In general, this long scene is one of reflection. Like Clarissa, who has been ill and has "returned" to London, Peter also has been away; he is returning to London after five years spent in India. As Clarissa did, Peter sees London through unaccustomed eyes. He notices subtle nuances, and revels in being a part of, and within, a metropolis. Also, as Clarissa did, Peter considers not only present time but also past time. Especially since he has just left Clarissa, he pauses to wonder, particularly about the "success" of each of their lives. We learn a good deal more now about the circumstances of Peter and Clarissa's estrangement and also more about Peter himself. Through an interior monologue, Virginia Woolf slips us chunks of exposition and a resume of Peter's character without ever seeming to interrupt the flow of the story.
Almost everything we learn about Peter and about the past is washed with irony. In the last scene, Clarissa imagined Peter free; she ached for freedom such as his. Here, however, we see that Peter is not as "free" as Clarissa imagines. He is free, but he is caged in loneliness. Clarissa and her set (that is, the Establishment) have rejected him. He has conformed to the requirements of his class insofar as he did go to India, "to the colonies," but he has always been an outsider. He does not, like Clarissa and Richard Dalloway, conform to the letter of the rules. When he was with Clarissa, we saw symbolic evidence of Peter's nonconformity. He played nervously with a pocketknife; he pared his nails; ecstatically, he confessed his love for a married woman. In contrast to Clarissa's conduct, Peter was not, by definition, an English gentleman whereas Clarissa, until she ran to cry after Peter, seemed the epitome of a disciplined English lady. In short, Peter has shown little social discipline.
Perhaps this is why Peter confesses to admiring the small unit of drilling soldiers: it is their discipline that is admirable. They are symbolic of war and of national greatness, but their real relevance to Peter lies in their quick-stepping, obedient uniformity — their thorough discipline. Their discipline is akin to Clarissa's. They — and Clarissa — follow rules, but Peter's nature refuses to be bridled with absolute obedience. Peter's play-adventure, for example, when he follows the strikingly good-looking woman, is a sample of his impulsive make-up. He has an imaginative bent, as does Clarissa, but Clarissa acts out her adventures within her mind. Peter puts his imagination into action. He is not content merely to dream and muse. He has teased Clarissa more than once for stargazing. True, it does seem a little mad of Peter, over fifty years old, to play at intrigue and follow the woman, but he does it on impulse. And, since this a book about sanity and madness, we might consider whether or not it really shows a touch of madness to disregard common sense and play at shadowing a glamorous, strange woman. Conversely, is it really sane to always follow all the rules, as Clarissa has?
We know that Clarissa is more insecure than anyone suspects. She is able to show a composed facade. But discipline has accomplished this show of strength. In truth, both Peter and Clarissa are dreadfully lonely people, entering old age, and approaching death. Clarissa has already felt the beginning of the end of her mortality but her attitude is the antithesis of Peter's reaction. Death, Clarissa tells herself, will be a time of "Fear no more," a quiet, untroubled rest. She is attempting to reckon with death rationally, as she rationally reckoned with love — and chose Richard Dalloway. She is able to admire the vitality of Peter Walsh and Sally Seton, but she married the conventional, respected Richard Dalloway. Peter is not a rational reckoner. He was unwilling to accept Clarissa's refusal to marry him and he is as equally unwilling to accept old age and the idea of dying. Clarissa's white hair and the sound of time (the iron strokes of Big Ben) weigh heavily, but he is defiant.
Peter is caught in a dilemma. He can't be like the punctual, reliable, disciplined Establishment. Yet England wouldn't be her admirable self were it not for this same Establishment. Worse, he is still very attached to Clarissa, while unable to emulate her standards. Besides this, he has never been able to basically understand Clarissa. He wonders, for instance, if Clarissa wasn't being cold and insincere when she said, "Here's my Elizabeth." He does not realize the possibility that Clarissa might have been grasping for Elizabeth. Peter's lack of little social niceties, even though they annoyed Clarissa, were signs of Peter's deep aliveness, as was his confession of new love. Peter was feeling inferior to Clarissa and she to him, yet neither knew. Then Elizabeth appeared and Clarissa grabbed for her. Peter had his "new love" and Elizabeth, at least, was Clarissa's claim to having something. Elizabeth was a desperate trump card for Clarissa.
In the interlude while Peter dozes, Virginia Woolf talks about the disparity of appearance and reality, and we have seen throughout this novel instances of this dichotomy. We have also seen how intangible and fragile the division between the two is. We have seen the multitude of "appearances" surrounding a certain reality and the illusiveness of that reality. When Clarissa was out for flowers, she said to herself that she would never say of Peter or herself "I am this, I am that." Of course, she does not strictly obey this vow, but for a moment she does gain this valuable insight. Peter too realizes something very much like these thoughts of Clarissa's. He realizes that long ago he knew why Clarissa annoyed him, why he was repulsed by her while at the same time loving her. Several times already he has said variations of "still, there it is" — about situations which are ridiculous and contradictory, yet — at their core — painfully human.
This realization of Peter's is that irony and ambiguity inevitably accompany most human relationships. Both Peter and Clarissa have, individually, considered and decided about the death of Clarissa's soul. Clarissa was sure that she was saving her soul when she chose to renounce Peter and marry Richard; Peter is sure, even today, that the death of Clarissa's soul began the moment that Clarissa married Richard Dalloway. In so many ways we saw that Clarissa and Peter were able to talk to one another without verbal communication, yet about this all-important point — Clarissa's soul — their ideas are antithetical.
There is also irony surrounding Peter's and Charissa's confessions of love. The day Clarissa rejected Peter is in vivid juxtaposition to the scene just finished at the Dalloway house. Earlier we saw Peter telling Clarissa about his new-found love, a married woman with children; now we see how Clarissa told Peter of her affection for Richard. Never before had Clarissa been so open and free with him. Peter, however, insisted later on Clarissa's pronouncing the truth about herself and Richard. He wept then and he wept today. He called after Clarissa then just as she called after him today. But above all other of the impressions we have about Clarissa and Peter, there is a strong pervading sense that in spite of Peter's "love" and Clarissa's "security" that each of them is still lonely for the other. When we left Clarissa calling after Peter, the mood was one of agonized loneliness. And Peter is in love, and should be happy, yet he is not.
This mood of loneliness is used as a transition. Septimus and Lucrezia Smith come into our focus. They are with Peter in the park and both of them, like Clarissa and Peter, feel isolated from one another. Like Clarissa's being unable to understand Peter's social ineptness, Lucrezia cannot understand Septimus. It seems to Lucrezia that her husband should not "act like that." Clarissa disapproved of Peter's actions; Lucrezia disapproves of Septimus' actions — but the contrast is enormous: Septimus is insane and losing his hold on life; eventually he will toss it away. Peter has never abandoned life.
Peter of course never guesses what we know about Rezia and Septimus. And Rezia never guesses at the multitude of confusing thoughts simmering inside that "kind-looking man," as she describes him. Peter sees Rezia and Septimus and thinks that young people are freer than he was as a youth. But Peter and Sally Seton, although they were not in love with one another, were very free and candid with one another. And Rezia and Septimus are not young lovers and their quarrel is far more serious than a simple lovers' quarrel.
The sun is lulling Peter; he is basking in a brief, lazy luxury of blaming the times for his troubles. It has been a long interior monologue; Peter has tried, and failed, to fit all the pieces of the past into the empty spaces of the present.