The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Chapter 6 : Mrs. Brown | Summary

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Summary

Laura Brown is in her kitchen preparing to bake her husband's birthday cake. She's using all the bowls and utensils any suburban housewife has in her cupboard. Laura imagines the cake as "glossy and resplendent as any photograph in any magazine." It will be the ultimate home-baked birthday cake, celebrating the "comfort and safety" of her and her family's suburban existence. She even thinks of the cake as an expression of her artistic nature, comparing its creation to the work of artists and architects, to Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.

She has sifted the flour, and now she asks Richie if he'd like to help by measuring out four cups of flour and putting them in a bowl. She hands Richie a measuring cup, and he scoops up a cup of flour. Laura can see he is nervous, but he puts the flour in the bowl without spilling anything. Laura asks Richie if he can do the other three cups on his own, and he says yes. But Richie is so fearful he becomes "paralyzed over the bowl's gleaming white concavity." He can't bring himself to tip the cup and put the flour in the bowl. Laura tells him to "turn it over," and he does. But her comment at his accomplishment is "oopsie," which Richie interprets as criticism: "He looks at her in terror. His eyes fill with tears." Laura feels rather irked at Richie's sensitivity. Why, she thinks, does she have to be so careful with him? Then she tells Richie she meant to say that he did really well. Richie smiles, relieved. Richie agrees to put in the remaining cups of flour.

Laura feels that, in a way, she has become the woman she's expected to be. She's crossed a line into accepting her social role. There in her kitchen, "she's caught up with herself ... gotten the knack of living happily, as herself." She feels determined not to "mourn her lost possibilities" and to "want [her] second child."

Analysis

The birthday cake represents Laura's identity as the perfect housewife. She's certain the cake will be flawless. It has to be. Laura is determined to make a cake that solidifies her suburban identity as a woman who not only has embraced socially acceptable domesticity but has excelled at it beyond anyone's highest expectations. She's determined it also will be an expression of her artistic soul because she has no other way of expressing this aspect of her being.

By the end of the chapter, Laura thinks she's finally become the person she is supposed to be. In this moment Laura is trying to convince herself she's sloughed off her old identity, her unrealized inner self, and wholly melded with her social role. She thinks she'll be fine in her role as housewife and won't mourn what she can't be. But it's clear she's fighting her true impulses. Even when she thinks of her love for her son, she considers him in negative terms: she doesn't resent him or wish to leave him. It's clear she feels otherwise. She does resent him and does wish to leave, but in this quintessentially domestic moment she dares not admit it to herself.

There is deep, disquieting meaning underlying the way Richie and Laura view each other and interact. There is a falsity in the forced and ungentle way Laura speaks to Richie. She says the right things ("Good!" "Okeydokey"), but they fail to convey warmth and acceptance. Richie gazes at her with adoration, but that may be his way of begging for loving attention from his mother. When Richie thinks Laura is criticizing him, he becomes terrified of her. It's very likely that he's terrified of never getting the love he longs to have from her rather than afraid of being punished. There is no indication that she punishes him, but there is abundant evidence that she does not really love him and instead tries to suppress her feelings of resentment and desire for escape. No doubt Richie intuits that these are precisely the things she does feel and want. He senses his mother's indifference.

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