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The Hours

Michael Cunningham

Mrs. Woolf/Mrs. Brown/Mrs. Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway/Mrs. Brown

Summary: Mrs. Woolf

Virginia sits at her writing table, pleased with the work she has completed in two hours. Although she likes the central idea of her novel, she wonders if a novel that describes a single day in the life of one woman will work. She decides that Clarissa Dalloway will die, and she considers having her character commit suicide. As she stops writing, she thinks that she’d like to continue writing. Writing allows her to fend off the relapses of her struggles with mental illness. Virginia considers how the headaches are so strong that they seem to have an independent life of their own—they seem to take her mind over completely. The headaches have been dormant lately, and Virginia thinks that if she feels better and acts healthy around Leonard he will let them move back to London.

Virginia returns to the printing room to visit Leonard, where he and his assistant Ralph are reading page proofs. She comes in to find Leonard scolding Ralph for making errors and attempts to smooth over the situation by assuring everybody that it will be okay. Though Ralph shows his gratitude, Virginia becomes irritated, as she only wanted to make peace, not side with Ralph.

Summary: Mrs. Brown

Laura makes a birthday cake for Dan, sifting flour into a blue bowl. Richie helps her measure four cups. He knows how many four is, and for a moment Laura feels incredibly proud and loves her son so much that she finds herself satisfied with her life. When finished, the cake will be a work of art as accomplished as the book Mrs. Dalloway. As Richie transfers a cup of flour, he spills and becomes upset. Feeling Richie’s distress, Laura gets upset too, and she wants to run away quickly and be free. She reassures Richie that everything is okay and nothing is ruined. The comfort Richie finds from her reassurances makes her think she could be happy with her role as a mother and housewife.

Summary: Mrs. Woolf

As Virginia takes a walk, she thinks about her character Clarissa. She decides that Clarissa will have been in love with a woman in her youth but will later marry a man. When a woman passes Virginia and ignores her, Virginia realizes that she has been talking out loud to herself. Everyone around her has a superior attitude, and this attitude makes Virginia hate her suburban life in Richmond. She feels exposed, as if she were an author writing a story about an insane woman for all those around her to read. As her thoughts drift back to her own writing, she thinks Clarissa will kill herself over a domestic failure.

When she returns home, Virginia goes to the kitchen to discuss lunch. The conversation does not go well, and Nelly seems to punish Virginia for not having articulated her needs about what to eat earlier that day. Virginia reminds Nelly that her sister Vanessa is bringing her children for tea at four and asks her to get ginger and China tea for the occasion. Nelly becomes annoyed because she will have to go to London to get them. Virginia orders her to go anyway and imagines that Nelly will be murderously angry with her. Although she feels it should be much easier for her to deal with her servants, she just can’t do it. She decides that Clarissa Dalloway will be wonderful with her servants.

Analysis

Virginia’s nature is split between the productive writer and the terrified invalid. She runs away from the illness that incapacitates her. Her fear of the headaches—and her frightening description of their severity—demonstrates the severity of her mental illness, even though she is relatively healthy in this chapter.

Virginia has trouble nurturing those around her, as demonstrated by her tense interaction with Leonard and Ralph. Ralph seems to want Virginia to be a mother figure, capable of shielding him from Leonard’s tyrannical energy. Virginia refuses to do, and the assumption that she would—or could—be a mother figure to Ralph annoys her. Her conflict with the maternal role echoes Clarissa and Laura’s frustrated roles as nurturing figures. Clarissa spreads herself too thin among the people she cares about and takes personally the conflicts she experiences with Richard, Sally, and Julia. Laura feels ambivalent about her role as a wife and mother and tries to escape the presence of her family life through books. Virginia wants to have peace and comfort in her house but finds she cannot be a nurturing presence for the people around her.

Laura shifts back and forth between contentment as a mother and a wife and a desire to be completely free. She lives an isolated life: her main companions are books and her son. She doesn’t articulate her inability to accept her life to anybody. Perhaps she was never meant to be a mother and a wife. Now that she has a responsibility to her husband and son, the possibility of escape seems slim. She has a child that loves her absolutely, and if she were to leave him, his life would be changed forever.

Virginia considers having her character Clarissa Dalloway commit suicide over something trifling, which shows how she allows her characters to develop organically. Readers of The Hours have already seen some text from Mrs. Dalloway, and Clarissa’s joy for life seems to challenge the possibility that she will end her life for a small, trivial reason. Instead, this decision-making process may be a manifestation of Virginia Woolf’s consideration of suicide as a resolution to her frustration and mental troubles. She makes a point of imagining Clarissa as an idealized version of herself: Clarissa will know how to manage a household, interact with servants, and behave properly in public—all of which Virginia cannot do. As she wrestles with the choices her character will make, Virginia is struggling with her own choices.

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