Mrs. Woolf/Mrs. Brown
Summary: Mrs. Woolf
Virginia wakes up, having dreamed of an idea for the beginning of her book. The time and location has shifted to a suburb of London in 1923. Virginia falls back to sleep and dreams of a park and an old woman sitting on a park bench. Virginia wakes up, and although she has forgotten the idea for her first line, she realizes that she can now begin to write. As she enters the bathroom, she refuses to look in the mirror, afraid that she might catch sight of a shadow that sometimes lurks behind her. This fear cripples her ability to write, and she wants to get a lot of writing done today.
Virginia goes to the dining room and gets coffee but decides not to go talk to Nelly in the kitchen, because she’s afraid that seeing Nelly will put her in a bad mood. Instead she pays a visit to her husband, Leonard, in the copy room. Leonard asks how she slept and whether she has had breakfast. Virginia states that she has had coffee with cream, but Leonard says that this is not enough. She promises to him that she will eat lunch. As he looks at her he realizes how much her intelligence amazes him. Her books, he thinks, will be read for years and years to come. He cannot help but note how much she has aged in the past year.
Virginia retreats upstairs to begin writing. She thinks to herself that if she can remain strong, she can persuade Leonard to move back to London. Their time in the suburb was supposed to cure her, but she hates being so far from the city. She resolves to eat lunch, although she sees not eating as a drug that gives her clarity of mind. She picks up her pen and writes the opening line of her novel: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
Summary: Mrs. Brown
The chapter opens with the first lines of Mrs. Dalloway. The place is Los Angeles and the time is 1949. Laura Brown reads Woolf’s novel in bed. She berates herself for not being already up with her husband, Dan. Since it is his birthday, she feels especially guilty and thinks that she should be fixing breakfast for Dan and for her young son, Richie. Ambivalent about her role as a housewife, she senses that the day will be difficult. She knows she has some license to stay in bed a little bit, because she is pregnant, and so she begins reading.
Laura plans to make up for not cooking breakfast by later making a huge birthday cake for Dan. Stalling a little longer, she decides to read one more page from Mrs. Dalloway that describes Clarissa Dalloway’s pleasure at the rush of the morning. The book is so beautiful that Laura wishes she could spend all of her time reading but feels guilty, because she has responsibilities and because other people view reading as a waste of time.
As she reads, Laura thinks about how Dan was once reported missing and feared dead during the war, but the actual dead boy was another boy with the same name. When he came back from the war, he could have had any girl but chose Laura, even though she was an odd bookworm who was a little bit older than he was. She said yes, because she couldn’t imagine saying no to him. At this moment, she stopped being an individual person and became known as Dan’s wife. Laura presses on for another page, reading about Mrs. Dalloway’s joyful wanderings through the streets of London and the booming of Big Ben.
Laura thinks she may be brilliant in the same way as Virginia Woolf and has resolved to read all of her books. She wonders if all women think the same way as they walk around, convinced that they are too good for the mundane, daily tasks they must perform. Laura begins to walk downstairs and pauses, gathering her strength to enter the company of her husband and her son. The fact that she feels irritated by their presence makes her wonder what is wrong with her.
Dan has already made breakfast and bought roses for Laura. She greets her son, Richie, and thinks for a minute that this is almost good enough for her to be a young wife in the kitchen with her family. Dan ponders the day ahead and visualizes with pleasure his morning at the office, where he will work with other men who are like him. His house, his wife, his child, and his job make him feel content and happy with his life. As Richie finishes his breakfast, Dan leaves, and Laura tells her son that today they will make a birthday cake.
The events described in the prologue—Virginia Woolf’s suicide—color the second depiction of her. Her anxieties as she prepares for her day depict her precarious mental state: mentions of the shadow behind her in the mirror and Leonard’s thoughts about her quick aging process reveal that she has been recently battling some powerful mental demons.
Virginia feels superstitious about her ability to write and must conduct precarious negotiations between her desire to write and the world around her in order to work. Her tendency to not eat when she wants to work shows a separation between mind and body that many artists experience. She refuses to look in the mirror, since she might catch sight of a shadow that will cripple her writing. Nelly puts her in a bad mood, so she avoids eating to avoid Nelly. She wishes not to have to eat at all, since it disrupts her process and prevents her from writing the way she wants.
Leonard enables Virginia to work on her writing, reversing the stereotype of the artist’s wife who forces her husband to take a break from his work to eat. Leonard’s position is that of a caretaker. He realizes Virginia’s genius—and embraces it—though he wants her to be healthy. He has demonstrated his concern by relocating her to a suburb of London. He functions both as father and husband to her in his attempts to maintain her well-being. Virginia does not seem to resent him for this role, although she resents the move to the suburbs and hopes to convince him to move back to London.
By introducing a reader of Mrs. Dalloway in his work, Cunningham shows the connection between the actual text of Mrs. Dalloway and Clarissa Vaughn’s walk through New York. Both Clarissas have to purchase flowers for parties they are hosting that night, and both are observed by passerby on the first leg of their errands. All the characters feel closely connected to Woolf’s novel, though they have dramatically different experiences of the text in three different periods of time. Virginia Woolf struggles to write Mrs. Dalloway, Laura Brown finds solace from the frustrations of her life by reading Mrs. Dalloway, and Clarissa Vaughn shares the same experiences and perceptions as Mrs. Dalloway.
As a suburban housewife in postwar California, Laura feels trapped by her life and ambivalent about her status as a wife and mother. She stays in her house and with her husband partially because of the sense of duty she feels toward the world after World War II. The men who fought on the battlefield made enormous sacrifices, and Laura feels that she must recreate a world that focuses on the needs of the men who made it back home alive. Despite her ideals, she feels frustrated by her responsibilities to attend to her husband and make breakfast for her son. Reading provides a form of escape from a life that reminds her of her stifled ambitions.
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