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Three Waves of Feminism in Cunningham’s “The Hours” Novel


The Hours by Michael Cunningham is a novel, which follows and describes a day from three women’s lives. The main characters are Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown, and Clarissa Vaughn. The actions of these women take place during different timelines and locations. Virginia Woolf is an author who is writing a novel called Mrs. Dalloway, whereas Laura Brown is a housewife, who is reading the mentioned novel. Clarissa Vaughn is in an attempt to host a celebration party for her friend Richard, who won an award for being an outstanding novelist and poet. The novel is designed in such a way that it illustrates the major differences and key similarities between women of highly divergent generations. The given analysis will primarily focus on how the main characters relate to the men in their lives. Although the novel’s primary focus is on LGBT issues, it is important to understand that the character’s relationship with the men can be observed through the evolution of women’s expressiveness. Virginia Woolf fully hides her thoughts and emotions, whereas Laura Brown can partially act on them. However, it is evident that Clarissa Vaughn is in a better position to be more open compared to the other two.

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The writing uses three characters to show three waves of feminism and the evolution of women’s position in society. This can be observed in their relationship with other male characters. Virginia Woolf primarily interacts with her husband Leonard Woolf, whereas men in Laura Brown’s life are her husband, Dan Brown, and her son, Richard Brown. However, Clarissa Vaughn’s storyline revolves around preparing a celebration party for her former lover and friend Richard Brown, who is dying from AIDS and mental illness. Cunningham creates a multi-level text, where one layer is inextricably linked with another, and the triad – the author, hero, reader, as one of the most important in modern philology becomes a compositional device.

First Wave

It is critical to note that Virginia Woolf’s interaction with her husband is highly reserved, where she always seeks to hide her fragile state of mind. For example, during the interaction between Virginia and Leonard, she asks to ignore her headache (Cunningham 70). In addition, the author emphasizes how women were not expressive during the first wave of feminism by writing: “The truth, she thinks, sits calmly and plumply, dressed in matronly gray, between these two men.” (Cunningham 73). It is stated that during the first wave of feminism, women simply tried to break conventional assumptions about women regarding the overall behavior and activities, such as public speaking (Rampton 3). Virginia Woolf showcases how women were highly reserved and did not openly communicate their thoughts and emotions. Most of the character’s communication with a reader happens in her thoughts without speech. The first wave of feminism strived to change the cult of domesticity, where women were only seen as in-home caregivers (Rampton 3). This sparked active discussions regarding the role of a woman in society and the possible inferiority of men in the civic sphere (Rampton 3). The given character is a representation of the struggles of women before the first wave of feminism. Although her husband did not appear to be abusive or disruptive, there is still an effective communication barrier manifested in social norms that prevent the free flow of information.

Second Wave

Laura Brown’s storyline is an outstanding illustration of struggles among women before the second wave of feminism. She possesses more opportunities to express herself compared to the previous character, but still feels trapped as a housewife. For instance, she claims that she will not become hopeless and devote herself to her husband and son (Cunningham 79). It is stated that the second wave of feminism’s goal was to increase the overall inclusion, and it emerged alongside minority movements (Orloff 112). Therefore, it is evident that the social movement was against the established social manifestations.

Laura Brown’s attitude towards her husband is more relaxed and less constrained in comparison with Virginia Brown. She could allow herself to remain in bed and not congratulate her husband on his birthday, which would be inappropriate before the first wave of feminism. However, she was still trapped in her role as a housewife. This is an illustration of a major reason for the emergence of the second wave of feminism, which strived for a multi-perspectival narrative for the movement (Orloff 112). In addition, the given wave fought for a non-judgmental approach and inclusiveness for women (Orloff 112). Although Laura’s case was not severe and detrimental to her well-being, this lack of freedom and the overall limitedness of the situation can be observed throughout her storyline.

Third Wave

It is important to note that Clarissa Vaughn’s storyline demonstrates both improvements made by previous waves of feminism and common problems before the third wave of the movement. According to experts, the third wave of feminism challenged the established notion of heteronormativity, sexuality, and gender roles (Evans 410). Clarissa is the only character that does not have a husband, but the main male character is Laura Brown’s son, Richard Brown.

She had an unconventional relationship with him during her early adulthood, where she was a part of a love triangle. This type of unconventional relationship norms was one of the goals of third-wave feminism (Evans 409). The given wave made a significant impact on the heteronormativity of sexuality as well (Evans 417). In Clarissa’s storyline, it can be observed that she spends a massive portion of her time contemplating her possible future if she and Richard stay together. For example, she remembers her first kiss with Richard and calls it true happiness (Cunningham 98). Although Clarissa possesses more freedom of expression compared to Laura and Virginia, she still struggles with the societal norms and suffers from the consequences dual nature of relationships. It is stated that the third wave of feminism introduced the friends with benefits (FWB) type of relationship (Williams and Jovanovic 157). This allowed many feminists to reconsider their conventional approach towards traditional relationship norms imposed by society (Williams and Jovanovic 158). This is fully applicable to Clarissa’s case because her unfulfilled desire to be with Richard was not possible due to these established standards of building relationships. There is evidence that the FWB type of behavior can be fulfilling to many people (Williams and Jovanovic 169). Therefore, it is clear that Clarissa was an outstanding representation of the problems that led to the third wave of feminism.

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Clarisse is generally characterized by introspection and close attention to what others think or may think about her. She realizes that she has become a philistine and gives herself such a definition. She understands that her sadness is the price she pays for the comfort that surrounds her, but there is no choice as such, and life has already taken place. Only the writer Richard is not the narrator while being the unifying element of all the layers of the novel, along with Virginia Woolf. His image is shown only through the prism of perception of Clarissa, she is for him as a character, and Laura’s mother is a muse and a victim. Richard, like Virginia Woolf, is a creator who constantly refracts his own life into creativity.


In conclusion, it is important to understand that Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa can be seen as an illustration of central issues, which were resolved by three waves of feminism. These challenges can be observed through their interaction with the men present in their lives. Virginia had major problems in communicating her thoughts and emotions with her husband, which was highly detrimental to her fragile mental state. This was resolved by the first wave of feminism, which shook the established norms regarding female behavior. Laura had more freedom of expression in comparison to Virginia, but still felt trapped in her role as a housewife. This can be seen in her minute freedom not to congratulate her husband on his birthday. The second wave of feminism allowed women to be included in non-conventional roles and reduced the overall judgmental attitude towards females. Clarissa possesses more freedom than the other two characters, and her struggles mainly revolve around her unfulfilled love. The latter was the result of imposed gender roles and duality of relationships because she often contemplates the possibility of being with Richard not as a friend but as a lover. The third wave of feminism challenged these norms by making women questions the conventional relationship styles. This resulted in the emergence of more flexible forms of relationships, such as FWB.

Works Cited

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. Fourth Estate, 1999.

Evans, Elizabeth. “What Makes a (Third) Wave? How and Why the Third-Wave Narrative Works for Contemporary Feminists.” International Feminist Journal of Politics, vol. 18, no. 3, 2015, pp. 409-428.

Orloff, Ann. Perverse Politics? Feminism, Anti-imperialism, Multiplicity. Emerald Publishing, 2016.

Rampton, Martha. “Four Waves of Feminism.” Pacific University. Web.

Williams, Jean Calterone, and Jasna Jovanovic. “Third Wave Feminism and Emerging Adult Sexuality: Friends with Benefits Relationships”. Sexuality & Culture, vol. 19, 2015, pp. 157-171.

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