As they progress toward the Lighthouse, Cam looks at the shore and feels that it has become "more distant and more peaceful." When the boat slows down, the world seems to stand still, with both the Lighthouse and the shore seeming immovable and fixed. At this moment, they all feel closer to one another. As Mr. Ramsay reads, James remains fearful that his father will become impatient and speak sharply to him, demanding something impossible. James feels a surge of violence again at the thought of tyranny and despotism, at the thought of his father demanding that he do something he does not want to do. He decides that if Mr. Ramsay does scold him, he will strike him in the heart with a knife.
James tries to understand the source of this anger, and he recalls a time in the past when his father told him that it would rain tomorrow and they would not be able to go to the Lighthouse. He also remembers how his mother would stiffen at Mr. Tansley's demands, leaving James's side in order to tend to Mr. Ramsay's needs, which made James feel impotent and ridiculous. His father's presence is still oppressive to him. James stops thinking, the wind finally picks up, and everyone feels relieved as the boat continues toward the Lighthouse.
Looking out over the bay, Lily considers the extraordinary power of distance. She contemplates how the bay seemed to swallow up the Ramsays.
Cam looks at the island where the Ramsays' house is, seeing the island for the first time from the sea. She tells herself a story of adventure about escaping from a sinking ship. She feels liberated by the passing away of her father's anger, James's obstinacy, and her own anguish. She thinks back to the times when she would come in from the garden to find her father talking with another old gentleman in the study, reading the Times and conversing. Remembering his kindness at these times, Cam now thinks that her father is not vain or tyrannical. She wants James to see it, too, but she knows that he would be unconvinced. As the island becomes blurry in the distance, Cam realizes that she feels incredibly safe in Mr. Ramsay's presence, and she again murmurs, "how we perished, each alone."
Looking at the sea, Lily meditates further on the effects of distance, thinking about how distance can change how people feel about each other. She notices that she feels differently about Mr. Ramsay, who now is far away and remote, than she does about Mr. Carmichael. The house remains still, and this early morning quiet makes the situation seem unreal to Lily. She supposes that the boaters will reach the Lighthouse by lunchtime, and she suddenly becomes distressed to note the disproportionate arrangement of ships on the sea.
Lily returns to her painting, wanting to start afresh with a new and invigorating impulse, and she urges herself to wait for it. She looks over at Mr. Carmichael, thinking about his newfound fame and imagining what his poetry must be like, and then thinking about Mr. Carmichael's dislike of Mrs. Ramsay. She thinks of Charles Tansley, his fellowship, his marriage, and the time that she heard him denouncing the war and advocating brotherly love, which seemed entirely inconsistent with the man whom she had known.
Lily determines that, in order to truly see and understand Mrs. Ramsay, a person would need fifty pairs of eyes. She considers the Ramsays' marriage, concluding that it did not constitute matrimonial bliss, what with her impulses and his temper. Lily recalls their brooding silences and the way that Mrs. Ramsay would evade her husband, pretending not to see him.
Suddenly, a figure appears fleetingly at the drawing-room window, causing Lily to feel a sense of torture and a longing for Mrs. Ramsay. She cries out the woman's name, horrified by gripping desperation. She wonders where the boat is; she now desires Mr. Ramsay's presence.
James notices that his father, who is still reading, looks very old. He thinks that the two of them share a sense of loneliness as truth. They are approaching the Lighthouse, and James is pleased with its "stark and straight" appearance. Mr. Ramsay grows hungry and announces that it is lunchtime.
Macalister's boy points out the location where three men drowned, frightening James and Cam. Finally, Mr. Ramsay praises James, telling him that he has steered them successfully, and Cam knows that this support is exactly what James has wanted. From their boat, they can see two men at the Lighthouse ready to meet them. James and Cam watch Mr. Ramsay as he watches the distant island, both wondering what he is thinking. As they approach, Mr. Ramsay jumps up with parcels for the Lighthouse men in his hands, and his children join him.
Though she is tired from the effort of looking at the distant Lighthouse and the Ramsays' boat, Lily decides that "He must have reached it" and feels relieved. She believes that she has now given Mr. Ramsay what she was incapable of giving him earlier that morning. Mr. Carmichael stands beside her, and a silent understanding passes between them.
Suddenly, Lily turns back to her painting. She is no longer concerned about what will happen to it once it is finished. Looking at the empty steps and the blurred canvas, she paints a single line down the center. She finally feels that she is finished--she has had her vision.
In a novel that succeeds at distancing itself so fully from the tradition of standard, omniscient narrative, it is no wonder that it ends at the very moment when the characters merge with the key symbol of the narrator. Reaching the Lighthouse is symbolic of closing the divide that allowed subjective consciousness to thrive; entering the realm of the Lighthouse draws the characters into a place where they cannot independently exist. (They never quite could, since the author was always behind the narrator; the Lighthouse always did reach the Ramsays' house with its light.) This passage to the non-conscious and permanent witness is not a full closing of the divide, since the island and Lily Briscoe remain outside of the union, Lily with paintbrush in hand.
As the Ramsays move closer and closer to the Lighthouse, Lily is progressively more prepared to achieve her artistic vision. Ten years after she made her first attempt, she is finally able to complete her endeavor, in large part because this novel constructs distance as crucial for the creation of art. Lily's declaration that "it was finished" refers both to her painting and to Woolf's book, now that Lily herself claims the title of artist-creator. She now encompasses both the figures of Mrs. Ramsay and the Lighthouse, watching the family from a distance. She has become their witness and the one who makes their lives perceptible to the reader.
The conclusion of the novel also portrays Lily relinquishing her need for stabilty and permanence. She now is content to exist solely in and for the present. Since it has been a symbol of stability and endurance, the Lighthouse is no longer needed for this purpose; it becomes completely obscured by distance and haze. It seems to melt into the haze, suggesting the instability of the Lighthouse even as a distinct physical object.
When Mr. Ramsay reaches the Lighthouse, the unity is not just literal (in that the boat physically converges with the Lighthouse) and symbolic (in that the objective source of light merges with subjective consciousness), but it is also an abstract unity that relates this moment in time with the events of ten years before. Although unity has served as a symbol of permanence throughout the novel (even for Lily, who wishes to unite herself with Mrs. Ramsay), Lily releases herself from the need for unity, permanence, and stability. She is still on the island, and she does not require complete assurance that Mr. Ramsay has reached the Lighthouse. She is exhausted with the effort involved with meeting her need for symbolic stability, and her new perspective permits her to relinquish this need entirely.
Lily's final artistic gesture is also a representation of this general relinquishing of control. Throughout the novel, Lily has intended to find stability and order not in marriage, as Mrs. Ramsay suggests, but in the simple act of moving the tree in her painting more to the middle of the canvas. Like the Lighthouse, the tree is a symbol of stability and permanence, although its ability to be moved undermines its position and lends it an undeniable transience. In the final moments of the novel, Lily is inspired to complete the painting that she has been struggling with for over ten years, and she fully comes to terms with the fact that it will be hung in attics and destroyed. She no longer feels a need to use her art to tie her to the vast expanses of reality. Instead she is able simply to embrace the ephemeral and beautiful nature of this moment, the moment when distance allows her to be inspired by form and shape. She has no further need of imagining Mrs. Ramsay's shadow on the steps, now that she can do without ideas of stability. She no longer needs even to see her own canvas clearly. Indeed, the tree that she has long intended to draw is represented in her vision as a simple, perfunctory line. The Lighthouse and the tree, which were the ultimate symbols of stability and permanence in the novel, are now made completely unrecognizable. Lily is able to embrace the unstable transience of this moment and finally find artistic and personal fulfillment.