Lily sits at breakfast, wondering what her feelings mean, returning after ten years now that Mrs. Ramsay is dead. She decides that she feels nothing that she can express. The entire scene seems unreal and disjointed to her. As she sits at the table, she struggles to bring together the parts of her experience. She suddenly remembers a painting she had been working on years ago, during her last stay at the Ramsays’, and the inspiration that the leaf pattern on the tablecloth gave her. She decides that she will finish this painting now, heads outside, and sets up her easel on the lawn. Upon her arrival the previous night, she was unable to assuage Mr. Ramsay’s need for sympathy, and she fears his interference with her current project. She sets a clean canvas on the easel, but she cannot see the shapes or colors that surround her because she feels Mr. Ramsay bearing down on her. She thinks angrily that all Mr. Ramsay knows how to do is take, while all Mrs. Ramsay did was give. As her host approaches, Lily lets her brush fall to her side, convinced that it will be easier to remember and imitate the sympathy that Mrs. Ramsay was able to muster for her husband than to let him linger on the lawn beside her.
Mr. Ramsay watches Lily, observing her to be “shrivelled slightly” but not unattractive. He asks if she has everything she needs, and she assures him that she does. Lily cannot give him the sympathy he needs, and an awful silence falls between them. Mr. Ramsay sighs, waiting. Lily feels that, as a woman, she is a failure for not being able to satisfy his need. Eventually, she compliments him on his boots, and he gladly discusses footwear with her. He stoops to demonstrate the proper way to tie a shoe, and she pities him deeply. Just then, Cam and James appear for the sojourn to the lighthouse. They are cold and unpleasant to their father, and Lily reflects that, if they so wished, they could sympathize with him in a way that she cannot.
Lily sighs with relief as Mr. Ramsay and the children head off for the boat. With Mr. Ramsay standing by, she had jammed her easel into the ground at the wrong angle and taken up the wrong brush. She rights the canvas, raises the correct brush, and wonders where to begin. She makes a stroke on the canvas, then another. Her painting takes on a rhythm, as she dabs and pauses, dabs and pauses. She considers the fate of her painting, thinking that if it is to be hung in a servant’s room or rolled up under a sofa, there is no point in continuing it. The derogatory words of Charles Tansley—that women cannot paint, cannot write—return to her, but she maintains the rhythm of her work. She remembers a day on the beach with Tansley and Mrs. Ramsay, and is amazed by Mrs. Ramsay’s ability to craft substance out of even “silliness and spite.” She thinks, perhaps, that there are no great revelations. There is, to her, only the memory of Mrs. Ramsay making life itself an art. Lily feels that she owes what revelation she has in this moment to Mrs. Ramsay. On the edge of the water, she notices a boat with its sail being hoisted and, sure that it belongs to the Ramsays, watches it head out to sea.
The structure of To the Lighthouse creates a strange feeling of continuity between drastically discontinuous events. “The Window” ends after dinner, as night falls; “Time Passes” describes the demise of the house as one night passes into the next over the course of ten years; “The Lighthouse” resumes in the morning, at breakfast. Woolf almost suggests the illusion that Lily sits at the table the morning after the dinner party, even though the scene takes place a decade later. This structure lends the impression that Mr. Ramsay’s voyage to the lighthouse with Cam and James occurs the next day as James had hoped, though his world is now wholly different.
In spite of these differences, the Ramsays’ house in the Hebrides remains recognizable, as do the rhythmic patterns of the characters’ consciousnesses. As Woolf resumes her exploration of the subtle undercurrents of interpersonal relationships, she begins with characters who are “remote” from one another. They occupy, in fact, the same positions of private suffering as at the beginning of Mrs. Ramsay’s magnificent dinner party. Mr. Ramsay, a man in decline, is no longer imposing to Lily. Rather, he is awkward and pathetic. His children are waging a barely veiled revolt against his oppressive and self-pitying behavior. Still desperate for sympathy but unable to obtain it from Mrs. Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay turns to Lily and his children to satisfy his need. Lily, on the other hand, still feels unable to give of herself in this way. Her reluctance to show sympathy to Mr. Ramsay recalls her reaction to Charles Tansley at the dinner table. Then, as now, she cannot bring herself to soothe the tortured male ego. The world, as a result of these disjointed personalities and desires, seems “chaotic” and “aimless,” and Lily concludes that the house is brimming with “unrelated passions.”
“The Window” establishes a rhythm between chaos and order, which allows us to anticipate the direction that “The Lighthouse” will take. Mr. Ramsay eventually reaches the lighthouse, just as Lily eventually completes her painting. The poignant scene in which Mr. Ramsay bends to knot Lily’s shoe foreshadows the “common feeling” that the two share when Lily’s consciousness becomes tied to her host’s. Before this union can happen, though, the two must be separated. Indeed, Lily’s thoughts toward Mr. Ramsay begin to soften only after he leaves her alone at her easel and sets off for the lighthouse. Only then does the sight of Cam, James, and Mr. Ramsay reveal itself as a potential image of harmony—“a little company bound together and strangely impressive to her.”
Memory is another vital step toward this harmony. Though long dead, Mrs. Ramsay lives in Lily’s consciousness in the final section of the novel, for it was Mrs. Ramsay who taught Lily a valuable lesson about the nature of art. As her hostess once demonstrated on an outing to the beach, art is the ability to take a moment from life and make it “permanent.” With this goal in mind, Lily begins to paint.