It’s time for Literary Wives, (for real this time) a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!
If you haven’t already (because I was supposed to post about this on Monday), please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher! There are definitely spoilers ahead.
Published in 1924, The Home-Maker is quite progressive in it’s story of a woman who is forced to enter the workforce after an accident leaves her husband a paraplegic. Before she goes to work, Evangeline Knapp is a very competent home-maker, whose children are always well turned out, and who the other women in the community look up to as a pinnacle of motherhood. Her husband Lester meanwhile, took a job as an accountant against his more creative, artistic tendencies, who the community views as another burden that Evangeline must shoulder. Both parents are miserable while the two older children suffer from digestive ailments and their younger brother is a known terror whose mother can’t wait to send him to school.
Due to a company restructuring, Lester loses his job. But before he can tell Evangeline, there is a fire at a neighbour’s house and in trying to help, Lester ‘falls’ off a roof and winds up paralyzed. Evangeline, never one to sit back and rely on other people to do for her, goes to the store where Lester worked and asks if she might have a job. It turns out that Evangeline is also excellent at working in a department store and while she goes from strength to strength, Lester begins to work out how to keep the house and feed the children so that his wife doesn’t have to worry about anything but working. And he finds that he loves being home with the kids, that washing dishes and mending socks leaves his mind free to wander. The children improve in every way: the older two recover from their digestive problems and the youngest turns into a sunny, thoughtful, clever little boy.
So, I loved this book. It gave me a lot to think about, how the pressures of the outside world and the expectations we have for our lives can erase the small joys. I loved reading about Lester discovering his children and what made them happy, the things that they thought about and how he was able to support them in growing to be the people they wanted to be. I also loved reading about the satisfaction that Evangeline got from learning the store business and how thrilled the store owners were with her, how she was exactly the kind of person they were looking for to help them run things.
Apparently when the book was published, Canfield Fisher was keen that people understand that she meant the book to be about the children, that it wasn’t a feminist work. In a lot of ways, the book does circle around the children. How, when their mother is home with them, everything is done and done well but there is no joy in the house. Evangeline is resigned to her life but she takes no pleasure in it, she is doing what society expects her to do. The same is true for Lester, and so their children become victims of those expectations. When they are forced to buck the norms, everything gets better.
What does the book say about being a wife?
For Evangeline, being a wife is a solitary endeavor because being a wife also means being a mother and being at home:
She passed her life in solitary confinement, as home-makers always do, with a man who naturally looked at things from a man’s standpoint […] and with children who could not in the nature of things share a single interest of hers…
Canfield Fisher seems to be saying that life is better for all if everyone, regardless of gender, is allowed to follow their heart’s desires. Lester, it turns out, is much better suited to home-making but he is only allowed to do it while he is physically incapable of going out to work. The neighbours certainly find it strange and odd that a man should want to do house work:
‘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.’
Lester and Evangeline are only able to be good partners to each other when they are allowed to follow their natural inclinations and contribute to the household based on their strengths. When it looks like things might go back to the way they were, because Lester may recover the use of his legs after all, both are devastated at the thought of it. Evangeline had been sacrificing for fourteen years because for her, in her time, being a wife means putting herself last and making sure everyone else is fed and clothed and the house is spotless. The role of wife constricted her and stifled her natural tendencies. Ultimately, Lester makes the biggest sacrifice by remaining in a wheelchair for the rest of his days so that his family can continue to thrive.
Be sure to visit the other blogs and get in on the discussion! My apologies again to my fellow Wives for being late to the party on this one. Join us in February when we read War of the Wives by Tamar Cohen.