To the Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

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Chapters 18 and 19 Summary

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Last Updated May 3, 2023.

As the dinner scene comes to an end, Lily observes Mrs. Ramsay climbing the stairs while illuminated by a lamp and notices that the group starts to disintegrate the instant Mrs. Ramsay departs. William and Charles walk off together and begin to discuss politics while the rest of the guests scatter. Mrs. Ramsay contemplates the evening’s events and attempts to discern whether her guests enjoyed themselves. To ground her frantic thoughts, she gazes at the steady stillness of the elm trees outside and takes solace in their dignified posture. Suddenly, she realizes that this night, with its full moon, wild wind, and happy home will remain memorable for them as long as they live, recognizing that this experience belongs to all of them.

Upon entering the children’s room later that evening, Mrs. Ramsay is irritated that they are still awake, arguing wildly about the boar’s skull hanging on the wall. Cam is afraid of the shadows in the room, while James yells if anyone attempts to touch the skull. To calm Cam, Mrs. Ramsay covers the skull with her shawl and tells them a bedtime story about fairies residing in the “bird’s nest” that the draped skull resembles. This lulls Cam to sleep. James asks again about their trip to the lighthouse the following day. Although Mrs. Ramsay says they will not be going the next day, she promises to go on the next sunny day. She worries that James will never forget this disappointment and is upset with her husband and Charles for dashing James's expectations.

Mrs. Ramsay shuts the door to the children’s room and contemplates Charles, who sleeps in the room above. She hopes he will be quiet so as not to disturb the sleeping children and mentally evaluates his strengths and weaknesses. Through the window, she notices the yellow harvest moon shining along the water, then catches sight of her older children making plans to take a walk on the beach and watch the waves. Like her older children, Mrs. Ramsay wishes also to leave, but she feels restrained in place by a powerful, unnameable force. 

Forcing a smile, she enters their bedroom, where her husband is engrossed in a book. Upon entering, she experiences a vague longing for something but cannot determine what. Mr. Ramsay appears fully immersed in his reading and does not want to be disturbed, so Mrs. Ramsay takes a seat and starts knitting. She soon realizes that her husband is reading a Sir Walter Scott novel and likely comparing his work to it. She is troubled by his fixation on measuring his literary worth and wonders if his books are good enough to be read in the future.

Sitting in her chair, Mrs. Ramsay ponders her life once more, tempering her unhappiness with her admiration for her husband’s efforts during dinner. She drifts off into a daydream and, while half-asleep, feels as though she is moving between the branches of her mind, slipping from thought to thought with ease. Occasionally, she and Mr. Ramsay glance up at each other, but they remain lost in their individual reveries. Reading the novel, Mr. Ramsay feels inspired and overwhelmed by the writing, which he finds powerful and straightforward and which has moved him to tears. Mr. Ramsay hides his face in the book, thinking that he will reread it shortly. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches sight of his wife and thinks that there is more to life than love and intimacy.

In a dreamlike sequence, Mrs. Ramsay sees herself climbing a tree, picking flowers as she goes. As she stumbles...

(This entire section contains 1019 words.)

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upon a simple sonnet that praises the natural beauty of a rose without needing to embellish it with fancy language, she feels that it has brought order to the chaos of her day. It has encapsulated the essence of life, creating a beautiful, clear, and complete shape. Her husband notices her and smiles, teasing her for dozing off. Although Mr. Ramsay is pleased to see her looking content, he assumes she does not understand the sonnet, as he prefers to think of her as uneducated and not particularly clever. While condescending her intellect to himself, he adds that he still finds her stunningly beautiful.

Mrs. Ramsay considers the last time she and her husband have spent time alone together but can only conjure a series of disconnected images: getting dressed for dinner, watching the moon, and listening to William say something that upset her husband. She attempts to reach out to Mr. Ramsay, telling him about Paul and Minta’s engagement, but he ignores her, preoccupied with his thoughts. Trying again, she hopes that he will engage with her, but he again dismisses her. His silence frustrates Mrs. Ramsay, and she senses her unhappiness once again approaches. When he finally engages, it is to reproach her for not completing her most recent knitting project yet, and she realizes that she was waiting for his disapproval, as it means that he at least sees her. She senses that her husband, despite his distance and disapproval, wants her to express love for him, but she finds it difficult to do so. 

Mrs. Ramsay rises from her seat and goes to the window to gaze at the sea. She is aware of her beauty and feels confident that her husband is admiring her. Mr. Ramsay wishes that she would express her love for him but knows that she finds it difficult to do so. She turns to look at him with a smile, knowing that despite her silence, he understands that she loves him. She looks back out the window and thinks that nothing in the world can compare to the joy she feels at that moment. Looking outside, Mrs. Ramsay finally agrees that the weather will be rainy tomorrow, so they will not be able to go to the lighthouse. Her agreement is the closest thing to a confession of love that Mr. Ramsay can expect, and he smiles softly at her words, seeing her subtle acquiescence to his pride and desires as a victory.

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