At fifty-two years old, Clarissa Vaughan is as youthful, energetic, and full of zest as she was when she was eighteen. In love with life and the world around her despite tragedies, troubles, and flaws, she is the mirror image of her literary counterpart—Virginia Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway.
Unlike her predecessor, Michael Cunningham's Clarissa is a late twentieth-century woman. She lives in a gorgeous townhouse in New York City's West Village with her long-term partner, Sally; she works as a professional editor and publisher; she volunteers with People With AIDS; and, she has cared for her best friend, Richard Brown, through his own struggle with HIV/AIDS.
Like her predecessor, Clarissa frets over her relationship with her daughter, worries about her social standing, agonizes over what other people think of her, and cares a whole heck of a lot about her ability to throw a good party.
Although lots of the particulars are different, the basics that shape Clarissa Vaughan's character and determine her actions in The Hours are the same as those that define Woolf's own Mrs. Dalloway—it isn't just the name "Clarissa" that connects the two characters. At heart, Clarissa Vaughan's entire sense of being is modeled on the personality and self-perception of Woolf's cheerful, sociable heroine.
It doesn't take long for The Hours to establish a plausible connection between Clarissa Vaughan and Clarissa Dalloway. Back when Clarissa and her bestie, Richard, were students together at Columbia, Richard decided to give his friend a nickname:
The name Mrs. Dalloway had been Richard's idea—a conceit tossed off one drunken dormitory night as he assured her that Vaughan was not the proper name for her. She should, he'd said, be named after a great figure in literature, and while she'd argued for Isabel Archer or Anna Karenina, Richard had insisted that Mrs. Dalloway was the singular and obvious choice. (1.4)
Okay, so why's that? Well, here's the explanation:
There was the matter of her existing first name, a sign too obvious too ignore, and, more important, the larger question of fate. She, Clarissa, was clearly not destined to make a disastrous marriage or fall under the wheels of a train. She was destined to charm, to prosper. So Mrs. Dalloway it was and would be. (1.4)
Unlike most predictions made by drunken undergrads, Richard's has turned out to be right on the money. Clarissa Vaughan—Mrs. Dalloway 2.0—really has charmed and prospered throughout her life. At fifty-two years old, she has things pretty good—and, what's more, she knows it.
For the most part, Clarissa is capable of seeing herself realistically—a sign of real strength. Here she is on class and economic privilege, for example: "Here is her home; hers and Sally's; and although they've lived here together almost fifteen years she is still struck by its beauty and by their impossible good fortune. Two floors and a garden in the West Village! They are rich, of course; obscenely rich by the world's standards; but not rich rich, not New York City rich" (8.22).
And here's what Clarissa has to say about the simple delight she takes in the world: "It's childish, she knows. It lacks edge. If she were to express it publicly (now, at her age), this love of hers would consign her to the realm of the duped and the simpleminded, Christians with acoustic guitars or wives who've agreed to be harmless in exchange for their keep. Still, this indiscriminate love feels entirely serious to her, as if everything in the world is part of a vast, inscrutable intention and everything in the world has its own secret name" (1.6).
Basically, Clarissa is able to see herself and her life realistically, which means she the bad stuff as well as the good—but the bigger point is that she accepts herself and life, warts and all, and thinks everything is worth it.
Now, despite being pretty clear-headed most of the time, Clarissa is also prone to being down on herself. After she realizes that her partner, Sally, has been invited to a luncheon with a famous movie star while she, Clarissa, has not, she's flooded with an ocean of mixed feelings:
Doesn't it matter that she's the woman in the book? (Though the book, of course, failed, and though Oliver, of course, probably reads very little.) Oliver did not say to Sally, "Be sure to bring that interesting woman you live with." He probably thought Clarissa was a wife; only a wife. (8.25)
Bummed-out thoughts like these can easily saturate Clarissa's entire mood, and she eventually finds herself mourning the loss of her beauty and sexual desirability, too. She thinks to herself: "People don't look at you on the street anymore, or if they do it is not with sexual notions of any sort. You are not invited to lunch by Oliver St. Ives" (8.25).
Because the novel's narrative voice relies so heavily on free indirect speech—the mode that merges the narrator's thoughts, opinions, and feelings with those of the characters themselves—it might be tempting to take Clarissa at her word in self-conscious moments like these. We should resist that temptation, though, because other passages throughout the novel tend to prove Clarissa wrong.
For example, take a look at what happens when a random passer-by observes Clarissa as she walks down the street: "There she is, thinks Willie Bass, who passes her some mornings just about here. The old beauty, the old hippie, hair still long and defiantly gray, out on her morning rounds in jeans and a man's cotton shirt […]. She still has a certain sexiness; a certain bohemian, good-witch sort of charm […]. She must have been spectacular twenty-five years ago; men must have died happy in her arms" (1.8).
If that's not being thought of in a sexual way, we don't know what is. Clearly, Clarissa has still got it, even if what she's got is different from what she had when she was twenty.
The same thing happens when Clarissa is visited by her friend Louis Waters, who she hasn't seen in years: "His heart rises. She is older but—no point in denying it—she still has that rigorous glamour; that slightly butch, aristocratic sexiness. She is still slim. She still exudes, somehow, an aspect of thwarted romance" (11.34).
Like many people, Clarissa Vaughan is her own harshest critic, and we readers can't always trust the perceptions she has of herself. Luckily for us, The Hours gives us other perspectives that help to balance things out.
Not everyone loves Clarissa Vaughan, and sometimes even her closest friends can't help but criticize her ways. For instance, Richard and Sally can't understand why Clarissa likes one of their mutual acquaintances, Walter Hardy, as much as she does.
Walter Hardy is a lot like Clarissa herself: optimistic, youthful, and determined to enjoy life to the fullest. Richard and Sally find him vain and shallow, but Clarissa doesn't care, and her appreciation for him "has actually inspired Richard to wonder out loud if she, Clarissa, isn't more than a little vain and foolish herself" (1.25).
We get even harsher criticisms of Clarissa through the eyes of Mary Krull—a radical queer theorist who teaches—and is a little bit in love with—Clarissa's teenaged daughter. In Mary's eyes, Clarissa is a fool—a paragon of "queers of the old school, dressed to pass, bourgeois to the bone, living like husband and wife" (14.57). To Mary, Clarissa is unbearably privileged, unbearably conservative, and entirely oblivious to the realities of the world in which she lives.
Even Richard has sometimes suggested that he disapproves of Clarissa's decision to settle down and make a nice (and rich) little home with Sally. Are he and Mary right?
The truth is, Clarissa Vaughan is a complex, multifaceted woman with multiple strengths and weaknesses. For every person who finds her too trivial, too conservative, too shallow, or too vain, she endures dozens of moments in which she gets up in her own grill for having those very same qualities. If you really want to get to the heart of her personality, you can use the same measuring rod she uses to judge Walter Hardy:
He writes the best books he can—books full of romance and sacrifice, courage in the face of adversity—and surely they must offer real comfort to any number of people. His name appears constantly on invitations to fund-raisers and on letters of protest; he writes embarrassingly lavish blurbs for younger writers. He takes good, faithful care of Evan. These days, Clarissa believes, you measure people first by their kindness and their capacity for devotion. (1.26)
If nothing else, Clarissa's own kindness and capacity for devotion should convince us to like her just as much as she likes Walter Hardy. She takes good, faithful care of Richard. She publishes "good, flagrantly unprofitable books […] alongside the pulpier items that pay her way" (1.29). She devotes volunteer hours to PWAs, she's active in LGBT politics, and "she and Sally do not attempt to disguise their love for anyone's sake" (1.29). So what if she's also a little bit shallow, a little bit vain, or a little bit foolish, too?