“We throw our parties; …we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep. It’s as simple and ordinary as that. …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, though everyone…knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.”
The Hours is Michael Cunningham’s homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, (The Hours was Woolf’s working title for her book).
This is a triptych of the lives of three women over a day: Virginia Woolf, living in Richmond, not long before she commits suicide; Laura Brown, a woman caught up in the stifling expectations of 1950s USA of women’s roles as perfect mothers and homemakers; and Clarissa Vaughn, in New York in the present, preparing for a party that she is throwing for her closest friend Richard, a poet dying of AIDS. The link between these three women is Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway: Virginia is writing it, Laura is reading it, and Clarissa, whose days seems to mirror Woolf’s book, is nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway by Richard.
All three are intelligent women who are feeling trapped in their lives. The book moves between them, and the chapters are headed Mrs. Woolf, Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Dalloway, reflecting the way society can deprive these women of their identity.
Laura, married to the college hunk, feels trapped by her roles as a wife and mother—there doesn’t seem to be the space for anything else. The chapters about her not only capture the claustrophobia she feels, but also the intense anxiety of her child, Richie, who adores her and clings to her, as if he senses that one day he would lose her. Although she tries—baking a cake for her husband’s birthday with Richie (which ends up in the bin)—she knows that this is not her life, this is not where she belongs.
Virginia Woolf has suffered nervous breakdowns, which is why her husband has moved them to Richmond. She has the same sense of dislocation as Laura Brown—she wants to be in the bustle of London, a place that is supposed to be bad for her nerves. She is subject to devastating headaches so bad that just the thought of them terrifies her. “She can feel the headache creeping up the back of her neck. … No, it’s the memory of the headache, the fear of the headache, both of them so vivid as to be at least briefly indistinguishable from the onset of the headache itself.” She is desperate to find a way out of her life, even it means killing herself (as she eventually does—the book begins with her suicide and loops back).
Clarissa has been married to Sally for 18 years. Theirs is a happy marriage—they never fight, merely have disagreements. But Clarissa sometimes feels a little disconnected from her life. “She could simply leave and return to her other home, where neither Sally nor Richard exists; where there is only the essence of Clarissa, a girl grown into a woman, still full of hope, still capable of anything. It is revealed to her that all her sorrow and loneliness, the whole creaking scaffolding of it, stems simply from pretending to live in this apartment among these objects…”
Richard is one of the most important people in her life. “Richard had always been Clarissa’s most rigourous, infuriating companion, her best friend.” They have known each other for decades, and she was once in love with him. She takes care of him, fusses around him, and is nervous and excited about his prize and her party. But Richard, who is also feeling trapped by his illness and his ghosts, isn’t sure he can face any of it. (Again, that feeling of being trapped in one’s life.)
You move between the three characters, and you find the interconnectedness between the three lives as motifs in one narrative appear in the other two. Clarissa’s yellow roses reflect the yellow roses Virginia’s niece lays around the corpse of a dead bird and the yellow roses that Laura tries to put on her husband’s cake.
There are echoes of Woolf’s writing, and especially of Mrs. Dalloway, throughout: Clarissa’s day mirrors parts of the book, and the style is reminiscent of Woolf—the way she had of following a character’s thought processes, and the focus on the small details of a life.
Michael Cunningham writes perceptively about pain and love and how they are usually intertwined. You see these four people try to make sense of their lives, trying to understand how they got to this point in their lives, and their yearning for a return to a time in their lives when they were young and the world was their oyster. But you can’t go back, you just have to make the best of what you have. It sounds depressing, but in the end, the book is redemptive.