Relieved to be alone, Lily confronts her canvas thinking how different the “planning airily away from the canvas” is from “actually…making the first mark.” She is unsure where to begin but once she begins, attains a rhythmic motion. She thinks how, painting, she is “drawn out…of living, out of community with people.” She asks herself why she does it, especially since her painting will surely be hung in a servant’s room or forgotten or packed away. She hears “some voice saying…can’t paint, can’t write,” as if repeating speech spoken by a speaker she can no longer remember. She paints “losing consciousness of outer things,” discarding her name and outward appearance and surroundings.
Lily believes that the meaning of life is found in work, in art, but she is not entirely sure what the nature of that meaning is. As an artwork can transcend its historical moment to participate in eternity, so too is Lily, while making art, lifted out of her particular personality and circumstance. Still, Lily is under no illusion that the art she produces while in such a state is masterful enough to be immortalized. Mr. Tansley’s disembodied words from a decade ago remain floating in Lily’s mind.
Suddenly, Lily remembers it was Mr. Tansley who’d originally said the words she murmured and she starts to reminisce about her stay at the summerhouse ten years before. She recalls skipping stones on the sea with Mr. Tansley while Mrs. Ramsay sat on a beach rock writing letters and, by the power of her soul, making “out of that miserable silliness and spite…something…which survived, after all these years, complete…almost like a work of art.”
The memory of Mr. Tansley’s words functions as a gateway memory into the past of ten years ago. Looking back, Lily recognizes Mrs. Ramsay as an artist whose medium was time and the daily odds and ends of lived experience itself.
Taking a break from painting, Lily thinks as she has often thought, “What is the meaning of life?” She reflects that there has been no “great revelation,” only “little daily miracles.” She compares Mrs. Ramsay’s “making of the moment something permanent” to her own project as a painter. Both bring stability to life’s flow, and find a shape within shapeless chaos.
Lily’s reflection reinforces Mrs. Ramsay’s status as an artist. Because there is no grand, single “meaning” to life but only small, quotidian meanings, Lily aims to do with her paintings just what Mrs. Ramsay did with life: make something stable out of the passing moment.
Lily looks at the house, “faint and unreal…pure and exciting.” She looks at her canvas. She walks to the lawn’s edge to see if she can see Mr. Ramsay, Cam, and James setting sail and imagines that one of the distant boats whose sail is just being hoisted is theirs.
Lily’s reflections have made her see the ordinary house as something mysterious. Lily looks from the imagined potential painting on her canvas to the imagined sight of the Ramsays at sea.