Module A Textual Conversations – Woolf, Virginia, Mrs Dalloway vs Daldry, Stephen, The Hours

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HSC English Advanced – Mrs Dalloway and The Hours Study Guide Module A Textual Conversations – Woolf, Virginia, Mrs Dalloway vs Daldry, Stephen, The Hours

Initial considerations

Often considered to be Virginia Woolf’s most outstanding and popular works, Mrs Dalloway has undoubtedly been a staple in the world of literature and art. Its innovation and experimental approach to form has made it something of a pioneer in Modernist novels. Telling the story of a single day in June 1923 in the lives of otherwise average Londoners, the classic still manages to artfully deconstruct of broad themes that encompass the universal experience. Time, consciousness, desire, agency, gender and class—it is this mastery over the English language in encapsulating precisely what it means to be human that makes the novel so revered.

As such, there has inevitably been a colossal response to such a momentous text and author. Of the more established reactions comes Stephen Daldry’s 2002 film, The Hours, a modern reinterpretation of the underlying themes that made the original source material so well-loved. Under the Module A: Textual Conversations unit, it is our responsibility to understand precisely what makes the relationship between these two interconnected texts so unique, and what that says about the broader world of art.

Some significant aspects of the texts that one should always consider whilst formulating a Textual Conversations thesis include:

  • What changes and what stays the same
    • Must assume that Daldry makes these choices deliberately, then answer why he does this
  • Changes in plot structure between the source material and the adaptation
    • One day in London versus one day in the lives of three different women across three different time periods
  • The effect of social and historical context on the composers’ respective texts
    • Social commentary made by both composers
  • Metacommentary
    • The characters in The Hours and their connection to art, specifically Virginia Woolf’s works
  • Daldry’s purpose in reinventing the novel
    • How and why texts have such an extended effect on humanity

Background to Mrs Dalloway and The Hours

Comparing the composers’ contexts

Born into a privileged English household in 1882, writer Virginia Woolf was raised by free-thinking, well-connected and very educated parents. She began writing as a young girl and published her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915. Her nonlinear, free form prose style inspired her peers and earned her much praise. She was also known for her mood swings and bouts of deep depression. She had been traumatized at the age of six when her half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth sexually abused her. This dark spot was only made deeper and more permanent when her mother suddenly died at the age of 49. The hormones of early adolescence and the undeniable reality of this huge loss spun Woolf into a nervous breakdown, only made worse when two years later, her half-sister Stella also died. She committed suicide in 1941, at the age of 59.

Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925. At this time, a period of rapid social, political and technological shifts in Europe had just taken place. The 19th century ushered in developments that profoundly changed European society. Mercantilism and industrialism created a powerful new class. The cultural, political, and economic might of this new class, the bourgeoisie or middle class, soon overtook that of the aristocratic

classes that had controlled nations and empires. The spread of democracy and workers-rights movements also characterized the 19th century. It was not until after World War I (1914-1918), however, that a deep sense of how extremely and permanently European society had changed prevailed. The novel hence reflects these feelings that are associated with tumultuous changes in society, overturing class systems and a looming sense of despair following the war era.

Meanwhile, Stephen Daldry is a reputable director born on May 2, 1961, in Dorset, England. At the time of the production of The Hours, a film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel of the same name, the end of the twentieth century was characterised by the rise of multiculturalism and alternative media, which continued into the 2000s. A combination of factors, including the continued mass mobilization of capital markets through neoliberalism, the thawing of the decades-long Cold War, the beginning of the widespread proliferation of new media such as the Internet from the middle of the decade onwards, increasing scepticism towards government, and the dissolution led to a realignment and reconsolidation of economic and political power across the world and within countries. Evidently, Daldry hails from a very different era than Woolf. Yet, many of the themes within their respective texts remain the same—time, mental illness and our existential fears—as a homage to the more universal aspects of what makes us human. It is what has changed between these two texts that can give us insight into the “conversation” they are having about their respective contextual concerns.

Literary significance

Part of the Textual Conversations unit requires students to appreciate the cultural significance of the two texts and, more broadly, how the relationship that different works share with each other is instrumental to making them so significant to society. One should look to the accolades that both texts have received over the years—their reputation certainly precedes them. It goes without saying that Virginia Woolf is a literary icon, leaving behind a legacy that can only be compared to few other greats. Her works, the arguably most famous one being Mrs Dalloway, placed her in the same league as the likes of W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and Marcel Proust. Meanwhile, The Hours was nominated for 81 awards (winning 23 times, including an Academy Award for Nicole Kidman’s performance, the Golden Globes for Best Drama Film and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Writer’s Guild of America). Its literary significance largely lies in its ability to represent a classic story about fundamental human emotions and desires in a way that is both relevant to Daldry’s contemporary contextual concerns and a respectful homage to the original material.

Textual Conversations between Mrs Dalloway and The Hours

As with any prescribed (and related) text, we must first look to the Textual Conversations rubric to understand what it really is that we are asked to do. In fact, every potential HSC examination question can come only from this rubric—though at times it could be less obvious and masked by synonymous language—so it is imperative that we study the links between Mrs Dalloway and The Hours and the major points in the Textual Conversations rubric.

Let’s look at some example questions you could receive in the HSC examination and what aspect of the rubric it most closely reflects (remember, some questions can be a combination of different elements of the rubric, as well as theme-specific!). Then, we will deconstruct the ways you could explore this the two texts as the basis of your thesis.

Resonances and dissonances in texts

  • Potential question: By performing a comparative study between Mrs Dalloway and The Hours, one’s understanding of the thematic resonances and dissonances between texts is enhanced. To what extent is this true?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “In this module, students explore the ways in which the comparative study of texts can reveal resonances and dissonances between and within texts.”

Essentially, this rubric statement is asking one to consider the similarities (resonances) and differences (dissonances) between the two texts. The Hours being a reimagination of Woolf’s 1925 novel inevitably means there are many parallels—however, it is equally important to note and explain to the marker what has changed, and why Daldry has made such changes. More specifically, the wording of this statement implies that you must consider what Woolf and Daldry agree and disagree on.

For example, one glaring difference between the texts is their respective depictions of gender, largely because Daldry hails from a contemporary age which allows him to compare and contrast the roles of women throughout three distinct time periods. In Woolf’s novel, Clarissa is quite certainly controlled by the strict gender expectations of her era—in fact, feminist literary theory often argues that the constant conflict between her inner desires and external confines can be attributed solely to how gender affects her experiences. In a similar vein, Septimus is struggling to maintain a forefront of masculinity that others expect him to uphold whilst dealing with the deep emotional scars he curated as a result of serving in World War I. However, these gender roles are not quite so strict in the film, especially in consideration to Clarissa, the epitome of the modern woman. She is successful, independent figure enjoying the many freedoms women hold in the twenty-first century. Even Laura lives in an era that sees political rights being given to some women. Daldry is ultimately making the bold commentary that women over the years have been dominated by the patriarchy and continue to do so to this day, certainly, but the ways in which individuals interact with their gender have changed drastically from Woolf’s context.

Indeed, many the central themes and aspects of the original source material remain intact, even if they have been appropriated in the film to fit newer audiences. The women of Mrs Dalloway and the women of The Hours each experience their form of gender oppression and societal expectations. The story still occurs over the course of a single day—in fact, though Daldry cannot necessarily replicate the stream of consciousness style, he does endeavour to break traditional film conventions nonetheless. Unveiling the complexities of the depictions of mental health issues in literature and in real life is a concern that drives both composers. It is almost as though Daldry is telling Woolf, as well as her own readers, in this “textual conversation” that some aspects of humanity never change, even if decades have passed and the story is taking place in a completely different era.

Reimagining and reframing texts

  • Potential question: In what ways has Daldry reimagined Mrs Dalloway in a way that suits contemporary audiences whilst still mirroring details portrayed in the original novel?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “Students consider the ways that a reimagining or reframing of an aspect of a text might mirror, align or collide with the details of another text.”

The Hours is very bluntly a reimagination of the ideas presented in Mrs Dalloway. In fact, it is what many deem an appropriation—in art, this is loosely defined as the act of ‘taking well-known images and putting them into other contexts.’ Similarly, the story a single day in the lives of otherwise ordinary people has been appropriated and reframed by Daldry to suit a more contemporary audience.

Consider the following ‘reimaginations’ of significant aspects of the original text. This is, by no means, an extensive list:

  • Character counterparts
    • Clarissa Dalloway and how aspects of her experiences are reflected in all three main protagonists in The Hours—Virginia, Laura and Clarissa Vaughn
    • Richard Dalloway versus Sally Lester
      • Why did Daldry essentially swap the roles of Richard and Sally in the film?
    • Septimus Smith versus Richard Brown
    • Elizabeth Dalloway versus Julia Vaughn
  • Form
    • Daldry retelling the story through film rather than a novel could be reflective of the most popular mediums of their respective times
      • Daldry also hires extremely well-known names in his star-studded cast (Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, etc.) to make the film more accessible or appealing to contemporary audiences as part of his ‘reframing’ of the original text
    • Structure
      • Both texts occur over the course of one day, but Daldry features three central heroines instead of one, showing how the original text has “collided” with women’s lives across time
    • Exploration of sexuality
      • Clarissa Vaughn is presumably a bisexual woman—this is not treated as a taboo topic, rather it is normal for the twenty-first century context
        • Meanwhile, Dalloway and Septimus’ sexualities are concealed or considered illegitimate
      • Universal themes—which concepts endure throughout time?
        • Existentialism and mortality
        • Human consciousness
        • Time
        • Agency and autonomy

As a student, you must endeavour to understand and explain precisely why Daldry makes the choices he does, especially in reference to the context in which she produced the film in.

Issues, values, assumptions and perspectives

  • Potential question: How are societal values explored in Mrs Dalloway, and how does Daldry respond to Woolf’s perspective on this issue in The Hours?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “In their textual studies, they also explore common or disparate issues, values, assumptions or perspectives and how these are depicted.”

Being composers of different contextual periods, Woolf and Daldry certainly hold different values and perspectives on particular issues. One obvious concern that remains at the core of both texts is the idea of societal norms—largely how the characters are expected to interact with other individuals, as well as their role in social hierarchies. In Mrs Dalloway, this is specifically true of the strict class systems that pervaded the early twentieth century. Not only is the eponymous character meant to be the ‘perfect hostess’ for she is a woman, she is seen as one because of the ways in which upper-class women like herself were expected to act. It is this role that she, rather unfortunately, bases much of her identity in. That is, the values of orthodoxy and traditionalism were deeply-rooted in Woolf’s context have influenced the author to explore this aspect of society in her novel.

However, these societal values—though they undoubtedly still exist—are responded to by Daldry in different ways to how they were presented in the original source material. In fact, considering the relative social progressivism, rise of multiculturalism and postmodernism of the twenty-first century, the film is making a bold statement that these values of traditionalism are not so entrenched on society as they once were. In Clarissa Vaughn’s narrative, these strict class systems, though they still exist, are not wholly dictated by the family circumstances and heirlooms of an individual. Rather, the post-war economic booms meant that every person had the equal opportunity to forge their own success, and this is precisely what Clarissa has done for herself. That is, the primary societal value of Daldry’s time appears to be egalitarianism and individual freedom, to some extent. Similarly, the increasing liberties of each woman in the film is Daldry’s commentary that society has evolved, despite our continual connection to art.


  • Potential question: How does undertaking a comparative study between Mrs Dalloway and The Hours enhance your understanding of how texts are influenced by other texts?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “By comparing two texts students understand how composers (authors, poets, playwrights, directors, designers and so on) are influenced by other texts, contexts and values, and how this shapes meaning.”

Intertextuality can be defined as the “relationships between texts that help to shape a text’s meaning or the echoes of other texts within a text.” NSW English Textual Concepts explains the significance of intertextuality as “it leads to a much richer reading experience which invites new interpretations as it brings another context, idea, story into the text at hand. As new layers of meaning are introduced, there is pleasure in the sense of connection and the continuity of texts and of cultures. These connections mean that a responder is engaging with a broader literary heritage than just a discrete text. Intertextuality also invites us to revisit the earlier text, often with new insights into its meaning for our time.”

Naturally, intertextuality plays a major role in The Hours. It is, after all, a complete reinterpretation of an original text. Much of the film draws on the idea of reflecting on the original text and, as NSW English Textual Concepts states, it thus broadens the meaning of a text and creates an intricate web of ideas. However, one may also be surprised to learn that Mrs Dalloway was significantly influenced by other texts of Woolf’s time. It could be argued that there is no text that exists independently of the world of the creator—every text is simply a response to a constantly evolving and ongoing conversation that composers aim to contribute to.

Mrs Dalloway was no doubt influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses, a serialised novel published between 1918 and 1920. Ulysses was rather ground-breaking in that it, like Mrs Dalloway, was written in the style of the stream-of-consciousness and was set over the course of a single day in an ordinary person’s life. Woolf also explicitly refers to classic plays such as Shakespeare’s Cymbeline throughout the entire novel, specifically the infamous quotation, ‘Fear no more.’ Septimus bears great similarities to Dostoevsky’s Stavrogin in his 1871 novel, Demons. The novel even hails to some of the central themes that ancient Greek drama dealt with. It is important to note that these influences may be unintentional or a result a conscious effort to parody or reference another work. Either way, what one should ultimately gain from these insights into the influences of the novel is that, just as Daldry was responding to a particular story created by a novelist an entire century ago, Woolf herself wrote Mrs Dalloway as a response to the world of literature and art that already surrounded her. Understanding this and being able to reflect on it in an essay is of utmost importance—you must show the marker that you realise the significance of the relationship between texts, and just how intricate a single text can be due to intertextuality.

Text and context

  • Potential question: To what extent is Mrs Dalloway, and Daldry’s reimagination of the novel in The Hours, influenced by the values of the respective composers’ context?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “As students engage with the texts they consider how their understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of both texts has been enhanced through the comparative study and how the personal, social, cultural and historical contextual knowledge that they bring to the texts influences their perspectives and shapes their own compositions.”

Just as a text cannot exist in isolation from other texts, both Mrs Dalloway and The Hours are little more than products of the context in which they were produced in. Incorporating ideas about contextual influences into your comparative study of the play and novel will help your essay become more well-rounded and comprehensive—show your understanding of what has changed and what has stayed the same as a result of the changing contextual circumstances.

For example, the changing illustration of human relationships within the two texts is indicative of the cultural atmospheres of the respective composers. The Modernist era was the transitionary stage between two strikingly different centuries. On the one hand, the latter half of the twentieth century saw the development of what we may consider to be the ‘contemporary’ period, whereas what preceded Modernism was the relatively conservative nineteenth century. In this era, marriages had fiscal, practical purposes—to procreate and for the man to provide financially for the family. Woolf wrote from this time in which marriages did not aim for emotional fulfilment or pure love, hence Clarissa’s rather lacklustre descriptions of her relationship with Richard. Their marriage is stale, but safe—“(But her could not bring himself to say he loved her; not in so many words)” even after he buys flowers for her. Meanwhile, her short-lived but exciting relationship with Sally led Clarissa to assert that “Sally’s power was amazing, her gift, her personality,” later exclaiming when the shared their first kiss that “The whole world might have turned upside down!” The two relationships act as foils to each other. Clarissa’s nostalgia about her time with Sally reflects what could have been, had she pursued the interests of her heart over the interests of society and, more broadly, is a reflection of one aspect of Woolf’s social context at the time.

However, this exploration of human relationships differs in The Hours. In fact, Daldry makes a point to discuss just how complex human relationships can be, as well as how societal values are very much engrained in even the private spheres of life. Woolf, despite being largely dependent on her husband, has a loving and supportive relationship. Laura feels suffocated on her imbalanced marriage with a rather patronising partner, whereas Clarissa enjoys domesticity with her wife. It is then important to understand how Daldry’s contemporary context would have influenced him to portray these relationships in such differing, complex ways, particularly in Clarissa and Sally’s relationship. It is interesting to note that, essentially, the roles of Richard and Sally from the novel have reversed—it is Sally who now gives Clarissa a sense of security (for better or worse). Daldry is almost making the commentary that, particularly with the developments in LGBT+ rights in the twentieth century, homosexuality is somewhat normalised and relationships have become more about passion, romance and love above all.

As this is just one example of the manifestation of the composer’s context on their production of the text, you must consider other factors about their context such as:

  • Literary context
    • Mrs Dalloway
      • Modernism
      • End of Romanticism and Realism
    • The Hours
      • Onset of film as the most popular medium
      • Postmodernism
    • Historical/political context
      • Mrs Dalloway
        • WWI disillusionment
        • Turn of the twentieth century changes such as Industrial Revolution
        • Fall of the British Empire
      • The Hours
        • Gay rights movement
        • AIDS crisis of the 1990s
        • Third-wave feminism beginning in the 1990s
        • Developments in mental health
      • Personal context
        • Mrs Dalloway
          • Woolf’s battle with depression and eventual suicide
        • The Hours
          • Daldry’s sexuality

What we can draw from this relationship between texts and their contexts is that, whilst many issues are relevant to a universal audience, these ‘textual conversations’ allow us to reinvent specifically what they mean to us.

Prominent themes

Choice, control and agency

Of the many themes that connect Mrs Dalloway and The Hours, the one that stands out the most are the complex issues of choice, control and agency—all of which go hand-in-hand with each other. Both Woolf and Daldry have important things to say about such concepts, while remaining pertinent to their unique contexts, ultimately resulting in an ongoing conversation that remains alive as we conduct comparative studies between such texts.

It would be very appropriate to assume that every single character depicted in Mrs Dalloway are dealing with the same issue. That is, they are struggling to explore and enact their self-identity and sense of autonomy in the face of societal expectations and the domineering glare of others. Indeed, the structure of the novel alludes to this—the fact that there is no clearly defined ‘main character’ as there might be in a more traditional, Edwardian novel, and each persona is deconstructed from the perspective of another, only serves to emphasises just how susceptible to other’s scrutiny we are. With Woolf’s socio-cultural context being the establishment of an emerging metropolis in London post-WWI, indeed this sense of claustrophobia was heightened.

However, the notions of choice, control and agency go much deeper than this. Clarissa struggles to express herself in a genuine way as she has not been given the means to do so. Instead, she hosts parties as this is one of the few ways in which she has any control over her life. Similarly, Septimus ultimately commits suicide because he feels as he is being suffocated by the rules and expectations of others, particularly Bradshaw. “‘Must,’ ‘must,’ why ‘must’? What power had Bradshaw over him? “What right has Bradshaw to say ‘must’ to me?” [Septimus] demanded.” The repetition of ‘must’ and the incessant questioning emphasises the veteran’s conflict with the restrictions he feels others have placed him, and the thought of Bradshaw coming to take him away—take his agency away—leads him to throw himself out the window.

In The Hours, a similar exploration of the nexus between choice, control and agency is depicted. The most obvious example of this is, indeed, Laura’s narrative. Here, Daldry draws on elements of historical realism to represent the eternal struggle that women endure in balancing their sense of autonomy in the face of a society that expects them to do otherwise. Mocking notions of the ‘American Dream,’ Laura abandons her seemingly perfect life in order to pursue a life she believes is truly worth living. It is a difficult and problematic decision to make, but a moment of selfishness allows her to finally reclaim her sense of agency. “It was death … I chose life,” she states. In this way, Daldry has reimagined Clarissa Dalloway’s struggle with control in another context, ultimately illuminating to audiences how this is a concern that is universal.

Human consciousness

Similar to the notion of agency, human consciousness is an idea that both texts explore and ultimately show to be an experience that is relevant to every individual, regardless of context, age, gender, race, class, etcetera. In fact, one may argue that it is Woolf’s purpose to explore precisely what it means to be human in this way. Defying the Edwardian style of writing—that is, the character and personality being guided by hard fact (such as what job they held, their age, relationship status)—Woolf is, in true Modernist fashion, a pioneer of writing in this respect. Mrs Dalloway was one of the first texts to employ the stream-of-consciousness style of storytelling, and one of the first to do it so eloquently that, despite having an almost ‘anti’-narrative, more about the personalities of each character are revealed than most novels have ever dared to endeavour. This fluid and unrestricted form of writing allowed Woolf to represent the human psyche in its barest form, every thought spilling over the edges as readers learn more and more about the motivations and quirks of each character. Moreover, writing in the style of stream-of-consciousness, Woolf is able to explore the issues of our relationships with each other and our relationship to the world in a more organic way.

However, attempting to translate this style of writing into film is quite difficult. A film driven by almost solely internal monologues would be disengaging and arguably not as effective. As such, in responding to Woolf’s concerns, Daldry adapts this notion of exploring human consciousness by using a tripartite structure in his film. That is, three narratives run parallel to each other in the text and, like the novel does, the film depicts a day in the life of each of these characters. The inward reflections of the three women is what grounds the film, not any sense of traditional plot or narrative structure.

Mental illness

The complex interactions and experiences with mental illness that the characters across the two texts face are deeply reflective of the two composers’ respective contexts. Woolf’s personal context and experiences with psychiatry, mental health and suicide bleeds into the novel—elements of her struggle with finding meaning is experienced by each character. This is particularly true of Septimus, who, as explained before, feels as though his sense of self has been eroded by the medical ‘professionals’ who attempt to help him by removing him from all that he is familiar and comfortable with. The early twentieth century was what one may consider today harsh towards those with mental health issues, and with the prevalence of ‘shell shock’ of soldiers returning from WWI, this was only amplified throughout society. Septimus eventually finds the only escape from this mistreatment he deems feasible and, like Woolf herself, escapes the horrors of war and of everyday life by committing suicide.

Despite the fact that his name would suggest that he is Richard Dalloway’s counterpart, Richard Brown is actually a more accurate mirroring of Septimus than Clarissa’s conservative husband. He, too, struggles with mental health issues. However, being in the twenty-first century, Richard arguably has many more accessible ways to seek help than Septimus ever did, and there is no longer such a strong taboo around the notion of mental health (that isn’t to say that there exists no stigma at all). Interestingly enough, Richard’s mental illness is depicted in relation to his physical illness—he suffers from AIDS, which increased rapidly throughout the 1980s, 90s and 00s. Perhaps, this change has been made by Daldry in order to allude to the stigmatisation of homosexual relationships at the time as there was a misconceived notion that gay men spread AIDS and HIV. Evidently, the same notion of mental illness has been transformed and reinterpreted by the composer to suit a more contemporary context.


These themes play extremely important roles in both Mrs Dalloway and The Hours. In the original novel, the notion of gender expectations manifests in multiple ways. First, there is Clarissa’s internal struggle with being an autonomous person whilst remaining essentially an entirely dependent woman on her husband. In fact, her constant memories reveal that, whilst Richard is a perfectly acceptable and kind partner, she only considers him the ‘better choice’ to Peter as he is able to provide for her financially. Her only real purpose in this society is to be the ‘perfect hostess’—perhaps, a reflection of Woolf’s personal context, as she was barred by her father in terms of how she was allowed to exercise her freedoms.

However, gender roles are not depicted as only restricting for women. Men were also subject to the oppressive circumstances of the patriarchy, particularly in consideration of the fact that WWI had recently ended at the time of the novel’s publishing. Hypermasculine ideals of the brave and patriotic soldier greatly conflicted with the terrible conditions of trench warfare that had rendered men into a state of trauma and, it would be called in Woolf’s era, ‘shell-shock.’ This is precisely true of Septimus, who is told to simply move on from his experience of loss and violence during the war instead of acknowledging and seeking genuine help for his mental health issues.

Yet, in The Hours, this theme of gender has manifested quite differently. One can turn to the three women around which the narratives centre to observe this. Starting from Virginia and ending with Clarissa, Daldry has successfully represented women of three different eras and how they have increasingly gained more freedoms and time progresses. In fact, Clarissa is financially independent in a way her predecessors could not comprehend being, and has seemingly full autonomy over her life. This is to reflect Daldry’s post-modernist, progressive context of the twenty-first century, in which gender equality has been largely reached. However, a contradiction to this sentiment remains true. Despite Clarissa living in a liberal country, she still seems somewhat tied to her role as a carer, particularly for Richard. It is as though Daldry is almost making the bold commentary that, whilst it is undeniable that gender roles and expectations have shifted drastically over the century, women are still oppressed in some way or another—that this struggle for true equality is one that is universal.


The complex and eternally haunting notions of death, morality and the ways in which humans live their lives are, perhaps, the central themes of both texts. In the novel, Clarissa’s constant relapse into thoughts of her aging, particularly her fears about what lies beyond her inevitable death. In fact, Daldry alludes to this very idea about the creation of Mrs Dalloway. The film sees Virginia explain that, though she had originally planned to have Clarissa commit suicide, she decides it will be ‘the poet’—the key difference is that Clarissa ultimately comes to accept her fate and mortality, whilst Septimus never reaches that stage.

Interestingly enough, this revelation also expands the notion of existentialism to include a metafictive commentary on how humans search for truth through art, literature and poetry. Septimus, captures moments and experiences of his life through poetry in a similar way that Woolf herself does so through novels. Richard Brown in The Hours, a published and celebrated author, ultimately commits suicide because he is unable to cope with his realisations as an artist living in an otherwise dreary and tormenting reality. Each of the characters across both texts have some sort of collision with the ‘truth’ of existence, whether it is about a feeling of guilt towards decisions made in the past, the inevitability of death or a sense of purposelessness. In this way, both Woolf and Daldry are able to show these extremely complex thoughts in a rather mundane, ordinary way—almost to say that this is a universal, eternal struggle.


Part of the complications of understanding our existence is understanding the notion of time, which is one that is central to both texts. After all, the title of the film is The Hours, which also happened to be the working title for Mrs Dalloway. As part of the stream-of-consciousness style of the original novel, time is portrayed in Woolf’s text in an elusive way. It could be said that there is a conflict between the ‘objective’ or external reality of time and the ‘subjective’ or inner perceptions. That is, whilst the novel technically only travels through a single day in the lives of these characters—dictated by the striking sounds of Big Ben throughout—it feels as though it encompasses much more than this one day. This is Woolf illuminating to her readers that time is not as concrete as one might think. The way in which it is perceived by humans can elongate or shorten an hour (imagine how short an extra hour of sleep is in the morning as opposed to an hour at work!).

This is also true of the nature of memories, particularly how the characters of both texts romanticise the past. In Mrs Dalloway specifically, this can be attributed to Woolf’s Modernist context, as a large part of Modernism was rejecting the Romanticism that preceded that era. Clarissa Dalloway obsesses about her memories with Peter and Sally, Septimus cannot let go of his wartime experiences and Lady Bruton is a representation of traditional ideals of the past. Perhaps, the reason each character dwells on the past so is because they are afraid of the possibilities of the future.


Both Mrs Dalloway and The Hours are engaging texts in their own rights. However, it is only when studying their inherent relationship with each other, as well as with other texts and the world of the composers, that they come to life. In fact, this is one of Daldry’s overarching purposes in his appropriation of the novel—to shed light on the importance of art in understanding fundamental human concerns that bridge across time and space. He recontextualises the story of Clarissa in three parallel narratives to not only bring and celebrate Woolf’s work to a new generation, but to make nuanced social commentary on issues that are pertinent to his own context, as well as to deconstruct the colossal amalgamation of ideas that the source material presents. It is, in every respect of the phrase, a textual conversation that both Woolf and Daldry actively engage in, and one that you must continue to speak on.

Final tips

  • Learn to define the question in your own terms—this is what your thesis is. By defining the key phrases in the introduction, you can manipulate any given question so that it fits your plan/ideas about the text
  • Avoid writing memorised essays. It is incredibly easy to recognise when a student has done so, and markers are ultimately judging you based on how well you are able to think critically and not simply regurgitate an essay
  • Write lots and lots of practise essays. You may (and should) begin setting no timer so that you can clearly express your thoughts without timed pressure, but gradually move on to putting yourself under exam conditions so that the actual assessment will feel familiar to you. This, as well as actually writing essays out on paper and not simply on a computer, is going to make a huge difference that is relatively simple to adopt
  • It is imperative that you discuss form in your essay even if the question does not ask for it. Of course, in that case, it would not have to be your primary concern, but even a sentence or two about the differing structural features or language used in the play and novel could show the marker that you really understand the intrinsic relationship between these texts
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