The Hours

“The Hours” by Michael Cunningham tells the story of a day in the life of three different women, each living in a different decade. Through these women, characters they encounter in their everyday lives, plot, symbolism and other methods, he explores the main theme of death, focussing especially on euthanasia and suicide.

The Hours is set in three different decades and on both sides of the Atlantic. It revolves around the lives of three different women: Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughan. In a 1920s London suburb, Richmond, Virginia is starting to write her book “Mrs Dalloway”; in another suburb, in 1950s Los Angeles, Laura’s feeling of claustrophobia in her perfect life reach a climax; while in 1990s New York Clarissa is preparing a party for a friend who is dying of AIDS. Although temporally and spatially disconnected, they are interconnected through their actions and feelings and the use of present tense throughout. The novel is set in a single day in each woman’s life, with the exception of the prologue that describes Virginia’s suicide. In many ways The Hours is simply a study of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, with Clarissa taking the opposite route she does in Woolf’s novel. However, through her Cunningham explores the issue of euthanasia.

To explore the theme of death, Cunningham uses four main characters: Virginia, Laura, Clarissa and Richard. Both Virginia and Richard commit suicide, Laura decides not to commit suicide and Clarissa is Richard’s friend, the person keeping, or trying to keep, him alive.

Through Virginia Woolf, Cunningham poses the question, ‘who should have control over an individual’s life and death?’ Virginia’s suicide is described in the Prologue of the novel, immediately setting an atmosphere of death. We see her making a conscious decision not to live, forcing herself to let life go. Although Virginia Woolf did put stones in her pocket and drown, this is also a powerful metaphor. It symbolises that she has to suppress her love of life and her family to be able to let herself be swept away from the world. She is obviously still captivated by life:
“She walks purposefully towards the river, certain of what she’ll do, but even now she is almost distracted by the sights of the downs, the church and the scattering of sheep…”
However, she still decides to commit suicide because there seems to be no future left: she feels herself going back into the cycle of manic depression and she knows, or fears, that she will not recover and so she makes a choice for herself and her husband to end life. By having the end of Virginia’s life at the beginning of the novel, it has the same effect as seeing the end of a film first or reading the last chapter of a book before the rest – we know what will happen to Virginia in the end and so we analyse the rest of the book in relation to the ‘ending’, subconsciously linking her actions through the book to the ‘end’. Through Virginia choosing death, Cunningham explores two main arguments in the issue of euthanasia and suicide. Firstly, the point that even “insane” people should have rights. Virginia seems to have no control over her life, as the obvious presumption has been made that the “sane” and “rational” person knows best and only they can make the right decisions. However, they don’t have to live though the illness every moment of every day, often without hope, like the person suffering – shouldn’t that person have the right to say whether they want to continue living like this or not? One of the reasons Virginia’s suicide is so powerful is that she survives so long through so many periods of depression and illness, surviving and fighting on. Cunningham asks if you should be allowed to say you have had enough of trying and fighting. Secondly, he asks whether loving life is enough to stay alive or if there also has to be a future. When Laura is reading Mrs Dalloway she wonders how someone who write the sentence “the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June,” could kill herself. Virginia didn’t have these things, though; she had