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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 900

Introduced to each other for the first time by Mrs. Dalloway at her party, Miss Ruth Anning and Mr. Roderick Serle are left by their hostess to talk together. Miss Anning had been standing at the window, looking at the evening sky; yet, while “the sky went on pouring its meaning” into her, on Mr. Serle’s sudden presence beside her she feels that the sky has changed and is not “itself, any more, but . . . shored up by [Serle’s] tall body, dark eyes, grey hair, clasped hands, the stern melancholy face.” Just as the sky is “shored up,” so too are Miss Anning’s perceptions of whatever “meaning” she may have felt able to glean from the sky, for she feels suddenly “impelled” to initiate and carry on a conversation with Mr. Serle, regardless of how “foolish” or superficial the conversation, and regardless of her own feeling that “their lives, seen by moonlight, [seemed] as long as an insect’s and no more important.”

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“Foolish! Idiotically foolish” conversation reveals to Miss Anning, in fact, what she both lacks and possesses as an individual: She lacks the energy needed for “talking with men, who frightened her rather, and so often her talks petered out into dull commonplaces, and she had very few men friends—very few intimate friends at all, she thought, but after all, did she want them? No.” Indeed, what she lacks in energy and friends seems insignificant to her when compared to what she possesses: “She had Sarah, Arthur, the cottage, the chow and, of course that . . . the sense she had coming home of something collected there, a cluster of miracles.” However, for the sake of the party, for the sake of conversation, and for the sake of Mr. Serle, Miss Anning must put out of her mind those “miracles” that make her life richly and uniquely meaningful, and she must force herself to carry on a meaningless talk with Mr. Serle, a man “she could afford to leave.” Miss Anning asks him a question designed to elicit a response from him on a topic, she presumes, about which he cares—Canterbury and the ancestors of his who are buried there.

After presenting Miss Anning’s view of this awkward situation, the omniscient narrator then shifts to Mr. Serle’s perspective, and here the reader is shown the great need this man has.for such superficial conversation as that which he is having with Miss Anning: “With a stranger he felt a renewal of hope because they could not say he had not done what he had promised, and yielding to his charm would give him a fresh start—at fifty!” Despite the satisfaction he takes from the illusion of a “fresh start” with this stranger, he nevertheless feels that his “extraordinary facility and responsiveness to talk” have proven to be “his undoing” over the years, for he has been unable to refuse invitations to parties, and unable to resist “society and the company of women.” Consequently, he has been unable to find the time he needs to be the writer he believes he is—even though he never writes. Rather than blaming himself for putting off his writing and the test of his talent, Mr. Serle finds it easier and less damaging to his exaggeratedly positive self-image to “blame . . . the richness of his nature, which he compared favorably with Wordsworth’s.” Rather than seeing such parties as given by Mrs. Dalloway, as well as such conversations as his with Miss Anning, as a waste of time and energy, Mr. Serle views such activities as essential to his “deep” life.

The narrator’s ironic view of Mr. Serle’s existence differs greatly from the man’s own view, for underpinning his need for polite society, the attention of women, and idle conversation is the fact that, at home, he has an invalid wife with whom he is “grumpy, unpleasant,” and “caustic”—his remarks to her “too clever for her to meet, except by gentle expostulations and a tear or two.” Although Miss Anning’s displeasure over the superficiality germane to conversations at parties is intensified by her reflection on the “miracles” she possesses at home, Mr. Serle’s displeasure with his home intensifies his hunger for precisely such parties as this one of the Dalloways.

Significantly, it is Miss Anning’s desire for a meaningful and rich existence that prompts her to tell Mr. Serle “the truth” about her own relationship to Canterbury, and thereby prevent him from going away from her with any “false assumption”; she tells him, therefore, “I loved Canterbury.” As a result of her truthfulness, their eyes “collided” and each of them experiences a brief exposure of the other’s inner, heretofore “secluded being,” and the experience is—while momentary—“alarming” and “terrific.” It is, in short, “the old ecstasy of life” made apparent, and its momentary exposure punctuates Mr. Serle’s otherwise “yawning, empty, capricious” existence.

Unfortunately, just as quickly as the moment of their communion occurs (that of one “secluded being” with another), it dissipates and becomes a kind of “withdrawal,” a “violation of trust,” and they are left as before: “She did her part; he his.” Caught in awkward silence, they both feel “freed” when Mira Cartwright approaches them and accosts Mr. Serle: To the relief of both Miss Anning and Mr. Serle, Cartwright’s intrusion frees them to “separate.”

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Themes