Augustus Carmichael is an unhappy opium user who visits the Ramsays' house each year as an escape. He does not trust Mrs. Ramsay. Though she goes out of her way to be friendly to him, he does not respond, and Mrs. Ramsay knows that this is because of his wife, who is "odious" and controlling, causing Mr. Carmichael to shrink from Mrs. Ramsay. This rejection causes Mrs. Ramsay emotional injury, for it forces her to consider that all of her generous impulses are only an indication of her self-satisfying vanity. It makes her "aware of the pettiness of some part of her," as well as of the self-serving aspect of human relationships.
Mrs. Ramsay turns her thoughts back to James, her most sensitive child, and decides that she should continue reading the story to him. As she reads, her thoughts wander to her husband, who has stopped (as usual) at the hedge in front of the house.
As Mr. Ramsay looks through the window at his wife and son, the narrative shifts to his speculation on an article in the Times about the Americans who visit William Shakespeare's house every year. He reflects on greatness and progress, and he tries to imagine how different the world would have been without Shakespeare. In order to assuage his own sense of failure, he wants to believe that "the world exists for the average human being; that the arts are merely a decoration imposed on the top of human life; they do not express it: Nor is Shakespeare necessary to it." He tries to disparage greatness and exalt the ordinary man in order to protect his own pride in the event that he never achieves the success that he wants.
As he ponders, Mr. Ramsay takes his habitual walk, pausing to stand alone on a piece of land being eroded by the sea and thinking that this erosion to nonexistence is also his own fate. He believes that it is his fate to confront the ephemerality and superfluity of human existence, and it is his very tendency to acknowledge his own insignificance that inspires reverence in others. However, as he looks at Mrs. Ramsay, he deprecates his own sense of domestic comfort, feeling personally unjustified and nonsensical in his method of finding happiness in a world of misery. Lily Briscoe and William Bankes, however, see Mr. Ramsay's self-deprecation as the disguise of a man afraid to confront his own feelings, though Lily admits that the shift from Mr. Ramsay's thoughts to the preoccupations of the domestic world must be great. Mr. Ramsay looks at the sea and turns away.
Mr. Bankes regrets that Mr. Ramsay behaves so unusually. For her part, though Lily Briscoe does not mind his self-importance, she is bothered by his narrowness of mind. The two friends watch Mr. Ramsay, and Mr. Bankes tries to extract Lily's agreement that Mr. Ramsay is "a bit of a hypocrite," but as he advances towards them, Lily feels that he is sincere and true, and she reflects upon the flood of love that she feels for the Ramsays.
Just as Lily is about to offer a criticism of Mrs. Ramsay to balance the criticism of her husband, she turns to Mr. Bankes and sees a youthful and powerful love in his eyes as he watches Mrs. Ramsay through the window. This rapture makes Lily forget what she was going to say, and she feels eased and grateful for such depth of emotion.
Lily then looks back at her painting and becomes upset, feeling that her own work is "infinitely bad," and she considers how she might have painted it differently. As she focuses her thoughts again on Mrs. Ramsay's loveliness, she muses that women are less capable of worship than men are. She thinks of how Mrs. Ramsay has tried to convince her that "an unmarried woman has missed the best of life," but Lily does not want to marry, for she enjoys her solitude and her work.
Lily now recollects a time when she sat on the floor with her arms around Mrs. Ramsay's knees, feeling that Mrs. Ramsay had some sacred knowledge about the world. In that moment, Lily longed for unity with Mrs. Ramsay, convinced that intimacy was indeed knowledge. She feels a new sense of intimacy with Mr. Bakes when he turns his gaze on Lily's painting, though she has to remind herself that she must let someone see it. When Mr. Bankes asks her what she has intended to portray with the triangular purple shape, Lily replies that it is a depiction of Mrs. Ramsay reading to James.
Mrs. Ramsay's daughter Cam dashes past Mr. Ramsay and Lily's painting, and she does not stop running until Mrs. Ramsay calls her name for the second time. Her mother sends her to ask Mildred (the family's domestic assistant) whether or not Andrew, Minta Doyle, and Paul Rayley have returned yet. When Cam returns to tell her that they have not returned, Mrs. Ramsay suspects that Paul has proposed and Minta has accepted. James tugs at Mrs. Ramsay to ask that she continue reading.
As she reads, Mrs. Ramsay thinks about having urged Paul and Minta, after lunch, to take a walk together. She considers that it would be unacceptable for Minta to be out with Paul for so long if they were not engaged, and she thinks about Minta's parents, who are far different from their tomboyish daughter. Minta's mother, among others, had accused Mrs. Ramsay of being domineering and of robbing them of Minta's affections, but Mrs. Ramsay thinks the charges are untrue.
Mrs. Ramsay thinks of James and Cam, lamenting the fact that they must grow up. Though she believes that all of her children are gifted, she is most impressed with James, and she is sure that he will never be this happy again. Mr. Ramsay thinks that it is nonsensical to take such a "gloomy" view of life, and Mrs. Ramsay believes that despite his gloom and desperation, Mr. Ramsay is truly happier and more hopeful than she is. She feels that she is in a constant battle with life, which looms terrible before her.
Though Mrs. Ramsay persuades people to marry and have children, she recognizes that she might have made these same choices too early. She wonders whether she and Mr. Ramsay share the unnamed element essential to marriage.
As it grows later and darker, Mrs. Ramsay becomes anxious that Andrew, Minta, and Paul have not returned. She looks at James and then at the three strokes of the Lighthouse as it is being lit, two short and one long. Mildred enters to take James to bed before he has a chance to ask about going to the Lighthouse again, but Mrs. Ramsay can see that he is thinking about it, and she suspects that he will remember this disappointment for the rest of his life.
This section of the novel begins a discourse on art that will continue through to the end. Woolf explicitly offers Lily Briscoe's somewhat rough and vague artistic philosophy as the painter stands before her canvas, unable to formulate or enact her vision. Looking at the various objects in her visual field ("hedges and houses and mothers and children"), she is at a loss about how to connect them. Her painting must be mainly about unity, about the drawing together of disparate elements to create a unified and cohesive work.
The art of unity and cohesion is a theme that resonates throughout the text and is strengthened in later chapters with Mrs. Ramsay's (and even Mr. Ramsay's) attempts at drawing together the people and moments that are separated from one another. Coherence (of people, paintings, and moments) is an issue of central importance throughout the novel. Mrs. Ramsay is principally concerned with the merging of people, as she demonstrates in the dinner scene. She hates the fact that her children notice people's differences and distinctions, while she wants only to focus on points of connection and coherence. In this way, Mrs. Ramsay is an artist of the social realm. Mr. Ramsay, though highly intellectual by nature and concerned with distinctions and categorizations (his physical domain, after all, is by the hedge, which is a symbol of divison and distinction), is also ultimately concerned with merging and coherence. To make a lasting contribution is to bring a common element to all the time periods where the contribution is appreciated. Later, wanting to reconnect to his dead wife and her living wishes, he will draw past and present moments together by finally enacting the Lighthouse trip.
These chapters also solidify some latent feminist themes that persist throughout the novel. Though Mrs. Ramsay is a fairly typical feminine wife-mother, the novel abounds with women who do not behave conventionally and who demand a level of control and independence that would have been seen, at the time, as quite masculine. Despite Mrs. Ramsay's pleadings and warnings, Lily refuses to marry. Like Mr. Ramsay, she is committed to her work and longs for recognition. She is an independent and solitary figure who remains unmarried by choice and not by necessity, which stands in direct contradiction to the social norms in Britain at the time (as verbalized by Mrs. Ramsay). When Charles Tansley, a more exreme upholder of misogynist views, tells Lily that women can neither write nor paint, Lily resists the pressure to shrink under his offensive reprimands.
Even so, Lily is not entirely free from the pressure to fulfill conventional expectations about her gender role, for she often feels guilt or that she has failed when she does not meet these expectations. Later, she will not be able to offer Mr. Ramsay the sympathy that he so desperately wants, which will lead her to feel ineffective as a woman.
Mrs. Ramsay's four daughters, Prue, Rose, Nancy, and Cam, also rebel against the traditional female model. For Prue and Rose, the rebellion is mainly silent. Though they behave as others expect of them, they secretly long for a very different existence than the one that their mother leads. They are uninterested in being entirely consumed by fulfilling the role of wife-mother. For Nancy and Cam, the rebellion is somewhat more evident. Nancy is to reveal her independence during her walk with Paul and Minta. At the end of the novel, she will reveal that she is not a domestic woman when she forgets to order sandwiches for the expedition to the Lighthouse. Cam is seen devilishly darting across the lawn, ignoring the stereotypical female characteristics of being soft, quiet, and obedient. She does not comply with Mrs. Ramsay's first request for her to return, and she puts up great resistance against her father at the end of the novel.
Minta is also an independent woman with stereotypically male characteristics. Mrs. Ramsay remembers that Minta used to walk around with a hole in her stocking and marvels at how different she is from her parents. She describes Minta as a "tomboy." Even Mrs. Ramsay herself, despite her seemingly complete contentment with her feminine role and her encouragement to others to marry early, sometimes wonders if she made a mistake by choosing this path so quickly. She wonders if other women should postpone such important choices.
Chapter X directly addresses the phenomenon of consciousness, demonstrating (and even explicitly commenting upon) Mrs. Ramsay's capacity to read to James and, simultaneously, to be engaged in a constant stream of thought and speculation. The novel captures the idea of layered consciousness and explores the ways in which thought occurs at different levels.