The Meaning of Death in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway" and Michael Cunningham's "The Hours"

Term Paper, 2007

11 Pages, Grade: 1,2

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Meaning of Death in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours

In October 1962 Edward Albee’s play “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” opened on Broadway at the Billy Rose Theatre. The title comes from the words of the children’s song “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?” and comes up as a joke at a party tying the different themes of the play together: childhood and parenthood, reality and fantasy and carreer success. One might wonder why the name was changed to “Virginia Woolf”, but in fact, it is significant: Virgina Woolf’s writings attempt to reveal the truth of human experience and emotion, along with the thoughts of her characters – everything that the characters in the play try to cover up. In this respect, using her name in the title demonstrates how Virginia Woolf and her novels became symbolic of a number of ideas in Western culture and literature. Born in 1882, Virginia Woolf contributed to English literature in her very own way and developed a style of writing fiction that is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying: In her fictions one can objectify sensitive personal reactions to experience[1].

In the Victorian period, marked by Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901, most writing was concerned with contemporary social problems like the effects of the industrial revolution, the influence of the theory of evolution or movements of political and social reform. It was a period of intense and prolific activity in literature, especially by novelists and poets, and in this respect the writers attempted to produce a narrative art whose composition was determinded by a public sense of values and interests. Around the turn of the century however, a time of artistic and literary experimentation began and was immediately seen as a radical break with the traditional forms and ideologies. This period of what came to be known as modernism, is particulary concernded with language and how it should be used as well as with writing itself. In this respect, the term of modernism pertains to all the creative arts, especially poetry, fiction, drama, painting and music. Moreover, one desired to transgress the boundaries between various genres; an attempt going back to the late 19th century. In fact, there are many opposing definitions of the term agreeing only in the mentioned points. For a long time, literary modernism was almost exclusively identified with white male artists. In the last decades, however, this monolithic understanding of modernism has been replaced by a more complex and diverse description and today Virginia Woolf is not only a key figure in literary history as a feminist but also as a modernist. A significant difference between modern writers and the previous generation is their interest in and their attempt to describe life and the characters’ minds. In her essay “Modern Fiction” Virginia Woolf claims that it is life itself, which the novelists of the Victorian period failed to grasp.[2] The writers of the previous generation seem to feel that they have to conform to a traditional, conventional fiction structure of plot and characterization and therefore lose the coincidences of life that novelists should try to capture in their writings:

“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-trasparent envelope surrounding us from beginning to end.”[3]

While the novel of the 19th century deals with external reality, modernist writings primarily attempt to represent the characters’ consciounesses, initiating a huge range of technical innovations and manipulations of language in all kinds of ways to show the movements of conscious and even subconscious thoughts. In this context, the term of the stream-of-consciousness became significally important. It refers to a technique which seeks to depict multitudinous thoughts and feelings passing through the mind, and although long passages of introspective writing can already be found in earlier writings, its importance for modernist novels cannot be underestimated. The technique explores the prespeech levels of consciousness intending to reveal the psychic being and feelings of each character and allows the author to recount them through a narrated monologue without having to break out of the narrative thread. Over the years, Virginia Woolf adapted the stream-of-consciousness for her own novels in an extraordinary way, becoming inspired by a tunneling writing process: She wanted to get behind the surfaces of her characters, exploring their souls in every possible way and therefore saw every writer’s task as

“being able to go beyond the formal railway line of sentences and to show how people feel or think or dream all over the place”[4]

As a result, Woolf became one of the most distinguished developers of the stream-of-consciousness method, fracturing psychological as well as emotional motives of characters and testing the various possibilities of fractured narrative and chronology.

Virginia Woolf’s work has often been criticised for epitomizing the small world of the English intellectual upper-middle class full of people being too delicate, trivial, self-centred and introspective. In fact, the intensity of her poetic vision elevates the ordinary, sometimes banal settings of most of her novels. The novels are highly experimental: She manages to refract, and sometimes nearly dissolve a narrative, often uneventful and commonplace, in the characters’ receptive consciousnesses and thereby create a world full of auditory and visual impressions; trying to grasp the priciples of reality while knowing that “realism” cannot be the adequate approach to it. Nevertheless, she tries to capture life itself in situations as simple and normal as possible:

“Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel.”[5]

Virginia Woolf’s fourth novel Mrs. Dalloway, written in 1925, is set on such a single day – a day in the middle of June in 1923 – and weaves together several narrative perspectives. The story covers the whole day from morning to night and thereby recounts to the reader the protagonist’s whole life: Clarissa Dalloway, who is preparing for a party she will give at her house in the evening, remembers how she rejected Peter Walsh’s marriage proposal over thirty years ago at her parent’s house. He has just come back from India to arrange his lover’s divorce and visits Clarissa. The story of Septimus Warren Smith is parallel to these strands of narrative. He is a shell-shocked soldier who is taken to see a nerve specialist, Sir William Bradshaw, by his wife Rezia. All significant people from the summer at Bourton, including her husband Richard, Sally Seton and Hugh Whitbread, are brought together by Clarissa’s party at the end of the novel. The story culminates when the two main narrative threads converge at the party when Bradshaw mentions Septimus’ suicide to Richard.

In her lyrical, flowing pattern of writing, the author easily slides in and out of the different characters’ thoughts. The sentences quickly cross the boundaries of the past, present and future – whereas the style impresses the time existing in our minds upon the reader, a time not progressing steadily. The novel itself is preoccupied with a number of issues, most significantly feminism and madness, along with commentary of society. Today, Mrs. Dalloway is probably Virginia Woolf’s most famous novel, owing in part to the recent publication of Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours and Stephen Daldry’s movie of the same title.

Furthermore, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours was directly inspired by Virginia Woolf’s novel. Originally the author intended to recount the story of the upper-class woman Clarissa Dalloway from the perspective of a gay man living in the Chelsea neighborhood of modern-day New York. When he found that this was not sustainable for the length of a novel, he decided to interweave the lives of three women who are all in some way connected to Virgina Woolf’s novel: In fact, the inclusion of Virginia Woolf herself as a character of the novel ties together the stories of contemporary Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Vaughn, and the reader of Mrs. Dalloway, Laura Brown. Virginia Woolf’s book not only serves as the inspiration for The Hours, the interwined stories of the women also closely follow the narrative strands of Mrs. Dalloway. Michael Cunningham, too, follows the women through one day in their lives. The first narrative thread explores a day in 1923 when Virginia Woolf begins to write Mrs. Dalloway in England. The second story centers on a day in the life of Laura Brown, a Californian housewife in 1949, in which she spends some of her time reading Virginia Woolf’s novel. The last narrative takes place on a day in New York in the late 20th century. Clarissa Vaugh is about to host a party for her close friend and poet Richard. The situations of all three characters mirror situations experienced by the original character of Clarissa Dalloway, Clarissa Vaughn being a rather literal modern version of Woolf’s character. Both reflect on their histories, past loves and their decisions in relation to their current lives. Moreover, Michael Cunningham’s novel not only mirrors the story of Virginia Woolf’s novel but also the narrative style of stream-of-consciousness. Therewith, the characters interact not only with the moment of the present time, but also travel back to the past in their memories creating a depth of history upon their eventually trivial present moments. In 1999 the novel The Hours won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.


[1] Cf. Daiches, David (1963), p.153

[2] Cf. Hussey, Mark (1995), p. 162

[3] Woolf, Virginia. In: Hussey, Mark (1995), p. 162

[4] Lee, Hermione (1977), p. 93

[5] Woolf, Virginia. In: Hussey, Mark (1995), p. 162

11 of 11 pages


The Meaning of Death in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway" and Michael Cunningham's "The Hours"
Utrecht University
Kaleidoscope Western Literature
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Meaning, Death, Virginia, Woolf, Dalloway, Michael, Cunningham, Hours, Kaleidoscope, Western, Literature
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Michaela Stolte (Author), 2007, The Meaning of Death in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway" and Michael Cunningham's "The Hours", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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