Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 836

Michael Cunningham is best known for The Hours, a work that received several notable literary awards, including the 1999 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. The novel has been praised for its masterful braiding of the stories concerning one single day in the lives of three women in different times and places: Virginia Woolf in 1923 and 1941 England, Laura Brown in 1949 Los Angeles, and Clarissa Vaughn in 1999 New York City. The Hours, which explores themes of failure, obligation, and mortality, also has been praised for raising awareness of HIV-AIDS and of problems facing lesbians, gays, and bisexuals.

Cunningham’s characters confront failure in various forms. Virginia neglects planning in advance for her sister’s visit, so when Virginia asks her servants to run last-minute errands, they become irritated with her. Consequently, Virginia feels disappointed in herself for not handling the situation more gracefully. She decides that her literary creation, Mrs. Dalloway, will handle her servants expertly. With this example, Cunningham emphasizes how difficult it remains to change one’s own behavior: Virginia atones for her failures in her fiction, rather than addressing them in reality.

Perhaps the most symbolic failure in the novel is the first cake Laura bakes for her husband, Dan. Laura’s inability to make a cake that pleases her represents her feelings about her role as a housewife: She is uncomfortable, unfulfilled, and incapable. With Laura in particular, Cunningham provides readers with an example of a character who fails because she has little interest or passion in her social role; in such situations, failure constantly looms and remains inevitable, demonstrated tellingly by Laura’s constant thoughts of suicide and her attempt to kill herself.

Cunningham’s novel also explores the theme of obligation—how one feels about it as well as the consequences of decisions made out of obligation. The novel’s women face pressures to which they respond, more out of duty than out of desire. Even though Virginia wants desperately to go to London, she returns home because her husband is hungry from skipping dinner, finding her instead. Laura had married Dan only because she had felt obligated to; Dan had fought bravely in World War II, and Laura had felt that if she declined Dan’s proposal, she would have been considered unpatriotic. Clarissa feels obligated to invite Richard’s former lover Louis to Richard’s party. Clarissa never liked Louis, and still does not, and she knows Richard feels uncomfortable around him; but she still welcomes Louis into her home. In the novel, as in society, women often disregard their own comfort, goals, and desires to please others. The women in The Hours consistently put the happiness of others first; in turn, they either commit suicide (Virginia), attempt suicide (Laura), or live to host others (Clarissa).

The Hours also examines mortality and immortality. Virginia and Richard take their own lives, welcoming death. Both Virginia’s husband, Leonard, and Clarissa think that after the passing of their loved ones, both of whom are writers, their loved ones will live on through their works. In this way, the writers achieve immortality.

Indeed, both Virginia and Richard do achieve a type of immortality: Laura reads Mrs. Dalloway and, in the process, thinks about Virginia’s own life. Similarly, Richard has loyal readers who provide some relief for Clarissa because she feels Richard continues to live when his readers discuss his work. Richard becomes immortalized, and he simultaneously grants Laura and Clarissa immortality by preserving their lives as characters in his literature: He bases the heroine in his final novel on Clarissa, and he bases the woman in most of his poetry on his mother, Laura. Like the poet in William Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 (who tells his lover that he/she is immortalized in the words of his sonnet), Richard awards in his own writing immortality to the women he loves. Cunningham participates in this tradition of preserving lives and creating immortality simply by writing The Hours, based on Woolf’s life and her novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925).

Readers also have championed Cunningham’s novel for its focus on lesbians, gays, and bisexuals. Both Virginia and Laura are aroused when they kiss women, suggesting that they might be bisexual. Clarissa has had passionate relationships with men, including Richard, but now is in a committed relationship with a woman, Sally. Cunningham demonstrates that the challenge same-gender couples face mirror those of heterosexual couples, including the challenge of staying committed to one’s partner, caring for a partner who is ill, and finding contentment in that relationship.

Even though AIDS affects all people, regardless of their sexuality, Cunningham draws attention to how the disease and its treatment affect gays in particular. Richard, being treated for AIDS, suffers incredibly from the powerful medicines he takes; readers may question if the haunting effects of the medicine given to prolong his life are worth his suffering. Even in the presence of this sadness, Cunningham provides readers with awareness and hope about commitment, love, and living.

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