While water communicates the concept of fertility and femininity, its fluidity also represents the cycle of life and death. In her novel, Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf uses these many aspects of water to symbolize the significance of Clarissa Dalloway’s experiences with Peter Walsh.
On the opening page, Clarissa Dalloway remembers plunging from her bedroom window into the still morning air, “like a flap of a wave; a kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did that something awful was about to happen” (3). Clarissa, prior to the war, finds this wave invigorating and filled with potential. She wants to immerse herself in it and be carried upon it. In her innocence, she enters into the cycle, yet a part of her understands that the wave will eventually crash and return to the sea. Her relationship with Peter Walsh is pending, as is the war, and she senses that her life is about to change.
As Clarissa’s thought’s return to the present, she explains how her ability to freely immerse herself in this life is inhibited. As she walks the city streets, she has “a perpetual sense ‘of being out, out, far out to sea and alone’ that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day” (8). Riding her wave at Burton as a young woman, she is carried into a socially unacceptable and delicious encounter with another young woman, Sally Seton. Bound by the suppression of her innermost truth, because Clarissa understands that society will not allow for the enjoyment of such encounters, she protects her innermost thoughts from the scrutiny of others. This secret causes her to feel secluded and alone, even among the busy streets of Westminster.
Peter Walsh is a threat to Clarissa’s secret. His love for her drives him to question everything about her, the intimacy of which she prefers to avoid although she does enjoy the attention. After an entire summer spent at Burton in their youth, Peter can stand it no longer. He needs to know how she feels about him and confronts her. They stand “with the fountain between them, the spout (it was broken) dribbling water incessantly” (64). Woolf uses this fountain to illustrate their lack of fluid communication. Peter begs Clarissa for the truth, his tears and words dribbling as freely as his emotion. Clarissa, sensing the danger of being so open in return, stands rigid in the solitude of her secrets. She rejects Peter for the less intimate Richard, breaking both their hearts much like that pump. After suffering the blow of unrequited love, Peter crosses the sea, leaving for India to serve in the war, thus ending their first cycle together.
The image of the sea represents loneliness, separation and disconnect again for Clarissa and Peter. The one man who knows her better than any other has gone. When each of them is in their fifties, Peter returns across the watery divide and they are forced to examine the resurfacing emotions that return with him. For Peter these emotions come back in full, fluid force. He asks himself, “bursting into tears this morning, what was all that about” (80)? As he shows an outpouring of emotion as he did the first time, Clarissa is again externally solid and unyielding, “as cold as an icicle” (80). Later, as Peter visits Regents Park, he hears the bubbling “voice of an ancient spring spouting from the earth” (80). He envisions a woman, perhaps a vision of Clarissa, placing one hand on her hip and holding the other out like a pump. This image is reminiscent of the broken pump that stood between himself and Clarissa at Burton and ends the second full cycle between them. Once again, they are lost in the sea of loneliness.
As fluid as the water is that represents their experience, Clarissa and Peter have remained unchanged. Unlike a wave that climaxes, crashes and rolls back into the ocean, Clarissa does not flow with her desires but remains an unyielding object merely riding the surface of the tide. Peter is still taken with Clarissa and spouting his bubbling and gurgling emotion, but his love never fully flows to fruition. Clarissa continues to bury deep her gift of Sally Seton’s kiss to avoid the chaos it would bring if it ever drifted to the surface. She concludes that all of life, as it exists day by day, is orderly and enjoyable in its sturdy and unmoving way, reaffirming her choice to suppress her true love for both Sally and Peter in exchange for her security with Richard.