March 18, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
As chrysanthemums and tulips sprout, birds nest, and winter eases its hold on the ground, humans also begin to change some behaviors. We associate spring with life and vitality. With this also comes annual responsibilities such as cleaning. Cleaning is one of those mundane tasks that demonstrate cultural values or cultural shifts. Much can be learned about cultures through notes about the way that we clean, who does the work, and what items we have.
Historically, servants or staff have been responsible for mundane tasks such as cooking and cleaning. Texts may take note of the help, but not focus on their tasks. Mention of servants often notifies the reader of inequity and injustice. Sometimes, however, it simply details change in daily life. For example, around the time of the first World War, lifestyles in the U.S. began to shift. Women gained jobs in factories, replacing men who had been deployed. This meant a decrease in the numbers of women employed as maids and servants. It goes without saying that, despite the increase in daily hours worked (if any), they were still responsible for cleaning their own homes.
Literature is an excellent vehicle for documenting these cultural shifts. The three passages below include details about the spaces we inhabit. These offer clues about human values and how we organize our lives.
1] In Kafka’s masterpiece The Metamorphosis, Gregor’s sister and mother rearrange his furniture in an effort to make life more comfortable for him. Unfortunately, the disturbance only ends up provoking Gregor, and causing mayhem. (The full passage is hilarious if you have time. The excerpted portion sticks to notes about furniture moving. Project Gutenberg offers a different translation.):
“His sister at once remarked the new distraction Gregor had found for himself… and she got the idea in her head of giving him as wide a field as possible to crawl in and of removing the pieces of furniture that hindered him, above all the chest of drawers and the writing desk. But that was more than she could manage all by herself; she did not dare ask her father to help her; and as for the servant girl, a young creature of sixteen who had the courage to stay after the cook’s departure, she could not be asked for help…so there was nothing left but to apply to her mother at an hour when her father was out…. Gregor could now hear the two women struggling to shift the heavy old chest from its place, and his sister claiming the greater part of the labor for herself, without listening to the admonitions of her mother who feared she might overstrain herself. It took a long time. … Now Gregor could do without the chest, if need be, but the writing desk he must retain. … Although Gregor kept reassuring himself that nothing out of the way was happening, but only a few bits of furniture were being changed round, he soon had to admit that all this trotting to and fro of the two women, their little ejaculations and the scraping of furniture along the floor affected him like a vast disturbance coming from all sides at once….” (Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir)
2] In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison uses varying lifestyles and levels of cleanliness to demonstrate social and economic disparities. In this section, Pauline prides her work more than her family, which is only one example of many social disparities in this eloquent novel.:
“It was her [Pauline’s] good fortune to find a permanent job in the home of a well-to-do family whose members were affectionate, appreciative, and generous. She looked at their houses, smelled their linen, touched their silk draperies, and loved all of it. The child’s pink nightie, the stacks of white pillow slips edged with embroidery, the sheets with top hems picked out with blue cornflowers. She became what is known as an ideal servant, for such a role filled practically all of her needs. When she bathed the little Fisher girl, it was in a porcelain tub with silvery taps running infinite quantities of hot, clean water. She dried her in fluffy white towels and put her in cuddly night clothes. Then she brushed the yellow hair, enjoying the roll and slip of it between her fingers. No zinc tub, no buckets of stove-heated water, no flaky stiff, grayish towels washed in a kitchen sink, dried in a dusty backyard, no tangled black puffs of rough wool to comb. Soon she stopped trying to keep her own house. The things she could afford to buy did not last, had no beauty or style, and were absorbed by the dingy storefront. More and more she neglected her house, her children, her man – they were like the afterthoughts one has just before sleep, the early-morning and late-evening edges of her day, the dark edges that made the daily life with the Fishers lighter, more delicate, more lovely. Here she could arrange things, clean things, line things up in neat rows. Here her foot flopped around on deep pile carpets, and there was no uneven sound. Here she found beauty, order, cleanliness, and praise.”
3] In “The Ten-Foot-Square Hut,” Kamo no Chōmei explains the ephemerality of domestic spaces (translated by Burt Watson):
“[T]hese dwellings are of a moment – no one knows why their owners fret their minds so over them or are so anxious to make them pleasing to the eye. For both owner and dwelling are doomed to impermanence, no different from the dew on the morning glory. Perhaps the dew may fall and the flower remain; yet though it remains, it will wilt in the morning sun. Perhaps the flower may wither before the dew has dried; but though undried now, it will vanish by evening. … My present place is quite unlike any ordinary dwelling. It measures only ten feet square and less than seven in height. Since I never thought of it as a permanent residence, I did not divine to see whether the site was auspicious or not. It has a dirt foundation, a simple roof of thatch, and the joints are held together with metal fastenings. This is so that, if I decide I don’t like the spot, I can easily move it. It would be no trouble at all to take it apart and put it together again.”
To read a previously published article about spring cleaning and domestic spaces, visit: https://www.hmu.edu/hmu-blog/2017/4/21/spring-cleaning .
To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.