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Th Hours

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Emily Ivey Dr. Chase The Hours analysis 7 November 2005 The Gay Disease Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours depicts a day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway author Virginia Woolf, fifties housewife Laura Brown, and nineties publisher Clarissa Vaughn who, along with other complex characters, Woolf’s husband Leonard and Vaughn’s best friend Richard intermingle to create a story with a strong message about the treatment of disease especially among the homosexual community. Only after applying Deconstructionist literary theory does Cunningham’s comment on the plight of the homosexual reveal itself. When examining the story from a Deconstructionist viewpoint, Clarissa Vaughn acts as Richard’s binary opposite. When Clarissa and Richard first meet in the story, Clarissa brings Richard flowers, a traditionally masculine role. Richard, in contrast, is describes as having a mind “eaten to lace,” a decidedly feminine image and Clarissa equates his home to “the hold of a sunken ship” a yonic image further depicting Richard as the female in the scene. If, in the novel, the female Clarissa was a literary genius suffering from AIDS feminist literary critics would have dubbed her “the mad woman in the attic;” however, this “mad woman in the attic” concept applies instead to Richard the homosexual man in the story. By applying this feminist terminology to Richard, Cunningham compares the plight of the artistically repressed woman of the 19th century to the repressed homosexual of the late 20th century. During this modern time period when Michael Cunningham gathered ideas for his book, most believed AIDS was an epidemic isolated in the homosexual community causing the afflicted men to become ostracized and stigmatized by their heterosexual counterparts. Because of the social stigma it carried, few research laboratories in the United States conducted AIDS research until the disease infiltrated the heterosexual community. Cunningham represents this idea in his characterization of Richard’s chair. Described as, “an elderly, square overstuffed armchair… [with] [i]t’s square back and legs…worn down,…blackened by the continual application of friction and human oils” (Cunningham 58-9) the chair has a decidedly masculine quality representing the patriarchal society that has imprisoned and ignored these sick men causing all to decay. In the same scene Richard’s binary opposite shifts from Clarissa Vaughn to Virginia Woolf when Clarissa notices how “the apartment has, more than anything, an underwater aspect” (56) an illusion to Woolf’s suicidal drowning. This reconnection is further enforced when Richard complains that one of his visions looked like “a black electrified jellyfish” singing “…Greek. Archaic Greek” (59), and Virginia describes her hallucinations as, “a scintillating silver-white mass floating over the cobblestones, randomly spiked, fluid but whole, like a jellyfish” (70) with, “…sparrows outside her window [who] once sang, unmistakably in Greek” (71). Another example arises when Clarissa first enters Richard’s apartment “she makes out the word ‘hurl’ followed by Richard’s low rumbling laugh” (55). Similarly when Virginia hears voices she can “Sometimes faintly distinguish a word. ‘Hurl’ once (70). By giving both characters similar characteristics, both accomplished writers afflicted with mental illness with similar hallucinations causes both to carry the disgraceful literary title of “mad woman in the attic”. Just as Richard’s binary opposite shifts so too does Clarissa’s. Clarissa is no longer paired with her lifelong friend Richard, but instead equated with Virginia Woolf’s husband Leonard. Both characters serve the same essential function in regard to their sick partners: first, to act as the provider, and second to act as a liaison between their partners and society and their partners and their sanity. Throughout the story, both Leonard and Clarissa seem to make certain Virginia and Richard have everything they need, but never actually give it to them. For example, when Leonard first enters the story he inquires to his wife, “Have you had breakfast” (32) and after discovering she hadn’t, demanded he would send the housemaid Nelly to bring her food. Comparably, Clarissa asks Richard “Did they bring you your breakfast this morning” (62) and ensures it has been eaten. Both confirm that their partners have the nourishment that will sustain them, but the actual administering of victuals is done through a third party. Again Clarissa asks Richard “How’s your headache this morning?” (57) deciding that because of this and his frequent hallucinations she is “…going to talk to Bing in the morning about increasing your medications” (59). In the same way Virginia constantly contemplates how to hide the same ominous symptom of returning mental instability from her husband admitting that “in Leonard’s presence [she] acts more firmly healthy than she sometimes feels” (71) because she knows he will force her to remain isolated in Richmond as the doctors prescribed if she displays even the slightest bit of weakness. By suppressing these urges, Virginia successfully convinces Richard to allow her to move back to London against her doctor’s wishes. In doing this, both Clarissa and Leonard have the unusual task of taking what the doctor (as a representation of society) believes each patient needs to ensure the best quality of life and what the patient believes they need to ensure the greatest happiness. Because Richard cannot hide his instability Clarissa resorts to the more seemingly sane doctor’s cure, but since Virginia masks her mental lapses and appears able to function as a productive member of society, Leonard takes her wishes into heavier consideration finally giving in and allowing her to return to her beloved London. This, too, serves as a comment on the homosexual community. Gays able to hide their sexual orientation can more easily function as productive members of society, but AIDS acts like a scarlet “A” on the chests of those involved in immoral sexual activity revealing the disgusting sinners and forcing them into social isolation. Finally, the crux of the story lies in the fate of Virginia and Richard, both literary icons, both gravely ill, both “mad women in the attic”. After Richard allows Virginia to return to London, she gets sent back, for her sake, to the detested suburbs at the outbreak of World War II to prevent the dreaded headaches from returning. Finally, Virginia decides to take control of her own mental demons. She laments, “The voices are here, the headache is coming, and if she restores herself to the care of Leonard and Vanessa they won’t let her go again, will they? She decides to insist they let her go” (5) after which Virginia walks into a river with rocks in her pockets and drowns. Society, especially the ones she was closest to, have imposed themselves on her so strongly that Virginia has suffocated both literally and figuratively. Unlike Virginia, however, Richard wants to be removed from, not thrust into, society. Richard realizes before he is forced to attend an award ceremony honoring his lifetime contribution to poetry, “I [Richard] got a prize for my performance... I got a prize for having AIDS and going nuts and being brave about it, it had nothing to do with my work” (63),and he realizes that he does not want in his final performance to be held up in his withered state like a circus side show displaying the amazing affects homosexuality AIDS have on the once-brilliant mind, so he too takes control of the society closing around him “like the jaws of a giant flower” (198) and the disease that will inevitably kill him anyway and jumps from his attic prison like a bird escaping from a cage making himself the author of his final performance.

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