I discovered ‘The Home-Maker’ by Dorothy Canfield Fisher through the review of Nymeth from Things Mean a Lot. I loved the basic premise of the book and couldn’t resist getting it. I started reading it a few days back and finished it in a couple of sittings. Here is what I think.
‘The Home-Maker’ is about a family and the interesting consequences of what happens when traditional gender roles are reversed. Evangeline Knapp is the mother who is a perfectionist. She likes her house to be spotlessly clean, she likes her children to behave properly all the time, she expects her husband to work hard and move up the professional ladder and she keeps her real feelings to herself. She doesn’t have time to let her hair down. Evangeline has a daughter and two sons. Her children love her but they are not able to connect with her emotionally. Lester Knapp, Evangeline’s husband, works at a local department store. He is not ambitious and is regarded as a cog in the wheel, at work. He doesn’t care about career advancement or about making more money. He likes poetry and literature. He is able to connect with his children, but doesn’t have the time to do that, because of his busy work schedule. The department store that Lester works in, gets a new boss who is young. This young gentleman, Jerome Willing, wants to re-organize the store and make things more efficient. The first casualty of this is Lester who gets sacked. A depressed Lester returns home, gets caught in a fire and has an accident, which paralyzes him waist down. The environment at home changes. Lester recovers enough after a few months though he is still paralyzed, stays at home, suddenly has time to spend with his children and is able to contribute to their emotional growth, helps them in dreaming and discovering their interests and suddenly the Knapp family’s home is a fun place to live in. However the problem of how to make money and bring bread to the table remains. Evangeline goes and meets Mr.Willing at the department store one day. Mr.Willing sees promise in her and hires her and puts her in the Cloak-and-suits department. Evangeline works hard, discovers that she has unexplored talent, has a knack for the business and rises up the ladder quite fast. Soon she is not just a stock girl, but she becomes a sales girl and is making more money than her husband ever made. Before long, she is promoted as the head of her department. Evangeline loves her life and she is able to let her hair down. Her children are able to connect with her emotionally. It looks like Lester’s accident was not bad at all because it seems to have helped the Knapp family members realize their potential. Just when we are thinking that the Knapp family is going to be happy ever after, a grey cloud arrives at the horizon. Lester’s doctor says that Lester can be cured and might be able to walk again. Though this news should make everyone happy, it makes everyone worried. Evangeline worries that she will have to give up her career, because if her husband is back to normal, he will have to go to work, as that is the norm at that time, and someone has to be at home to take care of things there and that someone will be her. Lester worries that eventhough he would like to stay home even if he gets back to normal, it will be difficult to face the criticism of his neighbours and society if he does that, because an able man is expected to work and not be a homemaker and so he would have to get back to the work he hated. The children worry that if their father goes back to work, things will go back to as they were before and that will be the end of their home as a fun-place. Does Evangeline give up her promising career? Does Lester give up what he loves, because that is what society demands? What happens to the Knapp family? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.
I liked ‘The Home-Maker’ very much. To me it looked like a book which was not written to entertain the reader with an interesting story or which had deep philosophical prose to make the reader think, but it was a book which was written to make a point and make the reader think by playing with extremes. It explores what happens when traditional gender roles are reversed and when a woman becomes the breadwinner of the family and a man becomes the homemaker. One of my friends who is a personal coach and who is one of the wisest persons I know once told me that if we are not sure what we like with respect to a particular aspect of life, we should explore extremes. That way we will be able to find the right balance of the two opposites which fits our lives. My friend mentioned this in the context of work-life balance. This book does the same with respect to gender roles at home. I am guessing that ‘The Home-Maker’ must have created quite a controversy when it first came out. The year it was published, 1924, was really a long time back, and the world was a different place then, when compared to now. The roles of men and women at home were defined by tradition then and were set in stone. Any kind of deviation from the norm was probably regarded with suspicion then. Looking at the book from that perspective, I think Dorothy Canfield Fisher must have been really brave to write it and publish it.
I thought it will be interesting to see how the book’s main theme applies to the world today. Karen Knox says this in the introduction to the book (written in 1999) – “The Home-Maker is seventy-five years old, but the situation it examines is as current today as when the book was first published. There are, of course, obvious differences in small town American life then and now, mostly technological advances in housekeeping and in business, but the basics remain depressingly the same.” I found it quite depressing to read that. I think that things have changed in many positive aspects with respect to what women can do to realize their potential. But some things remain the same. For example, if the husband and the wife are in similar positions at work, the wife’s career typically takes the backseat. When the husband is transferred to a new country on work, the wife is expected to tag along with him, giving up her career, or she is expected to find a job in the new country. But if the wife is transferred to a new country on work, she is not sure whether she can take up that position, because the husband may not tag along with her. Managing the home is still regarded as the wife’s responsibility, though the husband might help out in cooking, washing dishes and cleaning the house. There are, of course, exceptions to all this, which is good news. On the other hand, if we look at things from the husband’s perspective, if he decides to become a fulltime home-maker, it is going to be tough for him. It might be difficult for him to find a wife, or if he is already married, his wife might stop respecting him or she might even leave him. The idea of the husband being the breadwinner of the family is imprinted so deeply in the human mind for millennia that it is not going to go away anytime soon. It might require humans to unlearn their conditioned thinking with respect to gender roles, not just intellectually (which we have successfully done already, I think), but in a deep, emotional, fundamental way. I think till then, the themes depicted by ‘The Home-Maker’ will continue to be relevant to us.
I read the Persephone edition of ‘The Home-Maker’. This was my first Persephone and I loved it – I loved the cover, the Galway-fabric-style endpapers, the thick pages, the wide spacing between lines, the easy-on-the-eye font, the wonderful introduction by Karen Knox. My only complaint was that Persephone editions are expensive – each book costs 10 pounds. But if one wants fine French wine or delicious Belgian chocolate – or Persephone editions – one shouldn’t complain about the price J
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
The bed, the floor, the bureau, everything looked different to you in the times when Mother forgot about you for a minute. It occurred to Stephen that maybe it was a rest to them, too, to have Mother forget about them and stop dusting and polishing and pushing them around. They looked sort of peaceful, the way he felt. He nodded his head to the bed and looked with sympathy at the bureau.
Beautiful words and children
‘He that is down need fear no fall,
He that is low, no pride,’
Said Lester Knapp aloud to himself. It was a great pleasure to him to be able to say the strong short Saxon words aloud. For years he had been shutting into the cage of silence all the winged beautiful words which came flying into his mind! And beautiful words which you do not pronounce aloud are like children always forced to ‘be quiet’ and ‘sit still’. They droop and languish.
Teaching and loving literature
“What makes you think colleges want teachers who love literature? They want somebody who can make young people sit still and listen whether they feel like it or not. They want somebody who can “keep order” in a class room and drill students on dates so they can pass examinations. I couldn’t do that! And I’d loathe forcing literature down the throats of boys and girls who didn’t want it as I’d loathe selling things to people who didn’t need them. I’d be just a dead loss at it the way I always am.”
The morning poets
Not infrequently his first early-morning look at the world told him with which great spirit he was to live that day. A clear, breezy, bird-twittering dawn after rain meant Christina Rossetti’s child-poems. A soft grey downpour of warm rain, varnishing the grass to brilliance and beating down on the earth with a roll of muted drum-notes, always brought Hardy to his mind. Golden sun spilled in floods over the new green of the quivering young leaves meant Shelley. And Browning was for days when the sun rose rich and many-coloured out of confused masses of turbid clouds.
A Mathematician painting a picture
Eva had no bread to give them – he saw that in this Day-of-Judgement hour, and no longer pretended that he did not. Eva had passionate love and devotion to give them, but neither patience nor understanding. There was no sacrifice in the world which she would not joyfully make for her children except to live with them. They had tried that for fourteen dreadful years and knew what it brought them. That complacent unquestioned generalization, ‘The mother is the natural home-maker’; what a juggernaut it had been in their case! How poor Eva, drugged by the cries of its devotees, had cast herself down under its grinding wheels – and had dragged the children in under with her. It wasn’t because Eva had not tried her best. She had nearly killed herself trying. But she had been like a gifted mathematician set to paint a picture.
Have you read ‘The Home-Maker’? What do you think about it?