The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Symbols

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Flowers

In the novel flowers often represent death or mortality, as when Virginia Woolf and her niece, Angelica, put roses on the grave of a dead thrush or when Richard Brown feels he's being encased and crushed in a gigantic flower. Even flowers bought for celebratory reasons, such as the flowers Clarissa Vaughn buys for her party, end up as symbols of death because Richard dies before the party happens. When Clarissa considers buying flowers for Walter Hardy's lover, Evan, she decides against it because flowers are too funereal to give to a young man with HIV/AIDS.

In other places flowers represent beauty and the ephemeral joy of life. There are often flowers in Clarissa and Sally's apartment, symbolizing their vibrant lives and appreciation of beauty. At the beginning of the novel Virginia Woolf is writing, her character Mrs. Dalloway experiences joy when she goes out to buy flowers for her party.

Richard's Chair

The chair in Richard Brown's apartment represents his failing health and impending death. The chair is decrepit and decaying. It's filthy, it has lost its inner support and stuffing, and it stinks terribly. The armchair is dying just as Richard is. That it is the primary place where he spends his days further connects the condition of the rotting chair to the condition of Richard's rotting body and failing mind.

Birthday Cake

The cake Laura Brown bakes for her husband's birthday represents her effort to wholly embody her social role as a perfect wife, housewife, and mother. When Laura sees her first cake is imperfect, she feels it as a personal failure and proof of her own hopeless struggle to be an ideal suburban homemaker. Although her second cake is better, Laura is dissatisfied because she'd wanted the cake somehow to express her artistic creativity. But it's just an ordinary cake—a symbol of Laura's trivial, tedious, ordinary life.

The cake also symbolizes Laura's entrapment in stifling suburbia. When she goes to the hotel she realizes she's there because she wanted to "escape from a cake." It may sound silly, but the cake haunts Laura's life and defines it in a way she cannot abide.

Dead Thrush

The dead thrush becomes a symbol of death for Virginia Woolf. She's enthralled by the way the bird's body shrinks in death, and this makes her think death makes things less significant.

When the thrush first dies and is laid on its grassy deathbed, Virginia feels briefly as if she, too, would like to lie down in a soft, silent deathbed where she would no longer fear her bouts of insanity. Later, she comes out to the garden to view the dead thrush and reconsider the meaning of its smallness. Virginia decides she's not ready to accept becoming so small and insignificant, and this revives her will to live.

Water

Water has dual symbolism in the novel, representing both death and life. Water represents death most clearly when Virginia Woolf commits suicide by drowning herself in the river. It is also associated with death when Clarissa Vaughn thinks Richard Brown's apartment has an "underwater aspect," an image that harks back to Woolf's suicide.

Water may also represent a life worth living. When Virginia is determined to move back to London, she thinks she'd rather face "the fin (shark) in the water" in the big city than stay in the suburbs and watch her life measured out "cupful by cupful." Clarissa views Manhattan on a spring day as a pool or ocean teeming with vibrant life. When Laura Brown is immersed in a book, even she is capable of happiness: she is "taken by a feeling, a sea-swell" that "buoys her, floats her gently, as if she were a sea creature." But when she must stop reading and go downstairs to her family, Laura feels she's entering a region of icy cold water, inimical to the life she wants to live.

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