Literature Study GuidesTo The LighthouseThe Window Chapter 17 Summary

To the Lighthouse | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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To the Lighthouse | The Window, Chapter 17 | Summary

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Summary

As Mrs. Ramsay sits at the head of the table, she directs guests to their seats, wondering, internally, what she has "done" with her life. At the opposite end of the table, she notices her husband sulking. She serves the soup. Feeling responsible for the party's socializing, she talks to William Bankes. Lily Briscoe observes Mrs. Ramsay "drifting into that strange no-man's land where to follow people is impossible." Thinking Mrs. Ramsay looks "old," Lily Briscoe wonders why her hostess pities Mr. Bankes, a judgment Lily thinks is incorrect, stemming from Mrs. Ramsay's needs rather than real insight. As she thinks of her painting, Lily has an epiphany to move the tree closer to the middle; she moves a salt shaker on a tablecloth flower as a reminder.

Bored by the women's conversation, Charles Tansley finds dinner conversation "superficial." He insists, again, a trip to the lighthouse will be impossible. Annoyed by Tansley's sexism and pessimism, Lily believes he is the "most uncharming human being she had ever met." Mockingly, she asks him to take her to the lighthouse. Knowing Lily dislikes him, he snaps at her, too. Ashamed Lily made him angry, Tansley wants to work in his room. Regretful, he searches for something to say to Mrs. Ramsay, who talks with Mr. Bankes. The two muse over how people drift apart, while Mr. Bankes, too, thinks dinner is a waste of time.

Ignored Tansley is uncomfortable. Aware of social manners Lily smiles, and Mrs. Ramsay asks about his sea-faring experience. He seizes the opportunity to establish himself. Lily begrudgingly asks him to take her to the lighthouse, pleasing Mrs. Ramsay, while Lily internally wanders to human connection: painting. She chooses to be "nice," but believes she and Tansley will "never know" each other. Seeing the salt, her "spirits" rise "so high at the thought of painting tomorrow that she laughed out loud" while Tansley talks.

Mrs. Ramsay wants to talk about the Mannings, but Mr. Bankes avoids the topic. Disappointed, she eavesdrops on conversations in which everyone seems to be listening to others. Against her wishes, Mr. Ramsay remains silent, annoyed because Augustus Carmichael has asked for more soup. However, to her surprise, her husband controls his anger. When she notices Rose and Roger snickering, she asks them to light candles, hoping Mr. Carmichael has not noticed.

The diners adjust to their surroundings, made new by light: fruit, windows, faces. Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle arrive. The main course is served. Minta laments her lost brooch. Mr. Ramsay—finally—speaks, to tease Minta. She acknowledges his admiration, charming him in return.

Mrs. Ramsay feels a pang of jealousy. She wonders if her husband's neediness and her "old" appearance are her fault. Paul fills in Mrs. Ramsay (who wonders whether they are engaged) on the loss of Minta's brooch. Mr. Bankes praises the bœuf en daube, which leads to a conversation about French cooking and the use of vegetable skin.

Seeing all the ways Mrs. Ramsay has gotten her way, Lily finds her "absurd" and "irresistible." She contrasts their lives, then hers and Paul's. Paul tells Lily his plan to find Minta's brooch. When Lily asks if she can accompany him, he laughs at her, causing Lily to meditate on love. She thinks she "need not marry, thank Heaven: she need not undergo that degradation."

While others pick at fruit and laugh among themselves, Mrs. Ramsay senses the party is over, waiting for a lull in conversation to clean. She decides she likes Charles Tansley. When she is about to stand, her husband recites a poem. At its close, he turns directly to her and bows. In this moment, she feels he likes her "better" than ever before. He holds the door for her, and she senses the dinner is "already the past."

Analysis

By far the longest chapter, its length anchors the dinner party scene as the novel's heart, a point of climax. The stream-of-consciousness narrative and shifting points of view create an abundance of figurative language, which may jar and estrange readers. William Bankes looks at his hand on the tablecloth as a "mechanic examines a tool beautifully polished and ready for use." Moments later, in conversation with Mrs. Ramsay, he feels like boots "soaked and gone to dry so that you can hardly force your feet into them." It appears as if characters are so challenged by engaging with one another they can no longer articulate how they feel, and thus speak in similes or metaphors. The language has a dizzying and, possibly alienating, effect on the characters and readers as well. The images are original and vivid, so characters and readers may be processing these figures of speech, distracting their attention from the dinner itself.

Additionally, multiple conversations at the dinner table exclude, and thereby alienate, some guests, like Tansley who does not know the social manners involved in making small talk at a dinner party. This distancing intensifies the alienation by putting together in one room for an extended time period 15 characters who struggle to connect one-on-one. The threat of a single misstep destroying the occasion looms: a burnt entrée, laughter, or Shakespeare. While others wish to retreat, Lily has an epiphany at the table, deciding to remedy the "awkward space" by moving the tree to the middle of her painting, reflecting Mrs. Ramsay's central position. The symbol of the tree represents Mrs. Ramsay and her central position in her home, the life, love, and connection she provides. The painting brings Lily understanding.

Tansley's reassertion about not going to the lighthouse brings up its symbolic inaccessibility. At dinner the guests seem, as Lily calls Mrs. Ramsay, "remote," which is how the lighthouse appears from the house. The extended metaphor, which begins with Mrs. Ramsay "drifting," culminates with her looking to Mr. Bankes, "as if the ship had turned and the sun had struck its sails again." This metaphor evokes an earlier scene in which Mrs. Ramsay holds on to a sight or sound—the third stroke of the lighthouse—to avoid retreating into thoughts.

At the start of dinner Mr. Ramsay's silence confuses Mrs. Ramsay, and she is baffled by her former affection for him. During dinner, she feels "outside" of everything, remote, inaccessible like the lighthouse, to which Tansley has tactlessly referred. This distance Mrs. Ramsay feels enables her to see "things truly," suggesting the love lost toward her husband is lasting, that what she see is reality, not an ideal. The exhaustion from her efforts seems to peak in this scene, graduating to resignation. She allows conversations to happen without her, almost as if she were conducting an experiment to test whether her family and friends can survive without her, foreshadowing her death.

Sometimes she forges a connection between two people and then quickly exits the conversation, representing the importance of her role in creating harmony and thus deepening the theme of love and loss. Later Mrs. Ramsay is the first to exit the room, another foreshadowing of her death, but also a social convention left over from the Victorian era.

Conflict arises as people fail to connect. Mrs. Ramsay, who feels responsible for the dinner's social harmony, enlists the help of her allies. Yet Mr. Ramsay disregards her willing him to talk, showing his stubborn childishness and developing the theme of reality versus the ideal. As guests discuss fishermen's wages, she knows her husband thinks them an important topic, one he can't "sleep for thinking of them," yet he pouts over Mr. Carmichael's request for more soup rather than connect with others.

Sometimes characters come to her aid—Lily, reluctantly, with Charles Tansley; William Bankes because of his secret love for Mrs. Ramsay; and Minta Doyle because of her flirtation with Mr. Ramsay—without her having to ask when Mr. Ramsay veers into the danger of becoming self-conscious about his pervading lack of success at the mention of William Shakespeare.

Yet many dislike the dinner as they address its shallowness and their own. The situation creates tension and develops the theme of internal life as minds drift and guests wish to be elsewhere—and are in their internal lives. The narration even includes collective thoughts during the party—"All of them ... thought, 'Pray heaven ... my mind may not be exposed.'" The Mannings, a mutual acquaintance of Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes, come up in conversation. When Mr. Bankes asks Mrs. Ramsay if he should "give her love" to Carrie, her estranged friend with a "new billiard room," she says no, making him think, "friendships, even the best of them, are frail things."

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