Feb 17, 2012

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s 1924 novel The Home-Maker is, as Karen Knox says in her introduction, depressingly current. It tells the story of Lester and Evangeline Knapp and their three children, all of whom lead lives of quiet desperation. Lester works as a clerk in the accounting department of a large department store – a job he absolutely loathes. Evangeline, a competent and strong-willed woman, looks after the house and the children, and hates it every bit as much as her husband hates his job.

Lester’s social standing and personal satisfaction are further harmed by the fact that he has been unable to secure a promotion at work, and thus to earn enough money to allow his family to live more comfortably. His wife resents this situation, but considers it her duty never to complain. These characters’ lives radically change when an accident gives Lester and Evangeline a socially sanctioned opportunity to reverse the roles they play: Evangeline becomes the breadwinner and Lester the stay-at-home parent. Bit by bit, the family begins to experience the happiness that has always eluded them.

Part of what makes The Home-Maker such a strong novel is how Dorothy Canfield Fisher draws attention to the fact that what forces these characters into restrictive roles that make them miserable isn’t only external expectations. Lester and Evangeline aren’t just giving in to social pressure and forfeiting their happiness in the process. It’s not just a matter of worrying about what the neighbours will think; the real problem is that they’re doing what they, too, have been socialised to believe is the only right thing. And if breaking free from that were an easy task, or even a matter of individual strength, social change would happen a lot more easily than it actually does.

This is true to such an extent that without the opportunity provided by Lester’s disability, the two couldn’t possibly live with their decision. Both deeply believe that men are supposed to make money and women are supposed to sacrifice everything for their families. The narrator tells us that Lester believes that “a father who had only love and no money – the sooner he was out of the way, the better. He had had that unquestioned axiom ground into every bleeding fibre of his heart.” As for Evangeline, she plays a role that is both outwardly praise and implicitly devalued (much as it is today). Everyone believes that being a wife and a mother is a woman’s highest calling, but this belief seems to coexist quite easily with the notion that the work women like her do is absolutely worthless. She’s therefore trapped between feeling like she’s doing her duty and feeling that her life has no value. And of course, these beliefs about women’s work colour people’s reactions to a men like Lester performing domestic tasks.

All these complex internalised beliefs and the social expectations that surround them mean that the Knappses desperately need a socially acceptable reason to be an exception to the rule. Lester’s injury provides a safe haven – without it, their arrangement cannot go on existing, no matter how effective and satisfying it has proved.

The Knappses’ lives as described in the second part of the novel may not strike readers as particularly revolutionary because even though gender roles have been reversed, there’s still a very rigid division of labour. One partner still leads her life mainly in the public sphere; the other in the private arena. Furthermore, there seems to be limited cooperation in domestic tasks. However, it’s important to remember that portraying a domestic arrangement in which these roles are not intrinsically tied to gender is no small thing, particularly in 1924.

And even more significant is the fact that Lester’s domesticity requires no self-obliteration on his part. He enjoys the fact that manual tasks allow him to think about poetry and writing as he works. What this family does, therefore, is not reverse the gender of the person doing the self-denial, but find an arrangement that does away with it altogether. Domestic cooperation is not an ideal to be attained for its own sake, but so that men and women can find ways to live satisfying, fulfilled lives. Lester and Evangeline stick to a traditional if gender-role reversed arrangement, but the crucial thing is that they still find a way to do exactly that: each person finds the freedom to do something they are temperamentally suited for and which makes them happy, regardless of their gender.

The Home-Maker is as much a novel about parenting as it is about gender roles: Stephen, the younger member of the family, is at the start of the novel perceived as a difficult, sulky child who his mother has no idea how to handle. Canfield Fisher tells us in moving detail how his greatest fear is no have his beloved teddy bear disfigured by being washed in the laundry machine – but this is a fear he knows he can’t even begin to communicate to his mother. Stephen’s story draws attention to the importance of giving even a very young child a right to autonomy; an opportunity to have a say in his or her own fate and of not being reduced to absolute dependence and powerlessness.

Shortly after finishing The Home-Maker I read bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody, and the following passage, from a chapter titled “Feminist Parenting”, particularly caught my attention:
Women are often the primary culprits in everyday violence against children simply because they are the primary parental caregivers. While it was crucial and revolutionary that the feminist movement called attention to the fact that male domination in the home often creates an autocracy where men sexually abused children, the fact is that masses of children are daily abused verbally and physically by women and men. Maternal sadism often leads women to emotionally abuse children, and feminist theory has not yet offered both feminist critique and feminist intervention when the issue is adult female violence against children.
hooks wrote this book twelve years ago, and I believe that things have begun to change in the intervening time. But what’s really remarkable is that 80 years before, Dorothy Canfield Fisher was already pointing out how complete parental dominance is facilitated by traditional domestic power dynamics. Evangeline Knapp is not a monster – far from it. She’s just someone who feels trapped and is deeply unhappy. She was put in a position where she was allowed no personhood, and that makes it difficult for her to recognise that she should respect the identity and boundaries of the small child in her care. What she is doing isn’t widely recognised as emotional abuse, much like the situation she finds herself in is widely perceived as normal. An arrangement that routinely demands that someone give up their individuality is not unlikely to result in a caregiver that is blind to the individuality of others.

In addition to being full of interesting and very contemporary ideas, The Home-Maker is wonderfully written: Dorothy Canfield Fisher is observant, insightful, and able to evoke a whole world of emotions with only a few words. She tells the Knappses’ story though alternating points of view, which gives readers the opportunity to see what things are like for each of the characters.

Karen Knox’s introduction tells us that Canfield Fisher was a contender for the Pulitzer in her lifetime, and was then thought of as highly as her contemporary Edith Wharton. It’s a shame that such a remarkable writer has been largely forgotten, but thankfully Persephone has done something to change that. This is certainly a new addition to my mental list of favourite Persephones. I can’t wait to read Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s The Brimming Cup, which I own in the Virago Modern Classics edition.

Many thanks to the lovely Claire, who very kindly gave me this book.

Favourite passages:
Lester found the child’s relief shocking. It made him ill to think what a dread must have preceded it, what a fathomless blackness of uncertainty in Stephen’s life it must represent. He spoke roughly, almost as he would to another man, ‘You don’t have to thank me, Stevie,’ he said. ‘Great Scott, old boy, it’s none of my business what you do with your own Teddy, is it?’
Even as he spoke – like a lurid side-glimpse—was it possible that there were people who would enjoy thanks extorted on those infamous terms? Were they ever set over children?
(…)
The two were silent, father and son.
Lester said to himself, shivering, ‘What a ghastly thing to have sensitive, helpless human beings absolutely in the power of other human beings! Absolute, unquestioned power! Nobody can stand that. It’s cold poison. How many wardens of prisons are driven sadistically mad with it!’
He recoiled from it with terror. ‘You have to be a superman to be equal to it.’
In the silent room he heard it echoing solemnly. ‘That’s what it is to be a parent.’

Mattie turned, saw what he was doing, and pounced on him with shocked, peremptory benevolence. ‘Oh, Lester, let me do that! The idea of your darning stockings! It’s dreadful enough your having to do the housework!’
‘Eva darned them a good many years,’ he said, with some warmth, ‘and did the housework. Why shouldn’t I?’ He looked at her hard and went on, ‘Do you know what you are saying to me, Mattie Farnham? You are telling me that you really think that home-making is a poor, mean, cheap job beneath the dignity of anybody who can do anything else.’
Mattie Farnham was for a moment helpless with shock over his attack. When she slowly rose to comprehension of what he had said she shouted indignantly, ‘Lester Knapp, how care you say such a thing! I never dreamed of having such an awful idea.’ She brought out a formula again, but this time with heartfelt personal conviction. ‘Home-making is the noblest work anybody can do!’
‘Why pity me then?’ asked Lester with a grin, drawing his needle in and out of the little stocking.
‘Well, but…’ she said breathlessly, and was silent.
They read it too: Books and Chocolate, Shelf Love, My Porch, Rebecca Reads, Reviews by Lola, Lakeside Musings

(You?)Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

15 comments:

Amanda said...

I really wanted to like this book - it was one of the very few Persephone books that appealed to me - but I couldn't get past the writing, sadly. I tried...

Vishy said...

Wonderful review, Ana! It is amazing that Dorothy Canfield Fisher has written a book like this 80 years back - the reversing of gender roles in a novel must have been controversial and revolutionary during those times. I want to read this book now. And recommend it to lots of friends :)

I am not sure though that I will agree with some of what the book says. Especially in the second part, on which you have touched on for a bit. As you have said, reversing gender roles in a rigid way may not necessarily work. I think the institution of family is quite complex these days - with both husband and wife spending time in raising their kids, managing their home and also managing their career and their interests. Unfortunately, there is only so much of time. I don't know how they manage to achieve the balance here - it seems to require superhuman work. It makes one yearn for the old times when life was slow-paced and less complex. I am also not sure whether women would like a stay-at-home husband. In principle, if a stay-at-home mom is possible, then a stay-at-home dad should also be possible. But, unfortunately, because of cultural conditioning and the way human beings have thought for centuries, a stay-at-home dad doesn't feel valued and is most of the time not respected by his wife and children. I have seen it actually happen in the family of one of my friends. Life is so hard...

Thanks for this wonderful review and for introducing a fascinating new author to us.

Nymeth said...

Amanda: That's too bad, but can't love them all, right?

Vishy: I didn't read this so much as a novel that makes a clear point and then invites readers to agree or disagree but as one that raises alternative possibilities to what were then (and still are now) dominant arrangements and engages with all the further questions they raise. You're right that replacing a prescriptive arrangement where women are expected to stay at home by one where men are the ones to do that is neither realistic in our world nor particularly helpful. I also agree that a man who took on a "female" role such as housekeeping wouldn't be respected by the majority of people, not even his own family, and that's as true and problematic now as it was in 1924. But the interesting thing about this story is that it actually clearly acknowledges that. It's only this family's very specific circumstances that allow Lester to keep his self-respect and avoid social ostracism. I'd say more, but I don't want to give the whole story away :P Anyway, I'd love to discuss it more at length with you if you ever decide to pick it up.

litlove said...

This is a Persephone novel I have earmarked for myself at some point, so I'm delighted to read your excellent review. I particularly enjoyed the section on social expectations and how deeply ingrained their are in our mentalities. Change is a simple word and a highly complex act, often leading us to challenge the very structures and beliefs that keep us safe, even if unhappy. It's easy to scorn those who don't or can't change, when it really is not a simple process at all.

bermudaonion said...

It's interesting that this was written in 1924. We've progressed some in this area, but not nearly enough.

Kailana said...

I actually haven't explored Persephone books at all. I know they are very popular around the blogosphere, but I haven't even browsed the catalogue. Probably bad of me...

Amanda said...

Oh, gosh, speaking as someone who suffered at the hands of a "sadist mother," I find it so glorious to see it discussed in print this way, even to such a minor extent. And bell hooks' statement is so spot on. I think both of these books are going on my wishlist, thanks Nymeth.

Teresa said...

I'm glad to see that you enjoyed this, and you make some good points about how the problem was inside the main characters as much as it was in society itself. It's frustrating how much we let ourselves get told what we want--and then believe it whether it's true or not.

And it is sad that the message of the book still feel current. Sigh.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

I haven't explored Persephone books either, but this one sounds like a good place to start. As always, I love your deep analysis of the book and you made me want to read it!

Tasha B. said...

That's why the world needs unconventional thinkers. :)

JoAnn said...

Excellent review, as always, Ana! I absolutely loved this novel. My heart ached for all of them.

Chris said...

Oh wow this sounds awesome!! I've been dying to read a persephone lately too....I still have my copy of Saplings that you gave me waiting for me :) I have to read that sometime! Goal this weekend is to finally catch up with my friends which means finally sending you a long overdue email...I miss you Ana :( And um...getting your birthday package mailed....T_T God I'm such a horrible friend. Also, if you ever get bored, I tagged you for a meme :p That'll throw you back to 2007, huh? lol.http://www.dream-stuff.com/2012/02/new-sparkly-shiny-meme.html

Vishy said...

I just placed an order for the book, Ana. I saw two editions, and decided to get the Persephone edition. Because that was the one you read and also because I have never read a Persephone before. Can't wait to read it :) Thanks for the glowing review.

Buried In Print said...

This is one that I've been wanting to read for ages, but I haven't gotten to it yet, partly because I don't have a copy of it -- Persephone or otherwise -- though I've managed to snag a few of her other books here and there. I have the idea that I'm going to want to binge on her work once I dip my toe into it: you know that feeling!?

Christy said...

That is book was published in the 1920's is rather cool. I love how you examined this. Although I am not married myself, the issue of spousal sharing of housework and parenting is one that troubles me at times.

In a graduate course I took once, I read about a study (by Perrone, Webb and Blalock, published in Journal of Career Development in 2005, just to be specific) that found that married women have more responsibility for childcare and housework than their spouse even if their income is higher.

So, yeah, definitely still signs that women are expected to take on the lion's share of domestic duties, even when both parents are working.

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