He would be back from India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which for his letters were awfully dull; it was his sayings one remembered; his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness . . .
Here, the narrator introduces Peter Walsh, the man who proposed marriage to Clarissa when she was young. Readers learn that Clarissa and Peter remain in communication and that he has been in India but will return home soon. Peter has never loved anyone as much as he loved Clarissa, but readers soon learn that she rejected him because he asked too much of her. When she married Richard Dalloway, she made the safe, conservative choice.
[T]here’s nothing in the world so bad for some women as marriage, he thought; and politics; and having a Conservative husband, like the admirable Richard. So it is, he thought, shutting his knife with a snap.
After Peter shows up at Clarissa’s house and surprises her, he reflects on her choice to marry Richard. After Peter and Clarissa exchange pleasantries, readers learn what each of them is thinking of the other. Peter still harbors strong feelings for Clarissa and recognizes that she lives a lonely and unhappy life. While thinking about this, Peter plays with his pocketknife, something he has always done while deep in thought. And then when he is done thinking, just like he shuts off his emotions, he shuts the knife.
“I am in love,” he said . . . “in love with a girl from India.” He had deposited his garland. Clarissa could make what she would of it.
Peter lays his confession of love before Clarissa the way a person might lay a garland of flowers on the grass in front of another. When Clarissa asks for details, he explains that the woman, Daisy, is the wife of a major in the Indian army. He has returned to England to obtain a divorce. Life has not been easy for him, and he considers himself a failure in many ways. In fact, he bursts into tears, and Clarissa comforts him by kissing his face before they are interrupted by Elizabeth and Peter quickly takes his leave.
And it was smashed to atoms—his fun, for it was half made up, as he knew very well; invented, this escapade with the girl; made up, as one makes up the better part of life, he thought—making oneself up[.]
Here, Peter Walsh reflects on his life and what his life will never be. After leaving Clarissa’s home in the morning, he followed a young woman as she walked down the streets until she reached her home and went inside. He compared the woman to Clarissa as he mused about who she has become since he saw her last. While following the woman, he fantasized and remembered his youth, he observed the busy world of the London streets, and then he sat beside a nurse on a park bench where he took a nap.
“Come along,” she said. “They’re waiting.” He had never felt so happy in the whole of his life! Without a word they made it up. They walked down to the lake. He had twenty minutes of perfect happiness.
Peter remembers the night he spent with Clarissa boating on the lake. He then remembers realizing that Clarissa would marry Richard and feeling completely lost and alone. However, thinking of spending time with Clarissa offers a moment of respite, one last morsel of happiness before he finally confronts her and asks for the truth about Richard. His moment on the lake mirrors the one between Clarissa and Sally in which they kiss: pure, unspoiled, intimate, and memorable.
Why couldn’t she let him be? After all, she had married Dalloway, and lived with him in perfect happiness all these years.
Peter reacts to a letter from Clarissa that he receives while staying in a hotel. In the letter, she exclaims how heavenly it had been to see him. The letter unnerves Peter because he feels both flattered and annoyed by her words. He claims that the letter feels like a nudge in the ribs. He has admitted that Clarissa has played a huge role in his life, and in this scene, he shifts from declaring that he would never go to her party to attending.
[I]t would make him furious if Daisy loved anybody else, furious! for he was jealous, uncontrollably jealous by temperament.
In a rare moment of self-awareness, Peter admits that he is a man driven by jealousy. He feels jealous of Clarissa and Richard. He would be jealous if Daisy showed attentions to someone else. He feels jealous of people who have achieved great success. He feels jealous of wealth. Readers note that during this scene, he opens and closes his pocketknife repeatedly, a symbol of his tortured heart. He still longs for Clarissa and for his own youth.
He would go to Clarissa’s party, because he wanted to ask Richard what they were doing in India—the conservative duffers.
Here, Peter reviews plans he’s concocted to lie to himself. He goes to the party for no other reason than to see Clarissa again. However, his idea of speaking to Richard allows him to go. Peter might not be able to admit to himself that he simply wants to be in the presence of Clarissa, but this made-up reason seems logical and unemotional, manly and objective.
He had not found life simple, Peter said. His relations with Clarissa had not been simple. It had spoilt his life, he said. (They had been so intimate—he and Sally Seton, it was absurd not to say it.)
At the party, Peter stands fidgeting with his pocketknife and talking to Sally about their shared past. He admits that his love for Clarissa, so many years ago, has influenced his life profoundly. He has never been in love with anyone like that again. He felt the loss deeply and still does. Readers know, in fact, that that loss brought Peter here, to her party, and why he feels so happy in the final moment of the book when Clarissa joins him.
What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?
Peter Walsh asks himself these questions in the final moment of the novel and answers himself when Clarissa enters the room. She is his love, the object of his passion, and he feels incapable of loving anyone else as much as he loved her. He sums up the feeling in two words: terror and ecstasy. Love exists as both extremes at once. Love such as Peter’s is undeniable and all-encompassing and lasts a lifetime.