The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Chapter 10 : Mrs. Woolf | Summary

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Summary

Virginia's sister, Vanessa, has arrived at the Woolf house more than an hour early, along with her children: Julian, Quentin, and Angelica. Virginia is helping Leonard and Marjorie with page proofs. Leonard will not stop working early to be with Vanessa, but Virginia gets up to see her sister. She wants "to inspire in Vanessa a certain surprised admiration," though she knows she's not looking very well.

She greets Vanessa, and they kiss each other's cheek. They are clearly very close and delighted to see each other. Unlike the rather austere-looking Virginia, Vanessa is "like a figure sculpted in rosy marble." Vanessa's children are already in the garden, where they're tending a dying bird they found on the road. The sisters go out to the garden to see what the children are doing. The three children are kneeling in a circle on the grass, looking down at a bit of lawn. Quentin is holding the dying thrush in his hands; Angelica is a bit frightened of the dying bird. The sisters and children talk about the condition of the bird and whether it can be saved. Vanessa suggests they just try "to make it comfortable," so Angelica assembles a bed of grass for it and surrounds the bed with roses she cut from the garden's rosebushes. Angelica takes the ritual quite seriously, but Virginia can see that her older brothers do not. Yet, it is Quentin who gently places the dying bird in its deathbed. Virginia gazes at the bird, "its wings folded up against its body," and she knows it has died. Vanessa comes up to the group and says they should leave the bird on its own now, that they've "done what they can." Vanessa wants to go inside and have some tea. Before she goes inside, Virginia looks at the dead bird, thinking "no denying it, [I] would like that."

Analysis

The dead thrush represents death and mortality. Vanessa's observation that "it's the bird's time to die" may relate to Virginia's thought that she would like to lie on the deathbed herself, indicating that at some level she thinks, or perhaps wishes, that it's her time to die too. This contrasts with Quentin's somewhat scornful or offhand attitude toward Angelica, who seems to seriously, although ritually, mourn the bird's death. But he, too, recoils from mortality when he goes to wash his hands after handling the dead thrush, as if to wash away death. Virginia notices death has shrunk the bird. Although she tells herself she would like to be in the bird's place, the sentence at the end of the chapter seems to deny this wish. In death the bird has becomes smaller and thus less significant. Virginia reveals she will not accept an insignificant death for herself. The last sentence implies such an insignificant death might be appropriate for a middle-class housewife, such as the fictional Mrs. Dalloway, but not for an artist such as Virginia Woolf.

The thrush's deathbed reminds Virginia of a foolish ornamented hat. Virginia thinks of her character, Clarissa Dalloway, as being in this slightly trivial ornamental deathbed. Perhaps it is Mrs. Dalloway's constricted suburban life that puts this idea into Virginia's mind. It's clear Virginia does not see Mrs. Dalloway's death as heroic or important. In death she is rather foolish and ornamental, like that trivial, if beautiful, hat. The smallness of the contracted bird and its placement in the slightly ridiculous deathbed turn Virginia's mind away from seeking her own death.

Flowers symbolize beauty and death and perhaps also the hardship of life or the pain of dying. Angelica and Virginia collect roses to place around the bed of grass on which the dead thrush lies. The flowers are used to beautify the deathbed, but they also contain thorns, which may signify the pain of life, the harshness of dying and death, or the ugliness of death revealed despite the beauty of the flowers.

Time is related to mortality. Virginia vividly remembers when she and Vanessa were young and always together. Then she observes how she and Vanessa have aged. Now they are two middle-aged women. Virginia wonders at the cycle of life and the passage of time, made more poignant by the death of the thrush.

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