The Hours – Film Analysis Essay
The Hours – Film Analysis
In his novel The Hours, Michael Cunningham weaves a dazzling fabric of intertextual references to Virginia Woolf’s works as well as to her biography. In this essay, I shall partly yield to the academic itch to tease out the manifold and sophisticated allusions to the numerous intertexts. My aim, however, is not to point out every single reference to Woolf and her works–such an endeavour of source-hunting would fail alone because of the sheer abundance of intertextual references–and to strip The Hours down until its threads lie bare in front of me, but to take the theories of influence (as voiced, for example, by Bloom) and their concept of a unidirectional relationship between an anterior text and a posterior text as a point of departure to investigate how Cunningham manipulates and transforms the anterior texts and, accordingly, establishes a two-way relationship between himself and Woolf.
The critical term of intertextuality was coined in 1966 by Julia Kristeva, who — following Mikhail Bakhtin — writes in her ground-breaking essay “Word, Dialogue, and Novel”  : “[E]ach word (text) is an intersection of word [sic] (texts) where at least one other word (text) can be read . . . . any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another” (66). However, as Kristeva in a later interview explains, the dynamics of intertextuality does not only take place between author and text but also between text and reader: “If we are readers of intertextuality, we must be capable of the same putting-into-process of our identities, capable of identifying with the different types of texts, voices, semantic, syntactic, and phonic system at play in a given text” (Waller 282).
In fact, it is the reader who traces the intertextual references, which in their turn guide him or her towards a better understanding of the text: “The term [intertextuality] indeed refers to an operation of the reader’s mind, but it is an obligatory one, necessary to any textual decoding. Intertextuality necessarily complements our experience of textuality. It is the perception that our reading of the text cannot be complete or satisfactory without going through the intertext . . .” (Riffaterre 142). Correspondingly, readers of The Hours, a postmodern novel densely interwoven with references to Woolf’s works, do not need to have read all the intertexts Cunningham draws upon in order to understand the story; however, a certain familiarity with the central intertexts will lead them to appreciate his novel more fully.
Michael Cunningham makes no attempt to hide his intertexts, both the historical intertexts such as the biographies he has used for his account of a single day in the life of Virginia Woolf and which he declares in “A Note on Sources” at the end of the novel (229-30), and his central intertext taken from fiction, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. By entitling his novel “The Hours” — one of the titles Woolf considered for her novel in its early stages (Hussey 172)–he shows his indebtedness as a postmodernist writer to one of the principal texts of the modernist canon. In The Hours, all three narrative strands are in one way or the other connected to Mrs. Dalloway: the sections entitled “Mrs. Woolf” follow the author Virginia Woolf through a single day in 1923, the day she puts the first line of her new novel to paper; the sections under the heading of “Mrs. Dalloway” are Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway rewritten and reinterpreted, set now in New York City at the end of the twentieth century (instead of London in the twenties); while the sections named “Mrs. Brown” narrate one day in the life of Laura Brown, living in Los Angeles in 1949, who on that day begins to read Mrs. Dalloway.
The Hours, a postmodernist fabric woven out of intertextual references, uses pastiche as its primary rhetorical device. Pastiche, like parody, involves “the imitation or, better still, the mimicry of other styles” (Jameson 113), but in contrast to parody, the compilation of both the forms and the contents of anterior texts is “neither necessarily critical of its sources, nor necessarily comic” (Rose 72): “Pastiche is blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humor” (Jameson 114). By writing a pastiche out of anterior texts, by mimicking an earlier author, Cunningham destroys the romantic image of the god-like author who creates a text out of nothing; Cunningham kills the author and the conception of him or her as the sole origin of meaning. What, then, happens to the author, who has symbolically killed himself and now is a mere compiler of anterior texts? He reads. As a writer of pastiche, in order to weave a dense fabric of intertextual references, he has to be a voracious and observant reader. By devoting one of the three narrative strands to Laura Brown, the reader, Cunningham introduces a third element into the traditional binary relationship author-text and thus stresses the importance of reading for the creation of literature.
Although all three narrative strands of The Hours are in one way or the other connected to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Michael Cunningham approaches his central intertext from different directions: while the sections entitled “Mrs. Woolf” and “Mrs. Brown” are related to Mrs. Dalloway insofar as they represent the point of view of the author or the reader respectively, the third narrative strand draws on Mrs. Dalloway more closely by reinterpreting and rewriting it in terms of plot, structure, characterisation, and style.
Like Cunningham’s The Hours with its three narrative strands, Mrs. Dalloway is also set on a single day (in June 1923) and weaves together several narrative perspectives, which are organised in two parallel-running stories: one of them centres on Septimus Warren Smith, a soldier suffering shell shock after the First World War, while the other — and Cunningham mainly focuses on this strand of the dual narrative — recounts Clarissa Dalloway’s preparations for a party she will give the same evening. During the day, she now and then reminisces on the time she was eighteen and lived at her parents’ house at Bourton. Her thoughts turn to her past love Peter Walsh and her rejection of his marriage proposal and to another old friend from Bourton, Sally Seton, with whom she was once in love.
However, those times are all long gone now, and Clarissa is married to Richard Dalloway and has not seen her old friends for years; Sally having married into a prosperous family in Manchester and Peter living abroad in India — or this is what Clarissa thinks because, while preparing for the party, she is surprised by a visit from Peter, who has just returned to England in order to attend to the legal affairs of his fiancé, and, later on that day, Sally will unexpectedly arrive at the party and thus complete the reunion of the old friends who were together at Bourton more than three decades earlier. 
Taking the plot of Mrs. Dalloway as a starting point, Cunningham transcodes it into North-American turn-of-the-millennium terms. The London upper-class wife Clarissa Dalloway receiving illustrious guests in the evening is the model for Clarissa Vaughan giving a small party for her friend Richard, who has just won the Carrouthers Prize in recognition of his literary merits. It was also Richard’s idea to name her after a great figure in literature, Mrs. Dalloway, on the one hand, because of her existing first name and, on the other hand, because he thought that she was “destined to charm, to prosper” (10-11). 
While the plot and the main characters taken from Mrs. Dalloway are basically retained, the covert, hinted-at homosexuality, especially the latent lesbian dimension of Clarissa Dalloway’s attraction to Sally Seton, has been replaced in The Hours by overt homosexual relationships. Clarissa, now an old hippy, lives together with her partner Sally Seton in a flat on West Tenth Street in New York City, and her lost love Richard, with whom she and Louis formed a love triangle in the sixties and who then entered a long-term relationship with Louis, is now a victim of AIDS.
However, Cunningham inverts the heterosexual pattern of Mrs. Dalloway in favour of homosexual relationships not only for the protagonists but also for minor characters. While the Clarissa of Mrs. Dalloway is vexed by her daughter Elizabeth being “closeted” in her room with Miss Kilman, her private tutor with a missionary zeal for Christianity (130), in The Hours, Clarissa regrets that she cannot buy a lovely little black dress for her daughter Julia because she is “in thrall to a queer theorist and insists on T-shirts and combat boots” (23). Mary Krull, like Miss Kilman living on the verge of poverty, is seized by a missionary zeal for feminism, “going to jail for her various causes” and “lecturing passionately at NYU about the sorry masquerade known as gender” (23).
And correspondingly, Hugh Whitbread, whom Clarissa Dalloway meets in Green Park and who tells her that he and his wife Evelyn have just come up to London because Evelyn has “some internal ailment” (8), keeps his initials, though switched, and is rewritten as Walter Hardy, whom Clarissa Vaughan meets in Washington Square Park and who is staying in New York for the weekend because his partner Evan, who is ill with AIDS, feels better on a new drug cocktail and wants to go dancing (15-19). And while the “admirable Hugh” (7) “with his little job at Court” (8) likes “nothing better than doing kindness” (190), the end-of-the-millennium gay equivalent of a court flatterer is a writer of queer romances: “Walter Hardy . . . makes an obscene amount of money writing romance novels about love and loss among perfectly muscled young men” (17). Hugh Whitbread, who possesses “the art of writing letters to the Times” (121) and helps Lady Bruton draft a letter to the editor, is echoed in Walter Hardy, who “writes embarrassingly lavish blurbs for younger writers” (18) and who writes the screen play for a thriller with a gay hero starring the gay actor Oliver St. Ives (175-6).
Even though the predominant homosexual relationships in The Hours both invert and mirror the heterosexual structure of the relationships in Mrs. Dalloway, the essential character traits and the fundamental plot are retained and serve Cunningham as a structural framework. For instance, when Richard Dalloway is invited for lunch by Lady Bruton to help her draft a letter to the Times together with Hugh Whitbread and Clarissa Dalloway is not invited and feels passed over; The Hours offers an echo of this in Oliver St. Ives’s lunch invitation to Sally alone and Clarissa draws the conclusion that she is not interesting enough for the film star: “He probably thought Clarissa was a wife; only a wife” (94).
Cunningham continues using the original plot as a framework when Hugh and Sally, after having had lunch with Oliver St. Ives, enter an expensive fashion shop — a jeweller in Mrs. Dalloway (125) — because Hugh wants to buy a present for his ill partner Evan (180) and Sally remembers her past failures to find the perfect present for Clarissa (181) and her failure to put her love for Clarissa into words (182). Subsequently, she buys a bouquet of yellow roses for Clarissa (184) — in Mrs. Dalloway, Richard, too shy to say “I love you,” buys a bunch of red and white roses (127).
While Cunningham’s characterisation originates in Woolf’s characters with their concealed homosexual feelings and updates them for the end of the
millennium when everybody has come out of the closet, he basically retains the plot. And he proceeds in the same way when he takes Woolf’s style as a starting point, from which his own style gradually evolves, though remaining faithful to the anterior text. A juxtaposition of the two beginnings — the beginning of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway serving as a model for Cunningham’s beginning of the narrative strand “Mrs. Dalloway” — demonstrates in what ways the previous style is adapted but also adopted:
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning–fresh as if issued to children on the beach.
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?” (Woolf 5)
This early-morning scene of Clarissa Dalloway about to go out and buy the flowers for the party, represented in free indirect style, is echoed in The Hours, as is the way Clarissa experiences the fresh Westminster morning, and her thought that the doors would be taken off the hinges, which triggers the nostalgic memory of her opening the door onto a similar morning, accompanied by the squeak of the hinges:
There are still the flowers to buy. Clarissa feigns exasperation (though she loves doing errands like this), leaves Sally cleaning the bathroom, and runs out, promising to be back in half an hour . . . .
The vestibule door opens onto a June morning so fine and scrubbed Clarissa pauses at the threshold as she would at the edge of a pool, watching the turquoise water lapping at the tiles, the liquid nets of sun wavering in the blue depths. As if standing at the edge of a pool she delays for a moment the plunge, the quick membrane of chill, the plain shock of immersion . . . .
What a thrill, what a shock . . . . She feels every bit as good as she did that day in Wellfleet, at the age of eighteen, stepping out through the glass doors into a day very much like this one, fresh and almost painfully clear, rampant with growth. There were dragonflies zigzagging among the cattails. There was a grassy smell sharpened by pine sap. Richard came out behind her, put a hand on her shoulder, and said, “Why, hello, Mrs. Dalloway.” (Cunningham 9-10)
Cunningham thus re-voices Mrs. Dalloway from the very first sentence by beginning in medias res with some flowers which have to be bought. In the manner of the stream of consciousness, the reader is confronted with the two characters Clarissa and Sally without any introductory information. The stepping through a door into a new day and Woolf’s conception of it as “a plunge” and other similar metaphors connected with water (“beach,” “wave”) are elaborated in The Hours into the image of Clarissa pausing at the threshold “as she would at the edge of a pool, watching the turquoise water lapping at the tiles, the liquid nets of sun wavering in the blue depths. As if standing at the edge of a pool she delays for a moment the plunge, the quick membrane of chill, the plain shock of immersion” (9). Cunningham thus does not simply copy Woolf’s imagery; on the contrary, the images generate new associations, which are developed further into new images.
Cunningham’s “What a thrill, what a shock” (10) echoes Woolf’s ejaculations “What a lark! What a plunge!” (5), which mark a transition from the initial scene to the flashback in which Clarissa reminisces about her time at Bourton, her parents’ country house, herself at age eighteen and also past love Peter Walsh (which Woolf introduces here). This is rewritten in The Hours, where the eighteen-year-old Clarissa — paralleling her namesake in Mrs. Dalloway — is standing at the door leading out into the garden of her parents’ house and then plunges into a new day, her now-lost love Richard following and addressing her with her nickname Mrs. Dalloway.
As a comparison of these two beginnings shows, Cunningham adopts but also adapts Woolf’s style as if he were a painter copying one of the old masters in order to come to a better understanding of the anterior (modernist) style and, at the same time, to improve his own (postmodernist) style. Cunningham does not simply edit his intertext for the twenty-first century, but he uses it as a framework from which he gradually liberates himself, developing his own style and his own ideas, and yet he frequently reverts to his intertext, consulting it as if it were a style manual.
Cunningham continues his style exercise when he copies the Mrs. Dalloway passage in which an outside view of Clarissa is introduced and she is seen from the perspective of Scrope Purvis, whose route through London briefly intersects with hers when she is waiting to cross Victoria Street (6). In The Hours, then, this scene is expanded and Scrope Purvis’s comparison of Clarissa to a bird is converted into Willie Bass’s more sarcastic description of her as “a female mammoth already up to its knees in the tar, taking a rest between efforts, standing bulky and proud, almost nonchalant . . .” (13).
And so does Cunningham revert to his intertext in his description of Clarissa’s love for the cacophony of the city. Clarissa Dalloway, having crossed Victoria Street, hears Big Ben striking the hour and is delighted by the sounds of London:
. . . Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air . . . . they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, the tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June. (6)
Cunningham retains this fascination for the urban cacophony, although he updates some of the by now-outmoded sounds which were reverberating through the London of the twenties, such as the shuffling of the sandwich men, the brass bands, and the barrel organs:
. . . men whisper offers of drugs (not to her) and three black girls whiz past on roller skates and the old woman sings, tunelessly, iiiiiii . . . . Still, she loves the world for being rude and indestructible, and she knows other people must love it too . . . . Wheels buzzing on concrete . . . the bleat of car horns and the strum of guitars (that ragged group over there, three boys and a girl, could they possibly be playing “Eight Miles High”?); leaves shimmering on the trees; a spotted dog chasing pigeons and a passing radio playing “Always love you” as the woman in the black dress stands under the arch singing iiiii. (14-15)
For his style exercise, Michael Cunningham draws upon his central intertext not only — as I have demonstrated above — at the beginning of his updated version of Mrs. Dalloway, but he continues to use Mrs. Dalloway as a framework throughout the whole novel. Parallel to Cunningham’s citation of Mrs. Dalloway in terms of plot, structure, characterisation and style, Richard, the author in the text, recalls Cunningham’s intertext when he insists on naming Clarissa Vaughan after a great figure in literature: “The name Mrs. Dalloway had been Richard’s idea–a conceit tossed off one drunken dormitory night as he assured her that Vaughan was not the proper name for her. She should, he’d said, be named after a great figure in literature . . . . She was destined to charm, to prosper” (10-11).
However, he not only teases Clarissa with her nickname, he also quotes her namesake when he says to her: “It’s always wonderful to see you, Mrs. Dalloway” (67). He thus parodies Clarissa Dalloway, who in a letter to Peter Walsh after his surprise visit writes “[h]ow heavenly it was to see him” (170) and who later at the party says to every guest: “How delightful to see you!” (184). Cunningham carries on with this interplay between Richard, the author embedded in the text, and his quotations of Mrs. Dalloway when Clarissa Vaughan tells Richard how beautiful and fresh the morning was and he replies: “Fresh as if issued to children on a beach” (199). At the end of his life, he cites a line taken from the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway (5).
Cunningham, by undermining a canonical text and yet drawing on it, manipulates a continuous parallel between modernism and postmodernism, and this is duplicated in a mise-en-abyme when Richard, the fictionalised author, pays homage to and yet mocks Mrs. Dalloway. Richard, the fictionalised author in The Hours quoting Mrs. Dalloway, may be understood as the internal repetition of Cunningham, the author of the story as a whole. Richard, however, goes beyond Mrs. Dalloway, and his last words — “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we’ve been” (200) — quote the famous letter Virginia Woolf wrote to her husband three days before she committed suicide; a direct quotation of the entire letter can be found in the prologue to The Hours, where her suicide is related (6-7). With his last words quoting Virginia Woolf, Richard imitates the suicide of another author.
Therefore, his suicide, on the one hand, imitates life and, on the other hand, imitates art as it distinctly echoes the suicide of Septimus Warren Smith. In Mrs. Dalloway, it is his suicide that connects the isolated subplot with the main plot in a most ephemeral way when Lady Bradshaw and Sir William Bradshaw, the doctor who was treating Septimus, give the suicide of “a young man” as the reason for their delayed arrival at Mrs. Dalloway’s party (201). In the same way that Woolf, throughout the novel, leaves the reader puzzled regarding whether the two plots should ever connect and what the missing link would be, the final dénouement in The Hours with the merging of the two independent plots — arranged around Clarissa Vaughan and Laura Brown respectively — catches the reader unawares when he or she discovers with surprise that the old widow living across from Richard is his mother Laura Brown (221)–throughout the novel, the reader has been following a day in her and her son Richard’s life five decades earlier.
While Mrs. Dalloway is the central intertext, it is not the only work by Virginia Woolf that Michael Cunningham draws upon. One of those texts partly rewritten and woven into The Hours is — though not explicitly referred to — “A Sketch of the Past.: This draft memoir is not only Woolf’s most extended autobiographical statement but also discusses on a metalevel the “fictional” nature of all biography and autobiography. Woolf argues here that any representation of the past (which is based on “facts”) is actively shaped and changed by our memory and, therefore, fictionalised. Woolf begins with her earliest memories:
— I begin: the first memory.
This was of red and purple flowers on a black ground — my mother’s dress; and she was sitting either in a train or in an omnibus, and I was on her lap. I therefore saw the flowers she was wearing very close; and can still see purple and red and blue, I think, against the black; they must have been anemones, I suppose. Perhaps we were going to St Ives; more probably, for from the light it must have been evening, we were coming back to London. But it is more convenient artistically to suppose that we were going to St Ives, for that will lead to my other memory, which also seems to be my first memory, and in fact it is the most important of all my memories . . . . It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive. (64-5)
Not only is it hardly accidental that Cunningham re-uses the name of the seaside town in Cornwall where Woolf spent her childhood summers with her family as a family name for one of the characters, Oliver St. Ives (89), but he also adopts and adapts the content and the style of this passage as he did with Mrs. Dalloway. However, despite being taken from an autobiographical essay recalling Woolf’s childhood, it is not rewritten into one of the sections entitled “Mrs. Woolf” but is used as a model for the description of Clarissa Vaughan’s earliest memories:
Standing in front of the bookstore window, she is visited by an old memory, a tree branch tapping against a window as, from somewhere else (downstairs?), faint music, the low moan of a jazz band, started up on a phonograph. It is not her first memory (that seems to involve a snail crawling over the lip of a curb) or even her second (her mother’s straw sandals, or maybe the two are reversed), but this memory more than any other feels urgent and deeply, almost supernaturally comforting. Clarissa would have been in a house in Wisconsin, probably; one of the many her parents rented during the summers (rarely the same one twice — each proved to have some defect for her mother to stitch into her ongoing narrative, the Vaughan Family’s Trail of Tears Tour of the Wisconsin Dells).
Clarissa would have been three or four, in a house to which she would never return, about which she retains no recollection except this, utterly distinct, clearer than some things that happened yesterday: a branch tapping at a window as the sound of horns began; as if the tree, being unsettled by wind, had somehow caused the music. It seems that at that moment she began to inhabit the world; to understand the promises implied by an order larger than human happiness, though it contained human happiness along with every other emotion. (22-3)
A detailed comparison of this passage with its intertext shows in what ways Cunningham (while keeping the original scene of a holiday house rented out for the summer) again updates and transfers the content to a North-American setting more than half a century later but essentially retains the style of the intertext, even though he adjusts the first-person narrative to the third person and, consequently, abandons the metalevel, on which Woolf as the author perceives literature’s need for altering the past in order to gain more fluid transitions. However, the uncertainty when recollecting the past is expressed by both Virginia Woolf and Clarissa Vaughan in their difficulty in pinpointing their very first memory.
They both at first describe a visual memory, which is then abandoned for a more important aural memory, which itself can be broken down into two separate rhythmical aural sensations: in Woolf’s text, the breaking of the waves in the distance and the wind blowing the blind out, which in its turn draws its acorn across the floor, whereas in Cunningham’s text, the wind is the cause for the tree branch tapping against the window, and Clarissa can make out faint music from a phonograph. And they both experience a strong emotion of being alive and of immense joy at this moment, though the words chosen to depict this
moment are not the same.
In “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf also describes what she calls “moments of being,” exceptional moments in which “something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life” (70). They form a contrast to the “moments of non-being,” the greater part of the day which is “not lived consciously” (70). Modelled on these two terms coined by Woolf, Cunningham introduces the notion of “unbeing”: upon her return from the hotel, where she had spent the afternoon reading Mrs. Dalloway, Laura Brown “is overtaken by a sensation of unbeing. There is no other word for it. . . . she is no one, she is nothing” (188). After having spent a couple of hours on her own outside her role as a wife and mother, she feels that she has “slipped out of her life” (188). Even though Cunningham does not explicitly declare “A Sketch of the Past” as an intertext for The Hours, the strongly implied similarities between the two passages presented here and the creative manner in which Cunningham deals with his intertext are not lost on an attentive reader familiar with Woolf’s major works.
However, The Hours echoes not only — as shown above — Woolf’s works in terms of style and plot but also in terms of ideas. That Cunningham names one character “Mrs. Brown” is not purely accidental, moreover, it is an intertextual reference to Woolf’s article “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” which formed the basis for the paper “Character in Fiction” (which was later issued as a pamphlet under its original title). In these two essays — both exerted a powerful influence on literary modernism — Woolf evokes the figure of Mrs. Brown, who rose before her and said: “My name is Brown. Catch me if you can” (Character 420). The capture of Mrs. Brown, the representation of the character who is “eternal” and stands for “human nature” (430), is the major purpose of any novel. The (modernist) writer “must set about to remake the woman after his own idea” (Mr. Bennett 387); “it is from the gleams and flashes of this flying spirit that he must create solid, living, flesh-and-blood Mrs. Brown” (388). In The Hours, the only protagonist who is neither based on historical facts (like the characters in the biographical sections on Mrs. Woolf) nor on fiction (like the characters in the sections rewriting Mrs. Dalloway) is Laura Brown. It seems as if Cunningham had set out here on the pursuit of Mrs.
Brown, as if he was going to “remake the woman after his own idea,” but — as I am going to show — the character of Laura Brown is not entirely free of intertextual references, not even of references to the essay which discusses the very idea of Mrs. Brown, in which Woolf, during a journey in a railway carriage, invents a story for the woman sitting opposite her and whom she comes to call “Mrs. Brown.” She imagines “that, having been deserted, or left a widow, years ago, she had led an anxious, harried life, bringing up an only son, perhaps, who, as likely as not, was by this time beginning to go to the bad” (Character 423). And so is Laura Brown at the end of the novel all alone, after her ex-husband has been carried off by liver cancer, her daughter has been killed by a drunk driver and her son, the only member of the family left, has committed suicide (222).
The — for the novelist, imperative — pursuit of Mrs. Brown, however, is not the only concept Cunningham takes from Woolf’s works and rewrites into The Hours. In her paper “Professions for Women,” Woolf speaks of her own professional experience as a woman writer and the obstacles she encountered first while reviewing other writers and then while writing novels. One obstacle for the professional woman writer of her generation was The Angel in the House:
I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it — in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. (1987)
This phantom of The Angel in the House — which Woolf, acting in self-defence, had to kill in the end in order to be able to write freely — is modelled on the heroine of Coventry Patmore’s long poem of the same name, itself an intertext to Cunningham’s intertext. This best-seller of the Victorian era (Woolf’s mother owned a copy of it with a personal inscription by the author himself) is dedicated to Patmore’s first wife and expresses the Victorian ideal of married love. It tells the courtship and marriage of Honoria, a girl absolutely simple, pure, gentle, kind, and unselfish — in short, the very paradigm of a Victorian lady and almost literally an angel on earth. For a wife, though, being The Angel in the House implies that her husband is the lord and stands above her. Patmore, therefore, particularly praises Honoria’s way of lifting him up: “On wings of love uplifted free, / And by her gentleness made great, / I’ll teach how noble man should be / To match with such a lovely mate . . .” (71). As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar remark, the essential virtue of The Angel in the House is that her virtue makes her poet-husband “great” (22).
The fictional character of The Angel in the House pervaded Victorian culture, and — one might argue — other cultures as well, having an oppressive effect on women’s lives. In The Hours, all three female protagonists struggle in one way or the other with this phantom of a perfect and devoted wife, even Clarissa Vaughan, although one might think that this male conception of Victorian womanhood would no longer have an effect on a modern Western woman who lives in New York City at the end of the twentieth century and, on top of this, is a lesbian and thus — one might assume — stands apart from this gendered ideal.
However, Clarissa, too, sees her essential virtue in pleasing others; she wants to give Richard a perfect party: “She will give Richard the best party she can manage. She will try to create something temporal, even trivial, but perfect in its way. She will see to it that he is surrounded by people who genuinely respect and admire him . . .” (123). By fulfilling such a trivial task as composing a guest-list of people respecting and admiring Richard, a guest-list which should make Richard “great,” Clarissa submits herself to the Victorian ideal of The Angel in the House. Moreover, she thinks of it as “her tribute, her gift” and cannot think of anything more she could offer him (123).
Clarissa’s other actions fit well with her goal of “offering” Richard the perfect party: for instance, she arranges the flowers she has bought for the party (123), a task very much associated with femininity and good housekeeping. When Louis asks for a simple glass of water, Clarissa goes into the kitchen and “returns with two glasses of water (carbonated, with ice and lemon)” (127); by making a trivial glass of water perfect in its way, she makes an art out of housekeeping. The flat she has together with Sally is furnished with taste and could be featured in a glossy magazine for interior design (91, 127). So it comes as no surprise that Richard told Clarissa once, thirty years earlier, that “under her pirate-girl veneer lay all the makings of a good suburban wife . . .” (16), and that he thinks that she “has, at heart, become a society wife . . .” (20).  Even though she would reject this thought, Clarissa has submitted herself to the charms of The Angel in the House.
If — as Richard claims — Clarissa “stands not only for herself but for the gifts and frailties of her entire sex” (19), this ideal of femininity should also be found with other female characters in The Hours. Consequently, even the younger generation represented by Clarissa’s daughter Julia, who is about to drag her reluctant girl-friend Mary Krull on a shopping spree, “could be some cheerful wife, shepherding her husband through a day of errands. She could be a figure from the fifties, if you made a few relatively minor alterations” (159). These few exterior alterations are like the ones Cunningham makes when he transcodes the characterisations of the anterior text Mrs. Dalloway to The Hours.
Compared with the other sections, the phantom of The Angel in the House is less prominent in the sections describing Woolf’s day, but there are, nevertheless, some allusions to it. In a well-to-do Victorian household, the wife was in charge of the servants, and dealing with servants was often regarded as a skill in its own right: “There’s an art to it, as there’s an art to everything . . .” (115). Woolf, though, struggles with it and envies her mother and her sister Vanessa, who seem to manage this art “beautifully” (87). Because she neglected her duties as the lady of the house and failed to discuss the menu with her maid Nelly in the morning and because she wants to offer Vanessa a pudding fancier than pears, she especially sends Nelly to London for China tea and sugared ginger (86).
In the sections entitled “Mrs. Brown,” now, we have a longing to correspond to this idealised image of the Angel in the House but also, at the same time, an inability to fulfil these demands. Consequently, Laura Brown finds herself on the verge of madness. When the reader first is introduced to her, she is reading in bed and feeling guilty that she is not up yet: “She should be out of bed, showered and dressed, fixing breakfast for Dan and Richie . . . . She should be there, shouldn’t she? She should be standing before the stove in her new robe, full of simple, encouraging talk” (38). “[T]o perform simple and essentially foolish tasks, to examine tomatoes, to sit under a hair dryer” is what “her art and duty” is (42). She should be performing the part of the happy housewife; a role which she feels she is unable to act convincingly and in which she feels like an impostor: “[S]he felt the dank sensation around her, the nowhere feeling, and knew it was going to be a difficult day. She knew she was going to have trouble believing in herself . . .” (38).
However, as Gilbert and Gubar argue, The Angel in the House is not the only role men have traditionally assigned to women: the other extreme of roles generated for women is its mirror image, “its necessary opposite and double,” the “monster” in the house (17). In their analysis of male perceptions of women in literature, they demonstrate that “the monster may not only be concealed behind the angel, she may actually turn out to reside within (or the lower half of) the angel” (29, italics in original). As much as Laura desires to succeed in her role as “a paragon of domestic competence” (107), she also has to wrestle with another phantom, the “woman of sorrows,” the very opposite of the cheerful housewife: “She wants to be loved. She wants to be a competent mother reading calmly to her child; she wants to be a wife who sets a perfect table. She does not want, not at all, to be the strange woman, the pathetic creature, full of quirks and rages, solitary, sulking, tolerated but not loved” (101).
In order to overcome this phantom lurking within her and interfering with her daily role of a devoted wife and happy mother, she decides to bake the perfect cake for her husband’s birthday, “a cake that banishes sorrow, even if only for a little while” (144). The cake is a means to re-establish her role as The Angel in the House and as this, it “will speak of bounty and delight the way a good house speaks of comfort and safety” (76). Thus the moment she imagines her cake as glossy and resplendent as any photograph of a cake in any magazine, she feels that “[s]he is herself and she is the perfect picture of herself; there is no difference” (76).
At this moment, the ideal of The Angel in the House tallies with reality. When image and self correspond to each other, Laura is at ease with herself because the threatening figure of the woman of sorrows seems to be banished. However, the cake does not turn out as beautiful as pictured. In Laura’s eyes, it does not stand up to her expectations: “Her cake is a failure” (100). She panics, and her subsequent flight from her incompetence in performing her assigned role ends at the Normandy, a hotel on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where Laura realises that “she’s come, in some obscure way, to escape a cake” (147).
In her flight from her inability to act the part of The Angel in the House, a role she has not rehearsed, Laura is looking for “somewhere private, silent, where she can read, where she can think . . . . Even a library would be too public, as would a park” (145). In her quest for a private space where she can be on her own and does not have to perform, she finally finds refuge in a neutral hotel room, where she spends the afternoon reading Mrs. Dalloway. This idea that a woman needs the privacy of a room she has of her own clearly echoes the claim Woolf makes in her ground-breaking essay on women and fiction, A Room of One’s Own: “[A] woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction . . .” (1927).
In The Hours, however, the purpose has changed: the room is no longer used for writing fiction exclusively, but the claim has been extended beyond the creative act of writing to the act of reading. Even the economic aspect of Woolf’s demand for money and a room to oneself is recalled when Laura, before checking into the hotel, asks herself how much a room costs and if she can spare the money: “Yes, it’s wasteful — a hotel room for an entire night, when all she means to do is sit there reading for two hours or so — but money is not particularly tight right now, and she runs the household with relative thrift” (146). Women thus first need a certain degree of financial independence before they can afford a room of their own.
The hotel itself is described as “V-shaped” (146), a reference to Virginia Woolf and probably also to the dust jacket of the first edition of A Room of One’s Own, designed by her sister Vanessa Bell, which incorporates a clock whose hands show ten to two, forming a “V” (Hussey 232, 237). This point is supported by the fact that the V-shaped architecture is further described in The Hours as “twin white ten-story wings” (146, italics mine) and thus echoes the time shown on the clock.
The moment Laura enters the lobby, she feels that she has reached her destination: “This hotel, this lobby, is precisely what she wants — the cool nowhere of it, the immaculate non-smell, the brisk unemotional comings and goings. She feels, immediately, like a citizen of this place” (146-7, italics mine). What attracts her is the absence of any distinct qualities, that the place is void of any characteristics. She seems to stand on neutral ground where neither The Angel in the House nor her mirror-image, The Woman of Sorrows, reign. In “her” room (149), then, she feels “safe” and thinks that “[h]aving this room to herself seems both prim and whorish” (150), again recalling the two extreme roles men have traditionally assigned to women: the angel and the monster. Here, however, they do not seem to be irreconcilable opposites anymore, since the two conceptions are both present at the same time.
So far, I have discussed the intertextuality between Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and, taking Mrs. Dalloway as an obvious starting point, Virginia Woolf’s works. However, the intertextual references in The Hours go beyond Virginia Woolf and also include Doris Lessing. Though there are some essential differences between the two women writers, in many ways, they are similar. Some of the similarities Jean Tobin specifies are that they both are major British women novelists, “complementary in that they have neatly divided up the twentieth century between them;” that both have written novels permeated with the sights and smells of their place of residence, London; that they both have been voracious readers; both have been vitally interested in the workings of the mind in madness; and that they both have been outsiders (149).  In the scope of this essay, the most relevant similarity is that they both wrote books of great value to women, books which have made a great impact on women’s writing and the women’s movement, yet neither of them would have called herself a feminist.
Many critics have described A Room of One’s Own as the founding text of modern feminist literary theory, in which Woolf stresses in her history of women’s writing the importance of a literary tradition, the importance of other women writers such as Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and others who had gone before her to prepare the way because “we think back through our mothers if we are women” (1966) — meaning the literary foremothers as well as the biological mothers. In The Hours, the importance of mothers and matrilineage prevails throughout the novel, especially in the way Laura Brown is a biological mother to Richard and Woolf is a literary foremother to Cunningham, so that, by including intertexts by Lessing, a line of descent can be traced from Woolf to Lessing and on to Cunningham.
Apart from Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, which is mentioned explicitly in The Hours, her short story “To Room Nineteen” is indirectly alluded to when Laura Brown is given a hotel room with the same number (148). However, Cunningham does not leave it at that: moreover, the main plot of the sections entitled “Mrs. Brown” is based on Lessing’s short story, which is about a mother of four children living — as it appears on the surface — in a perfect marriage. She, too, feels an impostor in family life and longs for some private space: “She dreamed of having a room or a place, anywhere, where she could go and sit, by herself, no one knowing where she was” (2311).
She finally finds a room – room nineteen – in a rather seedy hotel, which she rents from time to time for the day and where she retreats to in order to spend the day in an “absolute solitude,” where no one knows her or cares for her (2312). Her slowly increasing insanity, which she is aware of as she sees in the looking glass “the reflection of a madwoman” (2314), is yet another instance of the notorious dichotomy between the angel and the monster, which is recalled in The Hours by The Woman of Sorrows.
While the source for the plot of the sections entitled “Mrs. Brown” is not overtly declared, another book by the same author is explicitly mentioned: the eighteen-year old Clarissa had a copy of The Golden Notebook on her nightstand, but this was more than thirty years ago and “Lessing has been long overshadowed by other writers . . .” (98).
Clarissa thus acknowledges a line of descent but also a certain distance she has gained from the women’s movement of the sixties, which almost immediately hailed The Golden Notebook as their bible when it was published in 1962. By naming the protagonist of her largely autobiographical novel Anna Wulf, Lessing clearly invokes Virginia Woolf as a literary foremother. Anna Wulf is a single mother living in post-war London, disillusioned with the Communist party, who is trying to come to terms with her life. In order to conquer her writer’s block encountered while writing her novel “Free Women,” she deconstructs her life in four notebooks, each notebook presenting a facet of her life: the black notebook deals with her past in Africa, the red notebook records her thoughts on the current politics, the yellow notebook depicts her attempt to fictionalise her writer’s block, and the blue notebook is intended as a personal diary. Sections of these notebooks are inserted between sections of her novel “Free Women,” which narrates Anna’s life from the omniscient narrator’s point of view but which is a struggle for her to finish.
This fractured, postmodern structure, with the different strands divided up into sections instead of chapters inspired Cunningham in his organisation of The Hours, where three separate strands, each centred on a single day in the life of a different person, run parallel and form individual units, though they also intersect as they all relate in one way or the other to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. The structure of The Hours is all the more modelled on The Golden Notebook where in a final dénouement all falls into place when Anna realises that the four notebooks fail to integrate her multiple selves into a unified whole and, accordingly, she abandons her notebooks, creating out of the fragments an inner Golden Notebook. So, having found herself in the midst of an emotional breakdown, she breaks through and writes down the first sentence of her new book: “The two women were alone in the London flat” (547), the very same sentence her novel “Free Women” opened with at the beginning of The Golden Notebook (9). The reader now perceives that this is the novel he or she has been reading all along and that the various notebooks are finally united in one book.
Such a final dénouement, where the different strands come together, is also found in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, where the subplot around Septimus Warren Smith connects with the main plot in a most evanescent way — and unexpected by the reader — at the end of the novel, and in The Hours, where the plot takes an unexpected turn and Laura Brown suddenly appears fifty years later in a section entitled “Mrs. Dalloway,” though the reader always thought the three strands to be independent, mainly because of their temporal and spatial distance. In the same way as we are now able to reconstruct a biological line of descent from Laura, the mother, to her son Richard, the similar structures of the three novels display a mental line of descent from Woolf to Lessing and on to Cunningham.
With a structure modelled on the structures of Mrs. Dalloway and The Golden Notebook, Cunningham pays homage to his foremothers. However, he does not follow his predecessors slavishly; he rather adapts them for his own purposes. Whereas the dual narrative of Mrs. Dalloway centres around the two principal characters, and the different narrative strands in The Golden Notebook display the different inner facets of an individual, in The Hours, the triple narrative splits up the literary experience into the author (the “Mrs. Woolf” section), the text (the “Mrs. Dalloway” section), and the reader (the “Mrs. Brown” section). Even though a reader of The Hours conceives of those three narrative strands as independent, he or she perceives the structural parallels and intersections as parts of a unified whole.
How Cunningham makes the three factors of the literary experience interact can be shown, for example, in the way the metaphor of the “plunge” is used throughout the different sections. The metaphor itself is taken from the beginning of the central intertext, Mrs. Dalloway: “What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when . . . she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air” (5).  In Cunningham’s fictionalised account of the creative act of writing, Virginia Woolf’s decision to go on a jaunt to London is the trigger for her ejaculation: “What a lark! What a plunge!” (167). The idea of the plunge, however, is introduced before when Virginia Woolf, the inscribed author, dreams that “[a] stone maiden, smoothed by the weather, stands at the edge of a clear pool and muses into the water” (30). The stimulus for Cunningham to use the image of the inspirational muse was probably Peter’s question — “Musing among the vegetables?” (5) — which follows Woolf’s description of Clarissa Dalloway plunging into a new day. This concept is repeated when Woolf, serving as Cunningham’s muse, causes him to write the scene of the plunge based on the inspirations she has given him: “. . .
Clarissa pauses at the threshold as she would at the edge of a pool, watching the turquoise water lapping at the tiles, the liquid nets of sun wavering in the blue depths. As if standing at the edge of a pool she delays for a moment the plunge, the quick membrane of chill, the plain shock of immersion” (9). The literary experience, however, goes beyond the text itself and the creative act of writing; it includes the act of reading, too. Laura Brown, after having read Woolf’s initial passage describing Clarissa’s plunge into the fresh air at Bourton — the passage is quoted verbatim in The Hours (38-9) — echoes this image: “Summoning resolve, as if she were about to dive into cold water, Laura closes the book . . .” (41). By means of the various interconnections and parallels between the different narrative strands, Cunningham constructs an imaginary arc running from the author to the text and on to the reader. Even though both author and reader are fictionalised in The Hours and, consequently, are not based upon empirical facts, they nevertheless allow insights into how Cunningham as an author and reader conceives of the acts of writing and reading.
By devoting one of the three narrative strands to the reader, Cunningham acknowledges that the reader is not a mere consumer of literature but that the very act of reading calls the text into being — a claim made by reader-response criticism. Although the scholars assembled under this umbrella term support widely diverging theories, they all agree that a text cannot be regarded as an absolute entity standing on its own and that the meaning of a text is created through the process of reading (Bennett and Royle 12). Bennett remarks in his wide-ranging introduction to reader-response criticism that the modern, post-enlightenment concept of reading “involves a dissolution of the world and the reader’s self into the book” (5). This idea of a “falling away of the barriers between you and it” (Poulet 104), between the world of reader and the world of the book, between reality and fiction is documented in The Hours, where the three narrative strands represent parallel worlds and where Laura Brown, reading the first lines of Mrs. Dalloway, tries to enter another world: “Laura Brown is trying to lose herself. No, that’s not it exactly–she is trying to keep herself by gaining entry into a parallel world” (37).
However, the phenomenon of literature as an interaction between text and reader can be extended to the author, who in his or her turn tries to enter a parallel world; like Virginia Woolf in The Hours, who, before putting the first sentence down to paper, thinks that she might break the barrier and reach this other world: “This morning she may penetrate the obfuscation, the clogged pipes, to reach the gold. She can feel it inside her, an all but indescribable second self, or rather a parallel, purer self” (34). Hence it follows that the act of reading is not only an interaction between a literary work and its recipient but a fusion of author, text, and reader: “I am someone who happens to have as objects of his own thought, thoughts which are part of a book I am reading, and which are therefore the cogitations of another. They are the thoughts of another, and yet it is I who am their subject . . . . This I who thinks in me when I read a book, is the I of the one who writes the book” (Poulet 106, 108, italics in original).
This central aspect of Poulet’s “Phenomenology of Reading,” the fusion of author, text and reader, can also be found in The Hours, where Laura Brown, after having spent the afternoon reading Mrs. Dalloway away in a hotel room, discovers that the barriers between herself, the text, and the author have fallen down: “Laura occupies a twilight zone of sorts . . . . She is herself and not herself. She is a woman in London, an aristocrat, pale and charming, a little false; she is Virginia Woolf; and she is this other, the inchoate, tumbling thing known as herself . . .” (187). The reader is host not only to the text, which comes into being through the act of reading, but also to the author, whose thoughts and feelings are written into the text because “[i]t is his means of saving his identity from death” (Poulet 108).
As Clayton and Rothstein show, a strong reader-response theory is connected with some form of intertextuality (16) because, after all, it is the reader who discovers the inter- in intertextuality; it is the reader who disentangles the different intertextual strands; it is the reader who is the organising centre of interpretation. Roland Barthes remarks that if a text is “a multi-dimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original,” “a fabric of quotations, resulting from a thousand sources of culture,” then it follows that “the writer can only imitate an ever anterior, never original gesture; his sole power is to mingle writings, to counter some by others, so as never to rely on just one” (52-53).
Subsequently, Barthes proclaims “the death of the Author” (with a capital A, referring to the divine qualities often attributed to this figure). The “death of the Author,” however, is synonymous with “the birth of the reader” (55), since it is the act of reading which generates the meaning of a text: “[T]here is a site where this multiplicity [of writings] is collected, and this site is not the author, as has hitherto been claimed, but the reader: the reader is the very space in which are inscribed . . . all the citations out of which a writing is made; the unity of a text is not in its origin but in its destination . . .” (54).
Ironically enough, The Hours is framed by the deaths of two authors: the prologue, based on facts, recounts the suicide of a real author, Virginia Woolf, and the novel ends with the suicide of Richard, the fictional author, imitating the suicide of Septimus Warren Smith, a fictional character — and it is Laura Brown, the reader, who outlives all the others:
So Laura Brown, the woman who tried to die and failed at it, the woman who fled her family, is alive when all the others, all those who struggled to survive in her wake, have passed away. She is alive now, after her ex-husband has been carried off by liver cancer, after her daughter has been killed by a drunk driver. She is alive after Richard has jumped from a window onto a bed of broken glass. (222)
Likewise, the author Cunningham commits suicide as he — by choosing pastiche as his rhetorical device and both imitating and transforming anterior texts — denies the originary creative power of the god-like Author. However, he is reincarnated in the form of the reader because, as a compiler of anterior texts, he has to read avidly and voraciously. By devoting one of the three narrative strands to the reader, Cunningham splits up the traditional binary relationship between the author and the text and introduces a third element, which completes the literary experience.
Reading thus becomes part of the creative act of writing, as Kristeva in her intertextual interpretation of Bakhtin’s ideas remarks: “When he speaks of ‘two paths merging within the narrative’ Bakhtin considers writing as a reading of the anterior literary corpus and the text as an absorption of and a reply to another text” (69). From her abstract model illustrating the dialogue between the writer (“subject of narration”) and the reader (“addressee”) (74-5) follows that in intertextual writing — like in the Bakhtinian “polyphonic novel” (71) — the writer is at the same time a reader: “The writer’s interlocutor, then, is the writer himself, but as the reader of another text. The one who writes is the same who reads. Since his interlocutor is a text, he himself is no more than a text rereading itself as it rewrites itself” (86-7).
For the author-turned-reader Cunningham, the act of reading assumes greater importance than the act of writing as ample research and reading is required for an accurate representation of Woolf’s life and for the compilation of a pastiche out of her works. In order to write The Hours, he had to read not only all the biographies and critical articles listed at the end of the novel in “A Note on Sources” (229-30) but also — as I have shown in this essay — several of Woolf’s works on top of Mrs. Dalloway. And so does the inscribed reader, Laura Brown, who is an incessant reader, a “bookworm” (40): “Right now she is reading Virginia Woolf, all of Virginia Woolf, book by book . . .” (42)
. And so was Woolf herself an avid and voracious reader as she confesses in A Room of One’s Own: “Like most uneducated Englishwomen, I like reading — I like reading books in the bulk” (1983). When she died, she left among all her other works sixty-seven volumes of her reading notebooks, most of whose entries concern books she reviewed or used in one of her critical or biographical essays (Hussey 227). Cunningham, then, by devoting one of the three narrative strands to the reader and by extending Woolf’s demand for a room of one’s own for writing to a room of one’s own for reading, acknowledges the vital part the act of reading plays for the writer.
If the act of reading is the third element completing the literary experience, is the reader then the “third tiger” mentioned in the epigraph? The epigraph quotes a passage from the poem The Other Tiger by Jorge Luis Borges:
We’ll hunt for a third tiger now, but like the others this one too will be a form of what I dream, a structure of words, and not the flesh and bone tiger that beyond all myths paces the earth. I know these things quite well, yet nonetheless some force keeps driving me in this vague, unreasonable, and ancient quest, and I go on pursuing through the hours another tiger, the beast not found in verse. (epigraph, italics mine)
Is the third tiger Cunningham pursues through The Hours not the reader? Cunningham’s citation of Borges’ hunt for the third tiger and the interpretation of the tiger as a metaphor for the reader would align with Woolf’s literary manifesto “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”  , where she calls upon the novelist to capture the character Mrs. Brown: “[I]t is from the gleams and flashes of this flying spirit that he must create solid, living, flesh-and-blood Mrs. Brown” (388). In The Hours, Cunningham sets out on the pursuit of his third tiger, the reader Laura Brown. She is Cunningham’s “beast not found in verse” as she is the most autonomous of all principal characters in The Hours, neither closely based on a historical figure (like Virginia Woolf) nor on a fictional character (like Clarissa Vaughan), although — as shown above — the representation of her is not entirely free of intertextual references.
By tracing the various allusions to Woolf’s life and works in The Hours, I have disentangled some, but hardly all, of the intertextual references which Cunningham weaves into a dazzling pastiche, adopting but also adapting the anterior texts for his own purposes. Cunningham, by mimicking anterior authors and thus denying the conventional concept of the author as the originary source of all textual meaning, kills himself into pastiche. However, he finds his reincarnation in the reader as he — in order to write pastiche — has to read avidly and voraciously. And so do we, the readers of The Hours, come to appreciate the intertextual web more fully when we have read the intertexts and thus are able to detect the echoes and witness how skilfully Cunningham manipulates them. Reading, then, no longer allows passive consumption, in contrast, the reader is challenged to respond to the open interplay between The Hours and its intertexts.
As the author, the origin and centre of meaning, has committed suicide, the interpretative power shifts now from the writer towards the reader, who, by discovering the inter in intertextuality and by complementing the text with his or her previous reading experience of the intertexts, becomes a co-writer of the text. Pastiche gives the reader more autonomy, which accounts for the diversity of interpretations, since all readers are individuals who have read different intertexts. Correspondingly, my interpretation of The Hours is one among many because it is based on my own personal reading experience of the intertextual references, which I have unravelled and traced back to the anterior texts, and on critical writing on intertextuality, reader-response criticism, the status of the author, and pastiche, which I — caught in the web of intertextuality as I was — had to consult in order to find my way around.
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