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The Hours

Michael Cunningham

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Plot Overview

Michael Cunningham was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1952 and grew up in Pasadena, California. After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in English Literature, Cunningham received his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first novel, Golden States, appeared in 1984 to good reviews, though Cunningham has since dismissed the book in interviews. His second novel, A Home at the End of the World (1990), details the intertwined relationships between two boyhood friends and the way they cobble together a family that crosses boundaries of age, blood relationships, and sexual identity. The love triangle plot between a gay man, a straight man, and a straight woman reappears in different configurations in the love triangles that reoccur throughout The Hours. Cunningham’s third novel, Flesh and Blood (1995), moved away from the intimate depictions of closely knit characters that characterize Cunningham’s earlier works. Flesh and Blood is a sprawling account of an immigrant family’s rise to prosperity and the struggles they encounter across several generations, examining both the family’s troubled history and uncertain future.

The Hours appeared in 1998 to great acclaim, acclaim that greatly surprised Cunningham, who sawthe book as a literary piece that would find, at best, a small but appreciative audience. Critics lavished praise on the book, and Cunningham received both the Pulitzer Prize and a PEN/Faulkner award. In 2002, Stephen Daldry adapted The Hours into a film. The powerhouse cast featured Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman (with a prosthetic nose) in an Oscar-winning performance as Virginia Woolf. Since The Hours, Cunningham has published a travelogue about Provincetown, Massachusetts, entitled Lands End: A Walk in Provincetown (2002). In 2005, he published Specimen Days, a novel that once again depicts three interconnected lives. This time, the characters are placed in a futuristic setting, providing twists on the science fiction and film noir genres. Cunningham writes extensively for a variety of magazines and journals, and currently makes his home in New York City.

Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway serves as the inspiration for The Hours. The intertwined stories of the women in The Hours closely follow the narrative threads of Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf’s work tells the story of an upper-class woman in London at the turn of the century as she prepares for a party being held in her home that evening. The novel follows Mrs. Dalloway throughout her day. It slips in and out of the consciousness of Mrs. Dalloway’s family, friends, and acquaintances to construct a portrait of the title character, her history, and the world she inhabits.

Cunningham originally intended to retell the story of Mrs. Dalloway from the perspective of a gay man living in the Chelsea neighborhood of modern-day New York but found that the conceit was not sustainable for the duration of a novel. He decided to include a fictionalized account of a day in the life of his own mother, which developed into the Laura Brown plotline. The inclusion of Virginia Woolf as a character tied together the stories of the contemporary Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Vaughn, and the reader of the novel Mrs. Dalloway, Laura Brown.

Not only does Virginia Woolf serve as the inspiration for The Hours, but she also appears as a major character in the novel. Woolf was born Virginia Stephen in London in 1882 into an established, intellectual middle-class family. Virginia’s early life was marked by the death of her mother and beloved half-sister, as well as conflicted and sometimes abusive relationships with her domineering father and older brother. After the death of their father in 1904, Virginia and her sister Vanessa Bell, a well-respected painter, set up a bohemian house in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London. The two sisters helped to found the influential Bloomsbury Group, a collection of writers and artists that had a major and lasting impact on British and European literary culture in the early twentieth century.

In 1912, Woolf married the writer Leonard Woolf, and the two established the Hogarth Press, which published all of Virginia Woolf’s novels and essays. Virginia Woolf battled mental illness her entire life and had several breakdowns that grew in severity with each personal loss she suffered. Writing became an escape for Woolf, and she successfully published a series of respected and influential novels before completing her two most important books, Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Woolf continued to publish novels and essays throughout her adulthood and had a romantic relationship with the writer Vita Sackville-West. Eventually Woolf’s mental illness overwhelmed her, and in 1941 she drowned herself in the River Ouse near her home in Sussex, England.

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