The Hours haunted me for days after reading it–mainly two of the ideas that Cunningham explores. First, each choice a person makes leaves a trail of missed opportunities behind him or her–lives that weren’t lived. Almost all of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway consider the decisions they made–and what Cunningham does in his book is give those alternate stories life. It is through the alternate stories that the reader must face some inevitable truths.
For instance, in Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa, feeling dissatisfied, daydreams about what life might have looked like if she had been able to choose her best friend Sally as a life partner instead of her husband Richard. In The Hours, we see that desire played out as the character of Clarissa is a modern woman in her fifties in New York City living with her partner of 18 years, Sally. Cunningham creates other nuances that continue the conversation Woolf started 77 years before–but there is meaning behind this even to people who haven’t read either book: even when the characters are given the cultural freedom to pursue what they want, no one feels completely satisfied. In both novels, the characters tell themselves stories and imagine different lives for themselves to cope with the reality they are actually faced with.
It is easy to look back on missed opportunities poetically, imagining the happiness that might have been. But such is the illusion of fantasy: we are stuck in the real world with flawed people and to not address this is to not be honest with oneself. Such truth is burdensome to the reader throughout the entire book, whether it be in small, internal conflicts of the characters or tragic ends.
What seems to bridge that concept to any kind of hope at all, is Cunningham’s address of hours themselves–not all hours carry the weight or are even the same symbolical length.
Richard, who is dying of AIDS, says: “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.” As Clarissa is processing Richard’s illness, remembering their summer-long relationship, perfect in each of their memories, as well as her current anxiety, she finds: “There’s just this for 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, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.”
It is the small moments we wish we could have frozen in time that keep us moving forward–and become long as they are played over and over again in our minds, and the long monotonous hours that make us human…and I think, I think remind us that we are not made for a world with such brokenness because even if we make all the right choices, the longing remains. And that is when we, when I, must run for my life to hear a pedal steel and a banjo, or chase an urban sunset for good measure and a good reminding that there is abundant life to be had.