Mrs. Ramsay emerges from the novel’s opening pages not only as a woman of great kindness and tolerance but also as a protector. Indeed, her primary goal is to preserve her youngest son James’s sense of hope and wonder surrounding the lighthouse. Though she realizes (as James himself does) that Mr. Ramsay is correct in declaring that foul weather will ruin the next day’s voyage, she persists in assuring James that the trip is a possibility. She does so not to raise expectations that will inevitably be dashed, but rather because she realizes that the beauties and pleasures of this world are ephemeral and should be preserved, protected, and cultivated as much as possible. So deep is this commitment that she behaves similarly to each of her guests, even those who do not deserve or appreciate her kindness. Before heading into town, for example, she insists on asking Augustus Carmichael, whom she senses does not like her, if she can bring him anything to make his stay more comfortable. Similarly, she tolerates the insufferable behavior of Charles Tansley, whose bitter attitude and awkward manners threaten to undo the delicate work she has done toward making a pleasant and inviting home.
As Lily Briscoe notes in the novel’s final section, Mrs. Ramsay feels the need to play this role primarily in the company of men. Indeed, Mrs. Ramsay feels obliged to protect the entire opposite sex. According to her, men shoulder the burden of ruling countries and managing economies. Their important work, she believes, leaves them vulnerable and in need of constant reassurance, a service that women can and should provide. Although this dynamic fits squarely into traditional gender boundaries, it is important to note the strength that Mrs. Ramsay feels. At several points, she is aware of her own power, and her posture is far from that of a submissive woman. At the same time, interjections of domesticated anxiety, such as her refrain of “the bill for the greenhouse would be fifty pounds,” undercut this power.
Ultimately, as is evident from her meeting with Mr. Ramsay at the close of “The Window,” Mrs. Ramsay never compromises herself. Here, she is able—masterfully—to satisfy her husband’s desire for her to tell him she loves him without saying the words she finds so difficult to say. This scene displays Mrs. Ramsay’s ability to bring together disparate things into a whole. In a world marked by the ravages of time and war, in which everything must and will fall apart, there is perhaps no greater gift than a sense of unity, even if it is only temporary. Lily and other characters find themselves grasping for this unity after Mrs. Ramsay’s death.
Mr. Ramsay stands, in many respects, as Mrs. Ramsay’s opposite. Whereas she acts patiently, kindly, and diplomatically toward others, he tends to be short-tempered, selfish, and rude. Woolf fittingly describes him as “lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one,” which conjures both his physical presence and suggests the sharpness (and violence) of his personality. An accomplished metaphysician who made an invaluable contribution to his field as a young man, Mr. Ramsay bears out his wife’s philosophy regarding gender: men, burdened by the importance of their own work, need to seek out the comforts and assurances of women. Throughout the novel, Mr. Ramsay implores his wife and even his guests for sympathy. Mr. Ramsay is uncertain about the fate of his work and its legacy, and his insecurity manifests itself either as a weapon or a weakness. His keen awareness of death’s inevitability motivates him to dash the hopes of young James and to bully Mrs. Ramsay into declaring her love for him. This hyperawareness also forces him to confront his own mortality and face the possibility that he, like the forgotten books and plates that litter the second part of the novel, might sink into oblivion.
Lily is a passionate artist, and, like Mr. Ramsay, she worries over the fate of her work, fearing that her paintings will be hung in attics or tossed absentmindedly under a couch. Conventional femininity, represented by Mrs. Ramsay in the form of marriage and family, confounds Lily, and she rejects it. The recurring memory of Charles Tansley insisting that women can neither paint nor write deepens her anxiety. It is with these self-doubts that she begins her portrait of Mrs. Ramsay at the beginning of the novel, a portrait riddled with problems that she is unable to solve. But Lily undergoes a drastic transformation over the course of the novel, evolving from a woman who cannot make sense of the shapes and colors that she tries to reproduce into an artist who achieves her vision and, more important, overcomes the anxieties that have kept her from it. By the end of the novel, Lily, a serious and diligent worker, puts into practice all that she has learned from Mrs. Ramsay. Much like the woman she so greatly admires, she is able to craft something beautiful and lasting from the ephemeral materials around her—the changing light, the view of the bay. Her artistic achievement suggests a larger sense of completeness in that she finally feels united with Mr. Ramsay and the rational, intellectual sphere that he represents.
A sensitive child, James is gripped by a love for his mother that is as overpowering and complete as his hatred for his father. He feels a murderous rage against Mr. Ramsay, who, he believes, delights in delivering the news that there will be no trip to the lighthouse. But James grows into a young man who shares many of his father’s characteristics, the same ones that incited such anger in him as a child. When he eventually sails to the lighthouse with his father, James, like Mr. Ramsay, is withdrawn, moody, and easily offended. His need to be praised, as noted by his sister Cam, mirrors his father’s incessant need for sympathy, reassurance, and love. Indeed, as they approach the lighthouse, James considers his father’s profile and recognizes the profound loneliness that stamps both of their personalities. By the time the boat lands, James’s attitude toward his father has changed considerably. As he softens toward Mr. Ramsay and comes to accept him as he is, James, like Lily, who finishes her painting on shore at that very moment, achieves a rare, fleeting moment in which the world seems blissfully whole and complete.