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“There was a dignity about her. She was not worldly, like Clarissa; not rich, like Clarissa. Was she, he wondered as she moved, respectable? Witty, with a lizard’s flickering tongue, he thought (for one must invent, must allow oneself a little diversion)…He pursued; she changed. There was colour in her cheeks; mockery in her eyes” (Woolf 53).
As William Shakespeare wrote in his play Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”. Many play up fate or look to a higher being when a relationship falls to shambles; it takes insight and awareness to realize one is responsible for these issues. Peter Walsh returns from India in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, persistent in claiming that he no longer loves Clarissa Dalloway. However, he spends the entirety of the trip mulling over the their relationship. Although it is easy for Peter to blame Clarissa’s shallow nature for the breakup, he must realize she is not solely at fault for her marrying another man.
Peter projects his fantasies upon the woman he encounters and follows through the streets of London. The assumed qualities Peter gives the woman are drawn from features both lacking and present in Clarissa, thus creating an ideal woman. “There was a dignity about her. She was not worldly, like Clarissa; not rich, like Clarissa. Was she, he wondered as she moved, respectable?” (Woolf 53). The author leaves the denotation behind these words a mystery; it is purposefully left ambiguous whether Peter admires Clarissa’s wealth and worldliness. In using parallel structure, it is clear that Peter has created an organized “checklist” of qualities that his fantasized woman must or mustn’t have. The word worldly means “of or belonging to the world of human existence (as distinguished from the next or other world) world; relating to or connected with human life on earth; earthly, mundane” (Oxford English Dictionary), a definition that holds a dual meaning; the woman is not well travelled, but also not connected to humans in the sense that she is not realistic. Peter must accept that everyone is flawed, including Clarissa. “That was the devilish part of her–this coldness, this woodenness, something very profound in her, which he had felt again this morning talking to her; an impenetrability. Yet Heaven knows he loved her” (Woolf 60-61). Perhaps the root of Peter’s fantasy woman is that he was not in control when in love with Clarissa; he loved her despite her problems, now he daydreams about a woman that is ideally not like her at all.
While reflections into Peter’s past are used throughout the novel, there is a constant disconnect between reality and imagination, discrediting Peter’s recounting of his past.“For why go back like this to the past? he thought. Why make him think of it again? Why make him suffer, when she had tortured him so infernally? Why?” (Woolf 79) It is obvious that Peter is still heartbroken over his split with Clarissa, despite claiming numerous times during the present that he did not love her anymore.Much of the plot is caught somewhere between reality and imagination, as Peter claims he is over her, but can not get her out of his mind. The description of the woman grows more artistic and symbolic, conclusions derived more ambiguously as the passage goes on: “There was color in her cheeks; mockery in her eyes” (Woolf 53). Indeed, Peter turns his attention upon the woman after she passes Gordon’s Statue. He thinks to himself, “[she] seemed…to shed veil after veil, until she had become the very woman he had always had in mind; young, but stately; merry, but discreet; black, but enchanting” (Woolf 52). Gordon’s statue is juxtaposed with the woman to reveal the artistic craft Peter has imposed on her. In describing her in contradictory adjectives, Peter is using fantasy to uncover what he likes and dislikes in Clarissa.
Imagination is how Peter grasps his takeaway from meeting with an ex-lover for the first time in years. After he loses sight of this woman, Peter is left mentally repeating the last words Clarissa spoke to him: remember my party, solidifying the idea that the woman was merely symbolic for the confusion Peter feels towards Clarissa. Even in the past, before Peter let his own doubts split himself and Clarissa, he thought, “So she left him. And he had a feeling that they were all gathered together in a conspiracy against him – laughing and talking – behind his back. There he stood by Miss Parry’s chair as though he had been cut out of wood, he talking about wild flowers. Never, never had he suffered so infernally!” (Woolf 62). He will never be happy with Clarissa in the present when comparing her to what he desires, just like in the past he imposed his own imagined scenario into reality, leading him to feel discontent with the real world.
Peter Walsh is a representative of those who wonder what could have been in the past. This unhealthy habit worsens due to Peter’s tendency to confuse what is reality and what reality he created in his mind. Within Woolf’s narrative as a whole, Peter’s strange fixation on the woman reveals how the past is altered to make sense of the present, especially in the face of confusion and remorse.
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