Study Guide

The Hours

By Michael Cunningham

The Hours Introduction

You've heard of fan fiction and slash fiction, right?

If not, we'll fill you in: fan fiction is a popular genre in which diehard fans of movies, books, and television series expand their favorite narratives by writing or re-writing stories that take place in those universes. In slash fiction, fans pair up characters for sexy times that they never get to experience in the originals—just think of characters like Kirk and Spock, Dean and Castiel, and Xena and Gabrielle.

Sounds like a lot of fun, right? So, what if we told you that Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize winning, PEN/Faulkner Award–winning, and Stonewall Book Award–winning novel The Hours is basically a novel-length piece of slash and fan fiction that pays homage to the work of Virginia Woolf?

It's no joke. The Hours started out as an attempt to write a contemporary version of Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway (source), and even though our man Cunningham's novel eventually evolved to include structures and narratives that are all its own, it's still easy to see the traces of Cunningham's original intentions.

The Hours has three parallel plotlines that occasionally intersect. In one of them, Virginia Woolf is drafting the novel that will eventually become Mrs. Dalloway; in another, a suburban housewife living in Los Angeles in the late 1940s is reading Mrs. Dalloway; and, in another, an urban socialite living in New York City at "the end of the twentieth century" (1.2) is living a contemporary version of Mrs. Dalloway.

If you've read Mrs. Dalloway, you'll see familiar personalities pop up in Cunningham's late twentieth-century narrative, but some of Woolf's original character pairings have been "slashed." Whereas Woolf's heroine settles down in a socially acceptable heterosexual marriage despite having once been in love with a girl, Cunningham's contemporary Mrs. Dalloway does no such thing. LGBT characters are out and proud in The Hours, and, unlike Woolf's original, The Hours doesn't put a lid on its gay and lesbian themes.

Like Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours tackles some heavy questions. At heart, the novel is about life, death, and the kinds of courage and strength that it sometimes takes just to go on living. Depression, despair, and thoughts of suicide take their tolls on characters' lives, and yet, through it all, the novel affirms the beauty and value of life.

"I am sentimental and optimistic," Cunningham says, "and I certainly feel that if you are an essentially sentimental and optimistic individual, your optimism is only going to feel even remotely valid if it can survive the worst that can possibly happen to people" (source).

Like Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours explores the tragedy, hardship, and suffering that life can bring, but it sets them in contrast with optimism, joy, and light. The result is a book that, like Woolf's own, attempts to cut straight to the heart of our extraordinary, inevitably mortal existence.

Not bad for high-brow fanfic, right?

What is The Hours About and Why Should I Care?

When The Hours took off, its success created a new wave of interest in Mrs. Dalloway, inspiring book club members and university professors alike to put both books on the docket (source).

But we know you, Shmoopers. We know you aren't interested in evanescent things like popular approval, cultural influence, or critical acclaim. You didn't go see The Force Awakens just because everyone else was raving about it, and you sure as sunrise don't watch Titanic for its Oscar-winning art direction, either. What you want to know is if The Hours will speak to your soul.

Okay, maybe that's not what you were going to ask about, but whatever. Either way, no worries because unless you're a heartless automaton, the chances are good that book is gonna wreck you.

The Hours is a novel that tackles joy, sorrow, physical suffering, mental illness, and tenacious hope head on. Many of its major characters struggle with illness, despair, and thoughts of suicide. Some of them choose to die, and others choose to live. Whether or not you feel that you can identify with any of its three protagonists, the novel's deeper questions about the meaning and value of human life can strike a chord within us all.

Michael Cunningham has spoken publicly about his personal struggles with depression, and when he talks about novelists' "doomed, collective effort to write the entire story of the whole world and everything and everyone in it," he says that "the whole notion of sort of facing down hopelessness and having the courage to live is simply one of the things that I feel I can bring" (source).

Although The Hours may seem like a melancholy, downright depressing book at times, at its core it affirms the value of all human life. If that doesn't hit you right in the feelings, we don't know what will.

The Hours Resources


All Things Michael Cunningham
Here's the official scoop, Shmoop.

Mrs. Dalloway, Shmooped
Not up on your Virginia Woolf? Never fear: we've got you covered.


The Hours (2002)
If you thought the book version of The Hours was a weep-fest, wait 'til you see the movie.

Mrs. Dalloway (1997)
Don't have time to read the book, but want to get the gist of Mrs. Dalloway?


The New York Times Reviews The Hours
In this early book review of The Hours, Michael Wood offers his thoughts on the "parallel lives" that come together in Michael Cunningham's novel.

Michael Cunningham on PBS
After winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Michael Cunningham sits down to chat with Elizabeth Farnsworth about The Hours.

The Guardian Takes a Retrospective Look at The Hours
Published in 2011, the same year that Michael Cunningham visited the Guardian Book Club, this retrospective review offers a solid introduction to The Hours.

Q&A with Michael Cunningham
After hosting a Q&A session with Michael Cunningham, professor John Mullan reveals the most exciting details from the conversation.

Michael Cunningham in Interview with Lambda Literary
Want some insight into Michael Cunningham's thoughts on writing about sex and sexuality, and other stuff too?

Michael Cunningham Featured in Out Magazine
For more insight into Michael Cunningham's growth as a writer, check out this relaxed, revealing conversation in Out magazine. Warning: the interview contains some choice R-rated language.

"This Week in Fiction: Michael Cunningham"
As he discusses more recent works in this interview for The New Yorker, Michael Cunningham offers some insight into the way he wrote The Hours.

Historical News Articles Publicizing Virginia Woolf's Disappearance and Death
From the archive of the New York Times, these news articles will pull you back to the tragedy of Virginia Woolf's death in 1941.


Michael Cunningham on the Original Ending of The Hours
Want to know why Michael Cunningham chose to begin The Hours with Virginia Woolf's death? Read here to find out.

Louise Brealey Reads Virginia Woolf's Final Letter to Leonard Woolf
Louise Brealey (you know her from the BBC series Sherlock) reads the suicide note that Virginia Woolf left for her husband, Leonard.


"Michael Cunningham Meets the Guardian Book Club"
Listen to Michael Cunningham discuss The Hours with a bunch of Brits.

Michael Cunningham Reads and Speaks at A Different Light Bookstore
This archived review of The Hours in the New York Times comes with bonus links to audio recordings of Michael Cunningham reading at A Different Light Bookstore in November, 1998.


The Author Photo that Graces The Hours
Michael Cunningham in the photographic flesh.

The Picador USA Edition of The Hours
What better way to symbolize mortality than by slapping some wilting tulips on your cover?

The Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Edition of The Hours
Just like this fruit, we too are perishable.

The Movie Poster for the Film Version of The Hours
Could Laura Brown look any more smokin'? We think not.