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.