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.