An American Tragedy: The Home-Maker

Dorothy Canfield Fisher, The Home-Maker (1924)

I was inspired by the readalong at the Old-Fashioned Girls Book Club to pick up this recently reissued novel by a once-popular author who is now mostly forgotten except for her classic children’s book, Understood Betsy. It tackled some very timely subjects — the imprisoning effect of gender-based roles, the right of both women and men to choose work that suits their abilities, and the question of what children really need and deserve from their caregivers — at a time when these ideas were not very widely considered. Though we may think we have gotten past some of the difficulties encountered by its characters, their dilemma still speaks to us today, and reminds us what a long way we really have to go.

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.


2 thoughts on “An American Tragedy: The Home-Maker

  1. Sounds a little bit like Main Street by Sinclair Lewis…where none of the characters are every fully satisfied or happy. A good read, but a little depressing at the same time. I think I'll be content just reading your review on this one. 🙂


    1. I haven't read Lewis; it would be interesting to compare. The terrible thing is the characters COULD be satisfied and happy, but the reigning prejudices of society (which they also participate in) won't let them. And the focus on the care of children as an aspect of that was unusual, I think. Anyway…fascinating, but frustrating, as I said!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s