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The Hours

Michael Cunningham

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1. The book focuses on the lives of three women. How do they relate to the men in their lives?

The men of The Hours are only seen through the eyes of the main female characters, and each of the men provides a surface upon which the female characters project their attitudes and emotions.

Richard serves an important role in both the Clarissa and Laura sections of the book. He loves his mother, Laura, deeply and understands her thoughts and emotions more than she realizes. When she comes to comprehend the extent of his empathy, she feels startled and starts to see the potential repercussions of her unhappiness. Richard’s awareness may be one of the factors that motivates her to leave her family. As an adult, Richard transfers his observant interest to Clarissa. Though he has a long-term relationship with Louis, Clarissa is his primary inspiration and the emotional centerpiece of his novel. He relies on her as a caretaker and mother figure, and he draws great strength from her childlike appreciation of the world. Clarissa functions as a substitute for the mother figure that Richard lost as a child.

Dan loves his wife, Laura, but does not understand her. He takes deep pride and satisfaction in his job, his home, and his family. Laura does not derive the same happiness from her domestic life. She feels she has a duty and obligation to Dan, because he fought in the war and because he loves her, but she does not reciprocate his feelings for her. She sees him as another child, someone who depends on her for stability and comfort. Much of his happiness comes from her fulfillment of her roles as wife and mother. However, her dissatisfaction leads her to believe that her domestic life will not complete her and she ultimately chooses to leave.

Leonard Woolf supports and respects Virginia and acts as a stabilizing presence in her life. Virginia is subject to wild mood swings and has trouble controlling her mental illness. Despite these struggles, she does not take basic steps to take care of herself. Leonard tries to make sure that she eats regularly, gets enough sleep, and doesn’t become upset. He panics when she disappears from the house and goes to the train station. On a broader level, he has moved her from London to the suburb of Richmond so that she can recuperate. Though Virginia loves Leonard and appreciates his efforts to care for her, she feels that his attempts to manage her life are restrictive and stifling. She longs to return to London and sometimes resents Leonard’s attempts to act as her caregiver.

2. The three women of The Hours contemplate every aspect of the world around them. How does this impact the choices they make?

The narrative is completely structured around the thoughts of the characters. In some situations, the characters’ constant reassessing of their lives leads them to appreciate the joys of their lives. In other situations, the characters start to question whether their lives have any meaning.

Virginia and Clarissa both find joy in the constant reevaluation of their experiences. For Virginia, being able to think and write is a great gift that allows her to fend off her headaches and her madness. She tries to accomplish as much as she can when she feels well, because she knows that when she is sick everything will seem dark and unhappy. Clarissa sometimes lets herself become too obsessed with what her life would have been like if she had stayed with Richard. Her feelings are mixed with regret for the passing of the sense of infinite possibility she had in her youth. The joys of her daily life allow her to feel some measure of satisfaction regardless of the choices she made. When she cuts roses under the running water in her kitchen, she has a moment of profound happiness.

Laura feels most tortured by her own thoughts, partially because she has no one to share her feelings with. She questions her role as a housewife and mother and considers how interconnected she feels with her family. Laura’s situation puts her in a double bind, since she wants to escape her situation but understands the devastating consequences this would have on her family. At one point, she almost thinks that Kitty might understand her doubts, but she feels too uncomfortable to broach the subject. Though reading gives Laura some respite from her thoughts and provides her with a forum in which to consider her feelings, the experience is solitary and does not allow her to fully express her emotions. Ultimately the frustration she bottles up causes her to take the drastic actions of attempting her suicide and abandoning her family.

3. How does The Hours treat the topic of suicide?

The Hours begins with the suicide of Virginia Woolf and the emotional climax of the book is Richard Brown’s suicide. Laura Brown attempts suicide—and although her attempt never appears in the text, it is the culmination of her emotional journey and has a massive impact on her son, Richard. The book explains the reasons why the characters resort to such drastic measures without passing judgment.

Virginia chooses suicide because she cannot continue to battle with mental illness. She sees her imbalance as an external force that operates upon her and disrupts her ability to function as a normal person. Though she lives many years after the day described in The Hours, she eventually loses the battle with mental illness and takes her own life.

The destructive power of mental illness on Virginia mirrors the devastating effects of AIDS on Richard. Richard had been a poet at the peak of his powers who had completed one moderately successful novel. Due to his illness, he has not been able to do the work that he has wanted to. He feels that the Carrouthers Prize, which recognizes his life’s work as a poet, is only being given to him out of pity rather than out of recognition for his accomplishments. Clarissa tries to assuage his fears, but he remains stalwart in the idea that he has not succeeded as an artist. In the end, the physical pain that he experiences becomes too much. Rather than press on, he takes his own life by jumping out of the window of his apartment building to his death.

Laura does not think that she could kill herself, but ultimately she makes a suicide attempt. She toys with the idea initially while reading Mrs. Dalloway in the hotel room, but at first the idea only makes sense to her abstractly. At the end of the day, she stands by the mirror contemplating the full bottle of sleeping pills. Later, Laura does attempt suicide and fails, but she leaves her family to move to Canada soon thereafter. She finds a way to extricate herself from the life she resents without taking her own life. Although her decision has devastating consequences, she does not feel the need to justify it to Clarissa at the end of the book. Clarissa comes to understand that Laura needed to make the right choice for herself at that time. Suicide is a choice that emerges from desperation, and even though Laura contemplates killing herself, she finally overcomes her desperate feelings to make another choice.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. How does war, specifically World War I and World War II, shape the perspectives of the characters in the book?

2. What significance do domestic objects have? Who relies the most on domestic objects for comfort?

3. How does memory function in the Clarissa sections of the book? Is she fully content with the choices that she has made?

4. How does reading Mrs. Dalloway affect Laura?

5. Does Cunningham’s formal device of mirroring Clarissa Vaughn’s life on Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway make Clarissa Vaughn’s character believable, or does the choice seem like a gimmick?

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