Saturday, October 7, 2017

Essay: Woman's Work by Julia Alvarez

"A woman's work is never done".
(An old proverb)

"Woman's work" by Julia Alvarez opens the subject of the domestic role of women in family life. The author tells the story of her mother’s obsessive housekeeping that influenced the speaker’s future life. Julia Alvarez (or the speaker) depicts and criticizes her mother’s active domestic role but admits it has influenced her becoming a “woman working at home” herself.

The daughter, the protagonist and the speaker of the poem, starts with a rhetoric question: “Who says a woman's work isn't high art?” This was probably one of her mother’s favorite phrases while the latter performed her domestic chores:

Who says a woman's work isn't high art?
She'd challenge as she scrubbed the bathroom tiles.
Keep house as if the address were your heart.

The last line of the first stanza addresses the speaker’s father or talks about the whole family, whose hearts embody the address of the house her mother cared for so much (emphasizing that the mother’s care and love was embodied in the housekeeping chores).

The speaker’s mother was most probably not employed, and focused all her attention to keeping a perfect house. The daughter was engaged in doing woman’s work from an early age: she was frustrated to hear her friends play outside while she was obliged to clean the house:

We'd clean the whole upstairs before we'd start
downstairs, I'd sigh, hearing my friends outside.

Her mother calls a woman’s work “high art”, the author calls it “hard”. Concentrating merely on domestic chores made the speaker unhappy and, becoming a grown-up, she complains about her mother’s strictness and obsession with keeping the house clean:

Doing her woman's work was a hard art
to practice when the summer sun would bar
the floor I swept till she was satisfied.
She kept me prisoner in her housebound heart.

Despite disliking the routine of the housekeeping, the speaker admits her mother was an artful housewife:

She'd shine the tines of forks, the wheels of carts,
cut lacy lattices for all her pies.
Her woman's work was nothing less than art.

The speaker also admits that because of her wit, she was considered her mother’s masterpiece. She felt her mother’s love and care through all kinds of attention and her mother instructed her to keep the house better than her personal life:

And I, her masterpiece since I was smart,
was primed, praised, polished, scolded and advised
to keep a house much better than my heart.

Eventually, the daughter, tired of constant dutiful housekeeping (“I did not want to be her counterpart!”), “stroke out” but ended up ended up working at home, writing, creating poems and loving her housebound creative work:

I did not want to be her counterpart!
I struck out... but became my mother's child:
a woman working at home on her art,
housekeeping paper as if it were her heart.

Julia Alvarez is very good at literary images: the reader’s imagination immediately begins to draw pictures of a housewife who cares a great deal about keeping a perfect house. To depict the artful but hard work her mother used to perform, the author uses the powerful descriptions: “she scrubbed the bathroom tiles”; “she'd shine the tines of forks, the wheels of carts, cut lacy lattices for all her pies”. From these descriptions the reader gets the notion of a scrupulous woman who cared for every inch of her house and meant it to be clean.

The author also addresses the theme of heart which stands for the symbol of love and relationships: in the first stanza the heart (the father’s or her own) of the family is compared to the house her mother cared about, the following allusion talks about the speaker’s private life, feelings and relationships; and the denouement talks about writing (housekeeping papers) as the poet’s greatest love.

According to Julia Alvarez’s official site, her mother was alternate representative to the UN with the Dominican mission; however, she might have served as a fervent housewife. In any case, the author depicts the protagonists very colorfully. The images she uses enable the readers interpret the messages hidden between the lines using their own imagination. For example, “when the summer sun would bar the floor” draws a beautiful picture of the evening, implying the speaker swept the floor till late until her mother was satisfied. “Housekeeping paper” is another example of the literary language the author uses to name her future career. The latter has obviously been influenced by her mother’s activities. In “Woman’s Work” Julia Alvarez made a great work describing how the mother’s obsessive housekeeping and playing merely a domestic role influences the life of the younger women in the family.

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Alvarez, J. (2003). Literature for Composition, Essays, Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, 6th edition. New York Longman.
More news. (2009). Julia Alvarez official site. Retrieved on December 12, 2009 from