The character Virginia Woolf is closely based on the biography of the actual Virginia Woolf, a celebrated writer who lived at the beginning of the twentieth century. Virginia Woolf is best known for perfecting a stream-of-consciousness style, which imitates on the page the free, impressionistic flow of human thought. Virginia Woolf’s struggle with mental illness led her to commit suicide, which Cunningham depicts in the novel’s prologue. The rest of the novel is filled with a sense of foreboding, because every scene is colored by the knowledge that she will ultimately decide to take her own life.
Virginia struggles with her mental health and is very conscious of this struggle. She fights to keep the “shadow in the mirror,” the pounding headaches, and the voices in her head at bay. Virginia focuses on her writing as a way of channeling her energy and emotion productively. At the same time, Virginia sees her writing as something that happens to her rather than as something she has fully under her control. She is incredibly sensitive to the world around her and unusually receptive to small details of her environment, which she believes have incredible significance. Her sensitivity makes her a great writer, but she also is subject to incredibly strong emotions that are set off by events that other people might not even notice. Though she wants to be healthy, she perceives the world in such a profound way that the feelings of madness haunt her.
Clarissa’s character is closely based on the title character of Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway. Like the character in Woolf’s book, she has a wondrous outlook toward the world around her. Though she takes great pleasure in the day-to-day details of life, she questions the choices that she has made and has doubts about what her life has come to. She has strong feelings of nostalgia for her love affair with Richard and the sense of unchecked possibility that she had in her youth. Clarissa compares this period of wild, unabashed freedom to the domesticity of her present life. She loves the small domestic details of her life, and she enjoys the simple acts of buying flowers and keeping a beautiful apartment. At the same time, she wonders if all of it is enough and has doubts about whether she feels fulfilled by her life and her relationship with Sally. Even though she questions some of her choices, at the end of the day she takes comfort in the idea that the life has meaning because of those hours that are filled with supreme, wonderful pleasure.
Laura Brown, like many women of her generation, married young and has settled into the roles of wife and mother at a relatively young age. Laura feels surprised by the direction her life has taken. In high school, her husband, Dan, was popular while she was a shy bookworm. Dan became a war hero, and when he returned to California he married Laura and they had a child. Laura feels as though she has woken up in someone else’s life, and her role as a housewife suffocates her. She thinks that she should be happy, because her husband is kind, her son loves her, and they live in a nice home.
Laura feels that something is wrong with her but tries to convince herself that she is normal. She seeks comfort in books, specifically Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Through reading, she can step out of her life and critically examine her own experiences. The subject matter of suicide also forces her to consider the idea that she wants to find a way out of her own life. In the final chapter of The Hours, we find out that Laura attempted suicide and ultimately left her family to move to Canada. The day described in The Hours shows Laura considering these two possibilities, possibly providing the catalyst for making the decision to leave her family.