The Hours by Michael Cunningham


I saw the film version of The Hours a decade ago (and just re-watched it this past weekend) because I’m a fan of Virginia Woolf and her fiction. I have always empathized with Woolf’s mental condition and her perspective on literature and the writing process. I have never been one to then read the book of a film I’ve seen and enjoyed as I did The Hours. But deep down I knew I should read it and recently a friend said I should do so as soon as possible, and so I did. He was taken, as I certainly was, by Cunningham’s characterization of Woolf’s breaking through her writer’s block, and recommended it solely on these lines alone:

It [a sort of second self, what the religious would call a soul] is an inner faculty that recognizes the animating mysteries of the world because it is made of the same substance, and when she is very fortunate she is able to write directly through that faculty. Writing in that state is the most profound satisfaction she knows, but her access to it comes and goes without warning (35).

I have certainly felt as Woolf is characterized as feeling in the second half of the first sentence and I have definitely experienced the second many times. And, for me, Cunningham states so perfectly the nature of the self (or soul) that is part of but not wholly one with the body and is kin to “the animating mysteries of the world.”

But I want to talk not about the soul but of the heightened sense of the human experience that Cunningham so beautifully writes about throughout the book. Using the technique of stream of consciousness from Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (whose tentative title was The Hours), Cunningham sets his novel across the hours of a single day in the lives of three women: one in contemporary New York City, one in 1950s suburban America, and Virginia Woolf in 1920s England, on which she begins to write her well-known novel. Cunningham’s third-person narrative was the most powerful element of this Pulitzer winner for me; his objective storytelling, letting his characters think, react, and move throughout their day without any string pulling simply amazed me. His writing style recalls Isherwood’s in A Single Man (another novel that takes place in the course of a single day), letting the reader fill the space between him- or herself and the characters with his or her own thoughts and emotional reactions. In short, a narrator (when not first person) should let his or her characters live and be in the world that has been created for them, judging, thinking, feeling, responding without any judgment by the narrator to sway the reader to think or feel one way or another, for or against the characters according to the narrator’s desires. Readers should be given the power not just to choose what they read, but how they read and respond to the characters in the story.

The Hours is a deeply human narrative. It is a story of regret, about not having lived to the fullest potential that we all have within us, whether in response to the dictates of society on how we should live, think, speak, and act, or in response to the internal controls and repressors we are born with. The story is full of ghosts, the revenants of our past lives that Clarissa dwells upon throughout her day, recalling her past with Richard, “the person Clarissa loved at her most optimistic moment.” The narrative is full of the pure sensations that the characters experience in their own Woolfian “moments of being,” wherein the mundane normalcy of our everyday lives is stripped away for a short time and we are electrified by a deeper sense of reality, of the true nature of things, of that force or spirit that is the ground and permeating essence of all living things.

Laura Brown is a heartbreaking figure. A mother and wife in conformist, conservative 1950s America who longs to break out of the mold thrust upon her, having to make and remake a birthday cake for her husband, Dan, while he is at work, wishing, especially after her kiss with Kitty, that she could start over, make this day her own birthday, if you will, in a rebirth of a self that can submit to desire, to love, with a woman, in this case, for as Cunningham writes, “Still, it is desire, sharp as a bone chip,” and yet still love Dan. Laura dreams of being free, free to love and desire as she will, as she needs, without repercussions.

For Virginia Woolf it is the same; she too desires freedom, freedom from the voices in her head that come and go, putting her to bed for weeks at a time, preventing her from writing, from living the life of a normal woman, a normal human being. She wants to be mentally stable and free enough to go down to London and enjoy the rush of city life and the people living there. Woolf desires to be free of others telling her what do to, though they are only looking out for her well-being; she dreams of making normal daily decisions about how to conduct her life all on her own. But in the end, which is the prologue of the novel set almost twenty years later in 1941, Woolf could no longer handle it and commits suicide.

As for Clarissa Vaughan, she wants to shirk the responsibilities of a middle-aged individual living, well off, mind you, in the most well-known city in the world, in the very late twentieth century. She wants to go back to her past and rewrite her life; she wants to have the life she could have had if she had chosen otherwise. “As she rubs Louis’s back, Clarissa thinks, Take me with you. I want a doomed love. I want streets at night, wind and rain, no one wondering where I am.” Clarissa’s thought here exemplifies what Laura and Virginia also desire: a desire for a different life, the chance to abandon everything, all that they know, and head out on an adventure, without anyone wondering where they are, searching after them, or asking where they’ve been once they’ve returned. Woolf buys a train ticket down to London but doesn’t get to board, for Leonard finds her at the station and stops her, and Laura drops her little boy off at a neighbor’s home while she goes and spends a few hours in a hotel room, wishing she could do more, even contemplating suicide, but only spending the time reading Mrs. Dalloway, knowing that she must retrieve Richie, go back home, and make Dan his birthday dinner. Laura is constrained by the roles of wife and mother, Virginia by her inner demons and her husband, and Clarissa by her relationship with Sally and by her own regrets over what could have been with Richard. It must be noted, however, that we learn briefly at the end of the novel that Laura abandoned her family (she is pregnant on the day on which the story finds her) soon after she gives birth to her second child, and so escaped the constricted, unhappy life she was living, though at the cost of giving up her children and a lasting relationship with them, leaving her ultimately alone. Cunningham poignantly points here to the inherent loss in any choice we make because all choices involve some sort of sacrifice.

I could go on and on about The Hours. I was not at all expecting to be so taken by it and in writing about it I have begun to pull the pieces of the three narratives together and am floored by how beautifully Cunningham synthesizes the themes across the three worlds and stories of these women, showing his readers that the human experience of regret, sorrow for having chosen one path over another, feeling unfilled by our lives, our loves, and wondering if the path we did not choose would have been any better for us, is a universal experience, one that we have all known, at one time or another, or many times even, and that serves in the end to give us a more real, profound, and meaningful perspective on our lives, how we have lived and are living in the present, in which we are washed in the incandescent light of those “moments of being” that show us the exquisite beauty of our fragile but resilient humanness, before we are cast back into the muddy waters of the mundane, everyday reality that surrounds us and absorbs our minds to an unfortunate degree wherein we seem to forget ourselves, our own needs and desires, so quickly and easily.

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