The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Chapter 17 : Mrs. Brown | Summary

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Summary

Laura is only slightly late driving home from the hotel. Images from the novel Mrs. Dalloway drift through her mind. Laura feels that "she is herself and not herself" because she's so preoccupied by the novel. She finds her way to Mrs. Latch's house to pick up Richie. As she looks at the plaster squirrels decorating the Latch's lawn, Laura has an overwhelming sense of unbeing, "of being no one ... nothing." She realizes she's been "thinking ... longingly of death." Laura feels the onset of a panic attack. She feels like she's going to collapse but manages to get to Mrs. Latch's front door. She thinks the panic attack is a symptom of her inability to explain why she escaped to a hotel by herself.

Mrs. Latch answers the door, and Laura apologizes for being a bit late. When Laura enters the house Richie starts crying as he runs to his mother. Laura has the feeling she's interrupted something, as if Richie had been "in another realm altogether" before she showed up. Laura understands that she's away too often and that Richie may think he now lives with Mrs. Latch instead of Laura. Laura is "embarrassed by [Richie's] tears" and wonders, "why does he do this so often?"

As she drives Richie home, Laura attempts a cheerful tone as she reminds her son they have to get birthday dinner ready for Dan. As Richie "nods solemnly," Laura suddenly feels the nowhere feeling vanish, and the world assumes almost a hyper-reality for her. She speaks to Richie as if to a baby, saying, "it's a good thing Daddy works as late as he does [but] we'll put it all together in time, don't you think so?" Richie says nothing but gazes at Laura with a look in his eyes that reveals he's "suffering from an emotion she can't read." Then he blurts out in a frantic, desperate voice, "Mommy, I love you." Laura responds automatically, "I love you too, baby," and hopes she sounds natural. Then Laura begins to wonder if somehow Richie knows what she'd been doing that afternoon and that she's been lying about it. He studies her, she thinks, because she is the whole world to him. Laura continues to speak to him in a babyish, unnatural tone. Richie continues to respond with a "surprising ... hollowness in his voice." Laura thinks that he'll always know when she's failed, but "she remembers to smile" at him.

Analysis

After her hotel escape, Laura feels so unmoored she begins to lose her identity, feeling herself to be Virginia Woolf rather than herself. Her sense of unreality and loss of identity sends her spinning into a panic attack. It's likely that the panic attack arises more from her reentry into the world in which she is supposed to embody the social role she rejects than from her illicit sojourn in the hotel room. Her identity is so fragile that she feels like a nonbeing, like no one, a desperate woman who has longed for death and thought about committing suicide to escape her unbearably trivial life. In fact, when she pulls herself together a bit, it's to carry out the routine things expected of the good mother and housewife.

Just as Laura has spent the past few hours in another realm of being (or mind), so her son seems to have emerged from his own realm. That he cries as he runs toward his mother indicates that the realm he inhabited was one of insecurity and fear of the loss of his mother. Richie is likely experiencing his own crisis of identity, in which he's plagued by uncertainty about the constancy of his mother's love for him. He even wonders if Laura is really his mother. Richie disconcerts Laura because he's always staring at her as if his life depends on it (which it does). Although Laura recognizes this, she seems to have no emotional response to it. Her main worry is that he can tell she's lying about what she did that afternoon. His gaze conveys suffering she can't understand, and his voice sounds frantic and foreign to her. Laura seems uninterested in finding out the cause of his strange voice and behavior. Perhaps she intuits the true reason but cannot face it.

It is easy, and perhaps tempting, to condemn Laura for being so impervious and uncaring toward her son. She is enduring a crisis of identity so overwhelming that she would rather be dead than continue to live her life as it is, which includes Richie. She tries to cover up her indifference, and likely her panic, by trying to sound natural when she speaks to him. Richie correctly sees this feigned naturalness as a performance. He knows he's not truly loved and that she is not the natural, loving mother she pretends to be. Her emotional distance and artificiality terrify him and shatter him emotionally. It's less clear whether Laura realizes how profoundly her falseness affects Richie or how much she actually cares about how he feels.

Laura believes Richie judges her for her failures. It seems to Laura that everything in her life condemns her for her failure to embody her social role as a perfect wife and mother. Laura is so obsessed by attaining this perfection that she's oblivious to the damage she's causing her son, oblivious to the desperate need he has for her genuine motherly love.

This chapter is so chilling that it must raise the issue of whether Laura is or is becoming mentally ill. As Jameson Currier notes in his Washington Post review of The Hours, "Laura exists in an unbalanced 'twilight zone of sorts,'" torn between two worlds. She's increasingly out of touch with herself, and her efforts to be true to herself collide constantly with her equal but opposite efforts to attain perfect conformity. In a way, she is being torn apart psychically. It's little wonder she has to try mightily to sound and act natural. She is so shattered that she likely doesn't know what her nature is. It is tragic that Laura's derangement causes such intense suffering for those who love and need her—just as Virginia Woolf's mental illness does for her loved ones.

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