The Hours examines the unique female consciousness of being. From the feminist perspective, it may be acclaimed a subtle and exquisite masterpiece. Yet, mundane viewers may decry it as a jejune bemoaning of the white, middle-class women, nothing less than a portrait of bourgeois ennui. Admittedly, the Marxist disciples are justified to criticize the three females’ lives as self-indulgent and self-conscious, because they are free from economic burdens as suffered by women in poor countries. While poverty-stricken women struggling for survival are left no extra energy to question the meaning of their life, these rich, white women have the leisure to ponder over the meaning of their existence. In proletarian view, the repeated quest of “who am I” is a sign of intellectual arrogance bred by material abundance. So, let’s explore the three women’s life and see if it’s really the bourgeois ennui that gives rise to such an unhappy life.
In this film, three women’s lives are fatefully intertwined through a book, Mrs. Dalloway. In 1923, Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) wrote this book on the brink of mental collapse. In 1951, Laura (Julianne Moore) devoted herself to reading this book while entrenched in a boring marriage life. In 2001, Clarissa (Meryl Streep) unsatisfactorily enacted the role of this book’s main character, Mrs. Dalloway. To me, the most unforgettable line was uttered by Richard (Ed Harris), a gifted writer dying of AIDS, when he commented on Clarissa’s life: “Oh, Mrs. Dalloway----Always giving parties to cover the silence.” Somehow, “cover the silence” has lingered in my mind for years.
What’s the charm of these three words “ cover the silence” anyway? Something significant about female identity is hidden here.
Across the broad continent of a woman's life falls the shadow of a sword. On one side, all is correct, definite, orderly; the paths are strait, the trees regular, the sun shaded; escorted by gentlemen, protected by policemen, wedded and buried by clergymen, she has only to walk demurely from cradle to grave and no one will touch a hair of her head. But on the other side all is confusion. Nothing follows a regular course. The paths wind between bogs and precipices. The trees roar and rock and fall in ruin. There, too, what strange company is to be met---in what bewildering variety! (Woolf 404)
As Virginia Woolf perceived, a woman’s life can be divided into two kinds, one the correct and safe, the other the defiant and dangerous. The three women in this film are all confronted by the two selves. While they obey the heterosexual law of family and marriage, their innermost self constantly wages a war with it. They are torn between the two voices---one urges them to adopt the nurturing and caring role of a wife/mother, the other allures them to break from it. Now back to the lingering line, “Oh, Mrs. Dalloway----Always giving parties to cover the silence.”“Always giving parties” is the triumph of the former, while “silence” is the moment when the latter struggles to be released! In giving parties, the hostess entertains her guests with her warmth, love and care. After the party, she has hours of silence to deal with, the very moments when she has to be true to herself. Is a loving mother/wife the role she really likes or is it a duty for her to fulfil? The “silence” must have unnerved many bourgeois women; therefore, they need more parties to cover it so that the peace of domestic life won’t be disturbed!
After the parties, the hours of silence must have brought forth the questioning of a woman’s life in the aspects of domestic/public split and institutionalized motherhood. A patriarchal society naturalizes women’s domestic responsibility, like child care and emotional nurturance for the whole family. Child birth gives rise to the naturalness of child care, and the accompanying nurturing duties (Trask 17). As Kitty, a female character in the film remarks that every woman knows how to bake a cake for her family, Laura feels somewhat embarrassed. For those who hate household chores, including cooking or baking, the nurturing role must be something they detest. The domestic confinement obviously stifles Laura and Virginia. As an editor in the 21 century, Clarrisa seems to enjoy more public activity. But still, she needs parties to cover the silence, the tormenting moment when she has to confront the failed relationship with her ex-lover. Opposed to the public sphere, the domestic realm demands of women “maternal instinct rather than intelligence, selflessness rather than self-realization, relation to others rather than creation of self” (Rich 42-3). The three women share the common fate of enacting such a male-defined identity. Giving parties are a part of their life---Virginia prepares a feast to entertain her sister’s family; Laura bakes a cake to celebrate her husband’s birthday; Clarissa throws a party to honor her ex-lover’s literary accomplishment. Parties confirm the value of heterosexual love and marriage. The dutiful wife, like Virginia and Laura, prepares a delicious feast to entertain her family and guests, a token of her happy marriage. Yet, the silence after the parties wrings the heart of the hostess.
Mrs. Dalloway is an archetype of maternal instinct and domestic angel. Virginia, Laura and Clarrisa are expected to fulfill this role but defy it in their own ways. Virginia escapes into her fictional creation; Laura abandons her family and finds a job as a librarian; Clarrisa resorts to a lesbian relationship to mend her wasted life. The Hours may well be considered a feminist response to the patriarchal definition of woman. Given the fact that women in poor countries are spared the leisure to ponder over this question, they may dream of the day when they are no longer enslaved by household chores, when they can read and work like men. Of course, there are women who like to be the angel in the house, providing emotional nurturance for their intimates. Yet, such feminine quality is not women’s privilege only. It can also be adopted by men. I believe there must be numerous feminine men nowadays, who are willing to take on the role of “Mrs. Dalloway.” Similarly, there must be countless masculine women who find baking a cake or feeding a kid a torture. While the bourgeois ennui may contribute to the questioning of female identity, it’s always a reflective and courageous soul that dares to take the final departure.
In conclusion, The Hours is a feminist critique embodied through film language. The three actresses’ superb performance, together with the intense music, makes this film unforgettable. Echoing in the vast space and time will always be Virginia’s parting words to her husband: ---Always, to look life in the face, to love it for what it is and then, to put it away. Yes, to be always aware that female subjectivity is a social construct, to live through it and learn to love it, and then, to discard it when the right moment comes!
Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born. New York: Norton, 1976.
Trask, Haunani-Kay. Eros and Power: The Promise of Feminist Theory. U of Pennsylvania P, 1986.
Woolf, Virginia. “Harriette Wilson.” The Oxford Book of Essays. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. 404-408.