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Mrs. Dalloway | Section 8 (Peter Recalls His Past in England) | Summary

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Summary

Peter Walsh, passing Septimus and Rezia Warren Smith, wonders what the young couple is fighting about. His five-year absence from England has made him appreciate the civilization and beauty of London. He's noticed some changes. Design and art are everywhere; women are better dressed and apply makeup in public; people talk more openly about trivial topics. He remembers his own open, rash, affectionate friend from long ago—Sally Seton. He found her refreshing. While Clarissa and others admired Hugh Whitbread's charm, Sally felt he represented "all that was most detestable in British middle-class life." Peter isn't fond of Hugh either. But Peter knows he may have to ask Hugh or Richard Dalloway for a job now that he's back in England. He needs a higher salary if he's going to marry and support Daisy.

Peter admires Dalloway's practicality and calm, which he can see appeals to Clarissa. Richard, however, doesn't have much appreciation for the arts; he doesn't believe in reading Shakespeare's sonnets, for instance. Long ago Clarissa considered Richard's disdain of poetry a mark of originality. Sally and Peter thought differently and escaped to the vegetable garden to discuss how men like Hugh and Richard would "stifle [the] soul." Though Peter admired Sally, he couldn't stop thinking about Clarissa, who has a gift for making "a world of her own," wherever she is.

He reminds himself he's not in love with Clarissa any more. She's too worldly for him. He recalls her intellectual skepticism, which increased after her sister Sylvia's accidental death. Yet Clarissa still enjoys life, and Peter thinks she now may be in love with him—just as he's begun to get over her. Peter reflects that he doesn't feel he needs people at all at his age. Peter hears an old woman singing, in an ancient voice—a song of syllables, with no words. The song seems to be eternal, lasting until the end of time. The old woman, he imagines, is remembering a lover who left her a long time ago. Peter gives the woman money as he steps into a taxi. She smiles, and they share a brief moment of connection.

Analysis

Strangers cannot truly know one another. Peter (the man in the gray suit on whom Septimus fixated in the park) thinks distressed Septimus and Rezia are having a lovers' quarrel. Similarly, he is not sure what to make of London's movements into the modern world. Bolder fashion choices and comical pieces in the newspaper could indicate freedom—or a loss of order.

Sally Seton represents an honest, unencumbered life Peter and Clarissa wish they could allow themselves, if that life didn't mean sacrificing social standing, friendships, and work. In her garden conversation with Peter, Sally echoed his concerns about "the death of the soul" as she held a rose, the flower most often associated with Clarissa. Peter, jobless and feeling tenuous about his own position in London society, understands why Sally took the easy path eventually. He even understands why Clarissa did the same; she was attracted to her opposite, the steadfast, sensible, and unimaginative Richard. Peter's concerned she's "converted" her personality into Richard's after years of marriage—devoting herself to the British Empire and trusting the newspaper to give her opinions, as Richard does.

This passage also shows Peter's fascination with women, sometimes emerging as respect, sometimes contempt. He doesn't admire Clarissa for her gentleness or feminine nurturing, however. He admires her honesty, her forthrightness, her skeptical mind, her sense of comedy. (In fact, he points out she's not especially beautiful.) These aspects of Clarissa's character show a 20th-century shift toward regarding women on the same intellectual level as men. As he ages Peter is gaining perspective. He can hold his experiences "in the light" and no longer feel the need to meet new people and see what they think of him; he's content in solitude. But he has his own unspoken anxieties about what comes next. The reason the old woman's song moves him so much is its connection to an ancient time and a hope that the death of the body won't mean the death of the soul.

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