The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Context


Stream-of-Consciousness Fiction

The Hours is written in a stream-of-consciousness style inspired by the writing of British writer Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), whose novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925) Michael Cunningham first read at age 15. David Lodge (1935– ), a British writer and critic, calls stream of consciousness "the continuous flow of thought and sensation in the human mind." Many 19th-century novelists used their own voice to describe the inner thoughts of their characters. In the stream-of-consciousness style, the author develops characters' realities through inner subjective awareness, revealing each character's thoughts and emotions.

In her seminal essay "Modern Fiction" (1919), Woolf said her stream-of-consciousness style "examine[s] for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall ... they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday." As Lodge explains, Woolf wrote "to trace the impact of these atoms" on the thoughts and subjective experiences of her characters. Sometimes stream-of-consciousness writing is presented in the form of the character's interior dialogue, in which the character relates thoughts by using "I," as in "I felt ..." or "I thought ... ." According to Lodge, Woolf goes deeper and "renders thought as reported speech ... [in the character's] own vocabulary ... [which] gives the illusion of intimate access to a character's mind."

Because people's thoughts are rarely linear, logical, and coherent, Woolf also wrote using what critics call "shimmering fragments" that brilliantly illuminate the character's soul or interior life, especially "the dark places of psychology." She lauded writing that "reveal[s] the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain" to communicate to the reader "what he can neither touch nor see."

Cunningham adopted Woolf's stream-of-consciousness style to give The Hours echoes of Mrs. Dalloway. As critic John Mullan noted in reviewing The Hours for the Guardian, Cunningham uses "the whimsical similes, the rueful parentheses, the luminous circumstantial detail" that evoke Woolf's style.

Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group

After the death of Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), a noted literary critic, his four orphaned children moved out of the paternal home to live on their own at 46 Gordon Square in the Bloomsbury district of London. Vanessa Stephen (1879–1961), later Vanessa Bell, was 25 years old. Her younger sister, Virginia (1882–1941), later Virginia Woolf, was 22 years old. It was not long before the two young, freethinking and artistic women and their brothers, Thoby Stephen (1880–1906) and Adrian Stephen (1883–1948), began opening their home to guests who came to talk, laugh, argue, debate, pair off, and generally have a highly intellectual but creatively stimulating and wonderful time. Pretty soon the guests became a tight-knit group of friends who met frequently at the house on Gordon Square. They came to be known as the Bloomsbury group. Among the inner circle were writers, artists, painters, historians, economists, political activists, and feminists. All rebelled against what they saw as the hypocrisy and rigidity of the pre–World War I (1914–18) period. They were all, in their way, eccentrics or radicals who sought to overthrow the stuffy status quo and live and create with freedom and abandon.

The freedom claimed by those in the Bloomsbury group extended beyond the life of the mind. They believed in and practiced free love, and their sexual pairings were often unconventional. After marrying Bloomsbury group member Leonard Woolf (1880–1969), a publisher and writer, Woolf had a lesbian affair with the aristocratic writer Vita Sackville-West (1892–1962). Woolf celebrated their affair in her novel Orlando: A Biography (1928), whose title character is born a male but is transformed into a female.

The Bloomsbury crowd may have had its share of fun, but most members were serious artists and intellectuals who made significant contributions in their fields. Leonard Woolf, for example, is considered one of the most prominent nonfiction writers of his time. He and Virginia Woolf started Hogarth Press in 1917 to publish iconoclastic works other publishers wouldn't touch. John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) was part of the in-group and is considered one of the greatest economists of the 20th century. He later helped shape the global economic institutions, such as the World Bank, that aided in the economic recovery of nations devastated by World War II (1939–45).

Of all the group's accomplished members, Virginia Woolf would go on to earn the greatest fame, becoming known as one of the most talented and original writers of the 20th century. In addition to Mrs. Dalloway (1925)—the book that inspired The Hours—and Orlando: A Biography, Woolf wrote numerous other works, including Jacob's Room (1922), To the Lighthouse (1927), A Room of One's Own (1929), and The Waves (1931). This last title was published in the waning days of the Bloomsbury group, which began to break up around 1930.

Gender Roles and Equality

During World War I (1914–18), when many men were away fighting, a huge number of women joined the workforce in factories that made goods necessary to the war effort. This was especially true in Great Britain. Many women gained a sense of pride and independence by redefining their identities and expanding the boundaries of their lives. But after the war, the status quo returned. Old social norms were reinstated, and these once-proud working women were relegated to the domestic roles of mother, wife, and homemaker. Whatever inborn talents or new personal ambitions they discovered during the war years were squelched, and they had to shoehorn themselves back into tedious domesticity. A similar scenario occurred during and after World War II (1939–45). During the war, women entered the workforce in every area from the Weather Bureau to the aviation and munitions industries; the latter prompted the enduring image of Rosie the Riveter, a graphic media image used to represent female defense workers during World War II. Afterward, the wives of war veterans, such as the character of Laura Brown in The Hours, felt once again relegated to playing the role of dutiful housewife and caretaker rather than achieving an independent identity.

In A Room of One's Own (1929) Virginia Woolf addresses the institutional and cultural forces that prevent women from achieving gender equality. She highlights women's lack of access to higher education and control over their finances, as well as other customs and laws that restrict women's lives and creativity. Woolf explains her position using the notion of a female William Shakespeare who, instead of being free to write magnificent plays, is forced to spend her life uneducated and ground down by domestic drudgery. Eventually, Woolf writes, this female Shakespeare kills herself because she can no longer bear her mundane and constrained life or the suppression of her creativity. Woolf concludes that talent is universal and not restricted to one gender. If women are given the same control over their money and the same intellectual freedom as men, there is no reason they cannot create as men do. All they need is a room of their own in which they, like creative men, can be alone to commune with their thoughts and inspirations to produce works of intellect or art at least as good as those of men. In The Hours Laura Brown does not have a room of her own, and she nearly goes mad. To escape her lot, she finally flees her life altogether.


AIDS (auto immunodeficiency syndrome) is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. Two characters in The Hours are infected with or are dying from HIV/AIDS. One of them, Walter Hardy's lover, Evan, is living a relatively healthy life because his illness was detected early and he is being treated with an AIDS medication, most likely AZT, an AIDS drug first approved for use in the United States in 1987.

The AIDS virus was first detected in the early 1980s among groups of homosexual men in San Francisco and New York who suffered from a rare form of pneumonia. By 1982 the disease was identified in intravenous drug users, including women. The virus is spread via bodily fluids such as semen or blood.

The precise origin of the virus is not known, but scientists have found it in chimpanzees and gorillas in remote jungles in Africa. Generally, the virus is not fatal to these host animals. Scientists believe human incursions into these once untouched regions and hunting and eating endangered primates may have spread the virus to humans.

HIV attacks the human immune system, particularly vital immune cells known as helper T cells, which are vital to the human immune response because they activate other crucial cells in the immune system's armory. As the immune system is decimated, the body becomes more vulnerable to opportunistic infections, or infections that target weakened immune systems. When an HIV-infected person falls victim to these opportunistic infections, they are in the final stage of the disease, known as AIDS.

As the helper T cells are attacked by HIV, the immune system works ceaselessly to generate vast numbers of new helper T cells to fight the HIV infection. The more helper T cells the immune system pumps out to fight the infection, the more of these cells become infected. Eventually, the infected individual's immune system is destroyed, and death is inevitable. Today, a host of medications can keep HIV under control so the infected person can live a longer, healthier life and perhaps never develop AIDS. Researchers are studying other treatments, including vaccines, for their efficacy in preventing or controlling HIV. There is as yet no cure for the disease.

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