To the Lighthouse | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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To the Lighthouse | The Window, Chapter 16 | Summary



As Mrs. Ramsay readies for dinner, she worries about Nancy, who she thinks is with the tardy walking group. Jasper and Rose knock at her door, wanting to know if Mildred should postpone dinner—Mildred's special bœuf en daube. She says no, annoyed with Nancy, Andrew, Paul, and Minta for staying out so late.

While Jasper and Rose pick out jewelry for Mrs. Ramsay, she watches the rooks, wondering why Rose takes choosing jewelry so seriously. She watches two birds fighting over a branch, enjoying how their wings move, "beating out, out, out." "One of the loveliest [sights] of all to her," she feels she fails in describing it "accurately." Mrs. Ramsay thinks Rose has "some hidden reason of her own for attaching great importance" to adorning her with jewelry. She is saddened, thinking she had little to "give in return." The walkers return, and Mrs. Ramsay's annoyance grows. As she descends the stairs, the smell of something burning stops her. The dinner gong sounds.


The shift in Mrs. Ramsay's emotions from anxiety to annoyance develops tension as her mind ventures to dark places. Yet she knows the chance of the entire party being "drowned" is unlikely. She—"again"—feels "alone in the presence of her old antagonist, life."

For Mrs. Ramsay, the faux pas of tardiness to dinner illustrates social expectations, the importance of the event to her, and their genteel sophistication. With 15 people expected, Mrs. Ramsay insists they won't postpone dinner for the "Queen of England," acknowledging her tendency to exaggerate, a sign of self-importance. Because Mr. Ramsay has criticized this particular quality, her acknowledgment of this "shared" vice with Jasper alludes to the conflict of what children inherit from their parents. Mr. Ramsay's complaints about her "lies" seem accusatory—attaching a stigma to her sadness—and unsupportive.

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