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The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Chapter 2 : Mrs. Woolf | Summary



Virginia Woolf awakens in Hogarth House, her home in the English borough of Richmond, in 1923. She tries to recapture what a dream revealed to her about the main character, Mrs. Dalloway, in her new novel. She has a vision of a park and feels as if she's floating through it. She senses another park beneath this one, "a park of the underworld ... the true idea of the park." In her half-waking state she touches a deep source of her creativity. She knows she can now begin to write her novel, which she senses is something "mysterious and gold, [with] a spark of profound celebration of life itself." Though she's afraid to look at herself in the mirror, she feels "fresh and full of hope" for her writing. She goes downstairs and gets a cup of coffee.

On her way to her writing room she sees her husband, Leonard, scowling with "the frown of a deity" at errors he finds in a book's page proofs. He is kind and generous with Virginia but a fierce perfectionist in his work. The couple chats for a short while. Leonard is concerned that Virginia has eaten nothing for breakfast, as he fears this might be a symptom of returning mental illness. He worries at how gaunt she is but thinks, presciently, "her books may be read for centuries."

Virginia goes back upstairs to her study. She thinks that she must try to gain weight to convince Leonard that she is healthy enough to move back to London. But her empty stomach makes her feel "quick and clean, clearheaded" and ready to begin writing. She can feel the creative inspiration inside her, "a pure self ... [like] the soul ... an inner faculty that recognizes the animating mysteries of the world." She draws on this ineffable faculty and, suddenly, she knows how to begin her novel. She writes the first line: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."


At first Virginia rejects having her novel's main character, Mrs. Dalloway, setting off on a commonplace errand to buy flowers. Virginia thinks it is too ordinary a beginning. Instead of situating her character in the midst of mundanity, Virginia wants somehow to immerse her in an unseen but surpassingly ideal setting. The great writer rejects the everyday and ordinary. She seeks in her writing the foundational, spiritual depth of reality that underlies mundane things.

Virginia knows her mental illness is returning, and she fears it. She cannot look in the mirror for fear of seeing it plainly in her face. Leonard, too, sees the signs of insanity in his wife. From their conversation the reader understands that it is Leonard who is keeping Virginia in suburban Richmond to calm her nerves and prevent her relapse into insanity. Although Virginia knows her insanity is returning, she makes a huge effort to perform the role of a sane woman so she and Leonard may return to London.

It is her physical emptiness, her hunger, that sparks Virginia's creativity and keeps her in touch with the "animating mysteries of the world" she wants to convey in her novel. By repudiating her physical body and its needs by not eating, Virginia seems to liberate her creative soul and touch the deep meaning hiding beneath the banal and mundane objects and events of ordinary life.

Virginia decides to start her novel by having Mrs. Dalloway buy flowers, and this choice draws a clear parallel between the fictional Mrs. Dalloway and Clarissa Vaughn, who also goes out to buy flowers. Perhaps like Clarissa, the fictional Mrs. Dalloway will find joy and meaning in this pedestrian task.

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