Okay, folks, spoiler alert: the big twist in this novel comes when we find out that Laura Brown's three-year-old son Richie and Clarissa Vaughan's beloved friend Richard Worthington Brown are one and the same person.
Richard is the tie that connects Laura Brown's narrative to Clarissa Vaughan's. In terms of his intertextual significance, he is also the novel's most complex character, carrying traces of no less than three of the characters who appear in the original Mrs. Dalloway. Lace up your imaginative hiking boots, Shmoopers, and we'll walk you through it.
As we explore in our study of Clarissa Vaughan's partner, Sally, The Hours reverses a very important pairing from Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. In that novel, Woolf's heroine shares, in her youth, a vividly memorable kiss with a girl named Sally Seton. Rather than pursuing anything further with Sally, Woolf's Clarissa "comes to her senses" (7.1) and opts to marry a young man named Richard Dalloway.
In The Hours, Michael Cunningham turns things around by giving his own heroine, Clarissa Vaughan, vivid memories of a kiss (actually, not just a kiss) that she once shared with her best friend, a young man named Richard. But, rather than ending up with Richard, Cunningham's Clarissa chooses to settle down with a woman named Sally.
Oh, how the tables have turned.
So, like Sally in The Hours, Richard Brown is the literary counterpart of both Sally Seton and Richard Dalloway. He shares Richard's name (duh), and, like Sally Seton, he has given Clarissa one vivid memory of a midsummer night's kiss long ago.
Now, on top of all that, Richard Brown is also the contemporary counterpart of another character in Mrs. Dalloway: Septimus Warren Smith.
Septimus Warren Smith is Mrs. Dalloway's tragic figure. A WWI veteran, he suffers from the mental illness that we now call PTSD, which in his time was misunderstood as "shell shock" and "nerves." Septimus doesn't trust his doctors (with good reason, unfortunately), and he doesn't get the treatment he needs. In the end, fearing that he's about to be imprisoned in a hospital for people thought to be insane, he throws himself out of a window and dies a gruesome and painful death.
It doesn't take a big stretch of the imagination to see that Richard Worthington Brown is the literary echo of Septimus Warren Smith, and the connections that Cunningham draws between the two characters open up some avenues for further exploration that might get you thinking.
For example, Septimus Warren Smith is a traumatized veteran of the First World War, and England's medical system fails him. His doctors don't understand his condition, and they don't make any real effort to treat his symptoms effectively.
For his part, Richard Brown has been living through a devastating epidemic that must have made people feel, at times, like they were waging a war for the lives of gay men, who were disproportionately stricken by HIV/AIDS. It took years for America's politicians and medical establishments to acknowledge the scale of the epidemic and devote significant resources to fighting it, and Cunningham is definitely drawing some provocative parallels here.
But there's more.
At three years old, Richie Brown is an observant and unusually insightful child. When his mother leaves him with a neighbor for a few hours so that she can "run some errands," Richie knows that something's up. Later, in the car on the way home, he tells his mother that he loves her. There's something so strange and significant in his tone that Laura Brown realizes:
He knows. He must know. The little boy can tell she's been somewhere illicit; he can tell she's lying. He watches her constantly, spends almost every waking hour in her presence. He's seen her with Kitty. He's watched her make a second cake, and bury the first one under other garbage in the can beside the garbage. He is devoted, entirely, to the observation and deciphering of her, because without her there is no world at all.
Of course he would know when she's lying. (17.37-38)
From everything we're told about the adult Richard Brown, his childhood knack for observation and insight grew stronger and knackier over time. When Clarissa Vaughan thinks of Richard, she thinks of him as someone who is endlessly knowledgeable and analytical—someone who would "move sternly" through a bright June 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).
To Clarissa, Richard is a writer who "tried to split the atom with words" (4.112). Her perception of him seems to be right on the money, as his own descriptions of his desires and ambitions imply. As he tells Clarissa:
"I thought I was a genius. I actually used that word, privately, to myself."
"Oh, pride, pride. I was so wrong. It defeated me. It simply proved insurmountable. There was so much, oh, far too much for me. I mean, there's the weather, there's the water and the land, there are the animals, and the buildings, and the past and the future, there's space, there's history." (4.120-22)
In his final moments, Richard sums up his ambitions even more succinctly. He says: "What I wanted to do seemed simple. I wanted to create something alive and shocking enough that it could stand beside a morning in somebody's life. The most ordinary morning. Imagine, trying to do that. What foolishness" (18.53).
What Richard wants is to have created a work of art that could be just as memorable and vivid—just as definitive for a reader's sense of self—as the memories that he and Clarissa both share of their days together at Wellfleet. He doesn't think he's succeeded in doing that, but the reality of the situation isn't so clear. After all, Virginia Woolf too thought that she hadn't succeeded in producing anything particularly worthwhile, but history proved her wrong.
What do you think will happen with Richard's work over time?