Mrs. Dalloway | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Mrs. Dalloway | Section 3 (Clarissa Meets Peter Walsh at Home) | Summary

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Summary

Resting at home, Clarissa feels content in the moment. She attributes her happiness in life to companionship—her servants, pets, and husband. Lucy gives Clarissa the message that Lady Millicent Bruton has asked Richard to lunch. Clarissa is shocked that she wasn't invited. She fears time passing by too quickly, and retreats upstairs to her attic room where she changes out of her fancy going-out wardrobe. Clarissa considers something that's both troubling and amazing—her strong romantic attraction to women. Particularly, she thinks of an old friend named Sally Seton and wonders if they were in love.

Clarissa recalls how she met Sally at a party. She was struck by Sally's "dark, large-eyed" beauty and ability to say and do whatever she felt like. When they were both young, Sally came to stay with Clarissa and her friends in Bourton. Sally was penniless and fleeing an argument at her house. The two women bonded quickly and stayed up late talking about ways to "reform the world." Sally encouraged Clarissa to read widely and shared her gift of arranging flowers. Once, memorably, Sally ran naked through a passage after forgetting the sponge for her bath.

The moment when Sally kissed her on the lips was the happiest of Clarissa's life and still is. She was horrified to run into Peter Walsh immediately afterward. Now, Clarissa realizes she's grateful to Peter for many things. She wonders if Peter will think she's grown older, and she considers her face in the mirror. She gets out her silver-green evening dress and admires it.

At 11:00 a.m. the front door bell rings, unexpectedly. It's Peter Walsh, insistent upon seeing Clarissa. She notes that he looks exactly the same after five years. They greet each other happily but criticize each other internally. They discuss their long-ago time at Bourton. Clarissa wonders what she has made of her life to show Peter, while he feels privately that he's a failure.

Peter confesses to Clarissa he's in love. He's met a married woman named Daisy Simmons in India. Married himself, Peter has come to London to arrange for a divorce. Clarissa fears he's wasting his life but feels sympathetic in his company. Peter asks Clarissa if she's happy. Before Clarissa can answer, Elizabeth enters the room, and then Big Ben strikes the half-hour. Peter leaves in a hurry as Clarissa calls out to him to remember her party.

Analysis

Clarissa Dalloway, like Septimus Warren Smith, thinks of trees, reinforcing the strength of the symbol. The nature in her imagination, the "tree of life" collecting moments as buds, is a more peaceful metaphor than Septimus's dark images. Clarissa is thinking of ways she can give back to the world; she's been given the richness of life, meaningful relationships, and beautiful possessions. Her desire to make an offering of gratitude begins here and will recur as she speaks to Lucy and later figures out the purpose of her parties.

Clarissa shares few interests with Lady Bruton and is aware their relationship will be short-lived—both are getting older. The extended metaphor of a diver in the sea proves how lost Clarissa feels; water often represents rapid change in the novel, change the characters aren't prepared for. As Clarissa advances to her narrow attic room, she feels she's advancing toward death, where the experiences she treasures will disappear.

Her respect for the wisdom of nature encourages her acceptance, amid confusion, of her deep feelings for Sally Seton. Homosexuality was still heavily stigmatized in Woolf's London, and Clarissa can't clearly imagine an alternate life with Sally the way she imagines one with Peter. Sally represents a freedom and abandonment that are evolving in the new postwar era. Sally disregards traditional gender roles, argues enthusiastically about intellectual topics, and doesn't put on airs and performances as other guests do. Clarissa, constantly concerned with what others think, admires Sally's genuineness the way she admires Richard's independence. She also romanticizes Sally's youthful poverty in her mind.

She sees all the emotions of Peter's jealous interruption of her kiss with Sally as quickly as "a landscape in a flash of lightning"—another manipulation of time. Peter himself is impatient, restless, and critical; yet the reader sympathizes with his love for Clarissa and his constant search for answers. His unhappiness at Bourton, symbolized by his focus on the moon, contrasts with Clarissa's happy memories. But the two are clearly alike. They critique each other internally like old friends, they're both afraid of being seen as failures, and they're both clearheaded, individualistic thinkers who doubt their life choices. They understand each other intuitively.

On the outside Peter seems to be falling apart. He's unemployed, and he's divorcing the wife he hastily married so he can be with another married woman, all the while still pining for Clarissa. He resents Richard's "smugness" and stability, his steadfastness that Clarissa seems to crave. The reader wonders what their life would have been like if Clarissa had accepted his offer of marriage. Or does a stable, peaceful life matter more to her than a passionate, romantic one? She has taken the stable path, Peter has taken the passionate one, and each of them envies the other's choice while thinking it is foolish.

Clarissa, meanwhile, realizes that even if Peter is unsettled and unhappy, he is still doing meaningful work. Can a housewife, whose life is concentrated in the domestic sphere, find meaning in her tasks? Lucy does; she admires Clarissa's sense of beauty and order and takes pride in a well-kept home. Clarissa is still searching for meaning. She considers her imagined life with Peter as "the five acts of a play," already over—time passing fluidly, again.

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