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Let’s take a moment and establish who’s the fifteen people at dinner: Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, the eight Ramsay kids, Minta, Paul, Augustus Carmichael, Lily, William, and the "odious little" Charles Tansley.
After a brief moment spent questioning what she’s accomplished with her life, Mrs. Ramsay organizes the seating, the food, etc.
As she ladles out soup, Mrs. Ramsay feels a discord over the shabbiness of her surroundings and the separation of her guests. She feels it her sole duty to create beauty and harmony.
Mrs. Ramsay engages William Bankes in conversation.
Lily Briscoe watches Mrs. Ramsay, noticing that she looks old and tired until she begins talking to Mr. Bankes, at which point Mrs. Ramsay brightens up.
It’s clear that Mrs. Ramsay pities William Bankes. According to Lily, Mrs. Ramsay doesn’t pity William because he is pitiful, but because Mrs. Ramsay wants him to be pitiful, heck, needs him to be pitiful, even.
Lily thinks of her painting and realizes that she should put a tree in the middle of it. She moves the salt shaker on the table in front of her to remind herself of that intention later.
Listening to Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes talk about letters, Mr. Tansley is irritated.
Mrs. Ramsay takes pity on Mr. Tansley and tries to draw him into the conversation.
Lily observes that Mrs. Ramsay always pities men, but never women.
Mr. Tansley is bothered by this superficial conversation. He had been reading (presumably something so very important and so very deep) before coming down to dinner. He’s also embarrassed that everyone is dressed nicely and he’s just wearing the same old clothes he has been wearing all day.
Mr. Tansley then thinks mean thoughts about women being superficial and silly. Mean man.
To assert himself and his manliness, he returns to the impossibility of a trip to the Lighthouse tomorrow. If he thinks this makes him attractive to Mrs. Ramsay, he’s definitely wrong.
Lily Briscoe is annoyed at Mr. Tansley, and thinks mean thoughts about him, including that he is the "most uncharming human being she had ever met." She tries to think about her painting in an effort to control her temper.
Lily sweetly asks if she can join Mr. Tansley on the Lighthouse trip, and Mr. Tansley can see that she obviously doesn’t mean a word of it and answers her like a jerk, "you’d be sick."
Then we have a paragraph designed to put us in Mr. Tansley’s shoes and feel sorry for the guy: he’s wearing old flannel trousers; he didn’t mean to sound like a jerk with Mrs. Ramsay listening; he may have crappy clothes but he’s never been in debt; he is even helping his family financially, and educating his sister… yadda yadda yadda. Well, sure, we are feeling a bit more sympathetic now.
Mrs. Ramsay is now talking to Mr. Bankes about an old friend of hers named Carrie.
Mrs. Ramsay feels very uncomfortable that Carrie has gone off and had her own life, and Mrs. Ramsay hasn’t given her a single thought over the years.
Mr. Bankes feels superior because he never loses touch with friends. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have many to keep in touch with.
Mrs. Ramsay breaks off their conversation to talk to the maid, and Mr. Bankes is irritated. He regrets he stayed for dinner in the first place.
When Mrs. Ramsay turns back to him, Mr. Bankes doesn’t really want to talk, but he’s afraid Mrs. Ramsay will realize that he doesn’t give a rat’s behind about her, so he continues chatting with her.
Mr. Tansley daydreams that he’s bragging to his female acquaintances about staying with the famous Ramsays and how they failed to impress him at all.
Mr. Tansley again feels uncomfortable, and looks around the table in the hopes that someone will give him an opportunity to be a jerk again.
Lily can see all this, and knows that social convention deems that she make conversation with the man, but remembering his nasty comments about women’s inability to paint and write, Lily leaves Mr. Tansley to struggle. Alone.
Mrs. Ramsay asks Mr. Tansley if he is a good sailor, and Mr. Tansley gets ready to assert something and show how admirable he is, but he realizes how it would be ludicrous and simply says that he never gets seasick. Which doesn’t really seem like an answer to her question, but we do learn that he has a major chip on his shoulder about having raised himself up by his own bootstraps.
Mrs. Ramsay basically looks at Lily and telepathically tells her to take social pity on the poor, awkward Mr. Tansley.
Lily proceeds to have a completely insincere conversation with Mr. Tansley, which Lily reflects is characteristic of all human interactions.
She is cheered by the thought of painting tomorrow.
Conversation continues largely about fishermen and their wages, but everyone feels that something is lacking. There is no harmony among the group.
Mrs. Ramsay looks down the table at her husband, expecting him to be magnificently holding forth about fishermen and their wages, but he is instead looking very angry that Augustus Carmichael has asked for another bowl of soup.
Mrs. Ramsay knows that her husband hates it when people continue eating after he is finished.
Then the married couple, sitting at opposite ends of the table, have a little mental argument.
Mrs. Ramsay, realizing that Nancy are Roger are about to laugh at their father, calls for the candles to be lit.
Mrs. Ramsay reflects that Mr. Augustus never follows social norms – he does stuff like asking for more soup, takes a liking to Andrew, and lies on the lawn thinking of his poetry (for Mr. Augustus is a poet).
Eight candles are lit along the table and everyone stares at Rose’s fruit arrangement. They are united in that stare.
Minta and Paul finally come in to dinner; Minta fumbles to explain their lateness.
Mr. Ramsay teases Minta, telling her it was foolish to take jewelry to the beach. That’s what their relationship is like, in a nutshell: Minta giggles and flirts and Mr. Ramsay calls her a fool.
Moreover, Minta’s got it going on tonight. She knows it, too, which is why she smiles a wide grin.
Mrs. Ramsay sees the grin and assumes that Minta has gotten engaged to Paul Rayley.
For a split second, Mrs. Ramsay is unexpectedly jealous. She flashes back to her own engagement to her husband.
The boeuf en daube is set on the table as Paul sits down next to Mrs. Ramsay. She asks him to tell her what had happened.
The first word out of Paul’s mouth is "we," and Mrs. Ramsay can immediately tell that he and Minta are engaged.
The boeuf en daube is unveiled and it is a triumph. Mrs. Ramsay says that it is a French recipe of her grandmother’s, and everyone talks about the culinary arts for a while.
Mrs. Ramsay talks about vegetable skins.
Lily sees everyone silently worshipping Mrs. Ramsay.
Lily, envisaging a wonderful rescue, offers to help Paul look for Minta’s brooch tomorrow morning. Paul doesn’t say yes or no. It’s obvious that he just doesn’t care about anything other than his love.
Lily feels upset, then sees the salt shaker and remembers that she will paint tomorrow, and that she doesn’t have to marry. (Apparently, the two are connected.)
Lily feels that staying with the Ramsays causes her to feel two violently opposite emotions at the same time: On the one hand, that love is wonderful, but, on the other hand, it’s childish beyond belief.
Mrs. Ramsay goes on and on about the British dairy system. Everyone laughs at her.
Mrs. Ramsay looks at Lily and Mr. Tansley, concluding that both of them suffer in the presence of the happy Paul and Minta Doyle. Mr. Tansley obviously looks like he feels left out because no woman is going to give him a second glance with Paul in the room, and Lily just seems faded and inconspicuous next to Minta’s beautiful glow.
Mrs. Ramsay does believe, however, that if you compare Lily and Minta at 40, Lily will be the fairer of the two. She has an indefinable something that Mrs. Ramsay likes but is afraid no man will like.
This sets her thinking about how to get Lily and Mr. Bankes together.
Mrs. Ramsay gives Mr. Bankes more boeuf en daube.
Mr. Tansley continues being egotistical and Mrs. Ramsay reflects that he will probably continue being that way until he becomes a professor or gets married.
Mrs. Ramsay tunes in to the conversation about numbers and philosophers, and monitors for topics that could potentially upset her husband and make him think about his failures.
Minta Doyle staves off a potential tantrum by Mr. Ramsay making some inane comment about Shakespeare.
Paul Rayley tries to talk about Anna Karenina. He likes the name Vronsky for a villain.
Paul asks if she wants a pear. Mrs. Ramsay says no and then realizes she’s been guarding the fruit basket jealously, hoping no one would disturb it.
Mrs. Ramsay looks at Prue and sees that Prue has caught some of Minta’s beauty of being in love.
Dinner is over, but Mr. Ramsay is telling Minta some absurd story. Mrs. Ramsay determines to wait until everyone is done laughing.
She decides she likes Charles Tansley.
One story leads to another.
Mrs. Ramsay waits patiently.
Mr. Ramsay and some of the other guests start reciting poetry.
Mrs. Ramsay gets up and leaves, looking once over her shoulder to confirm that that dinner has already become part of the past.