“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” The Hours by Michael Cunningham [Discussion]

I read this on a whim. I had already a selection in mind for my next read until on Instagram I saw a clip of the movie the Hours; one of the final scenes with Laura Brown and Clarissa. I really love this movie and totally forgot that it’s based on a book. So as soon I remembered I bought the kindle version and now here I am writing a review. I wanted to write down some thoughts, perceptions and plot points and the best way to organize them in my mind would be to separate them by our three main characters: Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughan. Possible spoilers as I go a bit more depth into the book.

Clarissa Vaughan

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.

Clarissa seems to be a woman with a mid-life crisis. She is looking back on her life, she is reexamining her present and at times finds that she, perhaps, is not completely happy.

A lot of her judgments on her life are indirectly influenced by her gay best friend and former lover, Richard. The way she reminisces about their love affair, which took place when she was 18, has a certain longing to it. It is perhaps a combination of missing that feeling of youth, of having your whole life ahead of you filled with possibility and finding that perhaps you’ve become a person that 18 year old girl didn’t want to necessarily become. She has become a ” society wife,” with her ordinary job, throwing cocktail parties, married to a woman, having a child. She feels Richard did not want this for her and it is perhaps one of the reasons she feels unsatisfied with her life.

She loves Richard, that much is clear. Their relationship is touching. In passing it is mentioned she could’ve married him, never mind that he is gay and she a lesbian. They would’ve had lovers on the side but they would’ve married each other for love. This is a different kind of love. There is devotion as Clarissa takes care of Richard who is dying of AIDS. And at that last moment when they’ll never see each other again, she wants to let him know she didn’t kiss him on the mouth, only the cheek, not because she didn’t want to but for fear of his health. Kill me now please…

Virginia Woolf

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…She feels fully in command of the character who is Virginia Woolf, and as that character she removes her cloak..

Virginia is a woman battling mental illness. She is struggling to live her life as best she can, as a writer and a wife. There is a part of her that lives in fear that the voices and the headaches will come back at any moment. They are perhaps, always there, just in the background, not entirely felt or heard but are present just the same. She is afraid to look in the mirror because she knows she will see something there waiting for her.

When she is at her best she is a writer who can channel her gifts and create something, but for someone like her she is not always at her best and cannot always write. She feels stifled by the life she lives and yearns for London but is London really the solution for what ails her? She is doing her best to get through life hour by hour.

It is an inner faculty that recognized the animating mysteries of the world because it is made of the same substance and when she is very fortunate she is able to write directly through that faculty. Writing in that state is the most profound satisfaction she knows, but her access to it comes and goes without warning.

For Virginia it’s hard to distinguish if what she is feeling, her yearning for London and not feeling stifled, is a consequence of her mental illness or is a genuine desire on her part. She is a tortured genius and her chapters were moving to read.

Mrs Brown

Here is the brilliant spirit, the woman of sorrows, the woman of transcendent joys, who would rather be elsewhere, who has consented to perform simple and essentially foolish tasks, to examine tomatoes, to sit under a hair dryer,because it is her art and her duty.

Laura Brown is a married woman with one small child and pregnant with another and she is currently living a live she does not want to live. She finds herself married because a kind man, a war hero, proposes to her. Why not marry this man everyone loves? She has a kid, a house and another kid on the way because, isn’t that what people do when they get married? But she finds herself wanting to escape it all. There are moments in which she can go on with this. Moments of simple happiness with her family, in which she thinks that this feeling will go away. Will it?

It seems she will be fine. She will not lose hope. She will not mourn her lost possibilities, her unexplored talents…She will remain devoted to her son, her husband, her home and duties, all her gifts. She will want this second child.

Laura is the epitome of a woman who is unhappy living the life “everybody wants.” It is expected that a woman marry, have children, take care of her family but she is slowly dying inside. She deceives herself at times into thinking she might be able to carry on and her feelings of unhappiness will go away.

My thoughts

First of all, I would only recommend this if you’re interested in the subject matter. This novel has a lot of introspection: the mourning of the past, of the possibilities life once held and grappling with a life you feel you no longer wish to live. It is a slow burn (and there is actually very little that actually happens) but for me themes like these really resonate with me. At one point or other, some part of each character’s situation stood out for me and I could sympathize. Clarissa and Richard’s relationship was particularly touching.

This book to me can serve as social critique. For the most part, these are women who are questioning their places in life and some have regrets in conforming to societal norms particularly Laura.

Compared to the movie, you really get inside each character’s head as the novel progresses. There were scenes in the movie that were pure gold which were not in the book and I was bummed about that. The ending of the movie has a certain finality to it; the book I felt ended rather up in the air. But I guess, it is a little like life: should you choose to continue, there is no point in time in which there is a decisive finality to it.

The themes of the book spoke to me. This book is original and yet borrowing from the life of famous author Virginia Woolf. It is well written with some interesting metaphors. For this I’m giving The Hours a 5 out of 5.


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