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.