Mrs Dalloway
Virginia Woolf
Contributed by Harvey Landy
Chapter 4

As he walked away from Clarissa’s house, Peter repeated "Remember my party, remember my party," in time to the chiming of Big Ben. He thought disparagingly of Clarissa’s parties. Seeing his reflection in a window, he stopped to assess himself. He was proud to be in love with Daisy, and proud of his exciting life in India, which Clarissa knew nothing about. The affected way she had said "Here’s my Elizabeth!" had annoyed him; he had sensed Elizabeth’s annoyance, too. He felt there was something cold, and disappointingly conventional, about Clarissa now. He felt ashamed at how he had wept and told her everything. Then, when a cloud turned London momentarily gray and silent, Peter felt suddenly hollow, "utterly empty within," and thought, "Clarissa refused me ... Clarissa refused me."

As the pain of that life-changing rejection returned, Big Ben finished booming and another London clock, St. Margaret’s, began to chime. (St. Margaret’s is set to chime a few seconds late, so as not to compete with Big Ben.) In this book, Big Ben’s deep, solemn, punctual chime is often associated with death. When its "leaden circles" dissolve in the air, the characters feel it dissolving, forever, the hour they have just lived. St. Margaret’s chime, on the other hand, is associated with life. It sounds not leaden but musical¾like (as Peter thinks here) the voice of a perfect hostess saying "Ah," as she comes into a roomful of waiting guests. Whereas Big Ben presides solemnly over the past and future, St. Margaret’s revels in the living present. Still looking at his reflection, Peter heard St. Margaret’s chime and thought it sounded "like something alive ... like Clarissa herself." He thought of her with "deep emotion," and almost remembered, but not quite, something that happened long ago, a moment of "great intimacy" between them. Then St. Margaret’s last chime rang-and he suddenly imagined that Clarissa was dying. Stricken with panic, he cried to himself that she was not dead, and that he was not old. 

After he calmed down, he resumed his walk. He contemplated how the Dalloways and Hugh Whitbred thought him a failure, and he defended himself, in his mind, against them. He had been an idealistic young man, full of energy, and had gone off to India to do great things. "The future of civilization lies, he thought, in the hands of young men like that." As if on cue, there appeared a group of boys in uniform, carrying guns and marching in step. Peter began to keep step with them, and he thought approvingly of the good training they were getting. (But training for what? He did not finish his thought.) Then he noticed how young and "weedy" they looked. Significantly, they were marching to place a wreath on a memorial tomb that honored the (once young and weedy) dead soldiers of the War. Traffic had stopped for them. When they marched away, Peter could not keep up. The uniformity of their movements also troubled him; it seemed that discipline had drugged them into a kind of living death. Still, one had to respect it, he thought. All the great soldiers had renounced life in favor of that "marble stare." But he did not want that stare for himself. 

Stopping in Trafalgar Square, he realized that only Clarissa knew he was in London, and he suddenly felt strange, alien, alone. After some brief existential confusion ("What is it? Where am I? And why, after all, does one do it?"), he experienced an epiphany: "Down his mind went flat as a marsh, and three great emotions bowled over him: understanding; a vast philanthropy; irrepressible, exquisite delight. ... He had not felt so young for years." He felt exuberant, as if he had "escaped"¾ had escaped, that is, the deadly discipline of war, as well as, he realized just now, the deadening discipline of polite society. Being unknown here, at least for the moment, he was free to be anyone he wanted to be. In this new frame of mind, he eyed a young woman walking in his direction. He felt drawn to her and began to follow her. He watched her move. He thought she was dignified, but not like Clarissa, not worldly or rich. Perhaps she was witty. He wondered if she were respectable. He kept following her, feeling increasingly like "a buccaneer." He watched her turn down a side-street; as if in a dream, he thought he saw her laughing. But before he could reach her she had opened her door and disappeared, taking no notice of him. "Well, I’ve had my fun," thought Peter. He knew he had invented much of it, anyway. Echoing, unwittingly, what Clarissa had thought during her own walk that morning, he thought about how people live each day anew, "making it up" as they go.

He walked on. He was killing time before meeting with the lawyers about Daisy’s divorce. Seeing a well-dressed woman getting into a cab, he began to contemplate the virtues of English civilization. It was rare for him to feel sentimental about England; he more often criticized it. But at this moment, the busy, robust men and women he saw "seemed to him wholly admirable, good fellows, to whom one would entrust one’s life, companions in the art of living, who would see one through." 

He stopped in Regent’s Park. His thoughts continued to wander- from Clarissa, to his childhood, to that long-ago summer at Bourton. Feeling drowsy, he sat on a bench to smoke a cigar. Clarissa’s daughter, Elizabeth, returned to his mind. He thought that she was queer-looking, and that she and Clarissa probably did not get along. Again, he felt annoyed at Clarissa’s "Here’s my Elizabeth." It seemed a sign of trouble. He suspected that Clarissa tried to make Elizabeth something she was not. He planned to speak with Elizabeth alone at the party that night.

He smoked luxuriously, then slowly drifted off to sleep on the bench.

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