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The Hours

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The Hours


The Hours is a novel that deals with the various cultural aspects of life. Michael Cunningham's writing reflects the various nuclear families, the different economic conditions, and the social issues involving the three women in the novel.

The Hours begins with Virginia Woolf who is married to Leonard. They do not have any children of their own. Woolf lives in London in 1923 battling mental illness and struggling to write a book, Mrs. Dalloway. She struggled and finished the book according to Tony Peregrin "at the age of 43". Woolf is financially stable due to her husband was a publisher. She had a cook, Nelly, and a housekeeper Lottie. By 1941, The Second World War was going on and Virginia Woolf had committed suicide.

The second protagonist in the novel is Laura Brown, a housewife who is living in Los Angeles in 1949. Her traditional family consists of her husband Dan who is a war hero of sorts, works in an office, provides for the family while Laura statys at home and cares for the family. She has one child, Richie, and is expecting another child. The Browns live in a nice home with manicured lawns, nice Cheveorlet in the driveway, in Los Angeles. Laura smokes, reads Mrs. Dalloway, and is infaturated with Virginia Woolf and her suicide. She desires to commit suicide but opts out to leave her family and move to Canada instead. Life and death will bring the mother and son together. Laura may not have the nerve to kill herself, but her son Richard, fell to his death from a fall from the window while suffereing from AIDS.

The third protagonist, Clarissa Vaughan, who was given the name Mrs. Dalloway by Richard. He was a one time lover of hers. The period is 2001. Clarissa is financially stable and independent while living in the upscale Greenwich Village area with her live in lover, Sally of 10 years. Clarissa has a daughter, Julia who was conceived by artificial insemination by an unknown donor. Julia has a gay friend, Mary who Clarissa is not very fond of.

Although Woolf, Brown, Vaughan are women that are struggling with their own internal issues of restlessness in the place of where she lives, contemplating suicide, unhappiness in a marriage, living with mental illnes, and feelings of failure. Yet, each of these women had secret sexual feelings for other women.( Woolf for sister Vanessa, Brown for neighbor Kitty, and Vaughan for Sally).

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Hours         Michael Cunningham         Traditional Family         War Hero         Cultural Aspects         Artificial Insemination         Los Angeles         Economic Conditions         Clarissa         Mrs. Dalloway        




The time periods for Woolf and Brown to express their same sex feelings was taboo. But in 2001, Vaughan, Sally, and Richard can freely express their sexual preference .

Ironically, Michael Cunningham's life experiences are similar to the protagonists in the novel. Cunningham is gay, as Clarissa and Richard. He lives with his lover of 16 year, Ken Corbett. He works in as studio in the Greenwich Village in New York such as Clarissa lives. Cunningham was introduced to Virginia Woolf in highs chool in the 1950's such as Laura Brown is infatuated with Woolf back in the 1950's. Cunningham grew up in the fifties such as Richie with the lifestyle of the family in the 1950's with the mom at home caring for the family while dad works and provides for the family.

The writer's forestructure is an influence as well in his writing of The Hours. The three protagonists along with Cunningham have the same connections in one form or another whether it may be the various economic status, the social issues, and the make up of the nuclear family is present in the novel. Cunningham said it best in his interview, "everybody writes about what they know, obviously"(Coffee 53).

Work Cited

Coffee, Michael. "Michael Cunningham: New Family Outings". Publisher Weekly 245 (1998): 53-54.



1Michael Cunningham’s indebtedness to Virginia Woolf is all too obvious in The Hours, so much so that some critics have used the term “pastiche” to describe his novel. The opening of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, for example, with Clarissa preparing for her party one fine June morning and leaving the house to buy some flowers finds its echo in the opening of the second chapter of The Hours, right down to the details of her chance encounter with an old friend, whom she invites on the spur of the moment to the party, her walk past various shops, her desire to buy a present for her daughter and the violent explosion that she hears once inside the florist’s. For the non-literary reader who has never opened Virginia Woolf’s novel, and is unaware that The Hours is in fact the very title that Woolf first gave her manuscript of Mrs Dalloway, Cunningham has underlined the connection in the opening of all three storylines: Virginia Woolf in Richmond in 1923,  putting pen to paper and writing the first lines of her novel, Laura Brown, a Californian in 1949, avidly reading Mrs Dalloway with passages quoted verbatim, and Clarissa Vaughan, a New-Yorker whose actions one June morning at the end of the twentieth century bear so close a resemblance to those of Clarissa Dalloway herself. By so doing, he offers all readers, whether they have read Mrs Dalloway or not, the pleasure of recognising the various allusions.

2Yet The Hours is no mere copy. If the characters seem all too familiar, their names, relationships and sexes have often undergone changes. Clarissa Vaughan is only nicknamed Mrs Dalloway by her erstwhile lover Richard. Richard himself, dying from AIDS, is less like the husband of Woolf’s novel and more like Septimus Smith, committing suicide at the end of the novel in a similar fashion. Peter Walsh has been transformed into Louis, and Richard’s lover, not Clarissa’s. The latent relationship between Sally Seton and Clarissa Dalloway is now an open lesbian relationship between Clarissa Vaughan and Sally. The upper middle-class society of England in the nineteen twenties has been replaced by New York in the nineties. The famous person that Clarissa just glimpses is no longer royalty or an important politician but a famous actress: Susan Sarandon, Vanessa Redgrave or Meryl Streep, which is highly ironic given the film adaptation with Ms Streep playing Clarissa.

3Similarly certain themes or scenes from Woolf’s novel are picked up and expanded upon: the stolen kiss between Clarissa Dalloway and Sally Seton becomes a kiss between Virginia Woolf and her sister, between Laura Brown and her neighbour. Just as Richard Dalloway buys roses for his wife because he is too shy to declare his feelings, so Sally buys flowers for Clarissa Vaughan and Dan buys flowers for Laura. While Clarissa Dalloway looks at herself in the mirror, Virginia Woolf avoids doing so lest she sees an apparition behind her, and Laura, as she stares at herself, imagines someone standing behind her. A parallel is drawn between Clarissa Vaughan’s party for Richard, Laura’s baking a birthday cake and Virginia Woolf’s writing. All three acts are presented as being creative and this invites the reader to re-examine Clarissa Dalloway’s party in Woolf’s novel. In other words, the scene is reinterpreted and invested with new life and the reader is invited to see new parallels, to look for new meanings.

4These various echoes of Mrs Dalloway have encouraged critics to use the term “pastiche” when referring to The Hours. However the term pastiche implies more than just echoes of scenes and characters. It is usually employed to refer to “the imitation or, better still, the mimicry of other styles”1 and if critics have been quick to recognise the similarities between the characters and themes in the two novels, they have made far less reference to the style. Remarks that Cunningham has managed to reproduce “gorgeous, Woolfian, shimmering, perfectly-observed prose”2, or that the author is “eerily fluent in Woolf’s exquisitely orchestrated elucidation of the torrent of thoughts, memories, longings, and regrets that surges ceaselessly through the mind”3 rarely give any detailed analysis of the two writers’ styles. If we are to consider the term pastiche as being in any way appropriate, then it seems essential that we should analyse how Cunningham has adapted or adopted Woolf’s style.

5Mrs Dalloway was an experimental novel, and many, like David Daiches have remarked upon her “fluid associative prose” where “the organizing factor is simply the writer’s mood, not the pattern of a story” where “time and space shift at will while the mood remains constant, in contrast to more traditional narrative, in which the events march steadily forward, solidly grounded in space and spread out chronologically in time”4.  

6If we take the opening of Mrs Dalloway and the opening of the section entitled “Mrs Dalloway” in The Hours, then we find a similar scene described in each instance with identical metaphors and images being used:

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning;  like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen5.
The vestibule door opens onto a June morning so fine and scrubbed Clarissa pauses at the threshold as she would at the edge of a pool, watching the turquoise water lapping at the tiles, the liquid nets of sun wavering in the blue depths. As if standing at the edge of a pool she delays for a moment, the plunge, the quick membrane of chill, the plain shock of immersion6.

7Whilst there are obvious similarities in the choice of images and lexical items, there is a noticeable difference in the style. The extract from Mrs Dalloway does indeed shift from one place and time to another, from London to Bourton, from 1926 to eighteen years earlier, while Cunningham’s text chooses not to evoke the past at this point but simply to draw a comparison between Clarissa’s hesitating before leaving the flat and hesitation before diving into a pool. Moreover, while Cunningham’s prose can be said to “march steadily forward”, the movement of Woolf’s prose is far less traditional, and it has even be described as a “rapid, sometimes dizzying sequence”7. This is due in part to the syntax itself, which in Virginia Woolf’s novel imitates far more the speaking voice. Take for example the original exclamation “What a lark! what a plunge!” which in The Hours is integrated into a clause : “what a thrill, what a shock to be alive on a morning in June.” One of the striking elements of Virginia Woolf’s syntax in Mrs Dalloway is that the verb is often displaced towards the end of the sentence, creating a momentum. In the second sentence of the passage from Mrs Dalloway, “when” introduces a subordinate clause whose verb only appears after a prepositional phrase and a relative clause. In similar fashion the complement of “feeling” in the last sentence is also delayed: “feeling as he did, standing at the open window that […].” In the passage from The Hours, the participle clauses appear after the verb and the complements are placed in their usual position close to the verb. Far from being exceptional, this displacement of the verb or direct object is common in Mrs Dalloway. Hence we find “the girl, silk-stockinged, feathered, evanescent, but not to him, particularly attractive, (for he had had his fling) alighted”8, where the subject is separated from the verb. At other moments the main verb is separated from the direct object: “she had borne about her for years like an arrow sticking in her heart the grief, the anguish”9. Or the main verb is situated at the end of a passage either after several subordinate clauses:

And then, as they stood in the hall taking yellow gloves from the bowl on the malachite table and Hugh was offering Miss Brush with quite unnecessary courtesy some discarded ticket or other compliment, which she loathed from the depths of her heart and blushed brick red, Richard turned to Lady Bruton, with his hat in his hand, and said […]10.

Or by the anteposition of the direct object:

And in respectable quarters with stucco pillars through small front gardens, lightly swathed, with combs in their hair (having run up to see the children), women came11;
Admirable butlers, tawny chow dogs, halls laid in black and white lozenges with white blinds blowing, Peter sawthrough the opened door and approved of12.

This displacement, in whatever form it appears, foregrounds certain elements and at the same time, the separation of verb and direct object, of subject and verb, or the placing of the main verb at the end of a long sentence structure creates suspense, and full meaning is not conveyed until the end of the sentence. The momentum of such movement is increased often by the expansion of the noun phrases. Thus, in the last example quoted, we move from “admirable butlers” to “tawny chow dogs” and finally to “halls laid in black and white lozenges with white blinds blowing.” The sentence begins with an adjective and a noun. This then increases to an adjective and a compound noun and finally to a noun postmodified by a participle clause. A sequence is created which could be prolonged indefinitely. Each noun phrase delays the appearance of the verb and as each noun phrase is longer than the preceding one, this delay accumulates.

8In The Hours, such disruption of the syntax is generally missing, though there are one or two examples of such movement in the sentence structure. Thus one passage begins: “The carnival wagon that bears Vanessa—the whole gaudy party of her, that vast life, the children and paints and lovers, the brilliantly cluttered house—has passed on onto the night”13.

9This shows that had Cunningham so chosen he could have imitated this aspect of Virginia Woolf’s style more closely. As it is, he has chosen not to, and if critics use the term pastiche it cannot be for this aspect of Woolf’s writing. A page of Cunningham’s prose is quite different in terms of syntax.

10Another aspect of Woolf’s style that has been remarked upon by critics is her use of repetition. W. A. Evans, writing in Virginia Woolf, Strategist of Language, remarks how “the structures of balance in MrsDalloway [...] have increased remarkably in numbers over those of any of the first three novels”14.

11By structures of balance he is referring to rhetorical devices such as anaphora, epistrophe and anadiplosis. Thus, for example, in Mrs Dalloway, within a few short pages, we find many such examples of repetition. Examples of epizeuxis, the repetition of the same word in immediate succession without any coordinating conjunction is used in: “He wouldn’t stand that—no, no”15, and in: “Of course, of course she would give him everything”16, and “she would do anything in the world, anything, anything, anything...”17.

12Examples of polysyndeton, the use of conjunctions between clauses, include “And she was only twenty-four. And she had two children”18 and the following: “And he would have a chat with whoever it might be, and so come to disregard more and more precise hours for lunch,  and miss engagements, and when Daisy asked him for a kiss, a scene, fail to come up to the scratch”19.

13Anaphora, the process whereby the same word or group of words is used to introduce different sentences can be seen in the following example: “No fuss. No bother. No finicking and fidgeting”20.

14Anadiplosis involves repeating a word at the end of one sentence and at the beginning of the next. In Mrs Dalloway, we find the following examples again within the same short passage. Thus one paragraph concludes: “And she had two children. Well, well!” The next paragraph begins “Well indeed he had got himself into a mess”21.

15Epistrophe, ending a sentence with the same word or words can be found in: “She said something—no, no; he saw through that. He wouldn’t stand that—no, no”22 or in “She must settle for herself, judge for herself”23.

16These various rhetorical devices contribute to a text’s cohesion and invite the reader to interpret the sentences containing such repetition as belonging to the same privileged point of view or voice. As W. A. Evans remarks:

Extensive employment of anaphora, epistrophe, and anadiplosis provides ways of tying together multiple sentences, sometimes even paragraphs, to provide solidity of events, images, and actions, to permit uninterrupted flow, and to achieve bridging between sections and chapters. In these regards, Mrs Dalloway is much more complex and much smoother in flow than is any of the foregoing novels.24

If we take an example of anadiplosis already quoted, where the repetition occurs at the end of a paragraph and at the beginning of the next: “And she had two children. Well, well! Well indeed he had got himself into a mess at his age” and remove the repetition, then we would find:

And she had two children. Well, well!
Indeed he had got himself into a mess at his age.

If this was so, it would be possible to interpret the new paragraph as the introduction of another point of view. While the repetition of “well” invites us to see the new paragraph as continuing the thoughts of Peter Walsh, its omission, on the other hand, introduces a break and allows a change in point of view to that of an omniscient narrator, for example, or to the character of Mrs Burgess. Instead of commenting upon the preceding paragraph, a new subject is introduced. In similar fashion, if the anaphora “vainly” is omitted in the following passage: “Vainly the dark, adorably pretty girl ran to the end of the terrace; vainly waved her hand; vainly cried she didn’t care a straw what people said”25. The resulting text would read: “The dark adorably pretty girl ran to the end of the terrace. She waved her hand. She cried she didn’t care a straw what people said.” We now have three successive actions which have no connection with the preceding text, while the presence of “vainly” at the beginning of each sentence invites the reader to interpret all three sentences as belonging to the same point of view and as being a commentary. Moreover the repeated element is focussed upon, thus drawing the reader’s attention to it and making them conscious of the web of associations being created throughout the text.

17Once again, if we turn to The Hours, we find few such rhetorical devices. Examples of anaphora can be found in “She will always have been standing on a high dune in the summer. She will always have been young and indestructibly healthy”26 but such stylistic devices are far less prominent than in Mrs Dalloway.

18Another rhetorical device that recurs in Mrs Dalloway is the use of chiasmus. When Clarissa Dalloway enters Mrs Pym’s shop to choose her flowers, the names of the various flowers are mentioned with their appropriate colours but the pattern is inverted: “when every flower—roses, carnations, irises, lilac—glows; white, violet, red, deep orange”27. In The Hours,in similar circumstances where a sequence of noun phrases is repeated, the same rhetorical device is not used, in other words there is no inversion, the terms are repeated in their original order: “These old brick town houses, the austere stone complications of the Episcopal church and the thin middle-aged man walking his Jack Russell terrier […] she, Clarissa, simply enjoys without reason the houses, the church, the man, and the dog”28.

19Yet in spite of these differences between the style of the two novels, there are similarities. These similarities are due not to the syntax nor to the repetition of precise rhetorical structures but to the repetition of specific words and phrases. Virginia Woolf’s novel is full of identical words and sentences being repeated by the various characters at various moments of the day. Both Daisy and Clarissa are presented as being dressed in white and standing on a terrace, the arguments between Septimus and Rezia, Clarissa and Peter, the imagined argument between Daisy and Peter are all referred to in the same words: a scene. This repetition of images and motifs in Mrs Dalloway has been remarked upon by critics. Jane Novak, for example, notices that “the writer must have constantly said to herself: ‘Suppose it be connected in this way,’ for in the novel the choice of image is more critical; it must be capable of generating a chain reaction”29.

20But the repetition in Mrs Dalloway concerns not only the motifs and images, it is the very fabric of the novel itself. Adjectives as simple as “odd” and “strange” are to be found in different contexts30, used by different characters, expressions such as “all plain sailing”31, “pooh-poohed”32, recur in the thought patterns or reported speech of various characters. It is this repetition that Cunningham has reproduced in The Hours.

21Firstly there is the use of quotations from Virginia Woolf’s text, which does in some part create connections between the two novels. Thus the section depicting Mrs Woolf in 1923, a fictional but highly plausible version of the events of that year, uses quotations from the not-yet written novel to describe London “as Big Ben strikes the hours which fall in leaden circles”33, “What a lark! What a plunge!”34 she thinks to herself. Before crossing the road “she stiffens”35 just as Clarissa Vaughan in the opening section, just as Clarissa Dalloway in the novel she has yet to write. Richard himself quotes from the novel when he says of the June morning “fresh as if issued to children on a beach”36. Furthermore, reality and fiction become intertwined and the novel comes full circle when he quotes from Virginia Woolf’s suicide letter just before leaping to his own death: “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we’ve been”37.

22The repetition of certain words and phrases in all three sections creates a network of associations, not just with Woolf’s novel but with the various sections, just as in Woolf’s novel itself, the repetition of various words and phrases links the various strands together. Thus “enough” occurs in the section “Mrs Woolf”: “She would like to say, It is enough. The teacups and the thrush outside, the question of children’s coats. It is enough”38, and again “It is enough she tells herself”39. When Sally, in The Hours, brings home a bouquet of flowers for Clarissa we read “It is enough. At this moment it is enough”40. The same term features twice in Mrs Brown, once in the hotel room “Someone said, Enough no more”41 and again when it is repeated by Laura that same evening “What if that moment at dinner… were enough? What if you decided to want no more?”42, where the “no more” echoes the Shakespeare quotation in Mrs Dalloway “Fear no more the heat of the sun,” which itself serves to link the narrative threads of Mrs Dalloway’s day and Septimus Smith’s day together.

23Another example is the use of the word “anything.” Laura, thinking of her husband’s pleasure at opening her presents, muses “she could give him anything, anything at all,”43 echoing Daisy’s words44 to Peter Walsh, and for Clarissa Vaughan “it seemed anything could happen, anything”45.

24“She loves life,” the reformulation of Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway’s thoughts echoes throughout The Hours. Laura Brown alone in room nineteen (and perhaps here there are also echoes of Doris Lessing’s short story) thinks the same “She loves life, she loves it hopelessly”46. Thus a connection is made between her and Woolf’s fictional heroine: both “will go on, loving (their) life of ordinary pleasures, and someone else, a deranged poet, a visionary, will be the one to die”47 . In similar fashion, within Woolf’s novel, Clarissa Dalloway’s memory of how she had “plunged at Bourton into the open air”48 is used by Clarissa to refer to Septimus Smith’s death “had he plunged holding his treasure”49. The same image is applied to Laura Brown in The Hours, where we read: “Summoning resolve, as if she were about to dive into cold water, Laura closes the book”50. Thus the metaphor used in Mrs Dalloway is reinvested with new life and a connection is made between Laura Brown and the heroine of Woolf’s novel.

25Moreover, The Hours does not just take themes and phrases from MrsDalloway: it reaches beyond connections with one novel, creating echoes and ripples that reach ever wider. As Laura Brown sets the plates for the birthday 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”51, very much in the manner of Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse. The phrase “the fin in the water”52 looks forward to the phrase-maker Bernard in The Waves and Woolf’s own words in her diary three years after events described in The Hours: “One sees a fin passing far out”53. It could therefore be argued that rather than pastiche, such echoes belong more to the order of intertextuality. To quote Foucault:

The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network... The book is not simply the object that one holds in one’s hands [...]. Its unity is variable and relative54.

26Thus Cunningham uses repetition to create connections not just within his text but also with Woolf’s text or texts. By doing so, Woolf’s writing is given new life. It is here that Michael Cunningham has touched at the very heart of Virginia Woolf’s style. Jacques Raverat’s suggestion to Virginia Woolf that the writer could experiment with words in a fashion similar to contemporary painters, could equally apply to The Hours: “There are splashes in the outer air in every direction, and under the surface waves that follow one another into dark and forgotten corners”55.

27The echoes, like waves, ripple outwards creating new meanings as they do so. By imitating this aspect of Woolf’s style, Cunningham is able both to invite the reader to “only connect”, but at the same time to produce a novel that, as it progresses, takes on a life of its own, with its own storyline and impetus, with everything falling into place in the final chapters.

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