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The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Chapter 11 : Mrs. Dalloway | Summary



Clarissa puts the yellow roses she bought into a vase. She understands the party may seem trivial, but she's determined to make it perfect, to surround Richard with "people who genuinely respect and admire him." She will also see to it that he's not overtired. The building intercom buzzes, and Louis is downstairs wanting to come up to see her. She buzzes him in, feeling "traces of devotion and guilt, attraction, a distinct element of stage fright." She hopes he's bringing good news. They embrace and are glad to see each other.

As Louis approaches her apartment, Clarissa notes he's grown old and "his old beauty" has vanished. She had desired Louis in her youth, but now she thinks of him as just a "harmless person." In the apartment they talk together and Clarissa invites Louis to the party. As they speak Louis thinks how old and less sexy Clarissa has become. Looking around the apartment he reflects on how mundane it is, "a perfect replica of an upper-class West Village apartment." He thinks the apartment and the objects in it look like a stage set rather than a true expression of the people who live there. As they chat Clarissa learns that Louis is moving back to New York City from San Francisco. They discuss Richard's book, which both agree is weird. Louis, like Clarissa, believes that the main character in the book is based on her. They agree the book is "beautifully written" but is essentially "nine hundred pages of flirtation."

When Louis admires the roses, Clarissa moves the vase "lightly to the left." This fussy gesture has Louis thinking "good lord ... she's become her mother." But then Clarissa, too, laughs at her fussiness. The subject turns to Richard's illness and its effect on his mind. When they reminisce about Richard, Clarissa recalls a perfect time the three of them had on a high dune in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Louis admits he was then extremely jealous of and angry at Clarissa because of her relationship with Richard. Suddenly, Clarissa wants to tell Louis everything about her life, but she refrains. They talk about San Francisco.

Clarissa touches Louis's shoulder, and for a moment it seems as if they'll have sex. But Louis tells her that he's fallen in love with "an amazing" young man who was a gifted student of his in San Francisco. Louis begins to cry because he realizes he and his young lover are not in love at all. They're just having an affair. After a few minutes Louis stops sobbing and apologizes for his show of emotion.

Julia, Clarissa's 19-year-old daughter, enters the apartment and greets the tear-stained Louis. They shake hands, and then Louis says he must go. Clarissa makes him promise to attend the party later. Louis rushes out of the "dreadful, tasteful apartment" and onto the street. He thinks about his break-up with Richard decades ago, a decision he seriously regrets.


In this chapter the author uses the stream-of-consciousness voice of two characters when he adds Louis's thoughts to those of Clarissa. Louis knew Clarissa well when they were young, so his viewpoint reveals how she's changed over the decades. From Louis the reader learns that Clarissa is no longer the sexy young woman she once was. Instead, in Louis's opinion, she's become a typical, upper-middle-class woman who surrounds herself with objects that are intended to define her as a bona fide West Village bohemian. In other words he sees her as mundane, trivial, ordinary, and conformist in her determined show of nonconformity. Louis's ongoing jealousy of Clarissa because of her long-ago affair with Richard is apparent in the fact that he's been in New York several times over the years but has never before gotten in touch with her.

Louis thinks of the way Clarissa talks and acts as a performance. Even when she exhibits self-knowledge, as when she fusses with the vase, it's a show. It's likely Louis is so critical of Clarissa because he's still jealous of her intimacy with Richard. Perhaps she's not as false and ordinary as he believes she is. But Louis is performing too when he tells Clarissa he's found true love. This love is a delusion, and it breaks his heart to realize it. But he can't confess his forlorn state to Clarissa because he still resents her for taking Richard from him.

Louis and Clarissa have regrettable choices in common. Like Clarissa, Louis rejected Richard as a lover, perhaps as a life partner, when they were together in Rome. Like Clarissa, Louis thought he wanted to be free, not tied down by love. Now he sorely regrets that youthful choice, that missed opportunity for what might have been happiness. At the time he thought sexual freedom expressed his essential self, but he now realizes he was wrong. When he's sobbing in Clarissa's apartment he thinks the world is bereft of love, but there might have been love for him had he chosen differently. Now, as a middle-aged man, he's trapped in a life of meaningless affairs while longing for real love.

The awareness of time and its effects permeates this chapter. Both Louis and Clarissa assess how the other has changed since they were close friends decades ago. There is sadness and regret in the changes time has brought to both of them. But it is Louis who mourns the life not lived, the love he might have had but now cannot find. Louis mollifies his sadness and regret with feelings of revenge and with his harsh judgment of Clarissa's ordinariness and what he perceives as her fraudulence. Yet, it is Clarissa who found a type of enduring love with Sally and made a life for herself. Clarissa may have somewhat outgrown her regret about Richard. But even after all these years Louis seems obsessed by those old emotions, which still prevent him from establishing a meaningful relationship.

Clarissa recalls a perfect moment when she felt she'd transcended time. It's interesting to note that although Clarissa is in a long-term relationship with Sally, it is the Wellfleet of her youth that she's most emotionally attached to. For Clarissa, her heart and soul belong to a high dune where she was most happy as a young woman living with Richard and Louis. For her, that period in Wellfleet is outside of time. This emotionally eternal place is still the same, Louis tells her. It has escaped the ravages of time in the same way her feelings about the place remain unchanged.

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