While there are many things going on in this section, the use of contrasts stands out. While people or things are played off each other (or even itself), many times there is an undercurrent showing their similarity. A few that I noticed (definitely not a comprehensive list) are noted below:
- Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsay—there is a conflict of roles between the two women, or rather a difference of opinion on what a woman’s role should be. Mrs. Ramsay thought “an unmarried woman has missed the best of life.” While Lily enjoys being with the Ramsays, Mrs. Ramsay in particular, she had no “sexual feeling” and enjoyed being alone at times. Yet both women ponder their feelings of inadequacy and insignificance.
- Mr. Ramsay and Mrs. Ramsay—Mr. Ramsay depends on Mrs. Ramsay for support as well as adoration. He wonders if his work will be significant enough to last beyond his lifetime. Mrs. Ramsay nurtures him as well as the rest of the family, feeling subordinate to his intellect even while providing what he requires (or rather demands). Both are self-seeking in their own ways, Mr. Ramsay through his work to build his ego while Mrs. Ramsay helps other for self-satisfaction and praise.
- James Ramsay and Mr. Ramsay—both fight for the attention of Mrs. Ramsay. Yet both are lost in their own worlds. James, because he is only 6 years old with the related consciousness of that age, is unable to completely understand feelings or express himself. Mr. Ramsay has a superior ability to communicate and understand, yet chooses to slam “his private door” on his family at times. Both James and Mr. Ramsay display a volatile nature, their attitude radically changing and dependent on what is going on around them.
- William Bankes and Mr. Ramsay—old friends who have drifted apart over the years, yet Mr. Bankes still vacations with the family apparently out of habit (“repetition”). Both men adored Mrs. Ramsay, although in differing ways—Mr. Ramsay for what she provides him, Mr. Bankes simply because Mrs. Ramsay was a wonderful person that he viewed with “rapture.” The Ramsay children appear to treat both men similarly, avoiding them if at all possible.
- The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Fisherman and His Wife—two stories mentioned in this section that are very different. The Light Brigade memorializes the bravery and daring of soldiers in a suicidal charge. The Fisherman’s Wife is one of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, providing an example of increasing greed and lack of satisfaction or appreciation of what one has. The irony is that Mr. Ramsay quotes the Light Brigade while “he shivered; he quivered” with his needy demands. Mrs. Ramsay read the Fisherman’s Wife to James, while setting the perfect example of being happy with what one has. The further irony is when Mr. Ramsay misquotes the Light Brigade, shouting “Boldly we rode and well,” instead of using Tennyson’s respectful and distancing “they.”
- Mr. Ramsay’s work—Lily Briscoe imagines something so monumental and abstract in Mr. Ramsay’s thought, while the reader views his actual internal monologue.
- The sea—several times the image of the sea eventually engulfing the land is used, in conjunction with the enormity of time and the universe as compared to the brevity of life. Yet the sea also provides a soothing consolation in addition to beautiful scenery that the characters enjoy.
In many of the relationships mentioned above, there is a distance between the characters that cannot be bridged. Lily questions “How did one judge people, think of them?” Later she asks herself how “did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were?” Woolf makes us aware that each person has overflowing thoughts of which we barely or rarely are invited in to see. While that isn't an earth-shattering revelation, the approach is heightened by the ever-changing feelings we are allowed to see. The ‘self’ is a complex thing, changing rapidly and sometimes dramatically. These changes aren't always apparent to others. While we are allowed a view inside, all the other characters get are impressions (often contradictory) to guide them in understanding others.
In addition to the difficulty of comprehending others, Lily’s painting exhibits the difficulty of capturing what we see and translating it into art. She differentiates between what is physically there versus her sensual view of it, stressing repeatedly “This is what I see.” Lily tries to call up the “vision which she had seen clearly once” but has trouble capturing on canvas. The translation from sensing a scene to representing what she saw shows the struggle to create and interpret. Mrs. Ramsay and Charles Tansley denigrate her efforts, but she perseveres in the attempt to faithfully capture what she experienced. In contrast to Lily is Mr. Ramsay, who is unable to convey “This is what I like—this is what I am” (echoing Lily’s “This is what I see) in regards to his work. He tears down all art in response to his inability to reach a higher point in his thought. Mr. Ramsay questions the utility of art in improving civilization, as well doubting its lasting nature. That he will be teaching the works and events of a century or more before the present time to his students is lost on him. As is the example of why his students come to him or why Lily Briscoe attempts to paint—self-expression and personal achievement. Personal improvement outside of lasting acknowledgment means little to him as he attempts to avoid his own oblivion through his work.
There is one moment in this section where tranquility occurs and that is when Mr. Bankes views Mrs. Ramsay. His rapture causes him to step outside of time for a brief moment, and the tranquility and happiness is on display for Lily to see.