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Both Virginia Woolf and Richard experience mental instability which eventually pushes them to suicide. Woolf feels her mind slipping at the beginning of the novel, when Cunningham describes her hearing voices and feeling the headache that always signals the decline of her sanity. Awareness of the instability of her mind and the probability that she will never be cured inspires her to accomplish as much as she can while she can think clearly and write well. Her condition also arouses the desire in her to move back to London even though she knows that the excitement of life there may exhaust her and so trigger a relapse into mental illness. The acknowledgment that she may not have much time encourages her to spend what she does have in the place that for her represents life. When she recognizes the symptoms returning, she cannot face the loss of her ability to write, the confinement she would have to endure, or the pain that Leonard would suffer, and so she decides to end her life.

Richard's insanity is brought on by the ravages of AIDS. Like Woolf, his mental state prompts him to take his own life because of his fears that he will never be able to write again. Yet Richard is also plagued by the sense that he has failed as a writer. He insists that he won the poetry prize because he has AIDS, not for the quality of his work. His desire to end his life stems from this sense of failure and the knowledge that now that he is terminally ill and in pain he can never become what he considers to be a true artist.

Past and Present

The past has a great impact on each character's life. Virginia's past frightens her, as she remembers the debilitating mental illness she has experienced. These fears inspire her creativity and eventually prompt her to take her own life. Clarissa's vision of the past is life-affirming. The most important moment in her life was the instant when she shared a kiss with Richard. That memory gave her the belief that love is possible and so are transcendental moments. Laura is not as influenced by the past, but her actions have a strong impact on Richard, her son, who has filled his poetry with vivid images of her. Her abandonment of him becomes the subject of much of his poetry and imbues it with power and artistry.

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