The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Chapter 12 : Mrs. Brown | Summary

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Summary

Laura is driving and feels as if she's in a dream. She feels trapped "like a butterfly [pinned] to a board." Richie is with Mrs. Latch, a neighbor and sometime babysitter. Laura is in a panic because everything seems too much for her, including her son and the ruined birthday cake. She wonders if she's going crazy. She was so panicky at home that she had to leave and drive away, though she promises herself she'll be back in time to cook dinner and to feed Kitty's dog. But she doesn't know where she's going. She's just glad to be free of all responsibility and expectations.

Back in her kitchen sits the second, more perfect cake she's baked for Dan's birthday. Still, Laura feels it's disappointing, "somehow wrong." It embarrasses her. She had wanted to make something "finer, more significant ... a dream of a cake." But she's failed, so something must be wrong with her. Laura thinks of the kiss with Kitty and realizes she desires her, though she desires Dan as well, even though his kisses give her only a "queasy pleasure."

Laura speeds up, thrilling to the feeling of freedom, the recognition that for two hours she could go anywhere. At one point on the highway Laura must decide if she'll drive into downtown Los Angeles or drive around and past it. She decides to go to the city and check into a hotel. She chooses an upscale hotel and registers by herself. She lies, saying her husband will follow shortly. The hotel lobby feels exactly right to her because it's a "cool nowhere ... unemotional."

Laura is nervous, but her nervousness seems "to reside elsewhere" outside herself. It's as if she's got a double who now carries her panic, anger, and humiliation. It's as if these feelings are no longer part of her. Laura lets herself into her unremarkable hotel room. The room makes her feel as if she's in a dream—silent and utterly unnatural. "She's so far away from her life. It was so easy," she thinks. She puts her copy of Mrs. Dalloway on the bedside table. Laura thinks Virginia Woolf may be in a heaven like this room. Laura feels safe and begins reading. It's a passage in which Mrs. Dalloway thinks about death. Laura wonders how Mrs. Dalloway could choose to kill herself. It's just saying, "enough," I've had enough of this life. In the impersonal neutrality of the hotel room Laura thinks killing herself would "not seem so strange." It would show that she "didn't want to try anymore," was at ease with leaving everything and everyone behind. But then Laura thinks "I would never ... she would be killing her son, her husband, [her fetus] ... it would be, simply, evil." She takes comfort in knowing that "it is possible to stop living. ... It would be as simple, she thinks, as checking into a hotel."

Analysis

Laura is not insane, but her mental state is disordered both by the superficiality and falseness of her existence and her obsession with performing her mundane, housewifely role perfectly. The panic attack that sent her fleeing her home was, she admits to herself, "to escape a cake." Her mental state is so unstable that she feels first as if she's in a dream and then as if she's transferred all her emotion to a double of herself. Her feelings of failure and her inability to carry out even the most ordinary tasks have left her exhausted. She thinks she's going crazy, but in a numb, emotionless sort of way.

Laura's choice to get a hotel room that is coldly impersonal reflects her dissociated state of mind and tenuous sense of identity. The hotel room reflects Laura's numbness in its sterile neutrality. Anything can happen there, and somehow it would be all right. It's the "cool nowhere" that Laura longs for and hopes will ease her mind and banish her discontent and nervousness. The impersonal hotel room untethers Laura's mind, and she feels as if she's entered a dream unconnected to her life. The room is outside time and makes Laura think of death. She recognizes she's anticipating something, but she cannot articulate what it is.

The passage Laura reads in Mrs. Dalloway reflects on mortality and death. The book makes dying seem so easy that Laura begins seriously to imagine she could simply decide to die—an idea with great appeal for her. For Laura death would mean an end to her striving for suburban perfection and failing constantly at it. It would be her path to freedom from the torment of living a fraudulent life. Laura just wants out, and death seems the only avenue open to her. The ease with which Laura can choose to die, the comfort she takes in the idea, will resonate in the future.

The birthday cake once again represents Laura's failure in her social role and thus in her life. She wanted it to be her great triumph. But a cake is just a cake, an insignificant and transient object through which she can never find significance and meaning. (It's interesting to contrast this with Virginia Woolf's rejection of death because it made the thrush seem so insignificant.) Even though the second cake was far better than the first, Laura still sees only its imperfections, which are glaring examples of her own imperfections, her failures. The cake is wrong in the way that Laura is wrong: She is not at her root a baker of perfect cakes. So trying to make one is wrong because it's a betrayal of her true self and thus reinforces her sense of failure. Clearly, nothing Laura does in her current life will express her true self, so everything in this life will be wrong, or false and soul-crushing. Nothing in the world has reality for her because she feels unreal to herself.

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