Front paperback cover of Cunningham’s The Hours
Michael Cunningham’s The Hours barely needs an introduction. Not only was it the winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but it is also the source of the Oscar-winning 2002 movie of the same name. Fortunately, I had not seen the movie and I knew very little of the novel’s plot, so I was able to enjoy the narrative in its purest, with no spoilers or outlandish expectations (with the exception of the ideas discussed by Jim Collins in his discussion of the movie adaptation).
I have described many other books as haunting, but that adjective as applied to other books seems to pale in comparison to The Hours. I could praise this book in many ways, including its masterful use of the stream-of-consciousness technique, the depth of its descriptions, or the lavish beauty of its prose, but these merits have been highlighted by many other readers before me. Similar to the narrative technique employed in Cunningham’s first novel, A Home at the End of the World, each chapter in The Hours focuses on an alternating cycle of major characters, and their perspectives weave together in order to provide cohesion to the text. This disruption of linearity not only adds to the challenge of reading the book, but it also adds an element of surprise and discovery that is more than welcome in the literary world.
In the case of The Hours, the chapters focus on subjects who are either directly or indirectly influenced by Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway during its creation and distribution after Woolf’s suicide. The main characters of the story are Virginia Woolf, the writer of Mrs. Dalloway and an eminent figure within British modernist fiction; Laura Brown, a pregnant housewife in the 50’s who is a self-proclaimed bookworm, and who is deeply unhappy with her ordinary life; and Clarissa Vaughn (also referred to as Mrs. Dalloway or Mrs. D), who is a contemporary interpretation of the main character in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, who resides in New York City with her wife Sally and her daughter Julia (you can read a concise summary of the novel along with reader comments here). The novel is told through an omniscient third-person perspective, so the reader is aware of the thoughts of major, secondary, and minor characters.
The gender politics of this novel are very interesting, in my opinion, precisely because they exemplify a wide range of sexual orientations, which include lesbian mothers who embrace traditional characteristics of femininity, lesbian queer theorists, gay men, and bisexual women. The sexuality of most characters within this novel is in no way static; at times there are characters who feel intense desire and passion towards both sexes even though they can typically be categorized as either straight or gay. Similar to A Home at the End of the World, AIDS plays a prominent role within The Hours, which seems appropriate given the novel’s aim of challenging and illuminating topics such as gender, death, life, and most of all: time/temporality.
Time, as suggested by the novel’s title, is indeed the central issue within the narrative, and it is a motif that not only inflects the content of the novel, but also its structure. The three main characters of the text all share a similar story and face similar struggles, however, the nature of this struggle changes according to the social conventions of the time in which they manifest. Woolf, who is trying to cope with mental illness, depression, and suicidal tendencies in the 1920’s, mirrors the character of Laura Brown, who feels trapped by the pressures and expectations of most 50’s housewives. Both characters express a desire to escape from their world, but are unable to do so because of the people who surround them. Cunningham’s depiction of Laura Brown was particularly captivating, mostly because he effectively illustrates her failure to achieve the perfection that others expect from her, and that she expects for herself. For instance, her inability to bake and decorate a flawless and pristine cake for her husband’s birthday clearly denotes her inability to comply with the unrealistic expectations that she sets for herself as a wife and a mother.
Time also plays a role in terms of how the characters cope with their sexual urges and romantic desires. Both Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown express some degree of desire for the same sex through a kiss: Woolf through a kiss she gave to her sister, and Laura through a kiss to her neighbor who ostensibly is showing signs of imminent illness. These kisses haunt the characters, mostly because they represent a desire that could not possibly be expressed without the expected social consequences. Whereas Woolf has writing as an outlet for this desire, Laura Brown has little to no way of expressing it, thus fueling her desire to escape from her current condition.
The third main character, Clarissa, has created a home with her partner, Sally, but she is shown to oscillate between happiness towards her current condition and the anguish caused by the certainties and uncertainties of life. What makes Clarissa so appealing as a character is her paradoxical and indecisive nature. One moment, she seems to lament the follies of materiality, the fabricated nature of her home, the investment of money in superficial and useless items. Nonetheless, she invests a lot of time and money in a party to show how much she cares about her friend Richard, who is dying of AIDS. She embraces and rejects the comforts of materiality. She struggles with her need to please others while sacrificing her own pleasures and needs. She worries about the extent to which others enjoy the gifts she gives without thinking about her own appreciation to the gifts she is given. This sense of hesitation, which involves the struggle of the self with the demands of the outside world, is something that Clarissa shares with both Woolf and Laura. This, in due course, it what I liked most about the novel: it forced me to struggle in terms of interpreting the world through the lens of solipsism or interpreting it as a space where knowledge exists beyond the self. Do we define ourselves by the roles that other people assign to us? Are the people around us merely projections of our own thoughts and desires? What agency do we really have as individuals?
I’ve decided to end this post with the most haunting paragraph in this novel, which provides the comforting yet strangely bleak idea of enjoying the hours that provide us with comfort, happiness, and glory, simply because these hours are always followed by darker ones:
We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; 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. A few jump out windows, or drown themselves, or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us are slowly devoured by some disease, or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. 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 but children (and perhaps even they) know 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. Heaven only knows why we love it so. (Cunningham 225-226)
I can’t help but question if this novel is ultimately presenting life as an endurance test. What I am certain of is that the novel approaches life as ever-shifting and ever-changing, and any intent to make the self stable through the passage of time is indeed a futile effort. Life is presented as a series of cycles and repetitions. The cyclic nature of time and history is best represented with the suicides that occur within the novel in that both Woolf and Richard depart the world by affirming virtually the exact same statement to their loved-ones before killing themselves: “I dont’ think two people could have been happier than we’ve been” (Cunningham 200). Whether or not Richard was familiar with this exact statement made by Woolf in her suicide note is unclear, but the repetition of this phrase by two different people in two different time periods is indeed an eerie thought. I guess some people are better at coping with cycles. Others desperately try to change the direction of these cycles, or halt them altogether. Others willingly or unwillingly embrace them fully. And as Cunningham firmly put it, only heaven knows why.
Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998. Print (Hardcover Edition).