Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 836 words.)