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The Hours Mass Market Paperback – November 1, 2002
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“An exquisitely written, kaleidoscopic work that anchors a floating postmodern world on pre-modern caissons of love, grief, and transcendent longing.” —Los Angeles Times
“Cunningham has created something original, a trio of richly interwoven tales...his most mature and masterful work.” —The Washington Post Book World
About the Author
<div>Michael Cunningham was raised in Los Angeles and lives in New York City. He is the author of the novels A Home at the End of the World (Picador) and Flesh and Blood. His work has appeared in The New Yorker and Best American Short Stories, and he is the recipient of a Whiting Writer's Award. The Hours was a New York Times Bestseller, and was chosen as a Best Book of 1998 by The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Publishers Weekly.
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Laura Brown, a housewife at on the cusp of middle age, pregnant with her second child, tries desperately to connect to her three year old son, and struggles with depression, disillusionment of living a stereotypical female life, and suicidal ideation, mirroring the demons that afflicted Woolf herself prior to her own suicide, in 1941. Clarissa Vaughn, dubbed Mrs. Dalloway (a character from a novel written by Woolf), by her ill-fated, bi-sexual, lover, Richard Brown, who not only is similar to the tragic character Septimus Smith, in the Woolf novel, but her story mirrors Woolf’s real life bohemian lifestyle where she had an open relationship with a man who had a separate gay lover, and where Woolf herself had a same sex relationship with Vita Sachville-West. Cunningham cleverly sets the tone of the story by weaving elements of the famous author’s own life, as tragic metaphors—of Mrs. Dalloway (Vaughn) and Mrs. Laura Brown, comparing them with Woolf’s own life in 1923, as she recovers from mental illness in the suburbs with her husband while writing her novel, Mrs. Dalloway, and planning a tragedy, that foreshadows, Richard Brown’s demise, in Clarissa’s story.
The clever use of language, and stream of consciousness similar to a modernist style, and the precise, vivid, descriptive language, that paints pictures into the mind of the reader, captures Woolf’s own unique style and enhances the melancholy tone of the novel. The author uses his character descriptions, not only to set the tone of the story, but to foreshadow its tragic ending, stating:
She straightens her shoulders as she stands at the corner of
Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the light… She
still has a certain sexiness; a certain bohemian, good-witch sort
of charm; and yet this morning she makes a tragic sight, standing
so straight in her big shirt and exotic shoes, resisting the pull of
gravity, a female mammoth already up to its knees in the tar,
taking a rest between efforts, standing bulky and proud, almost
nonchalant, pretending to contemplate the tender grasses waiting
on the far bank when it is beginning to know for certain that it will
remain here, trapped and alone, after dark, when the jackals come
out. (Cunningham, 13).
Through Clarissa’s story, Cunningham cleverly crafts his theme into the first few pages of his novel, “she loves the world, for being rude and indestructible, and she knows other people must love it too … Why else do we struggle to go on living, no matter how compromised, no matter how harmed?” (Cunningham, 15).
Like Woolf, Cunningham is able to develop original, fresh metaphors that capture an image, and compares her madness, and debilitating headaches to a “scintillating silver-white mass … like a jellyfish.” (Cunningham, 70). Cunningham use of a cake to represent ‘disappointment’ in Laura Brown’s story is Poignant, and reminiscent of the manner Woolf takes the mundane, in Mrs. Dalloway, and makes it remarkable. It compares the cake to her ‘life as a mother and housewife.’ Laura’s ability to bake a simple birthday cake for her husband transcends her success or failure as a wife and mother. “The cake will speak of bounty and delight the way a good house speaks of comfort and safety.” (Cunningham, 76). When she begins the process, Laura is filled with anticipation of a great accomplishment, “she hopes to be as satisfied and as filled with anticipation as a writer putting down the first sentence, a builder beginning to draw the plans” (Cunningham, 77) but in the end, Laura Brown is disappointed, “[t]he cake is less than she’d hoped it would be.” The cake parallels the disillusionment she has for her life, “there’s nothing really wrong with it, but she’d imagined something more. She’d imagined it larger, more remarkable.” (Cunningham, 99). Cunningham goes even further with his metaphor. He compares the disappointments in Virginia Woolf’s life, with the failure of Brown to make a remarkable cake. “Would she rather …have her cake sneered at? Of course not … she wants to be a competent mother … a wife who sets a perfect table. She does not want … to be the strange woman, the pathetic creature, … tolerated but not loved. Virginia Woolf put a stone into the coat of her pocket, walked into a river, and drowned.” (Cunningham, 101). Further, the subtle reference to an unknown illness revealed in Brown’s story of her neighbor and (wanton lover) Kitty, is metaphoric when compared to Clarissa’s allusive love interest in her friend and former lover, Richard Brown, who is dying of aids. Additionally, Cunningham places subtle references to the influence of the sexual abuse that plagued Woolf throughout her life, into the stories of these different women, as well as her homoerotic nature. Brown, kisses her child and feels something more than motherly love stirring, Clarissa’s kiss of her daughter Julia, and Woolf’s strange kiss with her sister Vanessa, stir restlessly below the surface, like the “innocent kiss” in the kitchen that “feels like the most delicious and forbidden of pleasures.” (Cunningham, 154).
Cunningham also sets up a metaphor where Brown’s suicidal ideation, as she rents a room to read a novel (ironically by Woolf) and is directly compared with Woolf’s own ideations, “She could decide to die… She imagines Virginia Woolf, virginal, unbalanced, defeated by the impossible demands of life and art, she imagines her stepping into a river with a stone in her pocket. …it would be as simple   as checking into a hotel.” (Cunningham, 152). Through it all, Cunningham manages to eke out a positive, message from a dark theme of death, disintegrating relationships and disillusionment, by comparing the hours of ‘brightness’ in each story, Brown’s joy in her son’s tender moments of love and endearment, Clarissa’s romanticism, and love of nature, and of flowers—set in a natural way, compare with Woolf’s sudden realization that life hold’s precious moments that make all of the other dismal hours seem worthwhile, “there is this hour, now, in the kitchen” with her sister Vanessa, drinking tea, “[h]ow could she bear to leave all this?” And the forbidden pleasures of a “Kiss.” (Cunningham, 154).
Like a lyrical essay, with its poetic language streaming in the reader’s imagination, Cunningham ties his story together with delicate associations, and subtle metaphorical images that mesmerize, and leave a reader with a better understanding of modern literature; so immutable, touching, squeezing, and stimulating the soul of each of us with a unique, a