Mrs. Ramsay is about as close as Virginia Woolf ever got to Angelina Jolie: Mrs. Ramsay's beautiful, beloved, charitable, and the mother of many children. (Although, Mr. Ramsay is no Brad Pitt.) But that’s about as far as the similarities go. Mrs. Ramsay isn't a U.N. ambassador, and we very much doubt that she gave birth to, say, James Ramsay in Namibia, as Jolie did with Shiloh. But the point remains: Mrs. Ramsay is the lovely star at the center of the Ramsay family, and at the heart of the novel. Her unexpected death leaves the Ramsay family (and especially Mr. Ramsay) without its anchor.
Mrs. Ramsay is a complex character: she is invested in the importance of marriage between a man and a woman (and all men and all women should definitely be married, according to her), but she clearly sees the flaws in her own marriage. It becomes Mrs. Ramsay's duty to soften her husband's bullying and to support him in public. Even so, she's embarrassed by his constant quoting of poetry in a loud voice, and by his need for praise from the people around him.
In the midst of all of Mr. Ramsay's posturing and performing, he's actually insecure. And it falls to Mrs. Ramsay to soothe those insecurities, because that's what she perceives to be the job of the wife. (We get into this in more detail in the "Lighthouse" section of "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory.")
At the end of Part One, we see a clear division of labor between Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Ramsay: "He found talking much easier than she did," but "she felt herself very beautiful" (1.19.17). He's the one who talks – he's the intellectual one. But she's the one who attracts people and who makes social interactions possible, at least in part because she's beautiful. These are the roles they're each relatively comfortable playing: Mr. Ramsay gets to be the brains if Mrs. Ramsay gets to be the beauty.
The weird thing is, though, that neither of them are completely successful in their gender roles. Mrs. Ramsay loves the flattery of being checked out by the men around her, but she uses this admiration to influence Paul Rayley to marry Minta – a marriage that, Lily Briscoe reveals in the third chapter, is a disaster. Mrs. Ramsay's investment in her traditional gender role as a mother and matchmaker actually damages the people around her.
And Mr. Ramsay spends much of the first chapter secretly wondering why he can't complete the line of logical reasoning that would prove that he's really a genius. Those around him – William Bankes, Charles Tansley, and even Mrs. Ramsay – think to themselves that his last book was perhaps not his best book. The effort of trying to be the intellectual head of both his family (with the rebellious James) and of his social circle (with the ever-striving Charles Tansley) eats away at him inside.
The thing that's interesting about Mrs. Ramsay and her partnership with Mr. Ramsay is that Mr. Ramsay is obviously the oppressive patriarch. But Mrs. Ramsay's pretty darn oppressive, too, in a much subtler way. She's got this total love/hate thing going with Lily Briscoe, who adores Mrs. Ramsay but who also feels that, by being beautiful and completely stubborn, Mrs. Ramsay makes people do things that they wouldn't otherwise do (witness the terrible marriage between Paul and Minta):
But beauty was not everything. Beauty had this penalty — it came too readily, came too completely. It stilled life — froze it. One forgot the little agitations; the flush, the pallor, some queer distortion, some light or shadow, which made the face unrecognisable for a moment and yet added a quality one saw for ever after. It was simpler to smooth that all out under the cover of beauty. (3.5.19)
The criticism that Lily's offering here of Mrs. Ramsay is this: she was great at pulling together her family. But by doing so, she smoothed over all of the complexities and individual interests of her children and her friends in favor of a greater whole. Mr. Ramsay is an overt bully, but Mrs. Ramsay quietly influences people to take the shape that she wants them to take, in the name of a greater ideal ("beauty") that Mrs. Ramsay is pursuing. (For more on Lily's love/hate thing, check out the "Character Roles" section under "Foils.")
Mrs. Ramsay thrives on male companionship, because she sets herself up as a kind of Superwoman: she gives great dinner parties and she raises eight children, yet she still has the energy to be effortlessly beautiful. And what better way is there to show off her womanhood than to be surrounded by men?
The thing is, though, when we talk about the symbol of "The Lighthouse" in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory," we mention that one of the themes of this book is the gap between the ideal and the real. And there's definitely a gap here: Mrs. Ramsay works so hard to be a perfect wife that it freaks her out when Mr. Ramsay can't quite fill the role of perfect husband and father:
She did not like, even for a second, to feel finer than her husband; and further, could not bear not being entirely sure, when she spoke to him, of the truth of what she said (that Mr. Ramsay is not a failure). Universities and people wanting him, lectures and books and their being of the highest importance—all that she did not doubt for a moment; but it was their relation, and his coming to her like that, openly, so that any one could see, that discomposed her; for then people said he depended on her, when they must know that of the two he was infinitely the more important, and what she gave the world, in comparison with what he gave, negligible. (1.7.7)
There are two things about Mr. Ramsay that are worrying Mrs. Ramsay in this passage: the first is that he comes to her directly and announces that he's a failure. So he's exposing his weakness to her in the showiest, most ostentatious way possible. For Mrs. Ramsay, it's as though he's suddenly strolled into the drawing room completely naked.
The whole point, for her, of manhood, is that it's all about hiding its weakness. She likes men "for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance" (1.1.7). In her heart of hearts, she doubts that a real man would come up to his wife and say, "Lady, I'm not brave and I've never managed to negotiate a treaty, rule India, or control finance." Yet, Mr. Ramsay is insecure enough to have done exactly that.
And what's all of her effort to become Superwoman worth if it's not going to be lavished on a Superman? Mr. Ramsay makes Mrs. Ramsay doubt what she's doing. And that's the second thing that's bothering Mrs. Ramsay in this passage. It's not just that she feels embarrassed by Mr. Ramsay's lack of emotional control in public, it's also that she hates to acknowledge that both she and Mr. Ramsay suspect that she (Mrs. Ramsay) is worth more than Mr. Ramsay. And that doesn't fit into the traditional model of motherhood that Mrs. Ramsay is so clearly invested in.
We definitely don't want to give the impression that Mrs. Ramsay is just some kind of monster, though. She's not just using her influence to make people do what they don't want to do ("having brought it all about, [she] somehow laughed, led her victims [...] to the altar" (1.17.48), as Lily Briscoe says). The Way of Mrs. Ramsay is actually relatively positive. For one thing, she seems to be the only character in the novel that cares at all about the differences between rich and poor:
It seemed to her such nonsense – inventing differences, when people, heaven knows, were different enough without that. The real differences, she thought, standing by the drawing-room window, are enough, quite enough. She had in mind at the moment, rich and poor, high and low. (1.1.14)
The Ramsay kids get pretty snooty at Charles Tansley because he's awkward and can't play cricket. But Mrs. Ramsay (who also isn't that fond of Charles Tansley) isn't having it. In fact, it's precisely those social questions of correct dress and decent public behavior that Mrs. Ramsay smoothes over. She's all about facilitating social situations and making people comfortable (even if they're being jerks; check out the dinner party scene in Part One, Chapter Seventeen).
What Mrs. Ramsay dedicates herself to is charitable work. She's so compassionate that she has energy to spare from raising eight children to think of the Lighthouse keeper and his sickly son. But maybe this isn't as great as it appears. We get into this in "The Lighthouse" as a symbol, but we'll just say here that the problem with considering gender discrimination and class discrimination separately is that they're actually part of the same larger system. Mrs. Ramsay is good to the poor, but by supporting the status quo of the traditional family, she's actually maintaining the social structures of domination that keep some people poor and some people rich.
Still, Woolf finds value in Mrs. Ramsay's charitable efforts and daily family work. Maybe she's not some giant revolutionary trying to overthrow the Man, but her work shouldn't be devalued because of that.