As they walk together, Mrs. Ramsay brings up to Mr. Ramsay her worries about their son Jasper’s proclivity for shooting birds and her disagreement with Mr. Ramsay’s high opinion of Charles Tansley. She complains about Tansley’s bullying and excessive discussion of his dissertation; Mr. Ramsay counters that his dissertation is all that Tansley has in his life. He adds that he would disinherit their daughter Prue if she married Tansley, however. They continue walking, and the conversation turns to their children. They discuss Prue’s beauty and Andrew’s promise as a student. Still walking, they reach a conversational impasse reflecting a deeper emotional distance. Mr. Ramsay mourns that the best and most productive period of his career is over, but he chastises himself for his sadness, thinking that his wife and eight children are, in their own way, a fine contribution to “the poor little universe.” Her husband and his moods amaze Mrs. Ramsay, who realizes that he believes that his books would have been better had he not had children. Impressive as his thoughts are, she wonders if he notices the ordinary things in life such as the view or the flowers. She notices a star on the horizon and wants to point it out to her husband, but stops. The sight, she knows, will somehow only sadden him. Lily comes into view with William Bankes, and Mrs. Ramsay decides that the couple must marry.
Lily listens to William Bankes describe the art he has seen while visiting Europe. She reflects on the number of great paintings she has never seen but decides that not having seen them is probably best since other artists’ work tends to make one disappointed with one’s own. The couple turns to see Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay watching Prue and Jasper playing ball. The Ramsays become, for Lily, a symbol of married life. As the couples meet on the lawn, Lily can tell that Mrs. Ramsay intends for her to marry Bankes. Lily suddenly feels a sense of space and of things having been blown apart. Mrs. Ramsay worries since Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle have not yet returned from their walk and asks if the Ramsays’ daughter Nancy accompanied them.
Nancy, at Minta’s request and out of a sense of obligation, has accompanied Minta and Paul on their walk. Nancy wonders what Minta wants as she keeps taking then dropping Nancy’s hand. Andrew appreciates the way Minta walks, wearing more sensible clothes than most women and taking risks that most women will not. Still, this outing disappoints Andrew. In the end, he does not like taking women on walks or the chummy way that Paul claps him on the back. The group reaches the beach and Nancy explores the tiny pools left by the ebb tide. Andrew and Nancy come upon Paul and Minta kissing, which irritates them. Upon leaving the beach, Minta discovers that she has lost her grandmother’s brooch. Everyone searches for it as the tide rolls in. Wanting to prove his worth, Paul resolves to leave the house early tomorrow morning in order to scour the beach for the brooch. He thinks with disappointment on the moment he asked Minta to marry him. He considers admitting this disappointment to Mrs. Ramsay, who, he believes, forced him into proposing, but, as the well-lit house comes into view, he decides not to make a fool of himself.
Prue, in answer to her mother’s question, replies that she thinks that Nancy did accompany Paul and Minta.
As Mrs. Ramsay dresses for dinner, she wonders if Nancy’s presence will distract Paul from proposing to Minta. Mrs. Ramsay lets her daughter Rose choose her jewelry for the evening, a ceremony that somehow saddens her. She becomes increasingly distressed by Paul and Minta’s tardiness, worrying for their safety and fearing that dinner will be ruined. Eventually she hears the group return from its walk and feels annoyed. Everyone assembles in the dinning room for dinner.
Woolf’s disjointed story line would have been especially shocking to readers raised on Victorian novels, who were used to linear narratives, elaborate plots, and the mediating voice of an author. Woolf eliminates these traditional narrative elements and presents her characters’ competing visions of reality. As Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay stroll on the lawn, for instance, Woolf forces us to weigh and judge their various perceptions. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s viewpoints conflict over whether it is more important to publish a remarkable dissertation or to have the ability to “notice his own daughter’s beauty, or whether there was pudding on his plate of roast beef.” She portrays Mr. Ramsay’s cold, domineering neuroses as completely as Mrs. Ramsay’s generosity and love. Woolf’s goal is not to present one character’s experience as the truth but rather to bring opposing worldviews and visions of reality, such as those held by the Ramsays, into a unified story.
Woolf does not describe Mr. Ramsay’s philosophical work or the work he admires. Earlier, Lily recalls Andrew’s likening of his father’s work to musings over a kitchen table, and here Mrs. Ramsay summarizes the philosophy of Charles Tansley as dealing with “the influence of somebody upon something.” While the brevity of these descriptions seems dismissive, Woolf takes her characters’ work and anxieties seriously. Woolf rejects not Mr. Ramsay but rather preconceived notions about what a novel should be. Woolf, along with James Joyce and Marcel Proust, was a modernist. One goal of the modernists was to force readers to reassess their views of the novel. Philosophy and politics, as discussed by traditional -intellectuals such as Mr. Ramsay, no longer had to be the dominant subject; war, epic sea voyages, and the like no longer had to be the- dominant settings. As Woolf makes clear, life’s intellectual, psychological, and emotional stakes can be as high in the dining room or on the lawn of one’s home as they are in any boardroom or battlefield. That she later limits the discussion of World War I confirms this point.
Lily Briscoe emerges as an artist of uncompromising vision. As she stands on the lawn, trying to decide how to unite the components of the scene on her canvas, she gives the impression of being something of a bridge between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and the worlds they represent. Lily shares Mr. Ramsay’s professional anxiety and fears that her work too will sink into oblivion—“perhaps it was better not to see pictures: they only made one hopelessly discontented with one’s own work.” She also possesses Mrs. Ramsay’s talent for separating a moment from the passage of time and preserving it. As she watches the Ramsays move across the lawn, she invests them with a quality and meaning that make them symbolic. Later, in the last section of the novel, as Lily returns to this spot of the lawn to resume and finally complete her painting, she again serves as a vital link between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay.