Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” is a story told through the lives of three women. There’s Clarissa, nicknamed “Mrs. Dalloway” by former lover Richard. Much like Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway, the story focuses on a day in her life in which she is planning a party– for her former lover Richard, who has received a reward for his poetry. Richard is dying of HIV/AIDS, and reflects on his life and failures while in a mental and physical decline. Clarissa herself is content to experience the small joys of life in New York City, where she lives with her wife Sally.
Next, there’s Emma Brown, a lonely housewife living in the fifties. Emma’s marriage is unfulfilling, though she loves her thoughtful and sensitive son Richie. Emma is pregnant, and the knowledge that another life depends on her is what sustains her through dark times and suicidal contemplation.
Finally, Cunningham includes Virginia Woolf as a third character, describing a day which she spends with her sister Vanessa and her children in Woolf’s country home. Virginia is working on “Mrs. Dalloway” while also struggling with her own depression and the disconnect she must have felt as a woman in her time.
“The Hours” is a beautifully written novel that forces its reader to reflect on the meaning of their lives and actions. Like Woolf’s work, it puts great importance on small things like flowers, cakes, and a normal day in London. Cunningham’s research in Woolf’s life was thorough, and her character in the novel is convincingly real.
Though “The Hours” parallels Virginia Woolf’s style of writing, it includes more direct descriptions of sexuality than were allowed in Woolf’s time. This is refreshing but also saddening, as Virginia Woolf is known for having relationships with women that needed to be hidden from sight all her life due to intolerance. It also focuses on modern issues of activism and the struggle to survive after being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Like Woolf’s work, The Hours asks big questions of meaning and love, but does not necessarily answer them. Furthermore, “The Hours” describes how both mental illness and the confinements faced by woman in the early 1900s led to Virginia Woolf’s eventual suicide.
As an admirer of Virginia Woolf’s writing, I was extremely impressed by “The Hours”. Its characters and descriptions were comparable in-depth to anything written by Woolf herself. I’ve seen some negative reviews of this novel argue that the characters are pretentious or complainers. I can understand this but I believe instead that the attention to each small detail of life that both Woolf and Cunningham include in their characters may make them appear pretentious, but it is not their goal.
I highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys literary fiction that focuses on deep questions of life and meaning. I definitely recommend to anyone who has enjoyed anything written by Virginia Woolf.