Prue responds to Mrs. Ramsay's question from the end of chapter XIII, saying that she thinks that Nancy did go with Minta and Paul on their walk.
Mrs. Ramsay considers that Paul is less likely to have proposed with Nancy present. Suddenly, Jasper and Rose enter the room, relaying Mildred's question about postponing dinner until all of the guests have returned, and Mrs. Ramsay declines to do so. She is irritated by the tardiness of the four who set out on their walk, feeling that this is a special occasion on account of Mr. Bankes's final willingness to attend.
Mrs. Ramsay charges the children with the task of choosing her necklace, knowing that Rose particularly appreciates this privilege. Mrs. Ramsay once again thinks of her children growing up, and she is saddened by the prediction that Rose will grow and suffer.
As Mrs. Ramsay watches the birds through the window and broaches the topic of Jasper shooting them, Jasper feels rebuked. He then feels ignored as Mrs. Ramsay turns her attention to a noise in the hall indicating that the four tardy adventurers have returned.
Mrs. Ramsay walks downstairs, accepting her guests' quiet "tribute to her beauty" as though she were a queen, and she wonders if Paul has proposed. The clamor of a gong announces dinner.
Sitting at the head of the table, Mrs. Ramsay instructs her guests where to sit, indicating that Mr. Bankes should sit beside her. She notices Mr. Ramsay at the other end of the table, frowning, but she feels indifferent to him at the moment, feeling that it had all "come to an end." She silently laments that the room is shabby and that "nothing seemed to have merged," knowing that "the whole of the effort of flowing and creating rested on her." This thought brings her to action. She makes small talk with Mr. Bankes, feeling a sense of pity for him that Lily Briscoe detects. Lily remains removed from the conversation, thinking of her painting and deciding that she will fix it tomorrow by moving the tree more toward the middle.
Mr. Tansley is disgusted by the "rot" they all talk. He avoids participating in the conversation and considers that the silliness of women makes civilization "impossible." He asserts himself toward Mrs. Ramsay by reiterating that they will not go to the Lighthouse the next day.
Lily questions her concern for Mr. Tansley's chauvinistic opinions about women, and when she addresses him, Mr. Tansley is well aware of the fact that she is doing so only to annoy him, because it is clear to him that she (with all of them) despises him. Mr. Tansley wishes to be alone in his room, working, but he also wants to prove to Mrs. Ramsay that he is not a "dry prig." However, when he turns to speak to her, Mrs. Ramsay is already talking with William Bankes about an old friend, Carrie Manning, with whom she has lost touch. Mr. Bankes tells her that "people soon drift apart," and he reflects on his own frustration at his feeling of obligation to attend this dinner on account of his friendship with Mrs. Ramsay although he has nothing to say to her and would rather be working. He and Mrs. Ramsay make small talk as a way of imposing order and uniformity on the situation, and Mr. Tansley notices its insincerity, feeling that it is all nonsense and longing to assert himself again.
They speak of going to the Lighthouse, and Mr. Tansley feels resentful that none of them recognizes his significance. Noticing Mrs. Ramsay's desperation about how the members of the party are getting along, Lily decides to help her by being nice to Mr. Tansley, asking him to take her to the Lighthouse. Feeling that she has made a sizable sacrifice by being insincere, Lily thinks of the weakness of human relations. Her spirits are raised only by the thought of moving the tree to the middle of her painting.
Mrs. Ramsay thinks back twenty years to her friendship with the Mannings, while she realizes that Mr. Bankes no longer wants to talk about them. Mr. Bankes, Lily, and Mrs. Ramsay feel that something is lacking in the party. Indeed each person at the table fears that he or she is the only one who is not interested in the conversation. Wishing that her husband would say something, Mrs. Ramsay looks over at Mr. Ramsay, who is scowling at Augustus Carmichael's request for more soup. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay shoot knowing glances across the table, having a silent argument about the disgracefulness or harmlessness of asking for more soup. She respects Mr. Carmichael for doing what he wishes, even given that he does not like her.
Mrs. Ramsay asks Rose and Roger to light the candles. Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Carmichael are fixated on the dish of fruit at the center of the table, and Mrs. Ramsay feels that this unites them. She also imagines that the candlelight unites them all against the wavering, watery, ethereal world outside.
Minta and Paul arrive, explaining that they were held up by the lost brooch. Mrs. Ramsay decides that he must have proposed and is suddenly jealous of Minta's glowing attractiveness. Mrs. Ramsay directs Paul to sit by her, hoping that he will fill her in. When he uses the word "we" with a sense of meaning, she knows that he has proposed.
As Lily asks Paul about the lost brooch, she has an impulse to help him find it and to be included in their life, but she knows that he is indifferent to her help. She is divided between feeling that love is a beautiful, exciting thing, and conversely that it is the "stupidest, most barbaric of human passions." Appropriately, Mrs. Ramsay, at this moment, is trying to devise a plan to match Lily with Mr. Bankes.
Mrs. Ramsay finally feels a sense of eternity and coherence, which causes her immense joy, peace, and a feeling of stillness. She feels as though she is hanging suspended over the party as the men discuss novels, easily unveiling their thoughts and feelings while she observes them. She continues to watch over the fruit bowl as well, deriving a sense of serenity from the arrangement. She is therefore disturbed when someone takes a piece of fruit. She looks over at her children, who remain removed from the party and seem to be amused by a joke of their own.
At the other end of the table, Mr. Ramsay is telling a story and reciting a poem, and as Mrs. Ramsay looks out the window, she hears only their laughter and voice inflections. When the story is over, she stands and sees her guests out of the dining room, watching as the scene becomes "already the past."
As a woman very concerned with creating a warm and domestic atmosphere, Mrs. Ramsay attempts to create unity among the family and guests who are visiting the summer home. She desperately wants to create lasting and beautiful moments among her guests at the dinner table, but she is forced to recognize the ultimate brevity of this experience even if merging occurs. She despairs at the state of disunity at the beginning of dinner: "Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate. And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her." She wants to eliminate any distance or separations of consciousness between the people at the table, and she feels fully responsible for the creation of something meaningful.
Mrs. Ramsay's goal is finally achieved after she and Augustus Carmichael unite by looking together at the basket of fruit on the table. In this moment, Mrs. Ramsay's vision of unity seems fulfilled, and she revels in the abstract nearness of the people at the meal. She even compares this unified and stable image to the wavering, unsteady, and quickly changing world outside of the window. This comparison serves as an indication that her sense of impermanence in the moment is, in fact, misguided; the dinner will end and the outside environment will continue on as usual. She fully realizes this tension as her guests are leaving; she watches as the scene becomes "already the past." She is no longer able to indulge in the sense of beauty and transcendence by which she earlier had been overcome. She allows herself to confront the fact that the experiences that comprise her conscious reality move so quickly into the past that they almost cease to exist in the present. While Mrs. Ramsay believes in the inescapably ephemeral nature of reality, she is unable to fully release herself from the need to find permanence in her creations of beauty and unity.
Thus, her ability to draw people together in a moment of complete unity is not something permanent; it is Mrs. Ramsay's power of art, as Lily later realizes. If art, as Lily defines it, is about coherence and the joining of disparate elements, Mrs. Ramsay is indeed a masterful artist. Her joy when this moment is finally achieved is a resolution of her disappointment and anxiety at the beginning of the dinner, when coherence was utterly lacking. Though she recognizes, at the end of the meal, that even these most meaningful moments are fleeting, she later finds comfort in the idea that the meal will be remembered by all of her guests and, in that way, she has created a lasting if not permanent work of art.
The dinner scene also draws a parallel between Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsay, for they both reveal their highest powers of human comprehension. Through the narratives of their streams of consciousness during the dinner, the reader becomes aware of how quickly and thoroughly these women are able to comprehend the unspoken thoughts and feelings of those around them. They both are extremely perceptive of the mental lives of others.