Mrs. Dalloway | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Mrs. Dalloway | Section 5 (Peter's Dream) | Summary

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Summary

As Peter Walsh rests in the park, he dreams about a solitary traveler. The traveler is an atheist, wandering through the woods. He envisions watchful companions, like a "giant figure" before him. The traveler, surrounded by miserable strangers, is enraptured by visions of a beautiful woman. Though he knows the woman is an illusion, made of "sky and branches," he feels she exists as long as he imagines her. The visions comfort him as he searches for "charity, comprehension, absolution." He never wants to return to the ordinary world.

At the edge of the forest, the traveler comes to a house in a village. An elderly woman, whose sons have been killed in battle, waits for him there. The village is filled with calm trappings of normalcy, like gardens and flowers in windowsills. The traveler fears the villagers are waiting patiently to be completely destroyed and have accepted their fate. When the elderly woman speaks to him, he doesn't know whom to reply to.

Analysis

Peter's dream reveals his desire for a woman, or a feminine energy, to save him, reinforcing the symbol of trees as mysterious femininity. He admires women and associates virtues like charity and compassion with the women in his life. He equates this salvation and understanding with nature—specifically trees and water. When Peter encounters a real old woman later in the book, he'll have a similar otherworldly vision associated with her.

At 53 Peter, too, is feeling the approach of old age. He goes toward the vision eagerly, knowing it will mean death and the end of all life's mundane, pleasurable activities. Considering his legacy he now sees the strangers around him as "feeble" and "craven" people who don't desire a better life. Between countries, he views himself as a constant traveler. The traveling dream reflects the movement of characters throughout the novel. Everyone is wandering; no one quite feels settled or at home.

Despite Peter's atheism he feels in awe of an extraordinary divine force. The war upended many traditionally held beliefs, expanding definitions of God. When Woolf asks, "But to whom does the solitary traveler make reply?" she implies that the divine force is unknowable. Age and death linger in Peter's dream. The woman advances in age from a young presence to an older mother, who greets Peter in the village house. The narrator quietly acknowledges the war dead—this matriarch is the mother to all the young men who have been lost. Peter, aware of his participation in British imperialism, subconsciously acknowledges the war dead, too.

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