by Margaret Kolb
Published by Columbia University Press, 2017 | 272 pages
Though Coventry Patmore’s long narrative poem, “The Angel in the House,” published from 1854 to 1862, is not widely read now, its title has carried significant cultural weight for over a century. In the poem’s twelve cantos, Patmore’s male speaker dedicates an ode to his wife—appropriately named Honoria—in which he praises her grace, mild manners, and subservience. A near-spiritual figure in his portrayal, Honoria sacrifices all to dutifully serve her husband and make his home a respite from the turbulence of the world. Honoria, Patmore’s Angel in the House, is, in short, an emblem of the quintessential Victorian feminine ideal.
The feminine ideal championed in Patmore’s poem is perhaps the principal ideal against which feminist writers and critics have historically set themselves. In many ways, the history of feminist work and scholarship is a history of the fight against this ideal and the patriarchal power structures that uphold it. Broadly speaking, the first wave of feminism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sought to bring about—along with women’s suffrage—the liberation of women from the control of the figure of the Angel in the House. Virginia Woolf, in her 1931 speech “Professions for Women,” famously claims that in order for a woman to be free to write, she must kill the Angel in the House that confines her to her role within the domestic sphere. One of the primary goals of the second wave of feminism of the 1960s and 70s was to bring about workplace equality by expanding the kinds of professional jobs women could have. There is debate as to whether we are currently in the third or fourth wave of feminism—even as to whether we can meaningfully periodize these movements at all. Yet, common to these historical waves are the goals of the liberation of women from the domestic sphere, and the empowerment of the working woman in the paid professional world.
Extreme Domesticity: A View from the Margins, by literary scholar Susan Fraiman, is a new contribution to a recent movement within feminist scholarship that reexamines some of the assumptions of prior feminist thought. While Fraiman, like Woolf, recognizes the violence and coercive power of patriarchal forces that may keep a woman in the home, she challenges the simplistic binary between the domestic and the working woman. Fraiman’s volume points to the ways in which progressive discourse, despite its best intentions, may inadvertently function to privilege women’s professional work over women’s domestic work, overlook the substantial labor that goes into homemaking, and thereby reassert the same patriarchal paradigms that feminism seeks to combat. In Extreme Domesticity, Fraiman aims to make visible the overlooked work in housework, recuperate the dignity and value of domestic labor, and spotlight the creative agency of the diverse individuals who perform this labor.
Fraiman’s analysis draws from the writings of a number of scholars—Henri Lefebvre’s The Critique of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau, Luce Giard, and Pierre Mayol’s The Practice of Everyday Life, and Cynthia Wall’s The Prose of Things, as well as the writings of theorists Rita Felski and Sara Ahmed—which investigate the world of everyday experience to reveal and counteract the privileging of the epic (read: public sphere, masculine) over the routine (read: domestic sphere, feminine). Fraiman shares with these works the critical strategy of foregrounding the considerable labor that goes into performing what many might see as trivial or ordinary tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, purchasing goods, and decorating. She adopts this emphasis on the everyday to examine how the domestic quotidian is rendered in fictional and non-fictional narrative, and what insight this might give us into the lives of those who make and maintain home.
The chief theoretical framework Fraiman utilizes to bring forth the domestic quotidian is adopted from Gaston Bachelard’s 1958 The Poetics of Space, a cornerstone of phenomenological criticism that investigates the ways in which lived experience—in real life and in fiction—is influenced by various architectural spaces. Spaces, in Bachelard’s analysis, do not exist as assemblages of cold, unfeeling walls, beams, and objects, but are instead revealed to be infused with subjective experience and memory. Rooms in a home, for example, hold emotional weight and consequence. Spaces are simultaneously, and importantly, material and metaphorical, sites for analysis and tools for understanding the humans who inhabit them.
In her reconfiguration of Bachelard’s framework, Fraiman performs a phenomenological analysis of the domestic space as seen from the female perspective; central here is the agency and autonomy exercised by women in the home. In her discussion of Leslie Feinberg’s 1993 novel Stone Butch Blues, we encounter the story of Jess, a mid-twentieth-century masculine woman who navigates her gender identity and struggles with her precarious economic situation. Fraiman’s analysis focuses on a section of the novel that features what she terms “shelter writing,” a slow mode of description of domestic objects and spaces, such as furniture and kitchenware. In one such scene, we see Jess’s detailed description of the walls, kitchenware, and paint upon moving into a permanent residence after a turbulent period of living in makeshift housing. These passages may not seem action-packed, but Fraiman reveals them to be powerful arguments for the urgency of domesticity and the essential agency of Jess, a character for whom home is not taken for granted and must be striven for each day. Homemaking, Fraiman argues, is not stasis; it is a process of continuous creation and self-creation.
Alongside Extreme Domesticity’s analysis of various domestic acts, Fraiman’s book emphasizes the vast range of forms domestic spaces come in, and the diversity of people who labor to maintain them. Extreme Domesticity expands domesticity to encompass male and female domesticities; heterosexual and queer domesticities; married and single domesticities; white middle-class and ethnic minority domesticities; as well as homey and homeless domesticities. Fraiman illuminates these various home-making acts in her discussion of Sandra Cisneros’s novel, The House of Mango Street, in which a young Mexican American girl adjusts to a new home in a racially segregated neighborhood and comes of age while navigating different cultures, expectations, and identities. Too, Fraiman extends the domestic beyond that of Victorian England and the continental United States, as in her analysis of Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging. Chronicling the lives of characters in Hawai’i, Blu’s Hanging, Fraiman argues, illustrates the creative power of domesticity in a scene in which a teacher, Miss Ito—unmarried and without children—gathers her students to collaborate in a cooking project in her home. This act builds an unexpected community and therapeutic space in the kitchen, beyond the nuclear family unit. In another chapter, Fraiman shines a light on the conditions of homeless men and women who create shelter and community beneath the bridges of Los Angeles. These diverse representations of domesticity move far beyond the Victorian image of the Angel in the House, and demonstrate that domesticity is neither static nor inherently tied to traditional heteronormative conceptions of the family unit. Domestic work, then, is valuable, necessary, and even heroic, not necessarily or exclusively a sign of patriarchal oppression, but also a category of acts that may point to agency and community-building.
Domesticity, in Fraiman’s vibrant analysis, is diverse and creative, active and emotional, precarious and precious. While acknowledging domesticity’s role within systems that disenfranchise, disempower, and marginalize, Fraiman insists that we simultaneously recognize the agency and resilience of individuals in the home—and center these individuals who create and maintain spaces in which to live, love, and thrive.
Lillian Lu is a Ph.D. student in English at UCLA. Her research interests include nineteenth-century British literature, narrative representation of female knowing, and Orientalism.