Peter dreams about a solitary traveler who imagines visions of women. The traveler, who seems to be an extension of Peter himself, imagines a woman made of sky and branches offering him compassion and absolution, and then an elderly mother-figure waiting for his return. This woman becomes a kind of landlady, and she asks the traveler if she can get him anything else, but the traveler doesn’t know to whom he should reply.
Peter’s dream is told in impressionistic, vague language, but it emphasizes his desire to be saved by women. He creates stereotypical female figures – the lover and the mother – and has both of them focus on him. The final question of the dream is a painful reminder of Peter’s loneliness, though. No real woman exists who can save him as he wants to be saved.
Peter wakes up suddenly saying “The death of the soul” to himself. He immediately links these words with a memory from Bourton in the early 1890s. That was the summer when he was in love with Clarissa, and she and some others were gathered around a table talking. Someone brought up a man who had married his housemaid, and Sally Seton said that the housemaid had had a baby before the wedding.
As usual, Peter’s first thoughts are of Clarissa and Bourton. In the memory he is criticizing Clarissa and the “death of her soul,” but the fact that it is always she who springs first into his head is significant. Sally was breaking social taboos by bluntly talking about this scandalous situation.
Clarissa was shocked to hear this, which was not so strange at the time, but Peter associated her prudish reaction with “the death of her soul.” It seemed to show her as hard, unimaginative, and arrogant. Clarissa had then gone off alone, knowing that everyone at the table thought her unsympathetic and silly. That evening Peter had been depressed and gloomy, but he was still hopelessly in love with Clarissa.
Peter’s relationship with Clarissa has such a profound effect on him because he is so critical of her even as he passionately loves her. They are almost like rivals more than friends or lovers. Clarissa is indeed often an unsympathetic character, and does have some snobbish prudishness at heart.
That same night Richard Dalloway had come to Bourton for the first time. Peter saw him sitting with Clarissa’s Aunt Helena, and he knew instinctively that Clarissa would marry Richard someday. He was hurt by this revelation, but felt that it was inevitable, so it was then that he insulted Clarissa by calling her “the perfect hostess.”
Richard Dalloway was Clarissa’s safe, conventional choice of husband, and so it is fitting that he first appeared sitting next to Aunt Helena, the symbol of conventionality. Peter’s desire to criticize Clarissa is intimately connected to his love for her.
After this burst of anger Peter felt love and passion for Clarissa again whenever she showed him kindness, but he knew that Richard Dalloway was also falling in love with her over the course of that summer. Peter and Clarissa seemed to have a perfect intellectual companionship, but he still knew that she would end up marrying Richard.
Peter would have provided Clarissa a life of more passion and interest, but his emotional neediness was already apparent. Clarissa preferred Peter as a friend (they shared true communication through their intellectual conversations), while Peter wanted Clarissa to “save him” as a lover.
In his passion Peter had often written to Sally Seton about Clarissa, and finally he confronted Clarissa by a fountain one afternoon. He considers this scene the most important and terrible moment of his life – he demanded the truth about Clarissa’s feelings, and she told him that it was no use, she would not marry him. Then she turned and walked away, and Peter left Bourton that night.
Woolf presents this scene as a parallel to Clarissa’s memory of Bourton – her kiss with Sally – as the greatest moment of Clarissa’s life and the worst moment of Peter’s. The romance and passion of their younger selves stands in contrast with the conformity and banality of the characters’ middle-aged selves.