Student Question

In The Hours, characters perceive themselves as failures. Are these feelings specific to the characters or a universal human experience?

Expert Answers

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The Hours is both a Michael Cunnigham novel and a 2002 Stephen Daldry film, both using the writer Virginia Woolf as a character and taking inspiration from her novel Mrs. Dalloway. There are differences between the two, but I will deal with the film, per your question. All the characters in the film are flawed or damaged in some way. Woolf the writer dealt with mental health issues throughout her life (psychology was in its infancy during her life) and ended up drowning herself. Whatever the character (played by Nicole Kidman) in the film says though is contradicted by Woolf's life. She was a prolific writer and is widely regarded as one of the most important literary figures of the twentieth century. She might not have been confident in her abilities, but the audience knows differently.

The dying poet Richard (Ed Harris) also doubts his talent and what he's accomplished, but Clarissa (Meryl Streep) has supported him a long time, emotionally and practically, and she believes in him, in the same way that Woolf's husband, Leonard Woolf, believed in and supported her. What the film seems to be saying is that an artist is not always the best judge of their work and that it is those around them who are better equipped to appreciate their genius.

Characters such as Woolf and Richard are unusual because they are artists who are naturally inclined toward eccentricity and opposition to society. The character of Laura (Julianne Moore) is similar to them, even if she does not have artistic inclinations. It does seem as though one of the messages of the film is that everyone feels like a failure or that their life is incomplete, regardless of what they have accomplished. I think The Hours pays tribute to artistic triumph, while also acknowledging human failing.

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