|Publisher:||Faber and Faber|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.76(h) x 0.39(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 isshe 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
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.
What People are Saying About This
What had at first been "schematic and precious" became improvisational, aiming for..."the loose, riffish quality of Mrs. Dalloway....I wanted my book to have its own life, not to be just an annex to Woolf's." In the end it became a triptych....Each story resonates within the others.
Interviewed in The New York Times, April 20, 1999
Reading Group Guide
The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Michael Cunningham's The Hours. We hope they will give you a number of interesting angles from which to approach this incisive, daring, and deeply affecting new novel, winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award.
In this remarkable book, Cunningham draws inventively on the life and work of Virginia Woolf to tell the story of a group of characters struggling with the conflicting claims of love and inheritance, life and death, creation and destruction. The novel moves along three separate but parallel stories, each focusing on the experiences of a particular woman during the course of one apparently unremarkable but in fact pivotal day.
Clarissa Vaughan, a book editor in present-day Greenwich Village, is organizing a party for her oldest friend, Richard, an AIDS-stricken poet who has just won a major literary prize. Laura Brown, a young wife and mother in 1949 Los Angeles, cares for her toddler and prepares a birthday cake for her husband as she tries to resist increasing waves of panic and feelings of alienation from her humdrum yet demanding life. And Virginia Woolf herself, the third woman, works on her new novel, Mrs. Dalloway, chats with her husband and sister, bickers with her cook, and attempts to come to terms with her deep, ungovernable longings for escape and even for death. As the novel jump-cuts through the century, the lives and stories of the three women converge, stunningly and unexpectedly, the night of Clarissa's party for Richard.
1. Clarissa Vaughan is described several times as an " ordinary " woman. Do you accept this valuation? If so, what does it imply about the ordinary, about being ordinary? What makes someone, by contrast, extraordinary?
2. Flowers and floral imagery play a significant part in The Hours. When and where are flowers described? What significance do they have, and with what events and moods are they associated? How do flowers affect Virginia? Clarissa?
3. Cunningham plays with the notions of sanity and insanity, recognizing that there might be only a very fine line between the two states. What does the novel imply about the nature of insanity? Might it in fact be a heightened sanity, or at least a heightened sense of awareness? Would you classify Richard as insane? How does his mental state compare with that of Virginia? Of Laura as a young wife? Of Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway? Does insanity (or the received idea of insanity) appear to be connected with creative gifts?
4. Virginia and Laura are both, in a sense, prisoners of their eras and societies, and both long for freedom from this imprisonment. Clarissa Vaughan, on the other hand, apparently enjoys every liberty: freedom to be a lesbian, to come and go and live as she likes. Yet she has ended up, in spite of her unusual way of life, as a fairly conventional wife and mother. What might this fact indicate about the nature of society and the restrictions it imposes? Does the author imply that character, to a certain extent, is destiny?
5. Each of the novel's three principal women, even the relatively prosaic and down-to-earth Clarissa, occasionally feels a sense of detachment, of playing a role. Laura feels as if she is " about to go onstage and perform in a play for which she is not appropriately dressed, and for which she has not adequately rehearsed " [p. 43]. Clarissa is filled with "a sense of dislocation. This is not her kitchen at all. This is the kitchen of an acquaintance, pretty enough but not her taste, full of foreign smells" [p. 91]. Is this feeling in fact a universal one? Is role-playing an essential part of living in the world, and of behaving " sanely " ? Which of the characters refuses to act a role, and what price does he/she pay for this refusal?
6. Who kisses whom in The Hours, and what is the significance of each kiss?
7. The Hours is very much concerned with creativity and the nature of the creative act, and each of its protagonists is absorbed in a particular act of creation. For Virginia and Richard, the object is their writing; for Clarissa Vaughan (and Clarissa Dalloway), it is a party; for Laura Brown, it is another party, or, more generally, "This kitchen, this birthday cake, this conversation. This revived world" [p. 106]. What does the novel tell us about the creative process? How does each character revise and improve his or her creation during the course of the story?
8. How might Richard's childhood experiences have made him the adult he eventually becomes? In what ways has he been wounded, disturbed?
9. Each of the three principal women is acutely conscious of her inner self or soul, slightly separate from the "self" seen by the world. Clarissa's "determined, abiding fascination is what she thinks of as her soul" [p. 12]; Virginia "can feel it inside her, an all but indescribable second self, or rather a parallel, purer self. If she were religious, she would call it the soul . . . It is an inner faculty that recognizes the animating mysteries of the world because it is made of the same substance" [pp. 34-35]. Which characters keep these inner selves ruthlessly separate from their outer ones? Why?
10. Each of the novel's characters sees himself or herself, most of the time, as a failure. Virginia Woolf, as she walks to her death, reflects that "She herself has failed. She is not a writer at all, really; she is merely a gifted eccentric" [p. 4]. Richard, disgustedly, admits to Clarissa, "I thought I was a genius. I actually used that word, privately, to myself" [p. 65]. Are the novel's characters unusual, or are such feelings of failure an essential and inevitable part of the human condition?
11. Toward the end of Clarissa's day, she realizes that kissing Richard beside the pond in Wellfleet was the high point, the culmination, of her life. Richard, apparently, feels the same. Are we meant to think, though, that their lives would have been better, more heightened, had they stayed together? Or does Cunningham imply that as we age we inevitably feel regret for some lost chance, and that what we in fact regret is youth itself?
12. The Hours could on one level be said to be a novel about middle age, the final relinquishment of youth and the youthful self. What does middle age mean to these characters? In what essential ways do these middle-aged people -- Clarissa, Richard, Louis, Virginia -- differ from their youthful selves? Which of them resists the change most strenuously?
13. What does the possibility of death represent to the various characters? Which of them loves the idea of death, as others love life? What makes some of the characters decide to die, others to live? What personality traits separate the "survivors" from the suicides?
14. If you have read Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, would you describe The Hours as a modern version of it? A commentary upon it? A dialogue with it? Which characters in The Hours correspond with those of Woolf's novel? In what ways are they similar, and at what point do the similarities cease and the characters become freestanding individuals in their own right?
15. For the most part, the characters in The Hours have either a different gender or a different sexual orientation from their prototypes in Mrs. Dalloway. How much has all this gender-bending affected or changed the situations, the relationships, and the people?
16. Why has Cunningham chosen The Hours for the title of his novel (aside from the fact that it was Woolf's working title for Mrs. Dalloway)? In what ways is the title appropriate, descriptive? What do hours mean to Richard? To Laura? To Clarissa?
About the Author:
Michael Cunningham's novel A Home at the End of the World was published to acclaim in 1990; an excerpt, entitled " White Angel " and published in The New Yorker, was chosen for Best American Short Stories 1989. His novel Flesh and Blood was published in 1995, and that year he won a Whiting Writer's Award. The Hours, Cunningham's third novel, received the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award.