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.