Standing across from the British Museum, Peter Walsh hears the ambulance rush to pick up Septimus’s body. He views the ambulance as one of the triumphs of civilization. The English health system strikes him as humane, and London’s community spirit impresses him. As he walks toward his hotel, he thinks of Clarissa. They used to explore London together by riding the omnibus. Clarissa had a theory that to know somebody, one had to seek out the people and places that completed that person. She felt that people spread far beyond their own selves and might even survive in this way after death. Clarissa has influenced Peter more than anybody else he knows.
Peter arrives at his hotel and thinks about Clarissa at Bourton. They used to walk in the woods, argue, and discuss poetry, people, and politics. Clarissa was a radical in those days. At the hotel Peter receives a letter from Clarissa that says it was heavenly to see him that morning. He is upset by the letter, which seems like a “nudge in the ribs” after his vivid memories of Clarissa. The hotel now strikes Peter as frigid and impersonal. He imagines Clarissa regretting her refusal of his marriage proposal and then feeling sorry for him. He pictures her weeping as she wrote him the note.
Peter looks at a snapshot of Daisy with a fox terrier on her knee. She is dark and very pretty. Peter shaves and dresses for dinner. He wonders whether his marriage to Daisy would be good for her, as it would mean giving up her children and being judged by society. He is conflicted about Daisy. He does not like the idea of being faithful to her, but he hates the idea of Daisy being with anyone else. He quickly disregards the age difference between them and takes comfort in knowing she adores him. He decides that if he retires, he will write books.
At dinner, the other hotel guests find him appealing. His self-composure and serious approach to eating his dinner win him their respect. They like the way he orders Bartlett pears firmly. The guests wish to talk with one another, but they feel shy. In the smoking room, Peter and the Morris family make small talk. Peter thinks they like him. He decides to go to Clarissa’s party to find out what the Conservatives are doing in India and to hear the gossip.
Peter sits in a wicker chair on the hotel steps. The night is hot but lighter than he is used to, because daylight savings has been introduced since he was last in London. He reads the paper and watches young people pass by on their way to the movies. He thinks the social structure is changing and that experience enriches life. He sets off for Clarissa’s and feels that he is about to have an experience. He looks in people’s lighted windows on his way and enjoys the richness of life. At Clarissa’s house, Peter steels himself, opens the blade of his pocketknife, and enters the party.
The ambulance Peter hears is the one carrying Septimus’s body, and Peter’s adoring interpretation of the ambulance siren as a “triumph of civilization” is ironic, because Septimus has sought death to escape the very civilization Peter reveres. In the wailing siren, Peter hears all that is good about English society—its humanity, efficiency, and compassion. However, Septimus found those same things constricting and deadening, not liberating and inspiring. Peter stands across from the British Museum, a structure that suggests England’s might, tradition, and imperial power. Septimus fought to preserve these virtues during the war, and they eventually became hollow and meaningless to him. Peter hears humanity in the ambulance siren, but the inhumanity of the English medical system played a part in Septimus’s death. Peter constantly notices the civilization of England, and the repetition of the word, juxtaposed with Septimus’s death, calls Peter’s accuracy into question. London is surely no gentler than the countries, such as India, England sets out to “civilize” through colonization. Likewise, the communal spirit Peter observes in London is also questionable, since the Londoners in the novel, even Peter himself, are incredibly isolated. Peter reads the world only superficially, seeing what he wants to see and not probing too deeply beneath the surface. Septimus perhaps probes too deeply, and he cannot bear what he finds. Both Septimus and Peter read the same cricket scores and the same news in the evening paper, a similarity that emphasizes the different ways in which each man interprets the same world.
Though Peter constantly doubts himself and his decisions, at the hotel and the dinner he momentarily reveals the kind of man he could be, or wants to be. Until now, Peter has seemed hysterical, bursting into tears in front of Clarissa and claiming madly to himself that he no longer loves her. At the hotel, however, he seems composed and in control. As he moves about his room, he imagines how Daisy sees him: as a reliable man who shaves, dresses, and takes firm control of life’s small details. He suspects he cannot actually make her happy, and that she will be better off without him, but he seems to like the feeling of being depended on and looked up to by this younger, foolish girl. At the dinner Peter slides more fully into this version of himself. With dignified detachment he selects wine and eats his dinner, showing more composure than at any other point in the novel. When Peter orders his Bartlett pears, the new Peter seems to crystallize. He knows exactly what he wants, and says so clearly. Gone, for the moment, are the usual hemming and hawing, the incessant justifications and qualifications that usually bloat his thoughts and desires. For this short moment at the table he is comfortable in his own skin.
Clarissa recognizes the conflict between nurturing her need for privacy and fulfilling her desire to emerge and communicate with others, which is why she throws her parties. Peter compares people to fish that swim for ages in the gloomy depths and occasionally need to come to the surface and frolic in the “wind-wrinkled waves.” People need to form community, however brief; they need to gossip at parties. The effort to communicate requires endurance, which is why Peter prepares himself and opens his knife before entering the party and why Clarissa purses her lips and creates a composed “diamond” face for the world. Septimus was tortured in the private world of his own soul after the war and, with his inability to hold himself together, was also at the mercy of the public world. He could no longer summon the endurance necessary to face the world or even exist in it, and even Peter and Clarissa hang on by only a thread—the tenuousness of which is emphasized by the knife and scissors with which they greet each other earlier in the day. Though Peter often misjudges and criticizes Clarissa, he admires her endurance and strength. Clarissa may have her failings and weaknesses, but her determination to stitch together her internal and external worlds, however briefly or infrequently, makes her a remarkable woman.
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