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The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Chapter 15 : Mrs. Woolf | Summary



Vanessa and her children have left. Virginia looks at her novel in progress. She has high hopes for its success but fears it will "prove weak and devoid of true feeling." The love and contentment she felt just a few hours ago have completely vanished. She tries to convince herself that her current life is enough, a reason for her to be content.

Virginia tenses when she feels a headache coming on. Then she decides it's not the headache itself but a memory of the headache, "her fear of the headache." She'll be all right. "She is herself," and detects no voices or hallucinations. Virginia decides to go for a walk, and she quietly slips out the back door. In the garden she feels as if she's "entered the realm of the dead bird." She thinks "it's not entirely disagreeable, this cemetery feeling." In some way the grave is "more bearable ... than the beef and the lamps." She nears the body of the bird and gazes at it. It's no longer beautiful, and Virginia knows that the next day Leonard will scoop it up and throw it out. She thinks, "it's trash, that's all." The living being is an illusion.

Virginia walks toward town. She passes a pair of lovers on the street, which makes her think "I am alone." As she walks she feels the nearness of her insanity and knows that if it strikes again she will be "utterly alone ... [in] a realm of the living dead." She must keep walking to avoid the devil that is her illness.

In town, Virginia goes to the train station. She will buy a ticket to go to London. If she disappears into the great city she will be all right. Alas, she's just missed a London train, but she buys a ticket for the next one that leaves in 25 minutes. She'll have a few hours in London and catch the last train back to Richmond. She knows that Leonard will be worried and angry, but she doesn't care. Life in Richmond is a type of death for Virginia. It's better, she thinks, to face the worst in the bustle and stimulation of the great city.

She sits on a bench to wait for the train but becomes restless and walks around outside the station. She sees Leonard approaching and thinks she must escape from him. But she walks toward him and sees he's clearly upset. Virginia lies to him, saying she's just out for a walk. She says nothing about the train to London. Leonard admits he was extremely worried about her. Leonard guides her back to the house where dinner is waiting. She is desperate for the freedom of London but lets Leonard take her home. Virginia thinks of her character, Mrs. Dalloway, whose party is about to begin but who longs for and fears the city of death beyond her house.

Virginia tells Leonard "it's time for us to move back to London." He is uncertain, but she assures him she's no longer ill. She tells him how she longs to live in London again. As they walk back to the house "like any middle-aged couple going home," Virginia knows she'll never tell Leonard about the train ticket in her pocket.


Insanity haunts Virginia Woolf. Without her sister, Virginia's sense of contentment vanishes. The onrush of mundanity makes Virginia acutely aware of the possible onset of insanity. She wants her ordinary life to be enough, to be her meaningful life, but it is not. She remembers the headache that presages the presence of the devil that is her illness. She knows that when this devil appears again, she will be utterly alone in a way others cannot comprehend. Going for a secret walk is her way of escaping both convention and the illness. Going to London is the ultimate escape from the mundane. Her ordinary life is so suffocating she would rather be free and risk illness in London than waste away in the suburbs. She would rather have a life worth living in London than stifling safety in Richmond.

Mortality and death prey on Virginia's mind. The dead thrush's grave is somehow agreeable to her. The dead bird Virginia gazes at is shrunken and diminished; its death reveals life's insignificance, its true smallness and triviality. The dead bird in its circle of flowers reminds Virginia that she too is dying in Richmond. The grave reminds her of an empty space inside her where real emotions should exist but do not. On the walk back to the house, Virginia and Leonard see their reflections in the window of a butcher shop. Virginia is terrified of seeing her reflection—she always avoids mirrors—so it's significant that she sees herself reflected in the window of an establishment dealing in death.

Leonard Woolf is depicted as an embodiment of conventionality. He comes after Virginia like "a figure of remonstrance." She sees him as sad and ordinary. Leonard is certainly justified in being worried about Virginia, but she views him as emotionally frail and fearful. It's likely her view of him is distorted by her desire to escape the exile he's imposed on her.

Water represents both the exciting but probably deadly life in London and the dull life of Richmond. Virginia would rather face any possible dangers in London than remain in bourgeois Richmond, where the stultifying life she can have is not worth living.

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