Torea Frey

Editor, writer, photographer, observer on the street.

The Home-Maker, Dorothy Canfield Fisher

This is the second Fisher book I've read, and I was just as absorbed in it as I was in The Deepening Stream. First published in 1924, The Home-Maker explores the bounds of Tradition and what happens when men and women test unorthodox roles.

Here, we meet Evangeline, a dutiful housewife perpetually scrubbing grease stains from floors, and Lester, her husband, a thwarted store clerk unhappy with his lot. They have three children, and though Eva loves her family, she isn't sure she likes them or the life they've built:

What was her life? A hateful round of housework, which, hurry as she might, was never done. How she loathed housework! The sight of a dishpan full of dishes made her feel like screaming out. And what else did she have? Loneliness; never-ending monotony; blank, grey days, one after another, full of drudgery.

In fact:

A profound depression came upon her. These were the moments in a mother's life about which nobody ever warned you, about which everybody kept a deceitful silence, the fine books and the speakers who had so much to say about the sacredness of maternity. They never told you that there were moments of arid clear sight when you saw helplessly that your children would never measure up to your standard, never would be really close to you ... How solitary it made you feel!

They plod along with a sense of suffocating dissatisfaction ... until Lester meets with an accident and breaks his back. Desperate to make ends meet, Eva enters the workforce, becoming a shopgirl at the store where Lester can no longer work, and he stays home to mind the house in her absence.

There, he comes into his own, embracing tasks like peeling potatoes and spending time with the children, and in this space, he finds he again has time for the things he used to love -- the aimless cogitating which had served him so ill in the office. Lester realizes, "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."

Of course, the transition of Lester into house-husband isn't well received by everyone in the community. A neighbor visits and is shocked to see the state of affairs:

'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. ... 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.

Eva, in the meantime, thrives in a professional setting and is quickly promoted; this, in turn, allows her to be freer and happier in her home life, as well. It's all rather subversive for the era -- and refreshing. Still, as Karen Knox notes in the preface to the Persephone Books' edition, Canfield didn't consider herself a feminist. In that respect, it's interesting to see how she works counter to that label while still embracing the ethos, ultimately elevating the work of the domestic while adamantly arguing that it need not be a woman's destiny to attend to this arena.