This late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears. Tears and sorrows; courage and endurance; a perfectly upright and stoical bearing.
We share Peter’s point of view as he leaves Clarissa’s house. Peter believes Clarissa has grown hard and sentimental. He criticizes her harshly to himself, thinking unhappily that her girlhood timidity has become conventionality in middle age. Then he begins to worry that he annoyed her with his unexpected visit and is embarrassed for having wept in her presence. One moment Peter feels thrilled that he is in love with Daisy and has a life in India about which Clarissa knows nothing, while the next moment he feels anew the blow of Clarissa having rejected him thirty years before. The sound of St. Margaret’s bell sounding the half-hour makes him think of Clarissa’s death, which upsets him, as does the thought of growing old himself.
Though he will eventually have to ask Richard’s help in finding a job, Peter tells himself he does not care a straw what the Dalloways think of him. He admits he has been a failure in some sense, as when he was expelled from Oxford, but he feels the future lies in the hands of young men such as he was. A group of military boys march by, and Peter feels respect for them.
In the middle of Trafalgar Square, Peter feels suddenly free. Nobody except Clarissa knows he is in London. He begins to follow a young woman who seems to become his ideal woman as he looks at her. He compares her to Clarissa and decides that she is not rich or worldly, as Clarissa is. He wonders if she is respectable. Peter feels like a romantic buccaneer and is impressed by his own adventurousness. The woman takes out her keys and enters her house, never having spoken to Peter, which does not trouble him very much. He thinks of Clarissa telling him to remember her party that night.
Peter decides to sit in Regent’s Park and smoke before his appointment with the lawyers, with whom he will arrange Daisy’s divorce. He observes London and is proud of its level of civilization. He remembers how he was unable to get along with Clarissa’s father. Having chosen a seat beside an elderly gray-haired nurse with a baby asleep in its stroller, Peter remembers Elizabeth. He expects that Elizabeth does not get along with Clarissa, as he feels Clarissa has a tendency to overdo things, which might embarrass Elizabeth. Soon Peter falls asleep.
He dreams about a solitary traveler who conceives of different images of women. The traveler, who seems to be Peter himself, imagines a woman made of sky and branches who bestows compassion and absolution. He imagines this woman as a siren, someone who might lure him to his death with her beauty. Finally, he imagines a mother figure who seems to wait for his return. When the image of the woman, now a landlady, asks if she can get the solitary traveler anything else at the end of the dream, he realizes he does not know to whom he can reply.
Peter wakes up saying “The death of the soul,” and he links the dream and those words to a scene from Bourton in the early 1890s. That summer, Clarissa is shocked to hear about a neighbor who had a baby before she was married. Clarissa’s prudish reaction makes Peter feel that the moment marks the death of her soul. Her reaction seemed not only prudish but also arrogant, judgmental, and unimaginative, and others who were at the table at the time were uncomfortable with her blatant scorn of and lack of sympathy for the woman.
Richard Dalloway comes to Bourton for dinner that night, and Peter knows immediately that Clarissa will marry Richard, toward whom she seems maternal. Peter finally decides to confront her about his own feelings. They meet by a broken fountain that dribbles water, and Peter demands the truth. Clarissa tells him it is no use, that she will not marry him. Peter leaves Bourton that night.
Peter Walsh is insecure and unsure about who he is, and these weaknesses in his character complicate his interactions with the world. Though likeable and fun to be around, Peter is highly critical of himself and others. He rarely voices these criticisms, but they echo constantly in his mind. The passage of time and the prospect of death frighten him, since he feels he has not accomplished anything substantial. He even goes out of his way to find a seat in the park where people are unlikely to ask him the time, since the question makes him nervous. Peter enjoys the sight of military boys passing by, because they seem oblivious to the reality of death and remind him of his own youth, when anything seemed possible. He takes an ironic pride in the civilization of London, with its butlers and chow dogs. He criticizes shallowness in others, particularly in Clarissa, but cannot help being attracted to a country that enjoys its excesses at the expense of colonies like India. England is broken, as Septimus’s narrative makes clear, and any appearance of civilization does not go below the surface.
Peter frequently invents life to satisfy his own needs and desires and to make sense of the world. If we are bombarded with impressions, or atoms, as Woolf suggested, then a love of life involves giving shape to the multitude of impressions. Peter takes this idea of constructing reality to a new level when he follows the anonymous young woman in the street. Through this imaginary escapade, he successfully forgets about his own aging and temporarily escapes from his reality. In the constant motion of an urban setting like London, actual meaningful encounters with people are rare, and Peter invents both his interaction with this woman and its meaning. Peter later sees the Smiths. Even though he observes that they are in some kind of trouble, he does not talk to them. He prefers to exercise his control over a fantasy he knows will not be realized.
Peter wants to be saved, and he seeks redemption through relationships with women. He believes that women can offer him solace, much as religion comforts others, such as Miss Kilman. Immature even in his mid-fifties, he feels he has suffered a great deal and that his nature is particularly sensitive. Clarissa sensed Peter’s huge, draining neediness in her youth, when she refused his marriage proposal. In the present, she wonders if life with Peter might have been more exciting than life with Richard, but at the same time she knows that Peter is too obsessed with himself to have been a good partner. In his dream Peter stereotypes women, imagining mother figures as well as cruel and beautiful temptresses. Peter is deluded in his wish to be saved by a female figure, and the traveler in the dream eventually realizes he has nobody to express his need to—there is no one for him to share his difficulties with. In the modern world, no God or woman or any figure at all exists to save him in the way he wishes to be saved.
Peter continues to seek Clarissa’s approval and attention thirty years after she turned down his marriage proposal. Clarissa is the first person Peter goes to see upon his arrival in London, and he spends his entire day thinking about her and telling himself that he is no longer in love with her. He reminds himself that he no longer loves her so frequently that we seriously doubt the truth of his conviction. Clarissa has had as profound an effect on his life as he has had on hers. He still sees much of the world through her eyes, just as his criticisms still affect Clarissa’s thoughts. Even his lover, Daisy, and her two children seem to improve when he observes them through Clarissa’s gaze. Though outwardly self-assured, Peter is inwardly full of self-doubt and still needs Clarissa to bolster him up after all these years.
Hey, I wrote this essay in my first year at university. Follow the link!
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