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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
In brackets: Macalister's boy cuts a square out of a fish's side to bait his hook. "The mutilated body (it was alive still) was thrown back into the sea."
The shortest chapter in the novel, chapter six gives an image of life and death at once--life being used to bait the future. The reader should consider how it is connected to the issues of the chapter that comes before. There Lily Briscoe is considering the importance of Mrs. Ramsey to her and of Mrs. Ramsey's death to her art. With Mrs. Ramsey no longer having power to manipulate her life, Lily has been able to rest easier in her position as an artist.
Lily calls out to Mrs. Ramsey but nothing happens. She is amazed that anguish has reduced her to such foolishness. She is relieved to see that Mr. Carmichael did not hear her. He remains sublime. "She remained a skimpy old maid, holding a paint-brush." Slowly the pain of the want and her anger at having the emotion of loss dredged up again when she had been feeling that she had finished her grieving over Mrs. Ramsey lessens. The antidote of the pain comes in her sense of Mrs. Ramsey being there. Lily squeezes her tube again. She gets back to the problem of the hedge. It is strange how she sees Mrs. Ramsey walking around. For days after she heard of Mrs. Ramsey's death, she had seen her in this way. The sight consoles Lily. She could see Mrs. Ramsey everywhere, in the country or in London.
Lily looks out over the water and makes out the boat. It is halfway across the bay. The morning is fine with only a bit of wind. The sea and the sky seem to be one and it looks to Lily as though the sails of the boats were stuck up in the sky. She sees a steamer far out at sea that is trailing a scroll of smoke. The inanimate elements, the cliffs and the ships, look as if they are conscious of one another. The lighthouse looks very close to the shore.
The two elements of this chapter seem to be at odds with each other, but in fact complement each other. The first element is Lily's consolation for Mrs. Ramsey's death: she still sees Mrs. Ramsey everywhere. The second element is Lily's sense that on such a fine morning the elements of the landscape seem conscious. Woolf seems to be saying that the usually strict lines drawn between life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness are false and that consciousness and memory are more permeable, more fluid than had previously been imagined.
Cam looks at the shore and thinks that people on shore do not feel anything. She trails her hand in the sea and lets her imagination wander as she watches the swirl of the water. "In the green light a change came over one's entire mind and one's body shone half transparent enveloped in a green cloak." She feels the speed of the boat slow down. The sail sags. Everything seems to stand still, the lighthouse, the shore, and the boat. The sun seems hotter to those on board and they seem "to come very close together and to feel each other's presence," which before they had ignored. Mr. Ramsey keeps reading.
Mr. Ramsey is reading a small book. James feels as though each time Mr. Ramsey turns a page, his father is making some gesture toward him. His father seems to be commanding him at one point and trying to make him pity him the next. James dreads the idea that his father will look up and speak sharply to him about something. He thinks his father will blame him for the boat not moving. James thinks that if his father does speak sharply to him, he will stab him in the heart with a knife.
He has kept the idea of stabbing his father in the heart with his knife as a symbol. As he sits staring at his father in impotent rage, he thinks it is not so much his father that he wants to kill, but something like a demonic bird that descends on him and strikes and strikes at him. Then the feeling disappears and his father remains sitting there an old man reading a book and looking sad. He decides that no matter what he does with his life, he will stamp out tyranny and despotism, the kind of behavior that makes "people do what they do not want to do, cutting off their right to speak." James knows none of them could have said no when Mr. Ramsey told them to come to the lighthouse with him. James thinks of all the different attitudes he has seen his father in which are contrary to his image of his father as a tyrant. He has seen his father giving money to an old woman in the street. He has seen him shouting at fisherman's sports. He has seen him waving his arms in excitement. He has also seen his father sit at the head of the table in dead silence for an entire dinner.
James imagines a wasteland of snow and rock. He imagines there are only two pairs of footprints on the waste, his own and his father's. He believes that only he and his father know each other. He cannot reconcile his terror and hatred of his father with his notion that he knows his father so well. He looks back into the past as if he is going into the heart of a forest. Sometimes it is shadowy and sometimes it is sunny. He seeks an image "to cool and detach and round off his feeling into a concrete shape." He imagines a child sitting helpless and watching a wagon crush someone's foot. He imagines it in slow motion, seeing first the foot in the smooth grass, then the wheel and then the same foot purple and crushed. He knows the wheel is innocent. He thinks of his father as that wheel coming over to them early one morning to go to the lighthouse and crushing his and Cam's foot.
He tries to remember when this incident of the wagon crushing the foot happened. He remembers it happening in a garden where people speak in an ordinary tone of voice and come in and out all day long. "All was blowing, all was growing." He imagines night falling on the garden like a thin veil covering it. It is in this world that the wheel went over someone's foot. He remembers something standing over him and darkening him. It would not move. He remembers something flourishing up into the air and something else like a blade or a scimitar, descending "through the leaves and flowers even of that happy world and making it shrivel and fall." He remembers his father saying it will rain and prevent him from going to the lighthouse. At the time, James had thought of the lighthouse as a "silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening."
Now James looks at the tower and sees whitewashed rocks around it and the tower looks stark and straight. He sees windows in it and he even sees washing laying out on the rocks to dry. He wonders which is the lighthouse, this image he is seeing now, or the image of his childhood imagination. He decides it is both, "for nothing is simply one thing." He decides that the lighthouse in his childhood imagination is true, too. He is taken back to the day when he sat in the garden with his mother.
His thought makes him pull himself up straight. As soon as he thinks of sitting in the garden with his mother, he also hears the approach of someone else. He is especially worried that his father will snap at him irrationally about there being no breeze to carry the boat on. He remembers when once his father had "brought his blade down among them on the terrace." His mother had gone stiff. If there had been a knife handy, James would have struck his father through the heart. After his mother had gone stiff, her arm had slackened and he had known that she was no longer listening to him. Then she had somehow risen and gone away and left him sitting there alone, "impotent, ridiculous."
James thinks again of the fact that no wind is blowing and fears his father yelling at him about it. James goes on thinking of that day on the terrace. He wonders where his mother had gone that day. He follows her in his mind from room to room and finally they come to a room with blue light as if the reflection came from many china dishes. His mother is talking to somebody, a servant. "She alone spoke the truth; to her alone could he speak it." He guesses that this trait of hers is the source of her "everlasting attraction for him." A person could say anything to her. He is conscious as he thinks of his father and imagines that his father is tracking his every thought and is surveying it. His thoughts falter and he ceases thinking.
He sits with his hand on the tiller powerless to move. He cannot stop thinking miserable thoughts. He feels like he is bound by a rope that his father has knotted and he feels as though he can only escape by plunging a knife. The thought is interrupted by a breeze swinging the sail and the boat shooting through the water. Everyone on board is extraordinarily relieved. "They all seemed to fall away from each other again and to be at their ease." Mr. Ramsey does not rouse himself from his reading. He raises his hand as if conducting a symphony and lets it fall.
The happy world of the garden represents James's childhood. He remembers the oedipal scene as the end of his childhood. This chapter is structured by the recurring memory of James's oedipal break from his mother. This memory seems to be the major landmark in the geography of James's interior life.
James's realization that "nothing is simply one thing" provides lots of room for consolation and liberation from his overwhelming feeling that his nurturing mother is gone and his tyrannical father is all he has left. If nothing--no memory, no person, no life--is only one thing, then his father might be more than just tyrannical. The child's realization that the parent is a whole and complex person, limited and flawed like everyone else, is crucial to maturation.
James remembers the scene on the terrace as an abandonment. He thinks of his mother as having gone somewhere and left him sitting alone. He knew then that his mother had left him to go to his father. That knowledge is at the core of James's murderous hatred for his father. Woolf uses the phallic imagery of a knife striking the heart to reinforce the idea that James's sense of impotence as a child when his father took his mother away from him is over-compensated for in the image of a knife, which never fails.