Summary and Analysis Before the Party


The first sentence in this scene is transitional, linking Septimus' suicide — a major occurrence — with a random observation that Peter Walsh makes. The speed and the noise of the passing ambulance suggest to Peter one of the "triumphs of civilization." This is nothing more than a commonplace, a pause to appreciate the scientific mind and its achievement. Yet in the preceding scene we were concerned with the same subjects — science and triumph. The scene ended, however, not with the scientists' triumph but with Septimus' triumph. He refused to submit; his "self" was precious; he believed in its sanctity and its mystery; and he died to preserve that mystery. There is irony in Peter's speaking of efficiency and organization so soon after Septimus' suicide, as there is irony in Septimus' receiving no respect when he was alive while the ambulance, possibly carrying his mangled body, prompts Peter's respect.

Peter's marveling at the invention of the automobile recalls the fascination of the townspeople for the black limousine early in the novel. Men are dazzled by things, by titles on people, by skywritings, but they approach one another with closed minds, pre-judgments, and scientific curiosity. Too often they are devoid of awe for the greatest miracle of all: the diversity and the mystery of the human personality. Certainly our own appreciation for the human mind becomes enriched as we read this book. Virginia Woolf offers us the human personality in its most disciplined sanity and in its most chaotic insanity.

As Peter continues to reflect, his observations are echoes of ideas we have already been concerned with. The idea of life and death merging and coming together are forces at work within Clarissa, as they were within Septimus. When Peter identifies his flaw as his "susceptibility," we remember that Clarissa also shares this flaw. Both have skeins of naked nerves; both are vulnerable to beauty, both register sensitive insights into life, yet Clarissa has sheltered her flaw within Richard Dalloway's gentle protectiveness. Peter has no such refuge from reality. He has never been able to disguise or master his intensities — but then he was not able to master Clarissa either; she feared too much the conjunction of their susceptibilities.

Clarissa's idea this morning about people not really dying but becoming part of other people takes on another meaning now. As the day of Wednesday, June 23, has passed, Virginia Woolf has caught moments, touched them with water imagery, and offered them to us as happening before our eyes. But do they fade and die? No, they become part of many people's memories; they become like snapshots imprinted on the leaves of memory. They will blur, but they will be waiting for a place or a phrase to recall them.

Consider the memory-snapshots Peter takes out tonight. They once were "moments" too, unfamiliar moments to us; Clarissa, breathless, on the upper deck of a bus, babbling to Peter; Clarissa in the country; Clarissa on a hilltop, pointing, her cloak blowing out; and Clarissa, spontaneous, arguing, discussing. True, Clarissa while walking through London this morning recalled plunging into the spring air when she was a girl, but the Clarissa we see very frequently straightens herself upright when she feels herself physically, or mentally, slumping. Her imagination soars and plunges, but what of the woman herself? This Clarissa has avoided spontaneity between herself and Peter, and between herself and Richard. Does Peter see, then, the Clarissa we have seen in our moments with her? Or does he see another Clarissa beyond the white-haired, beak-nosed woman we watched mending her sea-green dress? We cannot but like Peter's memories of Clarissa. The Clarissa he is in love with, the young girl on the hill, is a captivating creature — twinkling, a bit of a nymph, thoroughly lovely. How often, we must wonder, was Clarissa like the girl he remembers? Has his memory been idealized, colored with his own imagination? For Peter is imaginative. Even now he is imaginatively trying to re-create what was happening within Clarissa as she wrote the letter he receives.

Abruptly Virginia Woolf moves us into Daisy's mind. We see Peter through Daisy's eyes and he becomes different from the man we know as Peter Walsh. Daisy sees Peter as having reserves, as being a bookish gentleman, and as being the best judge of cooking in India. Again Virginia Woolf is showing us the variety of selves that inhabit a human being under the guise of a single name. It would seem that Peter does not toy with his pocketknife when he is with Daisy, as he does with Clarissa; nor does he sob uncontrollably with Daisy. The man Daisy describes sounds more like Richard or Hugh. Daisy evokes certain attitudes and responses from Peter; Clarissa evokes entirely different facets of Peter's personality.

And what kind of a marriage will Peter and Daisy have? More than likely, paradoxically, Peter's thoughts lead us to believe that it might become a marriage very much like Clarissa and Richard's. With Clarissa, Peter, although in his fifties, is like a young boy responding to the young girl in Clarissa that he knew and will always remember. With Daisy, Peter is fiftyish. Note how conservative he is about this marriage, compared to the one he had hoped for with Clarissa. He considers the quiet of being alone, and of being "sufficient to himself." These attitudes are foreign to his relationship with Clarissa, yet they are what he is contemplating after he marries the 24-year-old Daisy.

Peter is lonely as the scene ends. This theme pervades the novel. The strangers whom Peter meets at dinner do their best to establish a satisfying link, through small talk, with Peter. Peter has tried to re-establish a link with Clarissa; he has thought about the links he is forging with Daisy. People go to parties to link together, to not be lonely. People give parties to offer the opportunity for other people, for a moment, to link; for a moment, not to be lonely.

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