As the boat sails toward the lighthouse, both James and Cam feel their father’s mounting anxiety and impatience. Mr. Ramsay mutters and speaks sharply to Macalister’s boy, a fisherman’s son who is rowing the boat. Bound together against what they perceive to be their father’s tyranny, the children resolve to make the journey in silence. They secretly hope that the wind will never rise and that they will be forced to turn back. But as they sail farther out, the sails pick up the wind and the boat speeds along. James steers the boat and mans the sail, knowing that his father will criticize him if he makes the slightest mistake.
Mr. Ramsay talks to Macalister about a storm that sank a number of ships near the lighthouse on Christmas. Cam realizes that her father likes to hear stories of men having dangerous adventures and thinks that he would have helped the rescue effort had he been on the island at the time. She is proud of him, but also, out of loyalty to James, means to resist his oppressive behavior. Mr. Ramsay points out their house, and Cam reflects how unreal life on shore seems. Only the boat and the sea are real to her now. Cam, though disgusted by her father’s melodramatic appeals for sympathy, longs to find a way to show him that she loves him without betraying James. James, for his part, feels that Cam is about to abandon him and give in to their father’s mood. Meanwhile, Mr. Ramsay muses that Cam seems to have a simple, vague “female” mind, which he finds charming. He asks Cam who is looking after their puppy, and she tells him that Jasper is doing it. He asks what she is going to name the puppy, and James thinks that Cam will never withstand their father’s tyranny like he will. He changes his mind about her resolve, however, and Cam thinks of how everything she hears her father say means “Submit to me.” She looks at the shore, thinking no one suffers there.
Lily stands on the lawn watching the boat sail off. She thinks again of Mrs. Ramsay as she considers her painting. She thinks of Paul and Minta Rayley and contents herself by imagining their lives. Their marriage, she assumes, turned out badly. Though she knows that these sorts of imaginings are not true, she reflects that they are what allow one to know people. Lily has the urge to share her stories of Paul and Minta with the matchmaking Mrs. Ramsay, and reflects on the dead, contending that one can go against their wishes and improve on their outdated ideas. She finally feels able to stand up to Mrs. Ramsay, which, she believes, is a testament to Mrs. Ramsay’s terrific influence over her. Lily has never married, and she is glad of it now. She still enjoys William Bankes’s friendship and their discussions about art. The memory of Mrs. Ramsay fills her with grief, and she begins to cry. She has the urge to approach Augustus Carmichael, who lounges nearby on the lawn, and confess her thoughts to him, but she knows that she could never say what she means.
The fisherman’s boy cuts a piece from a fish that he has caught and baits it on his hook. He then throws the mutilated body into the sea.
Lily calls out to Mrs. Ramsay as if the woman might return, but nothing happens. She hopes that her cries will heal her pain, but is glad that Carmichael does not hear them. Eventually, the anguish subsides, and Lily returns to her painting, working on her representation of the hedge. She imagines Mrs. Ramsay, radiant with beauty and crowned with flowers, walking across the lawn. The image soothes her. She notices a boat in the middle of the bay and wonders if it is the Ramsays’.
Although Chapter VI is presented in brackets and is only two sentences long, its description of a live mutilated fish is important to the novel since the fish represents the paradox of the world as an extremely cruel place in which survival is somehow possible. The brackets also hearken back to the reports of violence and sorrow in “Time Passes,” which recount the deaths of Prue and Andrew Ramsay. To the Lighthouse is filled with symbols that have no easily assigned meaning. The mutilated fish, the boar’s head wrapped in Mrs. Ramsay’s shawl, Lily’s painting, and the lighthouse itself are symbols that require us to sift through a multiplicity of meanings rather than pin down a single interpretation.
Mrs. Ramsay and the pasts of her guests and children haunt the novel’s final section. As Lily stands on the lawn watching the Ramsays’ boat move out into the bay, she is possessed by thoughts of Mrs. Ramsay, while Macalister spins out stories of shipwrecks and drowned sailors, and Cam reflects that there is no suffering on the distant shore where people are “free to come and go like ghosts.” At first, Mrs. Ramsay exerts her old pull on Lily, who begins to feel anxious about the choices she has made in life. But as her thoughts turn to Paul and Minta Rayley, around whom she has built up “a whole structure of imagination,” Lily begins to exorcise Mrs. Ramsay’s spirit and better understand her old friend. Though she readily admits in regard to her imagining of the Rayleys’ failed marriage that “not a word of it [is] true,” she believes that her version of their lives constitutes real knowledge of the couple; thus, the novel again insists upon the subjective nature of reality. These thoughts allow Lily to approach Mrs. Ramsay, who insisted on Paul’s marriage, from a new, more critical, and ultimately more truthful angle.
Lily’s longing for Mrs. Ramsay is a result of understanding her as a more complicated, flawed individual. When she wakes that morning, Lily reflects solemnly that Mrs. Ramsay’s absence at the breakfast table evokes no particular feelings in her; now, however, Lily calls out Mrs. Ramsay’s name, as if attempting to chant her back from the grave. Lily’s anguish and dissonance force us to reassess her art. Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty has always rendered Lily speechless, but Lily now realizes that “[b]eauty had this penalty—it came too readily, came too completely. It stilled life—froze it.” She mimics Mrs. Ramsay’s psychological gesture of smoothing away life’s complexities and flaws under a veneer of beauty. Continuing to paint, Lily feels a deeper need to locate the Ramsays’ boat on the water and reach out to Mr. Ramsay, to whom a short while earlier she feels that she has nothing to give.