Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 851
Virginia Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell, displays a robust healthiness that is in stark contrast to Virginia's own frailty. Vanessa provides the motive for Virginia's desire to create a perfect afternoon tea and gives her the guilty pleasure of a kiss behind the cook's back.
Dan Brown, Laura's kind and gentle husband, has no idea how trapped Laura feels in her role as his wife and the mother of their son Richie.
Laura Brown has become a traditional American housewife after World War II, a role that leaves her feeling "as if she is standing in the wings, about to go onstage and perform in a play for which she is not appropriately dressed, and for which she has not adequately rehearsed." She determines that she should be happy with a kind and loving husband and child but she continually feels empty and unfulfilled.
While she tries to become involved in the life of her family, as when she prepares a birthday party for her husband, her sense of desperation and inability to establish a separate identify for herself becomes so overwhelming that she considers suicide. Reading, especially Mrs. Dalloway, becomes her only solace. Eventually, she abandons her family in an effort to discover a true sense of self. This action has a great impact on her son Richard, who expresses his profound sense of loss in his poetry.
Richard Brown, Clarissa's first love and now her best friend, displays a heightened sense of existence, needing "to live in a world peopled by extreme and commanding figures" and insisting on the best from himself and his friends. This spirit emerges in his poetry, which has won him great acclaim.
As a child, Richard displayed an extreme devotion to and need for his mother's love and attention. He was "transparently smitten" with his mother, "comic and tragic in his hopeless love." His recognition of his deteriorating mind and body as a result of the ravages of AIDS, along with his insistence that he has failed as an artist, prompts him to commit suicide.
Kitty is Laura's attractive neighbor, who announces one day that she might have a uterine tumor. As Laura consoles her, the two share a kiss which suggests that Laura may have lesbian desires.
Sally, Clarissa's partner, represents "the stoic, the tortured, the subtly wise." She is patient with Clarissa, knowing the importance of her relationship with Richard, and loving, as when she brings Clarissa roses, which creates one of her perfect moments.
Clarissa is a practical, yet romantic fifty-two year old who has devoted herself this day to providing a perfect moment for Richard, her best friend and former lover who is dying from AIDS. He has given her the nickname "Mrs. Dalloway," insisting that she was too special for an ordinary name such as "Vaughan." During the day, Clarissa reveals a thoughtful introspection as she reexamines the choices she has made in her life, expressing her doubts about her value as a friend, a mother, and a lover. Yet her generous spirit keeps her focused on her task.
After Richard dies, Clarissa displays courage and strength as she faces life without him. Cunningham ends the book on an affirmative note, with her insistence that the transitory moments of happiness that people experience are enough to help them endure and ultimately celebrate life.
Julia Vaughan, Clarissa's headstrong and independent teenaged daughter, causes her mother a measure of regret who feels that Julia resents the fact that she has no father. Yet, Julia shows her generosity and devotion to her mother when she supports her after Richard's death.
Leonard Woolf, Virginia's supportive husband, does all that he can to nurture his wife's creative talents and at the same time prevent her mental decline. In her suicide note, Virginia acknowledges his kindness and love for her when she declares, "You have given me the greatest possible happiness."
Cunningham includes factual biographical details in his fictional portrait of Virginia Woolf, one of the world's most celebrated writers. The historical person committed suicide in 1941 when she felt the return of the mental instability that had plagued her for years. In his novel, Cunningham depicts her as a physically as well as mentally fragile woman who is devoted to her husband but more so to her art which becomes all consuming for her to the point where she is willing to risk her health for it.
Cunningham's Virginia Woolf feels constricted by her life in Richmond, a suburb of London, where her life is carefully planned and overseen by Leonard, whose primary motive is to protect his wife's health. She insists that she needs the excitement and freedom of London to encourage her art. Losing herself in the act of creation becomes for her "the most profound satisfaction she knows." Yet when she begins to lose confidence in her ability to continue writing, under the threat of insanity, she determines that she will end her life, and so end her suffering, along with that of her husband.