She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.See Important Quotations Explained
Clarissa enters her home, feeling like a nun who has left the world and now returns to the familiar rituals of a convent. Although she does not believe in God, the moment is precious to her, like a bud on the tree of life. She is upset to learn that Richard has been invited to lunch at Lady Bruton’s house without her. Ascending to her attic bedroom, Clarissa continues to reflect on her own mortality.
As Clarissa takes off her yellow-feathered hat, she feels an emptiness at the heart of her life. She has slept alone since she was ill with influenza but is happy to be solitary. She does not feel passionate about Richard and believes she has failed him in this regard. She feels sexual attraction to women and thinks she was in love with her friend Sally Seton, who spent a summer at Bourton.
Sally Seton, in Clarissa’s memory, was a wild, cigarette-smoking, dark-haired rebel. Once Sally ran naked through the hallway at Bourton. Her behavior frequently shocked Clarissa’s old Aunt Helena. Clarissa and Sally planned to change the world. Under Sally’s influence, Clarissa began to read Plato in bed before breakfast and to read Shelley for hours. Clarissa remembers going downstairs in a white dress to meet Sally, thinking of a line from Shakespeare’s play Othello—if it were now to die ’twere now to be most happy.” Like Othello, she believes that if she were to die at that moment, she would be quite happy. Othello kills his wife, Desdemona, out of jealousy, then kills himself when he finds out his jealousy is unwarranted. The most exquisite moment of Clarissa’s life occurred on the terrace at Bourton when, one evening, Sally picked a flower and kissed her on the lips. For Clarissa, the kiss was a religious experience. Peter Walsh interrupted the young women on the terrace, as thoughts of him now interrupt Clarissa’s recollection of Sally. Clarissa always wanted Peter’s good opinion, and she wonders what he will think of her now.
The house buzzes with pre-party activity, and Clarissa begins to mend the green dress she will wear that night. She shows an interest in her servants and is sensitive to their workload. She wants to be generous and is grateful to her servants for allowing her to be so. She sits quietly with her sewing, thinking of life as a wave that begins, collects, and falls, only to renew and begin again.
The front doorbell rings, and Peter Walsh surprises Clarissa with an unexpected visit. Peter plays with his pocketknife, as he always did, and feels irritated with Clarissa for the kind of life she’s chosen to live with conservative Richard. Seeing that she’s been mending a dress, he assumes she has simply been wasting time with parties and society since he left for India, shortly after Clarissa rejected his marriage proposal. He says he is in town to arrange a divorce for his young fiancée, Daisy, who lives in India and has two children. He imagines the Dalloways consider him a failure. Clarissa feels like a frivolous chatterbox around Peter. Moved by his memories and made sensitive by the sheer struggle of living, Peter bursts into tears. To comfort him, Clarissa takes his hand and kisses him. She wonders briefly to herself whether she would have been happier if she had married Peter instead of Richard. Peter asks Clarissa if she is happy, but Elizabeth enters the room before she can answer. As Peter leaves, Clarissa calls after him, “Remember my party to-night!”
Middle-aged Clarissa struggles to find her role in a society that places great importance on fulfilling sexual stereotypes. Clarissa feels invisible, virginal, and nunlike now that she is over fifty and will not have any more children. She feels silly in her yellow-feathered hat in front of Hugh, because Hugh is handsome and well dressed, and in some ways Clarissa now feels as if she has no sexuality. Clarissa’s daughter, Elizabeth, is nearly grown, and now, with mothering behind her, Clarissa tries to discover her purpose in life, since women of her class and generation were not trained for careers. Clarissa feels her role is to be a meeting-point for others. She gathers people together, as she will at her party that night. No matter how uneasy she feels in her own life, she hides it so that others can feel comfortable. She sews the torn folds of her party dress back into place, masking both the flaws in the fabric and her own uneasiness. She even gathers herself together by pursing her lips and making her face into “one diamond.” She feels it is her job to be a refuge for others and to conceal the strain and artificiality of gathering diverse parts of life together.
The difficulty of reconciling her innermost self with her exterior or surface self weighs constantly on Clarissa’s mind, and the doors and windows that appear throughout the book represent this conflict symbolically. At Clarissa’s house, workers take the doors off the hinges for the party, where Clarissa will gather people together and try to facilitate communication. She remembers that the blinds used to flap at Bourton, during a time when her need for privacy and her desire for communication were both, to some degree, attainable. Peter himself, in some ways, serves as a doorway between Clarissa’s two selves. Through him, Clarissa can return to the days at Bourton and evaluate her choices, as though she can go back in time and change her mind. When Peter runs from the room and leaves her house, the noise from the open door is overwhelming and makes Clarissa’s voice almost disappear. In his absence, real life, the present, sets in again. In real life, Clarissa is torn between the need for solitude and the glimmering surface world of society, and trying to move between the two states of being is almost a physical effort, much like physically removing doors from hinges.
Characters continually interrupt one another’s significant moments of communication. Peter interrupts Clarissa’s revelatory moment with Sally at Bourton, intervening before the women’s intimacy can continue or intensify. Elizabeth interrupts Peter’s encounter with Clarissa, another interruption that thwarts intimacy, stopping them from delving too deeply into their private feelings. Clarissa and Peter are both critical judges of others’ characters, and they meet like challengers, Peter with his knife in his hand and Clarissa with her scissors. They are conscious of one another’s failures—and of their own. This moment with Peter is charged with the potential to set Clarissa’s life on a new course, whether Peter reveals lingering feelings or simply raises doubts in Clarissa’s mind. For better or worse, Elizabeth halts the communication of their interior selves with her entry. Time moves on, and Peter walks out. Clarissa struggles to maintain communication and reminds him about her party, but her voice nearly disappears in the rush of the opening and closing door.
Clarissa is aware of having compromised by marrying Richard, who offered her a traditional, safe life path that is less threatening than the passion-filled path Peter or even Sally could have offered her. Though she enjoys beautiful things and society and appreciates the privacy she has with Richard, she is dissatisfied in some ways and worries that she fails to satisfy him as well. Richard, unlike more passionate characters, such as Sally and Septimus, has no association with nature, which underscores his pedestrian personality. Clarissa has found safety and comfort with Richard, a simple upholder of English tradition, but she felt passionate love for Sally, who subverted that tradition in many ways. Sally sold a family heirloom to go to Bourton, held feminist views, and shocked the upholders of old England, such as Aunt Helena. Clarissa describes her feeling for Sally as a match that burns in a crocus, a type of flower. The natural imagery of heat and flames often marks the thoughts of characters who feel deeply, including Clarissa and Septimus. The fire is spectacular, but never without threat. Richard is the foundation of her life, Clarissa admits, but part of her wonders what life could have been like without him, danger and all.
The line Clarissa quotes from Othello not only foreshadows Septimus’s suicide but also points to the magnitude of Clarissa’s own youthful feelings for Sally. In the play, Othello fervently loves his wife, Desdemona, but eventually kills her out of mistaken jealousy. Tortured by regret, Othello then kills himself. Othello cannot trust his good fortune, and loses it. By likening herself to Othello and Sally to Desdemona, Clarissa suggests not only the depth of her feeling, but also that it was she who killed the possibility of love with Sally—and with that some part of herself.