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.