Taking its cue from the work of Virginia Woolf and her fellow modernists, The Hours works to gain insight into the thoughts, feelings, and unconscious motivations of its characters. Throughout the novel, Michael Cunningham uses intimate, free-indirect narration to tap into his characters' inner lives and bring them out into the light of day. As a result, we readers are given deep insight into those characters' perspectives.
Sometimes down-in-the-dumps and sometimes optimistic, The Hours shows us people who live their lives thoughtfully, weighing every moment and measuring the current state against countless other possibilities. The novel is captivated by the thoughts that preoccupy ordinary people living ordinary days, and it does its best to make sure that we readers find them captivating, too.
Above all, The Hours is a work of realism. Michael Cunningham does his best to capture the everyday thoughts and feelings of relatively ordinary people living relatively ordinary lives.
Of course, one of the novel's three protagonists isn't quite as ordinary as the others, and that's where elements of historical fiction and biography come in. In order to depict a single, believable day in the life of Virginia Woolf, Cunningham had to do his research, and the fictionalized Woolf that he has created here has elements of both fact and fiction.
Time is of the essence in The Hours. Some characters, like Richard Brown, Laura Brown, and Virginia Woolf, struggle with the thought that their present circumstances will continue day after day, hour after hour, for the rest of their natural lives. As Richard says to Clarissa Vaughan:
"I don't know if I can face this. You know. The party and the ceremony, and then the hour after that, and the hour after that."
"You don't have to go to the party. You don't have to go to the ceremony. You don't have to do anything at all."
"But there are still the hours, aren't there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there's another. I'm so sick." (18.21-23)
The Hours definitely has its melancholy moments, but despite the fact that many of its characters choose to end their lives rather than live through any more painful hours, the novel ends by affirming the value of life. It probably won't surprise you to hear that the novel's ringing endorsement of life comes to us through Clarissa, who thinks:
We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep—it's as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, 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) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. (22.80)
"Still," thinks Clarissa, "we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more" (22.80).
Okay, okay—so that's not exactly a ringing endorsement. Still, it's not nothing. In the end, The Hours suggests that even though our lives are nearly guaranteed to bring us pain at one time or another, the hours of happiness and joy do make it all worthwhile.
Oh, yeah—there's one more teensy little thing you need to know about the title: "The Hours" was the working title that Virginia Woolf gave to the novel that eventually became Mrs. Dalloway (source).
Remember how we said that despite all of its tragedy and sadness, The Hours still ends by affirming the value of life? Well, the novel's closing paragraphs really drive that point home.
Just hours after Richard Brown's death by suicide, Clarissa Vaughan and Laura Brown are together in Clarissa's New York City apartment. Clarissa's partner and daughter have laid out tea and food in the kitchen, and the tired mourners are about to share a quiet meal before heading to bed. Here's how the novel closes:
Here, right here in this room, is the beloved; the traitor. Here is an old woman, a retired librarian from Toronto, wearing old woman's shoes.
And here she is, herself, Clarissa, not Mrs. Dalloway anymore; there is no one now to call her that. Here she is with another hour before her.
"Come in, Mrs. Brown," she says. "Everything's ready." (22.86-88)
Although Richard decided, in the end, that he couldn't face the hours that were left to him, Clarissa remains characteristically grateful to have yet another hour ahead of her—and, in all likelihood, thousands more after that. Although their late-night meal won't be the celebratory feast that Clarissa had planned for Richard, for the novel's surviving characters, it's a simple, quiet acknowledgment that life goes on.
The Hours is set in three different places and times: Richmond, England in the early 1920s; Los Angeles, California in the late 1940s; and, finally, New York City's West Village at some point in the 1990s.
Although all three of those places and times have similarities, the novel is most interested in exploring the differences between suburban and city life. It's no coincidence that the novel's most dissatisfied protagonists—Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown—are living in the suburbs, while the novel's happiest and most liberated protagonist—Clarissa Vaughan—is living in a vibrant, lively city.
Both Laura Brown and Virginia Woolf dislike their suburban homes. Laura feels that suburban, post-war Los Angeles bears an uncanny resemblance to the backdrop of a play, and Laura knows what role she's expected to play: that of the perfect wife, perfect mother, and perfectly happy American citizen. Virginia's dislike for Richmond, England, stems from slightly different circumstances, but she dislikes the suburbs just as much as Laura does. She feels as though she's "evaporating" in calm, boring Richmond, and she longs for the hustle and bustle of London (5.4).
Clarissa Vaughan is the only one of the novel's three protagonists who lives exactly where she wants to. Not only does she have a beautiful apartment in New York City's West Village, but she and her partner Sally also have the great privilege of living together openly. Although they do face discrimination—they don't yet have the right to marry each other, for instance—their social and economic circumstances give them a considerable advantage over Laura and Virginia.
"We'll hunt for a third tiger now, but like the others this one too will be a form of what I dream, a structure of words, and not the flesh and bone tiger that beyond all myths paces the earth. I know these things quite well, yet nonetheless some force keeps driving me in this vague, unreasonable, and ancient quest, and I go on pursuing through the hours another tiger, the beast not found in verse."—J. L. Borges, The Other Tiger, 1960
This epigraph comes to us from the pen (or typewriter) of the captivating, fantastically imaginative Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.
"The Other Tiger" is a poem that deals with the connections between language, reality, and fiction. The poem's first-person speaker writes about a tiger that he is imagining vividly; soon, though, the speaker is forced to admit that this fantastic beast has little to do with reality and is instead made up of tropes, clichés, and conventions that have been passed down through literature.
Although the speaker of the poem knows that any tiger he manages to capture in words will fail to be faithful to the "flesh and bone" tigers that really do roam the earth, he still continues to try. Likewise, even though Michael Cunningham knows that his attempts to capture the feel and flow of human consciousness in The Hours may fall short in spectacular ways, he also knows that that's no reason not to try.
I have no time to describe my plans. I should say a good deal about The Hours, & my discovery; how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, & each comes to daylight at the present moment."—Virginia Woolf, in her diary, August 30, 1923
Hey, there's nothing like an epigraph to tell you exactly what an author was trying to accomplish in his or her writing.
"The Hours" was the working title that Virginia Woolf gave to the novel that eventually became Mrs. Dalloway (source), and, in this diary entry from 1923, Woolf describes the technique that she used to flesh out her characters.
As in The Hours, very little actually happens in Mrs. Dalloway. A small cast of characters go about their relatively ordinary days—running errands, attending luncheons, preparing a house for a party—but, by the end of the novel, we readers know tons about these characters' whole lives. Through memories, reactions, and impressions, Woolf "digs out caves" behind her characters and brings their pasts and their inner lives out into the light as they go about their days.
And that's exactly how Michael Cunningham goes about his business in The Hours.
So, not only does this epigraph signal the fact that Cunningham swiped Woolf's old title for his own novel, but it also announces the fact that Cunningham is going to employ the same methods that Woolf used to create lifelike, believable human characters.
Just like Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours spends a lot more time on its characters' thoughts and feelings than it does on their actions. The end result is that you get to follow along comfortably as characters chat, run simple errands, and ponder the meaning of life, the universe, and, well, everything. The chapters are short, the prose is clear, and nothing much actually happens, making The Hours the perfect companion for a languid bubble bath or a cozy cup of tea.
Throughout The Hours, Michael Cunningham works to capture some of the stylistic elements that make Virginia Woolf's writing so memorable. At the same time, he also makes sure to put his own stamp on things. The end result? A writing style that's about three parts homage, two parts originality, and one-hundred-percent smooth.
Like Woolf, Cunningham sometimes uses very long, meandering sentences that try to capture the rippling, changing streams of conscious human thought. Take a look at this one, for example:
This neighborhood was once the center of something new and wild; something disreputable; a part of the city where the sound of guitars drifted all night out of bars and coffeehouses; where the stores that sold books and clothing smelled the way she imagined Arab bazaars must smell: incense and rich, dung-y dust, some sort of wood (cedar? camphor?), something fruitily, fertilely rotting; and where it had seemed possible, quite possible, that if you passed through the wrong door or down the wrong alley you would meet a fate: not just the familiar threat of robbery and physical harm but something more perverse and transforming, more permanent. (4.10)
Now, compare that passage to this one, which The Hours quotes directly from Woolf's own Mrs. Dalloway:
How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, 'Musing among the vegetables?'—was that it?—'I prefer men to cauliflowers'—was that it? (3.7)
On top of mirroring Woolf's sentence structure, The Hours also swipes some of her metaphors and imagery, too. To see what we mean, compare the opening passages of The Hours to the opening passages of Mrs. Dalloway, respectively:
There are still the flowers to buy. Clarissa feigns exasperation (though she loves doing errands like this), leaves Sally cleaning the bathroom, and runs out, promising to be back in half an hour.
It is New York City. It is the end of the twentieth century.
The vestibule door opens onto a June morning so fine and scrubbed Clarissa pauses at the threshold as she would at the edge of a pool, watching the turquoise water lapping at the tiles, the liquid nets of sun wavering in the blue depths. (1.3)
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would have to be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer's men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning—fresh as if issued to children on a beach. (3.2)
In both of these passages—so similar, structurally speaking—the freshness and beauty of a bright summer morning is captured through water imagery. Clarissa Dalloway thinks of a beach, and Clarissa Vaughan thinks of a pool, but both images are all about the same vivid images of sunlight shimmering brilliantly over blue.
As they say: imitation is the highest form of flattery.
Hey, it's no surprise that a novel called The Hours contains a symbolic clock or two.
The first of these is the clock that sits on Laura Brown's bedside table. It has a green face in a black Bakelite setting, and Laura thinks of that setting as the clock's "sarcophagus" (3.4). That's a pretty grim metaphor, and it reflects Laura's somber state of mind. Pregnant, depressed, and deeply unhappy with her life, Laura finds it a struggle to perform her roles as wife and mother day after day. She seems to be stuck in limbo, and her clock symbolizes that unpleasant sensation of being trapped in dead time.
The second symbolic clock in the novel is England's famous Big Ben (it makes a pretty similar appearance, by the way, in Mrs. Dalloway as well). As Virginia Woolf fantasizes about disappearing to London for a few hours, she thinks to herself:
It seems that she can survive, she can prosper, if she has London around her; if she disappears for a while into the enormity of it, brash and brazen now under a sky empty of threat, all the uncurtained windows […], the traffic, men and women going lightly by in evening clothes; the smells of wax and gasoline, of perfume, as someone, somewhere […] plays a piano; as horns bleat and dogs bay, as the whole raucous carnival turns and turns, blazing, shimmering; as Big Ben strikes the hours, which fall in leaden circles over the partygoers and the omnibuses […]. (15.11)
In this captivating passage, Big Ben stands at the epicenter of London's exuberance and vitality. It's a whole lot like the sun, all things considered, with the "raucous carnival" of London life turning and turning around it, forever and ever amen. In Virginia's fantasy of London life, Big Ben serves as a paradoxical symbol of the timelessness of the city. The clock will strike the hours forever and ever, and there will always be something lively and wonderful going on as it does—whether you're included in those wonderful goings-on or not.
Have you ever tried to make something that would showcase all of your talent and skill, and be really, truly beautiful? The good folks featured on Regretsy probably know a thing or two about trying (and failing) to do that, and so do the three protagonists of The Hours.
Clarissa Vaughan, Virginia Woolf, and Laura Brown each try to produce something wonderful: for Clarissa, it's a party; for Virginia, it's Mrs. Dalloway; and, for Laura, it's a cake for her husband's birthday.
The party, novel, and cake are all symbols of the women's deepest longings: Clarissa's desire to be recognized as a valued and beloved friend, Virginia's desire to finally succeed in making her writing live up to her own expectations, and Laura's desire to be brilliant and admirable, better than ordinary. As such, these items reveal the women's motivations, ambitions, and fantasies.
What's interesting is that each of these characters thinks she has failed. In Virginia's case, that is clearly untrue, though it's also true that creating Mrs. Dalloway doesn't save Virginia from her own demons. Clarissa's party fails, but she does get to meet Laura Brown, partly as a result. Laura's cake is a failure, but this failure drives her further to her new life.
Life isn't easy for these ladies, but they try to cope.
You've already heard that The Hours is big on "time," and it stands to reason that a novel obsessed with the passage of time might have a thing or two to say about mortality and immortality, too.
It may surprise you to hear that celebrity, of all things, is its most potent symbol of immortality in The Hours. If that seems a little too shallow for your tastes, keep in mind that the symbol comes from the mind of Clarissa Vaughan—a woman who recognizes and who chooses to embrace her slightly shallow qualities.
Clarissa is fascinated by celebrity, and she seems to find it comforting to imagine that even after her own generation and others after it have faded into history, movie stars like Meryl Streep, Vanessa Redgrave, and Susan Sarandon will still be remembered and known (4.9). She finds it even more comforting to imagine that her dear friend Richard Brown might still be remembered long after his death, with his name and his poetry enshrined for keeps in the literary canon (4.112).
This kind of immortality is the only form of life after death that any of the novel's characters imagine, and so celebrity stands as the novel's best and brightest symbol of resistance to the passage of time.
You already know that The Hours has some things to say about the toll that time takes on our short human lives, and, throughout the novel, Michael Cunningham occasionally drops an image that draws attention to the seemingly endless passage of time. Check out this passage from the novel's first chapter, for instance:
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. (1.8)
Now, Clarissa Vaughan isn't a particularly large woman, and the figurative language in this passage isn't meant to draw attention to her size. Instead, the metaphor that turns Clarissa into a doomed mammoth standing "up to its knees in the tar" is being used to drive home a point about her age and mortality.
The mammoth in this passage is a fossil in the making. When the jackals come, it'll be killed and eaten, and its bones will sink into the tar and be preserved for who knows how many thousands of years. According to Willie Bass, Clarissa isn't too far off from being a fossil herself. Just as it does for every living person, her time will eventually run out.
Flowers are abundant in The Hours, and they symbolize all of the many things that they tend to represent in our everyday lives: celebration, life, love, friendship, romance, and even death and mourning.
When Clarissa Vaughan heads out to buy flowers for her party, she's looking for symbols of vitality and celebration. She's going to "fill the rooms of her apartment with food and flowers" (1.7) for her dear friend Richard Brown, and, in doing so, she'll celebrate both his literary achievements and his life.
Flowers can fill rooms in sadder occasions, too, and Richard himself points out this irony when Clarissa brings some of her flowers straight to his apartment. "Have I died?" he asks her (4.36). When Richard does in fact die later on that day, the flowers that fill Clarissa's apartment quickly become symbols of death and mourning rather than symbols of life and celebration.
Symbols like this that have multiple meanings pop up all over The Hours.
By the way, if you look closely, you'll even find that one flower in particular—the yellow rose—appears in all three of the novel's main narratives.
In Virginia Woolf's narrative, the famous author and her niece make a lovely deathbed for a dying bird and surround it with yellow roses. In Laura Brown's narrative, the birthday cake that Laura makes for her husband is edged with yellow roses. In Clarissa Vaughan's narrative, Clarissa buys yellow roses for the party, and Clarissa's partner, Sally, buys yellow roses for Clarissa. By using this symbol three times, Cunningham encourages us to notice how similar themes are repeated in each of the novel's three plotlines.
Flowers, with their short-lived, evanescent loveliness, are the perfect symbols of the beauty of life and the tragedy of death. It's no wonder that one edition of The Hours has chosen drowsy, drooping tulips for its cover.
Michael Cunningham really takes a page out of Virginia Woolf's book when it comes to water imagery in The Hours.
Cunningham's first chapter gives us a direct echo of the beginning of Woolf's 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway: "The vestibule door opens onto a June morning so fine and scrubbed Clarissa pauses at the threshold as she would at the edge of a pool, watching the turquoise water lapping at the tiles, the liquid nets of sun wavering in the blue depths" (1.3).
Just compare that to the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway: "And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning—fresh as if issued to children on a beach" (3.2).
In both of these passages, water imagery helps to capture the brightness and vitality of two gorgeous summer mornings. Pretty much from page one, we've got a connection established for us between the worlds of Michael Cunningham and Virginia Woolf.
In other passages throughout The Hours, water imagery does other things. Woolf's historical death by drowning inspires Cunningham to use water imagery to represent freedom and weightlessness—sensations of escape from the weighty sorrows of life. Take a look, for example, at how Laura Brown feels about her decision to stay in bed reading Mrs. Dalloway rather than heading straight downstairs to make breakfast for her husband and son:
She will permit herself another minute here, in bed, before entering the day. She will allow herself just a little more time. She is taken by a wave of feeling, a sea-swell, that rises from under her breast and buoys her, floats her gently, as if she were a sea creature thrown back from the sand where it had beached itself—as if she had been returned from a realm of crushing gravity to her true medium, the suck and swell of saltwater, that weightless brilliance. (3.10)
Then again, water imagery can also be used to represent oppressive, airless atmospheres. Here's Laura Brown again, mustering up the willpower to get out of bed and go downstairs: "Summoning resolve, as if she were about to dive into cold water, Laura closes the book and lays it on the nightstand. She does not dislike her child, does not dislike her husband. She will rise and be cheerful" (3.13).
In a similar vein, Cunningham gives us this watery portrait of Richard Brown's apartment:
The apartment has, more than anything, an underwater aspect. Clarissa walks through it as she would negotiate the hold of a sunken ship. It would not be entirely surprising if a small school of silver fish darted by in the half-light. These rooms do not seem, in any serious way, to be part of the building in which they happen to occur, and when Clarissa enters and closes behind her the big, creaky door with the four locks (two of them broken) she feels, always, as if she has passed through a dimensional warp—through the looking glass, as it were […]. (4.25)
Like the flower symbolism and imagery that appears throughout The Hours, the novel's water imagery is versatile. Sometimes it helps to conjure beauty and brilliance; at other times it's as dark and gloomy as your average submarine. Water is a fickle element, after all—one that can bring death just as easily as it sustains life.
There's a lot of imagery throughout The Hours that combines light, shadow, and darkness in striking ways. Sometimes, those combinations help to characterize physical spaces, as in these examples:
Night still resides here. Hogarth House is always nocturnal, even with its chaos of papers and books, its bright hassocks and Persian rugs. It is not dark in itself but it seems to be illuminated against darkness, even as the wan, early sun shines between the curtains and cars and carriages rumble by on Paradise Road. (2.6)
His apartment is, as always, dim and close, overheated, full of the sage and juniper incense Richard burns to cover the smells of illness. It is unutterably cluttered, inhabited here and there by a wan circle of pulverized non-dark emanating from the brown-shaded lamps in which Richard will tolerate no bulb more powerful than fifteen watts. The apartment has, more than anything, an underwater aspect. (4.25)
It's no coincidence that these physical spaces are, respectively, the places where Virginia Woolf and Richard Brown reside. Virginia and Richard are both dealing with some serious inner demons, so it's appropriate, really, for to live in places that are shadowy and sometimes even a little bit scary.
Cunningham uses similar kinds of light, shadow, and darkness imagery to describe the illnesses that these characters live with (or have lived with) daily. Take a look:
Everything glows and pulses. Everything is infected with brightness, throbbing with it, and she prays for dark the way a wanderer lost in the desert prays for water. The world is every bit as barren of darkness as a desert is of water. There is no dark in the shuttered room, no dark behind her eyelids. […] This state makes her hellishly miserable; in this state she is capable of shrieking at Leonard or anyone else who comes near (fizzling, like devils, with light) […]. (5.4)
"Are they here today?" Clarissa asks.
"No," Richard answers, with the reluctant candor of a child. "They're gone now. They're very beautiful and quite terrible."
"Yes," she says. "I know."
"I think of them as coalescences of black fire. I mean they're dark and bright at the same time. There was one that looked a bit like a black, electrified jellyfish." (4.48-51)
So: What does all of this mean?
At heart, The Hours is a novel that explores the beautiful and terrible tensions between life and death. Light, shadow, and darkness imagery are pretty perfect symbols for representing those tensions visually; literally thousands of years' worth of literary and cultural tradition has trained us to associate darkness with death and light with life.
So, basically, by mixing both darkness and light together in captivating ways, Michael Cunningham draws attention to the ways in which life and death comingle in the minds of some of the novel's characters.
In every one of the novels' three main plotlines, at least one character finds himself or herself feeling as though life is little more than a performance. Whenever this metaphor rears its head, you can feel pretty sure that the characters involved are struggling to reconcile their senses of identity with the roles they know they are expected to play.
The first instance of a performance metaphor in The Hours comes from the world of Laura Brown. As Laura musters up the energy to face the day, we see this:
She brushes her teeth, brushes her hair, and starts downstairs. She pauses several treads from the bottom, listening, waiting; she is again possessed (it seems to be getting worse) by a dreamlike feeling, as if she is standing in the wings, about to go onstage and perform in a play for which she is not appropriately dressed, and for which she has not adequately rehearsed. What, she wonders, is wrong with her. (3.17)
The metaphor pops up again in Clarissa Vaughan's narrative when Clarissa goes to visit her dear friend Richard Brown. Richard is feeling anxious about having to be "proud and brave in front of everybody" at the party that Clarissa is throwing for him, and when Clarissa tells him not to worry, that it isn't "a performance," he replies: "Of course it is. I got a prize for my performance, you must know that. I got a prize for having AIDS and going nuts and being brave about it, it had nothing to do with my work" (4.83).
Not to be outdone, Virginia Woolf gets in on the performance metaphor action as she returns home from a late morning walk. Here's how the novel's narrator puts it: "On the steps of Hogarth House, she pauses to remember herself. She has learned over the years that sanity involves a certain measure of impersonation, not simply for the benefit of husband and servants but for the sake, first and foremost, of one's own convictions. She is the author; Leonard, Nelly, Ralph, and the others are the readers" (7.8).
Of course, you attentive readers will have noticed that Virginia's narrative puts a unique spin on this particular performance metaphor. Virginia conceives of her performance by imagining herself as a book that others will read, so, here, we've got a metaphor that features less "stage" and more "page."
The basic point, though, is that all of these characters experience some tension between their true selves and the roles they have to play in the world. They're expected to be professionals, wives, managers of households, moms—you name it. But do these roles fulfill them? Not all the time. Each of these characters has many different roles to play in their lives, and some of those roles are more difficult, some more rewarding, than others.
Although the novel's narrator sure does like to get his free indirect speech on—that's speech that taps into the thoughts and feelings of the novel's fictional characters—it's clear that the narrative voice is not at all limited by those characters' points of view. There are multiple moments throughout The Hours when the narrator communicates information that none of the novel's characters could possibly know, as in this passage from the novel's Prologue:
Here they are, on a day early in the Second World War: the boy and his mother on the bridge, the stick floating over the water's surface, and Virginia's body on the river's bottom, as if she is dreaming of the surface, the stick, the boy and his mother, the sky and the rooks. An olive-drab truck rolls across the bridge, loaded with soldiers in uniform, who wave to the boy who has just thrown the stick. He waves back. […] All this enters the bridge, resounds through its wood and stone, and enters Virginia's body. Her face, pressed sideways to the piling, absorbs it all […]. (Prologue.7).
This is an omniscient narrator at work: one who can go anywhere and see anything—and who knows all that can possibly be known about the universe of the narrative.
Because The Hours is a work of realism that focuses on the ordinary, everyday lives of its protagonists, it may seem strange to think of it in terms of Booker's "Overcoming the Monster" plot. We get it. The Hours ain't no Jessica Jones.
All the same, Clarissa Vaughan, Virginia Woolf, and Laura Brown are all confronted by trials throughout their days. Those trials may seem piddling to some readers, but the novel's characters don't experience them that way. Instead, they experience them as being deeply significant struggles. At times, those struggles are even matters of life or death.
Throughout The Hours, Michael Cunningham attempts to achieve the very same thing that he believes Virginia Woolf accomplished with Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham's Virginia muses to herself at one point that Clarissa Dalloway, her heroine,
[…] will kill herself over something that seems, on the surface, like very little. Her party will fail, or her husband will once again refuse to notice some effort she's made about her person or their home. The trick will be to render intact the magnitude of Clarissa's miniature but very real desperation; to fully convince the reader that, for her, domestic defeats are every bit as devastating as are lost battles to a general. (7.9)
So, without further ado, let's take a look at how the novel's protagonists overcome their own personal monsters.
For Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown especially, "monsters" begin to rear their heads in the early morning. Laura knows as soon as she wakes up that it's going to be a difficult day—one in which she'll need to summon extra willpower just to get out of bed and go downstairs. Virginia wakes up in good spirits, but as she washes her face and gets ready to face the day, she has to repress the constant fear that she might relapse into another terrible period of illness.
For Laura Brown, things seem to be going well enough as she and her three-year-old son, Richie, bake a cake for her husband's birthday. Laura has high hopes that the cake will turn out beautifully, and, for the time being, she seems perfectly able to perform her role as a "normal" wife and mother.
For Virginia Woolf, the morning feels even more positive and full of promise. When she sits down to work on her latest novel—the one that will eventually become Mrs. Dalloway—the words flow smoothly and beautifully.
For her part, Clarissa Vaughan experiences her entire morning as a "dream stage." As she steps out of her gorgeous townhouse apartment and heads off to buy bucket-loads of flowers for her party, she knows she's got it pretty good.
Laura Brown's frustration stage begins when her cake turns out to be less beautiful than she'd hoped. She wanted to create a work of art, and instead she has produced something that seems, to her, to be clumsy, amateurish, and inept. She has failed to realize her artistic ambitions, even in this simple little way.
Virginia Woolf's frustration stage begins when her morning surge of literary energy wears off and she has to call it quits for the day. Now that she's ready to deal with the mundane household matters that require her attention, she has to submit herself to the sour moods of her servants and confront her feelings of inadequacy.
Clarissa Vaughan's frustration stage begins when she realizes that her friend Richard Brown—the person her party is for—is going to be having one of his bad days. How can she give Richard a wonderful party if he doesn't even want to attend?
In Booker's standard blueprint for the "Overcoming the Monster" plot, the "nightmare stage" is when things seem darkest for the hero.
We might say that Laura Brown's nightmare stage begins when she makes the surprising, spur-of-the-moment decision to leave her son with a neighbor and take off for a few hours. When she sets out, she has no idea where she wants to go—she simply knows that she needs to get away.
Likewise, Virginia Woolf's nightmare stage begins when she makes the spontaneous decision to slip out of her house and head for the train station. Like Laura Brown, she's seized with a sudden urge to escape. The suffocating weight of life in the suburbs has finally become too much for her to bear.
For Clarissa Vaughan, of course, the nightmare stage begins with a more obviously cataclysmic event: the suicide of Richard Brown.
Considering the fact that the "monster" in The Hours is time itself, the only character who actually defeats, sort of, it is Richard Brown, who chooses to end his life rather than extend his suffering. For the novel's three protagonists, the end of the day is simply a chance to rest and recuperate so that they'll have enough energy to get up again and face the new day in the morning.
In all three of the novel's separate plotlines, things get underway in the morning. Laura Brown and Virginia Woolf each get a slow-ish start as they ease gently into their days, while Clarissa Vaughan, happy and energetic, walks cheerfully out into the city to buy flowers for her party.
As their days go on, all three of the novel's protagonists encounter minor hurdles. Clarissa Vaughan is disappointed to find that her friend Richard Brown is having one of his bad days (and may not be in good shape for the party that she's throwing in his honor). Laura Brown tries to make a beautiful cake for her husband's birthday, but it comes out looking clumsy and amateurish. For her part, Virginia Woolf has to face the grumpiness of her household staff.
Eventually, all three protagonists come up against a bigger crisis.
Laura Brown's dissatisfaction comes to a head in the mid-afternoon, which is when she decides to take off for a few hours so that she can spend some time alone. As she sits in a hotel room reading Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, she begins to think of suicide in fond, appreciative terms.
Virginia Woolf gives in to a similar urge to disappear, but hers hits her in the early evening. After slipping away quietly from her suburban home, she heads toward the train station with a half-baked scheme to run away to London.
Unlike Laura and Virginia, the flight response that Clarissa encounters isn't her own. When she returns to Richard's apartment to help him get dressed for her party, she arrives just in time to witness her best friend's suicide.
In all three of the novel's plotlines, the action winds down in the evening. Laura Brown returns home and serves her husband's birthday meal; Virginia returns home, eats supper, and settles down with a book; and, Clarissa Vaughan collects Richard Brown's elderly mother—the very same Laura Brown—and feeds her a late-night meal.
Only Clarissa Vaughan and Virginia Woolf end their days with some kind of closure. As Clarissa reflects on her friend's suicide, she comes to some conclusions about the value of life. As Virginia gets ready to head to bed, she decides how she will end the novel she is writing.
Unfortunately for her, Laura Brown ends her day in the same way she began it: in a state of paralysis and uncertainty. As she pauses beside her bed, not quite ready to climb in, she gets lost in thoughts of how easy it would be to slip away from her life.
For all three of the novel's plotlines, the first act runs from the early morning until around lunchtime. In the morning, the protagonists' days seem bright and full of promise, but that slowly changes as their days go on.
In all three plotlines, the second act runs from the early afternoon to the early evening. It's during this stretch of time that all three of the novel's protagonists face the biggest trials of their days: Laura Brown disappears to a hotel for a few hours, Virginia Woolf nearly runs away to London, and Clarissa Vaughan witnesses her best friend's suicide.
In keeping with the established pattern, the third act takes place at the same of day in all three of the novel's plotlines. As each of the novel's protagonists gets through her respective evening, she comes to terms with the despair, disappointment, and tragedy that have shaped her days.