Clarissa Dalloway's character was introduced to us in fragments; but the pieces were large and began to fit together rather easily. Our introduction to Richard, on the other hand, has existed only in very small fragments so far — as an instant in memory (Clarissa's) or in contrast to another character (Peter Walsh). In this scene, the fragments fasten themselves to a large, chapter length portrait, and we finally meet the man Clarissa preferred to Peter Walsh.
Certainly Virginia Woolf has nursed our curiosity about Richard Dalloway. Peter Walsh has told us a few things about him, as has Lady Bruton, but sometimes one person's comments about another will reveal infinitely more about himself than about the other person. Peter's judgment, for example, that Richard would be far happier in Norfolk than in London, should be held in suspension until we hear or have verification from Richard himself; it's possible that Peter could have been rationalizing. As it turns out Peter's intuition was accurate; Richard is nostalgic for Norfolk. He is not merely the vague English official that has been suggested by various hints. He is sensitive to the feel of the wind, the color of the sky, and the movements of grass. He is like Clarissa in this respect. But, unlike Clarissa, he is not resistant. Clarissa resists too-active sensual experiences and active male-female relationships, where Richard is more pliable, both with Clarissa and with a stuffed shirt like Hugh Whitbread. Richard's pliability is seen in the manner in which he acquiesces to Clarissa's needs and notions about the temper of their marriage, and because he is naturally amiable, he gives in to Hugh's whims.
Here Virginia Woolf shows us a situation in which Richard is aware that Hugh is a prig and poseur yet follows him into the jewelry store anyway. Therefore we realize that Richard lets Hugh make demands of him, just as he lets Clarissa make demands of him. In other words, Richard lets himself be carried along. And thus by characterizing Richard in this way, Virginia Woolf moves imperceptibly from character to motif. She speaks again of tides and seas and we realize that wave-like, scene by scene, we — and the characters of this drama — are being carried along toward the shore, where the party will climax the novel. Then all will recede — back into the past, back into the sea, back into memory. Throughout this novel, Virginia Woolf has taken us on toward the party, inserting the sound of clocks as they marked off the end of one wave, one moment of this day, then merged us into the next moment to carry us farther.
In this scene in the jewelry shop, while Hugh is being a pompous boor about a piece of Spanish jewelry, we note a difference between Richard Dalloway and Peter Walsh. Peter is a romantic, he follows dreams, and he also follows people (the girl on the street), but he made the girl the object of a playful quest. Richard Dalloway also follows people, but he follows them doggedly. He is not very romantic, in either an adventurous or an amorous sense. His thoughts about a present for Clarissa are tainted with apology and fear. He has never been successful with his gifts to her; he does not dare actually buy jewelry for Clarissa. Instead he chooses flowers. Flowers, of course, are lovely and thoughtful. But only a few pages back, we saw another man offering flowers to a woman: Hugh Whitbread gave them to Lady Bruton: he gave them to his hostess. Now Richard will reject the idea of jewelry and decide on a gift of flowers and present them to Clarissa, another hostess. Virginia Woolf's sense of irony is keen.
Richard chooses flowers because they can be given, and accepted, impersonally. He dares not break a certain silent compact between himself and Clarissa and make any situation too personal. Clarissa did not dare marry Peter Walsh; Richard does not dare buy too personal a present for Clarissa. He is hesitant about daring to really love her, just as she was hesitant about daring to love Peter Walsh. Richard's fear of crossing Piccadilly, while several children nonchalantly scamper across, is indicative of this timidity. He has lost a life in the country by marrying Clarissa; she let herself lose Peter Walsh. Clarissa fled to Richard and has infected him with certain of her fears. He must now observe certain rules of behavior with his wife if he is to preserve their untroubled union. When Virginia Woolf says that Richard carries his flowers "as a weapon" as he crosses the park and approaches the female vagrant, she intends for us to understand that he also carries the flowers as a weapon against saying the unsaid "I love you" to his wife. He is afraid to be natural and impetuous. How paradoxical that flowers — natural and beautiful — should be a substitute and a defense against the natural and beautiful "I love you."
When we compare Richard's arrival with Peter's earlier arrival, we find that Clarissa is upset in both scenes. She is not, however, upset by Richard as she was by Peter. Invitations, obligations, and Elizabeth's relationship with Doris Kilman vex her — but Richard does not. In fact, she does not even respond, initially, to Richard. She responds to the flowers. Their relationship, in this first scene together, seems almost as empty as the drawing room with its chairs moved back against the wall. For a few minutes, like the flowers "at first bunched together," Clarissa talks quickly about Hugh and Peter, and Richard talks quickly about Hugh and Lady Bruton; then, like the flowers, the two people begin "starting apart." And Richard must be off — separating — like the flowers.
When Richard is gone, Clarissa thinks him silly for wanting her to follow the doctor's orders, but this is quite in keeping with what we have seen of Richard. He follows doctors' orders because he follows Clarissa's own unspoken orders. He respects and observes the gulf Clarissa wishes to remain between them. She tells herself that she "loves her roses" more than the Albanians Richard has gone to confer with and we recall Peter Walsh's long-ago taunt that he preferred people to cauliflowers. What is important to Clarissa: people or cauliflowers?
She says she likes life so we must consider what her sense of life is. At her parties people gather and talk and this satisfies Clarissa. For herself, she has created a life-situation. Can we condemn her for her definition of life? For she is not just a cold, cocktail party hostess; we know that. We have seen that she is responsive to the poetic and to the imaginary; her impressions of atmosphere, people and time are most sensitive. But we must also realize too that parties are arranged situations. There is little that is natural or spontaneous about them until cocktails have warmed the cold contact between the guests. People wear their best faces and best manners to parties. They keep one another at a certain social distance. Of course Clarissa enjoys party situations with their observed, good-mannered, friendly distances. This metaphysical distance around one is what supremely matters to her. Parties are Clarissa's gift; these are her own words — her gift — meaning her special talent — and her special present to life.