Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Home-maker, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (who published her fiction under her maiden name, Dorothy Canfield, and her nonfiction under her married name), explores the problems implicit in ascribing roles to individuals based on their gender, rather than on their specific talents, abilities, and desires. The turning point of the novel occurs when Lester Knapp loses his job in the accounting office at Willing’s Emporium. Devastated by this development, Lester contemplates suicide, but he must make his death look like an accident if Eva and the children are to receive any insurance money. He sees his chance when his neighbor’s roof catches fire. He slips and falls trying to put the fire out, but he does not die; instead, he is paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.

The task of supporting the family now falls on Eva’s shoulders, and she asks Jerome Willing to hire her. Although Eva keeps repeating to herself and members of her community the aphorism that a woman’s first duty is to her home and her family, Eva loves her new job, which calls on her aesthetic abilities in working with fabric. Eva begins as a stock clerk in the ladies’ cloak and suits department and quickly moves up to saleswoman. She takes great pleasure in knowing her stock and helping her customers find the clothes that will best suit them at a price they can afford.

Meanwhile, Lester runs the household, learning how to cook and devising creative ways to clean....

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Fisher’s themes remain constant in all of her work. First, she broadens the definition of the Künstlerroman, or the artist’s coming-of-age plot, to include the domestic coming-of-age of her male and female characters. Second, she reimagines men’s roles in the home, her male characters having, and needing, a significant place there. Third, she presents complex portraits of the minds and hearts of modern women who are struggling with the redefinition of self that resulted from the social evolution of the “new woman”—that is, women who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, pursued the same freedom and opportunity that was granted to men. Fisher’s agenda is to show men who need home lives and women who need work lives in order to be fulfilled as human beings; she believed that neither men nor women could be totally satisfied with roles that were defined by gender.

The Home-maker occupies a unique place in Fisher’s canon; her sixth novel, it is the only one in which she imagines a total role reversal: a female provider and a male homemaker. It can be read as part of a continuing tradition of stories and novels by women that depict the limitations of gender roles and the psychological and emotional costs of such limits. Examples of this tradition include The Story of Avis (1877), by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps; A Country Doctor (1884), by Sarah Orne Jewett; A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891), by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman; The Awakening (1899), by Kate Chopin; The House of Mirth (1905), by Edith Wharton; A Woman of Genius (1912), by Mary Austin; and The Song of the Lark (1915), by Willa Cather.

Fisher’s fiction differs from these other works because she takes into consideration the fact that men, too, are damaged by lives that have limits, lives that only include work outside the home. Her concern is always to present a balance for both men and women that includes fulfilling work in the public sphere and a supportive and satisfying home life in the private sphere. The fact that The Home-maker was one of the ten best-selling novels of 1924 shows that achieving this balance was important in many American lives at the time; the reprinting of the novel in 1982, as well as the increasing attention to and reevaluation of Fisher’s work, undoubtedly shows that it still is.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Fisher, Dorothy Canfield. Keeping Fires Night and Day: Selected Letters of Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Edited by Mark Madigan. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993. Fisher’s lively personal voice is present in this excellent collection. In his introduction, Madigan provides a detailed chronology of Fisher’s life and an examination of her friendship with Willa Cather. A thorough bibliography and an annotated list of Fisher’s correspondents are included.

Madigan, Mark. “Profile: Dorothy Canfield Fisher.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 9, no. 1 (1992): 49-58. A narrative chronology of Fisher’s life and work. Madigan also discusses three of her novels as particularly worthy of critical attention: The Brimming Cup (1919), The Home-maker, and Her Son’s Wife (1926).

Price, Alan. “Writing Home from the Front: Edith Wharton and Dorothy Canfield Fisher Present Wartime France to the United States: 1917-1919.” Edith Wharton Newsletter 5 (Fall, 1988): 1-5, 8. Although this essay does not discuss The Home-maker, it does offer an interesting perspective on Fisher’s early themes, as well as their development in later works.

Rubin, Joan Shelley. The Making of Middle Brow Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. This well-researched study profiles the five people who made up the first Board of Selection for the Book-of-the-Month Club, a job that Fisher held for twenty-five years.

Washington, Ida. Dorothy Canfield Fisher: A Biography. Shelburne, Vt.: New England Press, 1982. The first critical biography to be published about Fisher, this book gives an overview of Fisher’s prolific career. Also includes valuable information about Fisher’s family and a good analysis of how Fisher drew on their varying influences in shaping her career. A good starting point for learning more about Fisher in general.

Yates, Elizabeth. The Lady from Vermont. Brattleboro, Vt.: Stephen Greene Press, 1971. First published in 1958 as Pebble in a Pool, Yates’s book is a general biography of Fisher.