On the lawn looking at the sea, Lily thinks about how one’s impression of and feelings about people depend so much on distance. In the quiet, she feels “the unreality” of the early morning and thinks that “it was a way things had sometimes…they became unreal,” as when one returned from a trip or emerged from sickness, and, seeming unreal, also seemed most startling, most alive. And one was most free, then, liberated from social convention, habit, small talk.
Lily’s reflections recognize that “distance” can mean either extended physical space or extended time. Either form of distance, though, can alter one’s perceptions of other people and refresh the familiar objects of the world until they seem vividly strange, freed from worn-out habits and conventions.
Dissatisfied with her painting, Lily feels that she keeps losing track of it when she thinks of Mr. Ramsay. She thinks of beauty when what she wants to express is fresher, “the thing itself before it has been made anything.” She feels how inadequate is “the human apparatus for painting or for feeling.”
As a painter, Lily does not aspire to capture an immortal stilled image of beauty. Instead, she wants to express fleeting, changeable life in real time.
Sitting down on the lawn, Lily feels that “everything this morning was happening for the first time, perhaps for the last time,” and compares her experience of it to a train rider seeing scenery pass along a route he will never ride again.
Lily’s reflections have made her acutely aware of the irretrievability of time’s passage: how each moment happens only once and can never be returned to.
Seeing Mr. Carmichael, Lily wonders about his sorrow, his experience, his poetry, which she has never read. They only share the experience of staying in a house and making small talk. Still, she thinks that it is “one way of knowing people…the outline, not the detail.” She recalls how he had never liked Mrs. Ramsay.
Mr. Carmichael inspires Lily to reflect, again, on what it means to “know” a person. Even without any access to that person’s interior life, one can still see the exterior shape of that life, an outline full of meaning.
Lily thinks back on Mrs. Ramsay, on her idiosyncrasies and unique character. She thinks how Mrs. Ramsay differed both from herself and Mr. Carmichael in having an “instinct to go” and always running off on an errand, a good deed, an activity. Whereas Lily and Mr. Carmichael both privilege thought over action, and Mrs. Ramsay’s activeness could thus seem “a reproach.”
As artists whose mediums are paint and language, Lily and Mr. Carmichael glean the most meaning from life through interior reflection. Yet Mrs. Ramsay, who made art out of lived experience itself, gleaned meaning through action in the exterior world.
Lily thinks of Mr. Tansley, who had become a professor and whom she’d once heard give a lecture during the war on “brotherly love” that struck her as ironic considering his own unlovable character. Still, she knows her own impression of Tansley is “grotesque” since so many of one’s ideas about other people are self-serving, “whipping-boys.”
Though Mr. Tansley’s lecture on love indeed seems out of character with his meanness in Chapter 1, Lily wisely acknowledges that any onlooker’s impression of Mr. Tansley is incomplete and may say more about the onlooker than about the man himself.
Lily stirs her brush among the ants on the lawn and distresses them by making them a small mountain to climb.
As Lily earlier dipped her brush into “the past,” here she dips it into the present and the material world.
Lily thinks how one would need more than fifty pairs of eyes to see one woman because, in order to see her fully, one would have to see her in her every aspect and from every perspective.
Lily considers Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s marriage and feels like she can remember their courtship, which she never witnessed. She does not invent it, but rather feels that amidst the Ramsays “in the rough and tumble of daily life” there was “constantly a sense of repetition” which set up confluences and echoes. Still, Lily reminds herself not to romanticize their marriage, remembering the glimpses she’d gotten of their arguments and hard-won resolutions. But then they’d emerge from the difficulty and would be restored to “be as usual.”
Lily’s memory suggests that the shape of the past survives into the present and its contours are traced again and again in ongoing repetition. Thus, Lily feels she recalls something she never saw. Though Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay once seemed to Lily to be the symbol of marriage itself, Lily reminds herself not to forget that they were also real people with ordinary marital difficulties.
Sitting still on the lawn, Lily appears to be in a trance even as she is “moving underneath with extreme speed.” Somebody in the house sits down at the window where Mrs. Ramsay had once sat and Lily thinks, painting again, that the goal is to feel that the objects of the world are completely ordinary and completely miraculous at the same time.
Even when Lily’s body is still she is being propelled forward by time. Lily is given another chance to compose the painting she started ten years ago, now with the knowledge that painting should embrace life’s meanings and mysteries simultaneously.
The windowpane goes white as if a breeze had blown a curtain over it and Lily feels thrown into despair. But the despair, then, “became part of ordinary experience” and Lily feels that Mrs. Ramsay sits knitting in the chair. Lily goes to the edge of the lawn still holding her brush to look out at the sea for Mr. Ramsay.
Time, whose relentless passage has caused Lily so much anguish, now comforts her by giving her a remembered image of Mrs. Ramsay. As Lily has dipped her brush in the past and the present, she now brings it to the sea, the symbol of nature’s chaos and uncaring apathy towards human life.