In The Hours, what are the goals of the three protagonists: Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa?

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The three protagonists in Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours share a common goal: they are trying to find happiness that they believe will come from a meaningful identity. We watch them in their struggle as each one lives one day.

Virginia Woolf wants to write and to be seen as a writer, but she is trapped in the life of a housewife. She is working on Mrs. Dalloway through the day, but she is pulled away from her art by mundane aspects of life, such as going over a lunch menu with the staff. Her husband, Leonard, loves her, and she loves him; but a happy marriage is not enough. In addition to the encroaching expectations of society, Virginia is also fighting mental illness that continually threatens her dream. She explains why she chooses to end her life with suicide in her note to her husband:

I feel certain that I am going mad again: I feel we can't go through another of these terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and can't concentrate…I can't fight it any longer… You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read... You have been entirely patient with me & incredibly good. … If anybody could have saved me it would have been you.

Despite her husband’s care and love, mental illness claims her life, because she cannot face the loss of her faculties that allow her to write. Her art is her purpose.

Like Virginia, Laura is a housewife, living the ultimate dream of 1950s America and keeping a lovely home that her husband deserves after serving in the second World War. Their home is perfect, and she seems the embodiment of the maternal ideal as she bakes a cake for her husband with her little boy. But she sees herself as an actor imperfectly performing a role:

…she is again possessed (it seems to be getting worse) by a dreamlike feeling, as if she is standing in the wings, about to go onstage and perform in a play for which she is not appropriately dressed, and for which she has not adequately rehearsed.

She seeks escape from the trap of domesticity by reading Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, identifying with the title character’s doubt about the marriage and the life she chose. She leaves her son with a babysitter so she can check into a hotel and read the book undisturbed. Thinking about the character and Virginia Woolf’s suicide she decides to escape by taking her life. Although the reader is not told the details, we learn that she did not kill herself, but escaped by leaving.

The plan was I would leave my family when my second child was born. And that's what I did. I got up one morning, made breakfast, went to the bus stop, got on a bus.

She achieves her meaningful existence by abandoning the role that does not fit her.

In contrast to the other two women, Clarissa appears to love her life. She loves her home and her partner, Sallie, and on this day is enjoying planning a party for her dear friend Richard who is receiving an honor for his writing. But we soon discover that despite the full life she has, her happiness is tainted by regret. Her friend is also a former lover whom she rejected, and that choice leaves her with the same uncertainty Mrs. Dalloway experienced.

How often since then has she wondered what might have happened if she'd tried to remain with him; if she’d returned Richard's kiss on the corner of Bleeker and McDougal, gone off somewhere (where?) with him… It is impossible not to imagine that other future, that rejected future, as taking place in Italy or France… as a vast and enduring romance laid over friendship so searing and profound it would accompany them to the grave and possibly even beyond… She could have had a life as potent and dangerous as literature itself.

Richard is dying of AIDS, and as Clarissa spends his final moments with him, she loses the idealized picture she has been carrying of him and their potential future she gave up.

Here are his cardboard boxes, his bathtub (filthier than she'd realized), the dusty mirror and the expensive coffeemaker, all revealed in their true pathos, their ordinary smallness. It is, quite simply, the tenement apartment of a deranged person.

She leaves her regret behind by seeing him as he is, leaving her free to embrace the joy of her life.

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While the three central women in The Hours exist in different worlds, they share a common goal: to escape constraining circumstances in their lives. Virginia Woolf, one of the most extraordinary writers of the twentieth century, is the anchor to this book, and Michael Cunningham adopts Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style to interweave these three separate narratives. By exploring the characters’ parallel experiences which take place in just the course of a day—and decades apart—The Hours illustrates how these three women navigate regret, loss, and other internal struggles.

Virginia Woolf’s life memorably ended in 1941, when she committed suicide by drowning after strolling into a river with stones in her pockets. Her severe depressive episodes and consequent obsession with death fueled her desire to escape from her life and her brilliant yet haunted mind; ultimately, she achieved this goal with her death. In her suicide note, Woolf conveys to her husband just how strongly her mental illness has overpowered her will to live, emphatically opening with “I feel certain that I am going mad again.” Despite her desire to live a happy life with her husband, she chooses to escape.

By examining the fictional lives of Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughn in conjunction with Woolf’s true life story, The Hours provides insight into their shared struggle to cope with complicated emotions, particularly regret. In Laura Brown’s story, her life mirrors the 1950s “American Dream” ideal; however, she feels trapped inside her mundane role as a housewife. Feeling so deeply unfulfilled with how her life has unfolded, she both desperately and blindly yearns for something meaningful to fill the overwhelming void that domestication has created around her. Consequently, Laura chooses to escape by abandoning her family.

On the other hand, Clarissa Vaughn is a modern representation of the title character in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dolloway, and her story more heavily navigates the role regret has played in her life. While her narrative follows her day spent planning a party for her friend, her former lover, and a celebrated writer, Richard, much of Clarissa’s narrative consists of her reflecting on her past. By delving into these thoughts, Cunningham depicts how she feels adrift: “She could, she thinks, have entered another world. She could have had a life as potent and dangerous as literature itself.” This quotation powerfully communicates Clarissa’s sense of disillusionment and how this novel uses these women's stories to create threads between nostalgia, emptiness, and instability. In The Hours, these overwhelming feelings fuel the various ways that the three women seek to escape the burdens in their respective lives.

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Each of the three protagonists in The Hours has a different goal, but all want to arrive at the same place; happiness and satisfaction in their lives.

Virginia Woolf, the real-life author who inspired the book with her novel Mrs. Dalloway, wants to write and create great art, but fears the mental illness that has troubled her on and off her entire life. When she is writing, she uses events from her own life to spur characterization, and is highly aware of her role in society; she finds herself stifled at home, scorned by male critics (who are exemplified by young boys who she imagines are laughing at her) and although she loves her husband deeply, she is so terrified of her depression and "madness" that she commits suicide rather than experience it again.

Laura Brown is a Los Angeles housewife in the 1950s, trying to keep her family happy while yearning for something more in life. While reading Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Laura experiences an epiphany and attempts to become more of a perfect housewife and mother, baking a birthday cake for her husband that turns out mediocre instead of transcendent. Her love of her family becomes oppressive in her mind, and she eventually abandons them.

Clarissa Vaughn is a New York socialite who is readying a party to celebrate the life of a dear friend, Richard, who is dying of AIDS. Despite her emotional ties to Richard and her desire to honor him, he is overcome with depression that he has failed in his life and his art. Clarissa wants the party to be entirely in benefit of Richard's life as an artist and loving man, and her realization that her tryst with Richard years back was in fact a genuine love affair leads to tragedy when he commits suicide; she later accepts that while he is gone, the happy moments he shared with others will continue in their memories.

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