Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are staying at their summerhouse in the Hebrides with their eight children and several houseguests. James, the Ramsays’ youngest child, sits on the floor carefully cutting out pictures from the Army and Navy Stores catalogue. Mrs. Ramsay assures James he will be able to visit the nearby lighthouse the following day if weather permits, but Mr. Ramsay interjects that the weather will not allow it. Six-year-old James feels a murderous rage against his father for ridiculing his mother, whom James considers “ten thousand times better in every way.” Mrs. Ramsay tries to assure James that the weather may well be fine, but Charles Tansley, a stiff intellectual who greatly respects Mr. Ramsay, disagrees.
Tansley’s insensitivity toward James irritates Mrs. Ramsay, but she tries to act warmly toward her male houseguests, forbidding her irreverent daughters to mock Tansley. After lunch, Mrs. Ramsay invites Tansley to accompany her on an errand into town, and he accepts. On their way out, she stops to ask Augustus Carmichael, an elderly poet also staying with the Ramsays, if he needs anything, but he responds that he does not. On the way into town, Mrs. Ramsay tells Carmichael’s story. He was once a promising poet and intellectual, but he made an unfortunate marriage. Mrs. Ramsay’s confidence flatters Tansley, and he rambles incessantly about his work.
The two pass a sign advertising a circus, and Mrs. Ramsay suggests that they all go. Hesitant, Tansley explains to Mrs. Ramsay that, having grown up in an impoverished family, he was never taken to a circus. Mrs. Ramsay reflects that Tansley harbors a deep insecurity regarding his humble background and that this insecurity causes much of his unpleasantness. She now feels more kindly toward him, though his self-centered talk continues to bore her. Tansley, however, thinks that Mrs. Ramsay is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Like most of her male guests, he is a little in love with her. Even the chance to carry her bag thrills him.
Later that evening, Tansley looks out the window and announces gently, for Mrs. Ramsay’s sake, that there will be no trip to the lighthouse tomorrow. Mrs. Ramsay finds him tedious and annoying.
Mrs. Ramsay comforts James, telling him that the sun may well shine in the morning. She listens to the men talking outside, but when their conversation stops, she receives a sudden shock from the sound of the waves rolling against the shore. Normally the waves seem to steady and support her, but occasionally they make her think of destruction, death, and the passage of time. The sound of her husband reciting to himself Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” returns to her the sense that all is right with the world. She notices Lily Briscoe painting on the edge of the lawn and remembers that she is supposed to keep her head still for Lily, who is painting her portrait.
As Mr. Ramsay passes Lily on the grass, he nearly tips over her easel. Lily’s old friend William Bankes, who rents a room near hers in the village, joins her on the grass. Sensing that they have somehow intruded on their host’s privacy, Lily and Bankes are both slightly unnerved by the sight of Mr. Ramsay thundering about talking to himself. Lily struggles to capture her vision on canvas, a project, she reflects, that keeps her from declaring outright her love for Mrs. Ramsay, the house, and the entire scene.