The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Chapter 4 : Mrs. Dalloway | Summary

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Summary

Clarissa has bought her flowers for the party. As she walks down the street she decides to stop in at Richard's apartment. But first she joins a group of gawkers gathered around the actress's trailer. Members of the crowd debate which famous actress is inside. Clarissa is embarrassed by the excitement she feels because it betrays her self-image as a sophisticated woman who is above such celebrity worship. While waiting, Clarissa remembers that it was on this street corner that she and Richard had had an argument several decades ago. She thinks the argument was about a kiss but can't remember if it was a kiss that happened or didn't happen. Clarissa thinks she deflected Richard's attempt to kiss her because she "wanted her freedom and Richard wanted, well, too much." She remembers telling Richard that their summer love affair was just that—a summer romance not meant to continue beyond the season. There's also the fact that Richard is bisexual. Clarissa knows he also had a liaison with Louis. The memory of the corner argument preys on Clarissa's mind because it seems to her now that it set the course of her life irrevocably.

Clarissa gives up waiting for the famous actress to appear. She lets herself into Richard's building, which is "squalid ... [but] purely and utterly itself." When Clarissa finds that the elevator doesn't work, she gladly takes the stairs because "it is better to be free," to move about on her own. When she knocks on Richard's apartment door he calls out, "oh, Mrs. D. Oh, come in." For a moment Clarissa is annoyed at this nickname (Mrs. D, for Mrs. Dalloway), but she decides not to tell Richard. Inside the door Clarissa can hear from his voice how ill Richard is. She immediately feels resentful of Evan, another young man who also has AIDS but who's doing well on antiretroviral drugs. Richard's illness began before lifesaving treatment was available, so Richard is dying. Clarissa moves through the dark, shaded rooms and greets Richard who is sitting, "gaunt and majestic," in his decrepit, malodorous armchair. When Richard sees Clarissa's flowers he jokes, "Have I died?"

Clarissa begins raising the window shades to let in some light. Richard looks awful, and he says his illness is affecting his mind. After Clarissa tells him that the flowers are for her party, the one at which he'll get a literary prize, they begin to argue gently because Richard does not want to attend. "[He doesn't] know if he can bear it ... being proud and brave in front of everybody." Richard wants the prize but can't face the party surrounding its presentation. Clarissa promises to stay with Richard for every moment of the party, to "watch out for [him]," and she tries to entice him by naming his friends who will be there. Clarissa wants Richard to be there to accept a prize that represents his literary immortality, but Richard counters by saying that the "party can go on with just the idea of me"; his body doesn't need to be there. Then Richard admits that he thinks his life's work has been a failure. He thinks he's been a prideful man who thought himself a genius but who never reached the depths of insight he aspired to.

Clarissa and Richard reminisce about a kiss they shared near a pond decades ago. Richard has only one regret—that he never wrote about Clarissa, about Clarissa and him, "about the life we're having and the life we might have had." Clarissa responds by suggesting that Richard take a nap. Then she tells Richard that she'll return at 3:30 that afternoon to help him get ready for the party. She tells Richard she made his favorite dish, to which Richard responds, "wonderful, wonderful."

Analysis

Mortality, death, and the passage of time hover over this chapter. When Clarissa sees the young girls waiting for the actress she can't help envisioning them as middle aged, then as old women, and finally as buried in a cemetery. She thinks about how the actress's fame will bring her a kind of immortality outside of time. The same thoughts of immortality revolve around Richard, whose fine work Clarissa thinks will be read far into the future. Clarissa's flowers, bought to signify celebration, represent death to Richard. He jokes that they're for a funeral, but his humor refers to the death they both know he is facing.

Richard's life seems totally defined by his illness. He's gaunt and haggard, very near death. The dinginess and squalor of his apartment reflect his degenerating condition. Insanity torments Richard, as the AIDS virus eats away at his brain. It is his worsening insanity that seems to make Richard's life no longer worth living. He and Virginia Woolf have this in common. Richard's illness also shapes Clarissa's life, as she visits him every day to care for him and to see how he's doing.

Both Clarissa and Richard are keenly aware of the passage of time and the changes it brings to their lives. Clarissa laments the changes that have occurred in the neighborhood, once vibrant and bohemian, now more like a tourist attraction. It's as if the neighborhood is enacting a performance, mimicking its former spirit. In contrast, Richard's building, though now squalid, is more genuine; it still has the aura of its former self. Richard feels like he's "fallen out of time," mostly because of his illness. His memories move seamlessly from the past to the future, and he's often unable to tell one from the other. In his mind he and Clarissa are both middle-aged and young. When Richard asks her if she has regrets, Clarissa thinks about the life they might have had together. The choice she made long ago, and its consequences, set each of them on divergent life paths.

Superficiality and meaning collide in the memory of the kisses Clarissa and Richard shared in their 20s. For Clarissa the kisses were commonplace, part of a summer romance. But Richard seems to remember the kiss by the pond as a life-changing experience. For him the kiss was not superficial but full of meaning because it augured their future life together. It was Clarissa's choice back then to consider trivial the meaningful kiss that might have dramatically altered both their future lives.

Clarissa considers identity in terms of Richard's insight into others. He sees people as greater and more profound than they think themselves to be. Clarissa realizes Richard's grandiosity is not insight but rather false projection. Richard sees people as fictional characters, existing in his creative mind. This tendency to exaggerate relates to Richard's former self-identification as a genius in the literary world. Now that he believes he's a failure, Richard is ashamed of the pride and grandiosity of his earlier personality. Richard regrets he never wrote about Clarissa or about the two of them together. This regret foreshadows a startling revelation Clarissa will have later in the novel.

Richard's decrepit chair is a symbol of Richard's worsening health and impending death. The chair's upholstery is worn down to nothing, its cushion coils visible. Clearly, the condition of the chair reflects Richard's terrible physical and mental condition. He too smells terrible, rotted from his disease, and is worn down and haggard. He is also going insane, having hallucinations, unable to situate himself in time. Yet, Richard now spends most of his time sitting in this chair and refuses to throw it out. Perhaps Richard recognizes it as a symbol of his own body and condition; as long as the chair is intact he can cling to the hope of continuing life. Richard sits in his smelly chair like "a drowned queen." This image relates Richard to Virginia Woolf, who drowned, but it also ennobles Richard because it represents his will to live and to retain whatever shred of independence and self-respect he can cling to.

Water also represents mortality and the disintegration of life in Richard's apartment. Clarissa thinks Richard's apartment has an "underwater aspect"; it reminds her of a sunken ship. This image, too, hearkens back to Virginia Woolf's suicide, pressed against a piling beneath the river, and is a harbinger of death.

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