The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Plot Summary

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Summary

Prologue

Virginia Woolf goes to the river, fills her pockets with heavy rocks, and walks into the water. She commits suicide because she can no longer suffer the symptoms of her insanity. She's left a note telling her husband, Leonard, that she owes all her happiness to him. As she dies, Virginia experiences moments of clarity about the world of the living.

Chapter 1|Mrs. Dalloway

Clarissa Vaughn goes out to buy flowers for her party that evening. The party is to celebrate a literary prize to be given to Richard Brown, her dear friend and onetime lover. Richard is a celebrated poet who has AIDS. It is he who gave Clarissa the nickname Mrs. Dalloway, after Virginia Woolf's eponymous character. Clarissa exults in the beauty and vivacity of the city, its objects, and people. She meets Walter Hardy, a hack writer, and invites him and his partner, Evan, to the party.

Clarissa ponders time, age, and death, but nothing dampens her exuberant spirit. She buys flowers from Barbara, the florist, who seems old-fashioned to Clarissa; interestingly, Richard has implied the same about Clarissa, saying at heart she embraces her social role as a conventional, housewifely woman. Clarissa lives with her partner, Sally, who will help her prepare for the party.

Chapter 2|Mrs. Woolf

Virginia Woolf awakens and feels the spark of creativity within her. She's ready to begin writing her novel. She knows her mental illness is returning, but she tries to ignore it. However, her husband, Leonard, cannot ignore it. He's worried that her shocking thinness and avoidance of food are symptoms of an imminent bout of insanity.

Virginia tries to reassure him, and she determines to try to gain weight so she can convince Leonard to move back to London. As she sits down to write she feels her faculty of sensing the mysterious, animating force of the world stirring inside her. She's ready to work. She picks up her pen and writes the first line of her novel Mrs. Dalloway.

Chapter 3|Mrs. Brown

Laura Brown stays in bed to read Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway. She wants only to read, but she feels she should be downstairs making breakfast for her son, Richie—who will be known as Richard Brown later in the book—and her husband, Dan, whose birthday is today. Still, she keeps giving herself extra time to read the wonderful novel. She wonders how a writer as brilliant as Woolf could have killed herself. She wonders if she, too, has a tiny bit of brilliance inside her—even though it is never revealed in her ordinary suburban life in Los Angeles. Laura has decided to bake a perfect birthday cake for Dan, to buy beautiful flowers to celebrate his special day.

When she goes downstairs, Dan and Richie are already eating breakfast. Dan has bought himself a bouquet of white roses, which sits in the center of the table. This annoys Laura, and she is also angry he let her stay in bed so late. After Dan leaves, Laura feels somewhat uncomfortable alone with Richie. She tells her son they will bake the best birthday cake ever.

Chapter 4|Mrs. Dalloway

Clarissa Vaughn has bought the flowers for her party, and she goes to visit Richard Brown in his apartment. The apartment is gloomy and dim. Richard is sitting in his decaying old armchair, a piece of furniture he's attached to even though it stinks horribly. In a way, the chair represents the condition of Richard's dying body. Richard is extremely ill with AIDS. The disease is not only wasting away his body; it is also eating away at his mind. Richard has periods of mental illness in which he has both visual and auditory hallucinations.

Clarissa tries to convince Richard to come to her party, at which he'll receive a literary prize. Richard thinks the party will be an ordeal for him and doesn't want to go. He is gaunt, haggard, and probably near death. He tells Clarissa he feels his life has been a failure; he hasn't accomplished what he set out to do in his writing. He wants the literary prize but somehow feels a fraud for accepting it. Clarissa and Richard discuss the party and Richard's literary legacy. Clarissa leaves, saying she'll be back later that afternoon to help him get ready for her party.

Chapter 5|Mrs. Woolf

Virginia Woolf has spent a few hours writing the beginning of her new novel, Mrs. Dalloway. She thinks what she's written is quite good. She wonders if the life of an ordinary woman is enough on which to base an entire novel. Then she decides her main character will die at the end of the book, likely a suicide.

Woolf thinks about her bouts of insanity and how horrific they are for her. She describes the headaches that come before full insanity sets in. When her illness is full blown, she suffers from unbearable visual brightness and frightening auditory hallucinations. Her insanity takes over, becomes her, and she cannot work. She dreads the onset of mental illness even though, so far, each episode is temporary.

Virginia stops working, satisfied with what she's written. She goes downstairs and sees Leonard and his publishing assistant. As usual Leonard is angry because of the errors he's found in the page proofs. Virginia tries to mollify him and then says she's going out for a walk. She reflects on Leonard's perfectionism and how unbearable he finds slipshod and mediocre work.

Chapter 6|Mrs. Brown

Laura Brown is preparing her husband's birthday cake. She's sure it will be the most wonderful cake ever, proving what a perfect suburban housewife she is. Her son is with her, and she asks him if he'd like to help. Richie measures out flour and puts it in a mixing bowl. When Laura says something unexpected to him, Richie becomes terrified and starts to cry. Laura is slightly annoyed but tries to comfort him. However, Laura seems always to speak to Richie in a rather mechanical and distant way, conveying no affection.

Laura thinks she's finally crossed a line; instead of thinking about who she'd prefer to be and what she'd prefer to do, she has become the perfect housewife everyone expects her to be. She thinks she'll be fine now. She won't brood about the lost possibilities in her life and her unexplored talents. She's committed to being happy in her suburban life.

Chapter 7|Mrs. Woolf

Virginia Woolf walks through town thinking about the lives of the ordinary people she sees. She makes some key decisions about what Mrs. Dalloway, the main character in her novel, will do. For example, she'll write that in her youth the exuberant and optimistic Dalloway has an affair with a girl.

Woolf readies herself for her performance as a normal suburban woman. She "impersonates sanity ... and feels fully in command of the character" she will play. She must play her social role correctly and convincingly. Unfortunately, she finds it impossible to perform the role of an employer of servants, and she and the Nelly, the cook, do not get along at all.

Chapter 8|Mrs. Dalloway

Clarissa Vaughn returns home with the flowers for her party, and she meets Sally, her longtime love, who is on her way out to have lunch with an actor, Oliver St. Ives. Clarissa feels at home in the comfort of her Greenwich Village apartment, but she feels best when she can ignore all the objects she and Sally have accumulated over the years. Clarissa is both jealous of Sally because of her lunch date and angry she was not invited.

Clarissa remembers the summer when she was 18 and lived in a country house with Richard Brown and their friend Louis Waters. She was perfectly happy then, especially as Richard had chosen her, not Louis, for his lover. But she deeply regrets snubbing Richard later in Manhattan when he tried to kiss her. Had she not rejected him for an ephemeral freedom, they might have spent their lives together in something close to true happiness—or so she thinks now.

Chapter 9|Mrs. Brown

Laura Brown's cake is not right and seems to be an indication of her failure, her imperfect embodiment of a good housewife. Laura starts to clean the house to take her mind off the cake. Her neighbor, Kitty, knocks on the door, and Laura invites her in for coffee.

After a while Kitty says she's come to ask a favor of Laura. Kitty has a growth in her uterus and must go into the hospital for exploratory surgery the next day. She asks Laura to feed her dog, and Laura agrees to help. The prospect of mortality allows the two women to drop their roles as good housewives. They hug, and Laura feels a close emotional relationship to Kitty. Then Laura lightly kisses Kitty on the lips. Kitty withdraws but restores social propriety by saying, "that's sweet."

After Kitty leaves, Laura takes the imperfect birthday cake and throws it in the garbage. The act makes her feel liberated. She will start on another cake, and this one will be perfect.

Chapter 10|Mrs. Woolf

Virginia Woolf's sister, Vanessa, has come to visit with her three children. The children are in the garden with a dying thrush they found on the road. They want to save it, but Vanessa tells them it's the bird's time to die.

Virginia, along with Vanessa's daughter, Angelica, makes a soft bed of grass for the bird. They pick roses to circle its deathbed. Virginia notices the bird has shrunk and become an insignificant husk of itself now that it's dead. Virginia thinks the deathbed looks like a silly hat. She decides her fictional character, Mrs. Dalloway, will be like the bird when she dies. She will not die a heroic or dramatic death.

Chapter 11|Mrs. Dalloway

Louis Waters shows up at Clarissa Vaughn's door after not having seen her for years. He still resents her for taking Richard away from him. He's critical of her, thinking her an ordinary but pretentious upper-class housewife. Louis tells her he's moving to New York from San Francisco. He says he's in love with a young man, but then he bursts into tears because he knows it's not really love but just another affair.

Louis and Clarissa remember the perfect summer they spent together with Richard. Clarissa reminds Louis to come to her party that evening. After he leaves, Louis thinks about how much he regrets rejecting Richard's offer of love and—perhaps—a life together. All those years ago, Louis thought he only wanted to be free. Now he knows he should have chosen a life of love.

Chapter 12|Mrs. Brown

Laura Brown is driving away to escape her life and her second, still-imperfect birthday cake. Her mind is in turmoil, and she thinks she may be going crazy. She decides to drive into downtown Los Angeles and check into a hotel. The hotel and her room are impersonal, neutral, and sterile. It's just the quiet, disconnected setting she needs in her disordered state of mind.

Laura reads a bit of Mrs. Dalloway in which the character thinks about death and dying. Laura thinks how easy it would be to choose to die in a hotel room like this one. She can't take her life anymore. It's too exhausting, and she'll never achieve perfection in her assigned social role. Laura is comforted by knowing she can choose to stop living. It's as simple as checking into a hotel.

Chapter 13|Mrs. Woolf

Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa, sit in the kitchen chatting about ordinary things. Virginia decides she will not have Clarissa Dalloway die in her novel. Someone else will die. As she sits there, Virginia is happy. She feels content and loving toward the world and her sister. She leans forward and kisses Vanessa on the mouth.

Chapter 14|Mrs. Dalloway

Clarissa Vaughn's daughter, Julia, is at home waiting for her friend Mary Krull, an outspoken radical and lesbian. Clarissa—a lesbian herself—worries her daughter will fall under Mary's spell and become a lesbian. But Clarissa also worries she's being too conventional, too trivial. On top of this, she worries her party may be a failure.

Mary Krull is a fierce critic, and she condemns Clarissa for her superficiality, even though she knows Clarissa is just living a prescribed social role. Her thoughts about Clarissa are unsparing; she nails Clarissa as a bred-in-the-bone bourgeois despite her lesbian lifestyle. Mary knows Clarissa believes her upper-middle-class life and manners make her respectable and not a potential target for those who one day will want to "round up deviants."

Chapter 15|Mrs. Woolf

Virginia Woolf fears the onset of insanity. She sneaks out of the house and stops in the back garden to reflect on the dead bird, on mortality, and on insanity. She walks into town, where all the shops are closed. She decides she must escape her mundane life in Richmond, so she goes to the train station and buys a ticket for London. She'd rather risk insanity and death in a place teeming with life than live safely in the suburbs.

Before she can depart, her husband, Leonard, comes and finds her. She tells him she really wants to live in London; she says she's much better and longs for the life of the city. Leonard says they will discuss it later before he decides whether it's the right thing to do.

Chapter 16|Mrs. Dalloway

At lunch with Oliver St. Ives and Walter Hardy, Sally declines to become involved in the film the two men want to make. After lunch Walter stops into an expensive shop to buy a shirt as a gift for his lover, Evan. The perfection of this gift makes Sally wonder why her gifts to Clarissa always seem wrong.

Sally buys some yellow roses to bring back to the apartment. She and Clarissa laugh to see they've both bought the same flowers, as if this choice represents how well suited they are to each other. Clarissa had been upset by the visits of Louis and Mary Krull, but she and Sally feel happy together after laughing about the roses.

Chapter 17|Mrs. Brown

Laura Brown picks up Richie at Mrs. Latch's house. Laura has a panic attack before knocking on the door. Richie runs to her, weeping, his face contorted with sorrow and confusion. Laura speaks to Richie in a forced and unnatural way, though she is trying to sound like a good mother. Richie tells her he loves her in a strange voice that seems to convey his immense need for her. Laura redoubles her efforts to speak naturally to her son. Then she wonders if Richie, who is always observing her closely, can tell she's lying about where she's been that afternoon. She thinks her son knows she's a failure. She reminds herself to smile at him.

Chapter 18|Mrs. Dalloway

Clarissa Vaughn goes to Richard Brown's apartment to help him get ready for the party. He is sitting half outside an open window. She urges him to come off the windowsill and back into the room. He changes the subject, saying he can't face the party, can't face the hours after the party. Richard feels as if he's being consumed by his illness and his insanity, and he thinks his life is a failure.

Suddenly, Richard throws himself out the window, landing in a garbage-strewn air shaft five stories below. Clarissa rushes to him and finds he's dead. As she sits with his body, Clarissa again remembers the kiss she refused him so long ago because she wanted an ordinary life, not a life with a poetic genius.

Chapter 19|Mrs. Brown

Laura, Richie, and Dan Brown are having birthday dinner. At first Laura feels she's performing the role of the perfect wife. But when her anger passes she feels content. As she brings out the dessert dishes, she feels like an artist who has put the ingenious last touch on what has become a masterpiece. She thinks her current life does have significance. Yet, she continues to sound unnatural and false when she speaks to Richie. She reminds herself to smile at him, however distantly.

Chapter 20|Mrs. Woolf

Leonard Woolf has agreed to move back to London with Virginia. She is thrilled at the thought of how invigorating and artistically stimulating life will be in the city. She will write and write. Virginia remembers kissing Vanessa and recognizes it as something complex and deeply meaningful.

Virginia decides the fictional Mrs. Dalloway will have had a female lover in her youth. The pair will have shared only one kiss, but it's a kiss containing the greatest love one can have. But because Mrs. Dalloway did not share a life with her youthful lover, she lost out on a life of true love. Later, Virginia decides to write in a new character who will die instead of Mrs. Dalloway. This character will be a poetic genius, slightly insane but exquisitely attuned to the world's meaning.

Chapter 21|Mrs. Brown

The birthday dinner is over, and Laura Brown is getting ready for bed. Her body feels totally numb, and she feels she's outside herself, watching herself. She takes a bottle of sleeping pills from the medicine cabinet and counts how many there are. She thinks of her unborn child and puts the bottle back. She feels like a ghost of herself and wonders what it would be like to stop worrying, struggling, and failing. She goes to her bed, where her husband is waiting for her.

Chapter 22|Mrs. Dalloway

Clarissa Vaughn escorts Laura Brown into her apartment. Laura has come from Toronto for the funeral of her son, Richard. The women are awkward with each other, making only trite remarks. Laura is prim and seems totally controlled and unemotional. Clarissa learns it was Laura who inspired Richard's greatest poetry. Clarissa learns nothing from Laura about why she abandoned Richard and her family. At the end of the book Clarissa muses on how much people love life and how fortunate she and Laura are to be alive.

The Hours Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Virginia Woolf commits suicide by drowning.

Rising Action

2 Virginia fears for her sanity but begins a novel.

3 Laura Brown tries to bake a perfect birthday cake.

4 Clarissa Vaughn buys flowers for Richard Brown's party.

5 Virginia buys a train ticket to escape to London.

6 Laura flees to a hotel, thinking of suicide.

Climax

7 Richard commits suicide.

Falling Action

8 Laura Brown returns from Canada after Richard's suicide.

Resolution

9 Clarissa comes to terms with Richard's death.

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