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The Hours

Michael Cunningham

Important Quotations Explained

Mrs. Brown/Mrs. Woolf/Mrs. Brown/Mrs. Dalloway

Key Facts

1. She loves the world for being rude and indestructible, and she knows that other people must love it too, poor as well as rich, though no one speaks specifically of the reasons. Why else do we struggle to go on living, no matter how compromised, no matter how harmed? Even when we’re further gone than Richard; even if we’re fleshless, blazing with lesions, shitting in the sheets; still, we want desperately to live.

Clarissa Vaughn thinks this to herself as she walks through the park on the way to buy flowers. Clarissa wonders how people maintain such a strong will to live even in the face of unspeakable suffering. She thinks that all people want desperately to live, even when they are as sick as Richard. Clarissa views the human spirit as indestructible, which makes Richard’s eventual suicide all the more shocking and devastating. Seeing all the people around her enjoying the park inspires Clarissa’s humanist thoughts. Like Virginia Woolf, who longs to return to London, Clarissa equates the city with life itself. They both see the city as a place where they are truly alive, where the vibrancy and rudeness of the energy around them feel sustaining and revitalizing.

Clarissa and Virginia’s experiences with the city, whether loving it or longing for it, contrast sharply with Laura Brown’s. Laura goes to downtown Los Angeles only to check into a hotel and be alone. Laura’s wistful thoughts of suicide, an act which she compares to “walking out into a field of brilliant snow,” are the opposite of Clarissa and Virginia’s desires for the muddled, rude nature of life. Laura is not “further gone than Richard,” she is not “blazing with lesions.” Objectively, she seems to have a comfortable and satisfying life. But Laura still feels stifled and unsatisfied and contemplates taking her life. Clarissa’s belief that life is full of meaning and promise cannot account for Laura’s pessimistic worldview. To some extent, Clarissa is naïve about the realities and struggles of human existence. Her overall optimism contrasts with Laura’s dark considerations of her life and the ways she might escape it.

2. Even if the door to the trailer had opened, the woman inside, be she Meryl Streep or Vanessa Redgrave or even Susan Sarandon, would have been simply that, a woman in a trailer, and you could not possibly have done what you wanted to do. You could not have received her, there on the street; taken her in your arms, and wept with her. It would be so wonderful to cry like that, in the arms of a woman who was at once immortal and a tired, frightened person just emerged from a trailer.

Clarissa has just caught a glimpse of a movie star in her trailer, which causes her to ponder the sense of immortality that comes with fame and recognition. Clarissa believes that fame brings reassurance and that famous people avoid the fear that they may be forgotten completely. She longs to be remembered and feels terrified that her whole life will no longer have value or meaning if she is forgotten. The embrace that Clarissa desires echoes the various embraces that occur between women at several points throughout the book. While her desire to fall into the arms of the star and weep with her may seem strange, Clarissa believes that she would be able to transcend boundaries and connect with that person’s essence.

Laura shares an intimate kiss with Kitty, which makes her feel as though she can see inside her neighbor, an experience that rattles her for the rest of the day. The kiss between Virginia and her sister Vanessa is the catalyst for Virginia’s revelation about the Mrs. Dalloway character. Virginia feels a thrilling, forbidden strangeness during the kiss and decides to make such a kiss the centerpiece of her character’s life. Though the various’ characters sexual identities resist definitive identification, these intimate moments with women form the various emotional climaxes of the book. The embraces are not purely romantic or sexual, but instead they provide moments of intimacy and connection that lead each character to important revelations about her life.

3. She can feel the nearness of the old devil (what else to call it?), and she knows she will be utterly alone if and when the devil chooses to appear again. The devil is a headache; the devil is a voice inside a wall; the devil is a fin breaking through dark waves. The devil is a brief, twittering nothing that is a thrush’s life. The devil sucks all the beauty from the world, all the hope, and what remains when the devil has finished is a realm of the living dead—joyless, suffocating.

Virginia has deep sensitivity to the world around her, and while this allows her to experience moments of profound joy, she also feels the struggles with her mental illness more intensely. She cannot be like Clarissa, clinging tightly to life, because she fears that there are outside forces conspiring against her. The “devil” that she describes is her own depression, which feels like an alien and frightening force. Mental illness takes an individual’s personality and distorts it, and Virginia loses control over her actions and emotions when she feels the devil creeping back.

At this point, Virginia has learned to fear the “devil,” and when he “chooses to appear,” she feels completely at his mercy. At the same time, in the face of this devil, her depression, she falls back on her mastery over writing to describe it and keep it at bay. Her thought process about her horrifying experience sounds beautiful, and there is a contrast between the lyricism of the words and their darker meaning. Virginia has a troubled relationship with her demons, and she ultimately loses her battle with mental illness. She fights to control her pain through her force of will and by channeling her energy into writing, but in the end she chooses to take her own life. Though The Hours describes one of Virginia’s better days, this passage hints at the demons she battles every day and finally loses to when she commits suicide.

4. 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.

Richard attempts to evaluate his life’s work as he faces his own mortality and wrestles with his failures at truly capturing the complexity of life in his art. As his mind deteriorates, he feels increasingly that he has not succeeded in his project of perfectly rendering in his writing a single morning in a person’s life. Richard’s frustration is ironic, given that both Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours attempt to do just that. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf attempts to create a whole portrait of a person by telling a single day in her life; in The Hours, Cunningham attempts to create three individual portraits by telling of a single day in the three lives.

Like Cunningham’s book, Richard’s book includes meticulous literary description of short periods of time. Richard’s book about Clarissa Vaughn includes a full chapter about a trip in which Clarissa shops for nail polish and decides not to buy any. Louis thinks that Richard’s ambition is ridiculous and wonders what could be so fascinating and engrossing about an ordinary morning. Some of Louis’s anger obviously stems from jealousy, in that Richard found Clarissa’s morning interesting enough to catalog in such detail. Indeed, Richard finds Clarissa interesting enough to make her into a character that can fill an entire book, perhaps because he feels so moved by how much she relishes her life. Despite the fact that Richard feels that he has failed in his artistic project, his comments call attention to the project of rendering an ordinary life in literature. And despite the fact that he feels as if he has failed, he has a deeper appreciation for Clarissa’s outlook on the world and the way she experiences her life.

5. Yes, Clarissa thinks, it’s time for the day to be over. We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep—it’s as simple and ordinary as that.

This passage comes at the very end of the book, after the primary narrative threads have been wrapped up. Clarissa’s musings serve as a summation of the characters. All the dramas of their lives, which have played out over the course of three individual days, have drawn to a close. But even though we know the outcomes of the lives, we don’t see how the characters get there: Laura attempts suicide and leaves her family, but we don’t see this happen. Virginia gets to return to London, but Cunningham does not describe what happens in the years between the day he describes and her suicide. Clarissa’s future is uncertain as well. This passage puts everything in perspective. Even daily events as drastic as “abandoning our families to live alone in Canada” feel minuscule, because they happen to so many people every day. Clarissa acts as a kind of Greek chorus, summarizing the main action of the book. Though some of the journeys and outcomes remain unclear, in the end all people are alike, doing what they must to get through their days until they can sleep forever.

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