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An Ethics of Simultaneity in The Hours: Bergson, Cunningham, Daldry

There are topics that are certainly more embodied than others; this is especially true when the topic is time, or more specifically durée or simultaneity. Henri Bergson’s conceptualization and understanding of durée becomes a valuable overarching framework for an exploration of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and the film adaptation directed by Stephen Daldry. Cunningham’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, and Daldry’s Oscar winning 2002 film are 22 and 18 years removed from our current moment respectively, and yet the conceptualization of the “then” explored in both the novel and the film are just as relevant to our now, exactly because both address the possibility of simultaneous existences, as well as time as being a concept that is incapable of measurement.

The immeasurability of time is certainly something we all grapple with when routines are upended or when every day becomes a repetition of the last. I argue that the narrative structure of both Cunningham’s The Hours and the subsequent film adaptation use a consistent hailing of various material objects to emphasize the text as grappling within a displaced sense of the past that creeps through to the present. Based on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (The Hours is the working title that Woolf gave the draft version of Mrs. Dalloway), Cunningham’s The Hours tells three stories that are seemingly distanced in geographical space and historical time. Yet the narratives are all linked, with characters and material objects overlapping so as to play with time and suggest a historically impossible simultaneity of action. The materiality and recalling of specific objects also allows Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to exist simultaneously within Cunningham’s novel, as objects trigger memory and create a narrative palimpsest.

As Den Boer notes in The Art of Memory, the Greek philosopher Simonides suggests that “memory is strengthened when information is linked to physical space.”1 The familiar objects within the narrative create a space where memory is triggered and evoke a sense of simultaneity where there is temporal uncertainty. In The Hours, this material triggering causes readers and characters alike to question if this is the past, the present, or the future. Accordingly, this article considers the ethics of this feeling of simultaneity created by the objects in The Hours; what sort of embodied violence occurs, or what sort of gaps are created in the depiction and representations of the characters through a reliance of narrative simultaneity? Both Cunningham’s novel and Daldry’s film highlight a framework of Bergsonian durée, where internalized time actively resists quantitative externalization. As with any text or film that plays with time, there are repercussions. In The Hours there is an emphasis on gaps in both structures and characters, as the material triggers seemingly left over from another space and place resist time. Just like Marty McFly’s disappearing hand in the scene in which he is playing the guitar in Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985), aspects and parts of characters move in and out of specific narrative frames, and reposition corporality.

Like the novel itself, there are three parts to this article. First, I elaborate on the concept of Bergsonian durée and simultaneity. Second, I expand on how the narrative structure of The Hours both holistically and within the individual stories of Virginia Woolf, Clarissa Vaughan, and Laura Brown, emphasizes a Bergsonian durée and highlights gaps in the characters. Third, I end with an exploration of the material triggers that exist across the sub-narratives. In the process, I highlight different objects that move from one narrative frame to another, objects that demonstrate that time is elusive when one attempts to measure it and that it is best to look at time qualitatively. The Hours is a novel of involuntary memory, and Cunningham’s text navigates competing sets of responsibilities through a constant state of renegotiation of spatial and material memory, something that Daldry brings to life in his film adaptation.

Bergson and Durée: Simultaneity

What is durée? Robert Chia provides one of the most accessible summaries of Henri Bergon’s framework:

[In Duration and Simultaneity,] Bergson insisted that public clock-time is a ‘counterfeit’ representation of lived experience produced by the conversion of temporal experiences into discreet and measurable instantaneous moments. According to him, real time (durée) is linked with our consciousness and involved the continuous progress of the past that gnaws into the future and swells as it advances, leaving its bite, or the mark of its tooth, on all things. 2

Durée is continuous and contiguous, when you stop to quantify, you spatialize, and that is no longer a conceptualization of time; it is actually a representation of space. Internalized time is a qualitative multiplicity, it is permeable; as Paola Marrati states, “our existence not only takes place in duration, but more precisely it is made of duration.”3 Durée is the authentic form of time, not changed to fit into a created or biased scientific or capitalistic framework. There is no daylight savings time with durée, there are no time zones, there is only the now that instantly and constantly becomes the then.

In Matter and Memory, Bergson states, “practically, we perceive only the past, the pure present being the invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future,”4 and so our series of “right nows” instantaneously become the past to our perception. I argue that Cunningham creates this same sense of durée or simultaneity in his novel; all the “right nows” in the narrative as a whole—but also in each separate narrative arc—are actually perceptions of the past. Cunningham helps reinforce this fleeting sense of time through the use of strategically placed material objects as a recall mechanism, objects that Stephen Daldry also identifies and uses as either integral items to a scene in his film adaptation or as background prop pieces that tie all the narrative arcs together. These material objects allow characters in a particular narrative setting to be seemingly outside of quantitative time (the 1920s, 1950s, the 1990s, respectively) through tactile memory connected to objects and the material residue the objects possess. This material residue creates a connection to objects that goes beyond the characters.

At the same time, the characters in the novel and the spaces they inhabit are constantly described as having gaps, suggesting there’s something missing, or something that needs to be found. This search creates possibility in the objects themselves, that maybe these objects will allow what is represented as fragmented to become whole. On a certain level, “the bite, or the mark of [the] tooth [of the past is], on all things”5 in the novel, and it affects the qualitative experience of time. By analyzing the narrative for gaps and overlaps in both characters and the spaces they inhabit and embody, the framework of simultaneity in the novel and in the film is brought to light. The material memory triggers placed throughout the narration (triggers that are often connected to traumatic or deep psychological or emotional exposition), could be understood as an unethical recalling of the past, a residue of what used to be and yet still is. But these objects can also be seen as a way to allow the characters to reconcile with the past they carry with them. The material objects allow the characters to realize that their past is still always happening, and is still always present.

Narration, Characters and the Embodiment of Durée

Fictional characters who do not seem to fit in their own time, or fit in their own space, are often described or represented as eccentric, an adjective formed from a noun whose root in Greek means a “out of center.”6 Characters without centers or out of center, who do not necessarily fit in with the society of which they find themselves a part, are often the conceit for film and literary narratives. In Todd Haynes’ 2015 film Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, the main character, Carol Aird, looks at Therese Belivet and tells her that she has been seemingly “flung out of space.” Therese is a character out of center, without a real space of her own. All the characters in The Hours are also seemingly “flung out of space” and reside in qualitative time as opposed to quantitative time; as Richard Brown mentions to Clarissa, “I seem to have fallen out of time.”7 This is one of the many statements in Cunningham’s work that suggests how much time has fallen out of the narrative, and that the characters that Cunningham has created are truly playing with time. In fact in The Hours, the main female characters become the placeholders but also the time holders; they embody what it means to live in a particular quantitative time. However, the narrative suggests that there are gaps in this embodiment, in these characters, that can only be understood through looking at time qualitatively.

The Hours is presented in present-tense narration and this gives the illusion of being in the “right now” of every narrative frame. In emphasizing that the plot action all happens on the same day in different years, what the narrative structure also does is suggest that what could be three separate days, if extracted from the narrative individually, are now conflated into one long day. The ordering of the narratives in the novel is also not necessarily chronological. The novel starts with Virginia’s prologue in the 1920s but then quickly moves more than seventy years later to the 1990s and Clarissa Vaughan’s narrative. All of these stories are also in media res, a stylistic element that does not suggest a beginning, and that rather helps strengthen a Bergsonian understanding of time as an unknown past which is always haunting the present.

Throughout both the novel and the film, we come to understand that Clarissa always wants to live in the past but feels stuck in the present. It is a narrative that consistently wants to demonstrate that spanning time is easy. This spanning of time is highlighted in the material objects in texts, but also, in the film version, in the passing comments from Louis Waters about returning to Wellfleet, a place where Clarissa, Richard, and Louis all shared fond times and memories. Another example of this hailing of the past to the present comes from the novel, when Clarissa, thinking of Richard, states that she wants “not Richard as he’s become but the Richard of ten years ago.”8 In both the novel and the film, Clarissa functions as a character double of Virginia Woolf, as well as of the titular protagonist in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (an intertextual reference that is made explicit in the nickname Richard imposes on Clarissa). Because of the in media res structure of the narrative, we are left wondering about the origin of her nickname; was the name truly informed by her first name, or because Clarissa Vaughan has Mrs. Dalloway’s habit/characteristic of giving parties to fill the gaps and emptiness she experiences? Or, alternately, is it that Clarissa took on this behavior after being given the nickname in some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy? The Hours is a novel where nothing is certain, and positionality is impossible to determine, because quantitative time is meant to be in flux. In Virginia’s plot she mentions an “indescribable second self, or rather a parallel, purer self,”9 and we can propose that this is Clarissa Vaughan, a distilled version of herself, who must learn to appreciate qualitative time over quantitative time.

Clarissa’s partner Sally Lester is often referred to as “house,” so she definitely has an appropriate surname that hails location. Sally Lester is the spatial and societal center for Clarissa Vaughan, just like Leicester and the midlands are the geographic center of England. Sally is, in fact, as close to the embodiment of space as can be found in Cunningham’s novel. Clarissa feels that “Sally the stoic, the tortured, the subtly wise [is] harmless and insipid in the way of a house on a quiet street.”10 Clarissa needs that organizational structure from Sally when it comes to liminal spaces, in particular, as is evidenced in the way that being stuck between floors in the elevator in Richard’s apartment building is anxiety producing for her. Clarissa even feels dislocated in her own kitchen; none of the sensory perceptions match. She “observes with wonder and detachment” what is around her;11 things don’t seem to fit.

Similarly, from the beginning of the novel, Virginia Woolf’s narrative indicates gaps in both character and the structures around her. Early on, Virginia’s body is described as permeable: “all this enters the bridge, resounds through its wood and stone, and enters Virginia’s body.”12 Later in the narrative, Virginia is described thus: “she’s begun to look as if she’s carved from very porous, grey-white marble,”13 suggesting, as she floats to her death, that her permeable state in the future is already in some way present in the past. Virginia likewise speaks to how her illness has infiltrated her,14 and asserts that she recognizes gaps in herself because of the illness.

Richard Brown is another character described and depicted as having gaps. Richard’s story is never told from his point of view, for like the disease that is narrating his health, others narrate his life—an ironic twist for the character who is a poet and author. Richard’s character is allowed to haunt two narrative frames, first as young Richie, then as older AIDS-stricken Richard, but his understanding of time is continually out of step with others around him. The narrative suggests that his gaps in understanding time are mainly due to his illness and that his illness has led to “minds being eaten into lace by the virus.”15 Clarissa describes Richard’s “perversely simultaneous good fortune” (“an anguished, prophetic voice in American letters”) and his decline “You have no T-cells at all, none that we can detect.”16 This suggests a Bergsonian understanding of time where, as referenced before by Chia, the past is eating its way to the future. It is an embracing of simultaneity, for as Richard reminds Clarissa, “You kissed me … It’s still happening … in reality. It’s happening in that present.”17 Laura Brown describes her young son, Richie, as a shape-shifter, but in relation to the narration he is a time shifter. He “feels like a memory” to Clarissa;18 he is always in the past, and his illness and eventual suicide demonstrate how he will never be in the future.

In terms of quantitative, chronological time, Laura Brown rests at the centre of the text, but she is the only other character allowed to move into a different narrative frame. She also survives, unlike her son, Richie. Richard’s AIDS narrative adds chronological pressure—there is an acute awareness that time is running out for him. Laura is given one less chapter named after her than the other two main characters in the novel, seven instead of eight, but arguably her most important chapter of the novel is also positioned literally at the center of the novel at page 110. Mrs. Brown is also the only pregnant character, and thus has literally two developmental time frames embodied in her, with a body without a lived past inside her. Her later escape to a “v-shaped motel”19 (evoking Irigaray’s cave) where she “feels, immediately, like a citizen of this place”20 is where she goes to get away from her material reminders of time, to escape the cake that features in her plotline, to escape domesticity and responsibility.

Mrs. Brown functions as an authentic form of time in a Bergsonian sense, for she does not want to fit in a temporal frame and is allowed to move beyond it. There’s a few ways that Laura Brown is differentiated from the other characters in the novel. For one thing, unlike the other female identified characters, Mrs. Brown actively plays with material and tactile memory. She rebuilds a cake, for example, and, as we will see, it temporally survives longer than other edible objects like “the crab thing.”21 For another thing, she is also the only one to successfully throw a party. Where Clarissa Vaughan does not succeed in this feat, Laura “creates something temporal,”22 a fête in the face of failure. Laura knows how to play with time and rebuild the material that is broken or filled with gaps, which allows her to reconceptualise the space that she finds herself inhabiting.

Laura is also one of several characters presented in relation to bisexuality in the novel (like Virginia, like Clarissa). Bisexuality throughout the text is another way to emphasize a need to move beyond frames, as well as beyond labels. As James Schiff states, “[i]n The Hours, men and women desire touch and contact with one another and that desire often transcends or contradicts the narrow identity labels … that society has constructed.”23 Labels are actively spatial and temporal, and Cunnigham’s novel, together with Daldry’s film interpretation, is much more about the fluidity of temporality, so these identifying labels do not appear. No one in the novel is called gay, lesbian, or bisexual; the characters exist and their actions are what defines them only within a critical analysis of the text. There are other material markers that are much more powerful than time or labelling sexuality and it is objects, the material residue that reinforces durée, that force the characters to explore the gaps in themselves and their surroundings.

Material Objects as Tactile Memory

We have seen how gaps in the narrative suggest missing parts in the characters, liminal spaces where embodiment is as fractured as the spaces where the characters live. The consistent use of material objects across the narrative arcs works as a marker and a way to emphasize simultaneity between each plotline, and suggests the possibility that everything is to be brought together into a narrative whole. I will focus on four material objects that seemingly drift from narrative to narrative in Cunningham’s novel, and that appear in scene to scene in Daldry’s film. These objects are the reminders of what was, what still is, and what will forever be. The objects I focus on are books, flowers, birds, and food (especially eggs). I am also interested in the importance of the color yellow and the proliferation of kisses in both the novel and the film as they relate to the material objects, for the objects are often described as yellow or shared or introduced through kisses.

In the novel, Clarissa muses, “[t]here is no comfort, it seems in the world of objects”24 and this is exactly the philosophy that Cunningham is using in his novel. These objects are not necessarily present for comfort; they are present for memory. It is not coincidental that the opening scene of the Brown family’s plotline in Daldry’s film features a moving truck going down Laurel Street with the words “transfer and storage” emblazoned on the side. Specific material objects present both in the novel and in the film transfer feelings, smooth time and geographical limits, and highlight simultaneity, all in an attempt to recall memories deeply stored. These objects reinforce the greater moral of the narrative, which is you can’t fill gaps with things; objects can only reinforce the gaps or make a lack more apparent. This reinforcement of the gaps occurs as all the alarm clocks ring at exactly 6:30am in all three narrative frames in the film, signaling a simultaneous transfer in the use of material objects.

Time is constantly recalled in the temporal choices made in the staging and direction of the film, too. The exact temporal middle of the film, 57 minutes and 14 seconds, is given to Clarissa, as opposed to the textual middle of the novel given to Laura. This is a choice due to the star billing given to Meryl Streep in the film marketing, but it also allows for a temporal hailing when Clarissa says “I had one summer.” This statement is a recall and reinforcement of durée, strengthening the argument that quantitatively Clarissa had a singular summer of happiness, but qualitatively the memory of that summer has lingered and has been re-lived in the decisions and material actions she has made for the rest of her life. It is a feeling Clarissa later echoes in the film during her conversation with her daughter, Julia, when she says, “it was happiness, that moment, right then.” This is a true Bergsonian representation of durée, an awareness of the moment and how moments become fleeting as soon as they are quantified. The fleeting wellness of Clarissa’s time at Wellfleet is like the fragile wellness revealed in the ticking of the clock as Laura Brown sits in a room in the Normandy Hotel, with a purse full of pills and her copy of Mrs. Dalloway with a flower bookmark.

Books become a primary material object tying timelines together. Books are objects that lay bare the foundations of The Hours and its historical textual source. As a result, using books as perpetual material props in the film is very meta in conceptualization—the book that influences Cunningham’s novel becomes the material residue placed as a marker to collapse time in each narrative arc. Cunningham even has a brief cameo in Daldry’s film, walking down a New York street as Clarissa Vaughan goes to buy flowers for the party. This cameo reminds those who are performing a close reading and close visual analysis of the film that there are many layers of representation. This is not necessarily a frame narrative like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, more like a narrative palimpsest. In the novel version of The Hours, Clarissa muses about Evan, another of the many ghostly and sickly figures of the past, in relation to books: “you want to give him the book of his own life, the book that will locate him.”25 This supports how important books are as a material object that plays with time and space. Books become the markers, a location, something that is at once spatial and also temporal. For Laura Brown, books work in a similar fashion. In the novel, she says that “she is trying to keep herself by gaining entry into a parallel world”;26 the book that she is reading becomes a place of refuge, a parallel simultaneous time, her seemingly ethical escape from her responsibilities. By reading the book she is both then and now.

In Daldry’s film, during the scene with Louis Waters, Clarissa’s bookshelf in her apartment has one copy each of Woolf’s The Years and The Waves, as well as two copies of Mrs. Dalloway, suggesting the same sort of character doubling found throughout the novel. Beside these four Woolf books sits Richard’s book, The Goodness of Time, a title that plays with how the temporal has ethical value in both the film and the novel; time is supposed to be good. We also discover Richard’s middle name is Worthington, another name that recalls ethics and value. This emphasis on goodness and value in relation to books as material markers also harkens to the end of the film where Laura describes to Clarissa her feeling of “unworthiness” of having outlived her whole family. Quantitatively time is deceptive, it cannot be trusted to be good, but qualitatively it has all the value and significance in the world.

Similarly, there are no other material objects of such temporal and narrative significance in The Hours than flowers. The connotations and the proliferation of flowers in both the novel and in the film is certainly informed by the well-known first line of Mrs. Dalloway: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”27 From the wild flowers and dried bouquet on the mantel in the Woolf home, to the yellow roses that Dan Brown brings Laura Brown, to the red flowers in Clarissa Vaughan’s apartment hallway, early scenes in the film indicate the symbolic importance of flowers. Women’s clothing in the film also has flower patterns or is accompanied by flower pattern accessories. For example, Laura Brown’s dressing grown early in the film has a floral pattern; Kitty is wearing a daisy necklace in the kitchen scene with Laura; and Clarissa’s apron has flowers on it in the scene in the kitchen with Louis Waters. The lilies, peonies, and cream-colored roses present in both Virginia’s frame and Clarissa’s frame in the film version of The Hours are also in the text of Mrs. Dalloway. Additionally, there are very symbolic uses of flowers, such as the birds of paradise in Mrs. Brown’s living room. Birds of paradise, which are “the ultimate symbol of … freedom”28 suggest early on, even before we have a conceptualization of the Brown’s tenuous marriage, that things aren’t as they seem, that there is something missing. There are other small choices in the film related to flowers as well, such as having Mrs. Latch live on Hyacinth Street, with hyacinths symbolizing constancy.29 This choice reinforces how Mrs. Latch is always there for Laura to call on, saving Richie from being a latch-key kid.

The flowers repeat through quantitative time, through fictional time, and as such, they emphasize simultaneity. Many of the flowers early in both the novel and the film are white, with the occasional red, but most often the dominant color of the flowers is yellow. I will highlight the symbolic use of yellow as a central color in the novel and the film shortly, but this choice is certainly not random. In the film, when buying flowers for the party, Clarissa Vaughan buys hydrangeas and roses, and it is yellow flowers that she brings to Richard’s apartment. Hydrangeas are again very symbolic; “Victorians considered hydrangeas a negative plant, and used it to represent boastfulness, bragging, or vanity” and hydrangeas “were also given to people who turned down love interests as signs that they were cold or frigid.”30 Thus, the flowers Clarissa has purchased for the party serve to frame the gaps in the relationship that she has with Richard, highlighting her faults and emphasizing the gap in the reciprocal loving relationship she wants. In the novel, flowers also suggest and hail death when Clarissa states, “if flowers are subtly wrong for the deceased they’re disastrous for the ill.”31 And yet, Clarissa brings Richard flowers anyway, in a prophetic and possibly unethical marking of future events.

Two important material objects intersect in Virginia’s interaction with her niece and nephews in the novel. Virginia’s interaction with Angelica, Quentin, and the dead bird is a material moment where birds and flowers overlap, and it is a moment that reinforces gaps in time and the perpetual presence of mortality. Virginia ponders, “does he believe the bird has left a residue of death on his hands.”32 The residue of death, of life, of love is all around and the bird functions as a reminder to Virginia that there is no escaping that residue. The bird is given a proper burial ceremony, and, in the film’s depiction of this event, the bird is given a yellow rose—again an aesthetic continuation of symbolism, connecting Virginia through a material object, the flower, to the dead bird. The first scene of Daldry’s film is of Virginia writing her suicide note to her husband Leonard, with the sounds of birds and rushing water in the background. It is a vibrant symbolism of nature and life in the face of impending death. It is also a demonstration that the small material reminders in the novel and the film can reinforce gaps and breaks in meaning. Nothing is as it seems, even something as seemingly inconsequential as food choices.

Food becomes another way to make time apparent in the novel, and each food choice becomes important in relation to the narrative frame. For example, Laura’s cake is seemingly more time resistant, lives more in the simultaneity of time, than Clarissa’s “crab thing.”33 Laura can go to a motel and the cake is still there intact, in time, whereas the crab thing actively points to chronological time; it is food that will not keep and has to go in the garbage because it spoils. The emphasis on eggs and the cracking of eggs in Daldry’s film adaptation is also a way to highlight a resistance to the need to find a beginning or an end to time. The chicken or the egg quandary becomes metaphorical symbolism, as Virginia’s maid Nelly cracks eggs, just as Laura cracks eggs when baking the cake, and just as Clarissa cracks eggs during her discussion with Louis. The emphasis on keeping the yolks and throwing away the whites in each of these scenes links to overarching use and importance of yellow in the book and in the film. Yellow is seemingly the heart of both the novel and the film.

In the film, the discarding of egg shells during Clarissa’s discussion with Louis is also a larger metaphor of Clarissa peeling her shell and becoming vulnerable. As Clarissa doubles over and sobs in the corner of the kitchen whilst Louis tries to comfort her, and she repels his proximity by stretching out her hand, there is a box of Cascade on a shelf on the lower left corner of the frame. The material presence of the dishwashing liquid echoes Clarissa’s cascade of tears and emotional vulnerability. It is Cascade and not Finish, but either would probably do in that scene—a prop choice revealing the depths to which material objects can highlight the gaps in characters.

The color yellow also becomes the focal point in these material objects, and, in turn, in the exposure of gaps, indicating what remains in memory and in time. There are several yellow objects in the novel version of The Hours, and this is also echoed in Daldry’s film. Symbolically, yellow can refer to decay, and can thus point to a historical time in the past. As Sarah Everts states, “the lightest hues in the chrome yellow family contain sulfate groups, which reduce the pigments’ stability under light: bright splashes of yellow on canvases turn … brownish.”34 So we have a movement of yellow to brown over time, echoing who is to remain at the end of the novel. Yellow objects also serve throughout the novel as a way to remind characters that the past is eating into the future. As Claudia Olk points out, “on the metaphorical level the color yellow, one of Woolf’s frequently employed symbols signifying both death and life, pervades the novel.”35 In the film, Richard plays with one of the yellow flowers that Clarissa brings to his apartment, and shortly after states “everything is all mixed up,” demonstrating his uncanny awareness that time is being played with in this narrative. Laura Brown chooses yellow icing for the flowers she pipes on top of Dan’s birthday cake, possibly to echo the flowers he brought her in the morning, but also as a demonstration of the decay of their relationship. Finally, yellow flowers, especially yellow roses, are a poor and often unethical choice for the situations where they appear in the film. For example, Sally shows up with a bouquet of yellow roses for Clarissa after Clarissa has returned from her flower buying errand, and the yellow roses are quickly discarded in a pile with others when Sally realizes her gift is not unique and won’t necessarily be appreciated. In this, Sally also demonstrates her lack of awareness of the symbolism of yellow roses, for they “are a symbol of friendship and caring. Never send yellow roses to someone you are romantically interested in, as this suggests you would prefer to stay in the friend zone.”36 So this is yet another example of a tenuous relationship demonstrated through flower symbolism and color.

Yellow thus becomes the marker of eventual ends and unknown beginnings; yellow is the color of gaps in time echoed in the material. Towards the end of the film, Clarissa shows up to pick up Richard for the party in a black outfit with a bright yellow scarf. It is only when everyone is back at her apartment, after Richard’s suicide, and after Mrs. Brown has arrived for the funeral, that Clarissa pulls the yellow scarf from around her neck and kisses Sally. The yellow scarf becomes a metaphorical undoing, like Clarissa pulling out a pin that holds a chignon of long hair. For a moment Clarissa wants to be away from an aesthetic reminder of death, of lack, of a gap, and closer to a moment of happiness, which she attempts to reclaim in kissing Sally.

Significantly, it is kisses that become a repetitive embodied moment highlighting the liminality of time and space and creating the materiality of moments in The Hours. The tactility of the kiss shares the same fluidity of time found in the novel and the film. In a kiss, touch resides not with one or the other character, but instead (using a Merleau-Pontian phenomenological understanding of tactility and lived experience) the kiss itself rests on the lips and skin of each character. As Schiff reminds us, “[i]n a novel in which the self is most often depicted as alone and detached, a kiss serves most crucially as the initial point of physical contact, the moment at which the gap between people is bridged.”37 Like the material objects that litter the novel and the film, kisses are a movement beyond the gap.

Just like the representation of yellow, there are also many kisses in the novel and the film adaptation. For example, in the novel Laura, “touches her lips, where Kitty’s kiss briefly resided.”38 The tactile memory of the touch of the kiss spans time, for as Kate Haffey suggests, in the kiss Laura “does not imagine an alternate future in which she and Kitty can be together, but instead desires a moment with Kitty.”39 In the first scene at Richard’s apartment in the film, Richard asks Clarissa to come closer and to take his hand and he then kisses her. The tension in this kiss is very different from the tension between Laura and Kitty, for here there is the spectre of illness and history that frames Richard and Clarissa’s tactile interaction. However, this kiss is about reclaiming moments like they had at Wellfleet, while also questioning the possibility of a future; a future that is fragmented by illness while the past is constantly hailed by the objects around them.


There is much to ponder in terms of time and simultaneity in The Hours. In fact, even engaging with the novel is an exercise in durée, for, as you read, the right now becomes the past as soon as you read the next word. All processes of reading are a process of durée; the past is the now, and the now is always the past. The memory of what we have read is to be carried with the reader to the future. When overlaid with a narrative that actively defies quantitative time, and reinforces the importance of qualitative time, we come to understand how Cunningham made specific choices in creating characters with chronological pressures built in. He has created several characters in the novel with “best before” or expiry dates. His are characters that are literally and figuratively created of the past; characters that are influenced by and created from what Virginia Woolf wrote and lived. Cunningham inserts material triggers through objects as perpetual markers to displace positionality and time. Through these objects Cunningham and Daldry both effectively build a case for the deception of measured quantitative time. The last line of the film, spoken by Virginia, there’s “always the hours” demonstrates how quantitative time is elusive, that there will always be the hours regardless of where those hours are geographically or historically. There is no here and now, only a then that is always becoming part of our now.

The only character who seemingly escapes the perpetual trauma of material objects reinforcing gaps is Laura Brown. When given a failed cake, she rebuilds it. When given a failed marriage, she moves beyond the marital confines and beyond the trauma, even if it means leaving her children in an unethical, psychologically scarring move for Richard. As her reward, she is allowed to cross over into a new narrative frame and survive, “[s]he has caught up with herself,”40 her past and present are her now. She moves to Toronto to become a librarian. As Cunningham states “Laura occupies a twilight zone of sorts; a world composed of London in the twenties, of a turquoise hotel room … she is herself and not herself,”41 she, like the narrative, is the embodiment of durée.



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  2. Robert Chia, “Time, Duration and Simultaneity: Rethinking Process and Change in Organizational Analysis,” Organizational Studies 23, no. 6 (2002): 867. ↩︎

  3. Paola Marrati, “Time, Life, Concepts: The Newness of Bergson,” MLN - Modern Language Notes 120, no. 5 (2005): 1103. (↩︎

  4. Henri Bergson, Henri Bergson Key Writings (London: Bloomsbury, 2002), 159. ↩︎

  5. Chia, “Time,” 864. ↩︎

  6. “Eccentric,” Online Etymology Dictionary, 2020, accessed June 7, 2020, (↩︎

  7. Michael Cunningham, The Hours, (New York: Picador, 1998): 62. ↩︎

  8. Cunningham, The Hours, 19. ↩︎

  9. Cunningham, The Hours, 34. ↩︎

  10. Cunningham, The Hours, 20. ↩︎

  11. Cunningham, The Hours, 92. ↩︎

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  20. Cunningham, The Hours, 147. ↩︎

  21. Cunningham, The Hours, 69. ↩︎

  22. Cunningham, The Hours, 123. ↩︎

  23. James Schiff, “Rewriting Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: Homage, Sexual Identity, and the Single-Day Novel by Cunningham, Lippincott, and Lanchester,” Critique 45, no. 4 (2004): 368. ↩︎

  24. Cunningham, The Hours, 22. ↩︎

  25. Cunningham, The Hours, 21. ↩︎

  26. Cunningham, The Hours, 37. ↩︎

  27. Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 3. ↩︎

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  30. “Hydrangea Meaning and Symbolism,” FTD, 2016, accessed June 7, 2020, ( ↩︎

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  32. Cunningham, The Hours, 121. ↩︎

  33. Cunningham, The Hours, 69. ↩︎

  34. Sarah Everts, “Van Gogh’s Fading Colors Inspire Scientific Inquiry,” Chemical and Engineering News 94, no. 5 (2016). ↩︎

  35. Claudia Olk, “Vision, Intermediality, and Spectatorship in Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours,” Amerkiastudien/American Studies 49, no. 2 (2004): 206. ↩︎

  36. FTD, “Rose Color Meanings,” 2018, ( ↩︎

  37. Schiff, “Rewriting Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: Homage, Sexual Identity, and the Single-Day Novel by Cunningham, Lippincott, and Lanchester”: 370. ↩︎

  38. Cunningham, The Hours, 143. ↩︎

  39. Kate Haffey, “Exquisite Moments and the Temporality of the Kiss in Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours,” Narrative 18, no. 2 (2010): 152, ( ↩︎

  40. Cunningham, The Hours, 79. ↩︎

  41. Cunningham, The Hours, 187. ↩︎

About the Author: 

Dr. Ann Gagné is an Educational Developer at the University of Toronto-Mississauga. As a sensory scholar, she is interested in the intersection of place and memory. Her research is focused on the ethics of tactility and explores the pedagogical application of touch in constructivist learning using instructional technology. Her current project explores the intersection of inclusive pedagogical strategies, the sensory, and accessibility considerations in the Canadian higher education context. She is passionate about accessibility, the creation of engaging pedagogical environments, and supporting faculty professional development to ensure inclusivity.

Volume 5, Issue 1

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