The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Chapter 1 : Mrs. Dalloway | Summary

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Summary

It is the late 1980s or early 1990s, and Clarissa Vaughn, a 52-year-old publisher who lives in New York City with her partner, Sally, goes out to buy flowers for the party she is throwing that night. It is a fine morning in June, and Clarissa revels in the weather and the surging, enduring life of the city. She is "prosperous and scandalously privileged," though also "an ordinary person." The party is in honor of her longtime friend—and long-ago lover—Richard, a talented and celebrated poet and novelist who is to be awarded the literary Carrouthers Prize that evening at the party. Richard calls her Mrs. Dalloway (or Mrs. D) after the character in Virginia Woolf's novel of that name; both the fictional and real woman share the first name Clarissa. Clarissa remembers when Richard gave her the nickname Mrs. Dalloway, back when she was 18 and they were lovers; he felt she should "be named after a great figure in literature." Clarissa and Richard became a couple after the bisexual Richard left his former lover, Louis Waters.

Clarissa thinks about Richard's fatal illness. That he has AIDS is made clear in the parenthetical line about Richard: "You have no T-cells at all." Yet, Clarissa quickly loses herself in the beauty and liveliness of Greenwich Village. Clarissa is a person of feeling more than reason. She gives herself up to enjoying the "simple sight and feel" of things in themselves and their "endless life." She anticipates her evening party, with its abundance of food and flowers and the "people of wit and influence" who'll be there. As she walks to the florist she thinks of the long dead who must be buried beneath her feet, under the cement and asphalt of the city. She loves the world in all its variety, finds everything beautiful, and realizes every living thing wants desperately to live no matter what its life is like.

The hack writer Walter Hardy spots her on the street and stops to speak with her. One reason Walter values Clarissa is because "she's the woman in [Richard's] book," which makes her something of a celebrity. Clarissa invites Walter and his partner, Evan (who also has AIDS but is responding to treatment) to her party that evening, even though she recognizes Walter's "shameless shallowness." Walter accepts the invitation. Clarissa walk on, thinking of the young Richard, a "fearless, ceaseless talker ... who actually worried over questions of good and evil." She thinks of buying a dress for her teenage daughter, Julia, but decides against it. She wonders why Julia is so friendly with Mary Krull, an outspoken, arrogantly overconfident lesbian and feminist who Clarissa finds "too despotic."

Clarissa greets Barbara, the proprietor of the flower shop. Clearly, Clarissa is a steady customer. She tells Barbara about needing flowers for the party and buys some peonies, lilies, and roses. As the women speak they hear the noise of a film crew outside. A famous actress opens her trailer door for a second as onlookers wonder who this woman with an "aura of regal assurance" is. Then the celebrity retreats, having only "briefly touched the surface of the world."

Analysis

Flowers have a dual meaning in this chapter. Flowers represent beauty and the joy of life for Clarissa and celebration for her party. The chapter opens with Clarissa going out to buy flowers, echoing the opening line of Virginia Woolf's novel, Mrs. Dalloway, in which Clarissa Dalloway decides to shop for flowers for a party. However, in The Hours, flowers also represent sickness and death. Clarissa rejects her impulse to buy flowers for Evan because she thinks flowers are the worst possible gift for someone who is ill.

When Clarissa thinks of buying a book for Evan, she rejects most as mere mundane objects. What she's looking for and cannot (ever?) find is a book so deeply meaningful it evokes a perfect, indelible, and sensate memory of her childhood, something "larger than human happiness." Inevitably, she gives up on finding such a book.

Clarissa's walk through Greenwich Village is filled with details of the everyday, bustling life of a city. Here, the mundane is celebrated. Clarissa is a person who finds beauty in the mundane, in the everyday objects and ordinary people who are everywhere in a city. She is sometimes disparaged as sentimental, but Clarissa doesn't care because she revels in the beauty of the ordinary. Clarissa remembers Richard once calling her conventional and suburban. So the woman nicknamed after a great figure in literature may be more circumscribed by society's expectations than she'd care to admit. Her love of everyday objects may further reveal Clarissa's ordinariness, although the delight she takes in ordinary things seems quite extraordinary. Further, buying flowers for her party puts her on a par with her counterpart Clarissa Dalloway, who outwardly lives the life of a conformist housewife. Clarissa deprecates Barbara, the florist, considering her akin to a country wife from a century past—yet Clarissa herself is buying flowers from Barbara for a typically wifely event.

Clarissa thinks of mortality and the passage of time as she walks the streets of lower Manhattan. She recognizes she is walking over the bones of dead men buried in a potter's field, but this does not diminish her joy at being alive on this glorious spring day. Illness and intimations of mortality intrude, however, when she meets Walter Hardy and hears about Evan. Clarissa's thoughts also hint at fatal illness when she thinks of Richard as he was 10 years ago, before his decline.

Clarissa envisions herself in time, comparing her middle-aged self to a mammoth trapped in a tar pit, struggling but unaware that it is mortally stuck. She feels less attractive than she was in her youth, and the image of the doomed mammoth may be her admission that she's stuck in time awaiting inescapable death.

Here, for Clarissa, water is a symbol of life. As she stands at her door the city seems like a beautiful pool. Clarissa walks out into the street, happily and excitedly immersing herself in its liquid beauty. This view contrasts with Virginia Woolf's view of water as a vehicle of release from life into death, though it's similar insofar as both women gain a distinct clarity of vision from the water. In a way water represented death for a youthful Richard, who argued against using plastic bags because they float to the ocean and kill the ancient sea turtles that mistake it for jellyfish, eat it, and die. If water itself is not death, it is still a repository for objects that cause death.

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