Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell shows up early for tea. When she arrives, Virginia is in the study helping Leonard with proofs. Caught off-guard, Virginia feels embarrassed that she is not dressed better. Vanessa does not apologize for arriving early, and Virginia believes that her sister has a normal way of relating to the world that she feels incapable of mastering. Vanessa’s three children—Julian, Quentin, and Angelica—play in the garden. They have discovered a dying bird on the ground and have begun constructing a bed of grass surrounded by roses for the bird. Angelica, who is five, is in charge of making the grave bed. As soon as she lays the bird in the grave, Angelica wanders off in search of the nest.
The children go inside, but Virginia remains in the garden to think about the bird. She thinks that she would like to lie down in the grave bed in the bird’s place. As she looks at the bird, she realizes that her literary creation Clarissa should not kill herself but should instead function as the symbolic bed of grass in which death is lain.
The doorbell rings as Clarissa Vaughn prepares for the party that night for Richard. Louis, Richard’s former lover, surprises Clarissa. The two have not seen each other for five years, and Louis is immediately struck by how much older Clarissa looks. They reminisce about the summer at Wellfleet, and Clarissa tells him that she wants her ashes spread there when she dies. Louis responds that he hated her that summer because he was jealous of her relationship with Richard.
Louis is now a drama teacher in San Francisco, and although he wants to move back to New York, he has fallen in love with one of his students. Clarissa thinks that Louis’s love affair with a much younger student is ridiculous, but she envies the idea of being with a new young lover. Louis suddenly tears up and admits that he doesn’t love the student. Clarissa tries to comfort him as she thinks about the fact that she and Sally have never fought. The prospect of doomed love seems strangely attractive in the face of the comfortable familiarity of her romance.
Clarissa’s daughter, Julia, shows up and greets Louis, who makes his exit after promising to come to the party. As he leaves, he remembers breaking up with Richard after a fight in a train station in Rome. After storming away, he jumped on the first train he saw and felt liberated by the experience of having no obligations or commitments. He remembers that as he sat on that train bound for Madrid, he could finally feel the happiness of his own soul.
Vanessa has a casual confidence that draws attention to Virginia’s anxiety. Though the two women are sisters, their personalities are dramatically different. Vanessa’s assured manner makes Virginia’s obsessive observation of the world seem oppressive by contrast. All of the women in the book constantly evaluate every detail of the world around them, but each knows another woman who doesn’t share her powers of observation. In The Hours, the capacity for intense scrutiny seems to be necessarily accompanied by feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction. While Virginia, Clarissa, and Laura sometimes feel overwhelmed by their experiences of the world around them, Vanessa, Sally, and Kitty provide a contrast of confidence and normalcy.
Virginia has an epiphany about death when she looks at the dying bird. The bird looks small and helpless cradled in the nest the children have built. Virginia realizes that she longs for death but that her character may not have the same longing. The moment with the bird also calls attention to Virginia’s relationship with Angelica. Although they share a small connection as they talk about the bird, Virginia realizes that her perspective is dramatically different from a child’s. She feels completely detached from the role of a mother, even though she views Vanessa’s children as miraculous.
Louis enters as an outside observer of Clarissa Vaughn’s established domestic life, and his unstable love life contrasts with the grounded relationships that Clarissa has formed. When he first arrives, he notices how much she has aged. In an echo of Leonard Woolf’s observation about Virginia, he notices that the forces of time have started to act upon Clarissa’s face, but the change seems sudden. Clarissa’s preoccupation with mortality comes not only from her thought process but perhaps also from her body, which has suddenly started to decline.
Louis is desperate to be in love but doesn’t really understand what love is. He comes off as foolish and a bit desperate, because he presents himself as being in love even though he knows that he isn’t. Although he enjoys the idea of being in love, his desire from freedom and independence prevent him from ever being tied down in a relationship. The rush of exhilaration he experienced when he left Richard shows his need to escape the pressures of intimacy. By having a relationship with a much younger student, he avoids having to accept the responsibilities and compromises that come with an adult relationship. Though Clarissa has found comfort and stability in her family, she finds Louis’s independence and freedom to have relationships with whomever he chooses enticing. Despite the fact that she thinks the relationship won’t last very long, the idea of a casual romantic fling beguiles her.