Imagining Mr. Ramsay on the boat, Lily thinks back to how she’d always found things with him “difficult,” unlike Minta, who had won him over by flirting. Lily wants to ask Mr. Carmichael (napping or day-dreaming a ways off from her on the lawn) if he remembers. As she stands painting, she also stands within her memory of Mrs. Ramsay on the beach. Lily’s mind vacillates between the canvas (whose surface is “feathery and evanescent” even as its underside is “clamped…with bolts of iron”) and her memory of sitting in silence beside Mrs. Ramsay looking at the sea. As Lily, “dipped into the blue paint, she dipped too into the past there.”
Lily has never been able to act out the stereotypical behaviors of womanhood as Minta could. In vacillating between her memories and her present view of her canvas, Lily’s reflections blur the distinctions between time and art. Thus, Lily dips her brush “into the past.” Thus the description of her canvas—which appears evanescent on the surface but in fact is held tight by iron bolts—could be a description of time as well: seemingly insubstantial and evanescent but at the same time unwavering and all-powerful.
Lily thinks back on Paul and Minta and imagines a series of scenes from their failed marriage. She reflects how making up scenes about people is “what we call ‘knowing’” them. She had built the scenes entirely out of a tiny detail about playing chess in coffee houses that Paul had once let slip. Lily remembers how strained relations had seemed between them when she visited once and then, last year, how she’d seen in the way that Minta handed Paul tools to fix the car that things had resolved. Paul, Minta had told Lily, had taken a mistress and she and Paul were now great friends.
Paul and Minta’s marriage does not fit the conventional ideal of a man and woman’s marriage, and yet it still ends up working out. Lily’s imagined scenes of Paul and Minta’s marriage are like mental paintings composed, as a painting is, from a snippet of the “real” world that is then transformed at the artist’s hand. This sort of interior painting of others’ lives is, Lily suggests, the closest one can get to other people’s private experiences.
Lily imagines triumphantly recounting the reality of Paul and Minta’s failed marriage and her own unmarried life to Mrs. Ramsay, who had been such an eager matchmaker. She wants to tell Mrs. Ramsay that they’re all happy even as everything has turned out unlike Mrs. Ramsay wished it. But then she thinks how in fact one pities, dismisses, even holds contempt for the dead and how Mrs. Ramsay “recedes further and further,” a distant figure absurdly advocating marriage.
Lily, who once felt so threatened by Mrs. Ramsay’s ideas about gender and life’s meaning, is now confident enough to contest those ideas to Mrs. Ramsay’s face. But, because Mrs. Ramsay’s death has exiled her from the present moment, Lily can’t summon combativeness against her. Lily just feels sorry for Mrs. Ramsay, whose life recedes as time hurtles forwards.
Lily remembers how Mrs. Ramsay had planned to set her up with Mr. Bankes. Inside parentheses, Lily remembers feeling the heat of love emanating from Paul at the long-ago dinner table, and how that glimpse of love’s “roar and…crackle” still defines the phrase ‘in love’ in Lily’s mind. Close parentheses. Lily thinks back to the liberating realization that she need not marry. Feeling, now, that she can finally stand up to Mrs. Ramsay, she realizes “the astonishing power” Mrs. Ramsay had had over her. Lily recalls the pleasure of her long friendship with Mr. Bankes.
Like Paul and Minta’s marriage, Lily’s adulthood did not end up matching up to Mrs. Ramsay’s idea of a meaningful life but it has been meaningful all the same. Lily’s vivid memories of Paul’s love and of Mrs. Ramsay’s intensity demonstrate the power of memory to withstand the passage of time and affect the future.
Thinking back to Mr. Bankes’ great admiration for Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty, Lily considers beauty’s “penalty” which is that “it came too readily…too completely.” Beauty “stilled life—froze it.” Smoothed over by beauty, it was easy to forget the quivering distinctions constantly changing a living thing. She tries to remember Mrs. Ramsay’s particular look as she “clapped her deer-stalker’s hat on…ran across the grass.”
At other points in the novel, beauty has been identified as a timeless quality (indeed, Mr. Bankes thinks of Mrs. Ramsay’s face as classical) but Lily recognizes that that timelessness can also be dangerous. It can obliterate the changing, fleeting particularities that make up lived experience.
Seeing Mr. Carmichael, Lily is suddenly moved to go and wake him except she wants to say so much that she would have no clear thing to say. She feels that Mrs. Ramsay has gone from being a harmless ghost to being something that “wrung the heart.” Lily feels “the whole world…dissolved…into a pool of thought.” She imagines that, if she asked Mr. Carmichael to “explain it all,” he would tell her that everyone and everything is ephemeral. She thinks, though, that words and paint last for, even if her painting itself is forgotten, she could venture to say that “what it attempted” lasted forever.
As she dwells in memory, Lily’s memories start to seem more and more powerful, invigorating the remembered image of Mrs. Ramsay and dissolving the present world. Yet dwelling in the past also heightens Lily’s awareness of the relentless passage of time. Lily sees that the immortal aspect of art is not the finished artwork itself but the ambition of the artwork, the vision that inspires it.
Turning to look at her painting, Lily realizes she cannot see clearly through the tears that have risen to her eyes. She wonders what precisely she is weeping for. She silently asks of Mr. Carmichael, “Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life?—startling, unexpected, unknown?” She feels somehow that if she and he were both right now to demand explanation for life’s brevity and cruelty, “beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape” and Mrs. Ramsay would return. She calls Mrs. Ramsay’s name aloud, crying.
Lily’s interior reflections have expressed themselves externally in her tears without her being aware of it. Lily’s question suggests that there is no one meaning of life, so that no matter how experienced or wise one grows, life remains a mystery. At the same time, she longs for that mystery to be unraveled. She imagines that, if beauty’s falseness could be overcome, there might somehow be a chance of solving that mystery and restoring the past to the present.