Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Hours opens with the suicide of Virginia Woolf, who was one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. She becomes a character in his book, as he weaves his depiction of her creation of her celebrated novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925) into the stories of two other women who are profoundly affected by her work. Cunningham traces a day in the three women's lives in which each becomes moved by an urge to create something of lasting significance to themselves and to others. Woolf composes her novel and prepares for a visit by her sister; Clarissa Vaughan and Laura Brown plan parties for friends and/or family.
During this process, the women experience moments of perfect harmony, which help them endure the losses that they inevitably must face. In this poignant exploration of the ironic tension between life and death, creativity and stagnation, Cunningham ultimately presents a life-affirming vision in his novel's celebration of hope and the endurance of the human spirit.
Michael Cunningham was born on November 6, 1952 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Don and Dorothy Cunningham. Due to the father's career in advertising, the family was always on the move until Michael was ten years old, when they finally settled in Pasadena, California. Cunningham's interest in literature began to develop when he was a teenager; he often read the works of his favorite authors, Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot.
After he graduated high school in 1972, Cunningham enrolled in Stanford University where he took literature courses instead of following his initial desire to study painting. Two years after receiving a bachelor of arts in English from Stanford, he received a Michener Fellowship to attend the master of fine arts (MFA) program at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. While attending, he had many of his stories published in periodicals such as Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review, and Redbook.
His first short story, "Cleaving," published in 1981, focused on the importance of family. In 1984, his first novel, Golden States, another exploration of the American family, was published without much critical attention. In an ironic twist of fate, Cunningham gained critical acclaim for his 1990 novel, A Home at the End of the World. With this novel, he attempted to prove to his partner, Ken Corbett, that his writing was not marketable. He submitted a chapter to the New Yorker expecting the magazine to reject it, but surprisingly, it was accepted and sparked much interest in the subsequent publication of the novel. His next novel, Flesh and Blood, published in 1995, also received positive reviews from such publications as the New York Times Book Review.
As his reputation grew, Cunningham began to be noticed for his depiction of the unconventional post-nuclear family as well as his prose style that is often compared to that of his favorite author, Virginia Woolf. In 1998, Cunningham's novel, The Hours became his most successful work to date, earning the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1999. The novel was made into a major motion picture in 2002.
As of 2005 Cunningham lives in Greenwich Village where he continues to write works that garner commercial and critical accolades, including the O. Henry Award, which he received in 1999 for his short story, "Mister Brother." He also teaches creative writing at Brooklyn College.
The prologue to The Hours focuses on Virginia Woolf in 1941, just as World War II has begun. "She walks purposely toward the river," feeling as if she has failed as a writer and noting the signs that her mental illness is returning. She gathers stones that she places in her pockets and wades out into the river. Suddenly, the current pulls her under. Back at their home, her husband Leonard finds the suicide letter she has written, telling him that she is certain she is losing her sanity and insisting that he has given her "the greatest possible happiness." Her body floats downstream and is caught on a piling. The specific time and place of this event is not identified in the novel, but the historical Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse near her Sussex, England home on March 28, 1941.
The novel moves back and forth between three stories that focus on three different women: Virginia Woolf, Clarissa Vaughan, and Laura Brown. It begins in New York City at the end of the twentieth century with fifty-two-year-old Clarissa, who needs to buy flowers for the party she is giving for her best friend and former lover Richard in honor of his winning the prestigious Carrouthers Prize for poetry.
The narrator notes that Richard had given her the nickname Mrs. Dalloway when they were at college together, insisting that her own name was not appropriate for her. As she walks to get the flowers, she thinks about her relationship with Richard, which began when she was eighteen. Clarissa buys the flowers and heads for Richard's apartment.
In Richmond, England in 1923, Virginia Woolf begins the novel, which will become Mrs. Dalloway, with her heroine determined to get flowers for her party that afternoon, just as Clarissa Vaughan does. Leonard, who has nursed her through her illnesses, "does not demand what she can't provide" and so is always gentle with her. He believes that she will be recognized as a great author and so does all he can to encourage her writing. She hopes that she will be able to persuade him to move back to London, but Leonard worries that the city will exhaust her. She feels this morning in a perfect creative state.
In her home in Los Angeles in 1949, Laura reads the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway, "trying to lose herself." She feels guilty for reading on her husband Dan's birthday, thinking that she should be downstairs fixing his breakfast. She senses that it will be difficult to believe in herself this day but determines that she will bake Dan a cake. She tells herself "she does not dislike her child, does not dislike her husband. She will rise and be cheerful."
Laura goes downstairs where Dan and her son Richie are happy to see her. After her husband leaves, she is alone with Richie, who, she feels, demands too much of her. She fights the urge to go back upstairs and read and tells Richie that he can help her bake the cake.
Clarissa passes a corner where she remembers that she and Richard had argued, about what she cannot remember. Soon after, they had stopped being lovers. She arrives at Richard's apartment and finds that he is having a bad morning. Richard is dying of AIDS, which has ravaged his mind as well as his body. He is not sure he has the will or the strength to accept his award, which he insists, he is getting because he has AIDS and not because of his literary talents. His last book, which includes a character based on Clarissa, was not well received. Clarissa tries to assure him that the award is well deserved and insists that she will help him get through the evening.
Virginia has had a successful morning writing, but she worries that her novel will not be good enough. She thinks that her heroine will die, possibly kill herself. She continually fears that the headaches that announce the onset of another period of mental instability will return. She determines to move back to London, better to die there "raving mad … than evaporate in Richmond."
Laura and Richie begin to make the birthday cake. At this moment, Laura experiences an overwhelming sense of love for him and feels "she is precisely what she appears to be: a pregnant woman kneeling in a kitchen with her three-year-old son." When Richie makes a mistake, he crumbles, but a few kind words from her restore him. Laura wonders why he is so fragile and for a moment yearns to be free of him. Her feelings pass, however, and she returns to her earlier sense of tranquility as she finishes the cake and determines that "[s]he will not lose hope," that she can live happily.
As Virginia walks in Richmond, she plans what will happen to Clarissa and thinks that perhaps she will love a woman but will eventually "come to her senses, as young women do, and marry a suitable man." When she returns to the house, she has a disagreement with the cook and wonders why she always feels intimidated by her servants and cannot establish a good relationship with them.
In the apartment, Clarissa thinks about her relationship with Sally who has just left to have lunch with a film star. She determines that she is satisfied with her life, at least for this moment. Yet in the next, she feels "trivial" because the film star has not asked her to join them. Her thoughts wander back to 1965 to her past relationship with Richard and his other lover Louis and wonders what life would have been like if she had not left Richard, feeling a "sense of missed opportunity." She acknowledges her first kiss with Richard defined the most perfect moment of her life.
- A celebrated film version of The Hours was produced in 2002 by Miramax and Paramount, directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Julianne Moore.
Laura is disappointed with the cake she has made, which is less than the perfect vision she had had of it. She thinks of her husband's solid goodness and declares that she wants to be a good wife and mother. Kitty, her neighbor arrives, which gives Laura a pang of excitement. When she tells Laura that she may have a uterine tumor, Laura embraces her and the two share a brief kiss, which Richie observes. After Kitty leaves, Laura has the overwhelming desire to return to her book and the alternate world it offers. She turns instead to the cake and throws it in the trash, determined to make a better one.
Virginia's sister, Vanessa, and her children arrive for a visit. Vanessa's robust health is in stark contrast to Virginia's frailty. After the children find a dying bird, Virginia helps them create a death bed for it in the garden. As she thinks that she would like to lie down in the bird's place, she determines that Clarissa will live after all.
Clarissa plans to give Richard "the best party she can manage." As she prepares, Louis arrives, whom she has not seen in years. She tells him about Richard's ill health and they discuss his recent book and their relationships with Richard and each other when they all lived together in a beach house. Louis claims that he has fallen in love with one of his students and then suddenly begins to sob because he knows it is only an affair. Julia, Clarissa's teenaged daughter, arrives and soon after, Louis leaves, promising to come to the party. He wonders what would have happened if he had not broken off his relationship with Richard.
Laura drops her son off at a babysitter and drives to a hotel where she can be alone. She feels like a failure after making the second cake that did not meet her expectations. In the room, she thinks about committing suicide, noting the freedom it would afford her, but rejects the idea, insisting that she could not cause her family to suffer. She admits that at times "she loves life … hopelessly," yet she envisions Woolf's suicide and how easy it would be for her as well.
Virginia drinks tea with Vanessa, experiencing a perfect moment of happiness. She determines that someone else but not Clarissa will die. Behind her cook's back, she kisses Vanessa, which "feels like the most delicious and forbidden of pleasures." In a quick chapter, Julia arrives with her radical lesbian friend and Clarissa thinks about her relationship with her daughter. The next chapter reverts to Virginia at the end of the day after her sister and children have left.
Virginia again worries that her novel will not be any good and that the headache is returning. She sets out for London, which she feels will replenish her. As she waits for the train, Leonard finds her, and gently berates her for leaving without telling anyone where she was going.
A brief chapter follows, chronicling the meeting between Sally and the film star, ending with her back at the apartment where she and Clarissa experience a perfect moment of harmony together. In the next chapter, Laura picks up Richie who bursts out in tears when he sees her. On the way home, Richie expresses his love for her in a frantic tone, seemingly knowing what Laura has been thinking. She tells him that she loves him, which eases him.
Clarissa arrives at Richard's apartment to help him get ready for the party. She finds it flooded with light and Richard, looking "insane and exalted" perched on the window sill. When he announces that he does not think he will be able to make it to the party, Clarissa, fearful that he will jump, insists that he does not have to go. Richard admits that he feels like a failure, tells Clarissa he loves her, leans further out the window, and falls five stories to the pavement. Clarissa runs down and stays with his body for a while, caressing his shoulder and thinking about how much she had loved him.
Dan blows out the candles on his birthday cake and claims that it is "perfect." Laura feels as if she is experiencing a perfect moment of happiness, looking at the scene in her dining room, and expresses hope for the future. But the moment soon passes.
Virginia thinks about returning to London, which Leonard has agreed to do. She decides that Clarissa will have loved a woman when she was young and will always remember a kiss that they shared. Virginia again determines that Clarissa will not die because she will be too in love with life. Another person, "a deranged poet, a visionary will be the one to die."
Laura prepares for bed where her husband is waiting for her. She sees the sleeping pills in the medicine cabinet and thinks how easy suicide would be, wondering if the moment she experienced earlier would be enough for her. She goes to bed, feeling detached and far away.
An elderly Laura arrives at Clarissa's apartment and the two discuss Richard, Laura's son. Clarissa has mixed feelings about Laura who eventually abandoned her family. They both claim that they wish they could have helped Richard more. Clarissa notes how ironic it is that Laura, who contemplated suicide, is still alive when the rest of her family has died. As she gazes at all of the food she has prepared for the party, Clarissa feels as if Richard is truly gone. She hopes that Richard will be remembered for his work but recognizes that "it's far more likely that his books will vanish along with almost everything else." Yet Clarissa feels comforted by thinking of the perfect moments people sometimes experience, which provide them with hope and the will to go on.
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.
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.
Topics for Further Study
- Some critics have found Cunningham's portrayal of Virginia Woolf to be unnecessarily bleak. Read a biography of Woolf and write an essay arguing whether or not Cunningham presented an accurate portrait of the writer.
- Write a poem or a short story that focuses on a life-affirming moment.
- Compare and contrast characters, plot, setting, and theme in The Hours and Mrs. Dalloway in a PowerPoint demonstration.
- All three women in the novel experience feelings for other women. Write an essay that discusses the issue of lesbianism in the novel and its effect on the lives of the three women.
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.
A literary allusion is a reference in one work to other works of literature. Cunningham's allusions to the characters and themes in Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway give his own work a frame of reference with meaningful parallels if his reader already knows the literature and historical characters to which he refers, in this case the novel Mrs. Dalloway and the historical Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Clarissa's day parallels that of Mrs. Dalloway as she buys flowers for the party she is giving that evening. The lives of the three women are connected to Woolf's novel: Woolf is writing it; all are planning a party (Virginia for Vanessa, Clarissa for Richard, and Laura for Dan); all experience a significant kiss; all experience transcendental moments that involve a creative expression of themselves and a celebration of life; and all are faced with death, either their own or that of someone they love.
Cunningham also incorporates allusion to Doris Lessing's short story, "To Room Nineteen." When Laura checks into the hotel room that offers her a welcome respite from her suffocating life at home, she ends up in number nineteen, the same number of the room the main character in Lessing's short story visits regularly for the same reason—to escape from the demands of domesticity that have robbed her of her identity. Cunningham's version contains an important difference, however. While Lessing's character kills herself in this room, Laura contemplates suicide there but eventually finds the strength to leave it, as well as her restrictive world, to establish a true sense of self elsewhere. Cunningham's version then focuses on the effect that leaving the room has on Laura's son.
In the Woolf section of The Hours, Cunningham notes that Virginia considered London to be the center of life. The city, in fact, had for the historical Virginia Woolf a mystical significance, one which she recreated in her celebrated novel, Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Cunningham reworked characters and themes from Mrs. Dalloway in The Hours, which was actually the working title of the earlier historical Woolf 's novel.
Woolf's novel is set in London a couple years after World War I. It chronicles a June day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a fifty-two-year-old, upper-class Londoner who is planning a party for that evening. As she prepares for the event, she looks back wistfully over her life, noting the moments of lost possibilities and revealing her doubts about her choices and the significance of her life. When she hears the news that a shell-shocked now discharged soldier, Septimus Warren-Smith, who is developed in an important subplot in the novel, has committed suicide, she is prompted to reevaluate her sense of self and ultimately to reassert an affirmation of life.
Women's Roles in the United States in the 1940s
Laura Brown's limited choices in this decade, based on her gender, push her to consider suicide. During World War II, women were encouraged to enter the workplace where they enjoyed a measure of independence and responsibility. After the war, they were required to give up their jobs to the returning male troops. Hundreds of thousands of women were laid off and expected to resume their place in the home.
Training began at an early age to ensure that girls would conform to the feminine ideal of the perfect wife and mother. Women who tried to gain self-fulfillment through a career were criticized and deemed dangerous to the stability of the American family. They were pressed to find fulfillment exclusively through their support of a successful husband. Television shows such as Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best and popular magazines such as Good Housekeeping, along with television and newspaper advertisements, all encouraged the image of woman-as-housewife throughout the 1950s.
The small number of women who did work outside the home often suffered discrimination and exploitation as they were relegated to low-paying clerical, service, or assembly-line positions. Women would have to wait until the 1960s and 1970s to gain meaningful social and economic advancement.
In 1978, cases of a virus, later identified as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), which causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) appeared in the United States, Sweden, Tanzania, and Haiti. The U.S. public became aware of AIDS in the early 1980s, and it became a widely discussed matter when film star Rock Hudson died from an AIDS-related illness in 1985. By the beginning of the 1990s, the disease had spread rapidly, generating public fear since no treatment had been discovered. Most of the early cases were identified in homosexual populations and among intravenous (IV) drug users, but by the 1990s, cases were noted throughout the U.S. populace. Racial and ethnic minorities were hardest hit, representing approximately three-fourths of all new AIDS cases.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the incidences of AIDS increased rapidly. By 1994, there were an estimated 500,000 Americans infected with AIDS and the same number had died from the disease. Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, approximately 40,000 people were infected each year and approximately 20,000 people died from complications associated with the disease. The epidemic was worse in developing countries such as Africa where people have little access to medications that can help control the disease progression.
The Hours has received overwhelmingly enthusiastic praise from readers and scholars alike. Many reviewers, such as Darlene E. Erickson in her essay on the novel for Christianity and Literature, applaud the novel's style. She comments that the "text is … rich and intricate" and that it is "refreshing" to discover a work "that is both beautiful and evocative—and a writer who takes the time to get it right, to say what he means with both clarity and originality."
Trudy Bush, in her review of the novel for Christian Century, claims that the novel is "[b]eautifully written." In her review of the book for Lambda Book Report, Sarah Van Arsdale concludes that The Hours is "engaging" and contains "gorgeous prose," which makes it "a fine example of how it's ultimately the writing, the crafting of prose, that makes or breaks a book. Here, the writing itself propels the three plots forward, bringing the reader along effortlessly."
Critics also admire Cunningham's reworking of the themes of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Erickson writes, "One reads [The Hours] with growing awe at a mind that comprehends what T. S. Eliot called 'Tradition and the Individual Talent,'" concluding, "With his gracious homage to Woolf, Cunningham has reaffirmed what Eliot recognized long ago—namely, that all great texts build on those written before them." Bush claims, "The book performs the difficult feat of both lyrically echoing Woolf and being original" and admits that she was "struck by its connection to Woolf's novel and by the way writers are inspired by, react to and move beyond each other's work."
Michael Coffey in his article for Publishers Weekly concludes that Cunningham "skillfully interweaves three novellas" in his text. He adds, "The subtle interactions of these narratives, and each one's mirroring of scenes right out of Mrs. Dalloway, adds a dimensionality to The Hours that makes it much more than the sum of its parts." He claims that readers will be "mesmerized by Cunningham's attention to quotidian detail" and notes that he "deftly brings [the characters] all together."
Van Arsdale continues the praise for Cunningham's revisioning of Woolf's novel insisting that he breathes "new life into characters and a story created some 70 years ago." While Van Arsdale argues that "occasionally the set up … becomes too apparent, grabbing the attention from the writing," this fault, she claims is "offset by the brutal honesty here." She insists that the "emotional accuracy is so dead-on" and lauds "Cunningham's love and respect, not only for Woolf … but also for writing, for language, and for the daily, dogged work of honoring one's creative process."
Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, Perkins focuses on the transitory, life-affirming moments experienced by the characters in the novel.
Virginia Woolf's works contain moments of perfect happiness, moments when life stands still, when her characters experience a transcendent feeling of peace. These moments are always transitory since Woolf believed that people can never sustain a state of happiness for more than a short period of time. The two most famous examples of these moments in her work take place at or in preparation for a party. In To the Lighthouse, this moment occurs when Mrs. Ramsey sits down with her family and friends to share a superb dinner she has just organized. At one point she stops to recognize that she has created a transcendent moment for her guests and for herself, since her attempts to control the events in the lives of her family and friends have imbued them with her integrating vision of harmony, captured and crystallized in this moment.
Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway also experiences transcendent moments during a day when she is preparing a similar party for family and friends. The moments in these two works are ironically associated both with life and with death: Michael Cunningham, in his prize-winning novel The Hours, which was inspired by Mrs. Dalloway, enters into a dialogue with Virginia Woolf on the nature of these moments as he intricately weaves together the stories of three women who are connected by their responsiveness to the possibilities of a heightened sense of life.
The moments in the two novels by Woolf generate an affirmation of life that is amplified and, in Clarissa's case, precipitated by death: Mrs. Ramsey dies not long after her dinner party, and Clarissa learns of the tragic death of a poet during her party. These deaths help fix in time the moments that celebrate life and so infuse them with poignancy. Cunningham joins this dialogue on the interaction between life and death when he begins his novel with Woolf's suicide and immediately after, focuses on the influence her work has on two women: Clarissa Vaughan, whose best friend has given her the nickname "Mrs. Dalloway," and who follows a similar path to that of her namesake during the course of her day; and Laura Brown, whose reading of Mrs. Dalloway helps ease her struggle to function in a world in which she does not belong.
All three women in The Hours experience these life-sustaining moments through the act of creation. Clarissa begins her day getting ready for Richard's party. As she selects flowers in a shop, she feels an overwhelming sense of love on the beautiful June day in New York that "feels entirely serious to her, as if everything in the world is part of a vast, inscrutable intention," and full of life.
She transfers this love to the preparation of her party, to the creation of a moment that will provide the same harmony among those she loves as she fills "the rooms of her apartment with food and flowers, with people of wit and influence," all gathered together to celebrate Richard. Her desire is "to give Richard the best party she can manage. She will try to create something temporal, even trivial, but perfect in its way, her tribute, her gift."
Clarissa encounters another moment that day with Sally after she brings Clarissa roses, when the two "are both simply and entirely happy. They are present, right now," and they love each other; "At this moment, it is enough." Clarissa notes the importance of the experience when she thinks, "You try to hold the moment, just here, in the kitchen with the flowers. You try to inhabit it, to love it, because it's yours."
Virginia recognizes the creative spirit in planning gatherings for others when she notes, "There is true art in it, this command of tea and dinner tables." She finds it more strongly, though, through her writing, which in turn, inspires her readers. Her excitement in anticipation of the writing process compares to the anticipation one feels preparing for a party "full of wit and beauty" and "a spark of profound celebration, of life itself." Her perfect moment appears as she begins to write Mrs. Dalloway when she realizes that "there are infinite possibilities" in her ability to recognize, through her writing, "the animating mysteries of the world."
Laura Brown responds to the celebration of life in Mrs. Dalloway, understanding that she can "keep herself by gaining entry into a parallel world." Her home, usually a confining space, "feels more densely inhabited, more actual, because a character named Mrs. Dalloway is on her way to buy flowers." When she reads that Mrs. Dalloway loved "life; London; this moment of June" as she prepares for the party she is giving, Laura is inspired to create a perfect birthday celebration for her husband and son, which will provide them all with a sense of harmony. "She imagines making, out of the humblest materials, a cake with all the balance and authority of an urn or a house."
As she and Richie are making Dan's cake, Laura experiences another transcendent moment. Watching her son measure out the flour, she is suddenly struck with an overwhelming sense of love for him, "so strong, so unambiguous, it resembles appetite," and recognizes that "for a moment she is precisely what she appears to be," a loving wife and mother. The moment quickly passes, however, when the finished cake fails to match her expectations.
That evening, after she has baked another cake and prepares the party, "it seems she has succeeded suddenly, at the last minute, the way a painter might brush a final line of color onto a painting and save it from incoherence." Yet again, Cunningham reminds us of the elusive nature of happiness when, after the candles are blown out, Laura sees the moment passing: "Here it is, she thinks; there it goes. The page is about to turn."
Death, or the thought of death, encroaches on these moments. As Virginia writes her novel, she is plagued by the fear that she will descend into madness, the thought of which eventually drives her to suicide. Laura, whose moments of domestic harmony cannot be sustained in a place where she has lost her sense of self, contemplates suicide. Clarissa, who has put so much effort into planning the perfect moment for Richard, sees her vision dissipate with Richard's suicide. Yet, Cunningham illustrates the ironic power of death to reinvigorate the living: Virginia's fears inspire her to finish her work, which would provide life for others; Laura's suicidal thoughts eventually compel her to leave her family in order to save herself; and Richard's death causes Clarissa to reexamine her own and to ultimately find a sense of peace.
At the end of the novel, Clarissa recognizes, "There's just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we've ever imagined." Noting the temporal nature of these moments or this hour, inevitably followed by the tragedies of life, she concludes, "Still we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more." As she spreads out the food for Laura, Sally, her daughter, and herself, she asks forgiveness of Richard, insisting that this was "a party for the not-yet-dead; for the relatively undamaged" and that is, "in fact, great good fortune."
In her article on the novel for Christianity and Literature, Darlene E. Erickson writes that in The Hours, Cunningham has reaffirmed that "the questions [Woolf] asked about life remain urgent, and that, in spite of pain, sorrow, and death, the simplest gestures … can be, for one shining moment, enough." In his depiction of those shining moments, Cunningham celebrates the endurance of the human spirit and its continuing affirmation of life.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on The Hours, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Darlene E. Erickson
In the following review-essay, Erickson explores how Cunningham illustrates "the role that the body plays in the world of the mind, personality, and human action" in The Hours.
George Orwell probably had it right in "Politics and the English Language": our civilization is decadent, and our language shares in the general collapse. He also reminds us, however, that "If one gets rid of these [bad] habits, one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is the first step towards political regeneration." How refreshing it is, then, to find a contemporary novel that is both beautiful and evocative—and a writer who takes the time to get it right, to say what he means with both clarity and originality.
Michael Cunningham's The Hours, which has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Pen/Faulkner Award, is such a novel. One reads it with growing awe at a mind that comprehends what T.S. Eliot called "Tradition and the Individual Talent." The text is so rich and intricate that it is possible only to acquaint readers with the novel and to try to bring into focus at least one dimension of the book: Cunningham's subtle yet profound attention to the bodies of his characters and the role the body plays in the world of the mind, the personality, the soul, and the very actions of his characters. To a degree biology is destiny in ways far more complex than might at first be understood. Cunningham's The Hours is a tribute to his literary predecessors while at the same time a carefully crafted literary venture in its own right.
What Do I Read Next?
- Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1925, addresses similar themes involving life, death, and creativity.
- Cunningham's Specimen Days, published in 2005, focuses on another literary artist, Walt Whitman, as it weaves together different stories in a similar three-part structure.
- Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927) also explores the creative urge and the role of women in society.
- Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf (2001) reveals the personal vision of the celebrated writer.
On a bright morning in June, a woman in her early fifties steps out into the streets of New York City, just at the end of the twentieth century, for "There are still the flowers to buy." She runs into old acquaintances and calls up significant recollections from her earlier life. She catches sight of a celebrity, although she really isn't sure who it is. She purchases the flowers, goes home, and proceeds to prepare for a party. Sound familiar? Cunningham is revisiting some of the essentials of Virginia Woolf's famous novel Mrs. Dalloway, just as she revisited the strategies of James Joyce after examining a portion of Ulysses that Eliot shared with Hogarth Press (the famous publishing venture begun in the Woolfs' dining room). Hogarth Press did not publish Ulysses; all of the printers they contacted were wary of the Joyce anomaly. Nonetheless, Woolf was impressed by Joyce's collage, his mosaic of a day in the life of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus and their unforgettable menagerie. Woolf worried about what she considered the "indecency" of Joyce's text, but she admired his innovative use of what would come to be called "stream of consciousness," his use of simultaneity, the concept of the Doppelgänger, and the exploration of sanity and insanity—whether she was always willing to admit that admiration or not. Cunningham, however, is unabashedly frank about his connection to Woolf, quoting her diary entry for 30 August 1923 in the book's frontispiece:
I have no time to describe my plans. I should say a good deal about the Hours & my discovery; how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect & each comes to daylight at the present moment.
The Hours was, after all, Woolf's working title for what became Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham's novel by that name begins with a prologue set in 1941 featuring a woman in a heavy coat with a stone in her pocket. She is on her way to commit suicide. The references to "Leonard" and "Vanessa" and Woolf's own suicide note signed "V" dispel any doubt about the woman's true identity.
There are also differences between Cunningham's novel and Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham's story is set in New York in the late 1990s; Woolf's takes place in London in the 1920s. The unknown celebrity is a movie star in a trailer in one text, perhaps a queen or a prime minister in a car in the other. The main character in both novels is called "Clarissa," but in the later work "Mrs. Dalloway" is merely an assigned nickname. Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Michael Wood also points out that the chief difference between the two is that no one in the first novel can have read the second, whereas almost everyone in the second seems to have read the first. And there are many eerie consequences of this impression. The second novel begins to repeat some of the darker events of the first. It also repeats some of the language and metaphors. The Doppelgänger effect is all-pervasive. One of the characters from The Hours actually dies quoting from Woolf's suicide note. Another prefers reading and living in the world of Woolf's novel to her own real life. Most characters from the original have a shadow—or some-times several shadows—in the world of the new novel. The intertwining is everywhere, again suggesting Eliot's "mythical method" of borrowing from the literature and literary structures of the past. Literature is indeed a part of our history, woven into our reality, and contemporary writers with modernist training have come to expect that.
Cunningham's The Hours has three separate but resonating story lines. The final intersection is what one critic describes as "such a thing of beauty and surprise that it must not be revealed" (Levine). This reviewer could not agree more. There is first the very plausible character of Mrs. Woolf herself, who is writing Mrs. Dalloway while living outside London in Richmond with her husband Leonard. Then there are the contemporary Clarissa, dubbed "Mrs. Dalloway" by her AIDS-stricken poet and friend, Richard, and last of all Mrs. Laura Brown, who is pregnant for the second time and caring for her small son on her husband's birthday. Laura lives in Los Angeles in 1949 and is mesmerized by Woolf's novel.
Woolf's story of her day in Richmond is told in seven episodes interspersed with eight episodes of Clarissa's New York day and seven episodes about Laura Brown in Los Angeles. After the brief prologue about Mrs. Woolf's suicide, the stories alternate in an intricate sequence of waves and rhythms, with each new episode echoing the preceding one and projecting the next while never for-getting the many connections to Mrs. Dalloway. If this all sounds painfully contrived, it simply is not. It is logical, eminently readable, satisfying, and oddly comforting.
Cunningham fulfills the reader's longing for the beautiful, for aesthetic perfection, by modeling after his mentor Woolf—and after her master, Joyce, and down through the ages unto his master, Homer. Cunningham writes with exquisite care, saying in a few pristine, well chosen words what others might say in forty. This clarity is sometimes breathtaking. These examples hang in the mind: a scattering of New York City pigeons have "feet the color of pencil erasers"; a pug "stares over its fawn-colored shoulder … with an expression of moist, wheezing bafflement"; a backyard pool appears as "liquid nets of sun wavering in the blue depths." When Clarissa gets into an old New York elevator and pushes the button for the fifth floor, "The elevator door sighs, and rattles shut. Nothing happens. Of course. It works only intermittently … Clarissa presses the button marked with a chipped white 'O' and after a nervous hesitation the door rattles open again." As Clarissa enters Richard's dark, overheated apartment, smelling of sage and juniper incense to cover the smells of illness, the narrator discloses that the apartment has, more than anything, an underwater aspect: "Clarissa walks through it as she would negotiate the hold of a sunken ship. It would not be entirely surprising if a small school of silver fish darted by in the half-light." Evocative of Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway, Cunningham writes that "the hall-way of her building feels like an entrance to the realm of the dead. The urn sits in its niche and the brown-gazed floor tiles silently return, in muddied form, the elderly ocher light of the sconces." There is no denying Cunningham's devotion to precise language, which almost becomes poetry.
To return to my main point, however, about the role that the body plays in the world of the mind, personality, and human action, let me direct my examples to Cunningham at work describing his characters' bodies in ways that Woolf once described as "the upholstery of the soul," for we all have "up-holstery" that serves to objectify our inner selves. We like to think of ourselves as "outside our bodies," looking on, but we are wrong: our bodies dictate not only our vision of ourselves but also the ways others view us—and ultimately the way we really are. So things like gender, age, body chemicals, beauty, physical infirmities, pain, illness, height, and sexual orientation cannot be relegated to the insubstantial.
With the subtle Cunningham-by-way-of-Woolf technique, the reader is allowed to look at some of the characters' bodies, both from the way they "see" themselves and the way others see them, to judge the impact of the body/soul relationship. "As Clarissa steps down from the vestibule," writes Cunningham, "her shoe makes gritty contact with the red-brown, mica-studded stone of the first stair. She is fifty-two, just fifty-two, and in almost unnaturally good health. She feels every bit as good as she did that day in Wellfleet, at the age of eighteen, stepping out through the glass doors into a day very much like this one." However, just as she straightens her shoulders while standing at the corner of Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the light:
There she is, thinks Willie Bass, who passes her some mornings just about here. The old beauty, the old hippie, hair still long and defiantly gray, out on her morning rounds in jeans and a man's cotton shirt, some sort of ethnic slippers (India? Central America?) on her feet. She still has a certain sexiness; a certain bohemian, good-witch sort of charm; and yet this morning she makes a tragic sight, standing so straight in her big shirt and exotic shoes, resisting the pull of gravity, a female mammoth already up to its knees in the tar, taking a rest between efforts, standing bulky and proud, almost nonchalant, pretending to contemplate the tender grasses waiting on the bank when it is beginning to know for certain that it will remain trapped and alone, after dark. When the jackals come out. She must have been spectacular twenty-five years ago; men must have died happy in her arms.
Willie's judgment is real, and even Clarissa understands that at some level. She fights her age and her body, but even she is clear about the fact that the "upholstery" has affected the reality. Later, "She stands looking at the books and at her reflection superimposed on the glass (she still looks all right, handsome now instead of pretty—when will the crepe and gauntness, the shriveled lips, of her old woman's face begin to emerge?)."
Cunningham then imagines Mrs. Woolf in the bathroom: "She does not look directly into the oval mirror that hangs above the basin. She is aware of her reflected movements in the glass, but does not permit herself to look. The mirror is dangerous; it sometimes shows her the dark manifestation of air that matches her body, takes her form but stands behind, watching her, with porcine eyes and wet, hushed breathing. She washes her face and does not look, certainly not this morning, not when the work is waiting for her."
Shortly thereafter her husband, Leonard, sees her and perceives what is at the same time the same yet different person:
She stands tall, haggard, marvelous in her housecoat, the coffee steaming in her hand. He is still, at times, astonished by her. She may be the most intelligent woman in England, he thinks. Her books may be read for centuries. He believes this more ardently than does anyone else. And she is his wife. She is Virginia Stephen, pale and tall, startling as a Rembrandt or a Velasquez, appearing twenty years ago at her brother's rooms in Cambridge in a white dress, and she is Virginia Woolf, standing before him right now. She has aged dramatically, just this year, as if a layer of air has leaked out from under her skin. She's grown craggy and worn. She's begun to look as if she's carved from very porous, gray-white marble. She is still regal, still exquisitely formed, still possessed of her formidable lunar radiance, but she is suddenly no longer beautiful.
With glimpses of her own morning experience and of Clarissa's reflection in the glass, Mrs. Woolf finds "her own face becoming more and more strongly reflected in the window glass as the streetlamps—pale lemon against ink-blue sky—light up all over Richmond." Virginia is plagued by what we loosely call mental illness. Her body is devastated by unruly chemicals that both feed and destroy her creativity. She cannot be productive when she is ill, yet her illness parallels her productivity. The paradox both alarms and intrigues her. She is mesmerized by her own illness and at the same time terrified by it. This dimension of her body is destroying her:
She can feel the headache creeping up the back of her neck. She stiffens. No, it's the memory of the headache, it's her fear of the headache, both of them so vivid as to be at last briefly indistinguishable from an onset of the headache itself. She stands erect, waiting. It's all right. It's all right.
She can feel the nearness of the old devil (what else to call it?) and she knows she will be utterly alone if and when the devil chooses to appear again. The devil is a headache; the devil is a voice inside a wall; the devil is a fin breaking through dark waves…. The devil sucks all the beauty from the world, all the hope, and what remains when the devil has finished is a realm of the living dead—joyless, suffocating.
The "devil" is part of her, however, perhaps even the part that makes her the writer she is. In 1993 Kay Redfield Jamison published a widely read text, Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, in which she pursues the thesis that there is a close association between bipolar disease and the artistic temperament. Jamison demonstrates with great care that the pattern of "habitual melancholy" and psychotic melancholia paired against periods of remarkable productivity and euphoria tends to parallel the creative mind. Her work on William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Randall Jarrell, Ann Sexton, and, of course, Virginia Woolf makes fascinating reading. There is a good deal to support the biographical and scientific argument for a compelling association between the two temperaments, the artistic and the manic-depressive, and their relationship to the rhythms and cycles of the natural world. Cunningham uses that research along with the plethora of information about Woolf herself to create a memorable character, one who is capable of extraordinary leaps of creativity followed by months of listlessness and depression.
Another character is Richard, the brilliant poet and novelist who is dying of AIDS. Clarissa remembers her first vision of Richard when he was nineteen—"a firm-featured, hard-eyed, not-quite-beautiful dark-haired boy with an impossibly long and graceful, very pale neck." She remembers that "he was once avid and tall, sinewy, bright and pale as milk. He once strode through New York in an old military coat, talking excitedly, with the dark tangle of his hair tied impatiently away from his face by a length of blue ribbon he'd found." Now Richard sits alone in his squalid apartment:
The shades are drawn and all six or seven lamps are lit, though their feeble output barely adds up to the illuminating power of one ordinary desk lamp. Richard, in the far corner, in his absurd flannel robe (an adult-size version of a child's robe, ink-blue, covered with rockets, and helmeted astronauts), is gaunt and majestic and as foolish as a drowned queen seated on her throne.
Clarissa goes to him and kisses the curve of his forehead, for she has always loved him. It is for him that her party will be given. She finds, however, that his body has betrayed him:
Up close like this, she can smell his various humors. His pores exude not only his familiar sweat (which as always smelled good to her, starchy and fermented; sharp in the way of wine) but the smell of his medicines, a powdery, sweetish smell. He smells too of unfresh flannel … and slightly, horribly (it is his only repellent smell), of the chair in which he spends his days…. The chair smells fetid and deeply damp, unclean; it smells of irreversible rot.
Richard too has his demons, his "visitors," his furies. "I think of them as coalescences of black fire," Cunningham writes; "I mean they're dark and bright at the same time. There was one that looked a bit like a black, electrified jellyfish. They were singing, just now, in foreign languages. I believe it may have been Greek. Archaic Greek." Clarissa wonders how this can happen to such a man. She thinks of his monumental ego and a kind of savantism, for Richard is an
… opposite kind of egotist, driven by grandiosity rather than greed, and if he insists on a version of you that is funnier, stranger, more eccentric and profound than you suspect yourself to be—capable of doing more good and more harm in the world than you've ever imagined—it is impossible not to believe, at least in his presence and for a while after you've left him, that he alone sees through to your essence, weighs your true qualities.
Richard needs to live in a world peopled by commanding figures, a world of epic individuals, but his AIDS-ridden body is betraying him. When Clarissa takes one of his hands in hers, she is "surprised, even now, at how frail it is—how palpably it resembles a bundle of twigs." As he lifts his ravaged head, "Clarissa turns her face sideways and receives Richard's kiss on her cheek. It is not a good idea to kiss him on the lips—a common cold would be a disaster for him." The novel's final view of Richard's body as described by Clarissa in the novel's climax is certainly most moving, but again one must leave something to the reader. Suffice to say that Richard's body, invaded by disease, is projected onto his mind, and the result is tragic in the epic manner that Richard might have claimed.
There is so much more about this rich novel that I have been unable to reveal. I can only invite you to read it for yourself, to discover the joy of intricacy, of great beauty, of verbal echoes, of painstaking choices. I have not told you that Clarissa is a lesbian with a loyal partner of eighteen years. I have not mentioned that she has a daughter who is being seduced by an older woman whom Clarissa cannot abide. I have not followed the story of Laura and her struggle with motherhood, insanity, jealousy, and responsibility. I have not spoken of Mrs. Woolf's wonderful day with her sister, Vanessa, and Vanessa's children. I have only suggested that each of Cunningham's characters has at least one shadow in Mrs. Dalloway and myriad connections with one another. I have not helped you understand the essence of "the hours": that one looks back at life "sometimes more than thirty years later to realize that it was happiness; that the entire experience lay in a kiss and a walk, the anticipation of dinner and a book…. That was the moment, right then. There has been no other." I have not helped you understand that there is holiness, sacredness, in beautiful acts well done. I have not helped you understand that no one is forever young or forever kind and generous. I have scarcely helped you to see how special each one of us really is. "For there she was" (Woolf 296). Is it necessary to have read Mrs. Dalloway to understand The Hours? Probably not, but that would be a wonderful idea.
To return to my premise, Cunningham has captured a world in a single day. In different years and different cities, in the lives of three women, he has found essential comparisons and profound resolution. The reader will find new meaning in Alfred Tennyson's words from "Ulysses": "I am a part of all that I have met." Finally, in the small act of buying and arranging flowers, Cunningham has helped us grasp the importance of goodness, beauty, love, and art. With his gracious homage to Woolf, Cunningham has reaffirmed what Eliot recognized long ago—namely, that all great texts build on those written before them. He has certainly reaffirmed that Woolf is of lasting significance, that the questions she asked about life remain urgent, and that, in spite of pain, sorrow, and death, the simplest gestures—walking out the door on a lovely morning, setting a vase of roses on a table—can be, for one shining moment, enough. We are, after all, a part of one another, with only beautiful hours to share.
Source: Darlene E. Erickson, "'The Upholstery of the Soul': Michael Cunningham's The Hours," in Christianity and Literature, Vol. 50, No. 4, Summer 2001, pp. 715-22.
In the following essay excerpt, Dee provides an overview of The Hours and an analysis of Cunningham's incorporation of Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway into the novel.
Michael Cunningham's The Hours, published last fall to admiring reviews and winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for the year's best work of fiction, bravely offers as its animating force that most unfashionable of love objects, a book. Not just any book, either, but Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf's slim, exacting treatment of one June day in the life of a group of Londoners, some of them related by friendship, some by birth, and some only by a kind of magical transfer of authorial sympathies as the characters pass one another on the street. Completed in 1925 (part of a six-year explosion of Woolf's genius that also saw the publication of To the Lighthouse, A Room of One's Own, and The Waves), Mrs. Dalloway is one of the peaks of Woolf's achievement, which is another way of saying that it is one of the signal achievements in all of Modernist literature; still, it takes an unusually ardent devotion to imagine, as Cunningham does, that Woolf's novel might enter the world as an instrument of fate, influencing lives for three-quarters of a century—even the lives of those who have never read it.
The Hours plaits together the stories of three women, each of them observed over the course of one June day in three radically different times and places: 1923 London, 1949 Los Angeles, and 1998 Greenwich Village. The present-day narrative is the dominant one, and it takes the form of a somewhat overdetermined contemporary replay of the very events of Woolf's novel. Cunningham's central figure is Clarissa Vaughan (same first name as Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway), whom we first see in the throes of preparation for an important party at her home that evening (same as Clarissa Dalloway). The coincidences pile up rapidly from there: Clarissa Vaughan's ignorance of them (in spite of the fact that she has even been nicknamed "Mrs. Dalloway" by a friend) is what saves these chapters from reading less like an act of homage than like a particularly highbrow episode of The Twilight Zone. Much more original and affecting is the novel's second, less emulative narrative strand, which concerns the tremulous existence of Laura Brown, a smart young housewife in suburban Los Angeles in the years of the post-World War II boom. Married to a doting war hero, mother of a three-year-old boy and with another child on the way, Laura is on a quiet course toward some sort of nervous breakdown, possibly even suicide; on the June day in question—her husband's birthday—she checks into a hotel room by herself and lies on the bed for two and a half hours reading Mrs. Dalloway. Never far from her mind is what she knows of the ultimate end of the woman who wrote the book she is holding; "How, Laura wonders, could someone who was able to write a sentence like that—who was able to feel everything contained in a sentence like that—come to kill her-self? What in the world is wrong with people?"
The third character in The Hours is Virginia Woolf herself. She, too, is seen on an imaginary June day, eighteen years before her suicide by drowning (a scene that forms the book's prologue), a day on which she is struggling with the opening pages of a new novel—the novel that will become Mrs. Dalloway but whose working title is "The Hours." These chapters are narrated in the same psychologically intimate third-person style as are those chapters centered around the women who are entirely Cunningham's creation. And although there is no mistaking the fact that this narrative—indeed, the whole novel—is conceived by Cunningham as a sincere tribute to a predecessor whom he reveres, still it is remarkable to watch him demonstrate that there is no corner of Woolf's extraordinary consciousness that, for reasons of modesty, he might shy away from attempting to recreate. For the most part, the narrative sticks fondly to the quotidian arrangements of Woolf's day (washing her face in the bathroom, planning a lunch menu); but we are also made privy to the less penetrable mysteries of her creative process:
It seems good enough; parts seem very good indeed. She has lavish hopes, of course—she wants this to be her best book…. But can a single day in the life of an ordinary women be made into enough for a novel? Virginia taps at her lips with her thumb.
We are in Woolf's head when she engages the madness with which her difficult life was fired: "she can feel the nearness of the old devil (what else to call it?), and she knows she will be utterly alone if and when the devil chooses to appear again." And, of course, in the prologue mentioned above, we are offered access to that consciousness even as it extinguishes itself, on the afternoon Woolf walks into the River Ouse with stones in her pockets.
The appropriation of genuine historical figures—people who actually lived—as characters in fiction is an act of imaginative boldness that, through simple attrition, readers of contemporary fiction have come to take entirely for granted. The past several years have seen a torrent of such novels, by Russell Banks (on John Brown), Pat Barker (Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon), Jay Parini (Walter Benjamin), Thomas Pynchon (Mason and Dixon), Susan Sontag (Lord Nelson), John Updike (James Buchanan), and a legion of lesser-known writers …
But whether or not it's true (and I think it's untrue) that the relationship between the real and the invented in the art of prose fiction hasn't changed significantly since Shakespeare's time, there's no debating that the practice of conscripting flesh-and-blood people into novels has become a veritable epidemic in the last twenty-five years or so. It is more than mere postmodern fashion, this appetite for the real among those whose traditional stock-in-trade is invention. It says something important—and, to those of us who care about making the case for the novel's continued vitality, something ominous—about the way in which fiction writers imagine their relation to the world.
What makes a novel a novel—what distinguishes it from other forms? More, surely than the question of invention: "invention" is a continuum, after all, and I know no fiction writer who would be so bold as to claim that no aspect of his or her characters had its origin in something observed in the real world. More, too, than its dependence upon language, or its use of story as a kind of tonality to be either relied upon or rebelled against, or its deployment of moving, speaking, acting human figures as the elements of art (all of which it has in common with movies and plays and television shows). If there is one thing the novel offers that no other form can approach, it is the opportunity to know those human figures completely, through the fiction writer's full uncompromised access to his or her characters' interior lives, as well as to the ways in which they define themselves through the observable phenomena of speech and action. In a novel, the dicrepancy, large or small, between what a person does and who that person is can be if not exactly erased then at least accounted for so fully as to provide a picture of human nature that we feel is sufficient in its totality. The satisfaction of knowing others—or even ourselves—in that kind of totality is a satisfaction with which our real lives most definitely do not provide us. And it is precisely this imaginary bridging of the gulf between the knowable and the unknowable about human motives that makes of fiction an alternative life: a life that transcends this one, and that brings us into closer contact with our natures than real life—that is to say, the life outside books—is capable of doing.
This idea, of course, is not new. "In daily life," E. M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel, "we never understand each other, neither complete clairvoyance nor complete confessional exists. We know each other approximately, by external signs, and these serve well enough as a basis for society and even for intimacy. But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed. And this is why they often seem more definite than characters in history, or even our own friends; we have been told all about them that can be told; even if they are imperfect or unreal they do not contain any secrets, whereas our friends do and must, mutual secrecy being one of the condition of life upon this globe."
A more historically minded accounting can be found in Milan Kundera's 1986 manifesto The Art of the Novel. Centuries before the invention of the novel, Kundera says, in the work of the great story-tellers like Boccaccio and Dante, "we can make out this conviction: It is through action that man steps forth from the repetitive universe of the everyday where each person resembles every other person; it is through action that he distinguishes himself from others and becomes an individual." Four hundred years later, in the work of proto-novelists such as Cervantes and Diderot, Kundera finds a more complex portrait of existence starting to emerge: the unlucky hero of Diderot's Jacques le Fataliste, for instance, "though he was starting an amorous adventure, and instead he was setting forth toward his infirmity. He could never recognize himself in his action. Between the act and himself, a chasm opens. Man hopes to reveal his own image through his act, but that image bears no resemblance to him. The paradoxical nature of action is one of the novel's great discoveries. But if the self is not to be grasped through action, then where and how are we to grasp it?" Out of that last sentence's primary existential problem, the novel as we know it is continually reborn.
Source: Jonathan Dee, "The Reanimators: On the Art of Literary Graverobbing," in Harper's Magazine, June 1999, pp. 76-84.
Bush, Trudy, Review of The Hours, in Christian Century, September 22-29, 1999, p. 886.
Coffey, Michael, "Michael Cunningham: New Family Outings," in Publishers Weekly, November 2, 1998, pp. 53-55.
Cunningham, Michael, The Hours, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.
Erickson, Darlene E., "'The Upholstery of the Soul': Michael Cunningham's The Hours," in Christianity and Literature, Vol. 50, No. 4, Summer 2001, pp. 715-22.
Van Arsdale, Sarah, "In Woolf's Clothing," in Lamda Book Report, January 1999, pp. 14-15.
Bell, Quentin, Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Harvest Books, 1974.
Bell, Woolf's nephew, presents a comprehensive study of the author's life.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway": Bloom's Modern Critical Interpretations, Chelsea House, 1988.
This collection of essays examines the novel's major themes, style, and structure.
Iannone, Carol, "Woolf, Women, and The Hours," in Commentary, Vol. 115, No. 4, April 2003, pp. 50-53.
Iannone critiques the film version of the novel and its feminist focus.
Schiff, James, "Rewriting Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway: Homage, Sexual Identity, and the Single-Day Novel by Cunningham, Lippincott, and Lanchester," in Critique, Vol. 45, No. 4, Summer 2004, pp. 363-82.
Schiff examines three different contemporary novels that enter into a dialogue with Woolf's novel.