All Commentary
Friday, April 5, 2013

A Traditional Marriage

Dorothy Canfield-Fisher’s novel The Home-Maker (1924) upholds Tolstoy’s maxim that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It also offers a clear—and, for its time, innovative—depiction of the ways rigid definitions of gender roles can stifle the ability of women and men to find ways to flourish. 

Evangeline is a housewife and mother who is completely miserable with the endless round of housecleaning. We first see her “scrubbing furiously at a line of grease spots which led from the stove towards the door to the dining room . . . Hot grease, too! That soaked into the wood so. She would never get it clean.” Her husband Lester is completely miserable working in a store where he has yet again failed to get a promotion and where he is “bound and gagged to complete helplessness about everything in his life and his children’s lives, bound and gagged by his inability to make money.” The children are completely miserable being parented by two miserable adults.

The only respites for the family are the moments when Lester walks home in the evening with the children, and they “swung along rapidly, talking, laughing, interrupting each other,” and the times when Evangeline is able to exercise her frustrated managerial impulses through volunteer work and her creative urges through crafting. “She had a moment of complete relaxation and satisfaction as she dropped into a chair to feast her eyes on the sofa. What a success it was! Could anybody recognize it for the old wreck which had stood outside of the junk-shop . . . ? She had seen its line through its ruin, had guessed at the fine wood . . . Every inch of it had been recreated by her hand and brain and purpose.”

When Lester falls from a roof and is paralyzed, everything changes. Evangeline—now going by Eva—takes a job at a shop, and Lester begins to take charge of the house and children. It is striking for the modern reader to realize that—even in America—in the early ‘20s, it would have taken that level of disability for a husband to “allow” his wife to become the wage-earner in the family.

It is more striking to discover, as the novel progresses, how both Eva and Lester bloom when they are finally allowed to follow their inclinations as to work. Eva, after taking a job as a stock-clerk, begins to shine.

[Eva] was a wonder, and . . . the way she had taken hold made them all sit up. “She’s just eating it up, Mrs. Willing, just eating it up. She’s learnt her stock quicker than anybody you ever saw, as if she loved it . . . She made a list of the things, the way they hung, and then as she worked I could see her look at her piece of paper, her lips moving, just like a kid learning a spelling lesson. And yet for all she was so deep in that, she’d keep her eye out for customers—yes she did! You wouldn’t believe a stock-girl would feel responsible about customers, would you, Mrs. Willing, when there’s nothing in it for her?”

Similarly, Lester discovers his long-neglected capacities for sympathy and affection as he parents the children and cares for the house. When he realizes that his youngest son, Stephen, is almost sick from fear that his mother will force him to have his teddy bear washed, Lester steps in, assures Stephen that the bear will not be taken from him, and notes, “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. . . . You have to be a superhuman to be equal to it . . . That’s what it is to be a parent.” His sympathy for his son—and his other children—transforms a home that had been clean, orderly, and well-managed, but utterly devoid of comfort, into one that is perhaps more chaotic, but is definitely more loving.

Meanwhile Eva continues to impress at the store. She attends to the store’s advertising, noting, for example, that “Mr. McCarthy always seems to me to put too many things in his windows. I’ve thought a good many times that if he chose his things with more care and have fewer it might catch the eye better.”  She discovers that there are “books written about the business? . . .  Things you can study and learn?” and begins to devour them. She learns the names of the store’s customers, begins to “personal shop” for them, and is eventually promoted to the head of the estimable Ladies’ Cloaks and Suits department.

When Lester begins to recover from his paralysis, he and Eva face a decision. Should they return to their former and miserable system, or continue as they are—idiosyncratic but happy? Lester is quite sure he does not want to return to his job. “Could he do any better than before his miserable, poorly done, detested work? Could he hate it any less? . . . It kept him from his real work, vital living, creative work, work he could do as no one else could, work that meant the salvation of his own children.”

He is equally sure that Eva does not want to return to housework. “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 with trying. But she had been like a gifted mathematician set to paint a picture.”

And yet, as they see it, “Tradition swung a bludgeon [that they knew they] could not parry. So Eva and Lester decide to pretend that Lester is unable to recover so that they may shape their family and work lives as they choose.

An unresolved and possibly unresolvable tension in Canfield-Fisher’s novel is that while she wants to demonstrate how much success and pleasure Eva gets from her work at the store, she also wants to argue that the world of business and commerce is immoral. Lester decides not to return to work not only because he does not find it fulfilling, but also because of his disgust for the idea that “men are in the world to get possessions, to create material things, to sell them, to buy them, to transport them, above all to stimulate to fever-heat the desire for them in all human beings.” The very same world that inspires his disgust is the world in which his wife flourishes. I think that Canfield-Fisher falls into a bit of her own trap here—valorizing Lester’s taking on of traditional women’s work at home while remaining uneasy about Eva’s taking on of traditional men’s work at the store. However, she does offer, with skill and clarity, a strong argument for the benefits experienced by all family members when parents are able to choose to engage in work that allows them to fulfill themselves and explore their capacities.