The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Chapter 22 : Mrs. Dalloway | Summary

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Summary

It's past midnight, and Laura Brown is in Clarissa's apartment. It is about 50 years after the events in the Mrs. Brown chapters occurred. Laura is about 80 years old. Julia is asleep on the sofa, but awakes when Clarissa, Sally, and Laura come in. Julia tells Clarissa that she's called everyone on the list to tell them the party is canceled.

Laura Brown sits on the sofa and accepts Julia's offer of a cup of tea. Clarissa sits with Mrs. Brown, thinking about aging and coping. When Sally asks if it would be out of place to eat the food made for the party, Clarissa answers, "I think Richard would probably have appreciated that." Clarissa tells Laura that she can go to bed in the guest room whenever she feels tired, but Mrs. Brown is not ready to sleep.

Clarissa sits with Laura, the mother who "walked away" from her life with her son and her family and went to live in Canada. Clarissa chides herself for making a trite comment about Richard being a wonderful man, but Laura then states that he was "a wonderful writer." Laura has read all his poetry and his novel. Clarissa has the sudden realization that it was Laura, Richard's mother, who "is the ghost and goddess" contained in Richard's poetry. Clarissa understands that it was not she who was his poetic muse. "[Clarissa] knows [Laura] has been worshipped and despised ... has obsessed" Richard, the poetic genius. Clarissa "feels as if she's suffocating." She wants to ask Laura important questions about Richard but somehow cannot. When Clarissa says she did her best in caring for Richard, Laura says, "I wish I could have done better." Clarissa contemplates Laura, the woman who left her family and is now its only surviving member.

Clarissa wonders what Richard experienced as he fell from the window to his death. Was suicide a pleasure for him? Did he feel pain as his skull smashed onto the pavement? She stops these thoughts by going into the kitchen to see about the food. There are mounds of it—enough for the 50 people invited to the party. When the women remark that "it's time for this day to be over," it seems to Clarissa that "at that moment Richard begins truly to leave the world." Clarissa muses about ordinary life, about its changeability from fleeting joy to longer-lasting darkness, from active wakefulness to descent into sleep. She wonders, "Heaven only knows why we love it so." Clarissa thinks that here is her party, for the four women who have survived Richard's death and have the "great good fortune" to be alive.

Laura goes back into the living room and sees Laura as "the woman of wrath and sorrow ... in love with death" who "haunted Richard's work." Laura, a librarian from Toronto, is Richard's "beloved [and] traitor."

Analysis

Life as the passing of time preoccupies Clarissa's mind: in terms of aging when she's with the elderly Mrs. Brown and in terms of the hours, filled with constantly changing of feelings and experiences, that constitute lived life. The darkness that fills much of life makes Clarissa wonder why people love life so much, but at last she realizes it's the love of life that allows people to live through the hours left until their death. It's only when Clarissa says it's time for the day to be over that Richard's absence from the world becomes truly real for her. That absence makes Clarissa think about the effect of time on the durability of art, and she wonders if Richard's best poetry will withstand the passing of time or simply vanish.

Clarissa thinks about time as the hours a person lives through in life, and she recognizes that these hours constitute an ordinary existence of wakefulness and sleep, of mundane actions and events. It's notable that although the reader is told almost nothing of Laura Brown's life after she fled her family, she seems to have lived the extremely unremarkable, ordinary life of a librarian. Laura sits in Clarissa's living room primly, hardly giving the impression of a wildly independent and rebellious person. It may be that Laura left her family simply so she could be alone. She could immerse herself in reading books. She seems not to have pursued a stimulating life as Virginia Woolf would do in London. Yet, the link between Virginia Woolf and this day and place is Woolf's suicide. In his Washington Post review of The Hours, Jameson Currier notes that Woolf's suicide "keep[s] the mundane trivia of these characters' lives from seeming tedious or overwhelming," while profoundly linking them to the darkest parts of human experience.

Mortality and death suffuse this chapter as Clarissa and Laura Brown deal with Richard's suicide. Clarissa seems truly unafraid of death when she thinks "don't be frightened, all you have to do is die." Despite her seeming acceptance of death, Clarissa cannot bring herself to ask Laura important questions about Richard, perhaps because she will not or cannot intrude on Laura's grief, or maybe because she'd rather not know. Curiously, Laura doesn't ask Clarissa anything about her son's death, about his illness, or why he committed suicide. It's possible the women discussed this earlier, but Laura seems strangely unemotional in the face of her son's suicide.

Richard's absence after his suicide may be likened to Laura's deliberate abandonment of her family. For Clarissa, Richard's death is wrenching. Laura, too, attempted suicide and then fled her family, all of whom died while she was gone. It's implied that Laura's abandonment of her son and family was as wrenching for them as Richard's death is for Clarissa—but seemingly not for Laura.

There is an abundance of regret as Clarissa and Laura talk about their relationships with Richard. For decades Laura had no relationship with Richard, but she admits, rather coldly, she wishes she "could have done better" with him. This trite, unemotional statement seems to show Laura never did love her son and through all these decades never really gave him much thought. Perhaps she is contained and prim in Clarissa's living room because being there is a mere formality; she's performing the role of the bereaved parent. Clarissa, too, seems constrained by the formality of the circumstances and speaks to Laura only in trite, socially acceptable platitudes, calling Richard a "wonderful man." Yet, the reader knows that when Clarissa says she wishes she'd helped Richard more, she means it sincerely, even though her words are so conventional. After all, Clarissa loved Richard and still regrets not having built a lifelong relationship with him.

Clarissa's self-deception comes as a bit of a shock to her when she realizes she was never Richard's poetic muse; it was his mother, Laura. Just before Clarissa has this realization, she thought she knew Richard "most intimately." Certainly, Clarissa knew Richard very well as an adult, but she may not have Laura's access to the deepest pain that motivated his best writing.

Flowers have a dual symbolism in this chapter. The women have gathered in Clarissa's apartment to mourn the death of a loved one, so the surrounding flowers are connected to death. As the chapter ends, however, Clarissa reflects on the good fortune of being alive, and the profusion of flowers connect to this life-embracing spirit as well.

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