THE HOURS By Michael Cunningham
Linda Hepner Jan 06
I was half way through the novel when I suddenly realized I had read it before. This says of course that I read with only half my mind, but it also might imply that as a novel it is not absolutely successful in gripping the reader. The moment I woke up was when I suddenly realized the identity of little Richie, the 3 year old son of Laura. I was suddenly filled with dread and recognized that emotion from my first reading a couple of years ago. At that point I re-read more carefully, and anticipating the end helped to concentrate my mind. I would not say that every detail then gripped me, but I was certainly more alert for clues and developments which allowed me to appreciate the end of the now recognised novel. It also shows how perhaps the writing lacks some impact, does not close the distance between the reader and the characters in spite of the intricacy, vivid descriptions of detail and intellectual challenge.
I am revealing this to you at the start since you have all read the book and I will only now summarize it. I will not summarize it in order of appearance of the characters. I think there is method in my approach. Keep in mind that I believe the novel in spite of its progression through the day is a hypertext. Characters, names,events, place and more powerfully, time, are intermingled. You can see however that I seem to be giving you a biassed opinion from the start. You might take this as a jumping off point in your minds while I am speaking. None of us think of this novel as a thriller or romantic tale, but I still demand of an author that he or she grip our interest fairly early in the story, either with plot or fascinating details or with involvement with the characters. You will make up your own minds.
The Hours is a complex novel following a June day in the lives of 3 women living in different generations but each preparing for some sort of party. At least, it pretends to be three. In fact, it is four, as you will see.
The chapters alternate, switching from one character to the other, but intertwining unexpectedly towards the end.
There is Laura Brown: she is a young, married, pregnant mother living in a Los Angeles suburb in 1949. The war has been over for 4 years and her husband is a good provider. He had been pronounced dead in the Second World War but miraculously returned. Laura was an odd choice of wife, being aloof and bookish. She stays at home in a perfect 1949 house looking after her 3 year old son Richie, who adores her. She is beginning to read “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf and her mind is constantly preoccupied with it. She wonders how a writer like Woolf who puts a glow on the little details of life could kill herself. Her active day consists of preparing a birthday cake for her husband. This is her little party. She and Richie make it together as a delightful project but when he is not looking she rejects it for its amateurish decorations and makes another, carefully. A neighbor, Kitty, then comes in to reveal that she probably has fatal cancer. Laura kisses her on the lips. She then takes Richie to a babysitter and in a state of suicidal alienation drives around in Los Angeles and finally downtown where she checks into an anonymous hotel – to read “Mrs Dalloway”. She does come home in time to pick up Richie and serve her husband the cake. They go to bed without making love: she wants to read. This is the last we find out about her until the very last chapter.
Clarissa Vaughan is a 52 year old book editor and small time author. She lives in Greenwich Village in 1998.
She had been a good looking woman. At 18 she had met Richard, a 19 year old having an affair with a handsome young man, Louis. One moment by the water was all it took for Clarissa and Richard to fall in love. Their involvement lasted all his life, though they lived separately a la Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir with all the sexual freedom of the 1960s to 80s. He identifies her as a sort of Virginia Woolf character and in fact calls her Mrs. Dalloway. She even buys him yellow roses as does Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway in Woolf’s novel. He however is now dying of AIDS. She has a daughter, Julia, concieved as a Test Tube Baby, who is now a teenager. Clarissa lives with her lesbian partner, Sally, a TV interviewer, who loves her deeply. There seems to be little jealousy on the part of any of them except that Louis took himself off years ago and turns up this very day. That evening Richard is to receive the Carruthers Prize for Literature and Clarissa is arranging a party for him. Her day is busy with this, walking around New York and with talking to various people. She visits Richard in the morning with the yellow roses and again in the afternoon, when she finds him sitting on the window ledge; he cannot face the fuss of the party or the pain he will have to endure for the rest of his brief life and he throws himself out of the window. Instead of the party his mother, none other than an aged Laura Brown, flies in from her solitary life in Canada to sit with Clarissa.
Michael Cunningham claims that Virginia Woolf is a fictionalized character in his novel, but we are invited to believe in her. Her June day in 1923 reads like a historical novel and in fact considerable research went into the background. The novel in fact begins with a prologue showing this character the day of her suicide in 1941 even though the June 1923 day, eighteen years earlier, comes in a later chapter. Virginia has been living for 8 years in Hogarth House in a suburb of London, Richmond on Thames, with her husband, the writer and publisher of Hogarth Press, Leonard Woolf. He had taken her there so as to escape her depressions in the bustle and tensions of London – you probably know she was the centre attraction of the famed and intense Bloomsbury Group near the British Museum – but she was aching to return to London. This morning she begins writing her novel about Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway. She places her story on a June day in the life of the middle aged woman preparing for a party in London in 1922, 4 years after World War I. Virginia writes for a few hours, helps her husband and the cook and prepares for a tea party for her sister Vanessa Bell and 3 children. Her sister and family turn up early and she kisses her sister on the lips. She and the children perform a funeral for a dead bird and place yellow roses round its grave. After they leave she walks aimlessly round the town of Richmond and almost catches a train fleeing out of it, thinks about her husband and the novel and decides Mrs. Dalloway will kill herself from depression and boredom. Later in a surge of joie de vivre and positive thinking she decides Clarissa Dalloway will not be the one to die, she loves the details of life too much, but that another person will kill himself instead. This person will have returned from the Great War, suffering hallucinations and mental pain and throw himself down out of a window to avoid being taken away.
The prologue to the novel however begins with the description of Virginia’s suicide, as she jumps into the river 18 years later, one wartime day in 1941. She has written a loving note to her husband but can no longer bear the pain and depression. Her body comes to rest deep under a bridge on which a mother and a little son of three walking are looking at the surface of the water.
The point is made: life goes on and all around people and activities continue, delicately and intimately connected yet unaware.
In spite of these 3 women however there is a 4th character who is only seen as fictional by the main characters yet who both summarizes and influences all the others. This person is none other than the invented character Clarissa Dalloway herself as created by Virginia Woolf. It is as vital to know the Woolf novel as it is to know what happened to Virginia Woolf in reality. In “The Hours” we see her as she is born into the head of Virginia the novelist, with the first famous lines of her novel: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself…..”
According to Cunningham, these words were the fertilizer for Virginia’s mind, just as the words of her novel “Mrs.Dalloway” inspired Cunningham to write “The Hours”. He paints Virginia’s racing mind as it creates iconic images, characters throbbing with reality, conversations and linkages. In reality they were indeed drawn from her experiences, her emotions, relationships and observations. Also from her pain, which may have been intense migraine, and hallucinations. The book “Mrs. Dalloway” draws us inexorably into Clarissa Dalloway’s train of consciousness – or is it Woolf’s - through the hours of the day, and in fact the working title was originally “The Hours”. We meet all the characters we are going to see in the novel we are reading, Cunningham’s “The Hours”, in their original guise. Every character in Cunningham’s novel is based on Woolf’s and so are the situations, moved to other eras and shifted into other individuals, sometimes just aspects of them, male or female. In Woolf’s novel there is Clarissa herself, middle aged, loving yet alienated from herself in an inchoate way, trying to recreate the joy of a moment of her youth by doing what she does best: bringing people together at her party. This is her creative imperative which she longs to share with other people and makes her so lovable in spite of her superficial life. She leads a golden life of leisure in London, married to Richard, a dependable, loving yet stolid gentleman who loves her. In her past she was loved by a passionate young man, Peter Walsh, who turns up from India the very day of her party. She has a daughter, who is growing up beautifully but is influenced by a disagreeable, inadequate spinster whom she later abandons to return to her mother. She thinks about the past and avoids depression by loving everything about the June day in London. She had one passionate kiss when she was 18, from her girlfriend Sally who then comes unexpectedly to the party, transformed into a successful bourgeoise wife and mother. Meanwhile outside in the London streets she has a doppelganger, Septimus Smith, a sort of Clarissa in photo negative. He had been a poet and is now suffering from post war trauma, with hallucinations. London in June is evil and ugly in his brain. His faithful Italian wife cannot save him from killing himself. He is the sacrificial lamb necessary for Clarissa’s surviving: someone has to suffer the tumult of the war, and she is in a state of Grace, a Christian concept that, without discussing itself, permeates her life since, ultimately, she remains blessed with security and love. We follow the day of Septimus Smith and his wife as we do Clarissa’s while occasionally other characters, such as Peter Walsh, notice them passing by. Only at the party however does the report of his violent and tragic suicide cause a black shudder over Clarissa’s life, like a reminder of her own mortality and the ugliness from which she is sheltered. The event is described by one of the guests, Septimus’ platitudinous doctor, explaining why he has arrived late. It threatens to ruin her party for her but it does cause her to make a small step in her life: she retires alone to sort out her feelings and is then able to zero in on her old love Peter Walsh who has been waiting for this moment all day if not years. A sort of consummation. Her last words are “Here I am at last.”
Laura Brown in Los Angeles, 1949, 4 years after the tumult of W.W.2, identifies with Clarissa. Her bookishness is more real to her than her own, otherwise blessed life. She too has everything going for her, family, security; she does her best however to recreate trouble for herself, sensing the deeper current of alienation within Clarissa and feeling more acutely her own personal non-fulfilment as a wife and mother. She is at the cusp of and the victim of social change for women after the war. She performs acts she does not realise are close to Clarissa’s, such as decorating with yellow roses, driving away from her home as an escape to some inner freedom and reality and kissing her female neighbor, not to mention thinking about suicide. Her son Richie is right in sensing his mother is lost, and in fact his desperate love for her inspired his poetry and indirectly caused his death. But the state of Grace for her is dismal. She lives to an old age, an eccentric against all odds, alone with her books, surviving even the death of her son.
Clarissa Vaughan in New York, 1998, is identified with Clarissa Dalloway by her lover, the bisexual Richard, and superficially she is like her, not only by name and in looks but by her comfortable, relatively superficial social life in New York. She has a teenage daughter, as does Dalloway. The sexual restraints are gone however; women kiss women and men men without a stir. She only stops being “Mrs. Dalloway” when Richard dies and she can become herself, Clarissa Vaughan, again. She too survives, along with her daughter and faithful lover Sally, but the one to kill himself is Richard, to escape the excruciating pain experienced also by Virginia and Septimus Smith. Is Richard here the sacrifice, made for the sins of our own generation with its freedoms so longed for by Mrs. Dalloway and Richard’s unmotherly, absentee Laura Brown?
The female lovers and the kiss – brief moments of true passion - resonate with eachother: Clarissa Dalloway’s friend, Laura’s neighbor, Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell. In fact Laura kisses Kitty and Kitty is the name of Virginia Woolf’s childhood love Kitty Maxss, though this is not mentioned by Cunningham. I wonder how many resonances we could uncover if we studied the texts and Woolf’s life in greater detail. Laura’s babysitter and Virginia’s cook intimidate. Daughters are independent minded and about to bloom. Life partners are decent and faithful. Colors resonate, above all the color yellow, lighting up the scenes yet signifying a sort of morbid attraction: yellow roses chosen by both Clarissas and even Clarissa Vaughan’s lesbian lover Sally, yellow roses as icing on Laura’s cake, yellow in Virginia’s days too in the roses round the dead bird and in 1941 the sulphur tinge to the sheep in the morning and the surface color of the river in which she drowns herself in the evening. Parties, or rather their preparation, define the day of each woman. The flight from meaninglessness, as with Mrs. Dalloway trying to leave Richmond on a train and Laura driving to the hotel; pain, either from the despair born of meaninglessness or of horror, the jump into the unknown, in Virginia’s case into water, in Septimus’ and Richard’s out of the window. There is scarcely an image, name or aspect of any of the stories that does not foreshadow, echo or interwine.
All is connected, both writers seem to say, but unlike that other author E.M.Forster it is not ‘Only connect’…to exalt life and love and “live in fragments no longer,” because the connections here are fluid and delicate, yet powerful enough to govern our lives throughout the generations like gods or unseen forces of change and destroy us in our superficiality and innocence.
Ultimately it is up to each of us to say whether "The Hours" works on its own merits or whether, for some indefinable reason, as it is for me, the original "Mrs. Dalloway" remains not only the inspiration but the more lasting work of art.