By D.R Gayton
One of the structural elements that is idiosyncratic Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is the way the voice of various characters within the novel weaves in and out of the narrative providing the reader thereby the opportunity to observe the thought process, the working mind, of the characters. In doing so, the novel allows the reader to view the characters not only through their own perspective (how they see themselves), but also through the perspective of the other characters (how others see them). This method of narration then, beyond helping the plot move forward, serves to highlight the multidimensionality of each of the character’s identity as they move through time, space, and each other’s thoughts or memories. Thus, when a principal a character such as Peter Walsh is introduced into the narrative as a failure, to understand how or why he has failed, the novel forces the reader to view this aspect of his characterization, his personality, not only through the manner through which others see him, but also through the manner by which he sees himself and others.
The very first thing to consider when thinking of Peter Walsh is his connection to India. From the moment he is introduced through Clarissa Dalloway’s memory the reader is informed that Peter Walsh is in India and that he will be arriving in England soon. This connection between India and Peter Walsh is then expanded throughout the novel as the reader learns by degrees that Peter Walsh, is not only in love with the wife of an officer in the Indian Army, he is more importantly a descendant of a family of “respectable” Anglo-Indians, which as the narrator informs us, had administered “the affairs of the continent” for three generation (58). This biographical fact, positions Peter Walsh as a direct, although unlikely agent of England’s colonial system. For although he claims at one point to dislike “India, and empire, and army,” the narrator adds that despite that dislike there “were moments when civilization, even of this sort, seemed dear to him as a personal possession; moments of pride in England; in butlers; chow dogs; girls in their security” (58). By linking India, the British Empire, and the British Army to the concept of “civilization, even of this sort,” the narrator herein reveals the colonialists attitude that seems to mark the character of Peter Walsh.
Additionally, in positioning England as civilization and India, the British Empire, and the British Army as elements that both sustain and make possible that civilization Peter Walsh is expressing not only a feeling of patriotism that sees the British colonial system as a civilizing force. Further, being British himself and part of the colonial system, in describing this civilization as something that seems “dear to him as a personal possession,” Peter is also expressing a sense of entitlement. This colonialist attitude is further emphasized when remembering India and deciding what aspects of his life there he wishes to share with Clarissa, it is revealed that Peter “had invented a plough in his district, had ordered wheel-barrows from England, but the coolies wouldn’t use them” (51). Here again the idea of England as center of civilization is presented through agriculture in its most rudimentary form. For, considering the fact that agriculture is widely regarded as one of the first characteristics of civilization, by stating the tools for agriculture had to be imported from England, or invented by him, Peter implies that Indians not only lacked such tools, but that perhaps they lack the capacity to create them. In this sense, Peter Walsh is not only implying the the “coolies” where uncivilized but they they actually resisted his civilizing gestures.
This anglocentric, colonialist attitude is further stressed in the passage where Peter Walsh is walking towards Whitehall, and remembering his own failure in Oxford, he nonetheless claims that the future of civilization rests in the hands of young men who are as he had been thirty years prior; young men who he specifies as “getting books sent out to them all the way from London to a peak in the Himalayas; reading science; reading philosophy” (53). Again, in the idea that books, science, and philosophy have to be importing from England, Peter Walsh is repeating his earlier conception of civilization as centered within England, and, in a sense, as radiating from it. Significantly, however, immediately after Peter thinks of civilization, London books and young men, he hears and then begins to keep step with a band of marching of boys in uniform whose expression the narrator describes as letters “praising duty, gratitude, fidelity, love of England” (54). That the narrator specifies that Peter began to keep step with this boys in uniform is significant for two main reasons. First by falling into step with young men in uniform the narrator is again emphasizing Peter’s rapport with the British Army and consequently with the British Empire which was made possible through the military; that is, through multiple arm conflicts. Second, by saying “boys in uniform” instead of “young men in uniform” the narrator is linking Peter Walsh not only to the conjoined idea of India, empire, and military complex, but also to boyhood, to adolescence, to childishness.
This association of Peter Walsh with adolescence and childishness is one that is repeated throughout the novel. Nowhere perhaps is this relationship or association more apparent than in the scene where after meaningfully falling into step with the young men in uniform, Peter Walsh enters Regents Park, takes a seat on a bench next to an elderly nurse nurse who is watching over a sleeping baby on a perambulator, and falls asleep. To textually emphasize the parallelism that is created between the image of sleeping baby and the image of a sleeping Peter, the two sentences in which the description is found are isolated into a single paragraph. Thus, when the narrator states, “So the elderly nurse knitted over the sleeping baby in Regent’s Park. So Peter Walsh snored” (62) it becomes clear, that through the vagueness of the paragraph the sleeping baby of the first sentence can either point to the baby on the perambulator, or Peter Walsh sitting besides the nurse.
To further develop this relationship between Peter Walsh and childishness, after waking up suddenly and proceeding to remember the events from his youth that led up to his breakup with Clarissa, he consoles himself with the feel of the sun and he looks around him. Finding Regent’s Park almost completely unchanged since he was a boy he remembers a little girl named Elise Mitchell who while playing with pebbles with her brother dumped all her pebbles on her nanny’s knee and scudded off only to bump into a woman’s leg. Concluding this chain of dreams and remembrances, the narrator finally states, “Peter laugh out” (69), and leaving Peter Walsh momentarily aside proceeds to follow the thoughts and action of two of the other principal characters present at Regents Park at that same moment. Having followed Peter Walsh for a considerable amount of length in the text up to this point, however, this manner of ending with Peter Walsh laughing at the memory of little Elise’s mischievousness not only demonstrates the strong link between Peter’s memories and the present, but also, through Peter’s reaction to little Elise’s mischievousness, it directly links Peter Walsh to behavior that may be regarded as silly, absurd, in one word, childish.
Moreover, this manner of leaving Peter aside in oder to take up the narrative through the perspective of other characters is significant precisely because it comes after Peter’s recollection of the events from his youth that led up to his breakup with Clarissa. Looking back upon those events the narrator states, “[h]is demands upon Clarissa (he could see it now) were absurd. He asked impossible things. He made terrible scenes. She would have accepted him still, perhaps, if he had been less absurd. Sally thought so” (67). The terrible scenes, as the narrator describes them where scenes that reveal his moody and jealous character; they were, his late arrival to lunch because he wanted to make an impression, his sudden departure on bicycle from his group of friends after the boating trip where it seem to him that Richard Dalloway was falling in love with Clarissa. His demands upon Clarissa, on the other hand, where of course the demands of an impetuous and jealous lover; they were: the letter with an urgent rendezvous request he had sent Clarissa after the boating trip, it was his insistence during that meeting on extracting a truth from her which she neither reveals nor he ever clarifies. More importantly, however, as it is implied only a few lines earlier when the narrator states that, “he [Peter] deserved to have her,” it becomes apparent that Peter’s most absurd demand upon Clarissa was Clarissa herself.
It is this jealousy, absurdity, this almost childish possessiveness and sense of entitlement that appears at this point then to be the principal impetus behind Peter’s actions. This is further made evident when, in recalling the scene he had just made in front of Clarissa after having confessed to her his love for Daisy (the wife of the officer in the Indian Army), Peter admits to himself that at the center of that emotion that made him burst into tears there was a sense of jealousy. By stating that, “all this pother of coming to England and seeing lawyers wasn’t to marry her [Daisy], but to prevent her from marrying anybody else” (86), the narrative further underscores this absurd, jealous, and possessive aspect of Peter Walsh’s personality.
That he is able to see the absurdity of both his past behavior and demands upon Clarissa in the present is, as the text implies, due in equal measure to his sense of having financially failed and of his sense of being old despite insisting in telling himself (multiple times) that his is not. Recognizing this sense of failure and his age, the narrator states that “at fifty-three he [Peter] had to come and ask them [his old friends] to put him into some secretary’s office, to find him some usher’s job teaching little boys Latin, at the beck and call of some mandarin in an office” (80). Disliking Hugh Whitfield and not caring much for Clarissa’s husband, Richard, that Peter Walsh is herein compelled to seek them out in order to obtain a job where he predicts he will be at the “beck and call” of his superiors only serves to highlights Peter’s child-like dependency on others. By placing him in a position where he will be surrounded by “little boys,” as in the previous instance with the boys in uniform, Peter is once again being likened to boyhood, to childhood, and in this last sense, dependency. This is observable by the passive role Peter takes in the section of the phrase that indicates that he had come to ask them to put him into some office. It is then as if in asking this of Hugh or Richard, he is surrendering his will, his agency, and as a lost child, a returned prodigal son, a failure, or a defeated old man, is now asking to be led.
Reinforcing this view of Peter as a failed man who is dependent upon others, when describing the reaction of Hugh, Richard and Lady Bruton to the news Peter’s return to England, the narrator affirms that, “[i]t was vaguely flattering to them all. He had come back, battered, unsuccessful, to their secure shores. But to help him…was impossible; there was some flaw in his character” (116). To say that Peter’s financial or material failure was flattering to them is also to say that it pleased them all, that it made them feel good about themselves, it made them feel good about their own social standing, it made them feel good about their own lives. Of greater significance, however, to say that Peter Walsh was a failure, then to attribute that failure to a flaw of his character, is to say that by comparison they were all pleased with their own correctness, their own rightness. For, if financial failure is attributed to a flaw of character and they themselves are living comfortably, then the idea behind this logic is that they are, if not flawless, in some significant way right. It comes therefore as no surprise that, although seeing themselves in a position to help, they should have felt justified in refusing to provided it. The flaw, after all was in Peter’s character.
What’s more, Peter’s dependence upon others extends far beyond a dependency upon those near him. As the narrator states, “nobody of course was more dependent upon others … it had been his undoing. He could not keep out of smoking-rooms, liked colonels, liked golf, liked bridge, and above all women’s society, and the fineness of their companionship” (172). That is to say, Peter Walsh is not only financially dependent upon others, he is culturally, and emotionally dependent upon British society. For listing in the plural (and in this context) elements that are associated with British culture within the novel, the narrator is pointing out that Peter is not dependent upon one specific colonel, smoking room, or woman, but rather the whole assemblage of colonels, and women. That he is referring particularly to British colonels and British women is made evident through the last name of the officer his Daisy is married to: Simmons. In other words, by naming Daisy’s husband Major Simmons, not only is the narrator pointing out the fact that the majority of the officers in the Indian Army were British but that the women Peter was constantly falling in love with were also British. This latter point is further emphasized when Peter is walking out of Regents Park and thinks that “after India, of course, one fell in love with every woman one met” (76).
This dependency upon the plurality of British society is also indicative of Peter Walsh’s impetuous, absurd, possessive, adolescent, and childish personality. As as in the case with women, the plurality of elements listed above point towards Peter’s tendency to soon weary and tire of things, to not see things through, to want variety. Not surprisingly, however, coupled with this need for variety there is also the desire in Peter Walsh to appropriate, to possess for himself all these elements of society despite the fact that he may no longer have any interest in them. Stressing this point, the narrator declares that although Peter wants variety in love, the thought of Daisy loving someone else would drive him into a furious rage of jealousy (173). Then finally, as if to drive home the absurdity of Peter’s temperament, his desires and his possessiveness, the narrator shows him in his hotel room, looking for “his knife; his watch; his seals, his note-case, and Clarissa’s letter which he would not read again but liked to think of” (173); all object which despite their replaceability, take on an important role because they are labeled, described, as his. In turn, it is this attitude towards women and things that helps explain Peter Walsh’s attitude when he speaks of India, empire, and army earlier on in the text. Like with women who no longer interest him, that sense of pride that he experience before Whitehall is absurd because he has no interest in them beyond that derived from a vague feeling of possessiveness and consequently self glory.
It is therefore this aspect of his personality that truly marks him as a failure; this childish restlessness and possessiveness that prevents him either seeing any anything through to the end, or letting go of anything once that thing (or person) has proved itself unsatisfactory or in any other way insufficient, or even uninteresting. For in like manner, as much as he may dislike the likes of the Hugh Whitbread, or even the idea of army and of empire, he is nonetheless deeply and irrevocably attached to them through his birth to an Anglo-Indian family, through his administrative job in India, through his education, through his choice of books, wheel-barrows, and women. That is, he is a failure because although he may find his milieu vapid and worthy of vituperative criticism, his personal attachment and dependence upon it, is so deep that he cannot see beyond it.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Harvest Books. New York, NY. 1997. Print.