Sitting down at the head of the dinner table, Mrs. Ramsay is suddenly overcome with fatigue and hopelessness. “But what have I done with my life?” she thinks, while orchestrating the seating arrangements and beginning to serve soup. Seeing Mr. Ramsay frowning at the other end of the table, she can’t believe she’d ever loved him. She feels her life is over, she’s “past everything.” She resents the “sterility of men” who leave all “the effort of merging and flowing and creating” of the dinner table to her. But, shaking herself, she begins the work of it since there is only her to do it. She asks Mr. Bankes if he’s gotten his letters in the hall.
Mrs. Ramsay’s sudden mood swing demonstrates the mercurial nature of interior life: she was relatively happy just moments ago; there has been no obvious incident that might throw her into despair. She feels time has passed her by. Mrs. Ramsay’s usual indulgence of and admiration for men is shattered by her despair. Suddenly, she sees them as oppressive, needy drains on her own energy.
Watching Mrs. Ramsay, Lily notes that, asking Mr. Bankes about the letters, Mrs. Ramsay goes from looking old and remote to looking bright again. She is amused thinking she perceives pity for Mr. Bankes in Mrs. Ramsay’s question. Lily thinks Mr. Bankes isn’t pitiable, since he has his work. Thinking with sudden joy of her own work, Lily places a saltshaker on the table to remind her to move the tree in her painting. She resents Mr. Tansley sitting smack in the view in front of her and eating with “bare unloveliness.” Still, she notes that “it was almost impossible to dislike anyone if one looked at them” and observes that she likes his blue eyes.
Observant Lily can detect Mrs. Ramsay’s interior state through her facial expressions. Mrs. Ramsay likely pities Mr. Bankes because he is unmarried and, for Mrs. Ramsay, the meaning of life lies in marriage and family. But for Lily, who believes the meaning of life lies in one’s own work, there is nothing pitiable about Mr. Bankes. Lily’s painting brightens her spirits in the way that Mrs. Ramsay’s family brightens Mrs. Ramsay’s. The beauty of Mr. Tansley’s eyes warms Lily’s attitude towards him.
Mr. Tansley resents Mrs. Ramsay’s yoking him into small talk about letters and resolves “not…to be condescended to by these silly women.” He finds the whole ritual of dinner absurd and useless and thinks women are an impediment to “civilization.” He “asserts himself” by remarking that they won’t be able to go to the Lighthouse the next day. Lily, repulsed by his charmlessness, mockingly asks Tansley to take her to the Lighthouse. Tansley, infuriated at being teased and at being the shabby object of everyone’s loathing, snaps back at her rudely that the journey would make her sick. Immediately he regrets speaking crassly in front of Mrs. Ramsay. He feels that even though he has long supported himself, helps out at home, pays for his sister’s education, still all anyone pays attention to is his being “a dry prig.”
Mr. Tansley believes that the meaning of life lies in work and intellectual achievement, and he therefore can’t see the value of social interaction and domestic ritual. Because he can find no value in these conventionally “female” activities, he writes off the whole female gender as a worthless impediment to male progress. Still, even as he inwardly disdains the event and looks down on his companions, Mr. Tansley’s sensitivity and anxiety about his own behavior at the table suggest that he actually takes the dinner ritual more seriously than he claims to.
Mrs. Ramsay is meanwhile asking Mr. Bankes all about the Manning family from whom he’s received a letter and whom she used to know. She recounts her own memories and is delighted by all the details Mr. Bankes offers, somewhat puzzling Mr. Bankes. When Mr. Bankes asks whether he should send along her love in his reply, she quickly insists not as she and the Mannings have grown apart. Mrs. Ramsay thinks how strange that she has not thought of the Mannings all these years and that they may have not thought of her either. Mr. Bankes feels glad that he has stayed close to the Mannings and the Ramsays.
Mrs. Ramsay feeling of intimacy with the Mannings is based on time spent together far in the past. She feels close to them as she recounts her memories but knows that this intimacy does not change the fact of their distance in the present. Having to acknowledge this fact to Mr. Bankes leads Mrs. Ramsay to the uncomfortable realization that she herself may be just as distant a thought from the Mannings’ perspective.
Mrs. Ramsay has to turn away for a moment to consult with a servant and, left hanging, Mr. Bankes is filled with regret at coming to dinner, which he only did in the first place to please his old friend Mrs. Ramsay (he usually eats in his lodgings). But, looking at her, he does not think the waste of time was worthwhile because here, isolated from his work, he is left to wonder sadly “what does one live for? Why…does one take all these pains for the human race to go on,” “questions one never asked if one was occupied.” Though when Mrs. Ramsay returns her attention to him and apologizes politely, Mr. Bankes politely protests there is no need for apology.
Mr. Bankes arranges his time so that he is always occupied in order to avoid the wandering thoughts that creep into his mind when he’s left with nothing to do. Stuck at the dinner table with no activity to distract him, Mr. Bankes’ starts to question the meaning of life itself. Still, his sense of social etiquette prevents Mr. Bankes from acknowledging any of these interior feelings aloud when Mrs. Ramsay returns.
Overhearing Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes’ expressions of etiquette, Mr. Tansley, having never spoken “this language” of etiquette, recognizes its insincerity and prepares to use it as future ammunition against the Ramsays. He can tell his few friends how tedious he found his stay at the summerhouse, how nonsensical their conversation. Still, at the moment, he flails, furiously trying to break into conversations around him to no avail. Lily notices “as in an X-ray…the ribs and thigh bones of the young man’s desire to impress himself” but, remembering his sexist assertions about women not being able to paint or write, resolves not to offer him an opportunity to do so even though she knows it is part of “a code of behavior” that women must help young men assert themselves, as young men must help women in times of physical danger.
Mr. Tansley, who only knows how to perceive meaning in intellectual achievement, cannot see that the value of etiquette’s white lies rests in their ability to protect people’s feelings. Mr. Tansley does not articulate his internal distress but Lily can see right through his external appearance, as if he were being x-rayed. She is torn between the conventional expectations of her gender—which demand that she strike up small talk with Mr. Tansley—and her own expectations for herself—which want to spurn Mr. Tansley to pay him back for spurning her painting.
Yet, seeing within Mrs. Ramsay’s quick glance an immense desperation imploring Lily to help her with Mr. Tansley, Lily once again must “renounce the experiment” of not being nice to young men and be nice to Mr. Tansley. Asking him earnestly if he will take her sailing, Lily immediately puts Mr. Tansley at his ease and he prattles on about his sea prowess while she thinks how the cost of Mrs. Ramsay’s ease has been her own sincerity.
As usual, Lily finds herself constrained by her social circumstances and is forced to submit to the very gender expectations she so wants to resist. Mr. Tansley feels uplifted by the chance to brag about his skills, which he claims are powerful enough to handle the sea—the untamed unknown—itself.
Disappointed to find Mr. Bankes has lost interest in discussing the Mannings, Mrs. Ramsay feels “something lacking.” Overcome by “the disagreeableness of life,” Mr. Bankes feels likewise. They turn to listen to the others discuss the fishing industry. Everyone listening feels, “’The others are feeling [genuinely impassioned about the fishing industry]. Whereas, I feel nothing at all.” Watching Mr. Tansley lambasting the government, Mr. Bankes hears in Mr. Tansley’s voice a disdain for his own generation and jealously starts arguing with Mr. Tansley about politics.
As being stranded at the dinner table caused Mr. Bankes to question the meaning of life itself, so too does the awkward lull in Mr. Bankes and Mrs. Ramsay’s conversation fill them both with a profound despair. The text demonstrates the isolation the can result from misinterpreting the interior states of others: though everyone listening feels numb, each person feels unique and alone in his/her numbness.
Mrs. Ramsay hopes Mr. Ramsay will say something characteristically wise and make the subject of the fishing industry something one can actually care about, as his words make any topic worthwhile. But, looking down the table, she sees Mr. Ramsay is contorted with disgust, infuriated that Mr. Carmichael has ordered seconds on the soup. “He loathed people eating when he had finished.” Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay send “questions and answers” in their eyes, each understanding the other perfectly. Mr. Ramsay hates people “wallowing” in meals, but wants Mrs. Ramsay to note he has nevertheless “controlled himself” from an outburst. Mrs. Ramsay protests that he in fact shows his emotion “so plainly” on his face, where everyone can see. Why can’t he hide his feelings? she wonders.
Mr. Ramsay, who believes that domestic rituals like this dinner are meaningless tedium, is infuriated that Mr. Carmichael is prolonging the event. After many years of marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are able to communicate their inward feelings without having to use words. Mrs. Ramsay, who is so adroit at concealing her emotions, is once again frustrated by Mr. Ramsay’s inability to conceal his.
Mrs. Ramsay gets up to light the candles, pitying Mr. Carmichael for having to suffer Mr. Ramsay’s visible disgust and thinking how she respects his composure and dignity. Knowing he does not like her only contributes to her respect for him.
Mrs. Ramsay admires in Mr. Carmichael the very qualities her own husband lacks: a calm composure and prevailing dignity.
Mrs. Ramsay admires Rose’s arrangement of the fruit bowl, which looks to her like “a trophy” from the sea floor, “Neptune’s banquet,” a whole world to explore. She notices Mr. Carmichael, too, admiring it, as “his eyes…plunged in…and returned, after feasting, to his hive.” She feels she and he united by looking.
Rose’s aesthetic sense has elevated the fruit bowl to a piece of art. Mrs. Ramsay’s metaphor is an apt one for art: like a trophy extracted from the chaotic sea, art can be seen as a beautiful form extracted from the chaos of life.
Mrs. Ramsay lights the candles and the light turns the indoors into stable, orderly ground and the outside into a watery space “in which things wavered and vanished.” “As if this had really happened,” everyone becomes “conscious of making a party together…on an island,” united against “that fluidity out there.”
The dinner companions feel themselves unified into an oasis of human meaning amidst the chaotic changeability of the literal and symbolic sea outside.
Paul and Minta enter as the main course is being brought in, apologizing for being late, and Minta can feel right away that she has that intermittent glow that she knows she has or doesn’t based on how “some man looked at her.” She can tell she has it from how Mr. Ramsay jokes with her. She had once been terrified of him but, finding that he enjoyed teasing her, made friends by acting “even more ignorant than she was.” Mrs. Ramsay knows all about her husband’s affection for Minta and all voluptuous tomboys like her. She feels not jealous but grateful to those girls for “laughing at [Mr. Ramsay]…till he seemed a young man,” “attractive” and unburdened. For her part, “she liked her boobies” and has saved a place for Paul next to her.
Minta’s gold glow unites the themes of beauty and gender: it is a kind of beauty that Minta can only perceive in the reflection of a man’s gaze upon her. Minta finds it more pleasant to submit to Mr. Ramsay’s conventional stereotypes about “silly” women than to assert her intelligence. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay both exercise a casual interest in attractive, seemingly foolish young members of the opposite sex. The company of these young people allows them to feel young again too.
As he starts to explain the cause for their delay, Mrs. Ramsay can tell just from Paul’s using the word ‘we’ that he and Minta are engaged. Serving out the beef (which has been made specially for the occasion of Mr. Bankes consenting to dine with them), Mrs. Ramsay feels the special dish is also in tribute to their engagement, an event summoning “two emotions, one profound”—for marriage is a serious thing, “bearing in its bosom the seeds of death—and one lighthearted, wanting to dance mockingly around “these people entering into illusion glittering-eyed.”
A perceptive reader of human behavior, Mrs. Ramsay can hear the inner significance lingering within Paul’s speech. For Mrs. Ramsay, marriage is an integral part of life’s meaning, yet she understands that this meaning is at once tragic and comic: marriage is tragic because husband and wife will eventually have to die, and comic because of the human ability to frolic and rejoice even in the face of certain mortality.
Mr. Bankes finds the beef delicious and praises Mrs. Ramsay, feeling, once again, that she is remarkable, wonderful, an object of “reverence.” Mrs. Ramsay is pleased and energized by the admiration she hears restored to Mr. Bankes’ opinion of her. She talks about English cooking and vegetables.
Here the exterior world brightens the interior world as the delicious taste of beef transforms Mr. Bankes’ inward despair to happiness and appreciation for Mrs. Ramsay.
As Mrs. Ramsay talks, Lily observes how she is at once “childlike” and “frightening,” how she always gets her way, as Mr. Bankes is having dinner with them and Paul and Minta must be engaged. She thinks Mrs. Ramsay puts “a spell” on people just by the force of her desires. She contrasts Mrs. Ramsay’s “abundance with her own poverty of spirit,” and thinks how Mrs. Ramsay “worshipped” love, the “strange…terrifying thing” with which Paul silently glows. Lily contrasts herself with Paul: “he, burning…bound for adventure; she, aloof…moored to the shore.” She asks about the brooch and hearing Paul is secretly planning to find it first thing the next morning, asks to go with him. Paul chuckles in reply and Lily hears in that sound a profound indifference to her. She feels “scorched” by “the heat of love, its horror, its cruelty, its unscrupulosity.”
As usual, Lily is not as confident in her own value system as Mrs. Ramsay is in hers. Though, earlier on in the dinner, Lily has taken great joy and comfort in her painting, she now feels small and insignificant compared to Mrs. Ramsay’s sparkling charisma and grows curious about love, the thing Mrs. Ramsay values above all else. Yet, through Paul, Lily feels the exclusivity of romantic love (as opposed to the generous, publicly shared love for art): Paul’s love is only for Minta, and Lily can take no part in it. Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty seems to compel those around her into voluntarily obeying her wishes.
Seeing the saltshaker reminds her about her painting, and Lily consoles herself that she doesn’t have to get married, and can be spared “that dilution.” She reflects on “the complexity of things”: she feels contradictory. She simultaneously admires love for its grandness, its beauty, its eternal desirability and disdains it for its dumb barbarism.
By seeing marriage as a “dilution,” Lily expresses her own belief that the meaning of life lies in one’s work. Indeed, a marriage—which distracts one from one’s work—could from this perspective be considered a dilution. Still, Lily admires the idea of love.
Mrs. Ramsay, talking about milk in England, sees Lily’s distance (as Lily thinks about love) and draws Lily into the conversation. Talking on, she observes that Lily and Mr. Tansley “suffered from the glow of [Paul and Minta].” Yet despite Lily’s meagerness and pursed appearance, Mrs. Ramsay admires in her a spark no man will see—unless the man is much older. She thinks again that Mr. Bankes and Lily should marry and plans to get them on a walk together.
From Mrs. Ramsay’s perspective, the homely Lily and unattractive Mr. Tansley are overshadowed by Paul’s handsomeness and Minta’s glow. Still, Mrs. Ramsay perceives an appealing quality in Lily (likely the independence Mrs. Ramsay admired earlier), though she doubts that appeal would be visible to most men.
Mrs. Ramsay feels suddenly that everything is, “for no special reason,” right and good in the moment, a feeling that “partook…of eternity” and shows “a coherence, a stability,” and something unalterable that “shines out” against “the flowing, the fleeting.” It gives a sense of “peace.” She thinks that it is out “[o]f such moments” that “the thing is made that remains for ever after.” She feels it’s the stillness “about the heart of things.”
As the men argue about literature and Mr. Tansley aggressively flaunts his opinion to assert himself, Mrs. Ramsay feels her eyes effortlessly unveil the speakers, like light moving underwater so that the fish are illuminated suspended and quivering. As she sees and hears those around her, their speech is “like the movement of a trout when” the whole element in which he hangs in is visible. “[T]he whole is held together.” Though she would, “in active life…be netting and separating one thing from another,” she is now silent, “suspended.”
Though water is often used in the novel as a metaphor for the chaos of the natural world and its total lack of care about human life (as in the symbol of the sea), here it is used as a metaphor for consciousness: Mrs. Ramsay perceives her exterior circumstances from the passive vantage point of interior reflection. From this perspective, the conversation seems an element in itself, a kind of water in which the dinner guests float, and her attention is a ray of light that illuminates each guest she looks at.
As the men argue about literature’s endurance and legacy, Mrs. Ramsay can see that, while Mr. Bankes is unperturbed in his “integrity,” Mr. Ramsay is starting to grow agitated, inwardly worrying about the endurance of his own work. The whole table feels tense “without knowing why.” Minta rescues the mood by foolishly brushing off Shakespeare, which gives Mr. Ramsay an opportunity to laugh at her. Mrs. Ramsay is grateful Minta is there to take care of her husband’s need for praise but wonders if that need is her own fault.
Though Mr. Ramsay is confident that work is the most important thing in life, he is not confident about the value of his own work and is, as usual, thrown into self-doubt when reminded of his own unstable legacy. Minta restores Mr. Ramsay’s confidence by playing a fool whom he can safely feel smarter than. Ever protective of men, Mrs. Ramsay is tempted to blame Mr. Ramsay’s neediness on herself.
When offered a piece of fruit, Mrs. Ramsay declines it and realizes she has been unconsciously guarding the beautifully composed fruit bowl, hoping nobody would take a piece to disturb the composition. But someone just had. Mrs. Ramsay looks sympathetically at Rose.
Mrs. Ramsay has unconsciously elevated the fruit bowl to the status of art object and sympathizes with Rose, the artist, when it is dismantled.
Mrs. Ramsay looks at all of her children and, seeing they are titillated by some mysterious joke, feels a little sad for not knowing what they are thinking. Their faces look “mask-like,” and they seem like “watchers” elevated above the adults. Though Mrs. Ramsay notes that Prue, who has been looking with interest at Minta all night, is beginning to “descend” into the adult world. Mrs. Ramsay inwardly assures Prue that she will have love’s happiness, too, that she will be happier than Minta “because you are my daughter,” because “her own daughter must be happier than other people’s daughters.”
Though she is usually a perceptive reader of other people’s inward thoughts, Mrs. Ramsay confronts the impenetrability of others people’s interior lives in the faces of her children. As children, they are still removed from adult life and are thus, perhaps, less knowable than adults. Prue, who is on the verge of entering adulthood, is, by contrast, much more readable to her mother.
Dinner is done and Mrs. Ramsay swells with affection for everyone, even Mr. Tansley. She hears everyone’s voices “as at a service in a cathedral,” not listening to the words. She hears laughter, then speech, then Mr. Ramsay saying something she knows is poetry by rhythm and tone “of exaltation and melancholy” in his voice.” (The poem is “Luriana Lurilee.”) She thinks the words sound like flowers floating on the water outside the window. Though she doesn’t know the meaning of the words, but feels she speaks them, articulating what she had been thinking all night. She knows everyone else must be feeling the same way. Mr. Ramsay bows to her at the last line of the poem and she feels him more affectionate than ever and is filled with “relief and gratitude,” returning the bow as she walks through the door he’s holding for her.
The metaphor of the cathedral reiterates that the seemingly quotidian event of dinner has been elevated into the grand realm of immortality and art. Even though Mrs. Ramsay does not grasp the meanings of the poem’s specific words, she feels the resonance of the poem as a whole and finds that resonance to be a meaningful echo of her own mind, of every human mind around her. These words of the poem are compared to flowers (discrete moments of beauty) afloat on the tumultuous sea of chaos outdoors. The beauty of the poem makes the Ramsays feel the beauty of their own marriage more acutely.
Mrs. Ramsay waits for a moment on the threshold “in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked.” Then, she exits and, even looking back over her shoulder, knows it is changed, “had become…already the past.”
Even if a part of the evening partakes of eternity like a piece of art, the evening itself must flow past as all time does.