“The Hours” by Michael Cunningham Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Oct 29th, 2018

Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” is arguably one of the greatest works of the American novelist. The author takes a daunting task of reworking Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway”, one of the greatest literal works of twentieth century (Young 33). Mrs. Dalloway follows the life of Clarissa, Dalloway’s wife through a day spent in London.

The story also tracks a youthful ex-soldier Smith, who reads as a negative double of Mrs. Dalloway. Finally, their two lives intersect to bring out Woof’s contention that all lives are somehow connected (Young 34). Cunningham borrows the characters from Woolf’s novel and integrates imaginary scenes of Woolf’s life with the plot of Woolf’s novel to produce a masterpiece that makes him a literal genius. This paper seeks to present a summary and character analysis of “The Hours.”

“The Hours” presents three women as they navigate a day in their lives and as they struggle to identify themselves in the society (Cunningham 126). In 1923 England, Virginal Woolf is depicted struggling with mental sanity and depression in her society. In 1949 Los Angeles, Laura Brown is depicted questioning her marriage and the need to make a perfect home.

In the late twentieth century in New York, Clarissa Vaughan is depicted struggling with her life as a lesbian and a lost heterosexual romance (Young 33). Cunningham outlines the struggles and challenges women go through when seeking acceptance and a place in the society. “The Hours” has been commended as an accurate portrayal of common female dilemma, though written by a writer of different gender.

Cunningham refers to his characters as “Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Woolf, and Mrs. Brown” to highlight their place in the society (Young 33). This designation contrasts the interests of Virginia and Laura and presents the ironic lesbian lifestyle of Clarissa. The novel has been written in three different situations of the women’s battle between individuality and duty. The women’s reactions towards their struggles is characterized by endurance, defeat, and defiance but the reader sees that the protagonists have another hour ahead (Cunningham 226).

Cunningham has used a variety of sentence structures including complex and simple structures to follow the thoughts of his characters. Although the novel has been written in third person, the author has used the protagonists’ thoughts and emotions to drive the story. The reader is lost in the thoughts of these women regardless of the third person narration that has been employed (Young 33).

Cunningham broadens the themes presented by Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway and puts them in a different context; this emphasizes the universality of these themes (Young 35). Cunningham succeeds in relocating a great work of literature, updating it to resonate in the new age.

The beginning of the first story depicts Virginia as she starts her novel in 1923.The next story features the day of an American housewife, Laura Brown who spends her time reading Mrs. Dalloway in 1949. The third story takes place in twentieth century and features a party hosted by Clarissa for her friend Richard. In the prologue of “The Hours”, a detailed suicide of Virginia Woolf is presented. Virginia leaves a suicide note to her husband and sister and drowns herself in a river (Young 33).

The chapters that follow tell how the day started for the three protagonists. Clarissa leaves her house in New York to buy flowers the day she was hosting a party in honor of her best friend. Apparently, her best friend Richard is an outstanding poet and a novelist who was to get an award for his work. Beside his achievements, Richard is ailing and dying of AIDS (Young 33).

The story then presents a flashback of Virginia about twenty years before her death. That morning, Virginia wakes up with an inspiration to begin her book about the life a woman she names Clarissa Dalloway. She greets her husband, skips her breakfast to avoid talking to her moody cook and settles down to begin her novel.

The attention is brought to Laura in Los Angeles as she lies on bed reading Virginia’s book. That particular morning, Laura feels weak to prepare breakfast for her husband Dan and her son Richie, or even say happy birthday to her husband. After sometimes, she climbs down the stairs but her husband leaves and she is left only with Richie.

In the late morning outside a flower’s shop, Clarissa attempts to catch a glimpse at a movie star. She then goes to Richard’s apartment, puts the flowers in the kitchen and then asks about Richard’s health. She informs Richard about their plans to collect his prize but beside her assurances, Richard has a resigned mood and even says he does not deserve the prize. When reminded about the party, he replies “I don’t think I can make it to the party, Clarissa.”

Virginia feels a crippling headache after writing for two hours. Leonard Woolf, her husband had moved her to suburbs from London due to her deteriorating health. However, she is not satisfied as we see her complaining in the film “The Hours” directed by Stephen Daldry, “I’m dying in this town” but her husband Leonard replies, “If you were thinking clearly, Virginia, you would recall it was London that brought you low.” The next scene is that of Laura making a birthday cake with the help of her son.

Before lunch while taking a walk, Virginia Dalloway and decides that she will fall in love with a woman and eventually, she will commit suicide. Clarissa Vaughn meets Sally, the woman she is in love with. She is disappointed that Sally had not invited her to a lunch she was planning to have with a movie star.

This disappointment takes her back to a summer she spent with Richard. Cunningham explores the lack of satisfaction and unhappy life led by lesbians since the reader can witness her remembering the happy moments she spent with Richard. Clarissa recounts that the summer she spent with Richard was probably the happiest moment of her life.

In the afternoon, as Virginia spends time with her sister Vanessa, she feels happy and decides that her character Clarissa Dalloway will not commit suicide. Nelly arrives from London and when she turns away, Virginia steals a moment to kiss her sister on the lips (Young 34).

In the mean time, Clarissa talks with Julia, her daughter. Later, Virginia’s sister Vanessa leaves and this makes her very depressed. She is unable to write and therefore, she decides to take a walk to the train station to head to London. Leonard finds her waiting and brings her back home.

Sally, Clarissa’s lover takes lunch with Walter and the movie star and later goes shopping with Walter. When Walter shops some gifts for his lover, Sally remembers to buy roses for Clarissa. Clarissa goes to pick Richard for the party but after she gets into the house, Richard jumps out to his death. Laura thinks about how dissatisfied she is with her “perfect life” as she watches her husband and son enjoy the cake.

The final chapters cover the end of the day as the women prepare to go to sleep. Virginia attempts to convince Leonard that they should go back to London. She keeps remembering the way she kissed her sister and concludes that her character will do the same thing when she is young. She also concludes that her character will not commit suicide, but someone else will do it. The final chapter sees an old Laura coming to live with Clarissa after the death of Richard.

One of the novel’s protagonists is Virginia Woolf, a character based on the true life of a celebrated writer of twentieth century. Virginia struggles with her mental illness that eventually results to her killing herself; this is covered in the novel’s prologue. Virginia spends her life trying to contain her headaches and voices in her head. She spends much of her time trying to write, probably to deviate her emotions in a productive way (Young 33).

Mentally, Virginia sees her writing as something she does not have control over. She thinks writing is something that is happening to her, not something she is doing. Throughout the story, Cunningham presents that character of Virginia as somebody very sensitive to her environment. She believes every situation has a significance importance to her; therefore she is very receptive to small details. Virginia want to feel well and healthy, however, her profound perception of life makes her feeling of insanity to haunt her.

Clarissa Vaughn is based on the character created by Virginia in her book, ‘Mrs. Dalloway.” Clarissa has a wondrous outlook towards her surrounding. Cunningham presents her as somebody who takes a lot of pleasure in her daily life. On the contrary, she doubts her choices in life and that has shaped her present life. Clarissa has a feeling of melancholy with her previous romantic relationship with Richard. She misses her past and compares her limited present life with the freedom she had in her past (Cunningham 160).

The author uses Clarissa to depict the typical life of lesbians in the contemporary society. Although Clarissa enjoys her simple beautiful apartment and buying flowers for Sally, she still cannot get over Richard. She doubts whether she is really satisfied with her life and her relationship with Sally.

At the end of the day, she consoles herself with the idea that the meaning of life is achieved through hours that are filled with pleasure. In the novel, Cunningham uses Clarissa to deal with triviality that the marginalized encounter in their life. When she realizes that she is not invited to a party, she thinks “I am trivial, endlessly trivial” and continues to think she was a failure (Cunningham 94).

Laura Brown is another important character who is young and “successfully married”. As the events unfold, Laura realizes that she is living in somebody else’s dream (Young 32). In high school, she spent her time as a book worm while her husband Dan was famous (Cunningham 40). Dan Brown later became a war hero and on his return, he married Laura. Laura is very tired of spending her days as a housewife and although she lives with a happy family, she feels like she has woken up in Dan’s life (Cunningham 74).

To convince herself that she is normal, she spends her time reading Virginia’s “Mrs. Dalloway”, her way of seeking comfort. Through reading, she is able to mentally step out of her life. Laura’s urge to escape from her present life is evident when she leaves and rents a hotel room to have ample time for reading (Cunningham 142). She has no independent life and lives in continuous doubts about her commitments; she has to remind herself that she loves her husband and their son (Cunningham 41).

The same-sex love is evident between Laura and Kitty, a woman who is her neighbor since Laura seems excited when Kitty is around (Cunningham 101). Laura is forced not to come out since she was not sure of herself. An awkward moment passed after the two women kissed, as Cunningham states, “she has gone too far, they have both gone too far, but it is Kitty who pulled away first (Cunningham 110).”

Works Cited

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. Ontario, Canada: HarperCollins , 2011. Print.

The Hours. Dir. Stephen Daldry. Perf. Nicole Kidman, et al. 2002.

Young, Tory. Michael Cunningham’s The hours: a reader’s guide. Lexington Avenue, New York: The Continuum International Publising Group LTD, 2003. Print.

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