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The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Chapter 18 : Mrs. Dalloway | Summary



Clarissa has come to Richard's apartment to help him get ready for her party. Unusually, all the shades are up and the windows are open. The light reveals how filthy the apartment is. Clarissa goes into the sitting room and is shocked at Richard's condition.

Richard is perched "on the sill of an open window, straddling it, with one emaciated leg still in the apartment and the other, invisible to her, dangling out over five stories." Clarissa is terrified, and she repeatedly asks Richard to get down from the window, to come inside. When she approaches him he moves his inside leg up to the top of the window sill. Richard does not come down from the window sill. He says he feels wonderful after taking some antidepressant drugs. He does not move or respond verbally to Clarissa's pleas that he come down from the window.

Richard says he doesn't want to go to her party. Clarissa rather calmly says he doesn't have to. Richard ignores this and comments on how beautiful this spring day is. Clarissa feels as if what she's seeing is a memory—has already happened—but she continues to urge him to come inside. Again, Richard says he can't face going to the party and living through all the hours after it. He can't face all these hours, he's so sick. He feels his illness "closing around [him] like ... jaws ... of the Venus fly trap." Once enclosed, he will be in "the green silence." Clarissa asks about the voices, and Richard says they're always in his head. He feels so free sitting on the window sill. He asks Clarissa to tell him a story about her day, about "the most ordinary event you can think of." Clarissa tells him about buying flowers for the party that morning. The image makes Richard think of the time that he, Clarissa, and Louis shared the house by the shore and how beautiful it was.

Richard then announces that he's failed, a statement Clarissa immediately denies. Richard explains that he'd wanted to write something "alive and shocking enough that it could stand beside a morning in somebody's life. The most ordinary morning. ... What foolishness." Richard turns to Clarissa and tells her he loves her, that they might have been totally happy had they been a couple. Then Richard "inches forward, slides gently off the sill, and falls."

Clarissa screams. She looks out the window at his body five stories below in an air shaft. He's not moving. Clarissa runs down the stairs, finds her way to the air shaft, and knows Richard is dead the moment she sees his body. She kneels down and pulls away the robe that's covering his head and sees that his skull is shattered. Clarissa knows she should call the police, but she doesn't want to leave Richard alone. For some reason she "feels slightly embarrassed" by what's happened and is surprised she has not wept. She runs her hand down Richard's back, then rests her head there. She can smell his uncleanliness. She wishes she could tell him how courageous he was in his creativity and his love. She would tell him how much she's loved him over the decades and how terrible it was that she left him, unkissed, on that New York street corner all those years ago. She would like to ask "his forgiveness for shying away ... on the day of his death ... from kissing him on the lips."


Richard is on the windowsill because he's decided his life is no longer worth living. He knows he will die soon anyway, a horrible, inch-by-painful-inch death. With his death so near, Richard delights in the world, remarking on the "beautiful, beautiful day." He knows it's his last.

Time preys on Richard's mind. He can't bear the thought of living through all the torturous hours he'll have to endure until he finally, gratefully, dies. He can't face the time he has remaining.

Richard's rejection of life is also due, in large measure perhaps, to his feeling that his life has been a failure. He had wanted to write in a way that makes the ordinary transcendent, and he feels he never achieved that. This ambition unites him with the women in the novel. They, too, want to make their mundane lives transcendently "alive and shocking." But they, too, fail. Although Virginia Woolf succeeds fictionally in her novel Mrs. Dalloway, she fails to accomplish this in her real life.

Richard's insanity is another reason he turns toward suicide. When Clarissa sees the filthy, chaotic apartment, she thinks it's the home of a deranged person. When Clarissa sees Richard on the windowsill, she thinks he looks insane. And Richard admits that he hears voices in his head, tormenting him. No doubt his exaltation comes from his decision to free himself from his life of suffering. For Richard, as for Virginia Woolf, suicide appears the best or only way to escape insanity.

Flowers symbolize different things in this chapter. For the ailing Richard, flowers are symbols of death. He feels as if he's being trapped inside a huge flower, like a flesh-eating Venus flytrap, that is closing around him. As Clarissa looks for a way into the air shaft, she thinks flowers represent hell. Like the Grateful Dead picture, death is a "skull crowned with roses." This image likely references the circle of flowers placed around the deathbed of the dead thrush. Flowers also represent ordinary, mundane life. Richard has Clarissa tell him about her purchase of flowers that morning. The story turns flowers into a symbol of ordinary but lost happiness for Richard. Flowers make him recall the idyllic summer he spent with her and Louis.

Regret colors Clarissa's reaction to Richard's death. When she contemplates that missed kiss so long ago, it represents her lifelong regret at rejecting Richard. She stays by his body because she doesn't want to leave him alone—as she did on that street corner 30 years earlier. She also regrets not kissing him one last time before he died, but she rationalizes her reserve, deciding she refrained for the sake of his health—an odd thought, given that she must have known he was going to commit suicide. Clarissa's regret is motivated by her desire for mundanity, which prevented her from kissing Richard all those years ago. In her social role as an arty New York sophisticate—an ordinary type in Manhattan—Clarissa feels embarrassed by Richard's suicide. She may realize that society views such a violent, public suicide as unseemly.

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