The Hours

The Hours

4.1 151
by Michael Cunningham

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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

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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 Samuel, 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.

Passionate, profound, and deeply moving, this is Cunningham's most remarkable achievement to date.

Editorial Reviews
The Barnes & Noble Review
The Hours is Michael Cunningham's crystalline meditation on consciousness and identity, drawing on Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway -- a postmodern masterpiece whose minimal action takes place on a single June day in postwar London.

The Hours progresses in fuguelike fashion: First we meet Clarissa Vaughan, a New York book editor dubbed "Mrs Dalloway" by her longtime friend and former lover Richard. Next, Cunningham presents Woolf herself, beginning work in 1923 on what is to become Mrs. Dalloway. And finally we are introduced to Laura Brown, a California housewife who is avidly reading Woolf's novel.

Scenes from these three narratives are presented in recurrent identical succession: "Mrs. Dalloway," Mrs. Woolf, Mrs. Brown -- all bristling with connections and startling parallels. The "Mrs. Dalloway" strand is particularly rich, filled as it is with one-to-one correspondences to Woolf's novel. But the deepest and most important thing that The Hours shares with Mrs. Dalloway is "the feeling," as Woolf called it, "that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day." Cunningham's three women proceed through the day, through the hours, trying to keep themselves psychologically intact, like someone carrying a glass of water filled to the brim through a crowd and endeavoring not to spill it. They hesitate before plunging into the day because they know how hard it is to live in the world and remain identical with oneself. And they puzzle over a universal dilemma: how to bring the self into the world without its getting broken in the process. In The Hours, Michael Cunningham has explored this dilemma with an impressive and moving subtlety worthy of his great precursor. Benjamin Kunkel

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5.51(w) x 8.17(h) x 0.65(d)
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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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The Hours 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 151 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Michael Cunningham's The Hours is a timeless piece of literary achievement that is deserving of its Pulitzer Prize. He remarkably and cleverly weaves the stories of three different women of three different time periods into one flowing story. There is Virginia Woolf in 1923, and her story is followed as she writes her greatest literary achievement, Mrs. Dalloway. Then, there is Laura Brown, a wife and mother from 1949, who struggles with the confinement of her life and seeks to escape it through reading Mrs. Dalloway. Then finally, there is Clarissa Vaughn, a curious reincarnation of Clarissa Dalloway, who is alive at the end of the twentieth century, and whose story follows the planning of a party for a friend. Each finds herself in an undesired position -one of dissatisfaction. These three stories are soon woven together, depicting each individual's triumphs and sorrows and eventually, the connection all three share, despite the passage of time. The book really gave me something to chew on. For one, Cunningham's depiction of the theme of confinement was certainly interesting. Though each woman is under a very different situation, each feels that they are somehow constrained. What is more interesting is how each woman handles her situation. Another thing that amazed me was Cunningham's ability to highlight the most everyday things, and give them the most expressive descriptions to make them come alive. He is able to portray that life does not just go on, but every waking moment of life is something special. Interestingly enough, he also contrasts that theme with the idea that life is just a fleeting picture. I personally found the book enjoyable. The imagery Michael creates is just stunning, and really brings out the essence of everyday life. At the same time, he is able to manipulate the imagery, syntax, and diction to create a different picture depending on the character. The plot is certainly unique and is very craftily put together. I enjoyed my time reading the book for its literary brilliance. At the same time, I feel that the book was a little over-done at times. While the descriptions certainly add to the life of the book, they do become slightly overwhelming or confusing at times. Also, there are a lot of names to keep track of, making certain parts feel like they're too much to swallow at once. I would recommend this book to those who are looking for a good read and a good piece of literature. After I finished reading, not only was I left wowed, but I was also left with a lot to think about. However, I wouldn't recommend this to someone looking for a climactic plot, or a thriller as this is one of those pieces that is simply done to show the power of the pen. Also, it is better suited toward juniors in high school and beyond, as it features some material that requires some maturity to appreciate. And so, through his great style of writing, Cunningham is able to entice the reader into getting lost in The Hours, much as Laura Brown fell into Mrs. Dalloway.
Guest More than 1 year ago
THE HOURS is a book both beautiful and agonizing, portraying human emotion clearly, like a bell rung through a forest: you hear it, you want to run to it, but it is too far away. Lovely.
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While some parts were sluggish and interuppted the momentum of the story, they were not enough to detract from the beautiful stories that Cunningham effortlessy weaves together. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for an intellectually stimulating read.
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Lisa_RR_H More than 1 year ago
I think the highest praise I can give this novel is that it was worth suffering through Mrs Dalloway to get the most out of it. The Hours, you see, could be described as a "derivative work" ie fan fiction. One thread is about Virginia Woolf, the author of Mrs Dalloway, another about a woman reading Mrs Dalloway and a third about a woman nicknamed Dalloway by a friend. It's this last thread where reading Woolf's novel first pays off since it's a riff on the characters and events of that novel only set in contemporary New York City, and translated beautifully and movingly. One of the pleasures for me in the book was recognizing the references. Eventually the three narrative threads connect up. I loved this book a lot more than the source. For one a central event in first novel has a lot more resonance in the second where it has a real affect on the other characters. The narrative of The Hours, although lyrical and interior is far more coherent than Woolf's almost mad stream of consciousness narrative--and certainly, present-day New York City is far more accessible to me than 1923 London and the way of its upper classes. I also found the characters of The Hours much more sympathetic and easier to identify with than Woolf's characters. (That's not the distance of time or country--Austen, Forster, Shakespeare--Gilgamesh have characters far more accessible and sympathetic to me than Woolf's in Mrs Dalloway) I felt the second novel illuminated and used the first well, while standing on its own with its themes of the terrors of middle age and taking a measure of one's life.
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