The novel opens in a summerhouse on the Isle of Skye with Mrs. Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay, their little son James (who is cutting pictures from a magazine), and Mr. Ramsey’s student Charles Tansley. The first words of the text are Mrs. Ramsey’s reply to a question James has apparently asked about going to the Lighthouse the next day. She assures him he’ll get to go as long as the weather is fine and James’ heart soars with a joy quickly dashed by Mr. Ramsey’s insistence that the weather will certainly be poor. James internally despairs for, though he thinks his mother “ten thousand times better in every way,” what his father says “was always true.” He could stab his father in the heart, he is so angry. Tansley points out the wind’s unfavorable direction.
Forgoing the traditional, formal introduction characteristic of the Victorian novel, Woolf opens her novel mid-thought, starting right in the middle of a conversation. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s opposite answers to James’ question position them as opposing forces embodying conventional gender roles: Mrs. Ramsay is nurturing and chooses her words to comfort the listener, while Mr. Ramsay speaks “the truth” without regard for the listener’s feelings. Thus while James prefers his mother’s company, he believes his father is a better judge of reality.
Mrs. Ramsay thinks how “odious” Charles Tansley is, but also how she chastises her children for teasing him and protects him against their mockery. She goes on to reflect that she is protective of all men “for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour” and for their “trustful, childlike, reverential” demeanor around her. She has, despite difficulties, no regrets about the conventional domestic life she’s lived. It is only when Mrs. Ramsay is silent that her daughters (Prue, Nancy, and Rose) are able to entertain ambitions of “a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other.” When their mother is speaking, Mrs. Ramsay’s “strange severity, her extreme courtesy” brings out “the manliness in their girlish hearts” and makes them “honor her.”
Mrs. Ramsay’s interior thought reinforces her conventional attitude towards gender: she embraces her role as caretaker of all men, even when some men (such as Mr. Tansley) act disagreeably. The role defines her life and gives it meaning. Mrs. Ramsay is so proud and comfortable inhabiting it that even her daughters—who want to shake off such conventional gender obligations in their own lives—can’t help but admire their mother’s graceful demonstration of womanhood.
Mrs. Ramsay reflects on Tansley’s self-absorption, which is what makes the children hate him. She remembers having invited him to run errands in town with her and James after discovering him one day deserted by everyone else. She had reflected then on how petty her children were and thought about “real differences,” the “problem of rich and poor” whose evidence she witnessed helping out families around London “in the hope that thus she would cease to be a private woman” just acting charitable to appease herself or sate curiosity, and would instead become “an investigator” of the social problem.
While her children find the most meaningful differences between people based on their personalities, Mrs. Ramsay finds the most meaningful differences between people based on their social stations. Even while Mrs. Ramsay feels content with being a female homemaker and caregiver, her hope reveals a secret longing to extend beyond the domestic “private” sphere and make a difference in the public world.
On their way off to town, Mrs. Ramsay asked the stoned Mr. Carmichael if he wanted anything, then flattered Tansley during the walk by confiding in him about Carmichael’s failed marriage and intimating the superiority of the male mind and the rightful “subjection” of wives to their husbands. Tansley felt self-satisfied and tried to carry Mrs. Ramsay’s purse for her, an offer she firmly refused.
Mrs. Ramsay invigorates Mr. Tansley by focusing on the superiority of his gender: he is a man in a society where men are always superior to women. Exuberant, Mr. Tansley wants to further emphasize this role by acting chivalrous. Yet even though Mrs. Ramsay dotes on men, she is no damsel in distress and can carry her bag on her own.
Mrs. Ramsay exclaimed at a circus tent and Tansley awkwardly confided to her that he had never been to a circus, having been born poor and financially independent since thirteen. He has always had the cheapest of everything and couldn't “return hospitality” in school. He rambled on about his future hopes for professional success in academia and Mrs. Ramsay, despite feeling sorry for him, thought him a “prig.”
For Mr. Tansley, life is all about serious, intellectual achievements, a perspective on life that Mrs. Ramsay does not share and finds tedious. Again, Mrs. Ramsay is able to inwardly balance two contradictory emotions for Mr. Tansley at the same time.
Passing the quay where a bunch of artists are gathered painting, Mrs. Ramsay marveled at the beauty of the view then reflected that “since Mr. Paunceforte had been there, three years before” everyone was painting with gauzy pastel shades. She remembered and remarked to Tansley how her grandmother’s friends painstakingly mixed their own paints and Tansley was unsure if “she meant him to see that” the painting being done before them is “skimpy.”
The scene juxtaposes two forms of beauty: the natural beauty of the bay and the manmade beauty of the paintings. The former stays constant through time while the latter changes according to passing fashions. Because Mr. Tansley defines his own life through intellectual critique, he assumes Mrs. Ramsay must be making a criticism.
Waiting downstairs as Mrs. Ramsay visited one of the houses in town, Tansley realized “she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen,” despite being over fifty and a mother of eight. On her way out, Tansley insisted on taking her bag for the walk back to the summerhouse. He swelled with pride.
Mr. Tansley is compelled by Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty despite being unable to explain the attraction rationally. Carrying Mrs. Ramsay’s bag, Mr. Tansley proudly demonstrates a traditionally chivalrous male role.