As Mrs. Ramsay watches Lily Briscoe and William Bankes pass by outside, she tries to calm James by suggesting that the weather may, in fact, be nice enough to go to the Lighthouse. She uses James as a model against which to measure the stocking that she is knitting for the Lighthouse keeper's boy. As she measures the stocking, her mind is occupied by several domestic thoughts. She believes that Lily and Mr. Bankes should marry. She then considers the house and its state of disrepair. The children love it nevertheless--and it removes Mr. Ramsay from the realm of academia--and it is spacious enough to entertain guests. Though she laments its increasing shabbiness, she accepts the notion that "Things must spoil."
Mrs. Ramsay suddenly emerges from her thoughts to scold James, telling him that he must stand still, and he obeys. The stocking, she determines, is too short, and the narrator twice comments that "Never did anybody look so sad."
The narrative voice then shifts to incorporate many different views concerning Mrs. Ramsay's beauty. Some people doubt that there is anything substantial behind her incomparable, silent beauty. Mr. Bankes's reflections on her beauty predominate; he observes that "she's no more aware of her beauty than a child."
Mrs. Ramsay calms herself and kisses James on the forehead, proposing that they find another picture for him to cut out.
Looking back at Mr. Ramsay, Mrs. Ramsay senses that "someone had blundered"--her husband's vanity is deflated, and he appears outraged and anguished. When Mr. Ramsay veils his torment and playfully tickles James's foot, Mrs. Ramsay delights in the triumph of domesticity. James, however, pushes his father away with hatred, and Mr. Ramsay then reiterates that there is absolutely no possiblity of traveling to the Lighthouse the next day. When Mrs. Ramsay protests that the weather might be fine for traveling, Mr. Ramsay is enraged by his wife's diversion from rationality and fact. Though Mr. Ramsay pursues truth without any consideraton for the feelings of others, Mrs. Ramsay reveres him and feels inferior to him.
Mr. Ramsay resumes his private walk, glancing in at his wife and son through the window as he returns to contemplation. He knows that his intellectual achievements surpass those of most other men, yet he is dissatisfied and longs to achieve the next level of greatness. He draws a parallel between the scope of intellectual greatness and the alphabet. He feels that he has achieved as far as the letter "Q"--which is relatively astounding--yet he fears that he will be a failure if he cannot reach "R." He considers that only about one man in an entire generation ever reaches "Z," and he consoles himself by accepting that it is not his fault that he is not the "chosen" one. He also finds consolation in the thought that even intellectual greatness is ephemeral; even an insignificant pebble will outlast the most revered works of Shakespeare.
The chapter opens as a continuation of the focus on Mr. Ramsay, with James's thoughts of hatred for him. James hates his "exactingness," his egotism, and his demands for sympathy and need to be reassured of his genius--interfering with James's relationship with Mrs. Ramsay. From James's point of view, Mrs. Ramsay has all of the energy and life, and Mr. Ramsay takes it from her. She protects and surrounds those whom she loves, living for them and leaving nothing of herself by which she can even know herself anymore. In fact, Mrs. Ramsay never wants to feel finer than Mr. Ramsay; she wants always to feel subservient, and she allows him to be more important than she is although he depends upon her.
Mr. Carmichael suddenly passes by as she considers the frailty of human relations; he casts a shadow over the page of the book that she is reading to James. For a reason unclear even to Mrs. Ramsay, she calls out to him to ask if he is going indoors.
The major adult characters in To the Lighthouse each have unique ways of creating a sense of stability and permanence admist the chaos and ephemerality of life. In contrast to Mrs. Ramsay's search for stability in the realms of emotion and domesticity, Mr. Ramsey finds stability in the rational domain of philosophical thought. This is the domain in which he also seeks to make a contribution that will transcend his lifetime, providing him with a sense of eternal relevance, though he recognizes the improbability of this aim, knowing that "he would never reach R."
Mr. Ramsay glorifies the idea of the genius and the idea of an individual, like himself, devoting his life to the discovery of truly significant and enduring ideas. Despite the fact that he grasps this notion as his real chance to create something permanent in his lifetime, he cannot deny the fact that he will most likely never achieve this goal. What is more, he acknowledges the meaninglessness and impermanence of any significant contribution to human culture, through his revelation that "The very stone that one kicks with one's boot will outlast Shakespeare." Mr. Ramsay surely understands the ultimate impossibility of permanence in this world, yet he is unable to free himself from this desire to make a lasting impression on it.
He repeatedly mutters the words, "Someone had blundered," which is a line from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson called "The Charge of the Light Brigade." The poem itself recalls a disastrous battle during the Crimean War in which Britain lost many men and jeopardized its forward defenses. In its popular interpretation, the poem is a tribute to heroism and courage in the face of crushing defeat, and thus it bears acute significance for Mr. Ramsay's plight. As he confronts his imminent failure, he searches for ways to glorify the heroic effort instead of the success--after all, philosophers seek but do not achieve wisdom--and he longs for the level of respect and admiration after his death that was granted to the soldiers who lost their own lives fighting valiantly. His preoccupation with glory and his persistence, though seemingly indications of his strength, are actually manifestations of his insecurity and neediness.
In additon to further character development, these chapters also continue the patterns established in the novel's opening by remaining loyal to the idea of reality as subjective. Chapter V incorporates a collection of views about Mrs. Ramsay's beauty, suggesting that as a person, she is truly the sum of all of the different perspectives about her. Also, the text further subordinates action in the external world to the processes of the mind. Dialogue and events are often presented merely parenthetically, as insignificant ornaments for a text dominated by descriptions of thoughts and feelings. The novel asserts that life and reality, in essence, are defined by and created out of people's intimate internal existence.