To all appearances, this late 1940s housewife seems like a poster child for all-American living.
Laura Brown lives in a sunny and pristine suburb of Los Angeles with a war-hero husband, a three-year-old son, and a baby on the way. She and her family live "in a house in which no one but they have ever lived" (3.38), outside they have an "extravagantly watered" lawn that glows "a brilliant, almost unearthly green" (3.52), and in their driveway sit two shiny Chevrolets.
The Browns, it seems, are living the white middle-class American dream.
The world of Laura Brown is post-war America, where "order and harmony" (3.14) reign supreme. As the novel's narrator puts it: "Outside the house is a world where the shelves are stocked, where radio waves are full of music, where young men walk the streets again, men who have known deprivation and a fear worse than death, who have willingly given up their early twenties and now, thinking of thirty and beyond, haven't any more time to spare. Their wartime training stands them in good stead. They are lean and strong. They are up at sunrise, uncomplaining" (3.38).
The women of this brave new world are doing their part, too. Laura sometimes feels as if all of them have turned their lives into long, continuous sacrifices for the young men who've returned from the war:
She wonders, while she pushes a cart through the supermarket or has her hair done, if the other women aren't all thinking, to some degree or other, the same thing: Here is the brilliant spirit, the woman of sorrows, the woman of transcendent joys, who would rather be elsewhere, who has consented to perform simple and essentially foolish tasks, to examine tomatoes, to sit under a hair dryer, because it is her art and her duty. (3.14)
Yeah, sounds kind of drab, really, doesn't it? So why is everyone doing it? Well, here's what Laura thinks about the situation:
Because the war is over the world has survived, and we are here, all of us, making homes, having and raising children, creating not just books or paintings but a whole world—a world of order and harmony where children are safe (if not happy), where men who have seen horrors beyond imagining, who have acted bravely and well, come home to lighted windows, to perfume, to plates and napkins. (3.14)
Here's the problem, though: Laura finds this brave new world stifling and oppressive. For her, suburban life, marriage, and motherhood feel like a death sentence from which she cannot escape.
How did she end up here?
You won't find a better description of Laura Brown than the one that Michael Cunningham himself offered in an interview with the Guardian Book Club in 2011. There, our intrepid author revealed that Laura was "very much based" on his own mother, who always seemed to him to be "a sort of Amazon queen, brought with every good intention from where she belonged to an enclosure that was simply too small for her. She was just a bigger, deeper, more intelligent person than the person she was required to be" (source).
Laura Brown was born Laura Zielski (3.8). Although her family's roots in America stretch back for more than a century (3.42), she knows that people have always thought of her as being "foreign-looking" (3.8; 3.42). She is "broad-shouldered," "angular," and "dark" (3.42).
Laura Zielski knew Dan Brown before he went off to war. Her little brother was Dan's best friend, and, when Dan returned home from the front, he surprised everyone by chasing after the woman who'd been kind of like an older sister to him:
He could (in the words of his own alarmed mother) have had anyone, any pageant winner, any vivacious and compliant girl, but through some obscure and possibly perverse genius had kissed, courted, and proposed to his best friend's older sister, the bookworm, the foreign-looking one with the dark, close-set eyes and the Roman nose, who had never been sought after or cherished, who had always been left alone, to read. (3.8)
In turn, Laura felt compelled to marry Dan: "What could she say but yes? How could she deny a handsome, good-hearted boy, practically a member of the family, who had come back from the dead?" (3.8).
Yeah, well, it hasn't turned out so great. Since marrying Dan, Laura has felt as though her former self has disappeared: "Laura Zielski, the solitary girl, the incessant reader, is gone, and here in her place is Laura Brown" (3.8).
Although she tries to recapture aspects of her former life by reading books whenever she can and continuing to "improve her mind" (3.14), Laura can't help but feel as though there's something essentially unreal about her new life—as though marriage, motherhood, and suburban domesticity are nothing but theatrical roles that she, an anxious and underprepared actress, is required to play.
Throughout The Hours, Laura is constantly on edge, and she's hypersensitive to her every change in mood. She suffers from symptoms that could be called obsessive or depressive, and she maintains a Mad Eye Moody level of constant vigilance over her thoughts and feelings as she waits for some sign that she might actually be able to live happily ever after with her husband and children.
Just take a look, for example, at this scene in which she presides over her husband's birthday supper:
Laura watches. The dining room seems, right now, like the most perfect imaginable dining room, with its hunter-green walls and its dark maple hutch holding a trove of wedding silver. The room seems almost impossibly full: full of the lives of her husband and son; full of the future. It matters; it shines.
Laura reads the moment as it passes. Here it is, she thinks; there it goes. The page is about to turn. (19.15-16)
The moments of happiness and normality that Laura occasionally feels never seem to last very long. More often than not, they start to fade away just as soon as she becomes aware of them.
Over the course of the single day that we see through Laura's eyes, we watch as she musters up the energy to get out of bed and face the day, as she tries (and fails) to make a beautiful cake that will realize some of her artistic ambitions, and as she begins to think "longingly" of death (17.2). Although Laura begins her day wondering how a woman like Virginia Woolf could have ever chosen to take her own life, by mid-afternoon she's decided that it's actually very comforting to feel that death will always be one possible means of escape (12.38).
We never learn when or how Laura tries to kill herself, but we know that she will make the attempt at some point in the future (22.44). In the late evening, as Laura gets ready for bed, she stands in her bathroom and looks at the sleeping pills that are kept in her medicine cabinet. In this moment—as in so many others throughout The Hours—the novel's narrator gives us intimate insight into her thoughts:
She takes the bottle off the shelf, holds it up to the light. There are at least thirty pills inside, maybe more. She puts it back on the shelf.
It would be as simple as checking into a hotel room. It would be as simple as that. Think how wonderful it might be to no longer matter. Think how wonderful it might be to no longer worry, struggle, or fail.
What if that moment at dinner—that equipoise, that small perfection—were enough? What if you decided to want no more? (21.4-6)
Deciding whether life is worth living or not is something that many characters in this novel face. Some say yes, some say no; Laura is an example of someone who's on the fence about the question.
In the final chapter of the novel, Laura appears as an elderly woman in the late twentieth-century world of Clarissa Vaughan. After her adult son, Richard Brown, slides himself out of a fifth-story window and dies, Laura comes to New York City to mourn him.
As Clarissa looks at Laura, she thinks to herself: "here is the woman from Richard's poetry. Here is the lost mother, the thwarted suicide; here is the woman who walked away" (22.44).
Although we get only the barest of details, we can piece together some of what happens to Laura after the day that we spend with her. At some point, she attempts to take her own life, but that attempt is prevented. Sometime later, she finds a different way to end the life she's living: she leaves her family and moves far, far away—to Toronto, where she becomes a librarian (22.86).
In the film adaptation of The Hours, Julianne Moore crystallizes all of Laura's feelings when she delivers just two little lines: "It was death; I chose life". Although it's clear that Laura's decision brought a lot of pain to her family—and inspired volumes of tormented poetry from Richard—it's also clear that she and Clarissa have quite a lot in common, after all. In the end, Laura chose to go on living in the best way she knew how, regardless of the cost.