The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Chapter 5 : Mrs. Woolf | Summary

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Summary

Virginia Woolf is at her desk writing the beginning of her novel. So far, "parts seem very good indeed." She has high expectations for this book. But she also has her doubts about whether the daily life of an ordinary woman can be made into a compelling novel. Woolf has decided that at the end of the novel Clarissa Dalloway will die—she will take her own life.

Woolf stops writing after three hours. She wants to continue but is afraid the extended effort may bring on a relapse of her mental illness, the insanity that takes her over. She's aware that the headache that presages insanity "is always there, waiting" to overwhelm her mind. When her illness begins in earnest the headache grows more intense and moves out of her head into the world. She sees things glowing and pulsing, unbearably bright. Then she starts to hear the voices that sometimes seem to be coming from the walls or the furniture. Her voices are "masculine [and] obscenely old." They are "angry, accusatory, [and] disillusioned." When her insanity is in full control Virginia feels encased inside them, as in a chrysalis. Once the symptoms are gone, she is again ready to write.

Woolf gets up and goes downstairs. Ralph, an editorial assistant, is there with Leonard who, she can tell, has criticized him. Leonard always gets angry at Ralph's or Marjorie's work errors. Virginia knows that when they can't take Leonard's harsh criticism anymore, they will move on and new assistants will replace them. She thinks "Ralph, after all, is Lytton's worry," referring to the fact that Ralph is setting the type for a book written by the celebrated English writer, Lytton Strachey, who is also a good friend of Woolf's.

Virginia tells Leonard that she's going for a walk. Here, the author diverges from Virginia's inner thoughts and feelings. As John Mullan notes in his Guardian review of The Hours, "the narrative can always shift between different consciousnesses," as it does here by introducing Leonard Woolf's thoughts about his wife. She thinks about how demanding Leonard is, a man "who refuses to distinguish between setback and catastrophe; who worships accomplishment above all else and makes himself unbearable ... [trying to correct] every form of human fecklessness and mediocrity." As she leaves, Virginia reassures Leonard that the book will be ready by Christmas.

Analysis

Virginia Woolf's mental illness seems to control much of her life. She cuts short her workday to prevent the onset of the headache that presages a bout of full-blown insanity. Her insanity is an entity that "inhabits" her. It robs her of her identity and essential self.

The symptoms of her insanity are harrowing, including agonizing headaches and both visual and auditory hallucinations. Virginia's insanity is a type of death for her. Yet, she also states that her illness is like a chrysalis, as if the experience is one of being in a cocoon from which she may emerge with greater beauty, life, and creativity than she had before she was stricken. Virginia feels trapped in a life-and-death struggle against her insanity, so it is understandable why she might commit suicide to avoid such horrific mental suffering. For an insightful and creative writer, a life of insanity that prevents her from writing is likely a life not worth living. In his Washington Post review of The Hours, Jameson Currier notes that the author "vividly re-creates Woolf's precarious mental state as she tries to hold her madness at bay, create her novel, and navigate" the hours ahead.

The suicide Virginia plans for the character Mrs. Dalloway at the end of her novel foreshadows her own suicide some years later. But Mrs. Dalloway is not tortured by insanity; rather, she is tormented by the shallowness and falseness of her life, by her failure to become who she should be. Virginia wonders if an ordinary woman's ordinary day can be sufficient grounds for a novel. It is likely that the discontent of living trapped in her social role leads Mrs. Dalloway to free herself in the only way open to her, through suicide. The longing for freedom from social roles, the reaching for self-expression, unites the writer and her character.

Birds appear as representatives of insanity, perhaps also of a type of death. In one of her episodes Virginia heard sparrows singing outside her window—"unmistakably, in Greek."

Virginia carefully calibrates time as she works. She wants to spend another hour of her day writing, but she's afraid overwork may trigger a headache. She forces herself to be satisfied with the small amount of writing she's done so far.

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