The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Chapter 8 : Mrs. Dalloway | Summary



Clarissa returns home where her partner, Sally, greets her in the hallway of the building. Sally is about to leave for her lunch date with the scandal-plagued, homosexual actor Oliver St. Ives. Clarissa tries not to show how envious she is or how much she resents not being invited to the lunch. Once in their apartment Clarissa feels a bit better. She's got the party to organize and prepare for. She and Sally have been partners for 15 years, and they live in an expensive apartment in the West Village. Her good mood vanishes when she suddenly feels alienated from the apartment and the things in it. She feels that "she lives elsewhere." She looks at all the objects in the kitchen but feels separate from them. They are just stuff she and Sally bought, trivial and arbitrary. She considers living free of objects, of Sally, of Richard, with just the "essence of herself."

The feeling of alienation dissipates a bit, and Clarissa places the flowers she bought into a vase. She decides that she's glad to be living in her apartment and that "she wants no other." Clarissa berates herself for her triviality in continuing to be envious of Sally's lunch with St. Ives. He's too unimportant to get worked up about. But Clarissa can't help wondering if she's a failure, stuck as she is in the apartment, no longer as sexually attractive as she was when young. She remembers the actress in the trailer and thinks that though the celebrity might have a type of immortality, both she and the actress experience the same emotions in their lives.

Clarissa then remembers that glorious, decisive summer when she kissed Richard by the pond, when he, she, and Louis Waters lived together in a country house. It was a time of freedom, with a kind of "ecstatic unreality" about it. Clarissa realizes Richard's possessiveness caused her to reject him and the life they might have had together. But Richard was having sex with Louis at the same time he was with her. Later, Clarissa refused to kiss Richard on a street corner in Greenwich Village, and that ended their intimate relationship. The rejection changed the trajectory of her future life, and she wonders what it might now be had she kissed him. Then again, she thinks, she is who she is now and it's pointless to imagine what she might have become. Yet, she cannot deny that when she had kissed Richard at the pond she had experienced true happiness because it was a perfect moment.


Clarissa feels alienated from the mundane life represented by the accumulated objects in her apartment. Though it is a highly prized apartment in one of the most desirable areas of New York City, she can't help imagining what it would be like to live freely, without any attachment to objects or humans, including Sally and Richard. Without all these encumbrances that seem to weigh her down, she would be more alive. All these banal objects fail to express Clarissa's true self and thus make her feel that she's playacting. She senses she's performing the role of a person who loves being surrounded by objects, although at heart she feels they're all arbitrary. She imagines escaping this world to find her real self. Clarissa's alienation from her household's accumulated objects and human entanglements echoes the feelings Laura Brown struggles with.

Clarissa's discontent arises from her regret at many of the choices she's made in her life. She understands that the prosaic objects she now dislikes were chosen by her and Sally for their apartment. Later, Clarissa expresses deep regret at choosing to reject Richard's street-corner kiss. She can't help wondering what her life would be like now had she kissed Richard there decades ago. She regrets this choice because she now realizes that when she kissed Richard at the pond she had experienced a moment of perfect happiness. Perhaps had she chosen to kiss Richard that day in the Village her life might have been extraordinary and perfectly happy. The reader can assume she likely does not have this perfect life with Sally. Clarissa has a sense of missed opportunity that can never be regained. As Michael Wood notes in his New York Times review of The Hours, "reflection is where many of our chances for happiness lie, in the memory not of what happened but of what was promised." Perhaps that's why Clarissa sometimes thinks of her current life as a failure. She doubts the wisdom of the choices she's made yet tries to convince herself that she's made the right choices. She's a "decent woman with a good apartment," which implies her current identity and life are not enough.

Clarissa's apartment building hallway is redolent of mortality and death, with its funerary-type urn and overall gloom. The feeling it gives Clarissa is "worse than death" because it seems to evoke infinite time, an eternity of darkness that reminds Clarissa of death.

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