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Literature Study GuidesThe HoursEpigraphs And Prologue Summary

The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Epigraphs and Prologue | Summary


Chapters of this text have been numbered for the purposes of summary and analysis.


The novel's first epigraph is by Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986), the renowned Argentinian author of fiction, essays, and poems. It describes an unreasonable obsession with finding a mythical beast that is "a form of what I dream; a structure of words, and not the flesh and bone" of the creature.

The second epigraph comes from Virginia Woolf's diary. She talks about creating the "beautiful caves behind [her] characters," giving them "humanity, humor, and depth." She writes that each cave will "connect ... and come to daylight at the present moment."

The Prologue opens with a description of Virginia Woolf's suicide, in 1941. She walks "purposefully toward the river," gazes on nature and people she passes, and contemplates the unbearable symptoms of mental instability—searing headaches, blinding light, and terrifying voices—that impel her to take her own life. She thinks of her life and the lives of her loved ones—her husband and sister—as failures. She knows her suicide will cause her family intense suffering, but still she puts large rocks in her pockets and walks into the water. The current carries her away, pushing her against an underwater piling. Before she dies she has a moment of pure clarity about what she perceives is going on in the world above the water.

Back at her house, Virginia's husband, Leonard Woolf, becomes worried when she doesn't come inside from the garden, where he assumes she's been. Upstairs, he finds a letter from Virginia in which she explains her suicide as an escape from the terrible insanity she feels taking her over; it's something she "can't fight any longer." She repeats throughout the letter how happy she has been with Leonard, writing "I owe all the happiness of my life to you." Leonard panics after reading the letter and rushes down to the river. But he finds no sign of his wife.


The Borges epigraph foreshadows the yearning of the novel's main characters for an ideal life, one they know or sense is unattainable and unreasonable to pursue, but one they cannot stop seeking. Throughout the novel the characters feel trapped, to a greater or lesser extent, in a false or unsatisfying life and have a burning desire for a life in which they can be true to themselves.

The Woolf epigraph reveals something of her style and how she approaches fiction writing. It tells the reader to expect very deep, interior revelations about the characters in this novel—about the "caves behind them," or beneath their mundane exterior life. In this novel each character's cave is connected to the caves of the other characters, and all are revealed through thoughts and experiences in the moment.

Suicide is the driving force behind the Prologue. In his review of The Hours for the Washington Post, Jameson Currier writes that Woolf's suicide "is so chilling that it haunts every mental image in the rest of the novel." Although Virginia Woolf looks at and admires the life she sees around her (a worker who is "fortunate to be cleaning a ditch"), she feels she is a failure as a writer and because she cannot work while enduring the symptoms of her insanity. Woolf's determination to kill herself introduces two threads that wind through the novel: illness and the concept of a life worth living. Woolf knows her decision to vacate her life will cause unbearable suffering for those she loves; this foreshadows events later in the novel. Her suffering is insupportable, so she must reject a momentary impulse to remain alive as a "final kindness" to those she loves.

Woolf sees herself as a failure partly because she doubts her talent. She thinks she is no more than a "gifted eccentric." Her struggles with writing and mental illness have distorted her efforts at expressing herself through literature. Her suffering and sense of failure foreshadow the feelings and experiences of other characters in the novel who feel defeated by the constraints of life and their social roles.

Water, though a life-giving medium, represents death in this introductory section. It is a powerful force that carries Woolf inexorably to the place where she will die. Yet, just before she dies at the bottom of the river, she experiences a moment of perfect clarity, totally in touch with the life she sees on the bridge above her.

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