The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Chapter 3 : Mrs. Brown | Summary

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Summary

Laura Brown lives in Los Angeles. It is June 1949. She is sitting up in bed reading the Virginia Woolf novel Mrs. Dalloway, beginning with the first line, "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself"—which ended the previous chapter of The Hours. Laura is trying to immerse herself in the novel's parallel universe. She glances at her bedside clock, noting it's a "hideous thing." She needs to stop reading soon because she must prepare the celebratory dinner for her husband, Dan, whose birthday is today. Laura remembers her dream, which pulsed like "a gigantic mechanical heart" that left her with the certainty that this would be a difficult day for her. Yet, she stays in bed a while longer, feeling that her being pregnant grants her this luxury.

Laura decides that she will bake "a perfect birthday cake" for Dan and buy some flowers for the center of the dining room table. She hopes these efforts will compensate for her not making breakfast for her husband and her three-year-old son, Richie (who will become the adult character Richard Brown). She reads another page of the book but thinks she must soon get up, as "there's not much room for idleness" in her suburban life. Laura remembers being courted by Dan, a man so handsome and charming he could have chosen any woman to be his wife. But he chose her, so how could she not say yes to marrying him? Laura grants herself yet one more minute of reading and the feeling of "weightless brilliance" it gives her. The beauty and depth of Woolf's language and insight force Laura to wonder how and why someone so talented would kill herself. Laura "likes to imagine she has a touch of brilliance herself," and she wonders if other women feel the same way while they go shopping and live their unremarkable lives.

Laura gets out of bed and goes downstairs. She pauses on the steps to listen to Dan and Richie talking and suppresses "her irritation at the sound of her husband's voice." She makes herself think of the birthday cake and the flowers. Laura enters the kitchen and wishes her husband a happy birthday. There is a bouquet of white roses in the center of the table that Dan bought himself for his birthday. This makes Laura angry but she quickly smothers the feeling, although she insists Dan should have awakened her so she could have prepared breakfast. He responds by patting her abdomen, with its precious fetus inside. But Laura won't let it go, insisting she likes to get up early to make them breakfast. Dan agrees to wake her up at six o'clock in the morning the next day.

Laura pours herself a cup of coffee and kisses Dan on the cheek, but she can tell he's already thinking about his work day ahead. She asks about the roses, which Dan got up before six a.m. to buy at a nearby florist. Then he sees the time and says he's got to go. After he drives away, Richie "watches her adoringly, expectantly" because she is the center of his life and the life of the house. Richie's bottomless adoration makes Laura feel uncomfortable, as if she "can't remember how a mother would act" with a young son. She tells Richie that together they will bake a birthday cake for his father. It will be "the best cake he's ever seen." Richie seems dubious and "waits to see what will happen next." Laura is determined to "do all that's required, and more."

Analysis

Laura Brown is besieged by feelings of falseness because she's trapped in her social role as a Southern California mother and housewife. As Jameson Currier writes in his review of The Hours in the Washington Post, Laura "fights off despair from her suffocating marriage to a celebrated war hero." Her dream of a mechanical heart likely represents her alienation from her family and, thus, her own inner life. Laura is constantly aware of what she should do; supposedly natural actions, such as the unfeeling and peremptory kiss, are obligations, part of her performance as the good housewife and mother. The required kiss represents Laura's emotional distance from her family. Her whole life seems to involve striving for a convincing performance of her social role. She tries to convince herself everything is all right, telling herself she "does not dislike" her son or her husband. But these are not the thoughts of a woman who truly loves her family and her life. Laura's discontent is clear when she seems to lament that the avid reader she was as a young woman is gone, replaced by Laura Brown, the housewife.

When Laura daydreams about Virginia Woolf, she compares that writer's brilliance with her own feelings of sorrow, with her desire to be elsewhere. Laura imagines Woolf must, like herself, perform tasks out of a sense of duty. She equates herself in these ways with Woolf, admitting to herself, however obliquely, that she longs to escape the false life that stifles her true identity.

The image of water represents Laura's true self when she's immersed in a book. When Laura reads, she rises on a "wave of feeling" within the fictional text. When she is not in the free and buoyant realm of water, Laura crash lands back in her real life. When Laura finally resolves to go downstairs to the kitchen, she feels she is about to "dive into cold water." The cold water may hearken back to Woolf's suicide, or it may refer to the suppression of Laura's true self—as a solitary reader—when she's forced to resume her performance as wife and mother.

The birthday cake is a symbol of Laura's effort to fit into her social role, to force herself to become the perfect housewife society expects her to be. The birthday cake she will bake must therefore be perfect, the best cake ever, to convince both herself and her family that she is the ideal housewife—something she clearly is not. Even three-year-old Richie seems unconvinced. He senses the insincerity in his mother's false optimism and feigned enthusiasm for the baking project. It may be noteworthy that Laura's nickname for her small son is Bug. On some level it may simply be an affectionate nickname. On another level it may reflect how distant and alien she feels the child is from herself, the mother who cannot really love him. Laura admits she knows how to behave around Dan but not with Richie, who is utterly without artifice. Perhaps the child's honesty reveals to Laura her own falseness and lack of love and commitment. It makes sense that this would cause her to feel uncomfortable around him because of the stark emotional contrast between them. She's not sure how to act like a mother. Again, there's the conditionality and the insecurity of a false performance.

For Laura, flowers represent society's notions of a woman's proper role. They symbolize her potential to fill her role as a good wife. She will buy flowers to celebrate her husband's birthday, but she gets angry when she sees he has already bought some. In some way she may feel that he is undermining her and preventing her from fulfilling her expected social and familial role. Or perhaps she's angry because she thinks he understands that she's not really the perfect housewife she pretends to be.

Mortality, death, and suicide prey on Laura's mind. This is particularly true in terms of Virginia Woolf's suicide, which Laura seems unable to fathom. Although Laura is in many ways desperate to escape her own life, which she finds meaningless, false, and unsatisfying, she cannot make the leap of imagination to comprehend how Woolf might have had her own demons she needed to escape. Dan's experience in World War II inevitably involves mortality and death, but he somehow seems unaffected by the horrors he's seen and experienced. This may indicate some type of shallowness in Dan, or it may mean that he's able to bury his war trauma so deeply he is no longer affected by it. On the other hand the trauma may be affecting him intensely, but he feels compelled to adopt the steely, stoical demeanor society deems acceptable for American men. Although it's not at all obvious, if this is the case he and Laura have their lives of deception in common.

Mundane objects elicit Laura's disdain and dissatisfaction. For example, she hates the hideous bedside clock—like a "Bakelite sarcophagus"—she bought. In this instance the clock may represent the inexorable passing of time and approaching death. Similarly, Laura and her family live in a new house, but the objects in it seem tacky or trivially ostentatious to impress others who seek respectable social status. In this way they are unreal to Laura.

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