It is no secret that one of the three main characters in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is the writer Virginia Woolf. For some, that may be reason enough to read the book. Others may look forward to the promise of the story's connection between Woolf and the other two main characters, Clarissa Vaughan (living in present-day New Yor)k and Laura Brown (in a 1950’s Los Angeles suburb). We know that Woolf committed suicide in 1941. In Cunningham’s prologue, he fictionalizes in depth that historical event, so unless this novel is some sort of sci-fi time-travel epic, readers are fairly sure the three women are not going to meet for tea and biscuits at the end.
The connection is more universal than that. Throughout the book, the author bounces back and forth between Clarissa, Laura and Virginia, focusing on one day within each woman’s life. In one form or another, whether contemplating it or witnessing the aftermath, each must deal with some aspect of suicide.
With the exception of the prologue, Virginia Woolf’s sections take place twenty years before she wades into the river with rocks in her pockets, but her eventual suicide is constantly in the back of readers’ minds as they look for clues to her fateful decision. Laura Brown, reading Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, fantasizes about suicide throughout her day. Only Clarissa seems happy and content in her life as she spends the day getting ready for a party.
Less important connections appear throughout the book. Just as Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway began her day buying flowers for a party, Clarissa Vaughn begins hers the same way. She reminisces about past loves and fateful decisions. She is even called “Mrs. Dalloway” by her friend, Richard. After purchasing the flowers, she stops at a movie location, waiting to see a famous actress emerge from her trailer, who may or may not be Meryl Streep. And as we know, Streep plays Clarissa in the movie version of The Hours and appears on the cover of the softcover edition.
The Hours is reminiscent of much of the literature by and/or about women in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, when suicide was a common theme. It seemed any woman who did anything out of the norm was doomed to die. It was a depressing time for women, just as it is exasperating to read about now. Cunningham does a fine job in some parts of the book mimicking Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness writing, particularly when Clarissa first begins her journey to buy flowers. And while he does recreate apparent everyday life for the three women and shows how society as a whole has become more accepting, The Hours is still a very depressing book. Beautifully written, it reminds us some still believe suicide is their only choice.