[T]here is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out. . . .
Mrs. Ramsay takes her place at the dinner table and wonders what she has done with her life. As she ladles soup for her guests, she sees the true shabbiness of the room, the isolation among her guests, and the lack of beauty anywhere, and she believes herself to be responsible for fixing these problems. She again feels pity for William Bankes. Lily watches her hostess, thinking that Mrs. Ramsay looks old, worn, and remote. She senses Mrs. Ramsay’s pity for Bankes and dismisses it, noting that Bankes has his work. Lily also becomes aware that she has her own work. Mrs. Ramsay asks Charles Tansley if he writes many letters, and Lily realizes that her hostess often pities men but never women. Tansley is angry at having been called away from his work and blames women for the foolishness of such gatherings. He insists again that no one will be going to the lighthouse tomorrow, and Lily reflects bitterly on Tansley’s chauvinism and lack of charm. Tansley privately condemns Mrs. Ramsay for the nonsense she talks, and Lily notices his discomfort. Lily recognizes her obligation, as a woman, to comfort him, just as it would be his duty to save her from a fire in the subway. She wonders what the world would come to if men and women refused to fulfill these responsibilities. She speaks to Tansley, sarcastically asking him to take her to the lighthouse.
While Mrs. Ramsay rambles on to Tansley, William Bankes reflects on how people can grow apart, to the point that a person can be devoted to someone for whom he or she cares little. Eventually, the conversation turns to politics. Mrs. Ramsay looks to her husband, eager to hear him speak, but is disappointed to find him scowling at Augustus Carmichael, who has asked for another plate of soup. Candles are set out on the table, and they bring a change over the room, establishing a sense of order. Outside, beyond the darkened windows, the world wavers and changes. This chaos brings the guests together.
Finally having dressed for dinner, Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley take their places at the table. Minta announces that she has lost her grandmother’s brooch, and Mrs. Ramsay intuits that the couple is engaged. Minta is afraid of sitting next to Mr. Ramsay, remembering his words to her about Middlemarch, a book she never finished reading. Meanwhile, Paul recounts the events of their walk to the beach. Dinner is served. Lily worries that she, like Paul and Minta, will need to marry, but the thought leaves her as she decides how to complete her painting. Sitting at the table, Lily notices the position of the saltshaker against the patterned tablecloth, which suggests to her something vital about the composition of her painting—the tree must be moved to the middle. Mrs. Ramsay considers that Bankes may feel some affection for her but decides that he must marry Lily, and she resolves to seat them closer at the next day’s dinner. Everything suddenly seems possible to Mrs. Ramsay, who believes that, even in a world made of temporal things, there are qualities that endure, bringing stability and peace.
In another turn of the conversation, Bankes praises Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels. Tansley quickly denounces this kind of reading, and Mrs. Ramsay thinks that he will be this disagreeable until he secures a professorship and a wife. She considers her children, studying Prue in particular, whom she silently promises great happiness. The guests finish dinner. Mr. Ramsay, now in great spirits, recites a poem, which Carmichael finishes as a sort of tribute to his hostess, bowing. Mrs. Ramsay leaves the room with a bow in return. On the threshold of the door, she turns back to view the scene one last time, but reflects that this special, defining moment has already become a part of the past.
The stunning scene of Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner party is the heart of the novel. Here, the dominating rhythm emerges as the story moves from chaos to blissful, though momentary, order. To Mrs. Ramsay’s mind, the party begins as a disaster. Minta, Paul, Andrew, and Nancy are late returning from the beach; Mr. Ramsay acts rudely toward his guests; Charles Tansley continues to bully Lily; and, although she recognizes it as her social responsibility, Lily feels ill-equipped to soothe the man’s damaged ego. The opening of the chapter shifts rapidly from one partygoer’s perceptions to the next, giving the impression that each person is terribly “remote”—like Tansley, they all feel “rough and isolated and lonely.” But a change comes over the group as the candles are lit. Outside, the dark betrays a world in which “things wavered and vanished.” The guests come together against this overwhelming uncertainty and, for the remainder of the dinner, fashion collective meaning and order out of individual existences that possess neither inherently.
At the start of the party, Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts sharply contrast with the literary allusions and learned talk of her male guests. By the end, however, she prevails in her gift, which Lily considers to be almost an artistic talent, for creating social harmony. If Mrs. Ramsay is an artist, the dinner party is her medium; indeed, if the purpose of art for her, as it is for Lily, is to break down the barriers between people, to unite and allow them to experience life together in brief, perfect understanding, then the party is nothing less than her masterpiece. The connection Lily feels between herself and Mrs. Ramsay deepens in Chapter XVII. When Lily finds herself acting out Mrs. Ramsay’s behaviors toward men in her banter with Tansley, she realizes the frustrations that all women, even those in traditional roles, feel at the limitations of convention.