Historical Context

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Mrs. Dalloway

In the Woolf section of The Hours, Cunningham notes that Virginia considered London to be the center of life. The city, in fact, had for the historical Virginia Woolf a mystical significance, one which she recreated in her celebrated novel, Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Cunningham reworked characters and themes from Mrs. Dalloway in The Hours, which was actually the working title of the earlier historical Woolf 's novel.

Woolf's novel is set in London a couple years after World War I. It chronicles a June day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a fifty-two-year-old, upper-class Londoner who is planning a party for that evening. As she prepares for the event, she looks back wistfully over her life, noting the moments of lost possibilities and revealing her doubts about her choices and the significance of her life. When she hears the news that a shell-shocked now discharged soldier, Septimus Warren-Smith, who is developed in an important subplot in the novel, has committed suicide, she is prompted to reevaluate her sense of self and ultimately to reassert an affirmation of life.

Women's Roles in the United States in the 1940s

Laura Brown's limited choices in this decade, based on her gender, push her to consider suicide. During World War II, women were encouraged to enter the workplace where they enjoyed a measure of independence and responsibility. After the war, they were required to give up their jobs to the returning male troops. Hundreds of thousands of women were laid off and expected to resume their place in the home.

Training began at an early age to ensure that girls would conform to the feminine ideal of the perfect wife and mother. Women who tried to gain self-fulfillment through a career were criticized and deemed dangerous to the stability of the American family. They were pressed to find fulfillment exclusively through their support of a successful husband. Television shows such as Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best and popular magazines such as Good Housekeeping, along with television and newspaper advertisements, all encouraged the image of woman-as-housewife throughout the 1950s.

The small number of women who did work outside the home often suffered discrimination and exploitation as they were relegated to low-paying clerical, service, or assembly-line positions. Women would have to wait until the 1960s and 1970s to gain meaningful social and economic advancement.


In 1978, cases of a virus, later identified as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), which causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) appeared in the United States, Sweden, Tanzania, and Haiti. The U.S. public became aware of AIDS in the early 1980s, and it became a widely discussed matter when film star Rock Hudson died from an AIDS-related illness in 1985. By the beginning of the 1990s, the disease had spread rapidly, generating public fear since no treatment had been discovered. Most of the early cases were identified in homosexual populations and among intravenous (IV) drug users, but by the 1990s, cases were noted throughout the U.S. populace. Racial and ethnic minorities were hardest hit, representing approximately three-fourths of all new AIDS cases.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the incidences of AIDS increased rapidly. By 1994, there were an estimated 500,000 Americans infected with AIDS and the same number had died from the disease. Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, approximately 40,000 people were infected each year and approximately 20,000 people died from complications associated with the disease. The epidemic was worse in developing countries such as Africa where people have little access to medications that can help control the disease progression.

Literary Style

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Literary Allusions

A literary allusion is a reference in one...

(This entire section contains 278 words.)

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work to other works of literature. Cunningham's allusions to the characters and themes in Woolf's novelMrs. Dalloway give his own work a frame of reference with meaningful parallels if his reader already knows the literature and historical characters to which he refers, in this case the novel Mrs. Dalloway and the historical Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Clarissa's day parallels that of Mrs. Dalloway as she buys flowers for the party she is giving that evening. The lives of the three women are connected to Woolf's novel: Woolf is writing it; all are planning a party (Virginia for Vanessa, Clarissa for Richard, and Laura for Dan); all experience a significant kiss; all experience transcendental moments that involve a creative expression of themselves and a celebration of life; and all are faced with death, either their own or that of someone they love.

Cunningham also incorporates allusion to Doris Lessing's short story, "To Room Nineteen." When Laura checks into the hotel room that offers her a welcome respite from her suffocating life at home, she ends up in number nineteen, the same number of the room the main character in Lessing's short story visits regularly for the same reason—to escape from the demands of domesticity that have robbed her of her identity. Cunningham's version contains an important difference, however. While Lessing's character kills herself in this room, Laura contemplates suicide there but eventually finds the strength to leave it, as well as her restrictive world, to establish a true sense of self elsewhere. Cunningham's version then focuses on the effect that leaving the room has on Laura's son.

Media Adaptations

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  • A celebrated film version of The Hours was produced in 2002 by Miramax and Paramount, directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Julianne Moore.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bush, Trudy, Review of The Hours, in Christian Century, September 22-29, 1999, p. 886.

Coffey, Michael, "Michael Cunningham: New Family Outings," in Publishers Weekly, November 2, 1998, pp. 53-55.

Cunningham, Michael, The Hours, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.

Erickson, Darlene E., "'The Upholstery of the Soul': Michael Cunningham's The Hours," in Christianity and Literature, Vol. 50, No. 4, Summer 2001, pp. 715-22.

Van Arsdale, Sarah, "In Woolf's Clothing," in Lamda Book Report, January 1999, pp. 14-15.

Further Reading

Bell, Quentin, Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Harvest Books, 1974.

Bell, Woolf's nephew, presents a comprehensive study of the author's life.

Bloom, Harold, ed., Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway": Bloom's Modern Critical Interpretations, Chelsea House, 1988.

This collection of essays examines the novel's major themes, style, and structure.

Iannone, Carol, "Woolf, Women, and The Hours," in Commentary, Vol. 115, No. 4, April 2003, pp. 50-53.

Iannone critiques the film version of the novel and its feminist focus.

Schiff, James, "Rewriting Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway: Homage, Sexual Identity, and the Single-Day Novel by Cunningham, Lippincott, and Lanchester," in Critique, Vol. 45, No. 4, Summer 2004, pp. 363-82.

Schiff examines three different contemporary novels that enter into a dialogue with Woolf's novel.


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Bahr, David. “The Difference a Day Makes: After Hours with Michael Cunningham.” Poets and Writers 27, no. 4 (July/August, 1999): 18-23. Bahr discusses the response to Cunningham’s novel by the public as well as by scholars of Virginia Woolf.

Baker, Charles R. “Michael Cunningham.” In American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, edited by Jay Parini. New York: Scribner’s, 2006. This source presents readers with important biographical information on Cunningham and includes discussion of The Hours. See supplement 15.

Hughes, Mary Joe. “Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Postmodern Artistic Re-Presentation.” Critique 45, no. 4 (Summer, 2004): 349-361. The journal article examines Cunningham’s retelling, or re-presentation, of an earlier postmodern novel for his own work The Hours. For advanced students.

Johnson, Sarah Anne. The Very Telling: Conversations with American Writers. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2006. Features a frank interview with Cunningham, who discusses the craft of writing and how he came to write many of his novels, including The Hours. Includes a bibliography.

Peregrin, Tony. “Michael Cunningham After Hours.” Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide 10, no. 2 (March/April, 2003): 30-31. Discusses The Hours, the screen adaptation of the novel, and Cunningham’s plans for future projects.

Schiff, James. “Rewriting Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: Homage, Sexual Identity, and the Single-Day Novel by Cunningham, Lippincott, and Lanchester.” Critique 45, no. 4 (Summer, 2004): 363-382. A study of three novels, including Cunningham’s The Hours, which present variations on Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway. For advanced students.

Young, Tory. Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours”: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Continuum, 2003. This accessible guide provides useful background information on Cunningham, the novel and its reception, and the film version of the work. Also includes questions for discussing the novel and a list for further reading.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide