Study Guide

The Hours Themes

  • Time

    It's probably not going to come as a surprise to you that time is a major theme in a book called The Hours. As characters go about their lives in the novel, some of them feel intensely grateful for the hours they've been given on this earth, while others find it a struggle just to make it from one hour to the next. Time marches on for all of them, but each of them has to decide how long to keep marching with it.

    Questions About Time

    1. Roughly how much of The Hours takes place in the present of its characters' lives, and how much of it takes place in the realm of memory?
    2. Which of the characters seem to be the most burdened by time?
    3. Which of the characters are greediest for more time?

    Chew on This

    For Laura Brown and Richard Brown, time is an oppressive force. Because they are so unhappy in their situations, it's distressing for them to think that things will continue on in the same way hour after hour and day after day.

    Even though she's technically younger than Clarissa Vaughan, Virginia Woolf worries more about the inevitable moment when her time will "run out." It's not that she's afraid of death, exactly: what she's afraid of is a relapse into the illness that will ruin her life and take her from herself. For this reason, it's hard for her not to feel like every day might be her last.

  • Love

    If Haddaway is still looking for someone to tell him what love is, he could do worse than hitting up The Hours for a clue. Love comes in many shapes throughout the novel: we see romantic love between straight, gay, and lesbian partners; we see lifelong friendships that have required loving devotion and care; we see marriages in which sexual attraction takes a backseat to other forms of companionship; we see unrequited infatuation; we see the bonds of love between parents and children; and, above all, we see love for life itself.

    Love—in any number of forms—is part of the human experience, and The Hours is all about exploring the ties that bind its characters to one another, and to the world they inhabit.

    Questions About Love

    1. Who or what does Clarissa Vaughan love more than anything, according to The Hours?
    2. How does Clarissa Vaughan's love for Richard Brown compare to her love for Sally?
    3. What metaphors are used to characterize Mary Krull's infatuation with Julia? What exactly do they mean?
    4. Does Louis Waters really feel that there's a scarcity of love in the world?

    Chew on This

    Because Clarissa Vaughan spends most of her day swept up in memories of the time when she was romantically involved with Richard Brown, we learn comparatively little about her relationship with Sally. As a result, her love for Richard comes through more clearly than her love for her partner of nearly eighteen years.

    More than anything or anyone else—more than Richard, more than Sally, perhaps even more than her daughter, Julia—Clarissa Vaughan is in love with life, and in love with the world.

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    With one of its main narratives set at "the end of the twentieth century" (1.2), a time when gay communities in America were still being devastated by the AIDS crisis, The Hours is a testament to one of the most tragic periods of LGBT history. At the same time, the novel is also an affirming exploration of lesbian identity, same-sex desire, and sexual expression in many forms. As Michael Cunningham works to plumb the depths of human experience, sexuality and sexual identity—and their socio-political ramifications, too—are often center stage.

    Questions About Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    1. How does Clarissa Vaughan seem to define her lesbian identity? To what extent is it an inherent part of her nature (in her view), and to what extent is it a political choice?
    2. Where do Mary Krull and Clarissa Vaughan butt heads when it comes to differences between lesbian and queer identities?
    3. How does Laura Brown react to and process the desire that she feels for her neighbor, Kitty?
    4. What role does Laura Brown's sexual identity play in her marriage to Dan? Does she desire her husband?

    Chew on This

    Although none of The Hours characters self-identity as bisexual or pansexual, many of them seem to have fluid sexual identities. On the whole, the novel emphasizes open and exploratory forms of sexual expression more than fixed sexual orientations.

    Compared to the attention that is paid to the sexualities of Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughan, Virginia Woolf's sexual identity gets very little attention in The Hours. Although there are hints of Virginia's interest in women, the novel doesn't explore them in depth.

  • Dissatisfaction

    Like Mick Jagger, Laura Brown, a suburban housewife living in late 1940s Los Angeles, just can't get no satisfaction. That's a common theme in The Hours, but more than any other character in the novel, she exemplifies the toll that constant, relentless dissatisfaction with one's circumstances and prospects can take on a person's physical, mental, and emotional health.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. How did Laura Brown get to be in her present situation? Why did she agree to marry Dan?
    2. Besides Laura Brown, which other characters in The Hours are dissatisfied with their circumstances? What are their reasons?
    3. On the whole, Clarissa Vaughan is a happy, satisfied woman, but even she feels a twinge of dissatisfaction now and then. What aspects of Clarissa's life don't quite measure up to her hopes and expectations?

    Chew on This

    It isn't dissatisfaction itself that makes Laura Brown so glum; it's the sense of hopelessness that comes with it. Not only is Laura unhappy in her circumstances, but she can't see any way of making a change.

    Artistic dissatisfaction is a recurring theme throughout The Hours. Virginia Woolf and Richard Brown both end their lives feeling as if they've failed to accomplish anything worthwhile—and Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughan put the very same weight on their cake and party, respectively. In the end, none of the novel's characters feel as if they've lived up to their own expectations.

  • Suffering

    Among the many everyday tragedies that The Hours explores, illness is one of the most devastating. The novel's late-twentieth-century narrative grapples with the impact of the AIDS crisis in New York City's gay community, while its 1940s narrative hints at the consequences of undiagnosed PTSD, and all three of the novel's narratives depict the suffering caused by depression. As the characters live with and deal with the effects of illness in their lives, they're inspired to look for the moments that make life worthwhile, even in times of suffering.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. How many characters from the world of Clarissa Vaughan are living with or have loved ones who are living with HIV/AIDS?
    2. What is Clarissa Vaughan's perspective on illness and suffering? Is it the same as Richard Brown's?
    3. As they are described in The Hours, what aspects of Virginia Woolf's periods of headaches and hallucinations parallel Richard Brown's experience of mental deterioration?

    Chew on This

    Although The Hours doesn't advertise itself as a book about the AIDS crisis, it does bear witness to that crisis in complex and moving ways.

    A number of the novel's characters suffer from symptoms that readers today might associate with clinical depression or bipolar disorder, but the novel itself doesn't use any specific labels for those symptoms. In this way, it keeps the focus on the characters' lived experience more so than on any potential diagnoses.

  • Literature and Writing

    The Hours is a bookish book, the kind of book English majors will go nuts over. And by that, we mean that this is a book about the beauty and value of books. Michael Cunningham has explained that before writing The Hours, he had "thought for some time" about writing a book that would not only acknowledge the role that Mrs. Dalloway played in inspiring him to become a writer, but would also be "a book about reading a book" (source).

    The Hours itself is that book, of course, and on top of being a contemporary re-creation of Mrs. Dalloway and a testament to the joy of reading, it's also a novel-length love letter to literature and the act of writing.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Apart from Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway, what other authors and books are mentioned within The Hours?
    2. What were Richard Brown's deepest, most heartfelt ambitions as a poet and novelist? What did he want to accomplish?
    3. How closely does Clarissa Vaughan's narrative in The Hours parallel the plot of Mrs. Dalloway?

    Chew on This

    In The Hours, Virginia Woolf and Richard Brown share many of the same ambitions for and anxieties about their writing, and both of them end their lives believing that they have failed to achieve anything worthwhile. Together, these two characters highlight the toll that the writer's calling can take on those who devote themselves to it.

    A book that is, in part, "a book about reading a book" simply wouldn't be complete without the person who actually does the reading. Laura Brown is that person in The Hours. As a bookish young woman who eventually becomes a librarian, she's a shout-out to avid readers everywhere.

  • Women and Femininity

    At one point in The Hours, Michael Cunningham has Virginia Woolf wonder if "a single day in the life of an ordinary woman [can] be made into enough for a novel" (5.2). In another passage, the narrator reflects—through Virginia Woolf's eyes again—that "[m]en 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).

    Well, both Woolf and Cunningham are here to show us that those kinds of small decisions actually can be really big.

    By spending most of its time exploring the mundane wishes, fears, and anxieties of three women who are simply going about their days, The Hours totally affirms Woolf's view that the ordinary, everyday experiences of relatively average women can be the subject of great literature.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Of the three protagonists, who enjoys the most freedom and privilege?
    2. Each of the three protagonists performs at least some traditionally "feminine" roles, such as being a wife, a mother, or a caregiver. Which of these roles does each of the protagonists perform, and how do those performances affect the protagonists' lives?
    3. Which of the three protagonists is most burdened by the roles she is expected to play?
    4. How do the ages of the three protagonists affect their lives?

    Chew on This

    One of the novel's three protagonists is in her early thirties, another is in her early forties, and another is in her early fifties. By splitting the narrative up amongst three generations of women, Cunningham creates an opportunity to explore how age can influence women's social and cultural status.

    One of the novel's three protagonists is living in the early 1920s, another is living in the late 1940s, and another is living at some point in the 1990s. By exploring women's lives during three very different periods of the twentieth century, The Hours invites us to explore how women's roles have changed over time.

  • The Home

    Both Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown live in suburban homes that they dislike, and both women struggle with feelings of inadequacy in their roles as homemakers and household managers. Clarissa Vaughan, on the other hand, lives it up in a high-end apartment in a neighborhood that she loves, and because her household responsibilities are choices rather than obligations, she tackles them with pretty genuine joy.

    Homes in The Hours tell us a lot about the women who live in them, and by looking at those characters' feelings about the spaces they inhabit, we're able to learn even more.

    Questions About The Home

    1. What does Virginia Woolf notice about the homes of her neighbors in Richmond? How do those homes compare to those she remembers from London?
    2. What specific features and qualities of her neighbourhood make Laura Brown uneasy?
    3. How much has Clarissa Vaughan's own taste influenced the decor in her apartment?

    Chew on This

    All three narratives in The Hours pay homage to earlier forms of women's writing that revolve—sometimes by preference, and sometimes by necessity—around the home.

    Laura Brown can't stomach her role as Suzy Homemaker, and the pressure is literally making her ill. By walking out on her roles as model wife and mother, she gives herself the freedom to build a better, truer home for herself somewhere else.