The character Virginia Woolf is closely based on the biography of the actual Virginia Woolf, a celebrated writer who lived at the beginning of the twentieth century. Virginia Woolf is best known for perfecting a stream-of-consciousness style, which imitates on the page the free, impressionistic flow of human thought. Virginia Woolf’s struggle with mental illness led her to commit suicide, which Cunningham depicts in the novel’s prologue. The rest of the novel is filled with a sense of foreboding, because every scene is colored by the knowledge that she will ultimately decide to take her own life.

Virginia struggles with her mental health and is very conscious of this struggle. She fights to keep the “shadow in the mirror,” the pounding headaches, and the voices in her head at bay. Virginia focuses on her writing as a way of channeling her energy and emotion productively. At the same time, Virginia sees her writing as something that happens to her rather than as something she has fully under her control. She is incredibly sensitive to the world around her and unusually receptive to small details of her environment, which she believes have incredible significance. Her sensitivity makes her a great writer, but she also is subject to incredibly strong emotions that are set off by events that other people might not even notice. Though she wants to be healthy, she perceives the world in such a profound way that the feelings of madness haunt her.