The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

Get the eBook on Amazon to study offline.

Buy on Amazon Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "The Hours Study Guide." Course Hero. 28 June 2019. Web. 4 Oct. 2023. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2019, June 28). The Hours Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved October 4, 2023, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2019)



Course Hero. "The Hours Study Guide." June 28, 2019. Accessed October 4, 2023.


Course Hero, "The Hours Study Guide," June 28, 2019, accessed October 4, 2023,

The Hours | Themes


Social Roles: Identity and Performance

To some degree each of the novel's major characters performs a socially acceptable role. Laura Brown, in particular, suffers from pretending to be something she is not. She feels her true identity has been crushed under the weight of performing as a perfect housewife and mother. She is driven to the brink of insanity—nearly to suicide—by the strain of this false persona.

At one point or another, all of the main characters long to escape their lives or, in Clarissa Vaughn's case, feel an aching regret at having rejected another, seemingly more worthwhile life long ago.

The three women are at one time or another shocked or dismayed by the artificiality of the life they are living. Virginia Woolf is, in a way, tormented by the trivial life of the suburbs. She also has to perform the role of a sane woman despite her mental torment. She finds some freedom in the stimulation of London and the ability to express herself through her writing. Laura Brown finds every aspect of her life artificial and constraining—so much so that she eventually flees it altogether. Clarissa Brown chafes at the domestic objects she's accumulated over her life and wonders about a life free of objects and constraints. Yet Clarissa, like Virginia Woolf, finds a degree of freedom and self-expression in the exciting hurly-burly of the city. She is professionally successful, in a good if not passionate relationship, and she tries to accept the happiness (if not transcendent joy) in the life she has.

The Mundane: Superficiality and Meaning

The novel's three main characters all recognize, to varying degrees, the superficiality and tedium of everyday life. They often chafe at how mundane and ordinary their lives are and sometimes consider it the cause of their unhappiness.

The passing of time and the aging process often make the characters' feelings of regret and discontent more acute. Clarissa Vaughn, for example, tries to avoid looking in the mirror so she can deceive herself into thinking she's still young and sexy. But Clarissa is a middle-aged woman, and time has taken its toll on her as it does on everyone.

The women most often find meaning through a deepening of personal relationships or an appreciation of the beauty of the world. At such times they transcend mundanity and open themselves to something bigger than their seemingly insignificant lives. In this heightened state of feeling, the ordinary falls away or becomes an insignificant backdrop to a meaningful inner life.

Suicide, Mortality, and the Life Worth Living

In the novel suicide is the ultimate rejection of a meaningless or too-painful life.

The novel is bookended by two suicides. The Prologue tells of Virginia Woolf's suicide. For Virginia suicide is the only way to escape the mental illness that replaces her true self with an alien self. Her bouts of insanity are so harrowing and take her over so completely they make her life no longer worth living. She cannot and will not endure a life of insanity, and she feels ending her life is preferable to further suffering.

At the end of the novel, Richard Brown kills himself after judging his life a failure. He also chooses to die because he can't face the suffering more time on Earth will bring. His life with AIDS is no longer worth living, so he chooses to end it.

Laura Brown contemplates suicide because she feels her life is not worth living. She is unbearably oppressed by her suburban world and the strain of keeping up her performance as mother, wife, and housekeeper. At one point she thinks suicide is the only way out; but in the end she simply ups and leaves her life behind.

Throughout the book characters ponder the meaning of life and grapple with what death means and how it affects the way they live. For Clarissa Vaughn, who must look death in the face every time she visits Richard, the specter of mortality impels her to reevaluate her life and its meaning.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about The Hours? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!