The Identity Crisis in The Hours

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Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, is the1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning recreation of Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway. In this adaptation Cunningham does not retell the same story, but follows a day in the life of three separate women who are living in different time periods and dealing with issues that parallel those in Woolf’s novel. Although their lives are not directly related, they are all somehow connected in the end. Cunningham creates the character of Virginia Woolf as a crazed writer living during the beginning of the twentieth century in London.

On this day, Cunningham depicts Woolf’s writing process as she begins her novel Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham follows this journey through the progression of the novel and shows how her life, thoughts, and sanity become engulfed in her work. She is surrounded by her novel, and somewhat becomes a character living within it. Another character is Clarissa Vaughn. She is living during the end of the twentieth century in New York City and her life parallels with the Mrs. Dalloway in Woolf’s novel. Vaughn is planning a party for a special friend, Richard, in honor of his winning a poetry award. The last character is Laura Brown, who lives in Los Angeles during the mid-twentieth century.

She is a housewife trying to plan the perfect birthday for her husband, while being an ideal mom and also trying to escape from reality by reading the novel Mrs. Dalloway. A major theme throughout this novel is how the three women struggle to be what society expects of them while also trying to maintain their personal identities. Laura Brown is a primary illustration of this theme in the novel. She is expected to be a mother, wife, and friend; yet sometimes all she wants to do is run away and leave her assumed roles to become something else, something that she wants to be rather than what society expects of her.

She feels obligated to stay with her family, and be a wife to Dan, an ex-soldier. Because of this obligation she constantly questions what she is doing with her life. She questions everything that she does from baking a cake, to her house, and her son, contemplating if they are good enough for the standards that society has set for her. She also questions if these things are exactly what she wants in life. For example, she and her son, Richie, bake a cake together. After they finish the cake, she is not satisfied with how it has turned out.

To reinforce her doubt about her cake, the neighbor makes a comment that the cake is “cute” (Cunningham, 104). From this comment, Laura begins to think, “The cake is cute the way a child’s painting might be cute… You can produce a masterful cake by your own hand or light a cigarette, declare yourself hopeless at such projects… and order a cake from the bakery” (104). After Laura has this thought she throws the cake away, starts over from scratch, and expects to create something better and more accepted by society. While she reads Mrs. Dalloway, Laura begins to think about her life and her role that she plays in it.

She thinks: Because the war is over, the world has survived, and we are here, all of us, making home, having and raising children, creating not just books or paintings by a whole world-a world of order and harmony where children are safe (if not happy), where men who have seen horrors beyond imagining, who have acted bravely and well, come home to lighted windows, to perfume, to plates and napkins (Cunningham, 42). This passage shows what Laura thinks society views as a correct decision, and for the time being this is the decision that she has made.

Now that the war has ended she needs to be a good wife to Dan, whom she married, out of what she felt was obligation towards him and towards the world. Since Dan is an ex-soldier she feels that she should serve as a wife and mother-figure for him, and that is her duty that society tells her she must take up and fulfill as a woman. In her article about the novel, Mary Joe Hughes comments on this passage in saying, “Laura’s task is to create a world for her children, and for a soldier who has come home from the war…

Part of the regeneration in The Hours is Laura’s attempt to remake the world for her family, including the son of the soldier” (Hughes). The baking of the cake and taking care of her son make her seek refuge in something where she can escape from reality. Laura hides from everything good and bad in her life by reading the book Mrs. Dalloway. She even leaves her son with a disliked neighbor to go to a hotel for a few hours. While at the hotel she reads Mrs. Dalloway which “helps her to overcome despair,” Hughes explains (Hughes). She then returns home to her family and her life as a wife after a failed attempt at suicide.

By returning home she thinks that she will be able to continue being what society expects of her, but also keep her personal identity as well. She assumes she will be able to stay at home and be the mother and wife she needs to be, without feeling the need to leave and become what she wants to be. In the end, we see that this is not true. After Richard’s death, it is revealed that Laura Brown is his mother, and she left him when he was a young boy. She became what she wanted to be, and was not there for her son as he grew up to become a man who could also be considered plagued by those issues concerning his personal and sexual identity.

Another character that tries to be what society expects of her while still maintaining her personal identity is Clarissa Vaughn. Despite the fact that she lives with her female lover, an action which is not always accepted by society, Clarissa is the ideal and typical depiction of a wife. However, James Schiff notes that in this novel “Clarissa Vaughn is in a lesbian union yet wonders whether she and Richard could have been happy together” (Schiff). Her reservations illustrate her uncertainty about being in this relationship with Sally, as well as society’s perspective on the life she should be living.

She questions her personal decisions so that she can be accepted by society. She wants to maintain her own personal identity by being in this relationship, but she continually questions if this is right and wonders if she would have been happier with Richard, a past interest, instead of Sally. Continuing on, Schiff also says, “The Hours, thus, stands as an attempt by Cunningham to explore and play with ‘what if’ questions posed by Woolf’s novel” (Schiff). These ideas of going against the societal expectations that were originally introduced in Woolf’s novel, but not yet fully lived out, are actually lived out in Cunningham’s novel.

But, even though Clarissa Vaughn lives with Sally and is in a homosexual relationship, she continues to question her decisions. She wonders what could have been between her and Richard if it had been more aggressively pursued, and questions whether or not their relationship could have actually worked. In the novel Clarissa ponders: how often since then has she wondered what might have happened if she’d tried to remain with him; if she’d returned Richard’s kiss on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, gone off somewhere (where? ) with him, never bought the packet of incense or the alpaca coat with the rose-shaped buttons.

Couldn’t they have discovered something… larger and stranger than what they’ve got? (Cunningham, 97). This shows that she is continuously contemplating what she could have done differently with her life, and how this would have changed her, but would it really have positively affected her life? Vaughn has a perfect apartment in New York City and is the image of the ideal wife/woman by planning this party for Richard, yet she contemplates her life decisions continuously. It is easier for Vaughn to openly live with and express her sexuality than it was for Mrs. Dalloway in Woolf’s novel due to the circumstances and times.

People during the late twentieth century were more likely to be accepting of lesbians than people at the beginning of the twentieth century. Virginia Woolf also leads a secret life, conforming and resisting the pressures of society to become who she is. Schiff comments about Woolf’s secret life in saying: Because of the cultural climate, Woolf was compelled to live a relatively secret and encoded sexual existence, and her character Clarissa Dalloway, whose sexual orientation would appear to be largely toward women, ends up in a rather chaste, heterosexual marriage that crushes her soul.

Although Cunningham’s Clarissa Vaughn is free to live openly as a lesbian, her interior life is nevertheless plagued by similar regrets and uncertainties about decisions she has made… (Schiff). Although Woolf’s sexual preference is not made certain by Cunningham; it is questionable because of what she has written in her novel and her relationship with her sister that is portrayed The Hours. Woolf also feels that she is not the perfect wife like her mother and her sister, so she creates Mrs.

Dalloway as a role model and representation of the characteristics that she actually desires. Throughout this novel, Cunningham does an exceptional job of recreating Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. In fact, much of Mrs. Dalloway’s present popularity can be accredited to the complexities and relationships that Cunningham incorporates in The Hours. He portrays the characters well and keeps a close tie to Woolf’s novel, while creating new characters that add an extra touch to his novel.

He shows how Woolf lives her life through her writing, which is difficult to see in her novels by themselves. Cunningham also does a good job of representing these three women in The Hours. In some ways all three of them are tied together through their search for themselves and still, somehow closely linked to Woolf’s original novel. They are strongly influenced by society and what society expects out of them, but they still try to maintain their personal identities in their struggles throughout the novel.

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