10 April, 2011

Peter Walsh

Because I sadly won't be able to talk about this rather excellent character in my final essay. Time constraints in the presentation and all that.

Of the novel's central figures, Peter Walsh is the most directly related to Clarissa herself; he is in fact one of her former suitors, and has essentially wasted his life in a restless quest to recover in other women what he lost through her rejection. He is treated with a good deal more sympathy than the narrative is willing to grant Bradshaw, yet in some senses, he is the physician's most obvious counterpart,with his attitude similar in kind, if not in degree, to his. He is to Clarissa, “dear Peter,” and to the reader he is a man whose honesty regarding his own weaknesses—women and sentimentality—makes him a rather charming figure. All the same, he has several unsettling habits—such as that of stalking women down city streets. Admittedly he does this with no harmful intent. Upon noting that the unknown young woman passing him by is “extraordinarily attractive,” he casually pursues down the street, and pursues her mentally by filling out an imaginative picture of her (210). The picture is harmless enough: he simply imagines that he might invite her to “come and have an ice,” that she would answer, “perfectly simply, Oh yes” (211). Yet though his physical pursuit comes to an uneventful end when she opens the door of her lodgings and walks in, his mental pursuit locks her into an ideal that exists entirely within his own imagination. He conceives of himself as a “romantic buccaneer”; yet his adventure is only this banal response to experience that attempts to capture it in his imagination and to redefine it in terms that he has preordained: “young, but stately; merry, but discreet; black, but enchanting” (211).

A bit of Bradshawian aggression though this may seem, Peter's project ends up being harmless, and within the next four paragraphs Peter dismisses it as a bit of “fun.” “One makes up the better part of life, he [thinks]. . .creating an exquisite amusement” from experience, but nothing more (212). Something compels him to realize the insufficiency of this self-imposing approach to the world, and one is led to believe that this may be in part due to Clarissa herself; she interrupts his thoughts here with her injunction to “remember my party” (212), and dominates his consciousness throughout the novel. He is inclined to pursue and to layer his ideal order over the independent nature of those outside him; he is disposed to make them, at least as they appear to his consciousness, dependent on him for their definition. Yet his love for Clarissa, we sense, has raised the bar for this ideal too high. This girl is not Clarissa. Neither is his first, hastily-married wife. Even Daisy, his object of infatuation at the time this story takes place, fades into the background when he returns from India to Clarissa's London. “All this [making things up] one could never share,” he realizes (212). Clarissa's independent existence constantly returns to “smash to atoms” every attempt to concoct an artificial order out of the elements of experience (212).

Peter is not, however, simply a threat rendered harmless by the tempering effect of his memory of Clarissa. By the end of the novel he has become a visionary who, in sharp contrast to both Septimus and Bradshaw, affirms being-as-it-is. The moment when the threat of his potential destructiveness finally disappears is that when he is able to open himself up to enjoyment of life as it is, not as he would like it to be. He is at last able to let go of his pain at Clarissa's rejection and to accept her—and by extension her husband and way of life—as she is: by the end his life has been justified through this reorientation of perspective as one truly worth living despite his failures as an Indian official or in romance. Towards the end of the climactic party, a brief interaction between Peter and his old friend, Sally Seton, highlights the change that has occurred in his disposition that allows him these visionary moments. “Living in the world as she did,” the narrative comments, Sally “had an insatiable curiosity to know who people were”; accordingly she glances around the room, analyzing and caricaturing in a manner reminiscent of Peter's earlier aggressive categorization of people within his own subjective schema. “Clarissa was at heart a snob,” she judges, and then pronounces with assurance that “Clarissa had cared for [Peter] more than she had ever cared for Richard” (337, 339). In his earlier visit, Peter had similarly found that Clarissa “talked nonsense”and that she and her husband led a banal existence centered around “the most appalling bores in Europe”; moreover, the “truth” as he then saw it was indeed that “now [Clarissa] was in love with him” (235, 235). Yet now he admits in response to Sally's declarations that “he had not found life simple” (338). Richard Dalloway may indeed come off as a dull fellow, but Peter can now see more in him: the man who has just too little cleverness to quite make it to the Cabinet now “seem[s] to [Peter] the best,. . .the most disinterested” of men, and he chides Sally for claiming that Clarissa preferred Peter Walsh to such a figure (339). Throughout the passage he acknowledges alternatives to his earlier preconceptions and moves away from envisioning the world entirely in terms of his rejected love for Clarissa.

It is true that at the close of this exchange, Peter returns to asserting that “we know everything. . .at least, he did” (339). But this assertion now appears within the context of Sally's “despairing of human relationships”; her idea that life is just a process of “scratch[ing] on the wall of [one's] cell” in continually ineffective attempts to communicate, is one that Clarissa had long ago left behind and that Peter is now abandoning as well. “It was unsatisfactory, they agreed, how little one knew people” (302). “But,” they discover, if one sort of knowledge is impossible, another is. You cannot simply fit a person into a definition. What you can know, not rationally, but experientially, is “the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, [which] might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that” (302-3). Thinking back on this conversation, Peter has a revelation: this is precisely the sort of knowledge he has of Clarissa. “You were given,” he muses, “a sharp, acute, uncomfortable grain—the actual meeting. . .yet in absence, in the most unlikely places, it would flower out, open, shed its scent, let you touch, taste, look about you, get the whole feel and understanding” (303). Peter's idealism has not died out: he still looks to Clarissa as an ideal by which he can “understand” life, but this is no longer an ideal limited by his past disappointment and imposed upon others. Only when his impulse to pursue and promulgate his vision of “order” has been tempered with the receptivity necessary to respect the inviolability of the individual other is he prepared for the final vision of the novel: “It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was” (341).

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