L'écriture Féminine in the Hands of Men: Cunningham Rewrites Woolf

Or “Can a white gay guy do a white gay gal?”*

The subtitle of the paper, with its pop culture insinuations, actually posits many questions theoretically. Investigating the gayness, or lack of it, of certain people usually enables a better understanding of gender and its working. By analyzing characters who blatantly or subconsciously undertake to subvert the ‘norm’ of masculinity or femininity, one can better understand what this norm is. What does it mean to be a man or a woman? Our gay guy, Michael Cunningham, does our white gal, Virginia Woolf, simply by rewriting her own text, reshaping her story, and reinvestigating her gender.[1] That he attempts to use her pen rather than his, feminine rather than masculine writing,[2] further adds to our interrogation into the nature of gender by trying to understand how this gender is manifested in one of its creative acts: writing.

But how does one begin to write a paper investigating the possible recurrences of feminine writing in the work of a male writer as he re-writes, or attempts to rewrite, one of the most influential feminist figures? What would such an investigation lead to and how can it be seen in light of the on-going debate around écriture féminine and its tricky, though interesting implications to the feminist cause?[3] Can a man actually write with a feminine pen? If so, then what makes his writing feminine? And if such a man were able to trudge on the “minefield” of feminine writing, to borrow from Annette Kolodny, does that give him the right to remold the writing of a figure that has long been held as an icon among women in general and feminists in particular?

When Michael Cunningham set out to write his novel The Hours he was already clearly influenced by Virginia Woolf’s life and work, as we find her playing an essential role in his writing. In an interview with David Bahr, Cunningham confesses his reaction to reading Mrs. Dalloway as a young boy: “I read it when I was pretty young and it just stuck with me like nothing else has, to the point that it felt as much like something for me to write about as my childhood, my first love affair, or all the more traditional material we’re supposed to draw on as novelists.” (20) Influenced by Virginia Woolf in his adolescence, Cunningham sets out as an adult to rewrite one of Woolf’s most strongly feminist texts, Mrs. Dalloway, in such a way that it seems to give new life to the writing of this original text. Using Mrs. Dalloway as the launching point of his novel, Cunningham attempts to interlink the stories of three women whose lives played a major role in the story of Mr. Dalloway. Woolf as the writer and Brown as the reader add perspective to Dalloway’s story. One critic of this novel, James Schiff, actually calls this a “novel about reading and writing.” Through interweaving fictional and non-fictional characters, The Hours succeeds in presenting a very lively image of the character of Mrs. Dalloway.[4]

Yet Cunningham diverges from Woolf’s text in many instances, most important of which is his effort to provide his female characters with a stronger version of womanhood than existed in either Woolf’s novel or her actual life, allowing himself thus the prerogative not only of rewriting Woolf, but rewriting her as she might have wished to be re-written, uncensored by the limitations of her age and personal situations.

We begin our analysis with the character of Clarissa, a name Cunningham insists on using in reference to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, in his first and most simple attempt to dissociate her from any patriarchal chains with which Woolf shackles her. That Mrs. Dalloway is here called Clarissa bears a great amount of significance to the character Cunningham builds for her. The title Mrs. Dalloway, we are told, is an invention made by Richard, but not Richard the husband whom we meet in Woolf’s text. Richard here is Cunningham’s counterpart for Peter, that old friend of Mrs. Dalloway’s earlier years:

The name Mrs. Dalloway had been Richard’s idea – a conceit tossed off one drunken dormitory night as he assured her that Vaughan was not the proper name for her. She should, he’d said, be named after a great figure in literature, and while she’d argued for Isabel Archer or Anna Karenina, Richard had insisted that Mrs. Dalloway was the singular and obvious choice. (10)

Cunningham seems to refer here to the fictional nature of the association Woolf builds between Clarissa and her husband, Richard, probably mirroring Woolf’s own marriage and her reluctance to give up her maiden name and use her husband’s. In Cunningham’s novel, the name Dalloway is an invention made by an old boyfriend, to be used only by Richard himself in any reference to Clarissa. Though Richard continues to call her Mrs. Dalloway till the moment of his death, we understand that Clarissa has long thrown away any desire to maintain this conceit in an assertion of her liberation from the need to link her name to a man’s. The only reason Richard continues to refer to her as Mrs. Dalloway is that Clarissa was reluctant to open the subject with a seemingly sick person. When she enters his apartment and he calls her Mrs. D., we read: “Isn’t it time, she thinks, to dispense with the old nickname? If he’s having a good enough day, she’ll bring it up: Richard, don’t you think it’s time to just call me Clarissa? … Well, Clarissa thinks, it’s another day of this, then –not a day, certainly, to bring up the subject of names.” (55) And at the end of the novel when we read her thoughts – “And here she is, herself, Clarissa, not Mrs. Dalloway anymore; there is no one now to call her that,” (226) – we cannot help but feel her sense of relief mixed with those feelings of sadness over losing an old friend. She might have to go through “another hour” but she is alive and her own self, able to go through this hour and any following hours, as opposed to Richard who is not able to survive his hours.

Other more blatant evidence of Clarissa’s liberation from male supremacy are exhibited in the act of actually living with her partner Sally – who in Woolf’s novel, only takes up a minor role in Mrs. Dalloway’s life – which only strengthens the assumption that Cunningham seeks for his female characters a more revolutionary and freely chosen existence. Clarissa’s earlier affair with Richard is here given a clearer shape to the one found in Woolf’s text, but this is done only to serve the purpose of strengthening the character of Clarissa as one who has made liberal choices in her life and will not be lead into the traditional marital status that seem unfitting to both Clarissa and Sally in Woolf’s novel.

That Cunningham introduces Richard’s mother here in a more significant way than Woolf introduced Richard’s counterpart Peter, further adds to Cunningham’s attempt to give strength to the feminine in Woolf. Instead of the focus on Peter seen in Mrs. Dalloway, Cunningham chooses to focus on Richard’s mother, moving her almost to the center of his narrative. She appears different, however, from the woman behind Richard’s pains, and is described late in the narrative, as “an ordinary-looking old woman seated on a sofa with her hands in her lap,” (221) probably to stress the idea that, as with the name Mrs. Dalloway, Richard’s portrayal of his mother was exaggerated:

Here she is, then, the woman of wrath and sorrow, of pathos, of dazzling charm; the woman in love with death; the victim and torturer who haunted Richard’s work. Here, right here in this room, is the beloved; the traitor. Here is an old woman, a retired librarian from Toronto, wearing old woman’s shoes. (226)

Cunningham demonstrates here that outside of the imagined creation men make of women, these are ordinary women, not ordinary in the dull sense, but ordinary in the sense of being humans of flesh and blood, rather than figures and images created by men.[5]

Woolf herself is presented in the light of her struggle with writing, drawing here on her vital role in the creation of Cunningham’s novel and his characters. And she is seen here to struggle between acquiescing to her husband’s demand to stay calm and rest and her own need to express herself in writing. Her struggle with writing begins to be seen in light of this struggle she underwent between society’s expectations as exhibited by her husband and her own desires and needs as a writer. In the following interaction from The Hours we see an example of this compromise Virginia, the wife, has to make in order for Virginia the writer to be able to write:

“Have you had breakfast?” he asks.



“I’m having coffee with cream for breakfast. It’s enough.”

“It’s far from enough. I’m going to have Nelly bring you a bun and some fruit.”

“If you sent Nelly to interrupt me I won’t be responsible for my actions.”

“You must eat,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be much.”

“I’ll eat later. I’m going to work now.”

He hesitates, then nods grudgingly. He does not, will not, interfere with her work. Still, Virginia refusing to eat is not a good sign.

“You will have lunch,” he says. “A true lunch, soup, pudding, and all. By force, if it comes to that.”

“I will have lunch,” she says, impatiently but without true anger. (33)

Here Cunningham illustrates Woolf’s strategic need to play both roles and maneuver between the two positions of wife and writer.

Looking at a few instances in which Cunningham actually attempts a re-writing of Woolf’s text, one of the strongest themes in the two novels is that of suicide, as enacted by Septimus and Richard. There is no doubt that the two deaths play a major role in the way the two stories end, and also in how the stories evolve. As Septimus’ death has enabled Mrs. Dalloway to appreciate life and rejoice in it, so Richard’s death enables Clarissa to appreciate her own life in the city. The change that Cunningham forces into this plot can be seen, however, in the reason that led Septimus and Richard to jump out of the window.

In the case of Septimus this leap is his only way of avoiding the loneliness that will haunt him if Dr. Holmes or Bradshaw are able to take him into the home, a loneliness that Septimus fears, as is exhibited when his wife leaves him temporarily to take the paper girl back to her mother: “He started up in terror. What did he see? … Nobody was there … That was it: to be alone forever. He was alone with the sideboard and the bananas. He was alone, exposed on this bleak eminence, stretched out.” (129) His leap out the window is his escape from the loneliness he fears might come upon him if he were taken to the home.

Richard’s leap, on the other hand, is his escape from what seems to be the opposite of this loneliness. His suicide might not be caused by the forthcoming party, but it is surely motivated by it as we come to see when he states it so clearly to Clarissa: “I don’t think I can make it to the party,” (196) later stressing it with “I don’t know if I can face this. You know. The party and the ceremony, and then the hour after that, and the hour after that” (197); and finally just before his leap: “I’m afraid I can’t make the party.” (200) His leap therefore can be seen as an escape from society, the society he has to face once he arrives at that party. His early proclamation that “it’s so lovely out” (196) can be seen as his exaltation of life outside the boundaries of society.

Loneliness, therefore, does not seem to pose as big a problem for Richard as it does for Septimus. Both suffer from diseases, either mental or physical, each reacts to loneliness in a different manner; Septimus fears its shadows reminding him that he stands alone, Richard rejoices in it as the way for him to avoid the cruelties of the world, and maybe of his disease. What is most significant in the two deaths, however, is the shift in the reason behind each. Whereas Septimus’ death results from a mental illness he suffered from as a result of being a war hero, Richard’s seems to be more of a physical illness that causes the depression behind his suicide. That Septimus prefers to be in the company of people he trusts, like his wife in this instance, and that Richard prefers to seclude himself from people can probably be regarded as symptomatic of the different types of problems they each suffer. Since Septimus’ problem is mental, his seclusion from people, as he understands, will only intensify his condition. The case with Richard, however, is different, as his disease, AIDS, has been caused by physical contact with others, something from which he is now deprived.

Cunningham takes another recurrent theme of Woolf’s and intensifies it in his novel. Women interrupted in the midst of writing is one of Woolf’s most recurrent themes as she sees in this interruption a hindrance to women’s creativity. A Few lines from one of her novel, Orlando, can clearly illustrate this point:

No sooner had the thought taken shape, than, as if to rebuke it, the door was flung wide, and in marched Basket, the butler, followed by Bartholomew, the housekeeper, to clear away tea. Orlando, who had just dipped her pen in the ink, and was about to indite some reflection upon the eternity of all things, was much annoyed to be impeded by a blot, which spread and meandered round her pen … She tried to go on with what she was saying; no words came … But as for writing poetry with Basket and Bartholomew in the room, it was impossible. (237-8)

This is reflected in Cunningham’s text in the chapters on Mrs. Woolf as we read about her avoiding Nelly to allow herself a better work day: “Virginia pours herself a cup of coffee in the dining room, walks quietly downstairs, but does not go to Nelly in the kitchen. This morning, she wants to get straight to work without risking exposure to Nelly’s bargainings and grievances. It could be a good day; it needs to be treated carefully.” (31) Cunningham insists on portraying this struggle Virginia goes through between creativity and domesticity reflecting, through Nelly’s thoughts, that “queens who care more about solving puzzles in their chambers than they do about the welfare of their people must take whatever they get.” (85)

In The Hours the three main female characters are interrupted in midday by a visit that leaves them perplexed. Echoing the scene in Mrs. Dalloway, in which Clarissa, in the middle of fixing her gown for the party, is interrupted with a visit from Peter, (37) Cunningham in his novel gives us Clarissa being interrupted by Louis, Richard’s old boyfriend. What could be the significance of changing the source of interruption from an old friend, with whom Clarissa might have shared something, to this old friend’s one-time partner? What does it say about Cunningham’s task in rewriting Woolf? If, as we have argued, Cunningham’s women are more liberated than Woolf’s, then it seems that the hindrances that prevented Clarissa and Peter in Mrs. Dalloway from being together are here more physical than sentimental. It is not that Clarissa decided to take Richard as a husband instead of Peter, it is rather, that Peter – Richard in The Hours – is physically not able to be with Clarissa. The problem between Clarissa and Peter is sentimental or mental, but that between Clarissa and Richard is physical.

Linking this to the previous discussion regarding the suicides of Septimus and Richard, we see another insistence on changing a mental theme into a physical one. Could this be seen as an extension to a recurrent argument within feminist circles for an awareness of women’s bodies; to express these bodies and to write these bodies? Woolf’s attention to the psychology of women is reflective of her generation of feminist critics who are concerned with mental diseases that women go through like hysteria. On the same line, Cunningham’s time exhibits an awareness of the body as seen by the multitude of feminists who call for an awareness of the female body. Helene Cixous, one of the strongest voices connected with aspects of feminine writing, or écriture féminine, explains that by “writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her,” (350) allowing the “immense resources of the unconscious” to “spring forth.” (350-1):

To write. An act which will not only “realize” the decensored relation of woman to her sexuality, to her womanly being, giving her access to her native strength; it will give her back her goods, her pleasures, her organs, her immense bodily territories which have been kept under seal; … A woman without a body, dumb, blind, can’t possibly be a good fighter. She is reduced to being the servant of the militant male, his shadow. We must kill the false woman who is preventing the live one from breathing. Inscribe the breath of the whole woman. (351)[6]

Critics have noted this attention to the body in Cunningham’s style, as one critic notes that one of the strongest dimensions of The Hours is “Cunningham’s subtle yet profound attention to the bodies of his characters and the role the body plays in the world of the mind, the personality, the soul, and the very actions of his characters.” (Erickson 715) In this attention to the body Cunningham moves away from Woolf’s generation into his own generation of feminist writers with their attention to the body.

But how does this analysis of character and theme contribute to my early argument that Cunningham employs l’écriture féminine in his text?

To answer this question we need to analyze écriture féminine and try to find a way of defining it, an impossibility as such because by its very nature[7], écriture féminine defies definitions and limitations. Almost thirty years after Cixous unleashed her Medusa, feminists are still debating around issues of interpreting feminine writing, or écriture féminine as it is known among scholars. The term does not merely defy any attempts at explaining it, but it opens a vast area of questioning around its worth in contemporary feminist struggle. The on-going question is whether a separation of masculine and feminine writings serves the feminist cause or weakens it. Aphra Behn long ago acknowledged her poetic tendencies to be a demonstration of her masculine faculty, begging her critics to allow her to exercise "the Masculine Part the Poet" in her. (398) Behn's dictum was supported by generations of female writers writing under male pseudonyms for fear of being rejected as efficient writers. For Cixous to come after centuries of struggle towards asserting that women's writing was "just as good as" men’s and declare that all along, women who have been writing “like men” were denying their femininity and calls for a celebration of a feminine type of writing that is almost impossible to accomplish, let alone define, this becomes a step loaded with its own dangers of falling into such traps of essentialism that were long used to separate women from men and declare them 'unfit' for masculine jobs, so to speak.

So we come back to the question: what is écriture féminine? Is it a way of writing that distinguishes women from men? This has long been answered in the negative by Cixous herself when she lists a number of male writers whose style she considers as an example of écriture féminine arguing that “there are some men (all too few) who aren’t afraid of femininity.” (355) Écriture féminine is indeed a term that Cixous intentionally avoided defining since the significance of the term defies definition, long regarded as a masculinist way of exclusion:

It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an impossibility that will remain, for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, coded – which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. But it will always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system; it does and will take place in areas other than those subordinated to philosophico-theoretical domination, by peripheral figures that no authority can ever subjugate. (353)

Écriture féminine is best defined – an oxymoron as such – as a type of writing that defies definition, logic, interpretation, fixity in meaning and such exclusive limitations. As such it can be seen in most types of literature that deviate from the accepted norm of literary writing.

So can we consider Virginia Woolf's writing an example of feminine writing? Could her multiple narrators be seen as a tool used to defy the logics of centrality so paramount of Western logocentrism. And what about Cunningham’s rewriting of Woolf? Is there anything in his text that suggests écriture féminine? Can he be added to the list of male writers that Cixous and Irigaray claim can actually write with a feminine pen? What is feminine in Cunningham’s writing? Re-writing a feminist in itself does not qualify as an example of écriture féminine. What is it in his text that is feminine? I believe that it is essentially his ability to cross the boundaries of time and gender and give us a work that is part fiction and part non-fiction that makes Cunningham’s style close to what is termed écriture féminine. Schiff argues that it is “as if the otherness of her gender provide (Cunningham) with new possibilities for building (his) fiction.” My current attention to Cunningham’s feminine writing takes the lead from Cixous’ argument advocating woman to write woman and man to write man, adding that “it’s up to him (man) to say where his masculinity and femininity are at: this will concern us once men have opened their eyes and seen themselves clearly!” (348, emphasis added) It concerns me now as Cunningham obviously sees the feminine in himself in the strong attachment he finds in Woolf’s texts. Cunningham’s ability to proclaim that he has the right to rewrite Woolf’s text, shaping it in a new and different way, regardless of the limitations of his place and his gender, is precisely how his text becomes the voice of woman, not only in the sense of giving voice to Virginia Woolf, but also in his argument, reflected in his work, that he has the ability and the right to do that. Cunningham, a white gay guy living in the 21st century, can indeed present us with a story that intersects time and place and tells us a little not only about Virginia Woolf, but also about a fictional woman who was created by Woolf, mixing here reader, writer, and character in a pot lock of words, resisting all boundaries and limitations, much in line with Cixous’ advocacy of a type of writing that defies exclusive limitations.

Works Cited

Bahr, David. “The difference a day makes: after Hours with Michael Cunningham.” Poets & Writers v. 27 no. 4 (July/August 1999) p. 18-23

Behn, Aphra. “Preface to The Lucky Charm.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. NY: Norton, 2001.

Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” (1975) Feminisms. Eds Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1997.

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. (1998) NY: Picador USA, 2002.

Erickson, Darlene E. “‘The Upholstery of the Soul’: Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.” Christianity and Literature. 50:4. Summer 2001. 715-722.

Greeley, Lynne. “Cultural Feminism and the Female Aesthetic.” <http://www.astr.umd.edu/conference2002/tcd/Greeley_article.pdf> 1 August 2004.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which is Not One. NY: Cornell UP, 1985.

Kolodny, Annette. “Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism.” (1980) Feminisms. Eds Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1997.

Schiff, James. “Rewriting Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway: Homage, Sexual Identity, and the Single-Day Novel by Cunningham, Lippincott, and Lanchester.” Critique (Atlanta, Ga.) v. 45 no. 4 (Summer 2004) p. 363-82

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. (1925) London: Grafton Books, 1988.

--. Orlando: A Biography. (1928) San Diego: Harvest, 1993.


* This project (AE05/03) is sponsored by the Research Administration at Kuwait University.

[1] Woolf Scholar Louise DeSalvo declares that Cunningham actually “does Woolf better than she does Woolf.” (quoted in Bahr 20)

[2] A woman’s pen is feminine and a man’s masculine only in the widest sense of it being a pen used by a woman or a man, and not in any way a reference to the femininity of every woman or masculinity of every man.

[3] Using a term like ‘the’ feminist cause is in itself dangerous to a theory or practice that seeks to escape limitations and definitions. It returns us to the essentialist implication of one woman, one cause.

[4] Cunningham intentionally mixes reality and fiction here, emphasizing the attack on realism launched by feminists who see it as essentially “embedded in oppressive representations strategies … that reify the dominant culture.” (Greeley)

[5] In This Sex Which Is Not One, Luce Irigaray explains that “the role of ‘femininity’ is prescribed by this masculine specularization” as she analyzes how woman “as a commodity has no mirror it can use to reflect itself, so woman serves as reflection, as image of and for man, but lacks specific qualities of her own. Her value-invested form amounts to what man inscribes in and on its matter: that is, her body” (187)

[6] Cixous’ text is, by now, worn out by counter-texts that negate, argue, support and critique it, but it remains a strong statement towards the validation of the female body as a sight of struggle and of female writing as necessarily associated with the body.

[7] Again words like these, by their nature, imply an essentialism that I am trying to escape here. Yet for the sake of our argument we need occasionally to resort to masculinist discourse, even realizing the implications of such, as one possible way in which one’s argument can be advanced. Écriture féminine, with its implications of freeing us from masculinist discourse, is still in its infancy and needs time to develop its own rhetorical strategies.