Franco Moretti posits in The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture that “Even those novels that clearly are not Bildungsroman or novels of formation are perceived by us against this conceptual horizon; so we speak of a ‘failed initiation’ or of a ‘problematic formation’” (Moretti 561). While not a bildungsroman in the sense that it follows the trajectory of a youth’s maturation, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours presents Clarissa Vaughn as its own symbolic hero. She must navigate a community in crisis and come to terms with understanding how her sexuality has influenced her life’s choices, and consequently, the formation of her identity. The Hours inverts common conceptions of the bildungsroman’s structure: instead of emphasizing a young person coming to terms with sexuality through maturation, this narrative divulges the innermost retrospection and “what-if?” contemplation of an older Clarissa who questions and, in some ways, problematizes her identity by wondering what her life would have been like if her sexual and romantic relationships had played out differently.
Breaking free from the confines of heteronormativity, this post-modern novel explores homosexuality through the engagement of a diverse array of characters who illustrate what it means to identify as queer or homosexual in a period of dramatic crisis. The novel’s setting, at least in the case of Clarissa’s narrative, is a New York in crisis—the rampage of the AIDS epidemic has left loved ones devastated, culminating in a “crisis of a socio-cultural order, and the violent reorganization of power” (Moretti 560). The AIDS epidemic therefore serves as an invitation to consider or reconsider the trajectory one’s life takes under the influence of sexuality and choices concerning sexual activity.
Clarissa is then invited to reflect on her past and her present situation through her disparate interactions with these people, especially Richard, Sally, and Julia, who themselves are in various stages of coming to terms with their sexuality and its influence. For Clarissa, Richard represents a past love that was never completely free to explore; Sally is the lesbian lover with which she has built a home for the past eighteen years. Both characters are positioned on opposite ends of a sexual spectrum on which Clarissa oscillates throughout her maturation, but ultimately, Sally acquires Clarissa’s commitment, publicly positioning Clarissa as a lesbian in a world in which homosexuals are placed under sociopolitical scrutiny. The question that Clarissa must wrangle with, then, as she watches her past love slowly succumb to the effects of AIDS is what would have happened if they had been able to maintain a committed relationship with each other. Would Richard have contracted AIDS? Would she have found more romantic fulfillment in that relationship, as opposed to her relationship with Sally, which at points in the novel seems forced due to its habitual nature?
The Julia-Clarissa dynamic essentially allows the novel to achieve the bildungsroman status because both the novel: “[abstracts] from ‘real’ youth a ‘symbolic’ one, epitomized… in mobility and interiority” (Moretti 555). Clarissa watches her daughter, the novel’s real youth who is yet incredibly mature for her age, from a distance—this mother and daughter pair do not possess an intimate bond. Although Julia’s age positions her to be a prime example of a young person having to come to terms with the future of a community post-crisis, the lack of Julia’s interiority makes this youth’s “ability to accentuate modernity’s dynamism and instability… the sign of a world that seeks its meaning in the future rather than the past” (556) difficult to determine. Julia seems much more stable than her mother in terms of identity, and much more grounded than what is typically expected for someone her age: “Julia sighs with a surprisingly elder mixture of rue and exhausted patience, and she seems, briefly, like a figure of ancient maternal remonstrance” (Cunningham 155). Yet, the pedestal of maturity on which Julia is placed allows the ‘real’ youth of the novel to become a model from which her mother can learn from, therefore abstracting Clarissa’s physical maturity and allowing her to become the novel’s symbolic youth. Richard illustrates the potential for older people to retain this kind of youthful interiority beautifully: “We’re middle-aged and we’re young lovers standing beside a pond. We are everything, all at once. Isn’t it remarkable?” (Cunningham 67). Clarissa Vaughn then comes to illustrate the symbolic youth of mobility and interiority as she reflects upon her problematic sexual formation. The reader gleans from the novel’s employment of free indirect discourse her interior notions of identity and what it means to question one’s sexuality and its implications late in life. The mobility of youth is achieved by her reflections on her past romantic liaisons with Richard and her coming to terms with the idea that if such a relationship could have blossomed, Richard may not be on the cusp of death. For Clarissa, sexuality is mobility, and the choices one makes in attempt to find romantic or erotic fulfilment can have dire consequences for loved ones.
Although The Hours seems to break the conventions of the bildungsroman due to its focus on three women who are long past their youth, it is a post-modern reconceptualization of the bildungsroman in the way that it proves that adult identities are unstable and can too be ruptured and renegotiated in times of public crisis. In a community that has been devastated by an epidemic, Clarissa is left to reconsider where exactly she fits on the sociopolitical spectrum of sexual identity. The internal restlessness that is born out of crisis encourages a renegotiation of mobility and interiority, and such restlessness does not discriminate in terms of age. In modern culture where such crisis is inevitable, the young and the old are similarly susceptible to change. The Hours, through Clarissa, proves that “youth” does not have to be the defining factor for a post-modern bildungsroman to occur. Instead, a bildungsroman can occur whenever there is some form of societal rupture that catalyzes people of all ages to reconsider the formation of their identities.
Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. New York: Picador USA, 1998. Print.
Moretti, Franco. The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture. London: Verso, 1987. Excerpt in Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Ed. Michael McKeon. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. 554-565. Print.