The time is 1941, at the beginning of the Second World War. Virginia Woolf has left her house early in the morning, leaving behind two letters, one for her husband, Leonard, and another for her sister Vanessa. She walks toward the river and passes a farm worker, who notices her but says nothing. The farmer seems to enjoy a contented happiness that she envies. In comparison, Virginia feels as if her life is a failure and as if she is not a true writer but only a crazy person with a gift.
When she gets to the river, she climbs over the embankment and starts looking for stones. She methodically selects a large stone and puts it in her coat pocket. Although she works quickly, she takes notice of the stone’s beauty. She steps into the water of the river. Pausing momentarily, Virginia thinks of Leonard, Vanessa, and Vanessa’s children. She feels sorry for them and considers going back to the house. The voices and the headache have come back, and she decides that if she were to return, Leonard and Vanessa would never let her have freedom. She wades further into the water. As the stone and the current pull her down, she catches sight of a man fishing in a red jacket and notices the sky reflected on the water.
Leonard returns to his house from the garden. A maid informs him that his wife has gone out and said she’d be back soon. Leonard goes upstairs and finds the envelope containing the note from Virginia. In it, she thanks him for his patience and goodness with her, but she says that they are not enough. She feels sick, she can’t read or write, and she believes that she cannot fight any longer. Leonard races down to the river, where he sees only a man in a red jacket.
Now underwater, Virginia seems to still be able to take in her surroundings. She comes to rest on the pilings of a bridge. Cars and trucks go over the bridge as a boy stops and puts a stick in the water. He watches the stick as the current pulls it along before his mother drags him away. A truck full of soldiers drives by, and the boy asks his mother to lift him up so that they can see him waving. Virginia absorbs the scene from the bottom of the river.
The novel begins with Virginia Woolf’s suicide and hints at her long battle with mental illness. The suicide note, combined with the description of the voices and the headache, set up a history of depression or perhaps a more malignantmental disorder. Leonard’s reaction shows us that Virginia is unbalanced and that he sees her as delicate. Though Virginia ends her life, she still feels as if she is participating in the world around her. Her inability to stop seeing the patterns and beauty of the stone, even when she is about to use it to kill herself, demonstrates that Virginia is a person who takes great notice of her environment.
In a surreal moment at the end of the chapter, Virginia still seems to absorb everything going on above her even as she lies drowned at the bottom of the river. Virginia has a painful awareness of her surroundings, amounting to a hypersensitivity to every detail of her existence. Though her sensitivity has contributed to her success as a writer, it has also made her feel the moments of day-to-day existence to the point that they became painful. Virginia’s perceptiveness allowed her to be a insightful and vivid writer, but it has also caused her mental anguish and crippled her ability to cope with her own existence.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!