Like a gifted mathematician set to paint a picture

Dear Dorothy,

The Home-Maker (1924) does a good job at portraying a situation where people are forced into restrictive roles not only by external expectations and social pressure, but also by their own internalised beliefs of what is expected of them.

Set in the early twentieth century in small town America, the book centres around the Knapp family. Evangeline Knapp (Eva) is a hardworking, energetic woman in her late-thirties, who feels trapped in her circumscribed role as a homemaker. Constantly on the edge, feeling angry and miserable, and suffering from a case of eczema, Eva is a compulsive housekeeper, caught in the never-ending cycle of cooking, cleaning, and caring for her three children.

Her husband, Lester Knapp, a sensitive and thoughtful man, works as an accountant at the local department store. Like Eva, he also feels trapped in a life that makes him unhappy: he hates his work and frequently gets lost in dreams of pursuing his studies and writing poetry. His dreamy nature and his hatred for the job lead him to do it so poorly that he is unable to secure promotions at work and cannot improve the living conditions of his family.

Bored and dissatisfied with housework, Eva is constantly reprimanding their three children, trying to mould them into her idea of perfection. Lester, the more sensitive parent, barely has time to devote to the children, who are clearly bearing the consequences of the dysfunctions of this marriage: Helen is a shy, repressed girl, suffering from weak lungs; Henry has a poor digestion, and constantly throws up; and finally, Stephen, the youngest, seems to be angry all the time, and throws tantrums every day.

The already terrible situation reaches its climax, when Lester is dismissed from work, and even starts to seriously contemplate suicide. On his way home, however, a serious accident happens, and he ends up in a wheelchair. Because Lester is forced to stay at home, the couple has difficulties to make ends meet, and Eva takes a job at the same department store where her husband worked.

Meanwhile, Lester takes on the role of homemaker. He slowly starts to find pleasure in running the house, cooking, and caring for the children. Housework went somehow well together with his need for thinking, reading, and daydreaming. Moreover, he finds great enjoyment in taking care of the children and watching them grow: he shows real talent for it. Likewise, Eva, feeling finally fulfilled, is in her element in the workplace: she blossoms, her eczema disappears, and she is soon promoted to a better position.

The family changes for the better out of their deep misfortune. Finally, everyone is much happier: each is free to do the work they are better suited for. The children are blossoming under Lester’s guidance: they feel better understood and loved. However, as Lester seems to be healing from his disability, each member of the Knapp family starts to dread the moment when they will be forced to go back to the way things were before the accident.

The book’s main strength lies in its relentless exploration of gender roles, social expectations and internalised prejudices. In the Knapp family, we have characters who feel frustrated and trapped by the roles they are expected to play in society. Moreover, women are caught in the middle of contradictory prejudices: while it is said that motherhood and housekeeping are a woman’s highest calling in society (the only way they can lead a dignified life), at the same time, there is a pervading belief that homemaking is worthless, largely because it involves no monetary gain. This is portrayed in the scene where Aunt Mattie visits the Knapps and is dismayed to find Lester doing housework: “Do you know what you are saying to me, Mattie Farnham? You are telling me that you really think that homemaking is a poor, mean, cheap job beneath the dignity of anybody who can do anything else.”

In another scene, Lester muses about a former colleague, Harvey Bronson, who talked loudly “about the sacred dignity of the home” and the nobility of housework, but who “would die of shame if anybody put a gingham apron on him”. As the role assigned to women was never accorded the worth it deserves, and as they felt stuck in it by social expectations, it is no wonder that women like Eva felt trapped between doing their duty in order to be valued and coping with a pervading sense that they had no value anyway.

The traditionally assigned roles of the male breadwinner and the female homemaker are the very causes of serious dysfunctions in the Knapp family, whose harmony is jeopardised when the family members’ roles are ascribed based on their gender, rather than on their talents and passions.

Furthermore, in your novel, gender roles and parenting are interconnected topics. Before Lester’s accident, Eva is admired in her neighbourhood as a perfect housewife and mother, despite the fact that she feels miserable, inflicts emotional pain on her children, represses them, and stifles their innate talents (a nightmarish situation which is perceived as normal by the people around her…). By struggling to fit a narrow role, Eva supresses her own individuality; as a result, she ends up not treating her own children as individuals, and forces them to fit narrow roles – in a never-ending cycle of emotional abuse.

A topic central to your novel is the very meaning of making a home: while the social perception of it involved compulsively keeping the house perfect and reprimanding every slight deviation in a child’s behaviour, you point out to the fact that making a home encompasses failure rather than perfection; it is about watching a child grow and assisting him on his meandering personal path, rather than trying to make him fit a rigid pattern. By narrating the story through alternating points of view, you manage to put us in your characters’ shoes – and I thought that the children’s perspectives and voices were particularly well drawn and captivating.

However, as much as I enjoyed reading it, your novel lacks the ambiguity and the strength I was expecting. Some situations fit together like magic, like a form of narrative Procrustes’ bed, just so that you can prove your point. In fact, you reinforce it over and over, oversimplifying some aspects and making use of an instructive tone that can be annoying at times.

Even though dealing with reversed gender roles, the novel still treats them as divided and rigid: public and private spheres are not seen as interconnected but separated; each partner lives either in one sphere or in the other, and there is barely no connection between the public and private realms (cooperation in domestic tasks seems to be something unheard of). Eva and her husband remain stuck in a traditional gender-role arrangement, even though it is here reversed. Lester’s accident is the Deus ex machina event, necessary so as to make the Knapps and their contemporaries accept the gender role reversal that is at the core of the novel; Lester’s dreamy nature is another necessary feature, so that the novel is able to affect not only the reversal of the gender of the character trapped with housework, but also the elimination of the self-denial implied in it, without any need for cooperation. Magic!

The ending was also a bit of a let-down for me. It not only calls for a certain suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, but also ends up reinforcing the rigid stereotyping it aimed to criticise. The characters never talk about the heart of the matter; the unfairness of the social roles imposed on them is never spoken about; and everyone turns a blind eye on the whole situation. It reads almost like you wanted to be both critical and accommodating in the view you were trying to push forward.

Rather than proving their point and defying convention, the Knapps remain dependent on an extraordinary situation: the gender reversal is tolerable, not because of its own merit, but because it is seen as the only possible thing to do after Lester’s accident. This accident is the only socially acceptable reason for what is considered an exceptional marriage arrangement. If Lester ever recovers, it is unthinkable for him and his family that he would continue to be the homemaker; otherwise, he would be mocked by his colleagues.

Likewise, it is unthinkable for Eva, in such circumstances, to remain working, because she would be accused of abandoning her children. Without the circumstances that made the role reversal acceptable, the couple would be forced to go back to the way things were before the accident – no matter how wrong they had proved to be in the past for everyone involved.

And this is a rather disturbing denouement, my dear: either way, the characters will be bound to what is expected of them, even though they know it is the wrong way. Defying such expectations seems to be something beyond their imagination. So much so, that, in order to protect the family, either Eva is forced to give up her newly found passion, or Lester is forced to remain disabled. Either way, one of them will have to choose self-denial. Either way, they will remain somewhat crippled by what is expected of them.

Yours truly,


Georges Lemmen, “Family Gathering in Saint Idesbald”, 1910.

Stephen’s eyes overflowed…. but he was not crying, he knew that. It hurt to cry and this did not hurt, it helped.  The water ran quietly out of his eyes and poured down his cheeks. It was though something that had ached inside him so long that he had almost forgotten about it were melting and running away. He could feel it hurting less and less as the tears fell on his hands. It was as though he was being emptied of that ache…..and now nothing hurt Stephen at all, there was no ache anywhere…..he felt so different, so light! so washed! so clear. – Dorothy Canfield Fischer, The Home-Maker

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 screamng out. And what else did she have? Loneliness; never-ending monotony; blank, gray days, one after another, full of drudgery. No rest from the constant friction over the children’s carelessness and forgetfulness and childishness! How she hated childishness! And she must try to endure it patiently or at least with the appearance of patience.  – Dorothy Canfield Fischer, The Home-Maker

Eva had no bread to give them – he saw that in this Day-of-Judgement hour, and no longer pretended that he did not. Eva had passionate love and devotion to give them, but neither patience nor understanding. There was no sacrifice in the world which she would not joyfully make for her children except to live with them. They had tried that for fourteen dreadful years and knew what it brought them. That complacent unquestioned generalization, ‘The mother is the natural home-maker’; what a juggernaut it had been in their case! How poor Eva, drugged by the cries of its devotees, had cast herself down under its grinding wheels – and had dragged the children in under with her. It wasn’t because Eva had not tried her best. She had nearly killed herself trying. But she had been like a gifted mathematician set to paint a picture. – Dorothy Canfield Fischer, The Home-Maker

Not infrequently his first early-morning look at the world told him with which great spirit he was to live that day. A clear, breezy, bird-twittering dawn after rain meant Christina Rossetti’s child-poems. A soft grey downpour of warm rain, varnishing the grass to brilliance and beating down on the earth with a roll of muted drum-notes, always brought Hardy to his mind. Golden sun spilled in floods over the new green of the quivering young leaves meant Shelley. And Browning was for days when the sun rose rich and many-coloured out of confused masses of turbid clouds. – Dorothy Canfield Fischer, The Home-Maker

The bed, the floor, the bureau, everything looked different to you in the times when Mother forgot about you for a minute. It occurred to Stephen that maybe it was a rest to them, too, to have Mother forget about them and stop dusting and polishing and pushing them around. They looked sort of peaceful, the way he felt. He nodded his head to the bed and looked with sympathy at the bureau.  – Dorothy Canfield Fischer, The Home-Maker

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.  As for any man’s giving his personality to the woman’s work of trying to draw out of children the best there might be in them…fiddling foolishness!  Leave it to the squaws!  He was sure that he was the only man who had ever conceived even the possibility of such a lapse from virile self-respect as to do what all women are supposed to do.  He knew well enough that other men would feel for such a conception on his part a stupefaction only equalled by their red-blooded scorn. – Dorothy Canfield Fischer, The Home-Maker

Mattie turned, saw what he was doing, and pounced on him with shocked, peremptory benevolence. ‘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.’ Mattie Farnham was for a moment helpless with shock over his attack. When she slowly rose to comprehension of what he had said she shouted indignantly, ‘Lester Knapp, how care you say such a thing! I never dreamed of having such an awful idea.’ 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. ‘Well, but…’ she said breathlessly, and was silent. – Dorothy Canfield Fischer, The Home-Maker

About the book

3 thoughts on “Like a gifted mathematician set to paint a picture

  1. Excellent review, Juliana! It sounds like The Homemaker was ahead of its time in many ways, but that it ultimately didn’t go far enough in analyzing and subverting gender norms of the era. It would be interesting to learn how it was received when it was first published though. Sorry to hear the ending was disappointing. This is on my Persephone TBR list, but I don’t think I’ll be in a rush to read it.


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