As Clarissa steps down from the vestibule her shoe makes gritty contact with the red-brown, mica-studded stone of the first stair. She is fifty-two, just fifty-two, and in almost unnaturally good health. She feels every bit as good as she did that day in Wellfleet, at the age of eighteen, stepping out through the glass doors into a day very much like this one, fresh and almost painfully clear, rampant with growth. (1.4)
Even though more than thirty years have passed since the summer when Clarissa Vaughan and Richard Brown were young, carefree lovers, Clarissa remembers those days perfectly. That summer is the most important touchstone of her life, and her memories of it are still sharp and meaningful in her middle age.
She waits patiently for the light. She must have been spectacular twenty-five years ago; men must have died happy in her arms. Willie Bass is proud of his ability to discern the history of a face; to understand that those who are now old were once young. The light changes and he walks on. (1.8)
Willie Bass, a random passer-by who observes Clarissa Vaughan as she waits to cross the street, believes that he can see Clarissa's whole life etched in her face. Willie reads human faces in the same way that geologists read the faces of mountains and cliffs: they reflect on the visible proofs of the passage of time.
She is Virginia Stephen, pale and tall, startling as a Rembrandt or a Velázquez, appearing twenty years ago at her brother's rooms in Cambridge in a white dress, and she is Virginia Woolf, standing before him right now. She has aged dramatically, just this year, as if a layer of air has leaked out from under her skin. She's grown craggy and worn. She's begun to look as if she's carved from very porous, gray-white marble. She is still regal, still exquisitely formed, still possessed of her former lunar radiance, but she is suddenly no longer beautiful. (2.26)
Like Clarissa Vaughan, Virginia Woolf gets a literary time-lapse treatment as she stands under the gaze of a watchful man. In this case, the watchful man is her husband, Leonard, who can still see the woman she was twenty years ago as he looks at the woman she is now.
Laura glances at the clock on the nightstand. It's well past seven. Why did she buy this clock, this hideous thing, with its square green face in a rectangular black Bakelite sarcophagus—how could she ever have thought it was smart? (3.4)
Laura Brown's bedside clock is a symbol of dead time—or, to put it another way, it's the symbolic representation of Laura's sense that she will be trapped forever in the life that she is leading, day after day, hour after hour, for as long as she and her husband live. It's not for nothing that she perceives the clock as something entombed in a "sarcophagus."
These two girls standing beside Clarissa, twenty if not younger, defiantly hefty, slouching into each other, laden with brightly colored bags from discount stores; these two girls will grow to middle and then old age, either wither or bloat; the cemeteries in which they're buried will fall eventually into ruin, the grass grown wild, browsed at night by dogs; and when all that remains of these girls is a few silver fillings lost underground the woman in the trailer, be she Meryl Streep or Vanessa Redgrave or even Susan Sarandon, will still be known. (4.9)
Lots of the novel's comments on time are reflections on mortality. Just as Willie Bass looked at fifty-two-year-old Clarissa Vaughan and saw traces of the young woman she'd been, Clarissa looks at two young women and sees the elderly women—and then the corpses—that they'll become. Cheery.
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 […]. (4.10)
Clarissa Vaughan has lived most of her life in New York City, and she knows the city's past and present well. She can trace the passage of time through the city's streets and neighborhoods just as Willie Bass can trace it in her face.
"Sorry. I seem to keep thinking things have already happened. When you asked if I remembered about the party and the ceremony, I thought you meant, did I remember having gone to them. And I did remember. I seem to have fallen out of time."
"The party and ceremony are tonight. In the future."
"I understand. In a way, I understand. But, you see, I seem to have gone into the future, too. I have a distinct recollection of the party that hasn't happened yet. I remember the award ceremony perfectly." (4.71-73)
Unlike Clarissa Vaughan, who spends a fair bit of time indulging in memories of the past, Richard Brown is swept up in the future. Richard's inability to distinguish between what was, what is, and what is yet to be is one of the most striking signs of his mental deterioration—and yet, more poetically, it is also a stunning reflection of the novel's interest in human perceptions of time.
Richard may (although one hesitates to think in quite these terms) be entering the canon; he may at these last moments in his earthly career be receiving the first hints of a recognition that will travel far into the future […]. While there are no guarantees, it does seem possible, and perhaps even better than possible, that Clarissa and the small body of others have been right all along. […] Richard who observed so minutely and exhaustively, who tried to split the atom with words, will survive after other, more fashionable names have faded. (4.112)
Clarissa Vaughan is well aware that her friend is dying, but she can still imagine a bright future for his poetry—and for his memory. What Clarissa wants is for Richard to be recognized, here and now, in the present tense, as the sort of writer that people will be reading for years and years to come.
She decides, with misgivings, that she is finished for today. Always, there are these doubts. Should she try another hour? Is she being judicious, or slothful? Judicious, she tells herself, and almost believes it. She has her two hundred and fifty words, more or less. Let it be enough. Have faith that you will be here, recognizable to yourself, again tomorrow. (5.5)
Because Virginia Woolf lives in fear of relapsing into illness, it takes a lot of willpower and determination to accept that she can only work on her book little by little, day by day. Virginia doesn't have the luxury of assuming that she has all the time in the world: she has no way of knowing if and when her hours will suddenly be cut short.
He says, "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)
Title alert. For Richard Brown, each hour of the day is a trial that he struggles to endure. Unlike his friend Clarissa Vaughan, Richard doesn't believe that the dark and painful hours ahead may be broken up with hours of happiness and light; to him, the future seems absolutely bleak. His solution, in the end, is to put an end to his hours once and for all.
She imagines turning around, taking the stone out of her pocket, going back to the house. She could probably return in time to destroy the notes. She could live on; she could perform that final kindness. Standing knee-deep in the moving water, she decides against it. The voices are here, the headache is coming, and if she restores herself to the care of Leonard and Vanessa they won't let her go again, will they? She decides to insist that they let her go. (Prologue.1)
Although Virginia Woolf loves her husband and sister very much and knows that her death will break their hearts, her love for them has its limits. She refuses to live on in misery just for their sakes, and by explaining her decision in this way, Michael Cunningham draws a clear connection between Virginia's suicide, Richard Brown's suicide, and the attempted suicide of Laura Brown.
[…] You have
the greatest possible happiness. You
have been in every way all that anyone
could be. I don't think two
people could have been happier till
this terrible disease came. (Prologue.3)
In the suicide note that Virginia Woolf leaves for her husband, Leonard, Virginia chooses to say her goodbyes by telling Leonard how much he meant to her. Michael Cunningham didn't create this note himself: it's a transcript of the real note that the real Virginia Woolf left behind.
She loves Richard, she thinks of him constantly, but she perhaps loves the day slightly more. She loves West Tenth Street on an ordinary summer morning. She feels like a sluttish widow, freshly peroxided under her black veil, with her eye on the eligible men at her husband's wake.
Like her namesake, the original Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Vaughan is in love with life, despite its many tragedies. Even the impending death of her dearest friend Richard Brown doesn't prevent her from feeling wonderful on a bright, sunny day.
She's endured teasing on the subject for more than thirty years; she decided long ago to give in and enjoy her own voluptuous, undisciplined responses, which, as Richard put it, tend to be as unkind and adoring as those of a particularly irritating, precocious child. She knows that a poet like Richard would move sternly through the same morning, editing it, dismissing incidental ugliness along with incidental beauty, seeking the economic and historical truth behind these old brick town houses, the austere stone complications of the Episcopal church and the thin middle-aged man walking his Jack Russell terrier […]. (1.6)
Clarissa Vaughan's "undisciplined" capacity to love is very different from that of her best friend, Richard Brown. Even though Clarissa is a professional editor, it is Richard, the poet, who is much more likely to "edit" the world and, in doing so, restrict his enjoyment of it.
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 of hers 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, a name that cannot be conveyed in language but is simply the sight and feel of the thing itself. (1.6)
Is it really so silly and simple-minded to love as broadly and "indiscriminately" as Clarissa Vaughan does? All things considered, The Hours doesn't seem to think so. Even in its darkest moments, the book is a celebration of human life.
Leonard looks up at her, still wearing, for a moment, the scowl he has brought to the proofs. It is an expression she trusts and fears, his eyes blazing and impenetrably dark under his heavy brows, the corners of his mouth turned down in an expression of judgment that is severe but not in any way petulant or trivial […]. As he looks at her, though, the expression fades almost immediately and is replaced by the milder, kinder face of the husband who has nursed her through her worst periods, who does not demand what she can't provide and who urges on her, sometimes successfully, a glass of milk every morning at eleven. (2.8)
The love between Virginia and Leonard Woolf is reflected in the kindness they show each other. Although there doesn't seem to be much romantic or sexual passion in their marriage, that doesn't seem to be a problem: the two have other bonds that tie them together.
Here is the brilliant spirit, the woman of sorrows, the woman of transcendent joys, who would rather be elsewhere, who has consented to perform simple and essentially foolish tasks, to examine tomatoes, to sit under a hair dryer, because it is her art and her duty. Because the war is over, the world has survived, and we are here, all of us, making homes, having and raising children, creating not just books or paintings but a whole world—a world of order and harmony where children are safe (if not happy), where men who have seen horrors beyond imagining, who have acted bravely and well, come home to lighted windows, to perfume, to plates, to napkins. (3.14)
For her part, Laura Brown sometimes feels that all of the little things that she does daily to show her love for her husband and son are just part of one big show—a show that many American women are putting on simply because it seems like the right thing to do.
What lives undimmed in Clarissa's mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it's perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other. (8.31)
This one perfect moment from Clarissa Vaughan's youth resembles the moment that Virginia Woolf imagines for her heroine, Mrs. Dalloway—a single kiss, the memory of which will last a lifetime. For Clarissa, none of this discounts the genuine love that she feels for her long-term partner, Sally, but this "singular perfection" does stand out from every other moment in her life.
He says, "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)
Like Virginia Woolf, Richard Brown isn't willing to continue living on in misery just for the sake of his loved ones. Clarissa Vaughan has suspected that Richard doesn't love the world like she does, and, in the end, her suspicions turn out to be right.
"I love you. Does that sound trite?"
Richard smiles. He shakes his head. He says, "I don't think two people could have been happier than we've been."
He inches forward, slides gently off the sill, and falls. (18.59-62)
Richard Brown's final words to Clarissa Vaughan echo Virginia Woolf's suicide note directly. Like Virginia, Richard chooses to let go of both love and life when he feels that they can't last much longer.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Mrs. Dalloway said that morning to Richard. He answered, "Beauty is a whore, I like money better." He preferred wit. Clarissa, being the youngest, the only woman, felt she could afford a certain sentimentality. If it was late June, she and Richard would have been lovers. It would have been almost a full month since Richard left Louis's bed (Louis the farm-boy fantasy, the living embodiment of lazy-eyed carnality) and came into hers. (1.4)
Clarissa Vaughan and Richard Brown have a sexual history, but all that's left of that era of their lives are the memories that Clarissa lets herself indulge in every once in a while.
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, some sort of ethnic slippers (India? Central America?) on her feet. 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)
Speaking of Clarissa Vaughan's youthful sexiness and sexual expression, it seems that she still carries the traces of her younger, sexually liberated self. It might even make Clarissa happy to know that Willie Bass thinks of her in these terms, as she suspects that no one notices her anymore or thinks of her "with sexual notions of any sort" (8.25) now that she's middle-aged.
Clarissa Dalloway, in her first youth, will love another girl, Virginia thinks; Clarissa will believe that a rich, riotous future is opening before her, but eventually (how, exactly, will the change be accomplished?) she will come to her senses, as young women do, and marry a suitable man.
Yes, she will come to her senses, and marry. (7.1-2)
Do we detect a twinge of personal regret in these thoughts? Does Virginia Woolf wish that she herself had not done the "sensible" thing, and married a man?
It isn't failure, she tells herself. It isn't failure to be in these rooms, in your skin, cutting the stems of flowers. It isn't failure but it requires more of you, the whole effort does; just being present and grateful; being happy (terrible word). 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)
It bums Clarissa Vaughan out to think that people no longer think of her as a sexual—and sexually attractive—being. She knows that other things in life are more important than the admiration of total strangers, but still—she'd prefer if people didn't think of her as having aged out of sex and sexuality.
It was not betrayal, she had insisted; it was simply an expansion of the possible. She did not require fidelity of Richard—god forbid!—and she was not in any way extorting property that belonged to Louis. […] It was 1965; love spent might simply engender more of the same. It seemed possible, at least. Why not have sex with everybody, as long as you wanted them and they wanted you? So Richard continued on with Louis and started up with her as well, and it felt right; simply right. (8.27)
Clarissa Vaughan grew up in the fabled era of free love, and she and her friends made the most of it. The results are more complicated than they thought, though—as we can see by the characters' continued confusion about what they want.
It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and Clarissa is still sometimes shocked, more than thirty years later, to realize that it was happiness; that the entire experience lay in a kiss and a walk, the anticipation of dinner and a book. The dinner is by now forgotten; Lessing has been long overshadowed by other writers; and even the sex, once she and Richard reached that point, was ardent but awkward, unsatisfying, more kindly than passionate. What lives undimmed in Clarissa's mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. (8.31)
It isn't so much the memory of sex itself that Clarissa Vaughan values now, in her middle age: what she values is the whole sexual atmosphere of the time. The certainty of being young, beautiful, and wanted; the thrill of being swept up in sensations of promise and possibility: these are the things she values and misses most.
Kitty snakes her arms around Laura's waist. Laura is flooded with feeling. Here, right here in her arms, are Kitty's fear and courage, Kitty's illness. Here are her breasts. Here is the stout, practical heart that beats beneath; here are the watery lights of her being—deep pink lights, red-gold lights, glittering, unsteady; lights that gather and disperse; here are the depths of Kitty, the heart beneath the heart; the untouchable essence that a man (Ray, of all people!) dreams of, yearns toward, searches for so desperately at night. (9.72)
Laura Brown shares an unexpected and intimate moment with her neighbor, Kitty, but the two women play it off like nothing happened. What do you think, Shmoopers? Could some feelings of repressed or unfulfilled sexuality be contributing to Laura's depression?
"Well," Clarissa says. She can think of nothing else to say. She feels sorry for Louis, and deeply impatient, and yet, she thinks, Louis is in love. He is in love with a young man. He is fifty-three and still has all that ahead of him, the sex and the ridiculous arguments, the anguish. (11.106)
Although Clarissa Vaughan is annoyed to hear that her friend Louis Waters has fallen in love with yet another one of his drama students, she's a little bit jealous of him, too. After all, she's been feeling like her days of sexual adventure are far behind her, and here's Louis, a year older than she is, climbing back into the saddle for more.
She touches her lips, where Kitty's kiss briefly resided. She doesn't mind so much about the kiss, what it does and does not imply, except that it gives Kitty an edge. Love is deep, a mystery—who wants to understand its every particular? Laura desires Kitty. She desires her force, her brisk and cheerful disappointment, the shifting pink-gold lights of her secret self and the crisp, shampooed depths of her hair. Laura desires Dan, too, in a darker and less exquisite way; a way that is more subtly haunted by cruelty and shame. Still it is desire; sharp as a bone chip. (12.6)
All things considered, Laura Brown seems to be very comfortable with the sudden realization that she desires her neighbor, Kitty. Since we don't learn anything about her sexual history, we have no way of knowing if that unexpected kiss in the kitchen was a moment of epiphany for Laura. Maybe she already knew that she was attracted to women; maybe she didn't. One thing's for sure: Michael Cunningham makes a point of avoiding any of the tropes that depict bisexual people as tormented and confused.
They are just beginning to open. Their petals, at the base, are suffused with a deeper yellow, almost orange, a mango-colored blush that spreads upward and diffuses itself in hairline veins. […] Sally buys them quickly, almost furtively, as if she fears the Korean woman who runs the stand will realize there's been a mix-up and inform her, gravely, that these flowers are not for sale. She walks along Tenth Street with the roses in her hand, feeling exultant, and when she enters the apartment she is slightly aroused. How long has it been since they've had sex? (16.81)
Fortunately for Clarissa Vaughan, her sexy days aren't over yet. Just because the average person on the street may not think of her "with sexual notions" (8.25), that doesn't mean that her partner, Sally, is oblivious to her charms.
She walks out past one of the farm workers (is his name John?), a robust, small-headed man wearing a potato-colored vest, cleaning the ditch that runs through the osier bed. He looks up at her, nods, looks down again into the brown water. As she passes him on her way to the river she thinks of how successful he is, how fortunate, to be cleaning a ditch in an osier bed. She herself has failed. She is not a writer at all, really; she is merely a gifted eccentric. (1.1)
As Virginia Woolf prepares to drown herself in a river, her desolate point of view comes through in these thoughts about her accomplishments (or lack thereof). Like Richard Brown, this Virginia ends her life while thinking of herself as a failure—as someone who has failed to live up to her own expectations of what great writers can and should do.
Outside, beyond the glass, Richmond continues in its decent, peaceful dream of itself. Flowers and hedges are attended to; shutters are repainted before they require it. The neighbors, whom she does not know, do whatever it is they do behind the blinds and shutters of their red brick villa. She can only think of dim rooms and a listless, overcooked smell. She turns from the window. If she can remain strong and clear, if she can keep on weighing at least nine and a half stone, Leonard will be persuaded to move back to London. (2.28)
Eighteen years before her suicide, Virginia Woolf is living in Richmond, England—a suburb of London that's supposed to be placid and safe enough for her to stay healthy and sane. The only problem? She hates it there and feels stifled and bored.
Still, when she opened her eyes a few minutes ago (after seven already!)—when she still half inhabited her dream, some sort of pulsating machinery in the remote distance, a steady pounding like a gigantic mechanical heart, which seemed to be drawing nearer—she felt the dank sensation around her, the nowhere feeling, and knew it was going to be a difficult day. (3.4)
Of all three of the women who star in The Hours, Laura Brown is by far the most dissatisfied with her current situation. On bad days, she has to struggle just to get out of bed in the morning.
How, Laura wonders, could someone who was able to write a sentence like that—who was able to feel everything contained in a sentence like that—come to kill herself? What in the world is wrong with people? 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)
Not only does Laura Brown need to work up the willpower to get out of bed and face the day, but there are also moments when she has to remind herself that she likes her husband and child. Laura is so unhappy with her life that she finds it hard to feel unconditionally positive about any part of it.
She, Laura, likes to imagine (it's one of her most closely held secrets) that she has a touch of brilliance herself, just a hint of it, though she knows most people probably walk around with similar hopeful suspicions curled up like tiny fists inside them, never divulged. (3.14)
Can anyone else relate? How many of us dream of having secret skills and talents that no one in our lives would ever suspect? How many of us believe that we may be undiscovered geniuses, or prospective superheroes?
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. This is her husband in the kitchen; this is her little boy. All the man and boy require of her is her presence and, of course, her love. (3.17)
Although performance metaphors appear in all three of The Hours' narratives, Laura Brown experiences this "dreamlike feeling" more strongly and more frequently than either Virginia Woolf or Clarissa Vaughan. Her life as a suburban housewife feels uncanny to her—so strange and unfamiliar that sometimes it hardly seems real.
She dreads her lapses into pain and light and she suspects they are necessary. She has been free for quite some time now, for years. She knows how suddenly the headache can return but she discounts it in Leonard's presence, acts more firmly healthy than she sometimes feels. She will return to London. Better to die raving mad in London than evaporate in Richmond. (5.4)
Virginia Woolf's dislike for Richmond goes deeper than mere boredom: being stuck in the suburbs makes her feel like she's slowly disappearing from the world.
It seems possible (it does not seem impossible) that she's slipped across an invisible line, the line that has always separated her from what she would prefer to feel, who she would prefer to be. […] It seems she will be fine. She will not lose hope. She will not mourn her lost possibilities, her unexplored talents (what if she has no talents, after all?). She will remain devoted to her son, her husband, her home and duties, all her gifts. She will want this second child. (6.26)
What does Laura Brown's second child represent to her? Another responsibility, and another tie that tethers her to marriage and to motherhood. It isn't just the child that Laura doesn't want: it's the entire package of the life that goes with it.
The cake is less than she'd hoped it would be. She tries not to mind. It is only a cake, she tells herself. It is only a cake. (9.1)
Actually, it isn't only a cake. Laura Brown's disappointment with the cake she makes for her husband is just like the dissatisfaction she feels for her life in general. (Oooh, symbolism.) Laura dreamed of something "more" than what she has, and reality simply hasn't measured up.
It seems, briefly, that by going to the hotel she has slipped out of her life, and this driveway, this garage, are utterly strange to her. She has been away. She has been thinking kindly, even longingly, of death. It comes to her here, in Mrs. Latch's driveway—she has been thinking longingly of death. (17.2)
Ultimately, Laura Brown's unhappiness leads her to attempt suicide. When that attempt fails, she decides to take her life into her own hands in a very different way—by leaving her family and moving to Toronto to begin a new life altogether.
Her shoes sink slightly into the soft earth. She has failed, and now the voices are back, muttering indistinctly just beyond the range of her vision, behind her, here, no, turn and they've gone somewhere else. The voices are back and the headache is approaching as surely as rain, the headache that will crush whatever is she and replace her with itself. (Prologue.1)
The Hours opens with the final moments of Virginia Woolf's life. Because Virginia believes that she is relapsing into an illness that once threatened her sanity and her own sense of self, she has decided to reject the illness by taking her own life.
Clarissa's shoes make their soft sandpaper sounds as she descends the stair on her way to buy flowers. Why doesn't she feel more somber about Richard's perversely simultaneous good fortune ("an anguished, prophetic voice in American letters") and his decline ("You have no T-cells at all, none that we can detect")? What is wrong with her? (1.6)
Very early on in The Hours, we learn that Richard Brown is dying of AIDS. With one of its three narratives set in a gay community in New York City at "the end of the twentieth century" (1.2), the novel is full of characters who have lost or are losing loved ones to this devastating disease.
Still, she loves the world for being rude and indestructible, and she knows other people must love it too, poor as well as rich, though no one speaks specifically of the reasons. Why else do we struggle to go on living, no matter how compromised, no matter how harmed? Even if we're further gone than Richard; even if we're fleshless, blazing with lesions, shitting in the sheets; still, we want desperately to live. (1.9)
Clarissa Vaughan has an undeniable lust for life, and there are times when that makes it hard for her to understand that others—like her best friend Richard Brown—may not feel the same. Clarissa simply assumes that no matter how bad things get, Richard will always want to go on living.
"What are you doing in New York on a Saturday?" she asks.
"Evan and I are staying in town this weekend," he says. "He's feeling so much better on this new cocktail, he says he wants to go dancing tonight."
"Isn't that a little much?"
"I'll keep an eye on him. I won't let him overdo it. He just wants to be out in the world again." (1.12-15)
Walter Hardy is another one of the novel's characters who have been taking care of loved ones living with AIDS. Walter and his partner, Evan, have been more fortunate than Richard Brown. Unlike Richard, Evan is still healthy enough to benefit from new medications that are being developed.
She is aware of her reflected movements in the glass but does not permit herself to look. The mirror is dangerous; it sometimes shows her the dark manifestation of air that matches her body, takes her form, but stands behind, watching her, with porcine eyes and wet, hushed breathing. (2.5)
The manifestations of Virginia Woolf's illness terrify her, and with good reason. Who wouldn't freak out if they saw a shadowy, pig-eyed version of themselves lurking in the mirror?
She should be standing before the stove in her new robe, full of simple, encouraging talk. Still, when she opened her eyes a few minutes ago (after seven already!)—when she still half inhabited her dream, some sort of pulsating machinery in the remote distance, a steady pounding like a gigantic mechanical heart, which seemed to be drawing nearer—she felt the dank sensation around her, the nowhere feeling, and knew it was going to be a difficult day. (3.4)
Laura Brown's struggles with depression forge a connection between her, Virginia Woolf, and the adult Richard Brown. All three of them live with some form of illness or suffering that makes it difficult for them to get through each day.
How can she help resenting Evan and all the others who got the new drugs in time; all the fortunate ("fortunate" being, of course, a relative term) men and women whose minds had not yet been eaten into lace by the virus. How can she help feeling angry on behalf of Richard, whose muscles and organs have been revived by the new discoveries but whose mind seems to have passed beyond any sort of repair other than the conferring of good days among the bad. (4.24)
Clarissa Vaughan knows that her dearest friend, Richard Brown, will not survive his illness. She doesn't exactly get in a huff about the better fortune of those who will survive, but who can blame her for resenting the hand that Richard was dealt?
"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. They were singing, just now, in a foreign language. I believe it may have been Greek. Archaic Greek." (4.48-51)
One of the manifestations of Richard Brown's illness is his tendency to see and hear Greek-speaking beings in his apartment. This is another one of the ideas that Michael Cunningham lifted directly from Mrs. Dalloway, and The Hours draws extra attention to it by giving Virginia Woolf a very similar problem.
He says, "I don't know if I can bear it, Clarissa."
"Being proud and brave in front of everybody. I recall it vividly. There I am, a sick, crazy wreck reaching out with trembling hands to receive his little trophy."
"Honey, you don't need to be proud. You don't need to be brave. It's not a performance."
"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." (4.81-85)
It upsets Richard Brown to think that his writing is only being honored because of his illness, and not because of the merit of the work itself. (It's not at all clear if that's actually true, but it's the way he feels about it.) He doesn't want to be held up as a paragon of bravery through suffering: all he has ever wanted to do is produce brilliant writing.
At those times the headache moves out of her skull and into the world. 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. […] When she's crossed over to this realm of relentless brilliance, the voices start. Sometimes they are low, disembodied grumblings that coalesce out of the air itself; sometimes they emanate from behind the furniture or inside the walls. […] A flock of sparrows outside her window once sang, unmistakably, in Greek. (5.4)
Not only does this passage echo an earlier one in The Hours, drawing an unmistakable connection between Virginia Woolf and Richard Brown, but it also echoes Woolf's own Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia and Richard are separate mirror images of Septimus Warren Smith—a poet and WWI veteran who, in Mrs. Dalloway, suffers from undiagnosed PTSD and in the end takes his own life.
The name Mrs. Dalloway had been Richard's idea—a conceit tossed off one drunken dormitory night as he assured her that Vaughan was nor 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. There was the matter of her existing first name, a sign too obvious to ignore, and, more important, the larger question of fate. (1.4)
As he creates his late twentieth-century echo of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Michael Cunningham offers a plausible reason why Clarissa Vaughan can be called Mrs. Dalloway. According to Richard Brown, "[s]he, 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).
"Nice to see you," Walter says. Clarissa knows—she can practically see—that Walter is, at this moment, working mentally through a series of intricate calibrations regarding her personal significance. Yes, she's the woman in the book, the subject of a much-anticipated novel by an almost legendary writer, but the book failed, didn't it? It was curtly reviewed; it slipped silently beneath the waves. She is, Walter decides, like a deposed aristocrat, interesting without being particularly important. (1.11)
Richard Brown doesn't just rename Clarissa Vaughan after "a great figure in literature" (1.4): he also tries to immortalize her in a novel of his own—one that also sounds like it has a whole lot in common with Mrs. Dalloway, by the way.
Richard will never admit to nor recover from his dislike of her, never; he will never discard his private conviction that Clarissa has, at heart, become a society wife, and never mind the fact that she and Sally do not attempt to disguise their love for anyone's sake, or that Sally is a devoted, intelligent woman, a producer of public television, for heaven's sake […]. Never mind the good, flagrantly unprofitable books Clarissa insists on publishing alongside the pulpier items that pay her way. Never mind her politics, all her work with PWAs. (1.29)
Clarissa Vaughan seems to be a professional literary editor and publisher, and it's clear that her life is as tied up in literature and writing as are the lives of the novel's author figures, Virginia Woolf and Richard Brown. Like Virginia Woolf's husband, Leonard, Clarissa devotes herself to the task of getting worthwhile books printed and out into the world.
Leonard looks up at her, still wearing, for a moment, the scowl he has brought to the proofs. It is an expression she trusts and fears, his eyes blazing and impenetrably dark under his heavy brows, the corners of his mouth turned down in an expression of judgment that is severe but not in any way petulant or trivial—the frown of a deity, all-seeing and weary, hoping for the best from humankind, knowing just how much to expect. It is the expression he brings to all written work, including, and especially, her own. (2.8)
Like Clarissa Vaughan, Leonard Woolf is a devoted editor and publisher, and he cares deeply about the cultural and artistic value of great literature. Unlike Clarissa, he tends to scowl and brood grumpily over stacks of proofs.
She stands tall, haggard, marvelous in her housecoat, the coffee steaming in her hand. He is still, at times, astonished by her. She may be the most intelligent woman in England, he thinks. Her books may be read for centuries. He believes this more ardently than does anyone else. And she is his wife. (2.26)
Leonard Woolf's opinion about Virginia Woolf's writing isn't wrong—at least, not that we can see so far. Although it hasn't yet been centuries since Woolf's books were published, we're coming up one the one-century mark now, and she's still going strong.
This morning she may penetrate the obfuscation, the clogged pipes, to reach the gold. She can feel it inside her, an all but indescribable second self, or rather a parallel, purer self. If she were religious, she would call it the soul. It is more than the sum of her intellect and her emotions, more than the sum of her experiences, though it runs like veins of brilliant metal through all three. It is an inner faculty that recognizes the animating mysteries of the world because it is made of the same substance, and when she is very fortunate she is able to write directly through that faculty. (2.28)
For Michael Cunningham's Virginia Woolf, there is nothing better than the moments when her writing seems to emerge from this "parallel, purer self." As the novel's narrator puts it: "Writing in that state is the most profound satisfaction she knows" (2.28).
Laura Brown is trying to lose herself. No, that's not it exactly—she is trying to keep herself by gaining entry into a parallel world. She lays the book face down on her chest. Already her bedroom (no, their bedroom) feels more densely inhabited, more actual, because a character named Mrs. Dalloway is one her way to buy flowers. (3.4)
Whereas Virginia Woolf is a professional writer and Clarissa Vaughan is a professional editor and publisher, Laura Brown is an avid reader. Literature is just as much a part of her life as it is part of Virginia's and Clarissa's: on good days and bad, reading is the only thing that lets Laura feel like herself. No wonder she chooses to become a librarian after she leaves her life in Los Angeles behind.
He could (in the words of his own alarmed mother) have had anyone, any pageant winner, any vivacious and compliant girl, but through some obscure and possibly perverse genius had kissed, courted, and proposed to his best friend's older sister, the bookworm, the foreign-looking one with the dark, close-set eyes and the Roman nose, who had never been sought after or cherished; who had always been left alone, to read. (3.8)
Before she got married and became Laura Brown, Laura Zielski was a "solitary," "incessant reader" (3.9). Laura believes that, "[i]n another world, she might have spent her whole life reading" (3.8). When she eventually leaves her life in Los Angeles behind and moves to Toronto to become a librarian, that's exactly what she does.
It is only after knowing him for some time that you begin to realize you are, to him, an essentially fictional character, one he has invested with nearly limitless capacities for tragedy and comedy not because that is your true nature but because he, Richard, needs to live in a world peopled by extreme and commanding figures. Some have ended their relations with him rather than continue as figures in the epic poem he is always composing inside his head, the story of his life and passions; but others (Clarissa among them) enjoy the sense of hyperbole he brings to their lives. (4.62)
Who wouldn't love to feel as if they're a character in an epic poem being composed by one of their friends?
She would like to take him by his bony shoulders and shake him, hard. Richard may (although one hesitates to think in quite these terms) be entering the canon; he may at these last moments in his earthly career be receiving the first hints of a recognition that will travel far into the future (assuming, of course, there is any future at all). (4.112)
Just as Leonard Woolf believes that his wife's books "may be read for centuries" (2.26), Clarissa Vaughan believes that Richard Brown may earn a kind of immortality through his writing.
Before Richard's decline, Clarissa always fought with him. Richard actually worried over questions of good and evil, and he never, not in twenty years, fully abandoned the notion that Clarissa's decision to live with Sally represents, if not some workaday manifestation of deep corruption, at least a weakness on her part that indicts (though Richard would never admit this) women in general, since he seems to have decided early on that Clarissa stands not only for herself but for the gifts and frailties of her entire sex. (1.29)
Exactly what is it about Clarissa Vaughan's decision to live with her partner, Sally, that displeases Richard Brown? It isn't homophobia or conservative cultural values, so what's the problem? Does he not think they love each other enough, or in the right way? Is he jealous?
He had a habit of asking about Sally after one of his tirades, as if Sally were some sort of utterly banal safe haven; as if Sally herself (Sally the stoic, the tortured, the subtly wise) were harmless and insipid in the way of a house on a quiet street or a good, solid, reliable car. Richard will never admit to nor recover from his dislike of her, never; he will never discard his private conviction that Clarissa has, at heart, become a society wife […]. (1.29)
This is the reason why Richard Brown is so disgruntled by Clarissa Vaughan's life with her partner, Sally. From his perspective, Sally has domesticated Clarissa (the former flower child), and has turned her into a "society wife"—just like the original Mrs. Dalloway.
You respect Mary Krull, she really gives you no choice, living as she does on the verge of poverty, going to jail for her various causes, lecturing passionately about the sorry masquerade known as gender. You want to like her, you struggle to, but she is finally too despotic in her intellectual and moral intensity, her endless demonstration of cutting-edge, leather-jacketed righteousness. You know she mocks you, privately, for your comforts and your quaint (she must consider them quaint) notions about lesbian identity. (1.31)
Under certain circumstances, Clarissa Vaughan and Mary Krull could be political allies. But because Clarissa holds more traditional and culturally conservative ideas about femininity, domesticity, and lesbian identity, she and Mary—a radical queer and gender theorist—are usually at odds.
She stands tall, haggard, marvelous in her housecoat, the coffee steaming in her hand. He is still, at times, astonished by her. She may be the most intelligent woman in England, he thinks. Her books may be read for centuries. He believes this more ardently than does anyone else. And she is his wife. She is Virginia Stephen, pale and tall, startling as a Rembrandt or a Velázquez, appearing twenty years ago at her brother's rooms in Cambridge in a white dress, and she is Virginia Woolf, standing before him right now. (2.26)
As Michael Cunningham depicts them, Leonard and Virginia Woolf have the kind of relationship that Laura Brown can only dream about. Whereas Leonard respects, admires, and loves his wife because of her talent and intelligence, Laura feels that being a good wife to her husband, Dan, means putting her own desires and ambitions to the side so that she can do trivial, dutiful things. It's not entirely clear how much Dan himself expects her to do this, but it's clearly the role suburban American society has defined for women in Laura's position.
She wonders, while she pushes a cart through the supermarket or has her hair done, if the other women aren't all thinking, to some degree or other, the same thing: Here is the brilliant spirit, the woman of sorrows, the woman of transcendent joys, who would rather be elsewhere, who has consented to perform simple and essentially foolish tasks, to examine tomatoes, to sit under a hair dryer, because it is her art and her duty. (3.15)
For Laura Brown, performing her role as wife and mother feels oppressive and dull. Laura dreams of being brilliant, like Virginia Woolf, and she resents the fact that trivial, mundane tasks like shopping for groceries and getting her hair done are the only things that society asks and expects of her.
It seems good enough; parts seem very good indeed. She has lavish hopes, of course—she wants this to be her best book, the one that finally matches her expectations. But can a single day in the life of an ordinary woman be made into enough for a novel? (5.2)
For contemporary readers like us, this question is a no-brainer. Of course a single day in the life of an ordinary woman can fill an entire novel. James Joyce charted a single day in the life of an ordinary man in his hefty novel Ulysses, so why wouldn't an ordinary woman be just as interesting as Leopold Bloom? That said, it might not seem like such a no-brainer to us if Virginia Woolf had never written Mrs. Dalloway. Luckily for us, the novel blazed a serious trail.
There is true art in it, this command of tea and dinner tables; this animating correctness. Men may congratulate themselves for writing truly and passionately about the movements of nations; they may consider war and the search for God to be great literature's only subjects, but if men's standing in the world could be toppled by an ill-advised choice of hat, English literature would be dramatically changed. (7.8)
Here's a Big Question for you, Shmoopers: have public conceptions of "great literature" changed very much since Virginia Woolf's time? Are big novels about politics, government, war, nation-building, and religion—areas that have been dominated historically by men and male writers—still most likely to be considered "great"?
Clarissa Dalloway, she thinks, 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 her 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)
In The Hours, Michael Cunningham attempts to do the exact same thing with Laura Brown. What do you think, Shmoopers? Does he succeed in conveying Laura's own "miniature but very real desperation"?
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)
In her own moments of sadness and self-consciousness, Clarissa Vaughan sometimes feels a lot like Laura Brown. That is, she sometimes feels as though people don't see her for who she really is, but instead see her simply as the wife of someone who is much more valuable and interesting.
The cake is cute, Kitty tells her, the way a child's painting might be cute. It is sweet and touching in its heartfelt, agonizingly sincere discrepancy between ambition and facility. Laura understands: There are two choices only. You can be capable or uncaring. You can produce a masterful cake by your own hand or, barring that, light a cigarette, declare yourself hopeless at such projects, pour yourself another cup of coffee, and order a cake from the bakery. Laura is an artisan who has tried, and failed, publicly. (9.25)
Laura Brown's failed cake is the equivalent of the failed party that Virginia Woolf intends to create for her heroine, Mrs. Dalloway. Why is Laura so put out by her failure to create a perfect, beautiful cake?
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. As if standing at the edge of a pool she delays for a moment the plunge, the quick membrane of chill, the plain shock of immersion. (1.3).
The novel's first chapter leaves no question about Clarissa Vaughan's love for her city. Her townhouse apartment in New York City's West Village is "home" in every sense of the word, and so are the streets and shops that sit waiting beyond her doorstep.
When she is finished in the bathroom she descends into the dusky morning quiet of the hall. She wears her pale blue housecoat. 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)
The contrast between light and darkness that Michael Cunningham creates in this passage is pretty striking, and it's worth pausing over this description. Exactly what does it mean to say that the house is "nocturnal," but "is not dark in itself"? What kind of atmosphere are we meant to imagine here?
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. This is her husband in the kitchen; this is her little boy. (3.17)
For Laura Brown, fulfilling her roles as wife, mother, and suburban homemaker feels like performing a part in a play. Both her home and her home life seem deeply uncanny to her, and she doesn't really know why.
For a while they are all absorbed in the ritual of his leaving: the taking on of the jacket and briefcase; the flurry of kisses; the waves, he from over his shoulder as he crosses the lawn to the driveway, Laura and Richie from behind the screen door. Their lawn, extravagantly watered, is a brilliant, almost unearthly green. Laura and Richie stand like spectators at a parade as the man pilots his ice-blue Chevrolet down the short driveway and into the street. He waves one last time, jauntily, from behind the wheel. (3.52)
Laura Brown sometimes feels that there is something unsettling about life in suburban Los Angeles. There are times when something feels pre-packaged or unreal about the roles that everyone is playing. The perfect rows of houses with their "unearthly" lawns have a Stepford Wives kind of vibe—and that's not a good thing.
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. Clarissa walks through it as she would negotiate the hold of a sunken ship. (4.25)
Richard Brown's apartment is the physical manifestation of his unusual state of mind. Just as Richard's illness makes it hard for him to separate dreams from reality, his apartment makes Clarissa Vaughan feel "as if she has passed through a dimensional warp—through the looking glass, as it were" (4.25).
Although it is among the best of them, Richmond is, finally and undeniably, a suburb, only that, with all the word implies about window boxes and hedges; about wives walking pugs; about clocks striking the hours in empty rooms. Virginia thinks of the love of a girl. She despises Richmond. She is starved for London; she dreams sometimes about the hearts of cities. (7.7)
Even though she has lived in Richmond, England for roughly eight years, it will never feel like "home" to Virginia Woolf. Virginia longs for the excitement and vitality of the city, and she can't wait to leave the sedate suburb behind.
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. They had a certain amount to spend and they lucked into these pine-planked floors, this bank of casement windows that open onto the bricked patio where emerald moss grows in shallow stone troughs and a small circular fountain, a platter of clear water, burbles at the touch of a switch. (8.22)
Clarissa Vaughan is the only one of the novel's three protagonists who loves her home. That's not too surprising, given the fact that she got to choose this gorgeous place for herself. The others didn't get to choose.
Clarissa is filled, suddenly, with a sense of dislocation. This is not her kitchen at all. This is the kitchen of an acquaintance, pretty enough but not her taste, full of foreign smells. She lives elsewhere. She lives in a room where a tree gently taps against the glass as someone touches a needle to a phonograph record. (8.22)
And yet, despite the fact that Clarissa Vaughan genuinely loves her home, she still shares something in common with Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown. Like them, she occasionally dreams of abandoning the home she lives in and re-creating an earlier, better life somewhere else.
Louis takes four steps into the living room. Here he is again, in the big cool room with the garden, the deep sofa, and good rugs. He blames Sally for the apartment. It's Sally's influence, Sally's taste. Sally and Clarissa live in a perfect replica of an upper-class West Village apartment; you imagine somebody's assistant striding through with a clipboard: French leather armchairs, check; Stickley table, check; linen-colored walls hung with botanical prints, check; bookshelves studded with small treasures acquired abroad, check. (11.33)
Louis Waters doesn't approve of Clarissa Vaughan's home: to him, it seems too staged and clichéd. Even though Clarissa doesn't feel this way herself, Louis's point of view echoes both Laura Brown's and Virginia Woolf's perceptions of their homes as theatrical settings where they perform.
The apartment is full of light. Clarissa almost gasps at the threshold. All the shades have been raised, the windows opened. Although the air is filled only with the ordinary daylight that enters any tenement apartment on a sunny afternoon, it seems, in Richard's rooms, like a silent explosion. Here are his cardboard boxes, his bathtub (filthier than she'd realized), the dusty mirror and the expensive coffeemaker, all revealed in their true pathos, their ordinary smallness. It is, quite simply, the tenement apartment of a deranged person. (18.2)
When Clarissa Vaughan's imaginative metaphors and similes are taken out of the equation, Richard Brown's apartment seems much more ordinary and pitiful. Likewise, as Clarissa interacts with Richard in his final moments, she sees him as he really is, and not as the younger, healthier, more brilliant version of himself that she's been remembering all morning and afternoon.