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The Hours

Michael Cunningham

Key Facts

Important Quotations Explained

Study Questions & Essay Topics

title ·  The Hours

author · Michael Cunningham

type of work · Novel

genre  · Literary fiction

language  · English

time and place written  · 1990s, United States

date of first publication  · 1998

publisher  · Picador USA

narrator  · The narrative is subjective. The voice comes from within in the heads of the three major characters in their respective chapters, with occasional interjections from other characters.

point of view · The narrator speaks in the third person. In each of the chapters, the narrator follows the respective main character (Clarissa, Virginia, or Laura) through her thoughts. The narrator sometimes diverges and examines what another character thinks about one of the main characters.

tone · The narrator is impartial toward the characters, revealing their thoughts without judgment.

tense  · Present tense is employed in all three story threads.

setting (time) · 1941 (the prologue); 1923 (Virginia Woolf sections); 1949 (Laura Brown sections); late twentieth century (Clarissa Vaughn sections)

setting (place) · Sussex, England; Richmond, a suburb of London; Los Angeles; New York City

protagonist · There are three parallel protagonists: Virginia Woolf, Clarissa Vaughn and Laura Brown.

major conflict  · In the case of all three women, the conflict is internal. Each woman fights against her own rising feelings of unhappiness with her life. Virginia Woolf struggles against insanity, Clarissa Vaughn fights her fear of mortality, and Laura Brown wrestles with her feelings of being trapped in her life as a housewife.

rising action · In each parallel story, events force each woman to come to terms with her feelings. Virginia Woolf sees the dead bird in the garden and realizes that she feels as if she would like to die. Clarissa Vaughn visits Richard, an old friend dying from AIDS, and has a visit from Louis, an old friend whom she hasn’t seen in a while, and must come to terms with how they have all changed since their youthful days. Laura Brown reads Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and in the course of an ordinary day, the book exerts a force over her that causes her to think skeptically about her own life.

climax  · Virginia Woolf becomes so tired of her life in the suburbs, which she feels is a kind of exile, that she goes to the railway station and tries to take a train to London without her husband’s permission. Leonard Woolf finds her there and brings her home. Clarissa Vaughn’s best friend, Richard, commits suicide by jumping out of an open window in her presence, which brings an end to her lifelong consideration of whether they should have gotten married. Laura Brown takes the personally radical step of leaving her child to a neighbor, driving to a hotel, checking in, and spending two hours there reading Mrs. Dalloway and thinking about suicide. She decides not to commit suicide, but she has acknowledged, finally, that she is not capable of feeling fully satisfied as a wife and mother.

falling action  · Virginia Woolf convinces Leonard to move back to London. She decides that Clarissa Dalloway, the character she has been creating, will not kill herself. A doomed, insane person will die instead. Clarissa Vaughn has Laura Brown as a guest in her house after Richard dies. Coming face to face with Richard’s demons, in the body of his mother who abandoned him, she realizes that everybody goes through life in practically the same way and that value comes in the day-to-day experience of life. Laura Brown hosts the birthday party for her husband and contemplates suicide afterwards, because she feels so detached from her family and even her very body.

themes · The human fascination with mortality; the constraint of societal roles; ordinary life as more interesting than art.

motifs · Water; domestic objects; flowers

symbols · Laura’s cake; Richard’s chair; the dead bird

foreshadowing

 · Virginia plans Mrs. Dalloway with a suicide in mind. During her chapters, she realizes that the artistic, tortured person who has the ability to leave the things of the world behind will be the one to commit suicide. Eventually, Virginia herself becomes that person.
 · Laura goes to the hotel and thinks about committing suicide but reminds herself that to do so would “rip a hole” in the fabric of the lives of her son and her husband. Eventually, we later learn, Laura leaves her family, and Richard never gets over it.

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