Analysis of the Theme of Death in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Cunninghams The Hours

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Literature often explores fascinations with death as one piece of a larger theme, undoubtedly yielding at least a few similarities—if only by virtue of the fact that they are discussing remotely similar topics even if handled differently. Yet Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway informs Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and this displays itself not only in mirroring plots and styles, but also in the ability to draw great similarities between the two. This results in the common theme of the permeability between life and death. Yet distinct differences manifest because Woolf and Cunningham approach the subject differently. Woolf’s approach to the motif of death in Mrs. Dalloway results in a final theme that displays an inherent fear of death by the characters. In contrast, Cunningham plays out a curiosity with death in his rendition. The differences serve to change how close characters willingly get to death. The similarities are powerful in that they are so closely linked to one another. Yet general similarities are outdone by more specific differences that create ripples in the themes as larger pieces. Clarissa Dalloway (of Mrs. Dalloway) thinks to herself that “she has a perpetual sense, as she swatches] the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always has the feeling that it is very, very dangerous to live even one day” (Woolf, 8). Mrs. Dalloway shows her understanding of the world in the dangers that can rip people from the face of the earth. These ever-present dangers are what create an environment in which the boundary between life and death is almost nonexistent. The permeability requires one to be careful because the ease of slipping through—willfully or notis irreversible.

In The Hours, death touches each character’s life deeply, and often frequently. Simply by creating characters that lead such different lives, and creating a story in which all of these characters experience close relationships with death, Cunningham draws out a theme in which death is omnipresent. Virginia Woolf struggles with the decision of having her main character commit suicide, and eventually decides to kill herself. Clarissa Vaughn “Dalloway” is present for the suicide of a dear friend. Laura Brown’s close friend is diagnosed with a de facto death sentence, and even contemplates killing herself. The differences are only a smaller part in the larger similar theme of death. Yet despite being building blocks of a larger theme, these differences set apart the themes. The theme present in Mrs. Dalloway is one pertaining to the inherent fear of death that makes people shy away from anything touched with it. Mrs. Dalloway reads the message “Fear no more the heat o’the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages” (Woolf, 9) in the window of a bookshop. The very existence of this message in the story requires there to be a fear that exists. The “heat o’the sun” and the “furious winter’s rages” are both elements that carry the weight of death with them. An unforgiving sun burns things to the ground, while a furious winter creates an environment in which nothing living can grow or flourish. By seeing this message to not be frightful of the scourge of life, Mrs. Dalloway is reminding herself of her own mortality and weaknesses, which in turn scares one farther away from the subject of death. This results in even more polarized reactions to death that contrast wildly to the attractions felt by the characters in The Hours. The Mrs. Dalloway of The Hours questions the relationship between life and death early on:

Why else do we struggle to go on living, no matter how compromised, no matter how harmed? Even if we’re further gone than Richard; even if we’re fleshless, blazing with lesions, shitting in the sheets; still, we want desperately to live. (Cunningham, 15)

The mere act of questioning the will to live shows a fascination with death that most people are not comfortable discussing. Yet Cunningham goes further with this character. By accompanying the question with a series of conditions that make life miserable, he not only questions why people live, but also whether somebody suffering is insane to continue living. He discards the 1 The pun is, in fact, intended. notion that life is sacred and supplants it with the concept that it is sacred until the point that point when it is not. According to Cunningham, when something compromises the ability to live a fruitful life, that’s when the will to live should be questioned. He describes a life so painful and full of suffering, that he makes the option of death look favorable. Additionally, the scene of the movie in which Mrs. Brown contemplates suicide is especially powerful. Leaving behind her son and with her husband blissfully ignorant, she spends hours trying to make herself commit, but always wondering what would happen next. This curiosity of death almost acts as a catalyst that pushes her towards the permeable boundary. But the answers to her questions—along with her loved ones behind her—are the remnants of the wall that keep her away from the edge: a wall riddled with holes and bricks that might fall away suddenly, bringing the questioner with them. These curiosities, and ensuing answers, that present in The Hours separate the theme from that of Mrs. Dalloway because this theme speaks to the willful closeness to death. In essence, the similarities only go as far as the general idea. They address dramatically different schools of thought in each book: one on the ever-present fear of death and the other concerning the apprehensive curiosity of it.


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Analysis of the Theme of Death in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Cunninghams The Hours. (2022, Aug 30). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/analysis-of-the-theme-of-death-in-woolfs-mrs-dalloway-and-cunninghams-the-hours/

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