The Theme of Death and the Headache as Symbol for Death and Suppression of Mortality in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours
This paper covers several aspects of Cunningham’s The Hours. First we will analyze the employed narrative technique and discuss its effects on the reader. Thereafter follows a characterization of the novels main characters. The last and central part of this paper will concentrate on the hypothesis that Virginia’s headache is symbol for death and the extreme difficulty to accept mortality for humans.
The novel utilizes homodiegetic narration. The main characters are also narrators in their respective chapters. Thus the focalization is internal and variable. Internal focalization enables the reader to empathize with characters much better than external focalization would.
Thoughts and feelings are represented in an interesting and lucid manner. Cunningham uses the stream of consciousness technique, which enables him to present first-person points of view through third-person subjects. This technique is heavily used throughout the whole book. For example in the prologue: “The headache is approaching and it seems (is she or is she not conjuring herself?) that the bombers have appeared again in the sky. She reaches the embankment, climbs over and down again to the river. There’s a fisherman upriver, far away, he won’t notice her, will he?”(4) This style establishes deep immersion into the characters mind without disrupting the natural flow of the narration.
The Main Characters
The novel starts with the suicide of Virginia Woolf. Not only the suicide but the complete character is based on the actual Virginia Woolf. The actual Virginia Woolf was a widely recognized writer who perfected the stream of consciousness technique. Before her suicide Virginia experienced severe mental health problems to which she eventually succumbed. We learn that her mental problems manifest trough voices in her head and through terrifying headaches.
The headache is always there, waiting, and her periods of freedom, however long, always feel provisional. Sometimes the headache simply takes partial possession for an evening or a day or two, then withdraws. Sometimes it remains and increases until she herself subsides. […] Eventually when enough hours have passed, she emerges bloodied, trembling, but full of vision and ready, once she’s rested, to work again.(70-71)
We may notice that Virginia talks in unusual way about her headache. This will be discussed thoroughly in the last chapter.
Laura Brown (maiden name Zielski) has always been a reserved bookworm and thus she was a social outcast in high school. At the time of the novel she is married to Dan Brown who was, unlike her, popular in high school. After school he went to war. As he returned he proposed to Laura. Even though she did neither love him nor really want to marry him, she thought that she was extremely lucky and that it was practically impossible for her to decline. So she didn’t. They married and had a child, Richard. Although she thinks that she should be happy she is not. She has a fantastic life, a benevolent husband, a healthy child and another one on the way, but it is not the life she desires. She lives just to fulfill the expectations of others.
She pauses several treads from the bottom, listening, waiting; she is again possessed (it seems to be getting worse) by a dream-like feeling, as if she is standing in the wings, about to go onstage and perform in a play for which she is not appropriately dressed, and for which she has not adequately rehearsed. What, she wonders, is wrong with her. This is her husband in the kitchen; this is her little boy. All the man and boy require of her is her presence and, of course, her love. (43)
Clarissa Vaughn is a character similar to Mrs. Dalloway in the same-named novel by Virginia Woolf. The similarity of Clarissa to Mrs. Dalloway is openly discussed in The Hours itself. Richard, a friend and former lover of Clarissa even insists on calling her Mrs. D.
“Who is it?”
“Oh, Mrs. D., come in.”
Isn’t it time, she thinks, to dispense with the old nickname?(55)
A central aspect of her personality is the sense of lost opportunities. Even though she is not only contempt but most of the time really happy with her simple domestic life, she sometimes wonders what she could have become and whether she made the right decisions. Her unimportance, her lack of great and lasting achievements occasionally troubles her. But her doubts are not strong enough to be harmful to her mental state. Thus she is the sole main character who is mentally stable. The following passage characterizes Clarissa quite accurately:
She could, she thinks, have entered another world. She could have had a life as potent and dangerous as literature itself. Or then again maybe not, Clarissa tells herself. That’s who I was. That’s who I am – a decent woman with a good apartment, with a stable and affectionate marriage, giving a party.(97)
The theme of death and the headache as symbol for death and suppression of mortality in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours
Death is a concept that has always fascinated humans. Hence it is only logical that death is a theme commonly occurring in literature. One of the few things that might be stronger, than the human fascination with death is the reluctance of individuals to truly accept their own mortality. While everyone knows that we have to die only a few people do believe it. Thus it seems logical that this conflict also found its way into literature. In The Hours it is even one of the predominant themes. Each of the main characters is reminded of mortality, the inevitability of death during the day portrayed in the novel. Those reminders cause the characters to contemplate on death and their lives.
Mrs. Woolf is clearly the character with the strongest connection to death since the novel starts with her suicide. But before her suicide there was an incident with a dead bird which already caused her to consider the possibility of ending her own life.
Before following them, Virginia lingers another moment beside the dead bird in its circle of roses. It could be a kind of hat. It could be the missing link between millinery and death. She would like to lie down in its place. No denying it, she would like that. Vanessa and Julian can go on about their business, their tea and travels, while she, Virginia, a bird-sized Virginia, lets herself metamorphose from an angular, difficult woman into an ornament on a hat; a foolish, uncaring thing.(121)
This passages last sentence is very interesting. Virginia rejects the idea that Clarissa (the main Character of the book she is currently writing) will commit suicide, even though she had been certain that Clarissa would take her own life. Such is stated not once but several times as the following passages show:
Clarissa Dalloway will die, of that she feels certain, though this early it’s impossible to say how or even precisely why. She will, Virginia believes, take her own life. Yes, she will do that.(69)
She will die in middle age. She will kill herself, probably, over some trifle (how can it be made convincing, tragic instead of comic?).(82)
Clarissa Dalloway, she thinks, will kill herself over something that seems, on the surface, like very little. Her party will fail, or her husband will once again refuse to notice some she’s made about her person or their home. (84)
Because we know from the novel’s prologue that Virginia will eventually take her own life we are tempted to interpret her thoughts about Clarissa suicide as disguised thoughts about her own suicide. We might view Clarissa as Virginia’s alter ego. But Virginia’s idea of Clarissa develops into another direction. At some point, Clarissa undergoes a metamorphosis from a fictional version of Virginia herself to all that Virginia could never be. This metamorphosis begins when Virginia once again realizes that she is not able to manage servants effectively.
Why is it so difficult dealing with servants? Virginia’s mother managed beautifully. Vanessa manages beautifully. Why is it so difficult to be firm and kind with Nelly; to command her respect and her love? […] She will give Clarissa Dalloway great skill with servants, a manner that is intricately kind and commanding. Her servants will love her. They will do more than she asks.(87)
Thus it is only logical that Virginia later decides that Clarissa will not commit suicide. “Clarissa, she thinks, is not the bride of death after all. Clarissa is the bed in which the bride is laid.” (121)
As already mentioned the sight of the dead bird caused Virginia not only to think about death, but to desire it. Such a reaction is slightly unusual and obviously linked to her mental health issues. Although it is clear that she does have mental problems, little is said directly about the nature of those problems. We can gain a lot of insight, when we take a thorough look at the way she talks about her headache. It will be shown that the headache represents death and her struggle with accepting mortality.
The devil is a headache; the devil is a voice inside a wall; the devil is a find breaking through dark waves. The devil is the brief, twittering nothing that was a thrush’s life. The devil sucks all the beauty from the world, all the hope, and what remains when the devil has finished is a realm of the living dead – joyless, suffocating. Virginia feels, right now, a certain tragic grandeur, for the devil is many things but he is not petty, not sentimental; he seethes with a lethal, intolerable truth. Right now, walking, free of her headache, free of the voices, she can face the devil, but she must keep walking, she must not turn back. (167)
The first thing we may notice is the usage of the word devil. While it is strange to associate a headache with the devil, the devil clearly has a strong connection to death. Then Virginia connects the dead thrush with the devil. Yet there is no reasonable link between a dead bird and a headache. Her choice of words remains interesting and insightful. The term “living dead” communicates inevitability of death. Death is the “intolerable truth”, which she states that she can face, but which she cannot truly face. She has to keep ignoring it, keep walking away from those things ( like a dead thrush ) that remind her of the devil, of death.
At the same time, she hates spending any of her cogent hours doing anything but writing. She works, always, against the fear of relapse. First come the headaches, which are not in any way ordinary pain (“headache” has always seemed an inadequate term for them, but to call them by any other would be too melodramatic). They infiltrate her. They inhabit rather than merely afflict her, the way viruses inhabit their hosts. Strands of pain announce themselves, throw shivers of brightness into her eyes so insistently she must remind herself that others can’t see them. Pain colonizes her, quickly replaces what was Virginia with more and more of itself, and its advance is so forceful, its jagged contours so distinct, that she can’t help imagining it as an entity with life of its own. (70)
The headache is always there, waiting, and her periods of freedom however long, always feel provisional. […] Everything is infected with brightness, throbbing with it, and she prays for dark the way a wanderer lost in the desert prays for water. (71)
Here it gets very clear that the headache is a symbol for death. Because death is always is present and waiting for us. Life, however long we live, is just temporary and doomed to end. Furthermore the brightness she talks about seems to be an unusual quality for a headache. Light is often associated with death, as many people with near death experiences talk about a bright light which they have seen. The word “pray” is already the second word with religious connotations that she used to describe the headache. It does get even more obvious that the headache she talks about is no simple headache but truly the phenomenon of death when as continue reading.
When she’s crossed over to this realm of relentless brilliance, the voices start. […] They are indistinct but full of meaning, undeniably masculine, obscenely old. They are angry, accusatory, disillusioned. […] A flock of sparrows outside her window once sang, unmistakably, in Greek. This state makes her hellishly miserable;[…] Eventually, when enough hours have passed, she emerges bloodied, trembling, but full of vision and ready, once she’s rested, to work again. (71)
How she describes the voices has a strong resemblance with the idea of god in Christianity. Nearly all images of god in Christianity portray him as undeniably masculine and obscenely old. Being angry and making accusations also fits the Christian god. She claims to hear these voices when the headache has taken full control over her, just as one might hear the voice of god when death took him. The Greek language is not only old and mysterious but again connected with Christianity because old versions of the bible were written in Greek. Next there is the word hellishly. The occurrence of which might be considered arbitrary if it were the only word with connotations of religion and death. At last Virginia says that the headache, while terrible is indispensable for her to work. Similarly, death is terrible but necessary for new live to be created.
It is possible to draw enough evidence from the novel to adequately support the hypothesis that the headache in The Hours is a symbol for death and for the struggle against accepting mortality. The evidence includes the word choices that all include religious connotations. Examples are prays, hellishly, devil. Further support comes from the way Virginia describes the effects of the headache. The bright radiating light that illuminates everything is a common experience of people who nearly died.
Cunningham, Michael. The Hours: A Novel. New York: Picador, 1998.