In The Home-Maker, Dorothy Canfield Fisher presents the story of a family in which traditionally assigned roles are causing everyday suffering. Eva, the mother, feels suffocated: the circumscribed role of homemaker isn’t enough for her passionate spirit, invention, energy, and attention to detail. She’s constantly angry and dissatisfied, and the children walk on eggshells for fear of triggering her criticism. Lester, the father, is an accountant at the local department store. He hates his job, and does it so poorly as a result that he never gets the promotions or bonuses that would help bring his family out of poverty. The children are shy, repressed, and sickly, except the youngest, Stephen, whose tantrums are uncontrollable and mysterious.
When disaster strikes, however, and the family roles are turned upside-down, the Knapps find that joy has grown out of their misfortune. Eva takes a job in sales at the department store, and finds both scope for her talents and relief from the grind of housework. Lester, injured and forced to stay at home, finds a passionate paternal love for his children, and an enjoyment in cooking and darning socks. The children blossom and confide under the right loving guidance — especially Stephen, whose transformation into a loving child is particularly touching. The only question that remains is — will society allow this nontraditional arrangement to exist, humming along quietly? Or will it be smashed as soon as possible, because it’s a threat to the “natural order”?
As Teresa mentions in her 2011 review, Dorothy Canfield Fisher doesn’t think of this book as a women’s rights novel, but as a children’s rights novel. Fisher was the person who worked with Maria Montessori to bring the Montessori method to the United States, and she also worked tirelessly to help child refugees after the first World War. She saw the dictates of gender essentialism as something that harmed everyone — men, women, and especially the powerless children who had no say about who brought them up.
Interestingly, Fisher also takes a swipe at capitalism in this novel. Lester is considering his options:
Why, the fanatic feminists were right, after all. Under its greasy camouflage of chivalry, society is really based on a contempt for women’s work in the home. The only women who were paid, either in human respect or in money, were women who gave up their traditional job of creating harmony out of human relationships and did something really useful, bought or sold or created material objects…. Not only was it beneath the dignity of any able-bodied brave to try to show young human beings how to create rich, deep, happy lives without great material possessions, but it was subversive of the whole-hearted worship due to possessions. It was heresy.
She explores this in several directions, since Eva’s job at the department store and her ideas about fashion (a concept Lester finds stupid) are what help the family out of poverty and offer the children a chance at college. Institutions can be oppressive and you can still take advantage of them.
In this novel, Fisher gives examples of men who love working in business; women who used to work in business, have taken time off to care for young children, and are returning to business; women who adore their role as homemakers and whose children reflect their mother’s skill; men who flourish as homemakers; men who hate their jobs in business but who can’t escape; and women who pride themselves on their role as homemakers but who are clearly completely unfit for the task. Look, she says: every human being is different — each man, each woman, each child. Living together is hard enough, without making arbitrary rules. Try something new: try to be happy and healthy and affectionate, without worrying about tradition. See what happens.
I wouldn’t exactly call this book subtle. The message is straightforward, even didactic, and the eventual solution isn’t one that you’d exactly suggest as viable for many families. But the dilemma is depressingly relevant even now, with “Mommy wars” and lack of paternity leave and pressure to be a good provider. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, and watched its ideas and development with interest — Fisher is now on my list of authors I’d like to have over for dinner!
I loved this book when I read it. I have another couple of books tbr by Dorothy Canfield Fisher which I must find time for. The themes of this novel are definitely very relevant and I am sure very familiar ones.
The only other book I know by her is her children’s book, Understood Betsy. Anything else I should know and read?
She wrote a few books I believe though some of those may be children’s books. I have The Brimming Cup in an old Virago green edition and another called Home Fires in France (think that’s the title) on my kindle ( free ebook )
I just got this and am looking forward to reading it.
I’d love to hear how you like it!
When I first read this, I was so caught up in the characters’ lives, particularly Stephen’s, and so worried about the fate of his bear! But I was left wondering at the end if their situation can hold, now that the seed of doubt has been planted – so I wasn’t sure if it was a truly happy ending. I’ve found her short fiction really interesting – and sometimes very didactic.
The way Stephen gets to lose his fear and become a strong, creative, loving child is the most touching part of the book. Fisher obviously had a real feeling for children. But I agree that it’s not a solidly happy ending. How could it be, when one person chooses to completely sacrifice themselves for the good of the family?
I loved this book , and now I am having a think about how your (great) point about unsubtlety influenced my liking!
Lots of great books are didactic! And so was this one. I heartily enjoyed it. But it sure doesn’t let you make up your own mind!
I was just reading about this book on Goodreads and thinking that maybe I’ll finally get around to reading it, and then I clicked over here and saw your review. What timing! I’m very interested in feminist issues and gender roles, and I really like reading about family life in earlier times. I think I’ll really like this book!
I’ve still only read Understood Betsy by Fisher, but I remember when Teresa made this. It sounded excellent, and these days I have access to an academic library that has more Fisher books (not true in 2011). Yay!
Yeah, subtle this is not, but sometimes a sledgehammer is the right tool for the job. And given how relevant the ideas here still are, we could maybe use a few more sledgehammers making this same point :)
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