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Day 7

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Part I, Chapter 17 (through "looking together united them.")

May 7, 2023 by Mona Simpson

Chapter 17 clocks in at twenty pages in my edition. Following the one-sentence-long Chapter 15, this thrills me: the dinner party at last!

Even a great hostess, like Mrs. Ramsay, who, a moment ago, descended into the dining room “like some queen who, finding her people gathered in the hall, looks down upon them, and descends among them, and acknowledges their tributes silently, and accepts their devotion and their prostration before her” finds social life trying:

“‘But what have I done with my life?’ thought Mrs. Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table, and looking at all the plates making white circles on it.”

The party falls flat. Mrs. Ramsay not only can’t remember why she likes her guests, but she can’t seem to locate any feeling for her husband.

“She could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion or affection for him. She had a sense of being past everything, through everything, out of everything, as she helped the soup… The room (she looked round it) was very shabby. There was no beauty anywhere. She forebore to look at Mr. Tansley. Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate.”

Everyone feels awkward, unappreciated and miserable.


“He had been reading in his room, and now he came down and it all seemed to him silly, superficial, flimsy. Why did they dress? He had come down in his ordinary clothes. He had not got any dress clothes… They did nothing but talk, talk, talk, eat, eat, eat. It was the women’s fault. Women made civilization impossible with all their “charm,” all their silliness… If only he could be alone in his room working, he thought, among his books. That was where he felt at his ease.”

Mr. Bankes, used to dining alone, finds the dinner party impossibly slow. (Does anyone relate, besides Tansley?) Bankes feels annoyed when Mrs. Ramsay has to interrupt their conversation to tell something to the maid.

“It would have hurt her if he had refused to come. But it was not worth it for him. Looking at his hand he thought that if he had been alone dinner would have been almost over now; he would have been free to work. Yes, he thought, it is a terrible waste of time. The children were dropping in still… Yet, he thought, she is one of my oldest friends. I am by way of being devoted to her. Yet now, at this moment her presence meant absolutely nothing to him: her beauty meant nothing to him; her sitting with her little boy at the window—nothing, nothing. He wished only to be alone and to take up that book… The truth was that he did not enjoy family life. It was in this sort of state that one asked oneself, What does one live for? Why, one asked oneself, does one take all these pains for the human race to go on? Is it so very desirable? Are we attractive as a species? Not so very, he thought, looking at those rather untidy boys… it had struck him… that friendships, even the best of them, are frail things.”

The party continues on miserably. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay—at opposite ends of the long table—have a silent, kabuki fight.

Mr. Ramsay is furious at the old poet, Augustus Carmichael, for making the dinner drag on, by asking for another bowl of soup.

“And why not? Mrs. Ramsay demanded. Surely they could let Augustus have his soup if he wanted it. He hated people wallowing in food, Mr. Ramsay frowned at her. He hated everything dragging on for hours like this. (Like Mr. Bankes.) But he had controlled himself, Mr. Ramsay would have her observe, disgusting though the sight was. But why show it so plainly, Mrs. Ramsay demanded (they looked at each other down the long table sending these questions and answers across, each knowing exactly what the other felt).

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