Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1532
Mrs. Ramsay soothes James again. She asks him to stand so that she can measure the stocking she is knitting against his leg. It is for the Lighthouse keeper’s little boy. He fidgets and as she reprimands him, she looks up and notices how shabby the furniture is. Her thoughts race from the frustrations of housekeeping to her own inadequacies. (She never reads.) Things got shabbier and shabbier every summer. She frets over the children’s messes, yet reminds herself that their hobbies are reflections of their giftedness. She agonizes over doors being left open and windows shut. She remembers that Marie, the Swiss maid, does love the fresh air. She thinks of Marie’s father who is dying of cancer. The hopelessness of it overcomes her.
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Her hopelessness is converted to irritation as she speaks sharply to her son. Sadness envelopes her. Her sadness is unfathonable to others. What personal tragedy has she suffered? She never discloses her private feelings.
William Bankes recalls a telephone conversation in which he was overcome by her voice. Her unselfconscious beauty intrigues him. She isn’t interested in admiration; it bores her. Her hasty donning of the odd hat only contributes to her unique style.
Mrs. Ramsay kisses James on the head, smoothing out her earlier irritation. She asks him to find another picture to cut out.
She becomes aware of Mr. Ramsay. She knows by the “familiar signs” that he is unreachable. He nearly collides into Lily and William Bankes; he is re-living Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” (“Someone had blundered....Stormed at by shot and shell...boldly we rode and well...” )
Mr. Ramsay comes out of his trance and his wife feels relieved that domesticity has triumphed. He brushes James’ leg, but James recoils. Mrs. Ramsay comments that she’s trying to finish the stockings to send to the Lighthouse tomorrow. Her husband is infuriated. How can she fly in the face of facts? He stamps his foot and says, “Damn you.”
She feels overwhelmed (“dazed and blinded, pelted as with hail”). How can people pursue truth at the expense of human feeling? However, she says nothing to him. Abashed, he stands in silence and then humbly offers to call the coastguards. Feelings of reverence for him well up in her. He feels ashamed of his wild gestures. His whole mood changes.
Mr. Ramsay, fortified by the picture of his wife and son, returns to his earlier intellectual preoccupations. His image of the process of thought is like that of the keyboard of a piano, or like the alphabet. He feels he has reached the letter Q. Few people in the whole of England reach Q. He struggles in vain to reach R, but something like a shutter, or the eyelid of a lizard, obscures it. It is his fear of failure.
In his despair, he imagines himself as the valiant leader of a doomed expedition. He asks himself who will condemn the brave soldier who has fought valiantly and who now requires sympathy, whiskey, and an audience for his story? He feels justified in his need to stop, to gaze at his wife and son, and to do homage to the beauty of the world.
James is swallowed up in hatred of his father. He hates his egotism, his dramatic posturing, his interruptions; most of all he hates the way he disturbs his relationship with his mother. As
her husband stops in front of her, James feels her tension. Yet, she pulls herself up and energy and life animate her. Mr. Ramsay wants sympathy. He tells her he is a failure. She exudes optimism and confidence in their life and he, reassured, is restored.
As he leaves to watch the children playing cricket, she is overcome with exhaustion. As she continues to read to her son, the waves sound ominous. She can’t bear to feel finer than her husband, or, that others might believe he was dependent on her. She felt the burden of not being able to tell him the truth—that the greenhouse needed repair, that his last book was not his best. Feeling this burden, she gives in to some demon in her and calls out gratuitously to Mr. Carmichael, “Going indoors?”
She falls into a contemplation about Mr. Carmichael. Does the yellow stain on his beard mean he takes opium as the children believe? She knew he was unhappy. She senses he doesn’t trust her. She blames this on the rejection and degradation he suffered under his overbearing wife. As she ponders in this way, she thinks that she never has trouble making people like her. She admits to herself that though her beauty can be a burden, it is nevertheless apparent. She is loved. She feels hurt that Mr. Carmichael shrinks from her. However, does this indicate her vanity? Did this show how flawed all human relations were, how shabby, how self-seeking?
Mr. Ramsay stops again, but does not speak. His plans are punctuated by the familiar path, the hedge, the urns. He ponders the significance of great men. He realizes that his thoughts will end up in his lectures in a month. He imagines himself on a horse, ambling through familiar lanes, in which are embedded historical poems and anecdotes. When he reaches the edge of the lawn and looks at the sea he drops the fantastical stories and posturing. He stands like a desolate sea-bird and the truth, that we know nothing and the sea, eats away the ground we stand on, is revealed to him. It is his ability to face the dark of human ignorance without compromise that inspires devotion in others. They are grateful that he serves as a kind of channel marker. Then, he turns and looks, once again, to his wife. He knows that he’s unable—or unwilling—to forever contemplate these highly dignified themes. He finds consolation in family life, yet cannot own his own feeling, cannot say this is what I like.
Lily, putting away her things, reflects that the posture of the teacher or preacher transcends normal human ability. Perhaps reflecting on Mr. Ramsay’s unusual behavior, she says to herself, “If you are exalted, you must somehow become a cropper.”
Family tensions are more fully revealed in these chapters. We feel the rage James feels toward his father and the deep division of sensibility in husband and wife. We also see Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s deepest worries and fears. Woolf’s highly developed “stream of consciousness” technique peels away layers of thought and feeling.
Mr. Ramsay, as seen by James, is a monster. His intensity disturbs the peace and rhythm he and his mother share. Woolf conveys James’ acute sensitivity; he feels the nuances of his mother’s posture as she responds to his father. The child’s anxiety is conveyed by his body language: “By looking fixedly at the page, he hoped to make him move on; by pointing his finger at a word, he hoped to recall his mother’s attention.”
Mrs. Ramsay worries constantly. She worries about the house, the bills, her husband, her children’s future, her own motives, the remorselessness of disease and death. She is often overcome with exhaustion from her efforts to soothe, to right things, to make people comfortable and happy. Most threatening of all to her is the worry that others feel that her husband is dependent on her. Woolf depicts Mrs. Ramsay as representative of the best of the Victorian woman; this role reversal is unthinkable to her. She needs to feel his superiority.
Mr. Ramsay, too, is preoccupied with worry. Is he a failure? The writer shows us his agitation through his habitual pacing and his fantasies. He throws himself into heroic roles in which he triumphs over great adversities. His wild “gesticulations” and his awkward physical intrusions, paint graphically the self-centered Victorian aristocrat. Though he views the mundane activities around him with the intellectual’s disdain, he also senses that it is there that he finds beauty and comfort.
Woolf acknowledged that her portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay was based on her own parents. Her father, an intellectual, was seen as brusque and demanding by his children. Her mother was admired for her beauty, her social graces, and the depth of her commitment to the sick and needy.
The tension between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay surfaces when she mentions casually that she’s knitting the stocking to take to the Lighthouse. He is enraged. He has already established that it will be impossible to make the journey; the weather is not favorable. His explosive, “Damn, you,” reveals the depth of his anger at her dismissal of the facts. She, on the other hand, is equally enraged at his insensitivity. How can the facts be more important than people’s needs or feelings? It is, however, in the rapidity with which the two completely reverse themselves, that Woolf reveals the strength of their bond. Though they can’t budge on their principles, they move immediately on their deeper emotions. He feels terrible and offers to call the coastguard. She instantly feels only adoration.