The Hours (novel)

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The Hours
AuthorMichael Cunningham
CountryUnited States
PublisherFarrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date
November 11, 1998
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages230 (1st edition hardcover)

The Hours is a 1998 novel written by Michael Cunningham. It won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the 1999 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and was later made into an Oscar-winning 2002 film of the same name.

Plot introduction[edit]

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, British author and feminist

The book concerns three generations of women affected by the classic novel Mrs. Dalloway.

In 1923 Richmond, outside London, author Virginia Woolf is writing Mrs. Dalloway and struggling with her mental illness. In 1949 Los Angeles, Laura Brown is reading Mrs. Dalloway while planning a birthday party for her husband, a World War II veteran. In 1999 New York City, Clarissa Vaughan plans a party to celebrate a major literary award received by her good friend and former lover, the poet Richard, who is dying of an AIDS-related illness.

The situations of all three characters mirror situations experienced by Woolf's own Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway, with Clarissa Vaughan being a modern-day version of Woolf's character. Like Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Vaughan goes on a journey to buy flowers while reflecting on the minutiae of the day around her and later prepares to throw a party. Clarissa Dalloway and Clarissa Vaughan also both contrast their histories and past loves with their current lives, which they both perceive as trivial. Several other characters in Clarissa Vaughan's story also parallel characters in Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.

Cunningham's novel mirrors Mrs. Dalloway's stream-of-consciousness narrative style, which was pioneered by Woolf and James Joyce, in which the flowing thoughts and perceptions of protagonists are depicted as they would occur in real life. This means that characters interact not only with the present, but also with memories; this contextualizes personal history and backstory, which otherwise might appear quite trivial—buying flowers, baking a cake, and such things.

Similarly to Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Cunningham's novel places the entire story within one day. Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway is one day in the life of the central character Clarissa Dalloway. Cunningham's novel contains one day in the life of each of the three central characters; Clarissa Vaughan, Laura Brown, and Virginia Woolf herself. Through these three women, Cunningham attempts, as did Woolf, to show the beauty and profundity of every day a person's life and, conversely, how a person's whole life can be examined through the lens of one single day.

Cunningham took the novel's title, The Hours, from the original working title that Virginia Woolf used for Mrs. Dalloway.

Plot summary[edit]


In 1941, Virginia Woolf commits suicide by drowning herself in the Ouse, a river in Sussex, England. Even as she is drowning, Virginia marvels at everyday sights and sounds. Leonard Woolf, her husband, finds her suicide note, and Virginia's dead body floats downstream where life continues as normal.

  • "I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been."
—from Virginia Woolf's suicide note to Leonard Woolf. p. 7, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.

Mrs. Dalloway[edit]

The novel jumps to New York City at the end of the 20th century where Clarissa Vaughan announces she will buy the flowers for a party she's hosting later in the day, paraphrasing the opening sentence of Woolf's novel. She leaves her partner Sally to walk to the flower shop, enjoying the everyday hustle and bustle of the city. The sights and sounds she encounters serve as jumping-off points for her thoughts about life, what she loves, and her past. The beautiful day reminds her of a happy memory, a holiday she had as a young woman with two friends, Richard and Louis. The flowers are for a party Clarissa is hosting at her apartment that night for Richard (now a renowned poet dying of AIDS) as he has just won the Carrouthers Prize, an esteemed poetry prize. Clarissa bumps into Walter, an acquaintance who writes gay pulp fiction romances. Clarissa invites him to the party although she knows this will upset Richard. Clarissa continues on her way. She finally arrives at the flower shop.

  • "What a thrill, what a shock, to be alive on a morning in June, prosperous, almost scandalously privileged, with a simple errand to run."
—Clarissa reflects on the day as she walks to the flower shop. p. 10, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.
  • "Why doesn't she feel more somber about Richard's perversely simultaneous good fortune ('an anguished, prophetic voice in American letters') and his decline ('You have no T-cells at all, none that we can detect')? What is wrong with her? She loves Richard, she thinks of him constantly, but she perhaps loves the day slightly more."
—Clarissa thinking about Richard. p. 11, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.
  • "The woman's head quickly withdraws, and the door to the trailer closes again, but she leaves behind her an unmistakable sense of watchful remonstrance, as if an angel had briefly touched the surface of the world with one sandaled foot, asked if there was any trouble and, being told all was well, had resumed her place in the ether with skeptical gravity, having reminded the children of earth that they are just barely trusted to manage their own business and that further carelessness will not go unremarked."
—Clarissa spots Meryl Streep sticking her head outside her trailer door in response to a film crew's noisiness. p. 27, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.

Mrs. Woolf[edit]

The novel jumps to 1923 with Virginia Woolf waking one morning with the possible first line of a new novel. She carefully navigates her way through the morning, so as not to lose her inspiration. When she picks up her pen, she writes: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."

Mrs. Brown[edit]

The novel jumps to 1949 Los Angeles with Laura Brown reading the first line of Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway ("Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.") Laura Brown is pregnant with her second child and is reading in bed. She does not want to get up although it is her husband Dan's birthday. She finds it hard to play the role of wife to Dan and mother to her son Richie, despite her appreciation for them. She eventually forces herself to go downstairs where she decides to make a cake for Dan's birthday which Richie will help her make.

  • "He makes her think sometimes of a mouse singing amorous ballads under the window of a giantess."
—Laura reflecting on her son's transparent love for her. p. 44, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.
  • "...the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some airplane overhead were what she loved; life; London; this moment of June."
—Laura remembering a quote from Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, p. 48, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.

Mrs. Dalloway[edit]

The novel returns to Clarissa Vaughan who, having left the flower shop with an armload of flowers, decides to stop by Richard's apartment. On her way to Richard's she pauses at the site of a film shoot, hoping to catch a glimpse of a movie star. Eventually, she leaves, having not seen the star, embarrassed at her trivial impulses. Clarissa enters the neighborhood she and Richard frequented as young adults. It is revealed Richard and Clarissa once had a failed romantic relationship together, despite it being obvious Richard's "deepest longings" were for Louis, with whom he was already in a relationship. Clarissa enters Richard's apartment building, which she finds squalid. She seems to associate Richard's apartment building with a sense of decay and death.

Richard welcomes Clarissa, calling her "Mrs. D" a reference to Mrs. Dalloway. As Richard's closest friend, Clarissa has taken on the role of a caregiver through Richard's illness. Richard is struggling with what appears to Clarissa to be mental illness, brought about by his AIDS, and with Clarissa he discusses hearing voices. As Clarissa fusses about, Richard seems resigned. Finally, Clarissa leaves, promising to return in the afternoon to help him prepare for the party.

Mrs. Woolf[edit]

Two hours have passed since Virginia began writing the start of Mrs. Dalloway. Reflecting on the uncertainty of the artistic process, she decides she has written enough for the day and is worried that if she continues her fragile mental state will become unbalanced. Virginia goes to the printing room where Leonard and an assistant are at work. She senses from the assistant Ralph's demeanor that the "impossibly demanding" Leonard has just scolded him for inefficiency. Virginia announces she is going for a walk and will then help with the work.

  • "She might see it while walking with Leonard in the square, a scintillating silver-white mass floating over the cobblestones, randomly spiked, fluid but the whole, like a jellyfish. 'What's that?' Leonard would ask. 'It's my headache', she'd answer. 'Please ignore it.' "
—Virginia reflecting on the detached nature of her mental illness, p. 70, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.
  • "She decides, with misgivings, that she is finished for today. Always, there are these doubts. Should she try another hour? Is she being judicious, or slothful? Judicious, she tells herself, and almost believes it."
—Virginia, p. 72, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.
  • "The truth, she thinks, sits calmly and plumply, dressed in matronly gray, between these two men."
—Virginia reflecting on whose attitude towards work, the carefree Ralph's, or the "brilliant and indefatigable" Leonard's, has resulted in the two men's conflict, p. 73, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.

Mrs. Brown[edit]

Laura Brown also goes about an act of creation: making Dan's birthday cake. Richie is helping her, and Laura passes through emotions of intense love for, and annoyance with, Richie.

  • "She will not lose hope. She will not mourn her lost possibilities, her unexplored talents (what if she has no talents, after all?). She will remain devoted to her son, her husband, her home and duties, and all her gifts. She will want this second child."
—Laura's thoughts, the final sentences of the chapter, p. 79, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.

Mrs. Woolf[edit]

Virginia Woolf is taking her walk while thinking of ideas for her novel. She already believes Clarissa Dalloway will commit suicide, but now Virginia plans for Mrs. Dalloway to have had one true love: not her husband, but a girl Clarissa knew during her girlhood. Virginia plans for Clarissa to kill herself in middle age over something quite trivial. Virginia longs to return home; she is aware she is more susceptible to mental illness in London, but would rather die 'raving mad' in the city than avoid life in Richmond.

As Virginia returns home she feels as if she is impersonating herself. She acts this way to convince herself and others that she is sane, so that Leonard will agree with the idea of moving back to London.

  • "She is the author; Leonard, Nelly, Ralph, and the others are the readers. This particular novel concerns a serene, intelligent woman of painfully susceptible sensibilities who once was ill but has now recovered; who is preparing for the season in London..."
—Virginia Woolf preparing to 'act' as Virginia Woolf, p. 83, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.
  • "Men may congratulate themselves for writing truly and passionately about the movements of nations; they may consider war and the search for God to be great literature's only subjects; but if men's standing in the world could be toppled by an ill-advised choice of hat, English literature would be dramatically changed."
—pp. 83-84, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.
  • "The trick will be to render intact the magnitude of Clarissa's miniature but very real desperation; to fully convince the reader that, for her, domestic defeats are every bit as devastating as are lost battles to a general."
—Virginia considering how she will write Mrs Dalloway, p. 84, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.
  • " 'I've got the cress soup', Nelly says. 'And the pie. And then I thought just some of them yellow pears for pudding unless you'd like something fancier.' Here it is, then: the challenge thrown down. Unless you'd like something fancier. So the subjugated Amazon stands on the riverbank wrapped in the fur of animals she has killed and skinned; so she drops a pear before the queen's gold slippers and says, 'Here is what I've brought. Unless you'd like something fancier.' "
—p. 85, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.
  • " offering pears, she reminds Virginia that she, Nelly, is powerful; that she knows secrets; that queens who care more about solving puzzles in their chambers than they do about the welfare of their people must take whatever they get."
—p. 85, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.

Mrs. Dalloway[edit]

Having walked back home from Richard's, Clarissa Vaughan enters her apartment. Her partner Sally, a TV producer, is on her way out the door to a lunch meeting with a film star.

As Clarissa prepares for the party, she thinks of the famous actor Sally is lunching with, a B-movie action star who recently came out as gay. She thinks of the holiday she had when she was eighteen with Louis and Richard, a time when "it seemed anything could happen, anything at all" (p. 95). She wonders what might have happened if she had tried to remain with Richard.

  • "It is revealed to her that all her sorrow and loneliness, the whole creaking scaffold of it, stems simply from pretending to live in this apartment among these objects..."
—Clarissa considers the possibility of escaping her present life, p. 92, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.
  • "I am trivial, endlessly trivial, she thinks." p. 94, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.
  • "Venture too far for love, she tells herself, and you renounce citizenship in the country you've made for yourself. You end up just sailing from port to port." p. 97, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.
  • "It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and Clarissa is still sometimes shocked, more than thirty years later, to realize that it was happiness; that the entire experience lay in a kiss and a walk, the anticipation of dinner and a book...What lives undimmed in Clarissa's mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it's perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other." p. 98, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.

Mrs. Brown[edit]

Laura's cake is complete, but she is not happy with it. Laura catalogs what she will do to keep busy for the rest of the day: prepare for Dan's party. She knows Dan will be happy with whatever she prepares.

Kitty, Laura's neighbor, arrives at the door. She notices Laura's amateur efforts at making a cake. Laura remembers that Kitty has remained barren despite her desire to have children.

As the two women sip coffee Kitty admits she has to go to the hospital for a few days and wants Laura to feed her dog. She tells Laura, somewhat evasively, that the problem is in her uterus, probably the cause of her infertility. Laura moves to comfort Kitty with an embrace. She feels a sense of what it would be like to be a man, and also a sort of jealousy towards Ray, Kitty's husband. Both women capitulate to the moment, to hold each other. Laura is kissing Kitty's forehead when Kitty lifts her face and the two women kiss each other on the lips.

It is Kitty who pulls away and Laura is assailed by a panic. She realizes her son, Richie, has been watching everything. However, Kitty is already on her way out the door, her momentary lapse of character wiped from memory. Nothing is mentioned of the kiss, and she brushes off Laura's continued overtures of help politely and leaves. Attempting to return to the world she knows, Laura attends to her son and, without hesitation, dumps her freshly made cake in the bin. She will make another cake.

  • "Why she wonders, does it seem that she could give him anything, anything at all, and receive essentially the same response? What does he desire nothing, really, beyond what he's already got?...This, she reminds herself, is a virtue."
—Laura ruminates on Dan's relentless contentedness, p. 100, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.
  • "Her cake is a failure, but she is loved anyway. She is loved, she thinks, in more or less the way the gifts will be appreciated: because they've been given with good intentions because they exist because they are part of a world in which one wants what one gets". pp. 100–101, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.
  • "Why did she marry him? She married him out of love. She married him out of guilt; out of fear of being alone; out of patriotism."
—Laura reflects on the complex reasons she married Dan, p. 106, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.
  • "The question has been silently asked and silently answered, it seems. They are both afflicted and blessed, full of shared secrets, striving every moment. They are both impersonating someone. They are weary and beleaguered; they have taken on such enormous work."
—Laura and Kitty embrace in the kitchen, p. 110, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.

Mrs. Woolf[edit]

As Virginia helps Leonard and Ralph with the printing press, a servant announces Virginia's sister has arrived. Vanessa, Virginia's sister, is one-and-a-half hours early. Leonard refuses to stop working, so Virginia attends to Vanessa alone. Virginia and Vanessa go out into the garden where Vanessa's children have found a dying bird. Virginia believes, as she watches Vanessa's children, that the real accomplishment in life is not her "experiments in the narrative" but the producing of children, which Vanessa achieved.

The bird the children found has died, and the children, assisted by the adults, hold a funeral for it. As Virginia stares longingly at the dead bird she has an epiphany: her character, Clarissa Dalloway, is not like Virginia, and would not commit suicide.

  • "Virginia looks with unanticipated pleasure at this modest circlet of thorns and flowers; this wild deathbed. She would like to lie down on it herself."
—A bird's funeral suddenly becomes the occasion for Virginia to ponder her death wish, p. 119, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.
  • "Virginia lingers another moment beside the dead bird in its circle of roses. It could be a kind of hat. It could be the missing link between millinery and death."
—Virginia humorously sees both every day and the profundity in life's events, p. 121, 1999, 4th Estate paperback edition.

Mrs. Dalloway[edit]

As Clarissa prepares for Richard's party, she is visited by Richard's old partner Louis. Clarissa is thrown off-kilter by the visit.

Characters in The Hours[edit]



  • Laura Brown;
  • Dan Brown, Laura's husband;
  • Richie Brown, Laura's son;
  • Kitty, her neighbour.
  • Mrs Latch, babysitter.


  • Clarissa Vaughan; a 52-year-old publisher.
  • Sally, Clarissa's partner;
  • Richard Brown, Clarissa's friend, Laura Brown's son;
  • Louis Waters, Richard's former lover, friend of Richard and Clarissa;
  • Julia Vaughan, Clarissa's daughter;
  • Mary Krull, Julia's friend.

Major themes[edit]

LGBT issues[edit]

The Hours concerns three generations of questionably lesbian or bisexual women. Virginia Woolf was known to have affairs with women; Laura Brown kisses Kitty in her kitchen, and Clarissa Vaughan is in a relationship with Sally who was previously Richard's lover. Peripheral characters also exhibit a variety of sexual orientations.

To some extent, the novel examines the freedom with which successive generations have been able to express their sexuality, to the public and even to themselves. As such, definable sexuality for the characters of Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown is hard to ascertain. It could be argued, as does the author Michael Cunningham himself on the DVD commentary of the film version of The Hours, that such characters born at later times in different circumstances they would come out as lesbians. For Virginia and Laura, it would have been extremely difficult to "come out". Such a position would have meant extreme consequences in societies where homosexuality was in many cases illegal, treated with extreme medical "therapies", and shunned by society. This can be understood to provide much of the undercurrent of anguish for the characters, particularly in Laura Brown's case. Without this understanding, Laura could be conceived as ungrateful or a drama queen (as indeed many readers regarded Virginia Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway when Mrs Dalloway was first published).

Mental illness[edit]

Cunningham's novel suggests, to some extent, that perceived mental illness can be a legitimate expression of perspective. The idea that sanity is a matter of perspective can be seen in Virginia Woolf's censoring of her true self because this will appear as insanity to others, even to herself; Cunningham's modern-day readership is able to understand Virginia's state of mind as other than 'insane':

"She has learned over the years that sanity involves a certain measure of impersonation, not simply for the benefit of husband and servants but for the sake, first and foremost, of one's own convictions."—Virginia Woolf. p. 83, 1999 4th Estate paperback edition.

Suicide is also a major theme in each story in the novel.

Patterns of three[edit]

Apart from the novel's three female protagonists, and the three symbiotic storylines that they appear in, there are other examples in the novel where Cunningham patterns his story on groups of three. Most conspicuous of all is the threeway relationship that once existed between Clarissa, Richard and Louis when they were three students on holiday together. In the 'Mrs Woolf' storyline there is another grouping of three (biographically factual) in Vanessa's three children, Quentin, Julian, and Angelica, who come with their mother to visit Virginia. Then there is the nuclear family of three we find in Laura Brown, her husband Dan, and their son Richie.

Michael Cunningham has admitted to his preoccupation with the number three in a televised interview with Charlie Rose.[1] Its occurrence is prominent in the structures and character relationships of two further novels by Cunningham, Specimen Days and A Home at the End of the World.


  • The Hours was the working title of Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway; Michael Cunningham adopted the title for his own novel.
  • On her way to Richard's apartment, Clarissa Vaughan thinks she sees Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep ended up playing Clarissa Vaughan in Stephen Daldry's movie adaptation of The Hours. In the book, Clarissa Vaughan considers it might also have been Vanessa Redgrave that she saw. (Redgrave plays the part of Clarissa Dalloway in the 1997 film version of Mrs Dalloway.)
  • As Streep comments in The Hours DVD commentary, it was Redgrave's late daughter, Natasha Richardson, who first sent her a copy of the novel. Richardson apparently felt that Streep might enjoy reading about her fictional self in the novel.
  • Mrs Brown is a character in Virginia Woolf's essay, "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown".
  • Two anachronisms are presented by Cunningham in his book. The first is on page 30 (1998 edition) where he writes of Virginia Woolf, "She rises from her bed and goes into the bathroom." Hogarth House was built in 1720 and in 1923, it did not have a bathroom, only an outhouse.[2] The second is on p. 43 where Mrs Brown in 1949 sees "beside the roses stand cereal box and milk carton..." Although Lucerne Dairy did have milk cartons in 1938, they did not come into common use until the 1960s. These are both correct in the film; Woolf is depicted using a ewer and basin to wash in the morning, and the Browns have milk in a bottle.
  • Cunningham writes that Ralph Partridge husband of Dora Carrington worked at the Hogarth Press in 1923, however, it was "just before Christmas, [Ralph Partridge] split with the Hogarth Press".[3] He did train Marjorie Joad in January and February 1923 as his replacement, but Cunningham writes as if he is working there still permanently. Cunningham writes on p. 72 (1998 edition), "already Marjorie has been do the jobs Ralph considers beneath him". However, Ralph had already quit.



  1. ^ Charlie Rose (August 17, 2005). "Michael Cunningham". Retrieved November 21, 2022.
  2. ^ Tessa (September 14, 2007). "An Open Letter to Zohreh Sullivan". Retrieved November 21, 2022.
  3. ^ Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (1989). Carrington – A Life. W. W. Norton. p. 198. ISBN 9780393026986.
  4. ^ Christopher Browner (November 18, 2022). "How Renée Fleming Inspired the Met Opera's The Hours". Playbill. Retrieved November 21, 2022.

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