This spring, after years of procrastination, I finally got around to reading Virginia Wolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I say this with some satisfaction, because I tackled it several times in the past and had always given up after a few pages. I just couldn’t fall into the rhythm of Clarissa Dalloway’s musings as she goes out to buy flowers for her party. I found her “What a lark! What a plunge!” exclamations off- putting, and I kept hoping for a flash of irony, which would enable me to laugh along with Virginia Wolf at her unremarkable character. The irony never quite came, but once I made up my mind to stop looking for it, I was able to settle into Wolf’s portrayal of 1920s London’s manners and values.
As for The Hours, I had seen the movie, and as I read Mrs. Dalloway, I kept remembering scenes from the movie, based on Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel; Virginia Wolf writing the book, Laura Brown reading it, Clarissa Vaughn enacting it. I’ve been interested lately in books that are structured as stories that speak to each other, and so I decided, in spite of my skepticism of books that achieve hysterical popularity, to give it a go.
With The Hours, Michael Cunningham is doing something extremely ambitious – he is simultaneously portraying the author (that is, Virginia Wolf) writing the book, a character (Clarissa Vaughn) enacting a modern version of Wolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, and a reader (Laura Brown) reading Mrs. Dalloway. In this way, Cunningham sets up a triangle connecting author, character and reader that looks like this:
What is so compelling about this triangle is that it is a sort of archetype representing the relationships that play out in an unwritten pact inherent in all novels, a pact between writers, their characters and readers. Fact and fiction meet in a space where there is essentially no difference between them. Wolf, playing herself in the role of “the author”, has become Cunningham’s character. Wolf’s own character, Clarissa Dalloway, has metamorphasized into Clarissa Vaughan, who is both an modern manifestation of Wolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and an entirely new creation. Laura Brown, the reader, attempts to escape her own life by reading Wolf’s novel. At the end of The Hours, Laura Brown (the reader) and Clarissa Vaughan (Cunningham’s, but also Wolf’s character) meet, closing the triangle in a sort of Gordian knot.
Where, one might ask after completing The Hours, is the locus of this knot? Who or what is at its center? For not only is The Hours a tribute to Mrs. Dalloway, it is a metaphysical expansion of the novel through time and space. It envisions its creator, its creation, and its readers. It takes Wolf’s protagonist and transforms her into an entirely different woman who nonetheless shares with her an identical soul. It offers us a vision of all three sides of the triangle, the reader, the writer, the character, as they converse with each other, each struggling to wrest from this story its themes of sanity/insanity, celebration of life/rejection of life, and the singular enchanting power of the moment, or as Cunningham calls it, the Hour.
You might be a writer living in a London suburb in 1923, or a depressed, unfulfilled housewife in Los Angeles in 1949, or a lesbian intellectual in New York at the end of the 20th century, yet there is something in which we all, by virtue of being alive , partake. “There’s just this for consolation,” Clarissa Vaughan reflects at the end of The Hours, “an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectation, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows that these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.”
And voila! We are all here together. Virgina Wolf, Clarrissa Daloway, Laura Brown, Clarissa Vaughan, Michael Cunningham, and you, the reader of The Hours. All of us are here, together, nodding in recognition.