Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Human Fascination With Mortality
The three main characters in The Hours search for meaning in their lives and evaluate suicide as a way of escaping the problems they face. Virginia, Clarissa, and Laura are incredibly sensitive and perceptive to the world around them. Each moment causes them to critically evaluate how they feel about living, so they constantly consider suicide as a way of evading the oppressive aspects of their lives. On the day explored by The Hours, Virginia Woolf tries to decide whether to have her character, Clarissa Dalloway, kill herself at the end of her book. We know that Virginia eventually ends her own life, so her deliberations about Clarissa partly reflect her own personal struggle with the idea of suicide.
Clarissa Vaughn dwells on the difference between her current life and the summer she spent in Wellfleet with her lover, Richard, at age eighteen. Richard’s illness causes her to ponder the way that time acts on people and changes them. Though she herself does not commit suicide, she witnesses her friend’s death and often evaluates whether the best days of her life are gone. Small slights, such as the absence of an invitation to lunch with Oliver St. Ives, make her feel insignificant, and she thinks about this sense of insignificance seems like death. The perceived immortality of movie stars and great writers, particularly the way their memory will outlast the memories of those that have lived less public lives, fascinates her.
Laura Brown feels trapped by the constraints of her role as a suburban housewife and sees suicide as a possible escape. The idea of shutting off the chatter and clamor of life in an instant seduces Laura. Because she is an intellectual, she thinks at first that her fascination with suicide is an objective, academic interest. She thinks that she would never actually be able to go through with killing herself. But as she feels the constraints of her own life closing in around her, she starts to seriously evaluate the idea of suicide. When she stands at the mirror staring at the bottle of sleeping pills, her interest is no longer purely hypothetical.
The Constraint of Societal Roles
The women of The Hours try to define their lives within the roles that society has set out for them but without sacrificing their own identities. They have varying degrees of comfort with their respective roles, ranging from Clarissa, who thinks occasionally that she’s too domestic, to Laura, who feels trapped by the life that she’s found herself living.
Clarissa lives with her female lover, a domestic situation that some might consider extraordinary. Despite her outsider societal status, she has established a stable and familiar routine. Mary Krull considers her to be “bourgeois to the bone,” while Richard comments that she has become the quintessential “society wife.” She has a lovely, well-appointed apartment, but she sometimes feel alienated from the domesticity of her surroundings. When she stands in her kitchen, she barely recognizes the plates that she herself bought and feels dislocated from the environment that should theoretically bring her satisfaction and comfort. She questions whether she has made the right decision by making such safe choices for herself. Virginia understands that she is an eccentric and, to an extent, embraces the role of the “mad writer.” She questions why she didn’t turn out more like her mother or her sister Vanessa. Both of these women could act as authoritative heads of the household who manage their lives perfectly. Meanwhile Virginia cannot even manage her servant Nelly—and she knows that she falls short in this respect. She wonders why she knows exactly how a person would manage servants but cannot put this idea into practice. Ultimately Virginia decides to make her character Clarissa into the English society wife that she never could be.
Laura has the severest case of conflict between her true self and the role that she has been handed. She married Dan out of a sense of obligation toward him and toward the world. She believes that the world has been saved by the soldiers that fought in World War II and that it is her role as a woman to serve as a wife and mother to the men returning from battle. Her needs have been subordinated to sense of duty and obligation to her family. As a result, she constantly looks around her and wonders whether her house, her child, and even her cake fulfill her personal desires. By the last chapter, she feels as if she is floating detached through her life, so disconnected that her life has become something she reads, much as she would read a story in a book.
Ordinary Life As More Interesting Than Art
The main characters try to find meaning and significance in every aspect of the world around them. In choosing to draw out the events of one day throughout a whole novel, Cunningham reveals the thoughts, attitudes, and perceptions of his three main characters through their small encounters with recognizable, everyday experiences. The women of The Hours, Clarissa in particular, cannot walk down the street without having a profound experience or revelation: the sight of a woman singing in the park makes her think about the history of the city she loves, while a glimpse of a movie star in her trailer causes her to pause and consider the ways that fame can make people immortal.
The perception of the world as meaningful is not a purely passive experience. Laura channels her restricted creativity into the domestic act of baking, treating the cake she makes for her husband as if it were a work of art. When the cake fails to live up to expectations, Laura feels not only the frustration of failing at the task but also her failure at finding satisfying outlets for her creative impulses.
As a writer, Virginia Woolf has a thoughtful, evaluative eye that gives her an acute understanding of the world around her. Even small moments can bring on great revelations. While sitting with her sister Vanessa at tea, chatting informally about a coat for Angelica, Virginia has a profound appreciation for the simple intimacy of the moment and wells up with tears. While each woman’s intense sensitivity allows her to feel deeply attuned to life, they also experience more acutely the heartaches and frustrations that come with minor setbacks. Though they cope with these setbacks with differing degrees of stoicism, each woman often feels overwhelmed by her life and the choices she has made.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Water poses a threat to the characters in The Hours, beginning with Virginia Woolf’s drowning in the prologue, but it also creates a boundary space in which the characters can observe their lives from a distance and understand their situations with greater clarity. The Hours starts with Virginia Woolf’s suicide in a river, as she is simultaneously pulled away by the current with a rock in her pocket but still somehow able to perceive the world above the water. Though Virginia ends her life in the river, at the moment of drowning she transcends her body and sees the world with profound lucidity. Soon after this scene, Clarissa Dalloway steps out of her house into the New York morning, echoing the first scene of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. She compares going out into the day to entering a swimming pool. Her everyday life comforts and preserves her as if she were underwater, but the darker ramifications of the prologue imply that Clarissa is drowning in her own existence. Though buoyed by the events of normal life, she runs the risk of being sucked down and consumed like Virginia.
Domestic objects in The Hours ground each scene in tangible, imaginable reality. Each object’s precise, simple description vividly depicts the various locations of the novel, conveying a sense of place vital to our imaginings of the three characters’ worlds The domestic life of each character carries significance: Virginia feels frustrated by her life in the suburbs and wants to return to the city, and she has trouble with the tasks of managing a household. Clarissa loves her apartment and her life, but she feels ambivalent about the choices she has made and sometimes feels alienated from the domestic trappings of her home. Laura feels confined by her role as a housewife, and though she has a cookie-cutter life, she questions the value of the simple pleasures of domesticity.
In the novel, domestic objects are often introduced as being of one principal color. Examples include Clarissa’s white plates, Laura’s blue bowl, the turquoise bedspread in the hotel Laura visits, Richie’s blue pajamas, Laura’s yellow kitchen, the white night-table in the attic bedroom at Wellfleet where Clarissa places her book, and the blue shirt that Walter Hardy buys for Evan. These colors correspond to the moods and tones of the scenes, and they emphasize the specificity of the objects.
Flowers are the subject of the famous opening line of Mrs. Dalloway and appear throughout the The Hours as tools to brighten moments of charged emotional intensity. In Mrs. Dalloway, the story begins with the eponymous character leaving her house to buy flowers for the party that evening. Clarissa Vaughn leaves her apartment with the same intention. Flowers, particularly roses, have different connotations for each of the major characters: for Virginia, the roses around the bed of the dead bird signify rest and funereal blankness. Clarissa takes great pleasure in the flowers she buys. She brings Richard flowers to brighten his dark apartment, and she brings some home to spruce up her own apartment. When Mary Krull notices the flowers, Clarissa feels defensive, because they signify a conventional domesticity that Mary wouldn’t approve of. For Sally, a perfect cluster of roses is a present that she can knows Clarissa will appreciate. Laura sees the roses that she puts on the birthday table for Dan as a way to make up for the mental distance she puts between herself and her family.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Laura wants the cake she makes for Dan to fulfill her desire for meaning in her role as a mother, cook, and housewife. Though she knows a cake cannot provide the baker with the same satisfaction that a work of art would provide an artist, she can’t help but crave some creative outlet. Although she tries to convince herself that the first cake she bakes has turned out well, she decides to throw it out and make a second cake. She becomes furious when this second cake is ruined after Dan spits on it as he blows out the candles. No matter what she does, Dan and Richie will be there to “ruin” whatever cake she produces by reminding her of the restricted nature of her role. The cake forces Laura to consider the idea that just having a family will not be enough for her.
Richard’s decaying armchair represents his declining health and mental prowess. Clarissa tries to maintain her optimism when confronted with Richard’s decline, but the chair is a sign she cannot ignore. With her scrupulous attention to domestic detail, Clarissa is bothered by the chair, which she calls “ostentatiously broken and worthless.” Though it smells like it’s rotting, Richard refuses to throw it out. The chair, which Clarissa has pointed out is so far gone as to be almost not worth holding on to, represents Richard’s body. Clarissa marvels at the idea that the human will to live is so strong that even when the body has decayed completely, human beings still have a powerful will to live. She describes the chair as being sick, and Richard clings to it stubbornly. Perhaps if he can hold onto the chair, he can hold onto hope.
The Dead Bird
Virginia sees the dead bird as a symbol of death and becomes fascinated with the way the thrush’s body becomes smaller and seems less important after it dies. Virginia first notices the dead bird when Vanessa’s children construct a grave for it in her garden. She takes notice of how small and insignificant the bird looks after being placed in the nest of flowers. Later that evening, she creeps out to the garden and looks at the bird again. Although earlier she expressed that she would like the peace and quiet of laying on the bird’s bed of roses, she realizes that she is not yet ready to become that small and insignificant. The bird represents death and demonstrates the way the vitality of day-to-day life is pulled from the physical form, leaving only a small body. At that moment, Virginia decides she is not ready to choose death, but ultimately she does decide to take her own life.
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