The Hours is Michael Cunningham’s homage to Virginia Woolf and her novel, Mrs. Dalloway. Following three women through the hours of a single day, Cunningham reveals the quiet desperation of their lives.
Virginia Woolf is living in the London suburbs, recovering from one of her ‘fits,’ as she begins the novel that will eventually become Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa Vaughan, living in 21st century Manhattan, is throwing a party for a dying friend whose pet name for her is Mrs. Dalloway. Laura Brown, who has just begun reading Woolf’s novel, is a housewife and mother uncomfortable in her idealized life in the 1949 Los Angeles suburbs. All these women live their hours like nerve endings exposed to heat. The slightest ripple in their day – crumbs in the frosting of a cake, the shifting mood of a servant — sends them spiraling into yearning, memory, despair. They hunger for some vague greater fate, either in the excitement of a city, the presence of a poet, or the proximity of famous people, all while despising the ordinary run of their lives.
Cunningham’s thesis is a bleak one. Life is simple and mundane. People do what they must, and some strive for more, but all of us live life in a state of despair numbed by everyday tasks, and occasionally lightened, against all odds, by momentary bursts of joy. What other fate could such a philosophy lead, but to self-destruction, or grim endurance? There is a reason why all human cultures have religion, after all. The Hours is a bleak literary Valentine — but it is masterfully woven and full of simple sharp observations, most deserving of its Pulitzer Prize.