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.