The narrator of "Manholes" appears to be a female, though this is never stated. She is wry, alienated, and dispassionate as she relates going to a party for a friend named Elia, who is about to be sent to Iraq with Doctors without Borders. At the party, the narrator see...
The narrator of "Manholes" appears to be a female, though this is never stated. She is wry, alienated, and dispassionate as she relates going to a party for a friend named Elia, who is about to be sent to Iraq with Doctors without Borders. At the party, the narrator see other friends. She feels inadequate about her ambitions amid her crowd of hard-driving, intellectual young people who clearly see themselves as part of the social elite.
At the party, the narrator gets into a fight with John over philanthropy. Not long afterwards, John, who is playing chess, falls and has a freak accident in which he hits his head and dies. Later, the narrator and her friends from the party attend John's funeral. They also attend a reception afterwards. At the reception, the narrator and Sibs are caught by John's mother having sex in the bathroom. When Sibs lights up a joint, a funeral home employee tries to throw him out. Sibs protests, but they all leave when John's mother angrily orders them to get out. The ending is cryptic:
We were all standing on manholes. Every now and then the manhole would give way under someone’s feet and they disappeared. We knew that we were going to disappear too but our feet felt so firmly grounded until they weren’t.
Looking at the story through a feminist lens we see that men dominate the conversation in the story, from Elia at the beginning to Aura's boyfriend, who the narrator says:
talked at me about my future, ‘it seems to me like your life is funded by the patriarchy. Wouldn’t you be happier doing something for yourself, you know, I’m sure you’re a feminist and all’.
Aura's boyfriend talks "at" people in a patronizing way and gives out unsolicited advice, as if it is his male prerogative to do so.
Also, the narrator backs down during her conflict with John. Rather than wanting to devote her energy to winning, she gives way, and explains "I looked at my phone and walked away pretending that I urgently needed to message." In this way, she protects the male ego. Her friend Jan urges her to make amends, though John has his accident before the narrator can do this.
Finally, the ending suggests that the patriarchy they all stand on is unstable, a "manhole" that anyone could fall through at any time. The narrator seems unhappy in this world of male dominance, ambition, and one-upmanship.