Dorothy Canfield Fisher, The Home-Maker (1924)
Eva and Lester married impulsively fourteen years ago, and are now locked in an impossible situation. Eva hates housework and childcare but does it with grim perfection, making her husband and three children miserable in the process. Lester has no aptitude for his low-paying job at a department store but also no prospects for anything else. When Lester is disabled and has to stay home with the children, while Eva gets to use her very considerable talents in a job that she loves, the family finds unexpected and precious happiness. But will they get to keep it?
Although The Home-Maker is not great literature — it’s sometimes too pedestrian, sometimes too melodramatic or polemical, and the prose style can’t quite lift it above either failing — there’s something about these characters that makes them stick in the reader’s mind and heart. I found most striking the scenes that concern the children, especially the brilliantly naughty youngest, Stephen. The portrayal of his inexpressible childish fears and dreams, the understanding of what thwarted energy does to a five-year-old, the solutions that Lester finds through patient, loving observation — all display a fine grasp of human nature as it manifests itself in childhood. Fisher was an advocate of the educational ideas of Maria Montessori, and her plea in this novel for the dignity and self-determination of the young child is its most moving aspect. Fisher herself reacted to comments that The Home-Maker was about “women’s rights” by saying that it was really about children’s rights, so one can see that this issue was uppermost in her own mind.
To me, Lester’s plight was equally compelling. A man who really enjoys making a home, who finds untold wonder and delight in the growth of his children, who has no ambitions beyond loving and understanding them…even today, such inclinations are found peculiar, and in 1924 they were truly beyond the pale. As he reflects with frustration, our society, then and now, does not give “home making” the respect it deserves. The fact that Lester’s gifts can’t find their true outlet without the excuse of physical incapacity leads to the novel’s shocking, saddening conclusion. The Home-Maker is in some ways a domestic horror story, a modern fable that sheds light on the terrible price we pay for our lack of self-knowledge and our fear of becoming what we truly are, rather than what everyone thinks we should be.
Eva is both a victim and a perpetrator of that horror. When she finally gets to do work that she enjoys and that satisfies her, it is certainly a relief — for us as well as for her. Yet she never grows any further, never realizes how she harmed her family with her frustrated perfectionism, or that there may be other ways to look at the world, such as that of her own husband — with whom she never achieves mutual understanding or communication. This is the aspect that I found most baffling and sad. The two seem to live completely parallel lives; certainly the physical intimacy that must have occurred for them to have three children seems far removed from their courteous but distant relationship. Is this really a marriage? How do we break through such alliances of convention and convenience to real human relationships? As with so many of the questions it raises, the novel doesn’t have an answer.
Lest I make the story sound completely gloomy and depressing, it isn’t so at all. There are funny moments, such as Lester’s solving the problem of how to keep the floors clean by putting down newspaper (which is adroitly removed just before Eva gets home), and also tender and poignant scenes. The glimpses we are given into the bygone world of a 1920s department store have a certain nostalgic charm. Yet what linger in my mind are the knotty, difficult questions raised for and through the characters, questions that still face us today. I’ll be thinking about them for a long time, and about The Home-Maker, a fascinating, frustrating, imperfect, disturbing, strangely memorable book.