Still, he decides he must read it again, keeping his judgment in suspense. Determining not to bother his wife again with his worries about young men not reading his books, he turns to look at her. He thinks she looks peaceful and is glad that the others have taken themselves off and that they are alone. He muses that the whole of life doesn’t consist of going to bed with a woman.

Mrs. Ramsay, still caught-up in a kind of dream state, feels as if she’s climbing the branches of a tree, laying hands on one flower, then another. She comes upon a sonnet (“Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose”) and suddenly feels that the odds and ends of the day are put in order by the sonnet form. It has captured the essence of life and created a beautiful, rounded, clear, and complete shape. She becomes conscious of her husband looking at her; smiling, he seems to be gently mocking her for falling asleep. Mr. Ramsay, pleased to see that she doesn’t look sad now, thinks that she is astonishingly beautiful. At the same time he thinks that she probably doesn’t understand what she’s reading: he likes to think of her as not clever or book-learned.

Mrs. Ramsay puts the book aside and asks, “Well?” She takes up her knitting again and tries to remember what has happened since they’ve been alone together. Her mind lights on a list of random, unrelated events, i.e., dressing for dinner; the moon; Andrew holding his plate too high at dinner; being depressed by something William had said; the birds in the trees; the sofa on the landing; the children being awake; Tansley waking them with his books falling on the floor. She wonders what she should tell him about. She speaks of Paul and Minta, saying they are engaged. He says he’s guessed as much, but his mind is still with Scott, hers with the poetry. Then she becomes aware that she wants him to say something, anything. She mentions Rayley’s watch in the wash-leather bag, trying to summon up the kind of joking they have together. He only snorts; she wishes even more for him to say something. He senses her imminent “pessimism” and fidgets. Finally he says that she won’t finish that stocking tonight. Mrs. Ramsay realizes that that was what she wanted: the asperity in his voice, reproving her. She decides that if he says it’s wrong to be pessimistic, then it is wrong; she decides the marriage will turn out all right.

Mrs. Ramsay agrees that she won’t be able to finish the knitting. She senses that his look has changed and that now he wants her to give him what she finds it difficult to give: to tell him that she loves him. She thinks that she can never say what she feels and that he has often reproached her for this, calling her heartless.

Mrs. Ramsay gets up and stands at the window, looking at the sea. She feels herself to be very beautiful, knowing that her husband is thinking that of her. Mr. Ramsay thinks, would she not once tell him that she loved him. She cannot say it. She turns and looks at him, beginning to smile, knowing that, though she has not said a word, he knows that she loves him. She looks out of the window again, thinking that nothing on earth can equal this happiness.

At this moment Mrs. Ramsay says, “Yes, you were right. It’s going to be wet tomorrow. You won’t be able to go.” As she looks at him smiling, she feels she has once again triumphed: she has not said it: yet he knew.

The concluding chapters of The Window bring closure. The dinner is over, the day is completed, and most importantly, both Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay bring their internal struggles to rest. They are able to turn to each other in love and admiration.

Lily Briscoe’s perspective opens Chapter XIX. As Mrs. Ramsay ascends the stairs, Lily wonders why it is that Mrs. Ramsay inevitably moves with a kind of secret mission and that her sudden comings and goings change the balance of everything surrounding her. As she sees it, the dispersement of the group marks a change from poetry to politics. Lily is attuned to Mrs. Ramsay’s role as a kind of plumb line, her aesthetic sensibility senses the shape and form of the interactions with Mrs. Ramsay.

Interestingly, contrary to Lily’s assumption, Mrs. Ramsay’s departure was motivated, not by an urgent errand, but by her need for an aesthetic pulling together of the bits and pieces of the day. The writer’s interest in going beneath appearances is evident here. Even if Lily’s intuitions about the shape of things—the underlying pattern—is largely correct, her interpretations of discrete moments doesn’t necessarily have to be accurate. (Like the novelist, the artist may convey a truth, but not all the truth.) Once again, Mrs. Ramsay is drawn to the branches of the elm trees. She finds a kind of stability in the trees, but now instead of noticing the crows jumping from place to place, she finds her thoughts jumping from branch to branch. Woolf’s ability to create this kind of internally generated metaphor, is an indication of her skill in using the “stream of consciousness” technique.

It should also be noted that Mrs. Ramsay, who represents the quintessential mother, often turns to nature or the physical world, to anchor her internal confusion. She finds meaning, or peace, or solace in the physical world: the ocean, the trees, the crows, the wind. Everything, in fact, that is concrete speaks to her: her mother’s sofa, her father’s rocking chair, Paul’s wash-leather bag, and, of course, the Lighthouse.

The scene in the nursery is an intimate one. It is here (as it was when she allowed the children to choose her jewelry) that we see her entering into the imaginations of her children. She is a gifted mother, intuiting the needs of each child. She respects James’ need to have the skull remain; she helps Cam move beyond her fright, not merely by comforting, but by engaging with her in an idyllic redirection of her imaginings. She empathizes, once again, with James: he will never forget this day, the day his hopes were dashed.

It’s no wonder that, as she descends the stairs, noting the “yellow harvest moon” through the window on the landing, Prue thinks that there is only one person in the world like her mother. She becomes a child again, never wanting to give up this maternal comfort. Virginia Woolf’s loss of her own mother, when she was a bit younger than Prue, is evoked here. The writer, as well as her sister, Vanessa, acknowledge that Mrs. Ramsay was a portrait of their beloved mother.

When Prue says that the group is thinking of going down to the beach to look at the waves, Mrs. Ramsay becomes “like a girl of twenty, full of gaiety.” We are reminded of her enthusiasm about the circus in the first chapter. She is able to identify with both the joy and the pain of those she loves. We are also reminded of Woolf’s description of James on the first page of the novel: “He belonged to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that…any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallize and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests.” Like James, Mrs. Ramsay responds immediately to the moods and actions of those around her.

In the closing scene, the needs and deeper feelings of the couple are met. In their own private worlds, he reading Scott, she reading poetry, they work through their tangled feelings. Mr. Ramsay is re-fueled; the truth of Scott’s work is there for him. He lets go, at least for today, the need for the world’s praise and can finally turn to his wife with pleasure and appreciation. The sonnet she reads finally pulls together for her the rag-tag remnants of the day into a meaningful whole. She, like Lily, needs to organize all of the miscellany into a shape. Her confusing thoughts are swept clean. She can turn to her husband and smile and enjoy the warmth of his love.

The day has come full circle. The tensions felt on the first page of the novel are somehow resolved. He has been able to let go of his harsh self-judgment—the basis of his impatient reaction to the “irrationality” of his son and wife. He doesn’t need to be told: he knows she loves him, and that’s enough. She has been able to put to rest her incessant worrying, sensing that the harmony of the whole transcends the cacophony of the part. She responds now to her husband’s greater self: his honesty and integrity.

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