A Woman’s Whole Life in a Single Day: On Insignificant Work, and Its Significant Absence, in The Hours

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in THE HOURS (2002) | art by Brianna Ashby“We throw our parties…we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep. It’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out windows, or drown themselves, or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us are slowly devoured by some disease, or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. 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) know 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.”

-Michael Cunningham, The Hours

Written by David Hare and directed by Stephen Daldry, the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours tells three intertwining stories about three women faced with three different tasks on one insignificant (and in this way, wholly significant) day. A day like any other. A day like every other. Or, as Virginia Woolf says in the opening voiceover, “A woman’s whole life in a single day. Just one day. And in that day, her whole life.”

The days of Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown, and Clarissa Vaughan break in half-empty beds: Virginia (Nicole Kidman and her infamous Academy Award-winning prosthetic nose) stirs in Richmond, England circa 1923; pregnant 1950s housewife Laura (Julianne Moore) dozes in sunny Los Angeles; and Clarissa (Meryl Streep) is restless in the New York City of 2001. They sleep, or at least feign it, while their respective partners are already out and about. On this day, they don’t have jobs or conventional work in need of their attentions. Today, they are hostesses called to entertain guests for, respectively, afternoon tea, a small birthday party, and an extravagant celebration dinner.

Their days are punctuated and truncated by the lack of work, in a traditional sense, from which there is no day off. These waking hours are inevitably followed by others—minutes upon minutes of unstructured time—but the lack of schedule does not bring the freedom it seemingly suggests. For each of them is stuck—denied the satisfaction of quantifiable progress—in her own way. After somewhat stilted beginnings, their days continue to stall and lag, though The Hours never does. An unparalleled cast and brilliant editing convey these three disparate lives as one along a continuum: The Author, the Reader, and the Performer.

Once Virginia rises, her worried and attentive husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane), implores her to eat breakfast, or at the very least a proper lunch. She sidesteps both in her reply, “Leonard, I believe I may have a first sentence.” He relents, “Work then. Then you must eat.” One gets the sense that Virginia’s daily schedule is as loosely plotted as her prose. Much to Leonard’s chagrin, she takes time for solitary walks about town (“If I could walk mid-morning, I’d be a happy man.”) and welcomes early visitors (Needling her sister, Vanessa, “Leonard thinks it’s the end of civilization: People who are invited at 4 and arrive at 2:30. Barbarians!”).

Despite having the prerequisite room of her own, progress does not come easily to Virginia. After two suicide attempts, the Woolfs moved from London to quiet, suburban Richmond. Leonard established a printing press as a distraction, a way for Virginia to busy her mind and keep the voices at bay. He hoped, more than anything, that she could find peace in the daily routine of a methodical task. But Virginia has no interest in that kind of work. Instead, when inspiration does come, she retreats to writing. As anyone who writes anything knows, it’s a constant struggle (and a scheduling nightmare—see my infinitely repeating Google Calendar reminders to “WRITE!”), and yet Vanessa, as an outsider, takes a most romantic view: “Your aunt’s a very lucky woman, Angelica. She has two lives. She has the life she is leading, and also the book she’s writing.” In 1923, of course, this particular fictional life is to become her legacy.  

Some 30 years later, Laura Brown is reading about the lives of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith. Laura lives on a perfect, palm tree-lined street in Los Angeles. Amid the suffocating anesthetic of the suburbs, every woman has a house, a car, and a husband to match. She’s smart, interesting, shy, “the sort of girl you’d see sitting mostly on her own” according to her husband, Dan (John C. Reilly). One of the “lucky” ones, Laura has a young son and another child on the way. She’s married to a kind yet dull war vet who adores her, the life he’s built, and what their future holds: “It’s a beautiful day! What are you two going to be doing with it?”

She’s decided to bake a cake for his birthday, “We’re baking the cake to show him that we love him.” But all she really wants to do is stay in bed and read Mrs. Dalloway, a novel that she understands on a profound level, as evidenced by the succinctly shrewd book report given to her judgmental neighbor, Kitty (Toni Collette): “Oh, it’s about this woman who’s incredibly—well, she’s a hostess and she’s incredibly confident and she’s going to give a party. And, maybe because she’s confident, everyone thinks she’s fine. But she isn’t.”

Laura’s analysis perfectly maps onto Clarissa Vaughn’s day. Clarissa lives in New York City, where what Virginia calls “the violent jolt of the capital”—a danger Virginia’s Richmond relocation was meant to avoid—is epitomized by deafening street noise and screeching subway trains. Clarissa is the real-life incarnation of Clarissa Dalloway and has been nicknamed such, as she recounts to Richard’s ex, Louis: “[Richard] came out behind me. He put his hand on my shoulder…‘Good morning, Mrs. Dalloway.’ From then on I’ve been stuck…With the name, I mean.”

This role is as much self-imposed as imposed; there is part of Clarissa that embraces it. She relishes being the good hostess; the put-upon best friend; the one who inspired and actually read the difficult book; the one who stuck around after everyone else abandoned; the one who loves him the most. In order to prove it, she’s determined to throw a party for her friend and one-time lover, Richard (Ed Harris), a man dying of AIDS and being awarded a prestigious poetry prize for his own life’s work.

A “life’s work”—what does that even mean? We traditionally think of work as a transaction, the exchange of services for money. It is this discrete thing—often unexplainable and mostly uncompelling to our nearest and dearest—that we spend (at least) 40 hours a week for (at least) 40 years doing, until we finally get to retire. As work becomes more abstract and less clearly defined, so too does its definitive validation of a life’s purpose. The Hours further blurs the distinctions between work and home lives by homing in on the process of daily routines and repetition rather than demonstrable progress. We see Virginia writing alone, sucking a cigarette down to the last nub held in her ink-stained fingers. We see Laura sifting flour and cracking eggs with her eager son by her side. We see Clarissa drawing up seating charts and buying flowers herself, according to that famous first line. We see them going about their days, and we see the ways their expectations often fail to align with reality. The work itself is not the source of daily stresses and indignities; instead, it is their inability to dismiss the imposed and internalized idea that the work is supposed to matter—that its sole purpose is to give meaning to a life which would otherwise have none—that causes these women to unravel.

Without the luxury of silencing their cellphones or closing the office door, the unconventional work of Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa is often derailed by disruptions in the form of expected visitors and unexpected intimacy. Virginia is called to the kitchen to help the help plan the lunch menu. Then, she hosts her niece and nephews for tea before seeking the approval of her sister, “Didn’t you think I seemed better?” Likewise, between baking cakes one and two (“It didn’t work. I thought it was going to work. I thought it would work better than that.”), Laura is asked to feed a neighbor’s dog during that afternoon’s medical procedure. And Clarissa is separating eggs for the “crab thing” when Richard’s ex-boyfriend, Louis (Jeff Daniels), shows up several hours early to the party. His interruption turns an awkward catch up conversation into her breaking down on the kitchen floor, which is normally terrain she navigates most adeptly.

If work gives people a sense of purpose, then it would reason that the lack of it can leave them unmoored, drowning in a sea of mannered behaviors and unsustainable expectations. Without a grander plan, the lives of Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughn appear almost Sisyphean—defined by a singular task that begins anew each day and is never finished. In fact, at two different points, Laura and Clarissa literally throw their day’s work in the garbage can. Laura disposes of the first poorly constructed cake, and Clarissa dumps the crab thing after the party is cancelled. Somewhat paradoxically, process is not synonymous with progress. Laura is worse at covering the silence, but more successful at maintaining the ruse. Upon returning home from work and seeing the second (and much better looking) cake, her husband observes, “You must’ve been working all day.” She was, and now she finally has something to show for it.

The Hours has many things to show for itself, all of it gracefully tied together with Philip Glass’ emotionally transcendent score—my preferred “work” accompaniment. Even his theme titles convey agency, decisiveness, and inevitability, pointedly focused on process, not progress: “The Poet Acts,” “I’m Going to Make a Cake,” and “Something She Has to Do.”

When Leonard makes a passive-aggressive comment about taking a midday walk, he not only demonstrates frustration about his own work, but seems to undermine Virginia’s. By comparison, nosy neighbor Kitty undercuts Laura’s attempts at baking, “Oh, Laura, I don’t understand why you find it so difficult…everyone can [make a cake.] It’s ridiculously easy. I bet you didn’t even grease the pan.” And it is Richard’s dismissal of Clarissa’s life’s work that causes her to question its value, “He gives me that look…To say your life is trivial. You are so trivial.” To which her daughter, Julia (Claire Danes), pushes back, “It only matters if you think it’s true. Well, do you?” Clarissa—too raw, too honest—bungles the answer, “When I’m with him I feel…Yes, I am living. And when I’m not with him…Yes, everything does seem sort of silly.” Clarissa is a woman in conflict, simultaneously instilling the party with too little and far too much meaning. When confirming the attendance of a guest, she says, “It’ll mean so much.” And moments later, to the resistant recipient, “Honey, it’s not a performance…It’s a party, and it’s only a party.” And Richard—the poet, the visionary—sees right through her with his piercing blue eyes, “Oh, Mrs. Dalloway…Always giving parties to cover the silence.”

According to Cunningham’s reading of Mrs. Dalloway, now an endorsement featured prominently on my dog-eared copy’s back cover, Woolf was bestowing meaning on these lives and their daily struggles: “If the novel before Mrs. Dalloway aspired to immensities of scope and scale, to heroic journeys across vast landscapes, with Mrs. Dalloway Virginia Woolf insisted that it could also locate the enormous within the everyday; that a life of errands and party-giving was every bit as viable a subject as any life lived anywhere.” And Cunningham’s own work seems to reinforce this argument. Clarissa’s life is not trivial. It’s not all parties and schedules and details. She has a daughter in college and a partner (Sally, played by Allison Janney) going on 10 years. She is Richard’s muse and Virginia’s creation. She’s an important New York editor—as not so subtly indicated by the teetering manuscripts precariously positioned atop her desk—and yet it’s Richard’s dismissive attitude towards party planning that sends her spiraling into an existential crisis.

Clarissa wasn’t always someone who slept through life. She tells Julia, “I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself: So, this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more. It never occurred to me it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then.” The Hours and its characters are preoccupied with the concept of happiness. The idea of it and the way by which it is achieved, or at the very least, strived for. As if happiness were a state that can be permanently attained, some marker to be reached, rather than a singular moment that continuously eludes them.

In terms of narrative structure, the filmmakers deftly show their work by beginning this story with an ending, Virginia Woolf’s final suicide attempt and accompanying note to Leonard: “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again…I begin to hear voices and can’t concentrate…I know that I am spoiling your life and without me you could work and you will, I know. You see I can’t even write this properly.” Despite the years and distance between the film’s three heroines, it is ultimately feelings of unworthiness that provide the crucial link between them. And between every supporting character, for that matter. In thinking about his own work and legacy, Richard laments, “I wanted to be a writer, that’s all. I wanted to write about it all: Everything that happens in a moment…All our feelings—yours and mine; the history of it—who we once were; everything in the world, everything all mixed up like it’s all mixed up now. And I failed. I failed. No matter what you start with, it ends up being so much less.”

Before Richard follows Septimus Smith and Virginia Woolf into the deep dark, Clarissa tells him, “This is a group of people who want to tell you your work is going to live.” Cunningham’s critique attributed above gives Woolf a similar endorsement. By bestowing the lives of her characters with meaning, she brings value to her own work, as well. But I doubt such sentiment was ever communicated to her as directly as Clarissa to Richard, and Woolf died without ever having seen her brilliant work immortalized in classrooms and on screens. Likewise, the single day immortalized in The Hours doesn’t show its characters’ lives bursting open and giving them everything they’ve ever imagined. This day is shrouded in darkness, making the good days, past and future, far more difficult to see. The audience only learns of those bursts second and third hand: Virginia alluding to a happy and loving marriage in her final note to Leonard; Dan telling young Richie about his and Laura’s love story; Clarissa reminiscing about a walk on the beach in Wellfleet all those years ago. In speaking to a legacy left behind and reflecting on her own, Clarissa provides assurance—to herself, to Richard, to Virginia and Laura and me—that no matter what you start with, it can end up being so much more. These memories are going to live. These hours are capable of sustaining them through their darkest days. Though, in the end, it only matters if they think it’s true.