The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Chapter 16 : Mrs. Dalloway | Summary



Sally, Oliver St. Ives, and Walter Hardy are finishing lunch. Both Oliver and Walter urge Sally to be part of a movie, a thriller with a gay hero. Sally is unsure, says she has to think about it. Sally leaves with Walter and reminds him to be at the party that evening. While they're talking, Walter sees some beautiful shirts in a store window and decides to buy one for his lover, Evan, who has AIDS but is surviving on the latest drug treatments. Sally becomes annoyed, then angry, when she realizes she never knows what to buy for Clarissa. She decides she must leave and says good-bye to Walter.

As she goes home Sally wants to buy a gift for Clarissa, or to "go home and say something ... beyond passion itself"; something truly intimate and deeply meaningful. She thinks of how devastated she'd be if Clarissa died. But she recognizes that "this love of theirs with its reassuring domesticity ... has yoked Sally directly to the machinery of mortality itself." She goes into a flower shop, frowns at the usual display, and thinks she'll buy nothing. Then her eye catches sight of a bunch of yellow roses, and she buys them.

Back at the apartment Sally can tell that something is wrong; Clarissa sounds upset. Sally wonders what she's done to upset Clarissa. Clarissa is sitting on the sofa looking "disoriented and stricken," basically by Louis's visit and his weeping. Her encounter with Mary Krull has also left her agitated. When Sally notices that Clarissa had also bought yellow roses, they both laugh, which eases the tension somewhat. In fact, they both begin to feel simply happy and loving toward each other.


The author shifts voice in this chapter to that of Sally, Clarissa's longtime partner. With Oliver, Sally thinks about celebrity and feels somewhat insignificant in his company. Sally's thoughts seem to revolve around the concepts of time and immortality. Perhaps that is why, even though she doubts her ability to contribute meaningfully to Oliver's project, her insecurity makes her feel horrified at the idea of being left out.

Sally experiences feelings of doubt while she accompanies Walter to buy an expensive shirt. She wonders why she never knows what gift to buy for Clarissa, how to choose a gift that her partner really wants. Clarissa always says she likes the gifts but never shows real appreciation for them. The issue is one of identity and knowledge, one's own and one's partner's. Sally becomes angry at what she perceives as Clarissa's bland dishonesty, and this leads her to wonder how they can be a truly loving couple, how they can think they love each other if they know so little of the other.

Sally thinks about Clarissa dying. She wants to go home and reveal her love for Clarissa in words that are deeply true and intimate—beyond passion. She wants to communicate something profound about their relationship and about how devastating Clarissa's death would be for her. She wants to speak of transcendent selfhood in life that is always shadowed by mortality. For Sally, mortality is part of what joins her and Clarissa, whose death is unimaginable to her.

Thoughts of death lead Sally to think about the passage of time. She looks at Clarissa and thinks how she will see Clarissa growing old and faded, envisioning the decline time will inevitably bring.

Doubts about domesticity assail Sally when she returns home. When she senses Clarissa is upset, Sally immediately thinks it must be about some household chore she's forgotten to do. Her domestic oversights make Sally doubt her own character, her own ability to put aside her selfishness and make a deeper commitment to her relationship with Clarissa.

For Sally as well as Clarissa, flowers represent their love, how attuned they are to each other. Like Clarissa, Sally is attracted to yellow roses, and both women laugh when they realize they've each bought the same flowers. Their laughter, like the roses, signifies how much alike they are and how strong their love truly is despite the trappings of domesticity. The flowers reinforce the real depth of their love and how suitable they are for each other.

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