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Peter's Lost Love (Mrs. Dalloway)

Updated on March 17, 2015

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, is a modernist novel written in 1924 in the aftermath of WWI. Although the story is primarily about Clarissa Dalloway, Woolf explores many of her other characters in depth, one of which is Peter Walsh. In the story, Peter had asked Clarissa to marry him, but Clarissa refused. Although Clarissa’s reason for rejecting Peter is an interesting topic unto itself, an equally interesting topic, and the one this paper will explore, is Peter’s psychology in the aftermath of losing the one real love of his life. Peter is a character who truly loved Clarissa, and following her rejection he falls into a state of denial, manifesting itself in many ways, including the conflict between his outer and inner desires, and his dislike of Richard. Peter tries to move on from Clarissa, but he appears to be forever unsuccessful in this endeavor.

Peter enters denial after Clarissa’s rejection because he actually loved her. Love is an abstract concept, and, as such, Woolf does not go into detail as to why Peter loves Clarissa, however, several places in the novel make it clear that this was the case. In the story, it is clearest that Peter loved her based on how he feels after the rejection as opposed to before it. The most direct declaration of love is simply when Woolf writes, “It was at Bourton that summer, early in the ‘nineties, when he was so passionately in love with Clarissa” (57). However, despite the quote’s clarity, it may not be the most convincing. Earlier in the novel, when Clarissa is recalling kissing Sally Seton and Peter seeing them, she says, “she felt his hostility; his jealousy” (35). He could only be “jealous” if he loved Clarissa. Although the jealousy may also be a sign of Peter’s controlling nature, it is still significant that he wanted to control Clarissa specifically. In this same vein, the quote also shows why Clarissa considered Peter’s personality to be choking, as she considers Peter to be “break[ing] into their companionship” (35), although from Peter’s perspective, he is only defending his love for Clarissa. This opens up the question of whether Peter’s love for Clarissa is healthy. This is debatable, as it causes no physical harm, but it may be harming certain characters psychologically. Peter seems obsessed, but it does not appear that this obsession has led him to negative behavior in terms of anyone getting hurt, so it is unclear how unhealthy the obsession should appear. However, in any case, it does not change that Peter does love Clarissa. In this way, Woolf shows that love is the motivating force behind Peter’s psychology.

Peter, however, is torn between his true, internal feelings of love, and his false exterior front of moving on emotionally. In other words, Peter is in denial. Peter’s actual feelings are that he still loves Clarissa. The clearest line demonstrating Peter’s love for Clarissa after the rejection is where Peter thinks towards the end, “One could not be in love twice … Still, it is better to have loved” (187). To be in love “twice” one must have been in love once, and therefore this is Peter acknowledging that he loved Clarissa. This line is one of the few where Peter does not deny his feelings of love as they emerge. Yet, even in this section, Peter says that Clarissa has “spoilt his life” (187). This idea that one can only be in love once is also Peter’s greatest fear, since he is trying, throughout the novel, to fall in love, but he fears it may be impossible.

Woolf continues to demonstrate Peter’s internal conflict over Clarissa at several other parts of the novel. This is perhaps most clearly shown when Peter meets Clarissa at her house. In response to Peter mentioning that he wishes Clarissa’s father would have liked him more, Clarissa says, “‘But he never liked anyone who—our friends,’ said Clarissa; and could have bitten her tongue for this reminding Peter that he had wanted to marry her” (41). Then, Peter thinks, “Of course I did … it almost broke my heart too, he thought; and was overcome with his own grief, which rose like a moon looked at from a terrace, ghastly beautiful with light from the sunken day. I was more unhappy than I’ve ever been since” (41). Later in the scene, Woolf writes,

her (Clarissa’s) look, passing through all that time and emotion, reached him doubtfully; settled on him tearfully; and rose and fluttered away, as a bird touches a branch and rises and flutters away. Quite simply she wiped her eyes. ‘Yes,’ said Peter. ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ he said, as if she drew up to the surface something which positively hurt him as it rose. Stop! Stop! He wanted to cry. For he was not old … Shall I tell her, he thought, or not? He would like to make a clean breast of it all (42).

It is Peter’s feeling of love which Clarissa draws “up to the surface,” and it is because he externally does not want to love Clarissa that this feeling “positively hurt him.” Yet, the quote ends with him asking himself if he should tell her, and what he wants to tell her is that he loves her. But, he does not tell her, because Peter at some level has acknowledged that he will never be able to marry Clarissa. This acknowledgement is his defense mechanism, because the only way he can attempt to protect himself emotionally is if he denies that there is any chance Clarissa would somehow choose him over Richard. So, instead, he keeps up his false external front, which serves both to tell others and himself, that he no longer loves Clarissa.

Later, when Peter is walking by himself, he thinks, “there she was, however; there she was. No, no, no! He was not in love with her any more!” (74). This quote is a case of denial without accusation. No one has accused Peter of loving Clarissa, so why deny anything? The answer is that Peter loves Clarissa internally, and the denial is a clashing of his internal and external feelings. Peter describes how Clarissa, “kept coming back and back like a sleeper jolting against him in a railway carriage; which was not being in love” (74). No one said this was “being in love,” he only denies it because he cannot shake the feeling that it is, which is because it is love in his case. Perhaps the best example of the conflict between his internal and external feelings comes in the final scene of the novel. Woolf writes, “And Clarissa had cared for him more than she had ever cared for Richard. Sally was positive of that. ‘No, no, no!’ said Peter (Sally should not have said that—she went too far)” (187). Internally, Peter would like for this to be true, but he is trying desperately to move on from Clarissa, so it is the last thing he wants to hear. It provides him a false hope, which only serves to hurt him, as his denial rests on the assumption that there is no hope.

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It is because Peter is trying to present a front of moving on that he tries to fall in love with Daisy. However, this love would seem inauthentic, simply based on Peter’s aforementioned quote that you can only love once. If Peter truly felt he loved Daisy—and since it is already apparent that he loves Clarissa—why would he think this? Yet, he presents the false idea regardless, saying “I am in love,” (43). Clarissa believes that Peter is in love, but this may be wishful thinking on her part. She perhaps does not think Peter is in love, but sincerely hopes it, for his sake. Peter’s false love of Daisy is his ultimate attempt to show that he has moved on, however, it still appears that he has not, based on his thoughts at different parts of the novel.

Because Peter loves Clarissa, he also dislikes her husband, Richard, since Richard is the physical manifestation of what is keeping Peter separate from Clarissa. Woolf shows this early on when Peter thinks, “there’s nothing in the world so bad for some women as marriage, he thought; and politics; and having a Conservative husband” (40). Given the context of the surrounding paragraph, the quote is certainly about Clarissa, but clearly Peter does not think Clarissa should not get married, because he himself wanted to marry her. Therefore, the quote is one of resentment. He resents that Clarissa married someone who is not him, and since he already was predisposed to dislike conservatives, his resentment only increases knowing that she married one. In this way, the quote shows Peter’s resentment towards Richard.

Peter’s dislike of Richard shows up again in the end of the scene when Peter says, “Tell me … [a]re you happy, Clarissa? Does Richard—’” (46). The quote would presumably end with Peter asking Clarissa if Richard makes her happy, and the reason Peter is asking this is because he cannot imagine this to be the case. The reason for this is that since Peter does not like Richard, he cannot truly imagine that Clarissa does either. He may be right about this, but the point is his reasoning for asking, not the unintentional validity of his assumption. In fact, the reason Clarissa married Richard may, ironically from Peter’s perspective, be because she does like Peter more than Richard. As Vereen Bell puts it in his essay “Misreading Mrs. Dalloway,” “Clarissa’s having chosen to marry Richard, who offers her status and protectiveness and respect, instead of the garrulous Peter, whose love was too intense and invasive (too real, less formal) has enabled her to remain isolated from the pressure of other people’s lives and from the outer world generally” (Bell, 99). This same idea is echoed by Alex Zwerdling, when he writes, “This ideal of conduct is manifested in her original decision to reject Peter Walsh, with all his emotional violence, and marry the stolid and reliable Richard Dalloway” (Zwerdling, 139). However, even if this is the case, the point remains that Peter could not have known this with certainty, and therefore his asking if Clarissa is happy is a reflection on his internal feelings towards both her and Richard, rather than a realization he has had about Clarissa.

The question then, is whether Peter as any sort of turning point in the novel. Is he a dynamic character who manages to move on from Clarissa, or is he a static character, that he is compelled to love her until his death? The answer would seem to be the latter, as the novel ends on the line, “What is this ecstasy? He thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was” (190). This line acknowledges that Clarissa still fills Peter with “ecstasy,” and there is nothing to suggest that he will ever feel differently. Furthermore, the last time Peter thought, “there she was,” earlier in the novel, he then immediately tried to deny his love. For Peter, this “there she was,” seems to be an acknowledgement that he cannot explain his feelings for Clarissa, but her mere existence has some sort of unshakable emotional power over him. As Bell puts it, “[I]t is surely irony that the novel’s last thought, formed in free indirect discourse, is, ‘For there she was.’ Who can know by this point who Clarissa is? Least of all the infatuated romantic Peter” (110). Peter may not be able to know Clarissa, but he can know that he loves her. Therefore, it would seem Peter has no turning point, and is condemned to hopelessly love Clarissa forever.

Peter’s psychology, shaped largely by Clarissa’s rejection, is dictated by the idea that you can only fall in love once. Clarissa was his first love, and as hard as he has tried, he has not been able to fall in love again. He spends the majority of the novel in denial of his love for Clarissa—acknowledging only that he loved her in the past, or immediately denying his feelings after admitting them to himself—but in the novel’s very last words, he acknowledges the feelings she evokes in him. If there is any turning point or change in Peter, this is it, but it seems more likely that this is just more of the same for him, as the only true change would involve him being able to move on from an emotional standpoint. He wants to no longer love Clarissa, but he cannot help it, which causes an internal struggle as he falls into denial. It is up to interpretation whether Woolf intended these ideas to say more about Peter or about Clarissa. Certainly Peter’s emotion is a contrast to the stoicism (perhaps feigned) of Mrs. Dalloway and her class. Yet, perhaps the implication that one can only fall in love once was not unintentional. Or perhaps it was something specific about Peter which caused this—perhaps this is a flaw of being too emotional. Like the rest of the novel, these questions have no clear answer, but it is the pursuit of the answer which offers the greatest insight.

Mrs. Dalloway

Works Cited

Bell, Vereen M. "Misreading Mrs. Dalloway." Sewanee Review (2006): 93-111. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925. Print.

Zwerdling, Alex. "Mrs. Dalloway and the Social System." Virginia Woolf and the Real World. Berkeley: U of California, 1986. 120-43. Print.

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