In The Hours, how does Laura’s cake function as a symbol?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Laura's life in The Hours mirrors many depictions we've seen of housewives in the 1940s. She and her family live in a pristine house in a pristine suburb. She is mother to a son and has a baby on the way, she is wife to a war hero husband, and she is living the life society has sold to women as the ideal American dream. The messages she has received are that any woman should be happy to live this life and that caring for her children, husband, and home should be enough to fulfill her.

The life of a caretaker and housewife is not enough to fulfill Laura, nor many other women, but this was not often openly talked about in the 1940s and Laura is left to her own resentment, guilt, and despair at feeling trapped and wanting to escape her "ideal" life.

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. (chapter 3, paragraph 14)

Laura bakes a cake for her husband's birthday, hoping that it will fulfill her desire for creative expression, but she is unsatisfied with the result. She knows that her husband will praise her work regardless, but she does not want empty praise. She wants to be recognized for her actual skills and creative talents. She both wants to be the perfect mother and wife and wants out of those roles that threaten to suffocate her. The cake serves as the ultimate symbol of Laura's internal turmoil and loss of her former self. We watch her go from struggling to get out of bed in the morning, to finding hope in the cake project, and finally, to feeling comforted by the thought of death—all in the span of a day.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the story, Laura's cake seems to function as a symbol of her competence, relevance, and worthiness as a wife and mother.

She first bakes a cake with her son Richie's help. However, the cake falls far short of her expectations. In Laura's mind, the cake seems to symbolize her failures. There are crumbs in the icing, and one of the frosted letters is squashed against a frosted rose. Laura is unusually disappointed at this first attempt.

Despite what she perceives as her failure, Laura knows that her husband Dan won't complain. She imagines that he'll rave over the cake and thank her profusely for her gift. In thinking about his possible future reaction, Laura marvels at her husband's simple, uncluttered nature. Dan seems to love and accept her, which is more than what she can say for herself.

In Laura's mind, it isn't enough to be loved; one must be competent and accomplished as well. Laura thinks that her abilities are a measure of her worthiness. It isn't enough for Dan or Richie to adore her—Laura also wants them to see her as a skilled virtuoso of sorts in her role as wife and mother. This is why she bakes a second cake. Her expectations eventually lead her to leave Dan and attempt suicide.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The symbol of the cake is deeply significant when we think about what it indicates about the character of Laura. She is desperately trying to play her role as perfect housewife, and tries to find her meaning and identity in performing this role perfectly. She desires deeply to be able to express her creative side, and sees baking the cake as a way of doing this. It is clear, however, that her first effort, made with Richie's help, does not meet her exacting standards, especially after the visit of her friend, and so she drives herself to make a better, a more perfect, cake instead, without Richie's help, because she recognises that his "help" is actually an impediment to her creative abilities, which is of course part of her decision to leave her family.

In the, end, she does achieve the perfection that she desires in the second cake. However, interestingly, she internally becomes incredibly angry when the cake is "ruined" after Dan spits on it when he blows out the candles. This in itself is part of the deeper symbolism of her character. No matter how perfect her art forms, in whatever shape, she recognises that her husband an son will be there to "ruin" it because of the way that they both are barriers to her artistic expresion. The cake therefore is a symbol above all of the limitations that Laura faces through her role as wife and mother, and an indication that to be artistically fulfilled, she will need to jettison these constraints.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team