Warning: Spoilers for The Hours and Mrs. Dalloway. Also, mentions of mental illness, suicide, sexuality, and death
The Hours is exactly the type of book that I would fully expect to love. It hits emotional high notes, it touches on topics that I feel strongly about, and is decent enough prose. However, it pales in comparison to the book that it pays tribute to, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I couldn’t help but think while reading The Hours that it was a poor imitation, amateurish even.
There are three main storylines in The Hours. There is Clarissa Vaughn who is throwing a party for her former lover, Richard, who is dying of AIDs. Then there is Virginia Woolf herself, struggling with her mental health being surrounded by her loved ones. Lastly, there is Laura Brown, a quiet housewife who is enraptured by the book, Mrs. Dalloway.
Nevertheless, I don’t blame Cunningham for writing The Hours. I was similarly inspired and wrote a short story, vaguely borrowing characters from Mrs. Dalloway, imagining what if they had taken different paths. For me, I couldn’t bear to think that their stories ended there. Maybe Cunningham felt the same way.
I also don’t blame Cunningham for not being able to match Woolf’s quality of work. There is a certain subtlety in Woolf’s writing. Yes, the reader knows exactly what the characters are thinking due to Woolf’s stream of consciousness style, but there is something very human about it. Cunningham’s reflections feel manufactured. They are very clear and direct, no deduction required. They do make for lovely, quotable lines but that’s it. They felt like cheap shots, like a jump scare in a horror movie.
I will give Cunningham credit, though. I had actually read (or had I tried to read, I can’t remember anymore) The Hours many years ago. I remember the opening chapter very vividly: Virginia Woolf walking to the river bank, putting stones in her pocket, Leonard (her husband) finding her suicide letter, and Virginia being swept by the current. The Hours made me want to read Mrs. Dalloway. I was immediately enraptured by the image of Virginia Woolf committing suicide in the river and I wanted to experience her work for myself. I was immediately interested in this tragic figure.
But I admit that I’m biased. I loved Mrs. Dalloway and I’m sure that Cunningham did too. Cunningham’s interpretation was a noble attempt, he did win a prize for it, after all. One of the things that I thought The Hours did well was mirroring Mrs. Dalloway.
While I was comparing the two novels, I was writing out a venn diagram of all the possible themes. It hit me that Mrs. Dalloway is jam-packed with content. Interestingly enough, The Hours hits on every single one of those themes and then adds some.
Time and Aging
The Hours references time right in its title. Woolf’s working title for Mrs. Dalloway was actually The Hours, which was pretty clever on Cunningham’s part. In Mrs. Dalloway, the characters are ever cognizant about the time. The Big Ben strikes every so often, signalling the end of the day nearing closer and closer. Mrs. Dalloway herself reminds the people she encounters during her day to remember her party at five o’clock.
As Mrs. Dalloway reunites with people throughout the day, she notices how they have changed over the years and they do the same to her. The entire day, Mrs. Dalloway is reminiscing over her past.
When Mrs. Dalloway’s former lover, Peter Walsh, comes in for a visit, they both inevitably talk about the past. What Clarissa notes is how exactly the same Peter is. He still plays with his pocket knife, he is still incredibly passionate, and still critical.
Peter brings them back to the present by confessing that he is in love. Immediately, Clarissa thinks, “That he at his age should be sucked under in his little bow-tie by that monster!” Clarissa’s reaction was extremely telling. Peter protests that he is not old, that life is not over for him yet, even at his age. But for Clarissa, it essentially has. Earlier in the day, Clarissa had mused to herself, “She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; […] there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only […] being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.” She had lived her life and there is nothing more for her except to throw parties. She no longer had all the possibilities of love and the life that can come with it.
In The Hours, there is a lesser sense of foreboding with time. Clarissa Vaughn reminisces over her past with her former lover, Richard. She thinks about the lost opportunity she had by not spending the rest of her life with him. There is a strong sense of regret. In the end, Clarissa comes to terms with it.
Laura Brown’s battle with time comes in the form of completing her errands before her husband comes home from work, so she can throw him a birthday party. The twist at the end of The Hours is that Laura is Richard’s mother.
Richard had always resented his mother and even wrote about her in one of his novels. People continually bring up the novel to Clarissa and comment about how the novel seemed to be based largely on Richard’s life, Clarissa being a large part of his novel. So it is not just Clarissa who is seemingly stuck in the past.
But it seems that Clarissa is the most affected by the past. When Louis, Richard’s ex-lover drops by to visit, it shakes her. This scene is supposed to mirror Peter’s visit to Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway. I was disappointed that there is no equivalent to Peter in The Hours. The scene between Peter and Clarissa is the one that struck me the most. However, Louis does add an interesting dynamic to Clarissa Vaughn’s relationship to Richard. It is Louis who Richard ultimately choses, not Clarissa.
Sexuality and Feminism
I don’t know if The Hours was progressive for its time. It definitely was a product of its time, being written in the 90’s, at the height of the AIDs scare. In The Hours, Richard is bisexual (having loved both Clarissa and Louis). Clarissa herself is also bisexual, being in a long term relationship with a woman, Sally. Clarissa’s daughter, Julia, is not straight, having a girlfriend of her own. Laura Brown shares a kiss with her neighbour, Kitty. Virginia Woolf shares a kiss with a woman. It makes me stop and think: does it matter? It doesn’t. But there is something about the representation here that does not sit well with me.
In Richard’s childhood, Laura depicts him as a sensitive child who is quite dependent on his mother. The fact that we see so much of Richard’s formative days (okay, it was only one day but I assume much of his days were like that), there could be an argument that Cunningham was trying to insinuate that was the “cause” of Richard’s sexuality. I hope that it’s unintended but it’s hard not to wonder.
The sexuality in Mrs. Dalloway is a little more innocent. It isn’t so far-fetched that Clarissa would have married her friend, Sally Seton in Mrs. Dalloway if she could. Clarissa and Sally share a kiss while walking through the flowers. Clarissa looks on the memory fondly. She had been in awe of Sally, a real wild child, and utterly defiant. One of my favourite scenes is when Clarissa and company are talking about a woman who had a child before getting married. Clarissa is disgusted at this but Sally defends the woman and storms out. Sally is definitely a feminist.
In The Hours, Mary Krull fills the role of the feminist. Mary Krull is Julia Vaughn’s girlfriend. She is your stereotypical radical lesbian feminism in today’s age. She hates Clarissa for being so comfortable in her own lesbian relationship. I don’t understand Mary’s anger toward Clarissa but she does admonish Clarissa for her indulgence in capitalism (that, I can understand). It’s almost comical.
Mrs. Dalloway’s daughter, Elizabeth, also has a female love interest (it is not clear if they are in a relationship). Miss Kilman is someone who had the habit of making one “feel so small”. One of my favourite lines is Clarissa’s description of her: “she was never in the room five minutes without making you feel her superiority, your inferiority; how poor she was; how rich you were; how she lived in a slum without a cushion or a bed or a rug or whatever it might be.” While both Mary and Miss Kilman are very similar in values (except Miss Kilman is religious and I am 99.99% sure Mary would be a staunch atheist), I highly preferred Miss Kilman. Mary’s anger felt so misdirected and acting out for the sake of acting out. Miss Kilman came from a sense of insecurity, which I could sympathize with.
While I didn’t exactly enjoy reading Julia’s relationship with her mother (Mary might be a big part of it) in The Hours, it did capture the same sort of relationship Elizabeth has with her mother. Elizabeth is utterly unlike her own mother, not as charming and not as beautiful but alluring in the fact that she is confident in her own skin. Both daughters do have a small bit of annoyance towards their mother (of course, what teenager doesn’t?). However, the real mother-child relationship to look at is Laura and Richard in The Hours.
Laura’s neighbour, Kitty, comes over to tell Laura that she has a tumour in her uterus. The image of Kitty, a woman who cannot conceive, and Laura, already with a son and pregnant, is a wonderful contrast. But Laura feels great hesitancy in her role as a mother. She contemplates killing herself. She kisses Kitty. And Richard is witness to all of this. Despite being very young, Richard picks up on these cues and carries them to adulthood. You can see where this can kinda get hairy when you factor his sexuality into play.
He even writes vehemently about his mother in his novel, and kills her in his novel, by making her kill herself. In reality, Laura had attempted suicide after the birth of her second child. It failed and then she abandons her family to go to Canada. This is a great nod Mrs. Dalloway, where one of the characters propose sending people to Canada, so that they can have a better chance of establishing a better life there. Which brings me to my next topic.
Mental Illness and Suicide
In Mrs. Dalloway, there is a couple, Septimus and Lucrezia Warren Smith. Septimus met Lucrezia in Italy, during the war and brought her back to England to marry her. That wasn’t the only thing he brought back from the war. He also brought all the ghosts of the war with him. He regularly sees visions of his comrade, Evans, being killed. He hears voices telling him to kill himself for his sins.
Lucrezia brings Septimus to multiple doctors but they never find the help they want. Mental illness was not well understood in the 20’s (it’s still not well understood today, but we have made a lot of progress), and most doctors suggested isolation in the country or taking up hobbies.
One of the most heartbreaking scenes is when Lucrezia and Septimus are making hats together. They are laughing and chatting like nothing has ever happened. Then one of the doctors make a visit, and Septimus, terrified of being stuck in a home and separated from Lucrezia, jumps out of the window.
News of Septimus’ suicide makes its way to Clarissa’s party. The news of this affects Clarissa heavily. She retreats upstairs to think and contemplates suicide herself. She decides against it and instead admires Septimus. “The young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him; with the clock striking the hour, one, two, three, she did not pity him.” His death makes her confront the beauty of life. A rather odd way, a rather Clarissa way of looking at things.
Cunningham’s fictionalized Virginia Woolf suffers at the hands of her doctors. She feels suffocated by the doctor’s orders to move away from London. While her husband is patient, he doesn’t truly understand what she is going through.
This is something that I commend Cunningham for. He depicts the struggles of the caregiver as well. There was a line in Mrs. Dalloway that resonated with me that one of the doctors says to Septimus, “The people we are most fond of are not good for us when we are ill.” Cunningham really takes that and runs with it.
Clarissa is one of these caregivers. She tends to Richard, comes to visit him, but ultimately doesn’t understand the nature of his illness. She reassures him that he is healthy but Richard is plagued by his mind slowly breaking down. She refuses to see the truth that Richard is dying. She is blinded by her love for Richard.
Love and Marriage
Each novel has the love square: Clarissa, Sally, Richard, and Peter (in Mrs.Dalloway)/Louis (in The Hours).
In The Hours, Clarissa regrets not having taken a chance on Richard but she does come to terms with it. She realizes that she was only happy with the possibility but the real happiness was the moment. Her moment had come and gone.
Mrs. Dalloway already had that realization. Despite loving Peter so much, she broke up with him, convinced that “they would have been destroyed, both of them ruined”. But it doesn’t stop her from reminiscing, from envying the passion Peter has when he is in love. She dismisses love as something for the youth, as shown by her shock at Peter’s declaration for being in love.
It was interesting, how at the beginning of the book, Clarissa muses that, “there is a dignity in people; a solitude; even between husband and wife a gulf; and that one must respect.” This was one of the things that Peter did not respect. With Peter, “everything had to be shared; everything gone into.” At the end of the book, Clarissa ends her monologue with the idea that, ultimately, “one was alone.”
Which I think (after many paragraphs of writing), I think is my main takeaway from both The Hours and Mrs. Dalloway.
Each character is alone and isolated. They do not know what the other is thinking. At times it can be frustrating, when the other party can’t understand exactly what they are trying so hard to convey. On the other hand, there is importance in not sharing everything, in being able to be independent and to be assured that you can think for yourself and that you can know what is best for yourself. And there is something liberating about being wrong, because you can always overcome it, out of your own volition.