THE PERFECT DEATH Opposition, Distance, Closure The Suicide Scene in Michael Cunningham's The Hours
Symposium: Boğaziçi University-Haliç University Image, Metaphor, and Irony as Centralizing/De-centralizing Devices in Contemporary British and American Literature
9 March 2004 Istanbul
THE PERFECT DEATH Opposition, Distance, Closure The Suicide Scene in Michael Cunningham's The Hours
James Ryan Symposium 9 March 2004 Istanbul
Image, Metaphor and Irony as Centralizing/Decentralizing Devices in Contemporary American and English Literature
Bogaziçi University Haliç University
Paper delivered by James Ryan, Kadır Has University March 9, 2004, Istanbul, Turkey
The Suicide Scene In MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM’S the hours Opposition, Distance, and Closure: The Perfect Death
ABSTRACT: When AIDS-stricken Richard Brown “inches forward, slides gently off the sill, and falls,” his terrifying descent is a true commencement ceremony, a celebration of his life-struggle as well as a life-affirming gift to those who loved him, in particular his mother, and his soul-mate friend, Clarissa Vaughan. In the Suicide Scene, his fall, more a descent from life, culminates an accretion of dialogic and literary imagery that positively unifies the ending of this novel. Slow, gentle and graceful language marks his last journey. Quite the opposite tonality describes the companion descent of Clarissa, as she careens down the labyrinthine stairwell to gather Richard to herself. Intertextual examination and analysis of the metaphorical “reach” of the author founds an ironic, and irenic, ending for the novel. Rather than prolonged grief and guilt, survivor and otherwise, the ending resoundingly affirms life, such as it is, over death, such as it was. Deep metaphorical references touch the fundamental precepts of the Christian religion and art related thereto, particularly regarding resurrection and forgiveness. If the best metaphors temporarily defamiliarize and distance the reader, and irony satisfies via the delayed marriage of oppositional expectations, then these account for the profoundly satisfying ending of The Hours. And so I will argue. __________________________________________________________________________________ “What a day it is. What a beautiful, beautiful day...” “... fresh as if issued to children on a beach.”
These quotes, appropriately viewed as a composite, are respectively taken from Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours, and Virginia Woolf’s, Mrs Dalloway. For indeed, this is such a day, and wonderful it is to be here this day, to speak and hear with you about our great mutual love, the English language. It seems to me that this gathering is a celebration, a party even, as Clarissa Dalloway said:
"What a lark! What a plunge!"
This afternoon, like one of Virginia Woolf’s Harley Street clocks, I too will shred and slice, divide and subdivide, and thus nibble away a few minutes of this particular day to discuss, for a few minutes, a few minutes of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitizer Prize winning novel. His book, written in the present tense, is loosely structured along the lines of Virginia Woolf’s, Mrs. Dalloway, whosework-in-progress name, as you may recall, was originally The Hours. While resonant with Virginia Woolf, the novel is ALL Michael Cunningham.
In Cunningham’s The Hours, Richard Brown, a writer, a gay man, his T-cells vanishing, his brain being “eaten to lace” He is dying from AIDS. He lives alone in New York City in a “squalid” apartment, visited and tended to by his former-lover, now soul-mate friend, Clarissa Vaughan, a lesbian. This tautly constructed, layered novel has three narratives, featuring three women, presented in three recurring sections, each with episodes spread throughout the novel, each existing in three separate time periods. However, the sections are proximate to each other in the actual book.
In the interest of time, I will only deal with a few episodes in two of the sections named Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Brown.
The Mrs. Dalloway section is set in 1999 in New York City, and features Clarissa Vaughn, nicknamed in the book, “Mrs. Dalloway.”On a beautiful June day, we meet her at Richard’s apartment in two episodes, that morning and later in the afternoon. This day, Richard will receive a literary award. And there will be a party celebrating him and his life achievement.
The Mrs. Brown section features a pregnant Laura Brown, the mother of three-year-old Richie, and is set in Los Angeles on a “hot, white morning in June.” This day is her husband’s birthday, and together she and son Richie will struggle to bake the “perfect” birthday cake. Here too there will be a party.
They are like bookends, these distant June days, one a birth-day, the other a death-day. For on the latter day, the solitary, dying, despondent Richard, will act, and take the plunge of his life. And it is this plunge that will reconcile the recurring leitmotif of failure that haunts the lives, and the hours, of the characters.
It is this plunge, this suicide, that is a particularly informative example of how image, irony and metaphor “centralizes” (though I prefer the more humane word “reconciles”) the ending of this novel.
But first, I must explain myself in the context of how I will explain myself.
To the overall theme of this symposium, I argue that image, irony, and metaphor are all oppositional literary devices. Like a spring for example. Extended by two opposing forces to its farthest distance, it is at that precise point that the mechanism achieves its maximum tension. In scientific terms, it is there that the energy potential is at its highest. And when one end of the spring is released, the recoil results in kinetic energy, or power, or force.
And so it is with these literary devices. That is, when similarly extended, they generate their maximum dramatic force. Just like springs, they work best, when tension is highest. The consequence of this stretch and recoil results in what I had called “closure” but what I now call “reconciliation.” The reconciliation provided by the structure of the novel, and by the suicide of Richard, yields “perfect death.” Perfect in literary and stylistic terms. Perfect in human terms. His suicide ironically makes for the sort of perfection in the novel that has evaded and so haunted the novel’s protagonists.
So there, then, is the gist of the novel, The Hours, and the gist of my argument. But before taking my plunge, I will briefly define further my literary terms, by using a few classical examples.
Regarding image... you will agree that an effective image must mean or signify something beyond what it appears to be. Take Yeats and his female dancer, for example. O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Herein the image reconciles or fuses soul and body, form and motion, life and death, artist and audience – all of these being literal and distant “opposites.”
Regarding metaphor, well... LOOK!... THERE! TO THE WINDOW! Juliet’s window...
“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” asks Romeo
Then Romeo answers himself.
“It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”
Romeo thus proclaims Juliet’s perfection, using a widely-accepted example of a perfect metaphor, the sun.
In Romeo's words his beloved subject Juliet becomes the sun, life-giving, light-giving, and distant. And so a profoundly new meaning and energy obtains to Juliet, and to Romeo’s notion of love.
And mark the DISTANCE: the sun, 150 million kilometers away from the earth yet still in and through Juliet’s window.
So Shakespeare’s metaphorical reach is impossibly far, to the solitary sun itself. And therein he achieves metaphorical perfection, indeed the stuff of the heavens, and the essence of Juliet, the stuff of perfect love.
But also note the “oppositional” PROXIMITY of the sun. Despite its vast distance, there is nothing closer to us than the “feel” of the sun. Its rays touch us always, we feel them as we “feel” emotions. Like Tolstoy’s Levin in Anna Karenina, walking with downcast eyes with Kitty, his beloved, he sees her anyway “as one sees the sun, without looking.”
And it is in precisely this way, that Cunningham uses both distance and proximity to forge the powerful metaphor that reconciles the tragic suicide of Richard.
And what is this metaphor of Cunningham’s?
Why it is vastly more distant than the sun. Yet felt even more closely than its rays. And it is fundamentally related to the sun, and its relationship to the earth, and to all us thereupon. For Cunningham’s metaphor is “THE HOURS,” time itself. For there it is, the novel itself! So now I return to the novel and how all this relates.
We first meet Richie, an alert, introspective, sensitive three-year-old, in Los Angeles on his father’s birthday in June, 1949. Richie wears blue pajamas and he loves his mother enormously, and complexly.
Fifty years later, (but only fifteen book pages later) we first meet Richard, fifty-three-years old, ravaged by AIDS, sitting, always sitting, in his dark, squalid room, on his fetid, unclean, irreversibly rotting chair, in New York City in June 1999. And Richard wears “an adult-size version of a child’s robe, ink-blue, covered with rockets and helmeted astronauts.”
But is Richard Richie? We guess, and indeed know, he is, for the book is compact – only 225 page – with little time for red herrings. But still, a careful, caring reader might wonder for there is no information directly connecting the two. Nor will there be until much, much later, hours later in fact, after Richard is dead. But we are struck by the pajama and bathrobe imagery, particularly the latter. A half-century, and a continent separate the two images. And like Yeats’ dancer, this imagery fuses opposites, in this case, youthful health and aging decay, optimism and depression, cleanliness and squalor, fresh life and imminent death, a child leaping on the beach perhaps, and a broken man dying in his chair.
So what, then, do we really know?
We know that Richie is the son of Laura. And we will follow Richie through this distant day of his father’s birthday, the child’s struggle with being left with the babysitter, his fragility, his, as his mother says, “hope, sorrow, and confusion.”
How much like these three conditions, is Richard-the-man’s current state!
And we will also follow Laura’s loving struggle with her little boy, “who stares at her nervously, suspiciously, adoringly.”For Laura knows “that he will watch her forever. He will always know when something is wrong. He will always know precisely when and how much she has failed.” To Laura, Richie is timeless.
And what do we know of the man, Richard? We know he is a physical and emotional mess. His once-fine brain is being eaten by AIDS. He seems to suffer from a devastating complication of the virus, called AIDS Dementia. There is an ironical medical term for this – nerve cell suicide – and it results in the loss of interest in all activities, social withdrawal, and depression. And Richard is fully engaged with all these.
We also know that Richard is to receive a literary prize that evening, and there is a party planned. So his anxiety is high. He asks Clarissa prophetically, “I’m not really needed there, am I? The party can go on just with the idea of me.”
Ironically, it will.
So there he sits, immobilized by his disease, eyesight and spirits failing. Each day he sits, so sick, desperately marking the hours, as he says, “one and then another, and you get through that one, my god, there’s another.”
There he sits, the man who thought he was a genius. In a world that adores action, Richard has abandoned his painful, creative image-making, his life’s work, his writing. And now there is only one other action available. He will escape by the plunge, and not just sit there, marking the hours.
And so what do we know of Richard and Richie together, the two as the same person? Still, nothing. They remain literally worlds apart.
For a reading of just the Mrs. Dalloway sections reveals no information about just where this “Richard” has come from. Nothing of mother. Nothing of father. No mention of a sibling. We just learn of him at Columbia as a nineteen year-old, and thereafter.
Richard even lacks a last name, remaining Richard throughout… with one enormous exception. (But we must await that reconciliation.)
Not only does Richard not mention anything about his childhood, he does not even refer to his mother. Again, with one exception much later, but for purposes of dramatic impact, right on time. But we must await that too, for the dramatic coil of distance and time is still extending.
There is an enormous distancing in identity between the child and the man. We meet Richard, as an adult, precisely twice in this 225 page novel. At page 55, and the next, and the final time, later on the same day, on page 195.
Quite the opposite is true with Richie. We meet the three-year-old frequently. This narrative emphasis of Richie as a child, 50 years distant from the suffering adult, heightens tension, increases sympathy, and, as I will show, ultimately resolves the mother-child-adult estrangement, or distance.
And looming dead ahead is the suicide scene. But still we have Richie and Richard distant in narrative time and space. Richie, the child, stranded on the opposite shore in Los Angeles, still hanging onto Mommy for dear life. And Richard, the adult, stricken by AIDS, and life, sitting in his stinking chair in a tenement in New York City ready to plunge, a plunge which will reconcile everything, perfectly.
Yet Cunningham refuses to rush. He is not finished with us, nor with his characters. For immediately before the suicide scene, the reader returns to Los Angeles of fifty years ago. Laura and Richie are returning in the car from the babysitter.
Note the evocative dialogue from the last page of this section. It cements the close relationship of mother and child.
“Honey,” she says, “what is it?”
“Mommy, I love you.”
“I love you too, baby,” she replies.
“What’s wrong?” she asks. “Don’t worry honey. Everything’s fine.”
Then she says, “I love you, sweetheart. You’re my guy.”
And so ends page 193.
And turn that page, and back we rush from fifty years past, and suddenly we are in Richard’s room. It is afternoon now. But the room is no longer the dank, dark, and squalid room of the morning. It is the exact opposite, for now the room is full of light. And Richard is half out of the apartment, perched on the windowsill, five stories up. He is only a few inches away from his plunge, an action that, from five stories up should only take two seconds.
He’s skeletal in his child-like ink-blue bathrobe. This child-like robe of optimistic blue, finally fusing youth and age, and compressing a half-century of time, and life.
“What a day it is,” Richard says to Clarissa. “What a beautiful, beautiful day.”
He is happy, elated even. Compare this to his reaction to Clarissa’s morning visit when the best he could muster was the disoriented question, “Is it still morning?”
This, then, is his suicide scene. Note the change in conditions since Clarissa’s first visit.
·The shades are now up, the windows open, the room is filled with daylight.
·In her first visit, “a compromised daylight falls into the room.” Now, Richard will fall out of the room into the daylight.
·In the morning, Clarissa was repelled by the smells of the apartment and of Richard (“of unfresh flannel”), and his “insane” and “repellent” chair. Now, note Richard’s new world. For Richard, the day is now “fresh as if issued to children on a beach.”
So here we are, at the suicide in New York, Richard on the brink of extinction. And still he speaks of only his life in New York. No mention of his father, that, my god, fifty years ago, I baked a cake with my Mom for my father’s birthday. And it was a day just like today, too. In June, for goodness sake! No, he says none of this.
For the distance is still there. The strange disconnect still exists. We wonder yet, is it so? Is this Richard, “her guy” Richie? Will it really be this boy-man so deeply beloved by his mother, this man who appears now to Clarissa to be “both ancient and childish.” Will this be Richie who kills himself?
We surely think so, don’t we?And then this:
“It’s so lovely here,” says Richard perched on the windowsill dangling his birdlike legs. “I feel so free.” Then he says, “Will you call my mother? She’s all alone, you know.”
SNAP! The coil of time and space, extended through 198 pages, has been released. Yes, at last and at the end, the tension has resolved regarding the fifty-year-vanished Laura Brown. Or has it? Richard, dressed in a sort of swaddling clothes, sacrificing himself, and, like a Jesus from the cross, turning over some aspect of care for his mother to Clarissa. And still nothing from Clarissa. No plea, Richard, STOP! Think of your mother! The reader, despite this reconciliation, still has a question. We know Richard has expressed concern about his mother. But is this mother Laura Brown?
Still the tension. The spring has not fully sprung. We must wait.
And then he falls. Or rather descends. For the laws of Newtonian physics are suspended. What should take no more than two seconds, takes a full paragraph – and one cannot help rereading that stunning paragraph. For Richard is in “flight,” his childlike blue bathrobe “billowing.” He does not simply smash against the concrete. Instead we are told that “Clarissa sees him touch the ground five floors below.” It’s as if those little space ships on his robe kicked on their retro-rockets. She even tells us that he “kneels” on the concrete. She hears the sound he makes. What sound??? Tell us!
But there is no time. She must run to Richard on the concrete.
Note how contrary to our expectations Richard’s descent from life is. No screams, no gore, no sirens. Just simple, patient, gentle language accompanies him. And so a man’s life closes, two hundred pages after we met him.
Here, then, at the end, all is resolved. Here then is Clarissa, in the alley, unweeping, pieta-like, she holds Richard one last time, resting her forehead against his spine, “while he is still in some way Richard Worthington Brown.”
There! She has given the full, positive identification. And we realize fully and finally that indeed, Richard and Richie have died. The spring has sprung. The hours, for Richard Worthington Brown, are over.
But there is one last, powerful reverberation, a sort of after-shock. For later, Laura Brown appears in Clarissa’s apartment, the scene of the now canceled party. We learn that she has traveled from Toronto to New York City to see her son. But we do not know precisely the motivation for her visit. Was it to celebrate her son’s triumph? Did Clarissa secretly invite her as the surprise party-guest? Or was she there because of Richard’s death? We cannot be certain. We will never be certain, except for one thing. If she were invited to the party, we know that her son’s suicide has saved The Hours from the most banal of endings.
And we also know that there is an enormous serenity about the last MRS DALLOWAY episode in the novel. Laura agrees with Clarissa that Richard was a wonderful man, adding, “And he was a wonderful writer, wasn’t he?”
“I took the best care of him I could,” says Clarissa.
“I wish I could have done better,” says Laura.
Then upon refection Laura adds, “We did the best we could, dear. That’s all anyone can do, isn’t it?”
And finally, they, the living, celebrate what they have done. They will partake of a meal, they will commune together. And together they eat the food prepared in celebration of Richard, his life, and his work, confident that it is not morbid and that Richard would have appreciated it.
“Yes,” says Laura, “I think he would indeed.” Aha, one might think, she knows him quite well.
And in a true spirit of literal communion, the hours of that day close, and The Hours, the novel, ends. Time and space, stretched so tautly over the span of 225 pages (and 50 years), have reconciled everything into the precise moment of this precisely present day. Indeed, as The Hours last words tell us, “Everything’s ready.”
And so are we, with hours and hours before us. A few of which one might spend rereading this marvelous novel, crafted and measured as precisely as a finely jeweled timepiece. ___________________________________________________________________