Summary and Analysis
In contrast to the last scene of safe quietude, we now see Clarissa pitted against a flesh-and-blood person, one who loved Clarissa long ago. This, incidentally, is the first vigorous male introduced to us. Clarissa did meet Hugh Whitbread in the park, but he was a rather pallid specimen of manhood — stiff, stale, and "upholstered." Now Clarissa meets her opposite — a male who lives vitally every day in his life.
Having been inside Clarissa's thoughts for so many pages, we expect her to panic when Peter arrives. Her nerves are frail and her thoughts have been fanciful and light as gossamer. We expect this reunion to be painful. It is — but not in the way we anticipate. It is Peter, not Clarissa, who suffers most in this scene. Virginia Woolf surprises us; therefore, we should consider how she accomplishes this reversal.
It is also too easy to imagine Clarissa's agony. We know that she is lost in thought ... safe in her house ... quietly preparing for her party. These private moments are holy. Then Peter shatters the silence of Clarissa's sewing. Of course Clarissa is inwardly furious at the bad manners of whoever has dared trespass into her home. Frightened, she even tries to hide her dress. Then she is calm. Why the change? The answer lies in the many years Clarissa has trained herself to respond like a lady — as nearly as possible — to any situation. Composure is regained and Clarissa is happy and excited but she continues to sew, working her needle mechanically. Judging from appearances, one would never guess the extent of Clarissa's thrill at seeing Peter. Again, there is an enormous contrast between appearance and reality. Not even Peter guesses what is happening inside Clarissa. The regularity of the motion of her sewing suggests to him that she might, conceivably, have always lived no more exciting a life than just this.
We hover above Clarissa and Peter observing the disparity between what they think about themselves and each other and what they actually say to one another. As they talk, we watch the struggles beneath the talk. At the same time that Clarissa hates Peter's silly, childish ways, she loves his adventurous qualities. She feels inadequate and inferior and needs the presence of Richard or Elizabeth to strengthen her. For his part, Peter too feels inferior. He has made no fortune and has accumulated none of the expensive things that one is expected to pile up as evidence of success. He despairs that his life has been so disorderly (full of travels, love, and work) in contrast to Richard Dalloway's undeviating years of success. What irony this is. Peter has lived a very full life yet admires values — Dalloway values — which he could not possibly emulate. And Clarissa admires qualities in Peter that she could not emulate. And how ironic it also is that Peter has come to tell Clarissa — a girl he loved long ago — that he has just recently fallen in love again. He offers Clarissa the thrill he feels about being in love — an odd gift to offer a woman who fiercely respects the privacy of feelings. Peter sits beside Clarissa exposing his secret — which, we realize, is not his love for Daisy, but his continuing love for Clarissa.
Thus we see these two old people — he, scrawny-necked but boyish; and she, white-haired and frail. They failed as lovers long ago and now they find it awkward to be friends. The conversation flares, then fades. Talk becomes touchy, so they mistakenly use the past as a crutch. The past is barbed and recalling it is like fearing open an old wound. Yet it is not the woman who breaks; it is Peter. And, above Peter's sobs we hear Clarissa, silently crying for him to take her away — meaning it, yet also not meaning it.
Later, Clarissa does call to Peter, aloud, but her attempt is pathetic. Above the roar of the open air, the traffic, and the sound of clocks striking, her offer is barely heard. These sounds — air, traffic, and clocks — are sounds of life. The rush of air, the jangle of traffic, and the noisy climax of time are far stronger than the sounds coming from Clarissa. Arid what, we should ask, is Clarissa offering to Peter? After he wanted to share the news of his impending marriage, what is she offering him? An invitation to a party. This is Clarissa's offer. She has offered Peter the role of guest when she will be hostess — the single role that Peter has said she would be destined (and damned) to play.