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Free Study Guide-To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf-Free Online Book Notes
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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

CHAPTER 17

Summary

Mrs. Ramsey takes her place at the head of the table and wonders what she has done with her life. She feels like she has nothing in comparison to what Paul and Minta have. She sees her husband at the other end of the table frowning. She cannot understand how she has ever felt anything for him. She feels like she is "past everything, through everything, out of everything." She thinks it has all come to an end.

She directs everyone where to sit and waits for something to happen. As she ladles out the soup, she feels outside the eddy of life. She sees things truly for what they are. The room is very shabby and has no beauty in it. She cannot look at Mr. Tansley. "Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate. And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her." She feels again the sterility of men. She gives herself a shake and begins her work. She addresses William Banks and feels sorry for him for not having a wife or children. She asks him a mundane question.

Lily Briscoe watches Mrs. Ramsey and thinks of how old she looks and how remote. Lily Briscoe wonders with amusement why Mrs. Ramsey pities Mr. Banks. Lily Briscoe thinks it is a misjudgment on Mrs. Ramsey's part, that Mr. Banks is not at all pitiable. He has his work. Lily Briscoe thinks, she, too, has her work. In a flash, she sees her picture and decides she will put the tree further in the middle and then she will avoid the awkward space. She picks up the salt cellar and puts it down in a flower in the pattern of the tablecloth to remind herself.

Mrs. Ramsey continues with her conversation with William Banks about letters and the post. Charles Tansley thinks it is a lot of rot that they talk. He puts his spoon exactly in the center of his plate. Lily Briscoe notices how clean his place is as if he is determined to make sure of his meals. She see that everything about him "had that meager fixity, that bare unloveliness," but she realizes it is impossible to dislike anyone if she really looks at them and she does like his eyes.

Mrs. Ramsey tries to bring Mr. Tansley into the conversation about letters. Lily Briscoe guesses that Mrs. Ramsey must pity him, too. She realizes Mrs. Ramsey pities men as if they lacked something and that she never pities women as if they had something. Mr. Tansley answers her shortly. He does not want to talk the sort of rot these people wanted him to talk. "He was not going to be condescended to by these silly women." He cannot understand why they dress for dinner. He has come down in his ordinary clothes. He decides that women make civilization impossible with all their charm and silliness. He asserts himself by saying again that no one is going to the lighthouse tomorrow.


Lily Briscoe thinks he is the most uncharming man she knows. She does not understand why she has taken so seriously his pronouncement that "women can't write, can't paint." She sees that it is clear that this idea is not true to him, but just something that is for some reason helpful to him. She looks down at the tablecloth and decides to hold onto her vision. She tells him she wants him to take her to the lighthouse with him. He knows she is lying. He can see she is laughing at him. He feels awkward in his flannel trousers; he does not have any others. He feels "rough and isolated and lonely." He thinks they all despise him. He tells her in a rude tone that it would be too rough for her tomorrow. He is annoyed that she made him speak like that in front of Mrs. Ramsey. He wishes he could think of something to say to Mrs. Ramsey to show her he is not just a "dry prig."

Mrs. Ramsey is speaking to William Banks about a family, the Mannings, she used to know and from whom he has just heard by mail. She has not seen Carrie Manning for fifteen or twenty years. She remembers a particularly vivid day when she had gone on the river with them. She feels as though that day is still going on. She feels like she is "gliding like a ghost among the chairs and tables of that drawing-room on the banks of the Thames where she had been so very, very cold twenty years ago." Now she goes among these people in her memory as if she were a ghost. She is fascinated with the idea that, while she has changed, they have remained the same all these years. He asks her if he should send her greetings to Carrie Manning and Mrs. Ramsey is startled and says no because she does not feel like she knows the present-day Carrie Manning. She is uncomfortable thinking that perhaps Carrie Manning has not thought of her all these years either.

William Banks remarks that people just grow apart. He feels slightly superior that he has kept up the contact with the Mannings while Mrs. Ramsey has not. Mrs. Ramsey breaks off to give the maid instructions and Mr. Banks is annoyed and thinks this is why he likes to dine alone in his rooms. Nevertheless, he "preserves a demeanor of exquisite courtesy," and decide it is just a sacrifice he has to make for his friends. He thinks dinner would be over by now if he had been dining alone. He thinks of how boring and trifling it all is compared to work. He looks at Mrs. Ramsey and thinks she is one of his oldest friends and he is devoted to her, but at this moment he feels nothing for her. He decides he just does not enjoy family life. His favorite, Cam, is in bed. He asks himself what he considers foolish questions, questions he never asks himself when he is occupied. He wonders if this or that is human life.

When Mrs. Ramsey turns to him after talking to the servant, he feels rigid and barren. He decides he must make himself talk. She tells him he must detest dining in "this bear garden." She is making use of her social manner. It is like when a meeting is upset by arguments and the chairperson tells everyone to speak in French in order to impose some order or uniformity. William Banks replies to her in the same social manner. Mr. Tansley does not know this social language and thinks they are being insincere. He thinks he will get back to his college campus and tell his friends of dining with the Ramseys where "the women bored one so." He cannot imagine what to say in the present situation. He wants someone to give him a chance to assert himself.

Lily Briscoe knows what Charles Tansley needs. She can see him as if she were looking at an X-ray that he needs to assert himself. She remembers, however, how he sneers at women and decides she has no reason to help him relieve himself. She knows there is a code of behavior in which she as a young woman, should help the young man, who is sitting across from her at the table, to assert himself. She thinks it is the man's duty to come to her rescue of the subway suddenly burst into flames. She smiles, thinking the thought of how it would be if neither men nor women did what was expected of them in relation to the other.

Mrs. Ramsey tells Lily Briscoe surely she is not planning to go to the lighthouse. She asks Mr. Tansley if he is a good sailor. Mr. Tansley prepares to assert himself in a grand way and then realizes she has not given him much to assert himself about and so just says he has never been sick in his life. He scowls.

Lily Briscoe asks him if he will kindly take her. Lily Briscoe has sensed that Mrs. Ramsey is desperate for her to help with the conversation at the table. When she had senses Mrs. Ramsey calling on her to help, "of course, for the hundred and fiftieth time Lily Briscoe had to renounce the experiment--what happens if one is not nice to that young man there--and be nice."

When Charles Tansely sees Lily Briscoe's change of mood, he is relieved of his egotism and tells her he had been thrown out of a boat as a baby. One of his uncles was a lighthouse keeper. He had been there once in a storm. Everyone pauses and listens to him. Lily Briscoe feels Mrs. Ramsey's gratitude when the conversation takes such a turn. Lily Briscoe wonders "what haven't I paid to get it for you?" She has not been sincere. She had been nice and now she would never know Charles Tansley and he would never know her. She thinks all human relations are like that and the worst are between women and men. Then she sees the salt cellar and is reminded of her idea for solving her compositional problem with her painting. She feels so good about it that she laughs out loud at what Mr. Tansley is saying. She asks him how long they leave men out on a lighthouse. He is grateful and he likes her.

Mrs. Ramsey is pleased that she can return to her own thoughts of her dreamland, "that unreal but fascinating place, the Mannings' drawing-room at Marlow twenty years ago." She cannot get William Banks to go on talking about the Mannings. She goes on to another topic--the children's disrespectfulness about being late for dinner. He tells her punctuality is not expected out of children and their conversation falters. She thinks he is becoming an old maid. He feels badly about his treachery in refusing to talk about what she wants to talk about, something more intimate. He feels the disagreeableness of life and wonders what the others are talking about.

They are discussing the fishing season, saying it is bad. William Banks is relieved to catch onto a conversation like this when private life is so disagreeable. They are all listening to the conversation, but they feel taut something is missing. William Banks thinks maybe Charles Tansley is "the man, who might prove to be a leader, since such a man would probably be disagreeable to others." He imagines that Charles Tansley is thinking they are all old fogies, hopelessly behind the times.

Lily Briscoe returns to looking at her tablecloth and Mrs. Ramsey looks at her husband and wishes he would say something. He always went to he heart of things. He cared about fishermen and their wages. She realizes it is because she admires him so much that she waits for him to speak. Thinking this, she feels good. She looks at him thinking he will be looking magnificent, but he is not. He is frowning. She cannot imagine what is the matter with him. She knows he is mad because Augustus Carmichael asked for another plate of soup. He cannot stand for people to be eating when he is finished with his. She is relieved to see him control himself. They have an unspoken exchange about his controlling himself with her asking him why can Mr. Carmichael not have another plate of soup. Mrs. Ramsey fears that everyone can see.

She tells her children to light the candles. She wonders why her husband can never conceal his feelings. She respects Mr. Carmichael for asking for what he wants. She also respects him for not liking her. She likes his interest in Andrew.

Eight candles stand on the table and Rose's arrangement of grapes and pears, a shell, and the bananas, look like a trophy. Looking together unites all the people at the table. The candlelight reflects off the curtainless windowpanes and everyone inside the room sees a change. Inside the room seems to be dry land and outside it seems in the reflections that "everything wavers and vanishes waterily." A change goes through them as they realize their common cause against the fluidity out there. Lily Briscoe feels that anything might happen. Minta, Paul, Nancy and Andrew come in and apologize for being so late. They explain that Minta lost her brooch. She rouses Mr. Ramsey's chivalry and he jokes with her.

When Minta had first met Mr. Ramsey he had intimidated her by asking her about George Eliot's novel Middlemarch. She had not finished it and felt foolish. Afterwards, however, she had gotten along perfectly with him by making herself out to be even more ignorant than she was because he liked telling her she was a fool. She feels that a miracle had happened. She wears her golden haze. She can tell instantly by the way some man looked at her if she has this golden haze about her.

Mrs. Ramsey realizes the proposal of Paul to Minta must have happened.

For a moment she feels jealous. She is not jealous except now and then when she makes herself look in the mirror and sees that she has grown old. However, she is grateful to the others for making her husband laugh.

The main course is brought out. She chooses a special piece for William Banks. She thinks this will celebrate the occasion. She thinks of it as celebrating a festival. She feels profound emotions and mocking ones at the same time. Mr. Banks pronounces the dish a triumph. She feels that all his love and reverence has returned. She tells him it is a French recipe of her grandmother's. They discuss the inability of the English to cook vegetables properly.

Lily Briscoe thinks Mrs. Ramsey is childlike and absurd sitting there with all her beauty opened up again taking about vegetables. Lily Briscoe feels like there is something frightening about Mrs. Ramsey. She put a spell on them all. Lily Briscoe feels a contrast between Mrs. Ramsey's abundance and her own poverty of spirit. Lily Briscoe feels as though Mrs. Ramsey brought it all about and then laughed and led her victims to the altar. She feels inconspicuous beside Paul, who is glowing and bound for adventure while she is aloof and satirical. She asks him when Minta lost her brooch. He smiles and says he will find it. Lily Briscoe wants very much to help him, thinking of herself being the one to find it and thus "herself be included among the sailors and adventurers." He only laughs at her offer as if to say he does not care what she does with herself. She catches sight of the salt cellar again and decides that she "need not marry, she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution. She would move the tree rather more to the middle." She feels that staying with the Ramseys made her feel contradictory things like this. At the same time she is excited by love to look for the brooch on the beach, it is also the stupidest of passions.

Mr. Banks calls for coffee. The topic brings to Mrs. Ramsey's mind the iniquity of the English dairy system. The others laugh at her. She draws Lily Briscoe in by saying that at least Lily Briscoe agrees with her. Mrs. Ramsey can tell that both Lily Briscoe and Charles Tansley suffer from the glow of Minta and Paul. She decides that Lily Briscoe at forty will be the better. She think there is in Lily Briscoe a flare of something. She fears, however, that no man would see it. She decides she will arrange to have Lily Briscoe and William Banks take a long walk together. She regrets having sat them in the wrong places at the table. She decides she will correct it tomorrow by organizing a picnic. She feels that "Everything seemed possible. Everything seemed right." Just now she reached security. She realizes nothing needs to be said. "There it was, all round them." It feels like eternity. She feels a coherence in things and a stability that feels as if it is immune from change. She feels that at such moments "the thing is made that endures." William Banks says, "Yes, there is plenty for everybody."

Mrs. Ramsey is removed from the conversation now, just enjoying the moment. The others are discussing the Waverly novels. She sees Charles Tansley trying to assert himself when it is clear he does not know about the topic. She thinks he will only rest secure when he gets his professorship or marries his wife so he will not need to keep saying "I--I--I." She knows she does not need to listen. She knows the moment cannot last, but at the moment her eyes are clear and she looks around the table and seems to unveil each of the people. Suddenly she senses danger for her husband in the turn of the conversation. They are talking about the lastingness of fame. She sees, however, that Minta will take care of him and will praise him somehow or other.

The fruit plate is sent around the table. She is sad the beautifully arranged fruit has to be taken apart to be eaten. Yet she feels more and more serene. She thinks of how odd it is to see her children sitting in a row together. She sees that Prue is fascinated with Minta. She tells Prue in her mind that she, too, will be happy some day. She suddenly decides that she likes Charles Tansley. She also thinks of Lily Briscoe and decides "one need never bother about Lily." She waits. She hears her husband speak poetry, "Come out and climb the garden path, Luriana Lurilee. The china rose is all in bloom and buzzing with the yellow bee." Mrs. Ramsey looks out the window and imagines the words like flowers floating on the water out there. She gets up as she hears her husband's voice stop. Augustus Carmichael finishes the poem and bows to her as if he did her homage. She feels like he likes her better than he has ever done.

Mrs. Ramsey feels that it is necessary to carry things a step further. At the threshold of the dining room, she waits a moment longer "in a scene that was vanishing even as she looked," and then as she leaves, it changes, it shapes itself differently; it has become already the past.

Notes

This is the longest chapter in this section and the climax of the novel. In it, Virginia Woolf describes the dinner party and brings all the characters together in one space. Mrs. Ramsey is a sort of artist of conversations. She orchestrates the conversation of the table, makes sure everyone is included, makes the separate people of the table come together for a moment and form a whole, brings in those who feel low or out of it. The chapter is written with a clear plot-line with a beginning in which all is unsettled, all the people are separate and stand-offish, and proceeds in a rising action when one person is engaged in conversation and then another and another until the moment of climax, when everyone feels at one, part of a whole and finally ends in a falling action as Mrs. Ramsey removes herself from the conversation and watches the others and then stands at the threshold of the room for one last moment before she departs.

Mrs. Ramsey is not the only artist at the table. Lily Briscoe has a revelation while sitting at the table in the worst moments of the beginning of the evening. She decides to be an artist only and to forego marriage. She recognizes what to do with the composition of her painting and continually comes back to the thought of how to complete it. At the height of this decision, she is not allowed as is Augustus Carmichael, to sit alone in her thoughts and never participate in the conversation. She is pulled into her gender role as a woman to tend to the feelings of the young man sitting opposite and engage him in conversation in a way that reinforces the status quo of gender roles. She momentarily wishes to refuse to do so, but succumbs under Mrs. Ramsey's pressure. She allows Charles Tansley, the same man who told her women cannot paint or write, to assert himself as masterful.

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