What a lark! What a plunge!
Early in the story, Clarissa makes these remarks about the beginning of a new day. She recalls her childhood at Bourton and how she would burst through the open French windows into the open air of the family’s opulent estate. This vivid memory sets up the novel’s motion between attention to the present moment and a longing for the distant past. In her mind, Clarissa lives in both worlds simultaneously.
How he scolded her! How they argued! She would marry a Prime Minister and stand at the top of a staircase; the perfect hostess he called her (she cried over it in her bedroom), she had the makings of the perfect hostess, he said.
Clarissa recalls her dramatic relationship with Peter Walsh when they were both young. Peter represented adventure and travel; Clarissa preferred safety and caution. Peter chided her for her choices. His comments that she would be a member of high society and a perfect hostess were not meant as compliments. His satire hurt her then, and she still carries the pain of his harsh criticism of her character.
[F]eeling herself suddenly shriveled, aged, breastless, the grinding, blowing, flowering of the day, out of doors, out of the window, out of her body and brain which now failed . . .
Clarissa’s stream of consciousness spans from the specific and personal to the past and memory and even to an awareness that seems out-of-body. The poetry of Woolf’s language in moments such as this broke ground in the literary world, as her long sentences move from one vivid image to the next, building in intensity like ocean waves, combining the minutiae of the present with broad and abstract ideas about time and perception.
Now of course, thought Clarissa, he’s enchanting! Perfectly enchanting! Now I remember how impossible it was ever to make up my mind—and why did I make up my mind—not to marry him? she wondered, that awful summer.
Peter surprises Clarissa when he arrives because she had not read his letter telling when he would show up, and as they chat, she remembers how fondly she feels for him. Many years ago, when they were young, she chose Richard over Peter, and at this moment, she feels the sting of regret. The two of them proceed to recall the past, sitting in the moonlight together beside the lake. They still love each other after all these years.
But she had often said to him that she had been right not to marry Peter Walsh; which, knowing Clarissa, was obviously true; she wanted support. Not that she was weak; but she wanted support.
As Richard Dalloway walks home after his lunch with Hugh Whitbread and Lady Bruton, he buys roses for his wife, Clarissa. Afterward, as he heads home, he muses about their history together. He knows that Peter Walsh is back in London because they mentioned him at lunch. He admits to himself that he had once been jealous of Peter because he knew that he and Clarissa had been in love, but this jealousy has waned. He knows that Clarissa married him for security and safety, not because they were passionately in love.
And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom? And offering for the sake of offering, perhaps. Anyhow, it was her gift. Nothing else had she of the slightest importance; could not think, write, even play the piano.
In the middle of the day, after Richard has left for the House of Commons, Clarissa rests and thinks about her own life. She is neither religious like Miss Kilman, passionate like Peter Walsh, nor intelligent like her husband. However, her parties function as her gift to herself and to the world. Without them, her life would be a waste, she thinks, and they are a distillation of life itself, which she admits that she loves.
Oh dear, it was going to be a failure; a complete failure, Clarissa felt it in her bones as dear old Lord Lexham stood there apologizing for his wife who had caught cold at the Buckingham Palace garden party.
As the party begins, Clarissa’s anxiety builds as she worries that the evening will be a failure. She and Richard greet guests as they arrive, and Peter Walsh observes her words and actions. These parties are Clarissa’s joy, but they also feel stressful to her. She wants recognition and credit for a beautiful, pleasant evening, but she worries about who will or won’t attend and all the details of food, drink, and entertainment.
And Clarissa had cared for him more than she had ever cared for Richard. Sally was positive of that. “No, no, no!” said Peter (Sally should not have said that—she went too far).
During the party, Sally blurts out this truth, that Clarissa cared for him more than Richard, yet Peter immediately denies the idea. The longing that Clarissa and Peter still feel for each other creates an underlying tension throughout the novel, and Sally gives voice to this tension here. Peter knows what Sally has said to be true, although he does not know what dwells in Clarissa’s heart the way that Sally does. Sally acted as the truth-teller when they were all young, and she maintains the role in the present.