The Hours - Film Analysis

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The Suicide of the Author and his Reincarnation in the Reader: Intertextuality in The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Andrea Wild

In his novel The Hours, Michael Cunningham weaves a dazzling fabric of intertextual references to Virginia Woolf's works as well as to her biography. In this essay, I shall partly yield to the academic itch to tease out the manifold and sophisticated allusions to the numerous intertexts. My aim, however, is not to point out every single reference to Woolf and her works--such an endeavour of source-hunting would fail alone because of the sheer abundance of intertextual references--and to strip The Hours down until its threads lie bare in front of me, but to take the theories of influence (as voiced, for example, by Bloom) and their concept of a unidirectional relationship between an anterior text and a posterior text as a point of departure to investigate how Cunningham manipulates and transforms the anterior texts and, accordingly, establishes a two-way relationship between himself and Woolf.

The critical term of intertextuality was coined in 1966 by Julia Kristeva, who -- following Mikhail Bakhtin -- writes in her ground-breaking essay "Word, Dialogue, and Novel" [1] : "[E]ach word (text) is an intersection of word [sic] (texts) where at least one other word (text) can be read . . . . any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another" (66). However, as Kristeva in a later interview explains, the dynamics of intertextuality does not only take place between author and text but also between text and reader: "If we are readers of intertextuality, we must be capable of the same putting-into-process of our identities, capable of identifying with the different types of texts, voices, semantic, syntactic, and phonic system at play in a given text" (Waller 282). In fact, it is the reader who traces the intertextual references, which in their turn guide him or her towards a better understanding of the text: "The term [intertextuality] indeed refers to an operation of the reader's mind, but it is an obligatory one, necessary to any textual decoding. Intertextuality necessarily complements our experience of textuality. It is the perception that our reading of the text cannot be complete or satisfactory without going through the intertext . . ." (Riffaterre 142). Correspondingly, readers of The Hours, a postmodern novel densely interwoven with references to Woolf's works, do not need to have read all the intertexts Cunningham draws upon in order to understand the story; however, a certain familiarity with the central intertexts will lead them to appreciate his novel more fully.

Michael Cunningham makes no attempt to hide his intertexts, both the historical intertexts such as the biographies he has used for his account of a single day in the life of Virginia Woolf and which he declares in "A Note on Sources" at the end of the novel (229-30), and his central intertext taken from fiction, Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. By entitling his novel "The Hours" -- one of the titles Woolf considered for her novel in its early stages (Hussey 172)--he shows his indebtedness as a postmodernist writer to one of the principal texts of the modernist canon. In The Hours, all three narrative strands are in one way or the other connected to Mrs. Dalloway: the sections entitled "Mrs. Woolf" follow the author Virginia Woolf through a single day in 1923, the day she puts the first line of her new novel to paper; the sections under the heading of "Mrs. Dalloway" are Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway rewritten and reinterpreted, set now in New York City at the end of the twentieth century (instead of London in the twenties); while the sections named "Mrs. Brown" narrate one day in the life of Laura Brown, living in Los Angeles in 1949, who on that day begins to read Mrs. Dalloway.

The Hours, a postmodernist fabric woven out of intertextual references, uses pastiche as its primary...
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