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The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Chapter 7 : Mrs. Woolf | Summary



On her walk, Virginia Woolf plans the events she'll include in her novel. She decides that in her youth, Mrs. Dalloway would have had a love affair with a girl. The young Clarissa "will believe that a rich, riotous future is opening before her." She is free and eager to experience all of life. Virginia will write about how a few years later Mrs. Dalloway will come to her senses "and marry a suitable man." Perhaps she'll die in middle age—a suicide. But that's later in the book. For now, Virginia imagines the youthful characters she'll create.

People on the street turn to stare at her, and Virginia realizes she's been thinking aloud. She turns for home and thinks ruefully that Richmond is really just a bourgeois suburb. When she reaches her front door she readies herself to act like a normal woman. She will write her novel to show that "there is true art in [ordinary life]." Virginia recognizes that her novel will change English literature forever because it's not about high drama or heroics but about the inner depth hiding behind an ordinary life.

As she enters her house Virginia feels "fully in command of the character who is Virginia Woolf." She speaks with Nelly in the kitchen about what Nelly is cooking for lunch. Nelly is making pears for dessert, which Virginia thinks is not elaborate enough. But she says nothing, not wanting to engage in a power struggle with her maid and cook. Virginia reminds Nelly that her sister, Vanessa, is coming to visit with her children at four o'clock. Nelly remembers. To assert her authority over Nelly, Virginia asks her to go to London to buy a special tea and sugared ginger. Nelly feels put out, but she must do what her employer demands. The train can take her to London and back in time for the meal. Virginia feels that Nelly is so angry "she would like to slit my throat." Virginia wonders why it's "so difficult dealing with servants ... to be firm and kind." Virginia determines to give her character, Mrs. Dalloway, "great skill with servants ... who will love her."


Virginia Woolf understands that much of her life involves putting on a convincing performance of a sane woman in command of herself. Woolf is self-aware enough to know that her performance of sanity is as much for her own benefit as it is for the benefit of others. Thus, as she enters her house she feels that she inhabits a character—that of Virginia Woolf. Her performance skills fail her when dealing with the cook, Nelly. Woolf will compensate for her inability to perform the role of servant's employer by giving this skill to her novel's Mrs. Dalloway.

Woolf's novel will explore the power of social roles in women's lives. The fictional Mrs. Dalloway will also experience the transformation of self demanded by society. Her youth is exuberant, and she feels completely free to do as she pleases, including having an affair with a girl. However, only a few years later she will conform to the expected social role for women of her time and get married and embrace domesticity. In her youth Mrs. Dalloway thought she'd have a "rich, riotous future" that would allow her to be true to her spirit. She later seems willing to shed these childish ideas and submit her being to social norms. In some ways Virginia Woolf does the same. It's not known if she had a lesbian affair as a young girl, but her adult life seems to be circumscribed by the required performance of her social role. The reader should note that Mrs. Dalloway was a remarkable, even revolutionary, novel because it turned the emptiness of suburban life on its head. The novel Woolf is writing will show that this hollowness can be transmuted into art. But Woolf also understands that perhaps Mrs. Dalloway will commit suicide over something seemingly trivial. When life is limited to mundane domesticity, that's where the impetus for action comes from.

The passing of time is announced by clocks striking in empty rooms throughout Richmond. The image is one of tired desolation and evokes the empty meaninglessness of each hour counted and lived through, without incident, in a bourgeois suburb. Time and age may also be referenced in Woolf's disgust with the lamb pie Nelly is making. She tries to keep herself from thinking of putrefaction, which may represent a revulsion against death. The face in the mirror may evoke horror because of age—the passing of time—as well as the insanity that may be revealed there.

Woolf's inability to supervise Nelly adds a touch of humor to the novel. Virginia and Nelly are engaged in a power struggle that pits each woman's will against the other's social role. Woolf's demand that Nelly travel to London for two dessert ingredients is a rather capricious and cruel imposition of her social role as employer of a servant. For some reason Virginia cannot manage to perform this role easily, so she resorts to arbitrary, even punitive, demands to assert an authority she cannot exert in any other way.

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