“we Live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep—it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just for this consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined…” 
The Hours is a modern literary novel that cleverly adopts the backbone of Mrs. Dalloway. In this vivid portrait of one day in a fifty two-year-old woman life’s in twentieth century New York City, Clarissa Vaughan is preoccupied with the last-minute details of a party in honor of a beloved friend, an ailing poet who has won a literary prize. Richard, so is his name, who disappears into his terminal illness, his sanity, was Clarissa’s first love, a lost lover, a truest friend with whom, she ruefully reflects, if she has tried harder, might accompany each other, as planned, into old age.
Richard actually worried over questions of good and evil, and he never, not in twenty years, fully abandoned the notion that Clarissa’s decision to live with Sally represents, if not some workday manifestation of deep corruption, at least a weakness on her part that indicts (though Richard would never admit this) women in general. . .” 
As Clarissa buys the flowers, runs into an old acquaintance, goes home and continues on the day, the narrative evokes another time, place, and person. A young woman called Laura Brown, pregnant for a second time, mother of a three-year-old boy, is married to an amiable veteran of World War II. The date is 1949: she lives a slightly bewildered (maybe ungrateful) life which, in her own queasy thoughts, has welded into an unbeing, in a suburb of Los Angeles. She starts the day making a birthday cake for her husband, encounters this unexpected sexual excitement with another woman, and takes off into a little fugue. She drives into the city checks in a hotel room and reads Mrs. Dalloway.
…he (her son] appears, for the first time, to be suffering from an emotion she can’t read . . . He knows. He must know. The little boy can tell she’s been somewhere illicit; he can tell she’s lying. He watches her constantly, spends almost every waking hour in her presence. He’s seen her with Kitty. He’s watched her make a second cake, and bury the first one under other garbage in the can beside the garbage. He is devoted, entirely, to the observation and deciphering of her, because without her there is no world at all . . He will watch her forever. He will always know when something is wrong.” [192-193]
Another lead finds Virginia Woolf, fictional but plausible, in 1923 at her home in Richmond, recuperating. Pain still colonizes her nonetheless. She’s writing Mrs. Dalloway, at this point still called The Hours. Between her sister’s visit and Woolf’s attempt to slip away to London, she decides that Clarissa Dalloway will not die in the novel, someone else will. So all three women over the interval of time struggle with the same banal unraveling of the hours that make up our allotted time in life. On the course of one day, as the clock ticks away, each woman, with an inner faculty so sharp that can recognize the mysteries of the world, reflects on the choice she makes in their relationship and faces a common consequence, which becomes the delicate link that connects them together. These intricate layers will disentangle at the end to reveal the real person who intimately joins these three women together.
I don’t know if I can face this. You know. . . and then the hour after that, and the hour after that. . . But there are still the hours, aren’t there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there’s another. I’m so sick.” 
Although The Hours repeats some of the darker events from Mrs. Dalloway, and at some points follow its cadence too closely (a literary parallel), Mrs. Dalloway is not a prerequisite to The Hours. The truth is, no amount of pedantic comparison-hunting, which I’m so tempted to undertake, would help readers understand the latter if they don’t understand the former already. What’s conspicuous is that the relationship between the two goes beyond allusion. The Hours is insidiously haunted by Mrs. Dalloway, to both readers and the characters themselves, because its theme (even the book as a whole evokes an underwater, echo, fussy quality) is the haunting of present lives by memories and books, by distant pasts and missed, unfeasible futures. Whether it’s Laura Brown’s fear as a failing mother, or Clarissa Vaughan’s regret of her relationship with Richard, or Sally’s realization that material living has cheapened the meaning of love, The Hours contemplates on that reflection is where many of our chances for happiness lie, in the memory not of what happened but of what was promised. Happiness passed us by without our knowing.
It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and Clarissa is still sometimes shocked, more than thirty years later, to realize that it was happiness [with Richard]; that the entire experience lay in a kiss and a walk, the anticipation of dinner and a book . . . There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other. 
228 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]
Filed under: American Literature, Books, Contemporary Literature, Gay Literature, Literature | Tagged: American Literature, Books, Contemporary Literature, Gay Literature, Literature, Michael Cunningham, The Hours |