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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
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.
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