[F]or it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself. . . .
William Bankes considers Mr. Ramsay’s behavior and concludes that it is a pity that his old friend cannot act more conventionally. He suggests to Lily, who stands beside him putting away her paint and brushes, that their host is something of a hypocrite. Lily -disagrees with him. Though she finds Mr. Ramsay narrow and self-absorbed, she also observes the sincerity with which he seeks admiration. Lily is about to speak and criticize Mrs. Ramsay, but Bankes’s “rapture” of watching Mrs. Ramsay silences her. As he stares at Mrs. Ramsay, it is obvious to Lily that he is in love. The rapture of his gaze touches her, so much so that she lets Bankes look at her painting, which she considers to be dreadfully bad. She thinks of Charles Tansley’s claim that women cannot paint or write.
Lily remembers the criticism she was about to make of Mrs. Ramsay, whom she resents for insinuating that she, Lily, as an unmarried woman, cannot know the best of life. Lily reflects on the essence of Mrs. Ramsay, which she is trying to paint, and insists that she herself was not made for marriage. She muses, with some distress, that no one can ever know anything about anyone, because people are separate and cut off from one another. She hopes to counter this phenomenon and achieve unity with, and knowledge of, others through her art. By painting, she hopes to attain a kind of intimacy that will bring her closer to the world outside her consciousness.
Lily braces herself as Bankes looks over her portrait of Mrs. Ramsay and James. She discusses the painting with him. As they talk about the shadows, light, and the purple triangle meant to represent Mrs. Ramsay, Lily wonders how to connect them and make them whole. She also feels that Bankes has taken her painting from her by looking at it and that they have shared something intimate.
Cam Ramsay, Mrs. and Mr. Ramsay’s devilish daughter, rushes past and nearly knocks the easel over. Mrs. Ramsay calls to Cam, asking after Paul Rayley, Minta Doyle, and Andrew, who have not returned from their walk on the beach. Mrs. Ramsay assumes that this delay means that Paul has proposed to Minta, which is what she intended when she orchestrated the walk. A clever matchmaker, Mrs. Ramsay has been accused of being domineering, but she feels justified in her efforts because she truly likes Minta. She feels that Minta must accept the time that she and Paul have spent alone together recently.
Mrs. Ramsay believes that she would be domineering in pursuit of social causes. She feels passionately that the island needs a hospital and a dairy, but rationalizes that she can further these goals once her children grow older. Still, she resists the passage of time, wishing that her children would stay young forever and her family as happy as it now is. Mrs. Ramsay further meditates about life, realizing a kind of transactional relationship between it and herself. She lists social problems and intersperses them with personal anxieties, noting, for instance, that “the bill for the greenhouse would be fifty pounds.” This anxiety extends to her thoughts of Paul and Minta, thinking that perhaps marriage and family are an escape that not everyone needs. She finishes reading James his story, and the nursemaid takes him to bed. Mrs. Ramsay is certain that he is thinking of their thwarted trip to the lighthouse and that he will remember not being able to go for the rest of his life.
Alone, Mrs. Ramsay knits and gazes out at the lighthouse, thinking that children never forget harsh words or disappointments. She enjoys her respite from being and doing, since she finds peace only when she is no longer herself. Without personality, in a “wedge-shaped core of darkness,” she rids herself of worry. She suddenly becomes sad, and thinks that no God could have made a world in which happiness is so fleeting and in which reason, order, and justice are so overwhelmed by suffering and death. From a distance, Mr. Ramsay sees her and notices her sadness and beauty. He wants to protect her, but hesitates, feeling helpless and reflecting that his temper causes her grief. He resolves not to interrupt her, but soon enough, sensing his desire to protect her, Mrs. Ramsay calls after him, takes up her shawl, and meets him on the lawn.
While Mrs. Ramsay’s reliance on intuition contrasts with her husband’s aloofness and self-interest, she shares with him a dread of mortality. Mrs. Ramsay’s mind seizes “the fact that there is no reason, order, justice.” It is only in her “wedge-shaped core of darkness” that she escapes “being and doing” enough to be herself. She realizes that happiness is, without exception, fleeting and ephemeral. Refrains of “children never forget” and “the greenhouse would cost fifty pounds” and other expressions of domestic anxiety break into her peace and solitude and advance the notion that life is transactional. However, it is exactly this awareness of death and worry that make her moments of wholeness so precious to her. Her sense of the inevitability of suffering and death lead her to search for such moments of bliss.
According to Mr. Ramsay’s conception of human thought, Mrs. Ramsay may not be as far along in the alphabet as he, but she has surpassed her husband in one important respect. Unlike Mr. Ramsay, she is able to move beyond the “treacheries” of the world by accepting them. Mr. Ramsay, on the other hand, becomes so mired in the thought of his own mortality that he is rendered helpless and dependent upon his wife.
Lily’s complicated reaction to Mrs. Ramsay in this section advances the novel’s discussion of gender by introducing a character who lives outside accepted gender conventions. As a single woman who, much to Mrs. Ramsay’s chagrin, shows little interest in marrying, Lily represents a new and evolving social order and raises the suspicions of several characters. Mrs. Ramsay suggests that she cannot know life completely until she has married, while Charles Tansley insists that women were not made to be painters or writers. Lily’s refusal to bow to these notions, however, testifies to her commitment to living as an independent woman and an artist. Indeed, by rejecting these once universally held beliefs, Lily creates a parallel between her life and her art. On canvas, she does not mean to make an assertion of objective truth; instead, she hopes to capture and preserve a moment that appears real to her. Her determination to live her life according to her own principles demands as great a struggle and commitment as her painting.
Woolf’s pairing of Lily with Mrs. Ramsay highlights her interest in the relationships among women outside the realm of prescribed gender roles. Mrs. Ramsay takes on the conventional roles of wife and mother and accepts the suffering and anxiety they bring. At the same time, she remains aware of her power: “Was she not forgetting how strongly she influenced people?” Lily rejects gender conventions, but she remains plagued by artistic self-doubt and feels that others’ notice of her work somehow takes the work away from her. Woolf uses the relationship between these women to show the detrimental effect of male society on female artistic vision, and to illustrate the potential intimacy and complexity of such relationships.