Mrs Dalloway
Virginia Woolf
Contributed by Harvey Landy
Chapter 3

Clarissa returned home from the flower shop. She felt relieved to be back inside her domestic world, comforted by its familiar sights and sounds and by the ministrations of her busy servants. Her sense of well-being was disrupted, however, when she read a phone message from Lady Millicent Bruton, inviting her husband Richard to lunch. Clarissa was shocked that she had not been invited. In a state of panic, she repeated the line "Fear no more the heat o’ the sun." She felt not jealousy but fear, seeing in this small incident an omen that, as she got older, her share of life’s pleasure would gradually diminish. She went upstairs slowly and undressed in her room. She looked at her bed. Not long ago, she had been very ill, had almost died; afterwards, Richard had insisted that she sleep alone, undisturbed. She still slept alone. Continuing her thought that life was beginning to pass her by, she foresaw her bed getting "narrower and narrower," as if her future promised only more celibacy, then death (a narrow grave). She thought of her sexual relationship with Richard. Early in their marriage, she had "failed him" in bed again and again. Now she slept alone. She lacked something, she told herself, some essential responsiveness that made for warmth between two people. But this was only partially true: She had felt aroused, on occasion, by women. The few times it had happened, she had felt it strongly and secretly, like "a sudden revelation...a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed." But she had never acted on it.

In this context, she remembered her friend Sally Seton, and wondered, "Had not that, after all, been love?" Clarissa had met Sally at a party and had been attracted to her instantly. To the sheltered and conventional Clarissa, Sally had seemed beautiful and exciting. Sally had stayed at Bourton that summer long ago. She had been reckless, funny, unconventional, charming. In her presence, Clarissa often had felt "what a man feels," what Shakespeare’s Othello had felt: "if it were now to die ’twere now to be most happy." One night, Sally and Clarissa went for walk, and at the end of it had come "the most exquisite moment of her whole life": Sally had kissed her on the lips. Clarissa had felt "that she had been given a present, wrapped up...something infinitely precious." She was in love. But then Peter had intruded upon them. "It was like running one’s face against a granite wall in the darkness! It was shocking! It was horrible!" She believed that Peter had sensed the girls’ love and was determined to break them up.

Her thoughts turned to Peter again. She wished she could think of him without bitterness. "What would he think, she wondered, when he came back?...That she had grown older? It was true. Since her illness she had turned almost white." She felt a spasm, as if death were near. But she was only 52, not old yet. She looked in the mirror and collected herself, focusing on an idea of herself as "pointed ... definite," as someone who, in public, was always centered and composed, providing a calm refuge for others. This self was different from her private self, which she never showed to anyone.

She took out her party dress. The last time she had worn it, it had torn, and she planned to mend it now. As she headed downstairs, she felt in control again, mistress of her house. In the drawing-room downstairs, she talked with her maid Lucy in a manner that was both masterly and friendly, and Lucy’s responsiveness made Clarissa both proud of herself and grateful to her servants "for helping her to be...what she wanted, gentle, generous-hearted." As she sat on the sofa and began mending her dress, a great calm spread over her. Her body and mind succumbed to the needle’s rhythm, which was like the rhythm of ocean waves when they "collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying ’that is all’." For a moment, she knew that she was just a drop in the ocean: the rhythm of her small, individual life followed and was part of the great rhythm of collective life. She became quiet and solemn, but not sad. 

Her experience of transcendence ended abruptly when Peter Walsh entered the room. Clarissa was momentarily paralyzed, "so surprised was she to see him, so glad, so shy, so utterly taken aback." Peter trembled with excitement, kissed her hands, thought she looked old, but did not say so. He felt nervous when she looked at him in return, but Clarissa, more generous than he, thought he looked well, unchanged. They exchanged greetings, but within seconds both began to feel agitated and defensive. Although they had not seen each other for years, they knew each other so instinctively that they could guess each others’ silent criticisms. Clarissa sensed Peter reproaching her for being frivolous, and Peter sensed Clarissa looking upon him as a failure. Somewhat comically, they channeled the energy of their unspoken duel into the sharp objects they were holding: Peter fiddled with his pocket-knife, and Clarissa flashed her needle and scissors as she sewed. Their conversation progressed haltingly, while beneath it each suffered a whirlwind of chaotic emotions: love and anger, desire and resentment, gaiety and grief, nostalgia and bitterness. At one point, Clarissa wept, under the pressure of these strong and varied emotions. Then Peter made an announcement: He was in love with a woman in India (Daisy), the wife of a Major in the Indian army, and he had come to London to see lawyers about her divorce. Clarissa felt both jealous and glad for him: She thought, "He was in love! Not with her. With some younger woman, of course. ... Still, he was in love; her old friend, her dear Peter, he was in love." Then, rocked by conflicting emotions, Peter too burst into tears, as Clarissa had before, and she comforted him compassionately. After that she felt at ease, light-hearted, and the thought suddenly struck her: "If I had married him, this gaiety would have been mine all day!" Then her heart sank again: She had not married him, and now "It was all over for her. The sheet was stretched and the bed narrow." Peter moved to the window and Clarissa followed resignedly, as if life were over. Peter asked her if she was happy, but before she could answer, her daughter came in. Clarissa announced, a bit too dramatically, "Here’s my Elizabeth!" Then Big Ben struck 11:30, and Peter left without looking back. Clarissa called after him, "Remember my party to-night!" But her own voice sounded inconsequential to her, frail and thin.

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