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The Hours


The Hours Cover




Excerpt from The Hours by Michael Cunningham. Copyright © 1998 by Michael Cunningham. To be published in November, 1998 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

She hurries from the house, wearing a coat too heavy for the weather. It is 1941. Another war has begun. She has left a note for Leonard, and another for Vanessa. She walks purposefully toward the river, certain of what she'll do, but even now she is almost distracted by the sight of the downs, the church, and a scattering of sheep, incandescent, tinged with a faint hint of sulfur, grazing under a darkening sky. She pauses, watching the sheep and the sky, then walks on. The voices murmur behind her; bombers drone in the sky, though she looks for the planes and can't see them. She walks past one of the farm workers (is his name John?), a robust, small-headed man wearing a potato-colored vest, cleaning the ditch that runs through the osier bed. He looks up at her, nods, looks down again into the brown water. As she passes him on her way to the river she thinks of how successful he is, how fortunate, to be cleaning a ditch in an osier bed. She herself has failed. She is not a writer at all, really; she is merely a gifted eccentric. Patches of sky shine in puddles left over from last night's rain. Her shoes sink slightly into the soft earth. She has failed, and now the voices are back, muttering indistinctly just beyond the range of her vision, behind her, here, no, turn and they've gone somewhere else. The voices are back and the headache is approaching as surely as rain, the headache that will crush whatever is she and replace her with itself. The headache is approaching and it seems (is she or is she not conjuring them herself?) that the bombers have appeared again in the sky. She reaches the embankment, climbs over and down again to the river. There's a fisherman upriver, far away, he won't notice her, will he? She begins searching for a stone. She works quickly but methodically, as if she were following a recipe that must be obeyed scrupulously if it's to succeed at all. She selects one roughly the size and shape of a pig's skull. Even as she lifts it and forces it into one of the pockets of her coat (the fur collar tickles her neck), she can't help noticing the stone's cold chalkiness and its color, a milky brown with spots of green. She stands close to the edge of the river, which laps against the bank, filling the small irregularities in the mud with clear water that might be a different substance altogether from the yellow-brown, dappled stuff, solid-looking as a road, that extends so steadily from bank to bank. She steps forward. She does not remove her shoes. The water is cold, but not unbearably so. She pauses, standing in cold water up to her knees. She thinks of Leonard. She thinks of his hands and his beard, the deep lines around his mouth.

She thinks of Vanessa, of the children, of Vita and Ethel: So many. They have all failed, haven't they? She is suddenly, immensely sorry for them. She imagines turning around, taking the stone out of her pocket, going back to the house. She could probably return in time to destroy the notes. She could live on; she could perform that final kindness. Standing knee-deep in the moving water, she decides against it. The voices are here, the headache is coming, and if she restores herself to the care of Leonard and Vanessa they won't let her go again, will they? She decides to insist that they let her go. She wades awkwardly (the bottom is mucky) out until she is up to her waist. She glances upriver at the fisherman, who is wearing a red jacket and who does not see her. The yellow surface of the river (more yellow than brown when seen this close) murkily reflects the sky. Here, then, is the last moment of true perception, a man fishing in a red jacket and a cloudy sky reflected on opaque water. Almost involuntarily (it feels involuntary, to her) she steps or stumbles forward, and the stone pulls her in. For a moment, still, it seems like nothing; it seems like another failure; just chill water she can easily swim back out of; but then the current wraps itself around her and takes her with such sudden, muscular force it feels as if a strong man has risen from the bottom, grabbed her legs and held them to his chest. It feels personal.

More than an hour later, her husband returns from the garden. "Madame went out," the maid says, plumping a shabby pillow that releases a miniature storm of down. "She said she'd be back soon."

Leonard goes upstairs to the sitting room to listen to the news. He finds a blue envelope, addressed to him, on the table. Inside is a letter.


I feel certain that I am going

mad again: I feel we can't go

through another of these terrible times.

And I shant recover this time. I begin

to hear voices, and cant concentrate.

So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have

given me

the greatest possible happiness. You

have been in every way all that anyone

could be. I dont think two

people could have been happier till

this terrible disease came. I cant

fight it any longer, I know that I am

spoiling your life, that without me you

could work. And you will I know.

You see I cant even write this properly. I

cant read. What I want to say is that

I owe all the happiness of my life to you.

You have been entirely patient with me &

incredibly good. I want to say that--

everybody knows it. If anybody could

have saved me it would have been you.

Everything has gone from me but the

certainty of your goodness. I

cant go on spoiling your life any longer. I dont think two


could have been happier than we have been. V.

Leonard races from the room, runs downstairs. He says to the maid, "I think something has happened to Mrs. Woolf. I think she may have tried to kill herself. Which way did she go? Did you see her leave the house?"

The maid, panicked, begins to cry. Leonard rushes out and goes to the river, past the church and the sheep, past the osier bed. At the riverbank he finds no one but a man in a red jacket, fishing.

She is borne quickly along by the current. She appears to be flying, a fantastic figure, arms outstretched, hair streaming, the tail of the fur coat billowing behind. She floats, heavily, through shafts of brown, granular light. She does not travel far. Her feet (the shoes are gone) strike the bottom occasionally, and when they do they summon up a sluggish cloud of muck, filled with the black silhouettes of leaf skeletons, that stands all but stationary in the water after she has passed along out of sight. Stripes of green-black weed catch in her hair and the fur of her coat, and for a while her eyes are blindfolded by a thick swatch of weed, which finally loosens itself and floats, twisting and untwisting and twisting again.

She comes to rest, eventually, against one of the pilings of the bridge at Southease. The current presses her, worries her, but she is firmly positioned at the base of the squat, square column, with her back to the river and her face against the stone. She curls there with one arm folded against her chest and the other afloat over the rise of her hip. Some distance above her is the bright, rippled surface. The sky reflects unsteadily there, white and heavy with clouds, traversed by the black cutout shapes of rooks. Cars and trucks rumble over the bridge. A small boy, no older than three, crossing the bridge with his mother, stops at the rail, crouches, and pushes the stick he's been carrying between the slats of the railing so it will fall into the water. His mother urges him along but he insists on staying awhile, watching the stick as the current takes it.

Here they are, on a day early in the Second World War: the boy and his mother on the bridge, the stick floating over the water's surface, and Virginia's body at the river's bottom, as if she is dreaming of the surface, the stick, the boy and his mother, the sky and the rooks. An olive-drab truck rolls across the bridge, loaded with soldiers in uniform, who wave to the boy who has just thrown the stick. He waves back. He demands that his mother pick him up so he can see the soldiers better; so he will be more visible to them. All this enters the bridge, resounds through its wood and stone, and enters Virginia's body. Her face, pressed sideways to the piling, absorbs it all: the truck and the soldiers, the mother and the child.

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shelbystahl, April 2, 2014 (view all comments by shelbystahl)
The Hours by Michael Cunningham is a truly stunning novel. This novel is a connection through space and time of the life and written work of Virginia Woolf. The two main female characters connected to Woolf are Laura Brown and Clarissa Dalloway. The book deals with the strong emotions of contemplating suicide, life-long love, and the complexities of searching for something greater than yourself. Because of these themes, I would recommend this as a mature book for upper-level high schoolers and older. There is an element of sexuality and difficult concepts such as suicide and pure forms of love for another human. Some of these thematic elements would be lost on children who don’t quite yet understand the complexities of the human experience. The prose is also rather eloquent and would be difficult for people who are insufficient readers to grasp. I believe this book to be one of the most beautifully written and perplexing books I have ever read because it forces the reader to reevaluate the meanings of life, love, and death.
This book is written following three different characters in separate locations and times. Virginia Woolf is the first and is introduced in the capturing prologue, sucking the reader in. The prologue tells the story of her suicide in 1941. Her subsequent chapters follow her recent times leading up to her suicide. The character Laura Brown is a caring housewife and mother living in Los Angeles in 1949. The third main character is Clarissa Dalloway who is living in New York City at the end of the twentieth century. Clarissa is a lesbian, but her story follows the implications of a past romance with a man named Richard who is living with AIDS. The themes that this novel deals with are, at times, very philosophical and one has to have the capacity to follow these themes so they can develop as the author intended them to for the impact and meaning of the novel. The reader also has to be willing to jump around to different character storylines. With the character changes every chapter, a reader needs to have a sense of patience. Just know that not every question will be answered right away, but it will tie together eventually. Only with an open mind will a reader have a positive experience with this book.
As I begin reading any novel, I always question why a book has the title it has. Cunningham’s title, The Hours, is revealed to be the perfect fit as characters contemplate the meaning of their life and how time is eternally ticking away. Clarissa Dalloway discovers that “There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) know these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult,” (225). This relates to the eye opening yet very dark theme that there will eventually be an end, maybe one’s soul has had its end before its body has physically ended. The common trend between the characters in this novel is that they all have moments of dissatisfaction in their lives, possibly in their relationships, but something could just be empty as well. However, this theme is attached to a larger moral, that is, to live and love as fully as possible because someone may be dependent on the love you give to him or her. This moral is connected because, “for a moment they are both simply and entirely happy. They are present, right now, and they have managed, somehow, over the course of eighteen years, to continue loving each other. It is enough. At this moment, it is enough” (185). This quote, like many others in this deeply profound novel, is almost so philosophical about the human experience involving love that I can’t fully grasp it! The difficulty of grasping these topics is exactly what Cunningham wants, as evident when he wrote, “Love is deep, a mystery- who wants to understand its every particular?” (143). This novel stretches the mind to levels not yet developed to contemplate the human experience involving life, love, and death.
I believe the book was beautifully written by an author who took care in writing a book that successfully achieved its goal of having the reader be impacted. It is a book with very important ideas to consider and there is heartfelt meaning behind all of these main points the author wanted to show to readers. One aspect that stands out is his use of language. The prose used by the author and the roles of the characters were essential to this novel’s structure. The fact that it follows three main characters separately, but yet ties them all together is critical to the impact of the novel and shows how we are all connected through the human experience because we all go through the cycle of life and death. Cunningham uses language in such a unique way that makes every sentence different in such a beautiful way. At times, it’s surprising how he can take certain words and put them together to make a sentence that’s so unusual that I’m sure it will only ever be said in the pages of his book. There is no doubt in my mind that this book is timeless and can be appreciated by all who read with an open heart.
This book is a must-read because of the new ideas that are presented in an eloquent manner. In The Hours, three women are connected through the human experience of life, love, and death. This book is highly relatable because of these themes, yet so deeply philosophical that it can blow your mind! I would highly recommend this book; it has truly left me marveling over its quality.
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glsmerillo, April 1, 2014 (view all comments by glsmerillo)
Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is a thought provoking novel that revolves around the perceptions of women over time and gender roles. In The Hours, Michael Cunningham creates a common thread between the female character’s daily struggles. The women all deal with the concepts of motherhood, an alternative life they want to live, and death.
The novel is told in three different perspectives. Mrs. Virginia Woolf is a middle aged and accomplished author who lives in a suburb outside of London in the 1920s. She yearns to move back to London but her husband, Leonard, is hesitant to do so because of a mental breakdown she had when they last lived there. She is currently working on a novel that she hopes is her best yet. Mrs. Woolf’s novel is about Mrs. Clarissa Vaughn/Dalloway, an editor who lives in New York in the late 1990s. Mrs. Dalloway (this last name was given to her from her best friend, Richard) deals with society’s perception of a traditional family. She is married to her wife, Sally, and together they raised their daughter, Julia. The reader of this novel, Mrs. Laura Brown is a housewife in Los Angeles in the 1950s. She has a husband who takes good care of her, a son, Richie, and another child on the way. Mrs. Brown struggles with the obligations of motherhood.
The obstacles of the characters intertwine throughout the novel. Motherhood can be applied to the lives of Mrs. Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway, as well as Mrs. Brown’s life. Mrs. Woolf does not have any children but feels that the hole is filled by her nephews and niece of her sister, Vanessa. The perception of women in the 1920s was to get married and have children, but Mrs. Woolf doesn’t fit this description. Mrs. Dalloway is raising her daughter with her wife, a pair that people think goes against the traditions of society. The perception of a “true” family is a husband, a wife, and children. Two women or two men were not adequate to successfully raising a child. Mrs. Brown lives a great life with a husband who works hard to take care of her and a son who looks up to her. However, she is not sure this is what she wants. During the 1950s she is put into the role as being an obedient housewife. The idea of living the life you are dreaming of comes up with each of the characters as well. Mrs. Woolf dreams of living in London again, her happiness, and possibly her peace, is in London. Mrs. Dalloway contemplates her past and the decisions she has made to where she is today. Mrs. Brown dreams of getting rid of her guilt about her obligations as a mother and a housewife. Lastly, death impacted each character’s thoughts or actions. The peaceful death of the bird intrigued Mrs. Woolf and she wondered how it would feel to lay in the bird’s grave herself. Readers are told at the beginning of the novel that Mrs. Woolf commits suicide by weighing herself down with rocks in the river. Mrs. Dalloway deals with the death of a close friend and appears calm during the situation. Mrs. Brown thinks of death because of the route Mrs. Woolf takes to end her life. Motherhood, living an alternative life, and death are themes that pop up throughout The Hours.
There are four prominent symbols in the novel; roses, a cake, and a dead bird. The symbols are objects the characters are hung up on in their sections of the novel. Mrs. Dalloway picks the perfect roses for Richard’s party. The roses will brighten up the room of her apartment. Flowers are seen in traditional homes in magazines, an attempt by Mrs. Dalloway to make her family fit in. Mrs. Brown obsesses over a cake her and her son are making for her husband’s birthday. She wants it to look like a cake from a magazine or a cook book but she finds a flaw in it both times she makes one. A housewife concerns themselves with the cleaning, cooking, and taking care of the children. But these things frustrate Mrs. Brown. Mrs. Woolf takes an interest in a dead bird her nephews and niece found in her yard. She notices how her niece had made a beautiful grave and how she would like to lay in the bird’s grave. The characters channel their thoughts and worries into these objects.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham was, in my opinion, an outstanding book. The descriptive language, imagery, and characterization brought the book to life. I think Cunningham utilized these literary tools to emphasize the obstacles each women faced, the solutions they found were available, but their decisions to take a different route. The perceptions of women did not drastically change as the time periods progressed and you can see this with each of the women’s lives. The end of the novel was mind boggling, with a common thread placed throughout the whole novel that a reader may or may not recognize. I recommend The Hours because it is a novel that has ideas that will stick like glue in a reader’s mind.
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RNJ, January 11, 2010 (view all comments by RNJ)
Michael Cunningham takes the life of the literary icon, Virginia Woolf, and juxtaposes it with Mrs. Dalloway, a Woolf character, as well as a contemporary American woman, Laura. He derives even the title, in part, from Woolf's own work (see epigram). He seems to be a master at balancing or exploring themes in threes, subtly linking the three characters through alternating chapters. The Hours brings to fruition topics or motifs he has explored in his first two novels--a sign that Cunningham has so much to say, he can't do it all in one work. The image of a woman working toward the baking of "perfect" cake is used in his second novel, Flesh and Blood, but in the Hours its use may be more poignant. Mrs. Brown "wants to have produced a cake that banishes sorrow, even if only for a little while. She wants to have produced something marvelous, something that would be marvelous even to those who do not love her." In this passage and throughout the novel, Cunningham's prose rivals that of his subject: strong yet delicate. The Hours is a novel that will resonate with the reader for a long time, begging to be read again and again, and the reader will comply, happily.
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Product Details

Cunningham, Michael
Man-woman relationships
Domestic fiction
Psychological fiction
Contemporary Women
Edition Number:
Reprint ed.
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Recent Picador Highlights
Publication Date:
November 2002
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Grade Level:
8.25 x 5.50 in

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The Hours Used Trade Paper
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Product details 240 pages Picador USA - English 9780312305062 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Steeped in the work and life of Virginia Woolf, Cunningham offers up a sequel to the work of the great author, complete with her own pathos and brilliance....[G]orgeous, Woolfian, shimmering, perfectly-observed prose. Hardly a false note in an extraordinary carrying on of a true greatness that doubted itself."
"Review" by , "Inspired....Michael Cunningham dazzles."
"Review" by , "At first blush, the structural and thematic conceits of this novel...seem like the stuff of a graduate student's pipe dream....[But] the reader becomes completely entranced....[T]he gargantuan accomplishment of this small book [is that] it makes a reader believe in the possibility and depth of a communality based on great literature, literature that has shown people how to live and what to ask of life."
"Review" by , "A delicate, triumphant glance....A place of late-century danger but also of treasurable hours."
"Review" by , "Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours is that rare combination: a smashing literary tour de force and an utterly invigorating reading experience. If this book does not make you jump up from the sofa, looking at life and literature in new ways, check to see if you have a pulse."
"Review" by , "The Hours is a feat of literary acrobatics, yet in the end does not affect us as profoundly as Mrs. Dalloway. The Hours is a variation on a theme, and it's the original melody rather than the contemporary arrangement that's most memorable....Cunningham's writing has a luminous quality....Pulling off this clever literary accomplishment shows us that the talented Michael Cunningham isn't at all afraid of Virginia Woolf."
"Review" by , "[A] glittering work of exquisite detail and refined vision..."
"Review" by , "[Cunningham] has fashioned a fictional instrument of intricacy and remarkable beauty. It is a kaleidoscope whose four shining and utterly unlike pieces — the lives of two fictional characters, of a real writer, and her novel — combine, separate and tumble in continually shifting and startlingly suggestive patterns."
"Review" by , "[Cunningham] has deftly created something original, a trio of richly interwoven tales that alternate with one another chapter by chapter, each of them entering the thoughts of a character as she moves through the small details of a day....Cunningham's emulation of such a revered writer as Woolf is courageous, and this is his most mature and masterful work."
"Review" by , "With an intimacy only another writer could muster, Cunningham portrayed the act of creation as a heroic and dangerous adventure...a contemporary masterpiece."
"Synopsis" by , The author of "Flesh and Blood" draws inventively on the life and work of Virginia Woolf to tell the story of a group of contemporary characters struggling with the conflicting claims of love and inheritance, hope and despair. Soon to be a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman.
"Synopsis" by , A daring, deeply affecting third novel by the author of A Home at the End of the World and Flesh and Blood.

In The Hours, Michael Cunningham, widely praised as one of the most gifted writers of his generation, draws inventively on the life and work of Virginia Woolf to tell the story of a group of contemporary characters struggling with the conflicting claims of love and inheritance, hope and despair. The narrative of Woolf's last days before her suicide early in World War II counterpoints the fictional stories of Richard, a famous poet whose life has been shadowed by his talented and troubled mother, and his lifelong friend Clarissa, who strives to forge a balanced and rewarding life in spite of the demands of friends, lovers, and family.

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