The Hours | Study Guide

Michael Cunningham

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The Hours | Chapter 9 : Mrs. Brown | Summary

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Summary

Laura Brown's cake "is less than she'd hoped it would be. She tries not to mind." The flower decorations and the writing on top are clumsy and destroy the effect. Laura tries to take her mind off the less-than-remarkable cake by doing some housecleaning and wrapping the birthday gifts she's bought for Dan. But the failed cake preys on her mind. She thinks of Virginia Woolf's suicide but then "will not let herself go morbid ... she will not mind about anything."

Kitty, Laura's neighbor, knocks at the door. Laura feels panicky at the thought that her appearance and her house are not up to snuff and that Kitty will fault her for that. But Laura summons up the courage to invite Kitty in. Kitty sits down at the kitchen table, takes a cup of coffee, and then gets up to look at the cake, which she admires as cute even though Laura deprecates her effort. They sit and drink their coffee while Laura recognizes how much she values Kitty's friendship. Laura asks about Kitty's husband, Ray, who she thinks of as "not a complete failure but ... somehow Kitty's version of Laura's cake ... a middle-aged drub" and bureaucrat. The women talk about their husbands, wondering "what makes them tick." They talk about the brand of coffee Laura uses. Kitty is attractive and was once "deeply, almost profoundly popular." Now she looks down at her coffee and tells Laura she has "some kind of growth" in her uterus. She asks Laura to feed her dog while she's in the hospital for exploratory surgery. Laura tries to comfort and reassure Kitty whose life "is quickly unraveling." Laura hugs Kitty and "is flooded with feeling." Then Kitty and Laura kiss each other gently on the lips. Laura thinks "she's gone too far."

After Kitty leaves, Laura looks at Richie, who "stares [at her] nervously." Laura wants only to go to bed and read. She gets Richie to play with his blocks and then throws the cake into the garbage. She feels relieved. She will make another, more perfect birthday cake.

Analysis

Laura's birthday cake represents her failure in her social role. It is clumsy and awkward, and it doesn't fit its purpose. Laura needed the cake to be perfect and remarkable to cement her identity as the perfect housewife. Instead, the cake, to her mind, is a failure that reveals her inadequacies. Laura also wanted the cake to express her inner creativity, like a work of art. Instead, it's merely cute. The cake's purpose transcends its domestic mundanity, at least in Laura's mind.

Laura's discontent with the cake is contrasted with her ideas about how Dan feels about things, including her. Laura wants to put passion into the things she does, however mundane. She finds Dan's bland equanimity infuriating and unsatisfying. She finds it almost incomprehensible that her cake is a failure and yet Dan still loves her. Her mere presence in the house is all he needs to be happy. The thought that Dan's love is a form of appreciation for her dedicated domesticity turns Laura's thoughts immediately to Virginia Woolf's suicide. Bland appreciation that impersonates love is killing the creative being at Laura's core. She accepts Dan's love because she wants to embody the social role of the perfect wife rather than become a solitary, quirky soul—but it's clear the latter is what she really craves. After Kitty leaves, Laura wants nothing more than to sit alone in bed reading. When Laura tosses the cake into the garbage, she feels liberated, both from her role as the perfect wife and from the evidence of her imperfection.

Domesticity and social roles engender harsh judgments of others. At first Laura feels inadequate in the face of Kitty's aura of domesticity and cleanliness. But she diminishes Kitty by disparaging her husband, Ray, who she thinks is a complete failure. Kitty's assessment of the cake as cute hurts Laura. But when Kitty describes her possibly fatal physical condition, the two women seem to transcend their assumed domestic identities. Now that Kitty is no longer a threat to Laura, no longer a judge, the veils of social roles are ripped away. But after Laura kisses Kitty lightly on the lips, suggesting a lesbian attraction, Kitty immediately replaces the veil, hiding behind platitudes when she says of their kiss, "that's sweet." Laura's kiss likely represents her desire for a meaningful and honest connection with another person. Laura kisses Kitty when Kitty finally drops her guard, stops performing her social role, and reveals her true nature.

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