Study Guide

The Home-maker

by Dorothy Canfield

The Home-maker Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Much of the action of The Home-maker is intended to illustrate the negative consequences of sexual stereotyping. The Knapps, a seemingly typical white Protestant American family consisting of parents, Lester and Eva, and three bright children, live in a quaint New England town during the early 1920’s. Nevertheless, this outwardly contented clan suffers from expectations which both Lester and Eva find impossible to meet.

Throughout, a sympathetic narrator acknowledges the determination of Eva, who, with the tenacity of Sisyphus, endures the drudgery of her mindless household tasks. Eva’s perfectionism creates an unhappy and frazzled family: Her youngest son, Stephen, becomes belligerent and disrespectful, while the distraught Helen and Henry try to remain as unobtrusive as possible. Ultimately, even they become victims of mother’s endless nagging. Eva’s only freedom from homemaking consists of her church and community service. Though her neighbors condescendingly sympathize with the poor Mrs. Knapp at home, they readily adopt her organizational skills and comment on the quality of her volunteerism in the community.

Lester, meanwhile finds an equal measure of discontent in his work as bookkeeper for the Willings Emporium, the local clothing and appliance store. When he fails to receive an expected promotion, given instead to a younger and less experienced employee, he sinks into a state of depression and diminished self-esteem. Finally, having lost his job altogether, he considers suicide as a possible method of escaping from the hell that he thinks all fathers share—the necessity of earning the family’s income.

Neither Lester nor Eva considers reversing their roles, but Lester’s near fatal fall off a neighbor’s roof brings about the novel’s unexpected resolution. Paralyzed from the waist down, Lester seems doomed to a life of tedium. Ironically though, he is set free by his infirmity. After the fall—a felix culpa to be sure—Lester is able to provide the careful and sensitive guidance that his children desperately need.

While Lester convalesces, Eva assumes the position of breadwinner with a profound sense of energy, enthusiasm, and joy. Within a short time, she is promoted to sales manager.

Fisher ends The Home-maker on a disturbing note, inasmuch as it is implied that Lester has really recovered enough to walk, he chooses to remain crippled in order to protect his family’s newfound cohesiveness.