In Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Hours, the pressures placed on stay-at-home wives in the 1940s and 50s are explored with sincerity and a depth of reality known only to those who have lived the confines of that lifestyle. One-third of the novel is dedicated to a single day in the life of Laura Brown, a deeply lonely and sensitive young mother oppressed by the expectations of the “appropriate” behavior and skillset of a mid-century homemaker. The story follows her as she attempts, and ultimately fails, at what should be an easy task: baking a chocolate cake for her husband’s birthday. Explore one day in Laura’s life by reading some important quotes from the text, then creating a social-media post, “Expectation vs. Reality,” based on real 1950s homemaker ads.
American History, Home Science
- personal technology
STEP 1. DISCUSS
Laura Brown is a woman who loves to read. She struggles staying present in her everyday life as a mother and wife, and reading provides her the escape she longs for. Author Michael Cunningham explains that Laura, a “bookworm,” had always been “left alone to read,” never expecting that anyone, let alone a local World War II hero, would court and propose to her. In an opening description of her peppered with “shoulds” (she “should” be fixing breakfast, she “should” be out of bed by now), we learn of the constant turmoil she fights against. Laura’s husband, Dan, is kind and gentle, making her loathing of her life even more frustrating and shame-inducing. She decides to bake a cake for her husband’s birthday, and it comes to symbolize all her skill (or lack thereof) in homemaking. Laura is oppressed by the perfectionism spouted by 1950s wife culture and its strict post-war gender roles. An article from PBS’s website described the era as such: “For young mothers in the 1950s, domesticity was idealized in the media, and women were encouraged to stay at home if the family could afford it. Women who chose to work when they didn’t need the paycheck were often considered selfish, putting themselves before the needs of their family.”
In many American states, a “marriage bar” was in place all the way until the early 1970s which prevented women from working in certain fields (like civil service or teaching) once they were married. After World War II, the expectation for many white, middleclass homemakers, like Laura, was that they would stay home to cook, clean, and raise children, leaving home only to shop or attend church, ladies’ society functions, or charity meetings. And while some women surely enjoyed and reveled in these expectations, just as many felt stifled by them. Advertising agencies began to capitalize on the homemaker, designing ad campaigns targeted directly to the housewife who was encouraged to derive her sense of self and value from a clean and organized home.
Break into groups of two or three people. Have each group select one of the quotes below. Take five minutes to read the quote as a group and discuss what you learn about Laura from the quote. Have each group share out their findings.
He [her husband, Dan] 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 possible 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. What could she say but yes?
She should not be permitting herself to read, not this morning of all mornings; not on Dan’s birthday. She should be out of bed, showered and dressed, fixing breakfast for Dan and Richie. She can hear them downstairs, her husband making his own breakfast, ministering to Richie. She should be there, shouldn’t she?
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. 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 imaging, who have acted bravely and well, come home to lighted windows, to perfume, to plates and napkins.
He [Laura’s son, Richie] wears blue pajamas. He is happy to see her, and more than happy; he is rescued, resurrected, transported by love. Laura reaches into the pocket of her robe for a cigarette, changes her mind, raises her hand instead to her hair. It is almost perfect, it is almost enough, to be a young mother in a yellow kitchen touching her thick, dark hair, pregnant with another child.
She is going to produce a birthday cake—only a cake—but in her mind at this moment, the cake is glossy and resplendent as any photograph in any magazine; it is better, even, than the photographs of cakes in magazines. She imagines making, out of the humblest materials, a cake with all the balance and authority of an urn or a house. The cake will speak of bounty and delight the way a good house speaks of comfort and safety. This, she thinks, is how artists or architects must feel (it’s an awfully grand comparison, she knows, maybe even a little foolish, but still), faced with canvas, with stone, with oil or wet cement. Wasn’t a book like Mrs. Dalloway once just empty paper and a pot of ink? It’s only a cake, she tells herself. But still. There are cakes and then there are cakes.
The cake is cute, Kitty tells her, the way a child’s painting might be cute. It is sweet and touching in its facility. Laura understands: there are two choices only. You can be capable or uncaring. You can produce a masterful cake by your own hand or, barring that, light a cigarette, declare yourself hopeless at such projects, pour yourself another cup of coffee, and order a cake from the bakery. Laura is an artisan who has tried and failed, publicly. She has produced something cute, when she had hoped (it’s embarrassing, but true) to produce something of beauty.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION:
- How do I feel as I read this quote?
- What word(s) stick out to me?
- How is Laura feeling in the quote? What is going on around her?
- What do you suspect happened just before this quote in the story? After?
STEP 2. CREATE YOUR MEME
Expectation vs. Reality memes have grown increasingly popular on platforms like Instagram and TikTok. These memes show (usually through humor) the disparities found in modern culture. They can be both universally relatable and strangely specific. Expectation vs. Reality memes attempt to convey how a person desires something to make them feel (organized, clean, and relaxed!) versus how it really makes them feel (disappointed, tired, old). Let’s examine some advertisements from the 1950s and see if we can create “Expectation vs. Reality” memes around them.
For this exercise, students will follow the steps below:
- Use your personal technology to find an image of a 1950s advertisement that speaks to you. Example search terms could be “1950s housewife ad,” “advertisements 1950s,” or something similar. The ad can be a photograph or a drawing and should include an image of a housewife working in her home. Examples could include: A woman baking, mopping the floor, or ironing clothes. Focus on images that show the subject clearly enjoying a task which is probably not enjoyable in reality.
- Your selected image will be used as the first of two images in a meme. It should represent the “Expectation” part of the “Expectation vs. Reality” meme.
- Now, create a photo to partner with the first which shows the reality of the task/emotional quality expressed in the first picture. Ask a partner to take the photo for you so that you can act out the “Reality” of the task.
- Edit your images so that they are side by side. Label the first “Expectation” and the second “Reality."
Share with your peers and discuss the following:
- Why did you select this advertisement?
- What is this ad trying to sell? Would you buy this product?
- What is the emotional state of the housewife in the ad?
- What are the similarities between your “Reality” photo and the original ad?
- What are the key differences between the two that make the second more realistic?
- How might you feel seeing this ad were you a housewife in the 1950s?