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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
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 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
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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Hours!